Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A monumental realization

Last night the 2 year old woke up and crawled into bed with us.  After dealing with him thrashing about and endangering his little infant sister, I made the discovery that he apparently just wanted some one-on-one snuggle time.  He needed that affection.

So I dutifully took blanket and pillow out to the living room, leading him by the hand, and we snuggled up on the couch together.  And then it began.

He says, "Buzz!  Buzz!".  "You want to watch Toy Story?  Now??"  It's 2:30 in the morning.  But he wants to, and I figure that he'll just fall asleep with me as we watch it.  So I pop in our old antiquated VHS copy of the original Toy Story, and hit play.

Then the 4 year old shows up.  And wants milk.  I get her and the 2 year old both some milk and together we all snuggle under one blanket at 2:30 in the morning to watch Toy Story.

Then the 6 year old walks out into the living room.  He too, wants milk, but I encourage him to share with his sister.  And together, all four of us snuggle under one blanket at 2:30 in the morning to watch Toy Story.

And none of them fall asleep.  It is a magical, spontaneous, wondrous time of father-child bonding.  A twisted and tender moment, just the very kind that tends to stick in your mind for years.  A Neujahr-style bizzarro family movie night.

With these thoughts now racing through my head, I begin to recall all the various bonding moments done in the wee hours since our oldest daughter was born.  There are the memories of croup, rocking infants in a steam-filled bathroom.  The memories of sleeping with one eye open and one hand on a vomit bucket for the child with the flu.  Finding a bed empty and then finding the sleepwalking child in the yard.  Shushing and cooing away the frantic half-awake fears brought on by nightmares.

There are memories of discovering a child in the kitchen eating the last of the cheesecake because "I'm a tiger."  Of rushing into a bedroom at the sound of a thump and finding a child still asleep, but fallen on the hard wood floor.  There are late-night diapers and feedings for itty-bitty ones feeling either heavy or empty and early-morning counseling and consolation for bigger ones feeling the same.

Memories of running a vacuum to provide enough white noise for a crabby child to sleep.  Memories of midnight drives to rock a baby to sleep.  Memories of nosebleeds on pillows, of cough medicines and prayers for it to work, of children creeping unbidden into my bed and of me blearily laying down in theirs at their small-voiced, big-eyed requests.  There is forever printed upon my mind and body the loving service of the routine awakenings and the panicked adrenaline of the emergency ones.

And in this flood of memories, I came to a profound and great revelation.  The force of this new insight overwhelmed me, and under its rocking blow I was moved nearly to tears.

I realized I haven't had a decent night's sleep in nearly 20 years!!

Monday, November 29, 2010

When life gets "Rocky"

2 Corinthians 4:8-9  8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

I know the Rocky films are from a bygone era, but they still tell a compelling story.  One that makes me think.

Think about the two really good ones, Rocky 1 and Rocky 2.  The most endearing feature about Rocky Balboa—the characteristic that garnered him the most praise—was not his fighting ability; that was regarded as being amateur level at best.  No, the thing that amazed commentator, spectator, and opponent was that Rocky kept getting back up.

That’s the part of the story that amazes me, as well.

It had to hurt, lying on the canvas, knowing that the pain would subside if he just stayed down.  It had to hurt, knowing that he wasn’t really winning the fight but just wearing down his opponent’s fists with his face.  And it had to hurt, bleeding and broken and one eye swollen shut, fatigue setting in, muscles unwilling to cooperate, brain nearly incapable of forming a cohesive thought. 

And still he got back up.

Why?  Why not just quit?  Stay down?  Throw in the towel?  Everything would be so much easier if he would just lay on the mat for a measly 10 seconds.  No one would think ill of him.  Everyone would agree that was the sensible thing to do.  Perhaps even the wisest thing to do.

And still he got back up.

When I see him struggle back to his feet, grasping the top rope for support, I still cheer every time.  Every.  Single.  Time.  Because I see a man with nothing to prove other than he can take a hit and get back up again.  I see a man willing to take enormous amounts of abuse and pain and suffering if it means he can take a stand for a principle; the principle that you cannot beat me until I give in.

I see Christ.

I see Christ in me.

There are great patches of time when life hurts, and hurts bad.  When confusion and pain and anxiety and uncertainty all conspire to force you to the mat, to make you swallow the bitter pill of defeat.  But those times cannot beat you while you still cling to Christ.  They cannot beat you until you decide to stop clinging to Him and instead weakly accept defeat. 

Yes, you’ll look to all the world like you’re still losing.  Beaten and bloody.  Hardly able to form a coherent thought.  Swaying on your feet . . . but standing in Christ.   

2 Corinthians 4:8-9  8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Are you hard pressed on every side?  Christ supports you, and therefore you cannot be crushed. 

Are you perplexed?  Christ loves you, therefore you do not need to despair.

Are you persecuted?  Christ has bound Himself to you and will not abandon you.

Are you struck down?  Christ has redeemed you, and therefore you cannot be destroyed.

Christ is in you.  He is with you today.  And today He will help you get back up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What I signed up for

My dear Lord Jesus,
Thou art mine; therefore, I wish to be Thine.
All that I possess,
 my body and my soul,
my strength and my gifts,
 and all that I do,
my entire life,
shall be consecrated to Thee,
to Thee alone. 
Lay on me any burden Thou pleasest,
I shall gladly bear it. 
Lead me anywhere,
through sorrow or joy,
through good fortune or misfortune,
                   through shame or honor,
through favor of men or their disfavor,
 grant me a long life, or should I die an early death,

 --I shall be satisfied with anything. 

Lead the way, and I shall follow.

-C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, pg 78

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Learning from others

It's common understanding that we learn from others.  Teachers are the "others" that kids learn from.  Experienced parents are the "others" that new parents learn from.  We learn new ideas, material, information, and habits from watching, listening, and heeding the instruction of others.

Oftentimes, those "others" will actually be quite similar to us.  They'll have the same tastes and desires.  We'll probably share a common ethnic or religious background with them.  But what's often underestimated is the value of learning from someone who is truly "other".  Someone outside your circle.  Someone who doesn't think quite the same way you do, someone who doesn't necessarily have the same goals or values.

