Taking time in lonely places

Lonely_place

Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
(Luke 5:16)

I must say, I hesitated to use that Scripture passage to begin this post. I’m writing what I expect will be my last post until April 2014 – and that is assuming God calls me to resume writing this blog at that time. If you have not been reading my blog of late you may not know that I am soon leaving my role as “pastor-in-charge” and moving into a new role as “pastor-on-sabbatical.” It is a time away for prayer and spiritual renewal. And it feels in some ways like it will be time spent in lonely places. The reason I hesitate to use the Scripture is that I am not trying to equate my ministry with Jesus’ ministry. And yet, I am trying to follow his lead.

So, as of January 1, 2014 I will be officially appointed to a sabbatical time and another pastor will take over the charge of the church in the interim. I am anticipating a time of spiritual struggle that leads to renewal. I am also nervous about the struggle and what it will be. And in the midst of that, I wrestle with the fear that the time away will not shed new light on my future and may not give me the greater connection I long for. Those fears are unfounded and I push them off into God’s hands as often as I remember to do so. I hear my soul crying out with the words, “This must not be just an extended vacation!”

I do realize this is what it can look like to others. I am aware that many people have grueling jobs and could use time away. That’s part of the reason I am striving to make this time useful and renewing. My job is not more important than anyone else’s job, but it is different. The task of a pastor and spiritual leader is to live out their life as a disciple of Jesus Christ in a very real way and to lead others to do the same. The call of the pastor is to work with the Holy Spirit to draw people into the presence of God in a world hell-bent on making God irrelevant. And the task never seems to get easier. And at this point I have come to realize that it never will.

So in order to have the spiritual strength to keep going it is important to take the steps needed to be strong. The example Jesus gives is time away in lonely places. Jesus – the Son of God filled with the Spirit of God – had need to regain his strength as he went about his work, and the servant is not greater than the master. How much more must I take time if Jesus knew that he needed such time?

So, how will I occupy this time? How will I find renewal and strength for the days when I make my way back into the battle? I will focus on four areas of my life. First is time with family. I have been blessed with a helpmate in my wife and time with Jan renews my soul. She is a great encourager and a woman of deep faith who inspires me in many ways. I will also spend some time with extended family helping them with some simple tasks and things I can do to ease their burdens.

Secondly, I will be spending time with a counselor. Mental health issues are becoming more and more recognizable as factors that contribute to our life’s successes and failures. I am grateful that we have come to understand the need to work through issues and challenges that affect our psyche and emotions. There used to be much more of a stigma related to counseling and therapy, but the reality is that our thinking and functioning can get off track if we don’t deal with the ups and downs of life in the proper way.

Along those same lines, I am engaging with a coach – someone to help me think through how I work and how I can best serve the church going forward. This is not a counseling session, but a way of developing my strengths and understanding my weaknesses in order to be an effective pastor.

And finally, and this is where the “lonely places” really comes in, I will be making a pilgrimage across northern central Spain. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned this. It is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is a 500 mile trek from the border of France on Spain’s eastern border to the Cathedral of Saint James near Spain’s western coastal border. It should take just over one month to make that journey. The timeframe for this journey is winter time and so there will be less people on the path as I go. The landscape will be more barren, as happens during the winter. And there will be less availability in regard to accommodations at this time of year. As near I can tell, it will be something of a lonely place. But that is also what I long for. That time will be time for God and me to deal with the deeper spiritual issues as I walk and pray and talk with God.

Through it all I covet your prayers. And quite possibly when I wander back into the hustle and bustle of everyday life I may write a new post on this blog. If not, thanks for being a faithful reader.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

The beginning of renewal: A clean mirror and good light

I watched my Twitter feed as the news was disseminated – Gary Kubiak was fired as the head coach of the Houston Texans National Football League team. The team had fallen off the cliff. They were on an 11-game losing streak in a 16 game season – that’s not good. The players seemed overmatched and unable to do what was needed to be done to make the team successful. Was it all the fault of the head coach? No, but it was his responsibility.

