Reflections on 20 years

First of all, let me start off with a thank you.

If you didn’t know it already, last night, my church family threw a party in my honor. Twenty years of sharing life together were remembered with food and gifts and some of the kindest and most gracious words anybody could ever express.

To all of you who braved the elements to spend the evening with Wanda and I last night, please know the night will never be forgotten.  The statements of love and encouragement have made a permanent mark.  I am humbled.  Grateful.  Inspired.

I got up this morning thinking about how the past twenty years unfolded. Ministers staying twenty years with the same church family is pretty rare.  I get it.  Actually, ministers simply staying in ministry these days is pretty rare. The statistics are pathetic.

After some restful soul-searching, here’s why I think I’m still here…

  1. I am no hero.  On a practical level, you are.  You are the ones who have faithfully placed money in the box, to make sure we’ve had a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes to wear, cars to drive, and more comfort than we ever deserved.  Every week for the past twenty years.  Without that commitment, I don’t think I could have done this… the work I love, with the people I love.
  2. In my early twenties, I was mentored by a couple of older ministers, who taught me the value of staying.  Church leadership is a very upwardly mobile occupation, just like corporate America.  If you do well (grow bigger = do well) in a smaller church, a larger church will pluck you away, to join their expanding operation.  It would be your reward for a job well done.  I was taught to reject that as a motivation for leaving.
  3. It’s no secret my understanding of the role of the pastor stands at odds with the popular view of the pastor.  The same is true for the nature of the church in society. I can’t help it.  The picture of the pastor I see in the Bible looks more like Jesus, than a CEO.  Because of that, I have never been able to bring myself to model my life or a pastor job description, by something that doesn’t exist in God’s word.
  4. The older I get, the less I feel pressure to perform or live up to pastor expectations that are found in most churches these days.  I refuse to find my value or worth in how big or influential North Point becomes.  This definitely allows me to appreciate NP for what it is, rather than what others think it should become.
  5. Somewhere, somehow, God has wired me to both accept and enjoy people as they are.  This is not of my own doing.  I can only see it as a gift from God.  To be sure, I have had the responsibility to cultivate it and my upbringing, life experience, education and response to scripture have all played a part in molding my heart, but it is still a gift from God, for which I will ever be grateful.
  6. According to Ephesians 4:26 (In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.), I have always believed I have less than 24 hours to work through any anger I might have against a person.  This is amazing for friendships.

I’m sure there are other reasons, but I’ll stop with this:  I have never “heard” God telling me to go somewhere else.  Because of that, I have never… not even once… considered leaving North Point.

  • Not because I wanted more money (I have always had my needs met).
  • Not because I could have more influence (I’ve got all I can handle here).
  • Not because NP isn’t big enough (the value of a church family should never be judged by its size).
  • Not because I thought I was failing (I have never felt like my work here was not worthwhile).
  • Not because I was feeling burnt out (at times, I have been exhausted and confused, but never at the end of my rope).
  • Not because of people who were hard to get along with (so few, it’s hard to even remember them).

I have a job description that requires I get things done, in order to justify my weekly paycheck.  I understand and accept both sides of that coin.  But North Point is my family.  At the beginning and ending of every day, I am simply part of this family.  No better than anybody else.  No more important than anybody else.  And because I believe that with my whole heart, I stay.

Hopefully for twenty more.

Marriage Tuesday

Marriage TuesdayLife can be difficult.  Unpredictable.  Scary.  Frustrating.  Tragic.  Erratic.  Intimidating. Volatile.  Terrifying.  Maddening.  Full of grief and all kinds of sorrow.

In life, we move from the protective covering of our parents.  Our children grow up, move out, and make lives of their own.  Friends and extended family have messes of their own to contend with.   As much as we would like to lean on them to help us get through the muddle, sometimes they just can’t.  Or won’t.  Or shouldn’t.

But the one physical constant we have through the messiness of life is our partner.