As I prepare a sermon, I try to get as much data as possible in my head regarding a certain Bible text.  My typical plan is to first translate from Greek or Hebrew and then begin to consult commentaries.  And as a LCMS Lutheran, I simply can't recommend Concordia's Big Blue Book (technically, they are the "Concordia Commentary" series) commentaries enough.  They are scholarly, faithfully Lutheran, and richly profitable for Bible study and sermon preparation.  But the only problem is that there aren't enough of them.  Not yet.  It will take years, maybe even decades, before the entire Bible is covered by this excellent series.

But that very lack is what drove me to realize afresh the value of learning not only from within a circle of shared backgrounds, but from outside it, as well.  In my search for valuable and time-honored exposition of the Scriptures, I stumbled across an online version of John Calvin's Biblical commentaries and found them to be *gasp!* profitable for my studies.

Yes, you heard that correctly.  A Lutheran--an LCMS Lutheran, no less--has learned to value God's truth that is expounded by John Calvin.

I find value in John Calvin because he's from outside my circle.  It's not because I always agree with him; I don't.  It's not because he is a better exegete or scholar than any other man in the history of the Church; he isn't.  But it is because reading Calvin forces me to think critically.  As I read his exposition of Scripture I become aware of how his theology drives his understanding and application of Scripture, and the difference between our theologies draws me into a dialogue with the centuries-dead theologian that sharpens my Lutheran grasp of Scriptures even as it hones my appreciation for the rich diversity of people who are nevertheless knitted together into the Church, the mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

"All truth is God's truth."  I am grateful for a man like John Calvin who brings me gems of God's truth.  Because where he agrees with Scripture, Calvin speaks God's truth.  Where grace is upheld, where Christ is honored, where Law and Gospel are rightly divided, John Calvin proclaims the pure truth of God.  But he does so as if in a different language, with different words and phrases than I am used to hearing.  And the beauty of hearing God's truth in Calvin's tongue is refreshing and comforting; like seeing my home in a satellite picture; like hearing a favorite hymn in a different language.

Always remember that you can learn from others outside your circle, from others who don't talk or think quite the same way you do.  It will keep you humble, it will keep you kind, and it will keep you in constant awe that no matter where genuine truth is told, you will be hearing God's truth.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Pastor, heal thyself

One of the curious, yet recurring, challenges of pastoring is learning to listen to your own words.  No, not in the context of hearing yourself speak, but in hearing the words of advice and counsel you gave to others be given back to you. 

It happens to me with frightening regularity.  I have studied and prepared a sermon meant to proclaim God’s counsel to my congregation, and deliver Godly, Scripture guidance, correction, and comfort.  Or at other times I have chatted with a friend and church member after worship or a meeting and addressed a concern of theirs with a Spirit-given Scriptural response.  And then a week, or a day, or perhaps maybe just an hour later I will be the one in a crisis of fear or doubt, and often—just often enough to notice—it will happen that somebody will give back to me the same counsel and comfort I had just given out to others.  My wife does it.  My parishioners do it.  Even my children have at times done it.

And in my geeky sci-fi mind, at that moment I can almost feel two alternate realities developing.  In one potential reality, I brush off the advice saying, “Yes, I did say that to you.  But my situation is different,” and thus unhinge a great evil within me that inevitably leads me into the worst of all sins: a pastor that believes God’s Word is intended for everybody else and not for him. 

But in the other potential reality, I wrestle with accepting my own advice.  A brief but epic struggle occurs within the depths of my soul as I determine whether I was passionately sincere when I first spoke those words I now hear given back to me, or if I was merely parroting a polite, Biblical-sounding lie.  My flesh wants to disregard my own words, but my conscience and God’s Spirit within me demand I must not.  And with heroic effort, my flesh is defeated and I humbly—and perhaps grudgingly, to be honest—accept the Godly counsel that has managed to boomerang itself back to me once again.

And I’ve realized something:  It’s not so much a matter of listening to my own advice as it is a matter of listening to God’s.  At one point, He spoke through me to give counsel to another.  Should it surprise me when He uses another to give that same counsel back to me?    

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Message to tired pastors everywhere, and yes to their people, too

I run a small blog, and don't get tons of visitors.  That's okay, because what I post here I do for the sake of myself and those few but faithful readers who value what God might have to speak to them through my meager words.  But I do keep track of how people arrive at here on these pages, and month in and month out there is one consistent search phrase that has led pastors to my site:

"I'm tired of being a pastor"

I know why that search lands pastors here.  I wrote a blog post about that very topic a while ago, detailing my struggles with disappointment, with burnout, with striving to find the energy to continue on preaching Christ's precious Gospel.  And how that desire which we feel should be a burning flame sometimes sputters to a cold ember.

Pastors, I know what you're going through.  I know the depth of pain that prompts you to publicly cry out in anguish and the pressure that only allows you to say it via Google.  I've felt the desire to find someone to share my burdens, and I've turned to the anonymity of the internet to do so.  You're tired, you're despondent, you despair of the uncertainty of God's calling and even of God's gifting.  You're fighting an uphill battle, and you wonder if you will ever, EVER, be given the blessing of seeing fruit produced from your work in the vineyard.

Pastor, take it from one who's been there and will no doubt be there again:  You are burned out.  For too long you've been operating under your own strength.  Your great love for God and your life's sole desire to see people impacted by the same Gospel that has saved you has resulted in your tireless, constant work.  But it's work that has changed from when you began.  It's now work that the Enemy of the church has very carefully, very subtly shifted off your true focus.

You used to work because Christ called you.  You used to preach Christ because you could not keep quiet.  Now you work because you want to see fruit.

Not that spiritual fruit is bad . . . it's not.  Not in the least.  It's what we celebrate.  It adds a savor to the work we do that encourages us to keep on keeping on.  But it's not your job to produce it.  And if you are deep enough in despair to proclaim your weariness to a search engine, I will be you dollars to donuts that your despair is because you so badly want to see fruit that you've forgotten that God--and not you--is the only One who can cause a planted seed to grow and ripen into fruit ripe for harvest.

You've looked with longing for fruit and believed Satan's lie that if it's not growing, you're not faithful.  That your Kingdom contributions are worthless.  That God can't use you any longer, and that He hasn't been using you for a long, long time.

You've been lied to, and you have believed the lie.

Pastor, my heart breaks for you.  Right now I'm choking back tears as I think of you and your dashed dreams and shattered hopes.  I know that statistically many of you will continue on working, hoping to work your way out of burnout.  I know that out of those who dig deep for the strength to go on another day, many will eventually turn to sexual sin, sabotaging their own ministry just to be shed of the burden.  Many others will resign in discouragement.  A few will continue to serve behind the facade of a smile, but inside will be dry as dust, faith shriveling day by day under a spiritual drought from which they will never recover.  None--let that word soak in--NONE will get through burnout through their own efforts.