The head coach isn’t the one throwing the ball, catching the ball, kicking the ball or tackling the runners. The players have some culpability in this losing streak. But the head coach is the one called upon to make the team successful. In this case, one or two wins might have made the difference – they didn’t have to be cleaning mirror croppedperfect, just better. And as the head coach I have no doubt Gary Kubiak knew that. He saw this moment coming. At least he did if he had a clean mirror and some good light.

What I mean is that an understanding of who we are, what flaws we have and what strengths we have, should be seeable. They may not be obvious but they should be able to be seen. What it takes is a clean mirror and some good light.

Think about how you can look at your own appearance and gauge your health and strength by looking in the mirror. If the mirror is dirty the picture you get won’t be true. You may see flaws where none exist. You may not see beauty that does exist. And vice-versa. The same is true about the lighting. Good light offers a truer picture. Bad lighting may cause me to assume all is good when there are problems to be addressed.

Serving as a pastor for the last 17 years has been a rare privilege and honor. And I expect to continue on for another 17 or so (at least in full-time officially appointed ministry). I have also found that serving as pastor is weighty and is a test of faith in many ways. As a pastor I tend to carry the hope of other people’s spiritual growth. I long to see the church – the bride of Jesus Christ – grow in life and love. I struggle with the reality of other people’s expectations – some reasonable, others not so much. I also struggle with my own sense of failure and, at times, misguided pursuit of tangible success. I realize that self-examination is essential for determining a way forward. And it seems to me it is a different kind of process than when I worked as an accountant.

I say all that to say this – the sabbatical I will take beginning January 1, 2014 is all about making sure I have a clean mirror and good light. This is a time when God has called me to step back from the daily work of pastoring – to move things out of the way – and look in the mirror. This will be a time of deep spiritual introspection and time dedicated to knowing and listening to God – shining good light on my heart and soul and mind. I want to have an honest assessment of who I am. I want to know my flaws in honest ways so that I can faithfully allow the strength of God to be made known in my weakness. I also want to know what God sees as my strength and what that means for living into this next 17 years of ministry.

In short, I want to be certain I am benefitting the Kingdom of God in positive ways and leading the people of God in helpful ways. For me this means taking intentional time. I covet your prayers. A clean mirror and good light can show many things. How I address those things – both positive and negative – will impact the work I do. I expect (and have been told by God through another person) that this time will be a struggle. At the moment I do not know what that means, but I believe it will be for my good and the good of God’s Kingdom. At least I pray that will be the case.

Next week I will most likely post my final blog for this year. Whether or not I pick this up again on the other side of my sabbatical remains to be seen.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

A Season of Watching and Waiting

pregnant belly copyIt seems I am surrounded by pregnant women on all sides – which is not a bad thing. Women in our family – both my family and my wife’s family – are expecting in 2014. A young lady in our congregation along with another who is connected to and a regular visitor with our congregation just put out the news that they are awaiting the arrival of a baby in May. Then there are the ones connected to the families in our church, which means we have grandparents who anxiously await a newborn – including one set of grandparents-to-be headed to the hospital the morning this blog was written.

Pregnancy is a great image for this season in the life of the church – the season of Advent. During this time before Christmas we might think this image of expectant mothers points toward Mary who was at this time awaiting the birth of her first child (yes, assuming December 25th was the day – that debate is another blog for another day). It is partially what Advent has become for us – the waiting for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. And yet, it really is more than that. It is truly a season of expectancy – a time of waiting and watching for the dawn of new life, but it is about more than the birth of the Christ-child.

You see, pregnant families are not the only ones living through a time of waiting and watching. I know others who are facing the diagnosis of some form of cancer or about to enter into another round of cancer treatment (and for the record, I hate cancer). They wait to hear results. They wait to see if the treatment works. They wait and watch and wonder what the future holds.

Still others are waiting to find out other aspects of their future – what school will I go to when I move past high school? Will my job be one of the ones eliminated in the latest cutbacks? Will we have enough money to buy our children presents for Christmas? Will we have enough food to feed our families this week?

There is much waiting and watching and hoping in the face of unknown futures – some are waiting with exceedingly great joy. Some are waiting while holding their breath. And for those of us who know the truth behind the season of Advent, we encourage one another to wait and watch in faith.