Anybody can be married when things are great.  When money’s rolling in.  When the kids are kicking butt, making grades, and doing you proud.  When the job is stress-free.  When your ride has the new car smell.

But we live in a broken world.  We live every day under the sentence of death and everything that leads up to it.  Our journey will be filled with questions pressing us from every side. Loneliness and darkness hover.  The Enemy is always present.

What happens to your marriage when you get that phone call or that envelope or that email?

What happens to your marriage when death knocks at the door?  What happens to your vows when disaster comes flirting?  What happens to your “richer-poorer-sickness-health” promises when the unthinkable becomes reality?  What happens to your love when fear or sadness grips your soul?

This is why we never take our marriages for granted.  This is why we cultivate and nurture our life partnership.  This is why we invest in communication and forgive constantly and put up protective walls.

And listen carefully to the Author of marriage.

Marriage Tuesday

marriage 2Marriage and theology go together.

What you believe about marriage and what you believe about God and how He operates are intimately connected.  The intersection where they meet is one of the most significant crossroads you will ever find yourself standing.   It is that place where belief and love merge into life.

Your life.

Growing up, I was taught that since God was sovereign and all-powerful and all-knowing and in control of everything, He certainly had a plan laid out for my future marriage.  My era was dominated by a church slogan, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  It sounded so good.  It sounded biblical.  It was never explained.  It was simply accepted.

God had a woman set aside for me.  I just needed to make sure I found her.

And God forbid I was given the gift of celibacy!

I was taught that if God wanted me to be married, he would provide the woman.  He would do it.  It was up to me to sort through all the possibilities and narrow down the field, so I could be certain I was marrying the “right one”.  But it was still up to Him.  And I didn’t want to miss His will for my life.

Soon after I got married, I began abandoning this theology.  And even though the current version of this theology is pretty popular today, I have never looked back.

The idea that God is behind everything, both good and badthat He is orchestrating all the events of life as He sovereignly sees fitis not a theology I subscribe to.   (I suppose it’s time to roll up our sleeves over a taco at Fuzzy’s, Sean.  Hah!)   To think that if something simply happens, it is by God’s omnipotent design, is an affront to my sensibilities and wholly disrespectful to the Holy God I see revealed in Scripture and in my life, as well. 

And marriage has a lot to do with it.

The other night I officiated (I hate that word) a wedding ceremony.  I repeated a version of the words I have repeated in every wedding ceremony I have ever officiated (did I say I hated that word?)   I reminded the couple that the only thing they bring to the moment is their word.  I believe, with my whole heart, that love (and the whole marriage commitment, as well) is a choice.  A decision of the will.

I believe in choice.  I don’t believe in the “fake” choice being tossed around by popular theologians today.  I believe in the real thing.  I believe in the freedom of the will.  I believe that any loveany commitmentany promise… that is not freely given, is not love at all.  And boy have I loved the giving and receiving of love freely in my marriage for the past 38 years!

Marriage is a word of promise that two people make to each other.  No one is holding a gun to their heads.  No one is making the decision for them.  They are completely free to walk away at any point in the process.  Even after the vows are exchanged and the promises are made and the papers are signed and the blessing is given.

Is the dissolving of a marriage God’s will?  Is the end of a marriage dream part of God’s master plan?  Of course not.  But that’s the risk and the potential outcome of the Creator giving the created freedom.

In marriage, as in all of life, choice matters.

Sunday

sunday 2Sunday.

I was told I was around five when my parents decided to go back to church.  I’m guessing it was because they wanted me to get some “God” in my life.   A lot of young parents do that.  I’ve never completely understood their logic, but I suppose it’s better than a kid never getting the church experience at all.

Throughout my childhood and early teenage years, “church” was something I did on Sundays.  It was part of my family routine.  My mom helped in the nursery and joined with other ladies to plan potlucks.  She and my dad both sang in the little church choir.