Pastor, let me say this to you: I appreciate what you do.  You are operating in areas of God's Kingdom that I could never reach, understand, or see.  You are sowing Gospel seeds into fields that I will never visit.  You are making my precious Christ known to a generation that I will never meet.  I place an incredibly high value on you, on your work, upon God's call on your life.  I applaud you, and in my prayers I thank God for you.

I appreciate your work, I affirm God's calling on your life, and I am still telling you to STOP.  Stop now before it gets too late.  Drop the facade, do whatever you have to do, and stop.  Rest.  Get away from the office and from the demands and from the pressure, take your Bible, go to a secret, quiet place, and get to know Jesus Christ once again.  Refresh your heart in Him.  Remember the passion you once felt and confess all the reasons and sins that have kept you from serving with zeal.

For God's sake, man . . . take a Sabbath.

For your sake, pastor.

For the sake of your family.

For the sake of your church.

Start today, right now.  Walk out of the office and get alone with God, even if it's just for the afternoon.  Tell someone what you're going to do and then drop off the face of the earth.  God needs this time with you alone, free from all the distractions of ministry, to water your soul.

Take a Sabbath, cry out to God, get honest with Him, and you will find that He will get honest with you.  I promise that all the cares and concerns will still be there when you get back.  But I also promise that when you are done speaking to God, He will speak to you.  And if you listen to His voice, if you do not turn away, if you allow Him to be God and renounce your attempts to take His job, He will refresh you.

He will water your dry soul.

He will lift your discouraged spirit.

He will repair your shattered faith.

He will be your God, and you will be His servant.

God bless you, pastor . . . may you find in Him the rest you need.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable

I have a new-found appreciation for being uncomfortable.

It seems like it's been years that we've been living in a state of permanent discomfort.  No, not because of our ratty old couch (which should be hitting the curb this week, yay!), but a more emotional discomfort caused by life's trials and tribulations.  Call it stress if you wish, but for me it's been something more like the result of a deliberate, Divine act of pulling me apart from the world.

Imagine a vine: Its tendrils are seated firmly and comfortably deep, deep into its surroundings.
The vine needs this for stability, for nourishment.  I suppose the vine has concluded that it would not be able to live without being firmly attached to where it lives.

Now consider a Christian: Like the vine, your typical Christian becomes very attached to where it lives.  Sinking down roots, the Christian lives and works in a community, doing so for God's glory and the salvation of man.  The Christian forms meaningful relationships with others that bring benefit both to himself as well as to them.  He thanks God for all that He has given, and praises God for the blessings of life and living.

But eventually, even the most devout Christian begins to believe that he can't live if his roots were pulled up.  That the emotional and financial nourishment that his perceived stability brings must remain intact in order for life to continue.  His sense of living is tied directly to his sense of comfort in knowing his surroundings well.

But the Christian forgets that he is not the vine . . . he is merely the branch.

I'm not the vine.  I'm not.  Christ is.  My job is not to draw my comfort from my surroundings, but rather receive nourishment from Christ.  And while all the things that make me comfortable are good and gratifying and God-given, they are not my source of life and living.

So in a bizarre twist, I'm trying to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.  To wonder what happens next.  To feel displaced in the world.  Because when this happens, I am more likely to recognize that my true source of comfort is Christ.  The vine--and not my surroundings--gives me the nourishment I truly need.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Regarding my announcement in church yesterday: My season here appears to be drawing to a close

There are seasons in every aspect of life.  We all know this, and for the most part we accept it and often even embrace it.  After all, who doesn’t love to see the changing colors of the leaves as they herald the arrival of a new season of warm fires, comfortable sweaters, and quiet evenings with friends?  We’re grateful to God for giving us those kinds of pleasant seasons.  Even when they come to an end, we are grateful for the gifts He gave and the memories we have.

For some time now, the leaders of Our Saviour and I have been seeing signs that indicate God might be drawing my season as pastor here to a close.  First and foremost is the declining state of our church finances.  As a church, we have been anxious about it, we have been diligent about managing resources well, and we have been prayerful.  And yet finally, after many, many months of carefully observing financial trends, Chairman Mike Brinkman, Head Elder Mike McNamara, and I met and mutually agreed that it would be fairest to the church and fairest to my family and me if I were to very actively seek another call.

What you should know regarding that decision:
  • The decision was not made lightly, nor was there any pleasure in it.  It pained all of us, and we are very aware that it will pain you, as well.  We are sorry for that.
  • The council has agreed to maintain salary and benefits at current levels until December 31st, 2010.  This in and of itself is an indication that we are trusting God to provide what we ourselves cannot.
  • I have not resigned my call, nor has it been terminated.  I will remain your pastor until the Lord makes it clear that He has chosen me to serve elsewhere.  If that means even after December 31st with no visible means of support, so be it. 
  • The council and I are investigating the best possible way to have a pastor continue Word and Sacrament ministry at Our Saviour in the event God has prepared a call for me at another church.  I promise you will be cared for.
  • I do not currently have another call, and all reports indicate that calls are somewhat difficult to come by as of late in the LCMS.  I would appreciate it if you would join me in prayer that God would work in a timely fashion.

Though every one of us will almost certainly feel denial, sadness, and even anger over this situation, I encourage you to remember this:  I bear no ill will towards anyone regarding this decision, and neither should you.  We remain Christ's family.  Let us trust in God our Father to decide what is best for us, and let us have faith in His good and perfect will.  

It is true that the Lord does seem to be drawing my season here to a close.  And yes, it is true that this makes me . . . well, it makes me grieve like I have lost a family member to death.  But I encourage you to remember that where God is at work, He is working to bring good into our lives.  God has been at work among us.  He has made us His very dwelling place.  As long as His Word is preached and His Sacraments administered, you can be assured that He is here, in this church, working to bring His good into your lives and your lives into His good.

Finally, I encourage you to a season of prayer.  Chairman Mike Brinkman has felt the burden to begin a weekly prayer ministry that will not only offer prayers for the Lord’s will be done for myself and for Our Saviour, but for all who need His comfort, assurance, and healing.  From now to at least the beginning of Advent, he and I invite you to gather together as the family of Christ and pray.  7:00 p.m. Wednesday evenings, here at Our Saviour.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cowardice or patience?