The word Advent means “coming.” The Church celebrates this season not just as a pre-Christmas ritual, but as a reminder that Christ will come – again. Yes, Jesus Christ was born to Mary, humbly among the animals. But, our faith is not just based on this belief that God came near to us. Our faith is that this child would live courageously, and boldly declare that God has a bigger plan. He would go to the cross and become the sacrifice for all our sins as a way to show that the grace of God is at work to reconcile us back to our heavenly Father and restore our true life. And he promised that he would come again, that he would bring about the Kingdom of God in its fullness – a Kingdom of joy and peace where issues like cancer no longer haunt us in our nightmares.

That’s the joy we celebrate this season. That’s the reason we wait and watch. Just as a pregnant woman knows there is a day coming when the physical challenge of nurturing her child will result in the birth of new life, so we, the ones who believe in God’s promises revealed to us in Jesus Christ, await the birth of God’s Kingdom in all its glory.

So we wait and we watch and we say – “Come Lord Jesus, come.”

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

The Footsteps I Follow

enter at own riskI feel the need to apologize for my recent posts. They seem to all be very internal “me” focused musings. But the reality is, that’s the season I’m in. I have tried to use this blog as a place for honest musings and challenges regarding faith and discipleship. At times I have addressed issues within the church – both local and denominational; and at other times I have written about more individual, but hopefully universal subjects. Right now I’m in a season of self-reflection and its unlikely it will change any time soon.

So, I could apologize, but it might seem disingenuous as I once again delve into self-reflection or very personal moments. Therefore, I will simply let this first bit of today’s post stand as a checkpoint of sorts. Continue reading if you will, but you’ve been warned.

I recently let all of our church know that I would be taking a 3-month sabbatical beginning January 1, 2014. I have come to realize that I need to regain some spiritual footing in order to serve God’s purpose well in the years ahead. That’s a difficult feat to accomplish while managing and leading the day-to-day life of the church. My time away is not a means of getting away from the church in order to be away from the church, it is simply time to be more deeply connected to God for the work ahead. It may be too bold of me to equate this time to that of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days, but still I do relate it to that. In some ways, those are the footsteps I follow.

camino pic 1One of my hopes as I plan this time away is to make an ancient pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is otherwise known as The Way of Saint James. I first learned of this pilgrimage through the movie “The Way,” which piqued my interest in this 500 mile journey. Yes, I said 500 miles. The journey begins near the border of France and Spain and winds across northern/central Spain to the Cathedral of St. James. It takes about a month or so to make the journey. It is a pilgrimage that has been made by many peoples in the last 800 years. And I hope to add my name to the list.

The pilgrimage was historically made by Christian pilgrims who wanted to make their way to the place where ancient tradition says the bones of St. James are interred. To be in close proximity to these ancient relics was thought to bring a special blessing of God to the pilgrim who was willing to make such a journey. These days many people see the journey as more significant than the destination. They see the journey as the means to the greater blessing of God – and I am one of those.

My hope for the journey is to give myself undeniable time with God. By that I mean that I will have nothing else to occupy my thoughts or my spirit. Sure, for a couple of three days I might be consumed by other thoughts and challenges left behind, but eventually I will just have to get into a deep lasting conversation with God. There is no activity to capture my interest, no group to interact with (save the other pilgrims I see along the way), and no TV or Facebook to occupy my attention. There should be some significant time of reflection and spiritual conversation.

And that’s why I’m planning this as part of my sabbatical. I want to be intentional about digging down deeper with God. And I know that it won’t happen so easily among the everyday things that already distract me so (and I am NOT referring to church stuff – just common, ordinary, everyday stuff). You see, this time is not being planned as an escape from church or life or anything else. I was given good advice one time – it is always better to run TOWARD something than to run FROM something. So, I’m choosing to run toward God, to run deeper into a life as a servant of the King of Kings.

As I make my way I follow the footsteps of many pilgrims who have gone before me. I follow the footsteps of many faithful people who sought a deeper connection with God. I follow the spiritual footsteps of Jesus as I leave what is known for a time away to connect with God. And then, when I have completed the pilgrimage, I hope to walk more faithfully either on the road I am currently traveling or on a new path to which God calls me.