I attended Sunday school and Vacation Bible school and church camp and youth rallies and Bible studies and church work days and youth group parties at Christmas and Halloween.  But the big day…the church day…was always Sunday.

Sunday as “church day” got assimilated into my life.  There was nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it was a huge part of my spiritual formation.  Although it was often nothing more than the weekly ritual, it was still something important and the practice sunk deep into my psyche.

When I turned 18…in my second year of college…it all changed.  “Attending” church on Sundays took on a whole new meaning.  Wanda and I (now in our third year of dating) began guiding the youth group…teaching Sunday school, leading a Wednesday night Bible study and organizing youth group activities.

Sundays began to be a day that others needed me…instead of being a day I struggled to see value in devoting my time and energy to.  And that serving began to build the structure of my next 40 years.

Through the years, kids in the youth group (and even some of their parents) liked to call me a professional christian.  And on some level, they were right.  For the whole of my adult life, Sundays have always been work days for me.  As kids loved to remind me, “Dude, you’re paid to be here on Sundays!”

There is no doubt my relationship with Sundays is different from most.  A big portion of my work week is spent with Sunday in mind.  It is certainly the day in my week where I have the greatest volume of connection with the greatest number of people.  Of course its important to me!

But here are two truths that help me keep perspective on Sundays:

First, I learned years ago that most people don’t have the same attitude about Sundays that I do.  Because of long work weeks and hectic schedules and the incredible demands of raising children in our culture and the pull of extended family…not to mention the unrelenting grip of home ownership and the weekly management of all the “stuff” we own and how much of our time and money it requires...a weekly commitment to Sunday mornings is a very difficult thing to make.  The benefits of “church” are often completely obscured by the potential benefits of anything and everything else.  And I get it.

Second, and most important, my commitment to Sunday mornings at North Point really has nothing to do with my job and my perceived “requirement” to attend.  I am present on Sundays because I am always better for having been with my church family.  When I miss, it is my loss.

I didn’t preach today.  I sat in the crowd.  I sang songs.  I followed the sermon that Adam preached (very well, mind you).  I hung out.  I talked to people.  I was reminded that, more than anything else, I’m just a part of a really cool church family that meets altogether every Sunday morning.

I wish you felt about your church family the way I do mine.

I pledge allegiance

hand-over-hearti’ve told you before that i generally stay away from making political commentary.

don’t miss the point.  THIS IS NOT POLITICAL COMMENTARY.

this is not new.  it’s gone on for years, but it’s definitely coming through loud and clear these days.  i’ve been reading some pretty scathing commentary by people (mostly people claiming to be good, church-going, american christians), saying:

  • if you don’t abide by our laws…
  • if you don’t learn to speak our language…
  • if you don’t honor our customs and traditions above the ones where you came from…
  • if you don’t uphold the things our forefathers fought and died for…
  • if you don’t pledge your allegiance to our flag and everything our great nation was built on…
  • if you are not fully committed to the ideologies we hold dear…

…then you should lose your half-ass citizenship (which is probably questionable at best), get the hell out of here and go back where you came from.  (their words, not mine.)

here’s the point.

i wonder why christians are not saying the same things about our own…those who claim citizenship in the kingdom of god, but don’t act like it…

  • those who rewrite god’s laws to suit the way they want to live…
  • those whose speech is full of anger, judgment and impatience, rather than the message of the kingdom…
  • those whose lifestyle reflects more of their past than the new life jesus died to give them…
  • those who live a life of compromised dual-citizenship…
  • those who want the benefits of the kingdom without sharing fully in the responsibilities…

i am grateful i don’t live under the oppressive weight of laws and rules and empty traditions.  i am equally grateful that people have never tried to kick me out of the kingdom (or even my church) during those days when my commitment to the kingdom was questionable and my speech and actions were far from the example of jesus.

i understand my behavior constantly gravitates back to my old nature (the place where i used to hold citizenship).  i also know that i have been adopted into a new land…a new family…a new place to call my home that is unnatural and sometimes completely foreign to me.

i am grateful we live under grace and not judgment.

but as american christians, i kinda wish were known more for our kingdom zeal than our passionate nationalism.