Sometimes I’m a coward but I’ll mistake it for patience.  Rather a flipside to my blog post from yesterday.  And still this, too, is a dilemma for me.

By nature I’m more contemplative than combative.  And while it is true that this orientation does give me certain benefits, it also means that after a confrontation very, very often I’m the one left thinking, “THAT’S what I should have said!  Why didn’t I think of that earlier?!?!”  Like the Apostle Paul, I tend towards a mild demeanor face-to-face and bold when I have some distance. 

Part of that is driven by my pastoral patience in wanting people to come to repentance.  But if I’m to be honest with you (and perhaps more importantly, honest with myself), some of that is driven by fear. 

There are times when a strong word is demanded.  A forceful word.  Often times the word that is needed is a word of rebuke.  That time could come in a very visible public setting, or it might come in a private session.  But inevitably when that time comes I feel fear.

I fear many things at that point.  What if I’m wrong, and this person isn’t in sin?  I’ll have rebuked them for no reason and caused them embarrassment.  What if the proper time for a rebuke is not right now?  How do I bring it up later without feeling awkward?  What if I just make things worse?  Do I have the authority to police everybody’s sins and monitor their every behavior?  And finally . . . what if the rebuke is driven by my own frustration and not by God’s standards?

Decades into my life and years into my ministry, and this is still something I am trying to learn.  I have learned, however, that when I am facing personal attack God has instructed me to turn the other cheek.  To suffer silently.  But when the conscience and spiritual well-being of my neighbor is being threatened by the sinful actions of another, there is no doubt whatsoever that decisive action is required.  When God says, “Speak now for the sake of the faith of others!” there should be no hesitation.  And yet I will often hold my tongue and try to convince myself later that I was being patient.

It’s a poor sort of consolation.  For when the faith and conscience of the sheep is being threatened, the good shepherd acts immediately to drive away the wolf.  That never feels like love to me.  I want to be patient with the wolf and wait for him to come to repentance.  In the meantime, however, the sheep are scattered and the wolf continues to confirm himself in his own sin, heaping condemnation upon his own head.

That’s not love.  It’s not love for the sheep.  And curiously, it’s not even true love for the wolf.  When the time for speaking boldly has come, the time for patience has past.  And in that fleeting moment if I can swallow my fear and open my mouth and trust that the Lord’s words will spill out the sheep will see a shepherd who defends them despite his fear and the wolf might just also be shocked into the realization of his own sin, leading him to repentance.  In the end, everybody wins because God’s Kingdom has advanced.  His perfect love for sheep, for wolf, and even for a timid-mouthed pastor has driven out all fear. 

Lord God, teach me to be patient when I cannot, and teach me to be courageous when I must not be patient.  

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Patience or cowardice?

Sometimes I’m patient with people, but I’ll mistake that for cowardice.  This is something of a dilemma for me.

See, I know something bad about nearly everyone I know.  I’ve witnessed their public sin.  I’ve heard their struggles with private sin.  And I desperately want for them to come to repentance, to leave that besetting sin behind them and live a more holy life.  A life that doesn’t threaten to tear them apart.

And I freely confess: I want to happen NOW.  There is nothing more agonizing than seeing a person struggle when you know they can be freed.  And I have this sneaking suspicion that if I were to just get into their faces for a moment and confront them with the reality of their sin, I could manipulate them enough to leave it behind.  At least on the surface.  In front of me.  As we gather in church.

If I was just bold enough, I really do believe that I could force a situation where they would at least learn to mask their sin in public, but that’s not really what I want, is it?  I don’t want to train people to hide sin’s decaying rot under a shiny veneer of righteousness.  I want them to bring sin into the light and let it be killed off.  For that to happen God has to work; for Him to work I must be patient.

So fully knowing people’s sin, I continue to minister to them.  Patiently preaching the full counsel of God’s Word.  Praying that they will be delivered from their struggles.  Waiting for the day when the Holy Spirit has prepared them for repentance, waiting for the season where the Lord has brought His fruit to full ripeness and He commands, “Now you, worker, go and harvest what I have prepared.”  I am patient for that day.

But sometimes I’ll mistake my own patience for cowardice.  I’ll convince myself that I’m not truly waiting on God but that in reality I’m just hiding from confrontation.  That somehow, if I’m not in full confrontational prophet mode all hours of the day I’m not living up to my calling.

That’s a lie.  It’s a lie that I’ve told myself.  It’s a lie others have told about me.  It’s a lie that’s been told about God.  Perhaps the most impatient man in the Bible—the Apostle Peter—says in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Sometimes God’s patience is mistaken for weakness.  Sometimes I mistake my own patience for cowardice.  But in truth we both have the same ultimate goal: that souls be saved.  That lives be redeemed.  That persistent sinners be delivered from the shackles that so cruelly bind them and they walk upon the earth as precious saints. 

That’s not something that occurs in a day, and it’s not something that I can force to happen.  It is a goal that often takes a literal lifetime to achieve.  And it is a day for which God is willing to be patient.

And if He is willing to be patient . . . then I am willing also.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Return to blogging: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

House of Heroes "God Save The Foolish Kings" lyrics video from Gotee Records on Vimeo.

The rather ludicrous title of this my first blog post in a month alludes to the disjointed, disconnected nature of what I’m about to write.  I freely confess that this post is far less for your benefit than it is mine.  But at the same time I hope that my insights may prove beneficial to you at some time in your life, as well.

About a month ago, I realized that for a long, long time—far too long, really—I had been carrying a weight that I was never given to carry.  When the Lord calls a pastor, He calls him to carry a number of burdens: the burden of proper distinction of Law and Gospel, the burden of publicly walking in righteousness and even more publicly clinging to the cross in the midst of personal unrighteousness.  The Lord calls the pastor to carry the burden of the people; both their cares and concerns as well as the burden of the people themselves as they act sometimes as saint, sometimes as sinner.  God calls pastors to the burdensome ministry of calling people to repentance, of comforting them with Gospel, and exhorting them to have Christ at the very center of their being and doing.

But not once, ever, does God call a pastor to carry the burden of the work only He can do.  God entrusts work to pastors, but leaves the matter of results to Himself.

And yet . . . that’s the very load I was carrying.  My own weak, frail, narrow shoulders tried to heft a yoke that only fits His strong, broad ones.  I was trying to recreate the feat of Atlas, hefting the world upon my shoulders. 

