Learning a Pastor’s Story of Courage

It is rare to find stories of true courage.  This is one of them.  It is discovered in an unlikely character.

The character doesn’t fit the bill.  When you hear the word “Pastor”, what image comes to mind?  Let yourself go there for a few seconds.  What do you see?

My guess is your imagination isn’t projecting an image of a pastor who is:

  • 18 years old
  • a refugee
  • living at home with mother and siblings
  • a citizen of a majority Muslim state
  • a female

Can you picture this pastor, now?  She is the central character of this story of courage.

She lives with her mother and siblings in a refugee camp.  A year ago, she came to faith in Jesus through a ministry who serves the people living in the camp.  She has a name and a photo.   I have seen both, but can’t share them with you.  It would jeopardize her safety.

Her new faith took hold quickly.  A fire for God burst into flames in her heart.  She took every opportunity to deepen her relation to God.  She jumped at the chance to attend a pastoral leadership meeting every three months.

Every 90 days, she left camp and her family on a 125 mile journey to and from training.  I can’t say what the conversation in her home was like before she left.  I can only write what I know happened when she returned to her mother and siblings.  Upon re-entering her home, she walks into a fit of rage.  Her older brother punches her so hard she faints from the pain.  Her mother uses whatever stick she can find, big or small, to inflict serious blows.  Scars and open wounds are visible all over her body.

Despite the beatings, she continues to attend the trainings.  When asked why, her answer is:

“My knowledge in the Bible was shallow before I started attending the training. My faith was also not very strong. Now I know my Bible really well and my faith has grown as a result of this. The local underground house-church I lead is also growing. I don’t mind the beatings as long as I am learning and teaching others about the Lord.”
Today, this young pastor is transforming her own refugee camp with the power of God’s love.  This is courage.
May God use this pastor’s story of courage to inspire you to risk more in your faith.  May it move you from a place of maintaining the status quo.  May it give you the courage to love God and others with a reckless abandon.  May it do the same in my life.

 

Learning to Outgrow Whining and Crying

“Whining and crying won’t get you what you want.”

These are words I often find myself saying to my children.  If you are a parent, then you probably know the feeling.  Your child wants something that can’t be given or isn’t appropriate in the moment, so they burst into ecstatic whining and crying.  They throw themselves into an exasperated fit of tearful lament:  “I want fill in the blank!”

I keep reinforcing the maxim, even when it leads to louder woes.  “Whining and crying won’t get you what you want.” I mean what I say.  It is true with me, but more importantly, I want them to understand it will be true with others.  Seldom in life will you get what you want when you demand it with impassioned outrage.

I am hoping my kids someday outgrow whining and crying.

Let’s be honest as adults.  There may be some whining and crying that we need to outgrow as well.  We aren’t immune.  When situations don’t go our way at work, home, with family, with friends, and in our country, it is easy to resort to pitching a fit.  We whine and complain and cry as a way of demanding what we want.  Don’t agree with me? Spend 10 minutes on Facebook.

We see whining and crying among the adults in the Bible.  The people of Israel are rescued from slavery in Egypt.  Free from oppression, they journey through the wilderness in pursuit of the promised land.  Not long into the trek, whining and crying kicks in.  They want better food.  They want better housing.  They want more security.  They want it so bad, they suggest going back into slavery to get it.  Whining and crying didn’t get them what they wanted.

Whining and crying happens in the New Testament.  It was the M.O. for the religious elite.  They whined about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.  They cried about Jesus healing people on the sabbath.  They wanted Jesus to put them in places of honor.  They wanted Jesus’s disciples to fast more.  Whining and crying didn’t get them what they wanted.

Learning to outgrow whining and crying, even as an adult.  Hope you will too.

**Disclaimer:  This post was not written with anyone in mind.  It came out of a recent moment of saying the words to my children.  Please rest assured, I am not writing about you or anyone else.  It is a lesson I am learning even as I teach my kids.

 

 

 

 

Learning To Write Your Life Like a Story

I can’t imagine life without good stories.  I love a moving story.  Stories are full of intrigue, adventure, tension, and transformation.

I want to become a great storyteller.  Life is too boring with only logic.  In my quest to learn about storytelling, I discovered a book:  Invisible Ink:  A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate by Brian McDonald.

It is not a how-to book on storytelling.  It is more of a “here’s-what-you’ve-probably-missed” about your favorite stories type of book.  McDonald helps you understand what’s behind the story.  He uncovers elements of story less obvious to the trained eye.  He points you to the “ink behind the ink.”