Marriage Tuesday…on Friday. Sort of.

waffles38 years ago on this day, june 21, 1975, wanda and i got married.

it was the first day of summer.  the ceremony was at 6:00.  we had a short reception in the church fellowship hall  (cake and church punch to drink), and by about 7:30, we were on our way to the airport to fly from san diego to LA…to spend the night before our flight to hawaii for two weeks.

we had saved our money for the trip, got two round-trip tickets for a couple of hundred dollars each…and bought a book titled, “hawaii on $10 per day”.  game on.

the adventure of our trip to hawaii was simply a trailer for the real adventure our life together has been all these years.

a few years later, i received my professional training to do pre-marriage counseling.  i was told it was my job to help couples make wise choices and prepare for a lifetime of married bliss.  i was convinced my “counsel” was what they needed.  my advice.  my wisdom.  i had read the books.  i had been taught by the experts.  i had five years of marriage experience, for crying out loud.

it took a while for me to learn that i really didn’t have all the answers for your marriage.  early on, my pre-marriage counseling plan shifted from me telling you what you needed to do in your marriage…to me helping you get to know each other and develop a plan for your marriage.  less talking by me.  more talking by you.  it’s a good plan.

what makes my marriage work may not make your marriage work.  we are not the same people.  we have not walked the same path.  i have figured mine out.  you have to figure out yours.   mine has been an awesome journey.  i hope yours can be, also.

i’m sitting here this morning reflecting.  here are some things that  have made our marriage “work” for 38 years:

we let people into our marriage.  we walked close to good people…so close they could see us for who we really were.  we couldn’t hide our shortcomings.  they were there for people to see…and for us to deal with.   i know that most people view their home as their “castle” and their private retreat from the busyness of the lives they lead.  that was never our style.  our front door was an on-ramp to a highway.  it was often chaotic and fast-paced.  our married life was played out in front of watching eyes.  that exposure, for us, became godly motivation.

we read the same books.  we were exposed to the same teaching.  we were mentored by the same people.  we shared the same journey.  we didn’t walk separate paths to spiritual maturity.  we paralleled each other.   we maintained our individuality.  we are really different people.  but we never ran ahead of each other.

we are fortunate.  neither one of us are fighters.  we don’t yell.  we don’t call names.   we just never cracked that door open in our relationship.  that’s simply the kind of people we are.  even with people we have strong disagreements with, there is still respect.  we have always been that way with people…even more with each other.

although our marriage has a traditional look to it…i’m more extroverted and up front and wanda is more behind-the-scenes…we operate as equal partners.  i don’t speak for her.  i am not the ultimate decision-maker and “last word”.  i have never seen or declared myself as the leader in our marriage.  that is reserved for jesus and we both follow him.  decision impasses are dealt with by tabling them for greater insight.  we each lead in our areas of giftedness.  we each follow the other when they know best.  my understanding of male “headship” has already been stated here and here and here and here.

although wanda always wanted to have a little girl, raising two boys was our lot in life.    wanda’s willingness to adapt to boys, understand boys, clean up after boys, live with the smell of sweaty boys, go to untold numbers of practices, ball games and road trips… and countless other “boy” stuff…made our life together easier.   not every mom (wife) becomes an expert at keeping a scorebook… learns the nuances of yelling at umpires…enjoys cooking team meals…doesn’t panic at the signs of concussions or heat stroke or trips to the emergency room…sees the value in working the concession stand…or loves the smell of good athletic competition.  but that’s the woman who married me.   i mean really…i had to ask her to stop yelling so loud at the television during the third quarter of the heat-spurs game last night because i was trying to read!  