I held myself responsible for achieving results in an arena that God alone dwells: the transformation of hearts and the reigniting of a church.

It’s a long, lonely, fruitless, endless road to walk down.  I got to the end of my rope and fell off, only to be caught by God Himself.  In classic God fashion, He was apparently waiting for that moment to rescue me from my own foolishness.  Waiting for me to wear myself out bashing my head against a wall so that I’d finally fall on my back; strength exhausted but with my eyes finally upward.

I’m not sure what happens next; my field of vision is extremely limited.  I know what I can see: that my church is in a financial crunch the likes of which it has never seen before.  That for all intents and purposes it is humanly impossible for them to continue forward with a full-time minister.  And yet I also see that despite all odds God has indeed brought us forward step by halting step.

I also know what I believe: that God is always faithful, always true, always merciful, and always victorious.  I have read and believe His promises that His church will endure, that His Gospel will go forth, that hearts and lives and people will be forever transformed from the inside-out as His redeeming work goes resolutely forth through His Word and through His Sacraments.

What I don’t know are those things beyond my ability to see.  Those are the things that worry at me.  Will God call me to another church?  Has He prepared another man to take my mantle of ministry here?  Will the people I love have a shepherd?  Or has He been working to keep us here?  Will we endure this as a light and momentary trouble?  Will we have a story of an unforeseen, God-sized victory?

Where does my next paycheck come from?  What happens on the day when it doesn’t?  How can I find work in Michigan’s economy, and how can I create work if I can’t find it?  What shall we eat?  What shall we wear?

Let me say it again:  I.  Do.  Not.  Know.  And it scares the death out of me. 

But stronger in me than death is the One who has gone through death into life.  Greater is the One who is in me than the one who is in the world.  My fears must content themselves with cowering in the corner as fears do.  I have no choice but to fling myself headlong into the maelstrom armed only with the knowledge that no matter what may come, it has already been prepared to bring good and not harm into my life. 

My fears can take a flying leap.  As a matter of fact, they have to, because I’m jumping off the mist-shrouded cliff hoping there’s water below that I can’t see.  I’m leaping from a perfectly good airplane trusting that the chute will open at the proper time.  I’m BASE jumping off the tower I’ve built to the Heavens in an attempt to see from the vantage point of God. 

So for the time being, I’m doing what today demands.  A little freelance writing to earn some money on the side and provide a wee bit of relief to the church’s financial burdens.  Grocery shopping to feed the family.  Prayer for the flock.  Sermon preparation for Sunday.  Catechism for new adult disciples as well as teenagers just beginning to make their parent’s faith their own.  Listening for God’s voice.  Trusting in His promises.  Doing the things that I can, trusting Him for those things that I cannot.

God will have to work out the future alone.  I'm pretty sure He can handle it far better than I.  

Monday, August 09, 2010

Taking a short break from blogging

Hello to anyone and everyone who stops by my blog to get some wisdom, insight, and to offer their own.

Just wanted to say thanks to you for reading what I post, and a double thanks to those who have taken time to interact.

And also wanted to let you know I'm going to take a short sabbatical from blogging.  I'm in a personal season of life now that is calling for more rest and meditation than it does for reflection and proclamation.  I plan on resuming blogging in about a month's time.  Subscribe via RSS or an aggregate reader and you'll have immediate knowledge of when I put up a post again.

Thanks again.  We'll see you in about a month.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Managing God's resources for ministry in a small town: Don't get your ducks into just any row

When you’re a small church in a small town, you need to manage your resources well in order to keep your ministry on target.  For us, that means careful attention to stewardship of our resources as well as the direction in which our resources are heading.  

Now, stewardship you know about.  You take care of what God has given you, use it responsibly, and use it for His purposes.  So you keep an eye on your building and maintain it.  You pay attention to giving patterns and trends so that you can plan appropriately for next year’s/season’s/month’s ministry.  You keep an eye out for useful talents that members have and look for a person with a desire to serve.

But that direction thing . . . that can be tough.  Small town/small churches have a kind of centrifugal force that’s born from long-term relationships.  Now certainly that’s a great strength (and in all honesty is probably the single-most important factor in how small towns/small churches continue to function well beyond any predictions).  But like Achilles and his heel, a great strength that is facing in the wrong direction uncovers a fatal weakness.  The long-term relationships inherent in small town/small church can result in an increasingly self-serving, inward focus if not specifically and deliberately countered.

Therefore, resources need not only to be managed well for stewardship, but also aligned for direction.  The church’s task is one of missional proclamation, i.e., “getting the Word out.”  We proclaim the Gospel that was first proclaimed to us.  Facilities, money, and people should be deliberately aligned with an outward trajectory. 

What does this mean?  Remember: small town/small church is based on relationships!  So for you, “getting the Word out” does not mean that you start hosting huge attractional events.  And it doesn't mean hat you simply make sure that X percentage of your church budget is allocated for missions.  No, both of those are overly simplistic, perhaps even superficial, indicators that your church has aligned its resources outwardly.  I’m suggesting something that is much deeper.  Something that becomes ingrained into the church’s understanding of why God has placed it where it is: to be salt and light in their community. 

So, yes, keep the building in good repair.  Pay the light bill so that Sunday worship can continue.  Fix the AC.  Start a new class.  But for every seemingly mundane, routine task, start to ask the question “Why?”  And help people to train their minds and mouths to answer, “So that the World may know what we know.”

Can you learn to phrase every expenditure or ministry in terms of missional proclamation?

Can you help your people to start formulating their suggestions in the same way?  

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Up-front relational costs: Managing resources in a small town, part 2

Relationships are as expensive as they are hard to measure in terms of financial worth.  There is no economic scale that can make relationships quantifiable.  You can’t predict how much time or effort or money a potential relationship might cost.  And yet the small town small church resources are inherently bound up in relationship.

What does this mean for the small town small church?  It simply means that there is no such thing as wasting God’s resources.   I had a conversation with some brother pastors once where we discussed how each of our churches might approach adding another worship service.  And these men—good men, Godly men, all of them—each suggested that a certain number of attendees would be prerequisite to having that service.  If X number of people would not be in attendance, then it wouldn’t be worth the pastor’s time, the planning effort, the money spent on heating/cooling the building.  It would be a waste of God’s resources.