I love it.  To make his point, he uses examples from classic stories like E.T and The Wizard of Oz.  It blew me away.  I couldn’t believe the things I had missed.  Most of us miss them, but he makes them seem so obvious.

When learning one of the elements of a great story from McDonald, I was struck by it’s relevance to our own lives.  He offers advise to writers of story:

Character transformation and growth are some of the most powerful forms of invisible ink, and you would do well to include them in your work.  (McDonald)

The use of the word “character” is a reference to an actual person in the story.  It isn’t referring to one’s inner fortitude or sense of right and wrong.  Character is Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

His thought about character in story continues:

A character always knows what he wants, but hardly ever what he needs.  In the end, the character usually gets what he wants and choose the need instead.  (McDonald)

In the story world, this is what is referred to as “ritual pain,” which means:

painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.  (McDonald)

Nearly every great story, McDonald believes, includes this element.  Not sure about it?  Try to name of a favorite movie that doesn’t include character transformation.  Without it, you feel let down.  You walk away feeling hopeless and without closure, unable to exhale your deep breadth.

In story, you want the main character to choose what is needed.  You want the character to be transformed for the good.  You want the character to grow and overcome any evil.  You want the character to be better in the end.  Writing this into a story makes it powerful.

Imagine the power of writing transformation and growth into your life.  You know what you want, but can choose what you need instead.  Aspects of your life can be “killed off” to make room for something new.  Imagine how powerful your life would be for others to watch.

Here’s the deal.  Stories that include transformation and growth aren’t written by accident.  It requires intentionality.  The storyteller must include it on purpose, or it will be left out.  Same is true for the story you tell with your life.

As a Christian, you don’t have to be the author of your own life.  God will write it for you.  The story God writes will be more beautiful and captivating than any you could muster, because it will lead you to a better you.

You are writing a story with your life.  Learn to write it with transformation and growth.  It is the best version.

Learning Why the Church Should Be the Greatest Movement of Justice in Our World

The Church should be the greatest movement of justice in our world because it is uniquely positioned to do it.

Let me define justice.  Justice is recognizing a wrong in our world and seeking to make it right.  This isn’t justice based on the law of court.  It is justice based on God’s law of love.  God’s love guides you to see a wrong, and God’s love determines how you make the wrong right.

Not going to lie, I have had moments of doubt.  There have been occasions when the best option seemed to be to go around the church.  My desire was to work through it, but conversations around justice felt so contentious.  Thoughts of circumventing the Church swirled in my mind.  Maybe I should just work for a non-profit?

These thoughts came mostly in my early years as a pastor.  I was young, passionate, and idealistic.  A passion to work for justice was fresh in my heart.  Professors at Mount Vernon Nazarene University instilled and nurtured in me a calling to care for the poor and oppressed.  Then, Asbury Seminary pumped the same lifeblood into my heart.

While studying at Seminary, I was learning to write with inclusive language.  As a small-town-Southeast Ohio-Appalachia boy, I had never heard of this idea before.  Writing with inclusive language, what is that?  In case you are not sure, it means avoiding strictly male or female personal pronouns.  Rather than typing “men” or “women” when speaking about people in general, I was taught to use gender neutral language such as “people” or “humans” or “they.”  This was tough for a country boy with an already limited vocabulary.

It isn’t for no good reason, though.  Masculine terms no longer communicate a generic sense of “anyone.”  When used generally, it can actually be distracting and in some cases offensive.  For example, there’s a room full of people.  They have come together from all over the country for a conference.  During the event, a moment is planned to honor the lead pastors in the room.  The MC says to the audience, “We want to thank of all the lead pastors here today.  Men, would you please stand up so we can recognize you?”  Oh, so women aren’t included, too.  Imagine how that might feel as a woman pastor, when it happens everywhere you go.

Since I was learning to write inclusively, I thought it wise to also practice speaking inclusively.  My desire was to be conscious of the women in my life and ministry.  I didn’t want to hurt or offend with my words.  Especially when it came to speaking of God, I did my very best to avoid solely referring to God as “He.”  I was realizing how difficult it might be for some women to imagine God primarily through a term that has been hurtful to them.

I thought this was a step toward justice for women.  I also thought the Church would be the safest place to practice it.  I thought wrong.  The pastor wanted no such way of speaking in his church.  And in moments like this one, my faith in working through the church for justice waned.