we learned the value of talking.  and not just about the boys or church or finances.  we learned the value of talking about the deep things in life.  personal things.  defining things.  difficult things.  faith things.   yeah, we play together and watch tv together and go for walks together, but the thing that deepened our marriage was talking together.

maybe more than anything else, though, has been our shared understanding that marriage has a purpose greater than our personal happiness.  don’t get me wrong…i believe our marriages should be filled with the greatest and most pleasurable experiences that we can have.  but when you collectively agree (which for us was at the very beginning of our relationship) that you want your union to serve a greater good…to be a reflection of god’s existence…to be an expression of his grace extended to the world…then you have a reason to work on your marriage and to protect your marriage and to live with transparency for a greater good.

love is a good thing.  love with a purpose is even greater.

and finally, waffles.  when you can still get up on your 38th anniversary and eat waffles together, you know you have arrived.

Life-changers…#5

number 5(this is a recurring weekly series on the fifty events that shaped the course of my life and the person i’ve become along the way.  welcome to my therapy.)

back in 1985, i was quite the youth minister.  at least in my own eyes.

i was thirty years old…i had been happily married for ten years and was the father of two little socal beach boys.  i already had 12 years of youth ministry experience under my belt…the previous five years at a large church with a large youth group in the heart of downtown surf city, usa (huntington beach).

i had a master’s degree in preaching and was well on my way to a second one in marriage and family counseling.  i had taught youth ministry in our local bible college for eight years.  i taught regularly at youth ministry conferences and camps and training workshops.  i had travelled internationally leading kids on short-term mission trips.

i played the guitar and had a decent jump shot from the baseline.  i even had a pretty sweet mullet before it was cool (and then totally un-cool).  i was livin’ the dream.  at least in my own head.

looking back on it, i don’t think i was full of myself, tho i’m sure others may have thought that about me.  i had good friends who were quick to knock me of my self-made pedestal.  my awareness of the presence of god  in my life and world was real and my commitment to kingdom living was pretty authentic.

but i was far from perfect and even farther from the person god had designed me to be.

in early 1986, everything started to change at the church i served.  in the midst of enormous and almost unheard of financial debt, our beloved senior minister and the great patriarch of our church family (and my boss) died unexpectedly.  we were a church family in turmoil.

and i apparently became very marketable, available, and a hot commodity in the youth ministry world.  go figure.

i started getting regular phone calls from churches who thought i could be the next great thing in youth ministry for their church.  i had never received job offers like this before.  to be honest, it was flattering.  the words of praise the people (usually senior pastors) used filled my head.  and started to puff my ego.  (like i said, i was far from what i needed to be).

a common theme among my new suitors was this:  “you need to expand your influence.  come to our bigger church and you’ll have a bigger budget and more kids and more resources.  you’ll be able to speak on a larger platform to a much larger audience.  you’ll have the time to speak and write.  you’ll be able to multiply your life and ministry and leave a legacy that will never be able to happen if you stay where you are at.”

pretty convincing, huh?  especially to an aspiring young world-changer with a tendency to have visions of grandeur and a regular battle with an over-blown sense of importance.  talk about tempting.

have i ever mentioned that i was married to a young, good-looking version of mother teresa?

after one particularly gratifying and ego-boosting phone interview, wanda and i began to talk.  she listened to me embellish the opportunities and possibilities associated with this new potential to move up the ministry corporate ladder.  and then she spoke some simple words that have never left me and shaped our whole approach to life and ministry to this day:

“why do you feel a need to expand your influence?  why don’t we just stay here and be faithful to what god led us to do?  why don’t we just keep doing what we’re doing and leave the expanding and multiplying and influencing to god?”

*silence*

after that moment, saying “no” was easy.  the appeal for big and influential no longer held any interest to me.   even though we ultimately left that church after five more years, it was not because we were drawn to something with eye or ego appeal.  we had simply come to the end of our usefulness.

and it was ok.

man…am i grateful for my wife.