Of course, it all begins with that first step. As for what happens then? Well, that remains to be known and experienced. I simply thank God for the chance to know Him more in this ancient way.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

When one thing is wrong it means nothing is right

f grade questionI have never thought of myself as a perfectionist. I don’t think I am one to try to make everything the absolute best or nothing at all. I mostly think that we do our best and then move forward with what we’ve been able to do – hopefully giving our best as we go. And yet, I have come to realize something a bit disturbing about myself. I’m not sure how to label this (like everything must have a label, right?), but it’s definitely a thing.

For those who read my blog regularly, you know this is often my confessional. It’s a place where I am not afraid to explore my faults and failures – which is good because it gives me lots of raw material to work with! And that little clause right there is indicative or symptomatic of my problem. I see my faults and failures, at times, far too easily. And, I see my faults and failures more than any successes. And that’s a bit troubling to recognize.

So, am I a pessimist? A defeatist? An Eeyore?

Life is full of tasks and events and hopes and plans. Many times, if I look back at my day, there have been many things that went well. If I were to list all the things I did in one day or one week I bet I would be batting over .500 in terms of things that went off without a hitch or went well. My struggle is that I see the other side more than those successes. One thing can go wrong, one thing can be falling apart, and then in my mind, nothing is right.

I quite often view the whole of my life through the lens of my failures. Oh, I can put on a happy face and I can still do things that are good and successful, but I am mostly surprised by those things when I get into this place in my head. When one thing goes wrong, in my head it feels like nothing is right. And that’s not a good place to be.

So, why do I tell you this? Well, part of me just needs to say it “out loud” (yes, writing it in a blog post counts). Part of me also wants to work through – out loud – the other side of this. I use these posts to remind me of what is true as opposed to what I feel. And, with that, I hope others who feel similarly might also benefit.

So what is the truth? The truth is that life will have moments of good and bad, failure and success. The truth is you can’t count on your success to save your life and you don’t have to let your failures doom you to a dismal life. The “truth” that comes to my mind is in John’s gospel:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33 NIV)

Now, in fairness to the Apostle John, he is quoting Jesus as Jesus talks about real and significant persecution in the world. The kind many Christians in other countries face on a daily basis. But one thing I have learned about the Word of God is that God will declare a truth in one context which applies in others. So, while my trouble may be in my head, while my trouble may be my own faults, failures and inadequacies, the truth still holds – Jesus has the power to overcome that trouble.

The key for me is to remember that my identity is in Christ, not in what I accomplish or in what I fail to do well. I am neither a success nor a failure, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My peace cannot be found in what I do well, and my anxiety is unnecessary in where I fail. I am close friends with the Lord of all a pluscreation, brother to the King of kings. That is not only enough, that is tremendous.

Bottom line – it means that everything is right even if it all goes wrong. That turns my world upside-down. And for that reminder I am thankful.

Hope that helps you in your daily walk through the world this week.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Not always believable, but always true

asbury sanctuary cross plasticYesterday was an interesting day. I was forced to deal with the truth of God which I currently have a hard time believing. Even now I hesitate to tell you for fear that it might push you away from the church rather than toward it (and honestly, I fear others thinking less of me). So as I begin, let me say something very clearly about God’s word for us in Scripture. This is an important lesson God taught me over the past week:

Don’t accept something because you are able to believe it, accept it because it is true.

Now, just that phrase will send theologically-minded thinkers and debaters running down a rabbit trail talking about how we know something to be true. I’m not here to debate that. What I can say is that when you read the Bible with an ear for the truth of God, when you seek to hear truth – real truth – God will show it to you. God reveals Himself to those who truly seek Him.

With that in mind, I knew this promise of God to be true: and as a recap, yesterday I was preaching from Haggai chapter 2 (a very popular book for preachers – he said with tongue in cheek). In Haggai chapter 2 the prophet is speaking to the leaders of God’s people, the ones who have just recently returned from exile. They have come back to the “promised land” that was destroyed by the enemy. The temple itself was in ruins as well. Through Haggai the Lord says to those leaders and the people – I am going to restore your land and the house of God to a greater glory than you can even remember. It’s not a carrot dangled before them to get them to dance to God’s tune. It is not an inspirational speech telling them, “you can do this.” It is a promise that God will do a new thing even in the midst of what seems to have come undone.