That is “economy of scale” thinking, and for many churches in many cities it would be a good decision born from wise stewardship.  But the “economy of scale” ministry model does not work in a small town, because everything is about relationships, and relationships are expensive.  Relationships are expensive to initiate, the cost must be paid up front, and there is no guarantee of a return.  Yet in a small town that is precisely the cost of ministry.

I’ve been asked to perform a number of non-member funerals over the years.  Funerals are hard to do well, especially for someone you don’t know.  The relational investment in a non-member funeral for myself as a pastor is staggering and immediate.  The cost to my congregation is specific and measurable.  And yet both my congregation and I are willing to pay the cost.  My congregation lives for a few hours or days without the services of the pastor for whom they pay a salary and I spend relational time with the family in order to bring them God’s comfort.  To be the visible, tangible Body of Christ.  To reach out with the Gospel.

And the really amazing thing to me is that my congregation does not even seem to recognize how very odd it is to pay their pastor to be unavailable to them for a period of time.  I don’t know that it’s ever occurred to them to do anything else; to suggest that I limit my pastoral services to only those places where a return on the investment is sure to produce church growth.  I don’t think that they’ve ever considered that such a thing wouldn’t be worth our time.  I can guarantee that no one has ever suggested such ministry is a waste of God-given resources.  Why?  Because that’s just the way we do things here.  It’s the way we relate to one another in a small town.  We care for one another.  We invest into one another.  We shoulder one another’s burdens without a thought or care of whether that investment pays dividends or not. 

In a small town small church, there will always be many things that seem inefficient.  That look like money being frittered away without a investment payoff.  That look, honestly, like a waste of God’s resources.  But not to us.  To us it looks proper and right.  It looks like people come first, money comes second, and the only good use for the latter is to help the former.  That’s how small towns work.  Relationships.  Expensive investments that don’t always pay the dividends that money managers would like to see.   

Monday, June 21, 2010

Managing God's resources for ministry in a small town

As a small-town pastor, I love the people in my community.  I want nothing more—nor less!—than for them to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to believe upon it, and to be transformed by it.  Every single one of them.  But being a small church in a small town means that we have limited resources to accomplish that goal.  What to do?  How can we manage God’s resources for the greatest possible effectiveness and make a God-sized impact on our community?

The first lie in managing resources for the small town small church is that bigger equals better, that more people reached through less money spent is automatically the best use of our resources.  We have limited money, so we have to make the biggest splash that we can with that money.  Big events.  Big worship.  Big advertising campaigns.  In other words, do it like the big-city churches do.

In industry that’s called “economy of scale,” and it simply means that making 1 billion widgets at a time means that each individual widget is cheaper to make than if you had a production run of only 100.  And of course in industry that makes sense: design costs, worker wages, production time, advertisement . . . those are all quantifiable, unchangeable production costs that mean you can make more in a single run, you can make the most widgets for the cheapest price possible.  Economy of scale wins.

Except your small town isn’t an industry, and the people that live there aren’t widgets.  Your small town isn’t governed by production values and customer quotas, and so the rules of “economy of scale” simply get in the way of  your efforts to try and reach out to them.

Your small town is a network of relationships.  In your small town relationships are king.  If that weren’t true people wouldn’t stay.  But instead you have in your small town 2, 3, 4 generations of a families that have lived there all their lives.  Because of relationships. Not because of slick advertising slogans.  Not because of production values.  Not even because of amazing opportunities.  Relationships.

How would you change your approach to ministry if both you and your small town, small church could understand and articulate that truth?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Growth by taking away

 There’s something hidden at work when we come to church.  Something underneath the surface.  As we speak the words of the liturgy back and forth to one another, something else is going on.  As we hear the Scriptures read, there is an underlying reality.  As pastor preaches, someone else is speaking.  As the Sacrament is received, we get something more than wine and bread.

The hidden “thing” at work of course isn’t a thing at all, but rather a He.  God hides Himself away even in our worship, working silently but surely through His Word as it is spoken and heard.  Working according to His promise through His Sacrament.  We sometimes think that we have come to church to praise God and to add to His glory.  The reality is that through worship He adds to us.

The thing that intrigues me, then, is when well-intentioned people suggest that perhaps we could grow as a church if we were to just take something away.  Cut down on the sermon time.  Don’t serve communion every week.  Take away some of the more difficult portions of God’s Word, the more difficult doctrines, and we’d grow.

Hmmm . . . they might be on to something.  So let’s try an experiment.  We’ll take two plants.  Both are planted in a pot full of rich, fertile soil.  Both will receive the proper amount of water for plant health, and at identical intervals.  One we’ll put in a nice, sunny spot . . . and the other lock in a dark corner of the basement.

No . . . no.  You're right.  It doesn't work that way, does it?  Growth comes not for people nor plants by robbing them of the Light.  Rather than hiding away the light and robbing people of its growing powers, we uphold the things that give us His light, boldly and cheerfully and without hesitation encouraging others to see Christ’s light in action and to praise God for when it shines.

A good friend of mine puts it this way, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

In worship, Christ gives His light through many different words and actions, and through each of those actions His light gives holy illumination to everyone in His house, both neighbor and family member alike.  Don’t be fooled by the lie that by dimming His light we will grow.  Rather let’s give His growth-giving light of forgiveness and life every opportunity to shine forth.  For ourselves and for others.  

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The race that is never run in vain

I’m preaching on Galatians for the next few weeks, and so in my regular devotional reading I’m in the book, too.  Some might think that practice is combining work with my personal spiritual growth and excuse it because, after all, a pastor’s life can be difficult.  But I find that as I mine for gold in God’s Word, He tends to give me both nuggets for myself and for the congregation, as well.

But today—this morning—it was for neither.  It was for a friend of mine.

Paul drops a big pastoral bomb in chapter two.  One you never hear a pastor say in front of his congregation (and, truth be told, you rarely hear it even just among pastors), but it is one that every pastor worries over.  Paul confesses a fear that he had been running his race in vain.  He says that there was a moment, a season, a time when everything he knew and did in ministry was called into question.  That perhaps all the hard work, all the preaching, all the discipling, had been for nothing.  That maybe the cost had been too great and the dividends too little.

And this is Paul speaking.  Paul, who writes half of the New Testament.  Paul, who traveled thousands of miles on foot to expand God’s Kingdom.  Paul, who had been beaten and stoned and left for dead because he dared preach the name of Jesus Christ.  Paul, who after those things stood back up and looked up to Heaven and headed back down the same missionary road he had long traveled because he could not help but preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Paul . . . who wonders, “Was it all worth it?”