Thankfully, my experience of working in the Church has changed since then.  The belief has returned to me that the Church should be the greatest movement of justice in our world because it is uniquely positioned to do it.

What makes it uniquely positioned is the realization that…

  • Justice is the Church’s DNA.  It always has been since the day God commissioned Adam and Eve to have dominion over the earth.  It is solidified in Jesus who said in his first public announcement, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  From other biblical writers, we learn the Church is the body of Christ.  As Christ’s body, the Church shares his DNA.  As you just read, his DNA is imbued with justice.
  • The Church is the world’s greatest network.  The Church exists in nearly all corners of the world.  You will be hard pressed to name another organization with a greater presence on every continent.  The potential for this network to unite under one movement is unmatched.
  • The Church is God’s PLUS 1.  Whatever parties God attends and wherever God goes, the Church is invited to be God’s special guest.  We are the bride of Christ, so first on his list.  God is working for justice in the world, and invites the Church to join.   The Church never works for justice alone, but always as a response to God’s invitation.  God begins the movement and stands behind you with power all the way to the end.

Imagine if Christians everywhere began working through the Church to create a movement for justice.  It would be the most tightly connected, dynamic, momentous revolution the 21st century has seen.

Let’s start now. 
  

 

 

Learning the Insignificance You Feel is a Lie

A single rain drop…A single grain of sand…A single ray of light…A single mosquito…doesn’t seem like much all by itself.  But, as a collective, each becomes a major force to be reckoned with.  (Watch what happens when Bill Gates releases mosquitos into a crowded room.)

By yourself, you feel insignificant.  You think any noise you make will never be heard.  You believe any difference you make will never be noticed.  You judge your impact as inconsequential.

This is exactly the lie evil wants you to buy into.  Evil only wins when it convinces you to go solo.  By luring you into the trap of acting as a lone ranger, evil pounces on your vulnerabilities.  All alone, you are made to feel insignificant.

Don’t believe the lie.

As a Christian, you are not alone.  You are part of the greatest collective that has ever existed:  the Church.  In the Church, WE is greater than ME.  And, WE exist in every corner of the world.  You never act alone.  WE always act together.  YOU are significant because WE are significant.

Don’t let yourself feel like a single rain drop falling from the sky, barely noticeable to our world.  See yourself as part of the collective of millions of raindrops that fill the sky and cover the earth.  That isn’t insignificant.

Learning What God Will Accept from You

God will accept from you:  Justice and Righteousness.

As a matter of fact, God says to let it “roll down like waters and an ever flowing stream.”  Open the floodgates and never close them again.  Send a flash flood and keep it coming.  There’s no volume too great or too constant.  God accepts all you can pour out.

The Bible’s book of Amos give us this message.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made the words famous during his “I have a dream” speech.  Maybe you’ve heard them before?  Maybe not, they are tucked away in a barely noticed crevice of Christianity’s big book.

At face value, Amos’ words sound inspiring.  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).  Seems almost like a pat on the back:  “You are offering a deluge of justice and righteousness?  Sure, I’m down with that.  Awesome!  Send it on down, as much as you can.”

In reality, Amos writes with a bit of angst.  It wouldn’t be accurate to describe his tone as encouraging.  He isn’t affirming, he is calling out.

On behalf of God, Amos writes:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals, will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

BUT let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Amos 5:21-24 NRSV

Shocking.  To those who think they are doing what’s right, shock.  Surprise. Completely caught off-guard.  You aren’t doing what is right, Amos calls out.  You think you are.  You believe you are doing right with your rituals, offerings, and celebrations.  Wrong.  God will not accept this from you.

BUT…

If you want to offer something I will accept, make it justice and righteousness,” says God.  “I will take all you’ve got.  No need to hold back.”

Amos’ angst stems from his awareness of his own people’s injustice.

They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals– they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine with fines they imposed.  Amos 2:6-8 NRSV

They “sellout” their own for measly financial gain.  They devalue human life for vanity.  They exacerbate the situation of the poor.  They ignore the helpless.  They take advantage of vulnerable women.  They bribe away a person’s only coat and use it as a rug.  They extort money to throw their own keg party.

So, God isn’t interested in their worship.  It means nothing.  God wants their justice and righteousness.

God will accept the same from you.

Learning To Love Your Neighbor Means Learning to Love Yourself as God Loves You

If asked, you could probably answer the question:  What is the greatest commandment in the Bible?  Go ahead give it a try.

