Monday, April 23, 2018

Re-Thinking 'Victory'

[an open-letter to my congregation]


This weekend is an annual event for the American Baptist Churches in our state  -- the Big Sky Area Celebration -- where pastors and members of ABC churches from Montana will gather in Great Falls to worship, fellowship, learn, and make organizational decisions together. It's sure to be a great time.

In addition to these exercises, however, I was invited to participate in another activity that will periodically happen throughout this weekend: the sharing of church 'victory' stories. A number of us from different churches around the state have been asked to share about ways that God has proven victorious in our congregations and communities over the last year. Fun! I'm excited!

But this invitation has also forced me to ponder how to best measure church 'victory.' What does it mean to be successful as a church? How do we define achievement? Who gets to determine success? Are there benchmarks for measuring "victories?" What if we don't live up to the church across the street or the ABC church down the road?

And maybe, more importantly, I'm forced to wrestle with how I will specifically articulate the 'victories' of our specific church. Is it all about numbers, in attendance, giving, and baptisms? Will I boast about our events and programs? Will I attempt to show how awesome we are? Will I be tempted to exaggerate our 'success' to inflate my ego? 

Darn you, Pam Davies! Why did you ask me to do this?! 

After sitting down to think and pray for a few moments, however, I've realized that the ONLY thing I can talk about that would accurately convey the 'victories' we have witnessed at our church this past year is to tell the stories of small, intimate, personal ministry. 

Sure, I'll briefly mention a few fun things we've accomplished this year, but mostly I'll tell stories about people actually knowing and caring for one another, and our broader community, in simple, profound ways. I'll tell stories about gift cards, head lice, small group prayer, and a man off the street...and I'll cry the whole time as I remember those moments and picture the beautiful faces of my beautiful congregants who so often bless our world in beautiful ways.

So, thank you for a 'victorious' year of ministry. But thank you for being 'victorious' in all the right ways. Thank you for getting to know one another. Thank you for caring for one another. Thank you for blessing our world. I'm one lucky pastor to have gotten to witness this 'victorious' year of ministry.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Home Buying

Some of you know this already, but Mandy and I are in the process of buying a new home. Barring some very unforeseen circumstances, on May 10 we will become proud residents of the Brentwood neighborhood of Bozeman, and will be moving all our belongings about 10 blocks east of where we currently live. We feel incredibly blessed that we are able to use the increased value our current home to afford a slightly larger home that we can stay in for a long time.

We’ve hesitated in sharing this news too openly, however, because there are a million hoops to jump through and you never know when the whole process might fall apart and send you back to square one. Even now, we aren’t completely out of the woods. Buying and selling a house, simultaneously, has proven to be a much more complicated process than we experienced when simply buying our home five years ago. Double the inspections; double the appraisals; double the offers and counter-offers; double the hassle.

Throughout this process, however, God has been teaching us a lot about patience, trust, mindfulness, and seeking His will. Buying a home is a constant process of ‘hurry up and wait.’ You make a million quick decisions…that are immediately followed by the need to patiently wait with almost no control over the situation. So, we’ve had to learn to trust God’s leading and guiding with each step of the process. We’ve had to learn to listen to what he might be communicating to us, paying attention to how our hearts feel about decisions that need to be made, trusting that the Spirit often works through these sorts of gentle nudges of either peacefulness or discomfort.

I didn’t expect buying a new home to turn into a process of spiritual growth.

May we always be open to how God might want to speak to us and shape us through the ordinary things of life like buying a home. May we have the eyes and ears to listen to God’s prompting and allow him to mold us into more devout followers of Jesus. May we be molded by God into people of patience, trust, mindfulness—people who seek and follow God’s will.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Counter-Cultural Way of Jesus

Each Sunday morning, we gather together to do a number of things that our modern, Western world would consider extremely strange. We get up early on a weekend morning, rather than resting and relaxing. We head to church instead of the ski hill or hiking trail. We read from a book written thousands of years ago--insistent on its contemporary relevance. We sing songs together--aloud--despite the fact that most of us would feel too self-conscious to even sing in the shower. And then, essentially, we sit and listen to a live podcast. I'm perfectly aware of the strangeness of our Sunday gatherings.

But, even weirder than worship, is the fact that we gather together at all. So much of our world is steeped in solitude and isolation. We work from home, we barely know our neighbors, and the vast majority of our social networking happens through a tiny computer we store in our pockets or purses.

So, perhaps the most counter-cultural aspect of church isn't our devotion to a murdered prophet who rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, but the fact that we would actually gather together, with our peers, to deeply and intentionally share our lives with each other.

It's just not something our culture does. We don't bare our souls. We don't share our secrets and struggles. We don't seek counseling, even when we need it. We keep it to ourselves.

I've been reminded of this fact twice now in the last half hour, as I'm sitting at McDonalds doing my work. First, when I went to order, they now want me to order and pay at a kiosk, rather than from an employee at the counter. It seems like a strange and non-social business decision. And then, later, when an employee was walking around making small-talk with the customers and seeing if he could assist them in any way, I found myself annoyed that he was interrupting my writing.

You got that, right?! I'm actually upset about having to talk with someone...while writing an article about needing to be more communal!

In our isolated and privatized world, the communal nature of Jesus and his church is incredibly counter-cultural. So, may we be willing to embrace the communal calling of Jesus--to actually know our neighbors in a way that we can show them love. May we be increasingly open and vulnerable with one another as we commit to sharing each other's loads and bearing each other's burdens. May our openness, honesty, and vulnerability with one another be a public testimony to a new way of being human--a way that embodies the counter-cultural way of Jesus.