And the thing is, he never really seems to answer that question.  He could point to souls saved.  He could point to churches planted.  He could point to Spirit-inspired letters of encouragement and exhortation written and circulated from Christian to Christian.  But he doesn’t count numbers.  He doesn’t even seem to count the cost.

But he does say, “God was at work in my ministry.”

For just a moment, the fog of worry cleared from Paul’s head and he saw the brilliant light of Christ shining down on him.  And suddenly the important question was no longer, “Was it worth it?”, but the important question was, “Was God working His ends through me?”

And the answer was—and is!—“YES!”  Yes, God was at work through him then.  God was at work through him now.  God was leading, God was preaching, God was healing, God was saving and rescuing and delivering.  God in Paul.  In Paul’s ministry.  In Paul’s life.

Is ministry worth it?  I don’t think that’s the right question to ask anymore.  I’m sorry to say that the answer to that question changes with my mood.  But was God there?  That I know for sure.  Wherever He has been in the past, He was at work.

And where He is today, let me be there also.

“My dear Lord Jesus,
Thou art mine; therefore, I wish to be Thine.

All that I possess,
 my body and my soul,
my strength and my gifts,
 and all that I do,
my entire life,
shall be consecrated to Thee,
 . . . to Thee alone. 

Lay on me any burden Thou pleasest,
I shall gladly bear it. 

Lead me anywhere,
through sorrow or joy,
through good fortune or misfortune,
                        through shame or honor,
through favor of men or their disfavor,
 grant me a long life, or should I die an early death,

 --I shall be satisfied with anything. 

Lead the way, and I shall follow.”

-C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Being true in leadership

For every pastor and church leader, there are three simple rules for being the best leader you can be:

1)  Be true to God and His Word
2)  Be true to your people.
3)  Be true to yourself.

The first two are simple and straightforward.  Study the Word to show yourself a workman approved.  Love God and love others.  I suggest that if pastors and church leaders would do those two things and do them well, 90% of church problems and issues would resolve themselves without much effort.

It's the third one, though, that seems hardest.  God has made you to be you.  With your talents, your strengths, your gifts.  He has made you to be as you are, and not as someone else wants you to be.  When you operate from within your God-given strengths, you are working from within the framework God has established for your life.  When you try to please others by attempting to become something you are not, you are working against the very person God has created you to be.

The solution?  Stop trying to please others and start loving them.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

When all the world’s a stage, only actors play a part

Sunday was one of those days when I felt bad that God really had to carry the ball in worship.  I wanted things to be better, to run more smoothly.  I wanted the sermon to communicate more effectively.  I wanted more impact from that day.  But there’s a simple fact of life that happens in worship, and that is this:  You can’t manufacture the presence of the Holy Spirit, no matter how sincerely you try.

So it happened that I received a compliment after church that has haunted me for a few days now.  One gentleman—a visitor—thanked me, said he appreciated the worship service, and said, “You’re very sincere.”

“Sincere.”  That’s the word that stuck itself inside my mind.  It’s an attitude that I’ve chosen to deliberately convey every week: “I really believe this Jesus stuff and want you to believe it, too.”  It’s an attitude that reveals itself in the honest unveiling of my own weaknesses and struggles as I walk with Christ and my utter dependence upon Him and His cross.  It’s shown in a choice to worship with the congregation, not to just lead them through it.  The open acknowledgment that the words God speaks are intended not only for them, but for me too.  So yes, I was quite pleased to hear from a visitor that he sensed my sincerity because, after all, the only reason I do the work of a messenger is because I sincerely believe in the message.

But here’s the thing.  You can’t manufacture the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, and you can’t manufacture genuine sincerity.  Genuine sincerity is born from deeply held convictions—what we Christians call “faith”—that are in turn born from the testing of fire.  Hardship nurtures sincerity when it is honestly endured.  Sincerity is nurtured through the periods of doubt and questioning that dig deep and find bedrock.  The courage of conviction cannot be held by a man who has never had his world turned upside-down, who has never had to sustain faith in the absence of evidence, who has never endured the long, dark night of the soul.

I have endured the torturous nights of my own soul and found time and time again that God’s promises are trustworthy.  That His presence is continual.  That His strength is incredible.  And that though His ways are inscrutable, His wisdom is unimpeachable.

God has taught me that though the night seems dark, His ways always lead to light.

And so I trust, and trust sincerely.  Because God is trustworthy.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What is the difference between a dying church and a living one?

In years past, I have often assumed (rather smugly, I’m afraid) that the category of “dying churches” was fairly uniform.  My mind’s eye pictured a dying church as having a somewhat aging building with somewhat aging members, but the real factor that put it firmly in the “dying church” category was a mental image of members rigidly refusing to acknowledge the changing community around them and a pastor lazily contented with merely holding the congregation’s hand as it slowly passed away.

Such an image was a stereotype.  A personal bias born from pride.  As such, I admit that I was wrong to assume that all dying churches could be roughly thrust into a single pigeon-hole.

I still assume that there must be a dying church like that out there somewhere, but I’ve never seen it myself (funny how stereotypes never seem to exist in reality, isn’t it?).  But I have seen a number of other kinds of dying churches, and like each human death, each of them carries a unique kind of grief.  I’ve seen still-born churches that for some passed away almost without notice but for whom the agony of unrealized hopes tore the spirit and soul from others.  I’ve seen churches like the oldest resident in a nursing home, quietly resigned that the friendships of youth have faded away one by one but not having had the grace of one’s own eternal rest yet given.

I’ve seen churches with undiagnosed and unrecognized diseases; hale and hearty on the outside but inside having a congenital defect, a ticking clock that moves inexorably forward to the day it will simply stop.  And I’ve seen churches with a virulent cancer that unceasingly consumes everything that is healthy within itself, a hunger that is never filled, a thirst that is never sated.

I’ve seen churches with mortal wounds gasping their final breaths even as dedicated medics worked to save them.  And I’ve seen churches whose wounds, though once severe, have long since healed but the memory of pain and the visible scars have left them with a nervous fear.

Friends, I have stared death in the face more times than I ever care to remember.  Sometimes from a polite distance, other times at such close proximity that the church’s death threatened to envelop me with it.  I have seen Satan opening his cruel maw as he eagerly expected a fresh meal to devour, and I have seen even God’s own people shake with fear.