In the story given to us by Matthew, Jesus didn’t come up with the question.  It was an expert in the Law who was in cahoots with the religious fundamentalists. He asked Jesus the question to corner him into giving a wrong answer.  Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV)

Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  Two verses previously disconnected, now become conjoined at the hip.  Inseparable.  Love God and love neighbor.

Behind the ink on the page is a simple truth.  Failure to love God precludes loving your neighbor.  You can’t and won’t purely love your neighbor until you love the One who first loves you.

Loving God begins with an awareness that God loves you.  A good starting place is John 3:16, “For so loved the world . . .”  If those verses are too worn out for you, read 1 John 4:7-12.  You are loved by God.  When you realize the enormity of this love, your only response will be to want to reciprocate love back to God.

Learning How God loves you is as important as the realization that God loves you.  Yes, God loves you, but how?  How God loves you is distinguishable from the forms of love you experience in this world.  God’s love is selfless.  It is sacrificial.  It is gracious, generous, compassionate, hopeful, forgiving, and never-ending.

The question is, How do you love yourself?  It’s a strange thought, I know.  Not too often do you consider loving yourself.  Weird.  But, you do.  One way or another, you love yourself.

To be truthful about our love for ourselves is not easy because we most often desire to love ourselves on our own terms.  If honest, the way you love yourself in no way resembles God’s love for you.  It is selfish, greedy, harsh, hopeless, unforgiving, and conditional.  You hate yourself or you’re self-absorbed.  You regret who you are or you glorify it.  You are abusive to yourself or you are overly protective.  You are too strict or too loose.

To have a self sufficient to love others, you must love “you” how God loves you.  How God loves you isn’t for your harm or God’s gain.  God loves in a way that creates a future with great hope for you and our world.  Jeremiah 29:11.

You can love yourself the same.  Love “you” for good and not for harm.  Love “you” with a vision of the future that is full of hope.  Love “you” as a beloved child.

Then, you will be ready to love your neighbor.  

 

 

Learning to Hope in What I Cannot See

Sometimes we are blinded by what we see.

What we see is people who fail our expectations.  They appear useless, worthless, or hopeless.  In your view, they are lazy, addicted, weak, selfish, dependent, and obstinate.  You’ve witnessed their many failed attempts to correct what’s wrong, but to no avail.

You are blinded by this vision.  Hope is nowhere to be found.  You expect the worst, and have given up on even a hint of the best.

I’m with you.  I go through moments of blindness, too.  I give up.

God never loses hope.

Hope is the vision Jesus brought to earth.  When the religious leaders cast the diseased outside the city gates, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him (Matthew 8:1-4).  When demon possessed people were hidden away in caves, Jesus sets the men free from the evil spirits (Matthew 8:28-34).  When Jesus saw a group of men carrying a paralyzed man on a cot, he healed the man.  The religious stood to the side and assaulted Jesus with claims of blasphemy (Matthew 9:2-8).  When two blind men came to Jesus crying for help, he healed their eyes with a touch (Matthew 9:27-31).  When a mute demon-possessed man was brought to Jesus, he did what had never been done before.  He cast the demon out (Matthew 9:32-33 & 12:22).  When Jesus was confronted by a woman with whom he shouldn’t associate even if she wasn’t demon-possessed, he granted her wish for healing (Matthew 15:21-28).  When Jesus’ own disciples weren’t able to heal a boy with epilepsy, he rebuked the demon out his body instantly (Matthew 17:14-18).  When two-blind men shouted from the side of the road, Jesus stopped and gave them sight (Matthew 20:29-34).  When a blind and lame man came to Jesus in the temple, he healed him (Matthew 21:14).

Jesus saw hope in these people where there seemingly wasn’t any.  Not only did he see it, but he offered it.  He wasn’t blind by their conditions.  What he saw wasn’t the same as everyone else.  He didn’t see people as they were, he imagined them as they could be.  This vision drove him to live in compassion and with hope.

It’s tough, I know.  It seems like some people will never change.  You’ve been hopeful long enough.  It’s time to give up hope.

Without God’s help, I would tell you to concede to your feelings.  But, we are not without God.  God is with us.

Don’t let yourself be blinded by what you see.  There is a greater vision and it is full of hope.

Learning Jesus Isn’t Waiting for You at the Top

Jesus doesn’t follow convention, which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that he isn’t waiting for you at the top.  Still, it is surprising.

Life teaches us to climb to the top to find significance.  Up there is where you will find your worth.  Bottom-feeders are nature’s throwaways.