So, I tried to preach that promise to the church where there are significantly less people this week than there was the same week 3 years ago. I did my best to proclaim this promise of God to a room less full than it had been. That was really hard. I feel the burden of the loss. I feel the weight of the empty seats. I have come to a place where internally I carry the failure. And then God leads me to this passage. God makes me not only hear the promise, but he leads me to preach it. It was one of the hardest sermons for me to deliver because I had to keep listening to my own voice declaring a promise I found so hard to believe.

But here’s the point of all this: the good news is not that I believe this promise, the good news is that the promise is true. The reality of God and the future promise of God does not depend on my ability to believe. The future glory depends only on the faithfulness of God to deliver on His promise. And God is faithful.

I say all this to you and share my unbelief for this reason – you may be in a place where you hear God’s promise but find it hard to believe. Where God says you are forgiven, you may think your sin is too great. Where God says I will never leave you, you may feel like God is nowhere to be found. Where God says, I have come to give you life and give it to the full, you may wonder if it will ever happen for you. The good news is that God’s promises may not always be believable, but they are always true. You may find it hard to believe what the Bible says God will do and is doing, but your doubt in God does not negate God’s mercy and love and grace for you.

God’s promises are not always believable, but they are always true. That’s the hope I cling to. I encourage you to do the same.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Sometimes we really need a drink

DSC00667The other day I ran my first 5k race (for all those who have been reading my Facebook posts and listening to my sermons, I won’t keep harping on this forever, I promise!). It wasn’t too bad of a run. As a matter of fact, I think I may do it again some day. I was glad to learn a little about myself during that race. I was also glad God has used that run to help me remember something about His grace and love for me.

A 5k race is 3.1 miles long – so not even close to a long race. But, for the uninitiated runners like myself, it’s a fair distance. The organizers of the race did a great job. They had things set up and got us all moving along without any hiccups. One of the preparations they made included having drink stations at the 1 and 2 mile marks, as well as at the finish of the 5k (or the middle of the 10k for others). Honestly, I was not in need of the drink, though I took one at mile 2. What I did need was the reminder God gave me the next day. It was one that connected my every day life to that 30 minute run.

cup of waterThe reminder came on Sunday evening when I was visiting with a couple I consider to be spiritual mentors. They have logged many spiritual miles through their years and I appreciate their words of encouragement and their deeply felt prayers for me. It was in that conversation that it dawned on me, these folks were just one example of the people in my life who manned the “drink stations” along the way. On that 5k run, at mile 1 and 2, people held out cups of water that we could grab as we ran by. They were glad to help us run our race well and stay strong. And so it is with the people of God who are put in our lives and who man our drink stations. Like those friends who spoke words of encouragement to me and were glad to help me run the race of life with Jesus and to help me stay strong.

As that thought came to me that night I realized that there had been many other drink stations along the way in my life. There were many who held out a cup of cold water as I ran by. Cups of cold water that looked like an invitation to lunch, a hug and a smile, a word of encouragement or appreciation, sometimes even a prayer before worship.

Then it dawned on me that Jesus had one time mentioned these people. He knew how important they are. It’s in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 10:

And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded. (Matthew 10:42 NLT)

I was glad to remember that verse. I am glad to know God will reward those people, for they have done a great thing for me. Now, just like in that race, there are times the drink is life-enhancing but not life-saving. But, there are other times – life-on-the-edge times – when we really need a drink. So, I am grateful for those who make the offer, grateful for those who hold out a cup as I run by, grateful for the ones who offer a spiritual drink for at times I am weary and close to giving up. Those who man the drink stations have no way of knowing how badly it’s needed, but if it is, they are ready. And for that i give thanks to God.

I guess there are two questions to consider:

  1. Who are the people in your life who man the drink stations, and have you given thanks to God for them?
  2. Whose drink station is God asking you to tend to? Who is God asking you to bless with a word of encouragement, a hug, a prayer, a smile, or a lunch invitation?

Those are the questions I’m pondering today. Maybe you will as well.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike