Finding a rhythm

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Last week I got to spend Thursday at The Gathering in Costa Mesa. As always, it was great, and a highlight for me was getting to go to a breakout led by Craig Jutila. One of Craig’s themes was living a balanced life in ministry, and for me it was both inspiring and convicting. It was convicting because I was reminded how intentional I need to be as a parent to create healthy boundaries and create good faith practices in my home.

One of the things I’ve been doing since Titus was born is praying with him in the morning after Dana goes to work. However, I realized that I don’t do a good enough job of modeling the importance of spending time in scripture for him. In all honesty, that’s always been the spiritual discipline I’ve struggle with most, and it’s something I want to improve in so that I can actually show my son that God’s word changes us.

For us, creating a rhythm of prayer and scripture means pausing to read a chapter and pray as soon as Dana leaves for work. It also means putting off breakfast, shower, news, etc. until prayer and scripture has happened. As Michael Hyatt observed, it often takes at least 21 days to build a habit. In order to create a valuable rhythm, we need to simply push away the distractions until it becomes the norm.

Godly rhythms are vital for every follower of Jesus, but they have a unique importance for those of us who work in the church. Without them, we run the risk of seeing our ministry progress thwarted by a weakened faith and unhealthy family. We should be ministering out what God is actually doing in our homes, and the only way to make that a reality is to build the routines that lead to a healthy, balanced and authentic life. This is how I’m working on it, and I’d love your thoughts on creating healthy rhythms at home and in ministry. Please pass them on!

Also, here’s a link to Craig Jutila’s notes from his breakout group. Some good stuff here!

A powerful story

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“One person’s story has the power to affect a million others” (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years)

We evangelicals are crazy about the power of stories these days. Actually, this has been a good shift, because it has enabled us to look beyond the set formulas of our doctrines to see the long view of God’s redemptive action.

Nonetheless, I sometimes suffer from “story-fatigue”. Instead of looking at the long history of something, I prefer the bullet points. Last week, however, I was reminded of how a well-lived story is powerful in ways that are impossible to replicate.

It hit home with me when I held the body of a little girl who had died in the womb due to Edwards Syndrome. Her parents had known that this was the likely outcome of her brief life. In fact, at first they were told that it would be wise to end their pregnancy as soon as the diagnosis was confirmed. However, powerfully, they chose to see their daughter as a gift – for however long she lived. They chose to see themselves as parents, called to love their child, no matter what, even if they never got to hold her alive in their arms. They chose this not because it made things easy or because they thought they would get any answers from it. They chose it because they saw it as a part of God’s story for them, no matter how painful.

They chose to share this with our congregation, and in response they’ve been showered with love, prayers and support. They’ve been an inspiration to us, an example of what it means to believe that God really walks with us “through the valley of the shadow of death”.

Nonetheless. this is a painful journey. This stage of it culminated when the doctor’s realized that baby Mila had passed last Wednesday and induced labor. She was born at 5:00 AM on Friday morning, and my senior pastor and I were able to be present with them all soon after.

It was a surreal experience. More than anything, there was exhaustion, both physical and emotional. There was plenty of pain and tears in the room. In a small sense, there was also triumph. We were reminded that they had walked the difficult road faithfully, and that Christ had triumphed over our mortality and brokenness. In that room, the story didn’t provide conclusive answers, or respite from turmoil. It did give some peace, however. Peace because there wasn’t regret, and because love was there.

I could talk about love. I could explain how God gives it, how we receive it, how we share it with others. I could never explain it, however, in a way that scratched the surface of what was seen and felt in the hospital room. This story is the power of love in context – beautiful, terrifying, sacrificial context. It was love at it’s most real.

That’s why stories are so powerful. They are the context needed for our deepest expressions. Whether it’s faith, fear, anger, joy, trust, hope, doubt or love, they’ll never find their true depth until they stand in the middle of life actually lived. When I saw Mila, held her, and prayed with her family, I understood walking by faith in a deeper way than ever before.

Living a brave story didn’t answer all of their questions, it didn’t make the path easy, and it didn’t alleviate the pain. It did, however, remind Mila’s family that they were choosing to trust the God who writes a greater story. It brought out triumph in what felt like defeat, and it proclaimed the love, power, and presence of God in the midst of the darkness.

God interacts with us. Not in bullet-point bursts. Not in neatly, theologically constructed patterns. Instead he walks through the twists and turns and complexities of our daily lives. So often, the magnitude of his work can only be grasped with the perspective of months or even years.

I’m thankful for the power of stories. I’m thankful that they show the awesome scale of God’s interaction with us, and I’m thankful that God’s still writing them.

You are known

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You have kids from every conceivable background in your ministry, as do I. They come from all types of home-environments, faith backgrounds, and family dynamics. Likewise, they have a wide variety things they need from church. They all need to hear about Jesus’ love, the authority of scripture, the path of spiritual maturity, but outside of these cornerstone needs, your students may need wildly different things from their church home.

For all of your kids, however, there is a great need to simply be known. Church is an opportunity to reinforce their intrinsic value, to be taught how significant they are to God, and to identify and celebrate their gifts. Being known is powerful to children, and it’s simple to pull off. Here are some ways that you can remind your kids that their unique personalities and gifts are known and celebrated.

Remember their names. So simple, but it goes so far. I actually heard from a parents a few weeks back they when they visited our church for the second time, all four of their kids had their names remembered, and that stood out to them big time. Make this a priority, especially among small-group leaders. If kids have someone who can walk up and say “hi ______! How was your week?”, it communicates that they are in a place where they are safe and significant.

Celebrate their talents. If you have the opportunity to let kids worship with you, do it. At the same time, celebrate kids who memorize verses well, do well in sports, or achieve their goals in school. Anytime you notice and celebrate with a child, you communicate that their unique gifts matter, and also that God made them unique and is proud of His creation.

Acknowledge their struggles. As a minister you’ll hear about more than your share of struggles and pain. Go out of your way to remember them, so that you can follow up later. This takes extra work and intentionality, but the impact is huge. When someone shares their difficulty with you, and you follow up in a timely manner without being prompted, it communicates that they are loved and supported. Even more important, it’s a moment that shows people that the body of Christ really does offer love and support when it’s needed.

As Christians, we have the indescribable privilege of being known and loved by the all-powerful God. We also get the change to mirror that to our students. Do whatever you can to remind them that they are known by you, because it opens the door to reminding them that they are known and loved even more by their Creator!

The Limits of Theodicy

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Theodicy: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil

My church is located right next to the main cemetery in town. It’s not uncommon to hear gunshots at random parts of the day at military funerals, and recently I heard a mariachi band playing for at least 20 minutes. In many ways, our location is fitting, because one of the chief roles of the church is to walk alongside people who are in the midst of pain and grief.

This leads me to the issue of theodicy – trying to figure out how evil and pain can co-exist with a perfectly good God. This question lies near the heart of most theologies. Open and Relational theism (which I encountered heavily in college) posits that God is not responsible for evil because He has set aside his ability to know everything for the sake of maintaining our freedom. Christians whose theology leans more toward the reformed camp place their focus on the knowledge of God, trusting in God’s incredible knowledge and plan. No matter what your theology is, holding the the goodness of God in contrast to the evil present on earth is a challenge. It’s a question every person of faith wrestles with. Every pastor has heard questions like, “why did God let this happen?”, and has earnestly hoped for an answer.

I used to want to find an answer for that question. I still find myself looking for a justification when someone comes to me reeling. However, I’ve stopped believing I can articulate an answer for the pain. I haven’t stop believing there is one, but I doubt I can find it, and I doubt even more that I could articulate it to somebody who is grieving.

I’ve become skeptical for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that, for all the philosophical and Biblical arguments about an all-encompassing theodicy, I can’t say I’ve encountered one in scripture. In fact, I believe much of the debate stems from the fact that all we see in scripture are hints of God’s reasoning behind narrow events. We can learn much from Job, but it’s a stretch to call it a complete theodicy that applies to all. Neither can the travails and triumphs of Paul, David or any number of Biblical figures be construed as a rationalization for God’s goodness in the midst of all the earth’s injustice. Simply put, Scripture seems to give more glimpses of God’s thinking than an actual theology of suffering.

In addition to what I’ve seen scripturally, there’s another reason I lean toward a very humble theodicy. The truth is, when people are hurting, they often ask for a sense of balanced outcomes. They are hunting for something that tells them “the x amount of pain you feel is balanced by y amount of beneficial consequences“. The truth is that most of the time such equations are not visible to us. The fact is, it’s exceedingly rare to see so much good come out tragedy that the person afflicted comes to believe it was all worthwhile. Even when good comes from our pain, we find ourselves asking if there could have been a better, less painful way to see the good results.

And this leads to the third reason I’m skeptical of theodicy. It’s seeking a rational answer to a deeply human question. When we suffer, we ask for a rational reason, but what we’re truly seeking is emotional healing. It’s natural to think that if we could grasp the “deeper reason” behind our pain then we would find emotional restoration. It’s natural to think, but it’s not true. Pain defies our rationality, reasons and expectations, it is not explained, it is endured.

Here’s the only answer I can find to grief. We don’t get the answers we want 99% of the time from God, but we do get his presence. God doesn’t tend to answer us when we yell at Him to justify Himself, but the Holy Spirit remains. This is crucial for us as ministers, because it’s a reminder to remain humble. It’s a reminder that our efforts to talk our congregants through the pain they feel will likely fall short, but it’s also a reminder that God’s presence, and the presence of the church is usually God’s bandage for our wounds. That’s all we really have to offer – presence, love, and grace.

In the face of tragedy, our attempts at theodicy will always fall short. God’s presence, and ours alongside, is what can actually bring peace and strength. I’ve come to believe that in this life, that must be enough.

AHA Review

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A few weeks back I was given a free copy of AHA by Kyle Idleman to review. Here goes!

Of all the parables in scripture, I don’t think any resonate as universally as the parable of the prodigal son. Simply put, this parable is the Gospel, and everyone can relate to both the both the younger and older son. The universal beauty of this parable has led to it being explored by some great Christian thinkers (This is a personal favorite, so is this). Into the genre of books inspired by this parable comes the book AHA by Kyle Idleman. Idleman is a teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, and he looks at the parable and asks what creates “aha” moments of life change. To simplify, he breaks it down into three necessary components; awakening to our true state, honesty about where we are and what we need to do, and action.

From the outset, AHA is incredibly readable. I think one of it’s strengths is that it is written by a teaching pastor, and in many ways each chapter reads like a sermon. Thankfully, they’re enjoyable, engaging sermons. Idleman definitely has a gift for telling compelling stories, and even on the page he does a great job reeling you in and keeping you engaged.

To me, Idleman’s breezy, accessible style is the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. While AHA is easy to dive into, it lacks some of the emotive punch that you’ll find from Keller or Nouwen. I found it to be inspiring and encouraging, but when I put it down it didn’t ring in my ears or my heart as much as some other books on the prodigal son.

Nonetheless, I definitely think AHA is worth reading, especially if you may find yourself teaching on the parable of the prodigal son. Idleman does a great job communicating what a life-changing moment looks like, and his perspective and insights are well worth the price of admission. You’ll come away with a fresh insight on how God changes lives, and some inspiring ideas to draw from when you teach on this parable. Check it out, and share your thoughts below!

What kids need to know about the Bible

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The overarching goal of children’s ministry is to provide kids with the encounters, relationships and knowledge that lead to a lifelong faith. Obviously, there are more aspects of robust faith than can ever be enumerated. However, starting today I thought I’d go over some of the basic knowledge I’m hoping our kids leave our ministry with, starting with the Bible.

After 12 years of church/Sunday School, the odds are that many of your kids will have attained a great deal of knowledge about the Bible. Even if they weren’t trying, if they spend enough time in church they’ll probably leave with a fair amount of Bible know-how. And that’s great, but random bits of Biblical knowledge are typically less than effective unless they’re tethered to some basic foundational knowledge.

With that in mind, here are some key truths our students need to understand if they’re going to be able to apply the Bible wisely across the span of their entire lives.

It’s infallible – because it reflects the nature of God

When it comes to the the doctrine of infallibility, it’s easy to get caught up in questions about specific words, meanings and translations. However, this tendency bypasses what actually makes scripture trustworthy – the instigator. We can trust scripture because (a) it is inspired by a perfect and infallible God (Exodus 15:11) and (b) God promises that it will always accomplish what he intends it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). When it comes to trusting in the efficacy and reliability of Scripture, we can trust that it is a reflection of God Himself. If we believe that God is holy, unchanging and infallible, then it makes sense to believe the same thing about the scriptures that our faith is built upon.

It tells a big story

I love that there are so many children’s ministry curriculum options that walk through the entire range of Scripture. This is vital because it’s so easy to view the Bible as a collection of largely disconnected stories and moral lessons. It’s so easy to get familiar with the specific trees and have no idea that they are a part of a larger forest. As we introduce our kids to God’s Word, it’s important to give them an idea of how the stories they are learning are part of God’s overall plan of redemption and restoration. Remind your students that, no matter where you are studying, you can see the continual unfolding of God’s redemptive plan!

It’s a living book

There are a lot of powerful books in the world, books that have the power to change lives. However, the Bible stands apart from all of them, because it’s not a book that has power in isolation. What makes Scripture powerful is the fact that God’s Spirit actively illuminates it to us. God uses his word and His Spirit to speak to us exactly where we’re at (Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13). This is vital for kids to grasp because our goal should be to see them not only know Scripture, but to be practiced in hearing the Spirit speak through it. God’s active Spirit is what makes the Bible truly alive.

To finish it off, we all want our kids to leave our programs with a love for the Bible. The best thing we can do as children’s ministers is make sure we provide a solid foundation for understanding what Scripture is, and what makes is unique. That way the knowledge that our kids acquire in children’s ministry and beyond has a healthy foundation to be built upon.

What about you? What do you think kids need to know about the Bible? How can we best share it with them?

Find your hardest-working leaders. Then ask them to do more

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Yesterday was a crazy kind of day. I had a couple of unplanned meetings, a trip to visit a kid in the hospital (he’s doing better!), and then Awana. It was the kind of day that could have gone really haywire were it not for some very competent leaders.

When it comes to leading others, especially volunteers, we sometimes have a desire to spread the work out as evenly as possible, so we avoid burning our leaders out. It makes sense, but I’d suggest the opposite. The key to getting the most out of your leaders is to identify the ones who are the most dedicated, and ask them to do more. Why?

  • Odds are they will be excited to take on a bigger responsibility, because they’re passionate about your ministry. If they’re already going above and beyond, they’ve bought into your vision, and they’ll be excited about taking it further.
  • You’ll actually build more loyalty, not less. This is because they’ll have a larger part to play, and more opportunities to see how much their time makes an impact.
  • It gives you more face time with them, which gives you the chance to pour more into your highest performing leaders. It also allows you to better support them if they are struggling at home or at church.
  • Finally, the risk of burning them out is actually quite small, so long as you keep your lines of communication open. If you are supportive and communicative with your key leaders, they’re more likely to come to you if they’re feeling over-committed. This gives you the chance to dial back their commitment without losing them entirely, plus it gives them the chance to know that they are valued and supported.

It’s always great to find new leaders to fill your empty roles. However, the leaders you’re looking for may already be in your ministry, killing it in a smaller role. Look around at your leader pool, and see if you’ve got some great leaders ready for a bigger job!