So, we spend most of our lives making the climb.  We fight and struggle and sweat and cry our way up the steep hill.  It becomes our primary motivation in life, to someday stand tall on high.  We envision ourselves somehow fulfilled and satisfied at the point of reaching the pinnacle.

We emulate those at the top.  They have what we want, or at least what we think we need.  They have arrived.  Their are denizens on the plane of highest worth.  So we think, and so we strive.

Sadly, this translates to the faith world.  We transpose the world’s philosophy of worth onto God’s relation to us.  Subconsciously, we expect God to expect us to prove our worth.  We look to the heavens (at the top) and see a long journey ahead.  God sits at the top and waits for us.  “Come on, come to me.  Push through it.  Work hard.  You are halfway here.  Keep climbing.  If you give up now, you’ll never make it.”  These are words I think we imagine God saying to us.

I’m learning, and hope you can learn with me, God isn’t waiting for you at the top.  You don’t have to complete that climb before God will love you.  God already loves.  God loves you enough to come to you in the form of his Son, Jesus.  Jesus left the top, for you.

What seems like a inconsequential geographical note in Matthew 4:12 turns out to be more.  It says, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee” (NRSV).  Then, he makes his home in the “territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,” aka “Galilee of the Gentiles” where you would find “those who sat in darkness…in the region and shadow of death.”  Jesus’ new home is far from the top.

Jesus starts his ministry at the bottom.  While here, he recruits his first disciples.  Here’s their resume:  residents of the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, sitting in darkness, blue-collar workers (fishermen), lower class, no religious affiliation, uneducated, and employed by their father.

By conventional standards, these men are far from proving their worth.  They leave much to be desired.  They aren’t even close to the top.  They don’t appear to be moving toward the general vicinity.  You can’t say they sit at the bottom.  With certainty, you have to admit they are not at the top.

Having probably read this story before, you may not be surprised by Jesus generous love and faith-filled trust in these men.  The question is, Why are you surprised when Jesus comes to you in the same way?

Jesus isn’t waiting for you at the top.  You don’t have to get your stuff together and stand on high before God sees worth in you.  You are worth it.  You have always been worth it.  Jesus comes to you, where you are, to make you one of his own.

You can let go of your struggle to make it to the top to prove your worth.  Let it go.  Leave it behind like fishermen left their nets.  Only then will you discover your true worth. 

Learning the Type of Movement that Can’t Be Stopped

It is human to want to be part of a movement.  You inherently want to be part of something that makes a loud noise in our cacophonous world, for good or for bad.

Movements start up and die out every day.  Some last millennium, while others are but a glint in time.

You can find movements focused on social justice, health, politics, economics, diet, exercise, religion, and other areas of our social world.  Movements exist on all continents and among all people groups.  Each begins with a desire for change, or vision for a new reality.

I don’t believe any movement is started with the intention of deflating prematurely.  Every movement begins with enough gusto to believe the goal is attainable.  What is envisioned can become reality.

Most movements don’t make it.  They don’t (or didn’t) have what it takes.  Something is lacking.  A movement needs to be a certain type to avoid being stopped.

A New York Times Bestselling book about nine American boys’ quest to capture rowing gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics calls this type of movement a “swing.”

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define.  Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it.  Others find it but can’t sustain it.  It’s called “swing.”  It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of the others.  It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant.  Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once.  Each minute action–each subtle turning of wrists–must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other.  Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own.  Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation.  Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language.  Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.” 

-excerpt from The Boys in the Boat:  Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold by Daniel James Brown

 

“…the closer a crew can come to that ideal–maintaining a good swing while rowing at a high rate–the closer they are to rowing on another plane, the plane on which champions row.”  

-excerpt from The Boys in the Boat:  Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold by Daniel James Brown

A movement that won’t slow down and can’t be stopped happens when the people involved work in unison.  “No single action by any one is out of sync with the others.”  Every one has learned to play their part in harmony with the others.  Together, you are moving at the same pace, with the same force, in the same direction.  You are many acting as one.

As you learn from reading The Boys in the Boat, “swing” requires hard work, hours of practice, humility, passion, and a shared purpose.  It is no walk in the woods.  This is the type of movement that can’t be stopped.

As Christians, we are the body of Christ.  We are many, yet one.  Acting as one, we make a movement.  God is calling us to be the type of movement that can’t be stopped.  It is our challenge to achieve that “swing.”  This will happen when every one’s actions are in sync with the others.  Let’s find our swing.