But Satan forgets one thing:  I.  Am.  Yet.  Alive.  God’s people yet draw breath and walk upon this earth.  And the God in whom we live and move and have our being dwells within us, His unending life propelling us towards an eternal future.  In the relentless and fever-pitched battle for the souls of our community, only one army has the guarantee of victory!  Neither side shall emerge unscathed, but only one shall lift their swords in shouts of triumph!

What is the difference between a dying church and a living one?  The church that holds God’s Word and speaks it, the church that possesses God’s gifts and stewards them, the church that holds fast to the cross with one hand and shakes the other in open defiance of the Devourer’s impotent rage, this is the church that lives.  She may have scars, she may have wounds, but as long as she yet draws breath and walks upon this earth, she lives in Christ and Christ in her.

Christ is alive.  God's people are alive.  I am alive.  His church yet lives.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why do we have church?

Why do we have church?

While there are many ways to answer that question, I believe that one of the more important answers is this:  There is no better tool that we can use to tear down our own self-centeredness than the church.

Think about it: Wherever the world says “Take!”, the church says, “Give.”  Wherever the world says, “Demand more!”, the church says, “Provide for others.”  Wherever the world says, “You deserve to be treated better!”, the church says, “Humble yourself and serve ‘the least of these.’” 

Wherever the world says, “Look at me!”, the church says, “Look to Christ.”

See, Jesus Christ is the end of our self-centeredness.  To see Him is to see a model of selfless living.  To live with Him is to daily die to ourselves.  Heeding his call, we do battle with the raging monster of “ME!”, striving against it, bending it to His will, subduing it that we may better serve Christ and those whom He would have us serve.  And there is no better training for this battleground than to be found regularly in the church.

This is true because, after all, the church is populated with sinners. People who have issues and fears and failures and struggles.  People for whom “stressed out” can often turn into “lash out.”  And though some misguided part of us insists that we should never find such people in church, in the church is precisely the place where sinners gather.  And inevitably, when a fellow Christian in their sin runs roughshod over us, immediately the monster “ME!” demands that we return hurt for hurt, mistreatment for mistreatment.  Because, after all, the “ME!” insists that that other Christian should know better than to hurt.  Or to mistreat.

But so should we.  And living in Christ, we know what to do next.

So thus cruelly mistreated, we gather our breath, steady our stance . . . and pick up our cross.  Turning back the monster me, we die to ourselves and our list of wants and demands, and lovingly minister even to the one who would mistreat us, because we are in Christ and He in us.  His love puts the final death-blow to our self-centeredness, and we find ourselves extending His love to others so that they too may learn to die to self.

And the place we learned this was in the church.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The art of open-handed planning

I’m sitting here at my desk and going over a document entitled Our Saviour’s long-range strategic plan. It is a rather lofty document carefully crafted to ensure solid numerical and spiritual growth here in our small church.
And it was never fully implemented.

That’s supposed to bug me. A lot. And just a few years ago, I think it would have. After all, I myself spent dozens upon dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of hours researching and preparing this plan. It is based upon observation of the character and needs of the community. It takes into account the present state of our church and what we are presently able to accomplish. It has specific, simple, measurable goals and targets that are broken down into smaller simple, measurable goals and targets. The goals have timeframes attached to them. The big picture of the plan reaches out into the community as well as shores up the spiritual maturity of our present members. I tell you without hesitation and with pardonable pride that this is a textbook example of a solid church plan.

But it never got to the point of being fully implemented.

You know the reasons why it didn’t: Life happened. “Man plans, God laughs.” That sort of thing. Things got messy and unpredictable. Unemployment in the area skyrocketed from pretty bad to just plain horrific. The housing market collapsed and foreclosures set in. Local industry was paralyzed both by scandal as well as Detroit’s inability to sell enough vehicles. Add to that a church financial panic as well as a dash of church conflict, and the grand master capital-P Plan is tossed like a coin into a drawer of well-wishing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought that the plan had been tossed. But it hadn’t been. Not really. Because the plan was still there. And as I go over it, I realize we learned something about church planning we hadn’t known before.

On the plan there were new ministries to be started. A few were birthed, a few have matured and are now running on their own, and a few died before they ever saw the light of day. But here’s what interested me the most: in the place of those planned but now-dead ministries a few other ministries were conceived. God-ordained circumstances in both our community and our church prevented us from doing a few specific things that we had planned on being extremely important, and in the end led us into doing other things that are now bearing fruit for His Kingdom.

What happened when we set aside the master plan last year was amazing: Along the way we unintentionally learned the art of open-handed planning. We had prayed over the plan, we had crafted the plan, we had presented the plan and we had agreed to work the plan. And then God changed the plan.

If we would have stubbornly held on to the grand, master capital-P Plan and insisted God follow our lead, this church would have tanked. And yes, I’m serious about that. I believe it’s entirely possible that we would have closed our doors if we had insisted upon following our plan and demanded God follow our lead.

But instead of clinging to our plan, we clung to another more precious piece of paper: God’s Word. And there we found that in the midst of a veritable manure-storm called life God still has His plan. For us. For our community. Rather than fight God, we learned (again, unintentionally!) to sway with His wind, to go with His tide, to live by His seasons. In other words, we learned to hold everything—even our plan!!—with an open hand so that God could take away what He desired to take away, but so that He might also give what He desired to give. And the curious thing was that, in the end, we found that He still gave us some of the desires of our hearts, but according to His will and timetable, not ours.

Open-handed planning is a bear, I’m not going to kid you about that. All of the up-front effort of research and prayer and the hard, hard work of crafting and tweaking and re-tweaking a plan to be just so must still be done because, after all, there are no shortcuts to arriving at a good plan. But when you plan with an open hand, you reserve the right for God to be God alone, for Him to act with or without your advice, without your input, without your plan. When He acts, you must be prepared to set or even cast aside entire portions of your precious plan in order to follow His lead.

What does this ultimately mean? When a church practices open-handed planning, God will get the credit for what happens in His church. The church acknowledges that they thought they had a good plan, but God one-upped them with a better one. And the church takes their proper position as God’s servants.

Good, open-handed planning is an artful joining of solid strategic planning and a confident faith in the God who holds not only today in His hands but tomorrow, as well. To me, that sounds like the perfect approach for a church.