Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Place Apart

Twenty-six years ago Paul and Dorothy Grout and three other couples moved to Putney, VT, to plant a Church of the Brethren congregation where there were no Brethren and where Christianity was rather weak. They had a five year commitment to each other to sort of live in a quasi-community setting and work together to raise up a worshipping community. Things went well and a church grew up in the village of Putney.

After the initial five year commitment, one of the couples left to pastor elsewhere and the couple had some struggles of a personal nature, leaving the work rather much in the hands of the Grouts. As the nineties unfolded, and it became increasingly apparent that sweeping, deep-seated changes were spreading though our culture and, consequently the church, Paul stepped back from his role as pastor and began to pursue answers to the pervasive loneliness, emptiness and brokenness of our world today.

This led Paul and Dorothy to form A Place Apart. A Place Apart is partly a place, but it embodies much more. A Place Apart is a movement that calls people who are longing for genuine spiritual transformation to gather around some mutual hopes and dreams and to purse holistic spirituality. You can go, as I did, to the "place" and spend time with Paul and Dorothy in spiritual conversation. In this sense APA is sort of a brethren L'Abri (Google it if you do not know). But you can also connect with APA by resonating with their deep desire to seek God in his fullness, and tapping into the resources they offer.

I spent a few days with Paul and Dorothy this past week. It was refreshing. Unbeknownst to me, Paul and his team have been asking very similar questions as have plagued my heart in recent years. What is genuine Christianity and what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What does Jesus really want for us, from us? Where has the church been strong and where has it been weak? Why are so many backing away from the church today, and from the Christian faith? (You may have read in the news this past year that the New England region is now the most secular area of our nation, beating out the Northwest which held this honor in previous years.) What has the rapid pace of our life, the dominance of greed and entertainment, the pursuit of wealth, and the extreme secularism of our world, done to our souls? How do we repair this damage? How do we live in such a way that Jesus is represented well to our neighbors, so that they might see God and the love that he has for them?

These are extremely difficult questions that many of us are asking these days. Paul quickly confesses that he has no definitive answers and there is no quick fix. We do know that there will be no program coming down form our denomination that will fix this. Institutional structures show increasing signs of deterioration and will likely completely fail in the years ahead. But there is hope and there are clues as to what God is calling us to. However, we are rather much on our own for find like-minded people and build relationships and networks together so that we might seek God together and build on one another's insights.

At the heart of APA lies the cry for spiritual wholeness and healing. Paul and his team have developed a way of looking at holistic spiritual formation around three motifs. (I was surprised at how closely these three concepts align with the three R's of discipleship that I have been writing and preaching about, but more on that at some other time. This similarity is no accident or coincidence but rather evidence of what God is raising up in many hearts and many places.)

I want to very briefly define the three motifs around which APA works at spiritual formation, but I do so with some trepidation. These concepts can be easily misunderstood, if one is not able to lay aside pre-conceived ideas around what these words mean. So I caution you to understand that what I offer here records my understanding from a short time at APA, and comes only in brief summary form. But here goes.

Holistic Spirituality means that we develop the Warrior, Mystic and Monk aspects of our souls. The Warrior relates to being spiritually and physically prepared for spiritual battle with the forces of evil present in our world, and in our own souls. The Mystic connects us with the spiritual world, and the movement of God, deepening our ability to know God and to recognize his ways. And the Monk part of us calls us to live in community with others and to order the pace and focus of our lives around the things that bring healing and wholeness to life. (Again, this is a very brief and simplistic explanation.) Paul and APA developed practical spiritual practices in each of these areas which seek to help us develop these aspect of our being with the goal of setting us free to be truly alive. I found it very helpful and refreshing, and it served to stretch my own thinking and to inform my understanding of the kind of spiritual vitality God is seeking to form in us. (Those of you reading this who are familiar with my Three R's of Discipleship can think about how they relate to the Warrior, Mystic, Monk motifs. I find the parallels amazing.)

I need to end this post for now. Let me conclude by saying that Doris felt my trip to visit with Paul would be very significant in regard to what I have been seeking during this Sabbatical. I think she was right, as usual.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God's Call

My coach asked me recently why I felt it necessary to spend part of this sabbatical by journeying back to some of my early experience with God. It was a good question which I have contemplated for a bit now. It has to do with stepping deeper into my life story, or what you might say is God's call on my life.

Understanding this call has been a process in its own right.

My initial call to the ministry was a very personal thing. I knew from very early on in my Christian life that God had some kind of a call on my life. Of course, I had no idea of what to do with that. My home church at the time had what is often called the "Free Ministry" meaning that the church was served by a plurality of pastors, all of which earned their living by working in the community as they shared the responsibilities of church leadership. Usually these were persons called from within the ranks of the congregation and chosen for their leadership ability, or potential ability. About a year after my life-changing encounter with God, my local church entered the process whereby they would call a minister to assist in the leadership of the church. To make a long story short, that call fell on me.

I was nineteen and only a year old in the faith. I was overwhelmed. The late Carl W. Ziegler, one of the great churchmen in our circle, oversaw the call process that evening and immediately asked me, "Did you also feel a personal call from the Lord, before the church selected you." My answer was a definite, "Yes," but that did not mean I had any idea what I was doing, or what was called to do.

I immediately entered the process whereby our district church leadership reviewed who I was and approved my being credentialed by the denomination. I entered a locally-based, district-led training program for people entering the ministry without a college background. After completing the course three years later, I was ordained. However, this small taste of academics wetted my appetite and I knew I needed more. Over the next bunch of years I completed my college degree and master's degree. During these years I worked either full or part-time, served the church in a volunteer capacity then later took a full-time pastorate, and tried to be a responsible husband and father.

Reflecting back on the experience I remember a conversation I had after having just been called to the ministry. A friend who had went off to Bible College after high school asked me what the focus of my ministry would be. I did not know what he meant. He said something like, "You know, will you focus on counseling, caregiving, preaching? What is your specific call?" I had no clue; I assumed I would just fit in with the pastoral team at my church. Which I tried to do.

This lack of clarity around what I was called to be persisted for some time. I tried really hard to be a pastor like respected pastors round me, at least as I perceived them. I felt that meeting the expectations of people would shape me into a good pastor. I saw pastoral leadership as largely preaching and taking care of people. As I served in a few churches, I began to sense a really high level of frustration, which often took me near to the brink of emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Sometimes that frustration showed up in my relationship with my family. Those memories make me sad. Fortunately, God's grace runs deep, and as Robin Mark sings, I often dipped my fingers in it. God covered my inadequacies with him mercy and grace.

Anyway, my frustration with ministry led me, in the summer of '88, to decide that the following summer I would resign my pastoral position and head off to school to do a doctorate in some kind of biblical studies with a view toward teaching. Several college and seminary professors encouraged me in this direction. However, in the fall of '89 the call came from the church to consider a term as missionaries in Nigeria, where Doris and I would work at a Bible College training leaders for the Church of the Brethren. After significant prayer and counsel, we accepted the call and left for Nigeria in July of '89.

I fully expected never to return to pastor a church. But God had other ideas, and one day while at my desk in the bedroom of our cement block house on the compound of Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi Nigeria, God clarified the call he had on my life. I was praying and meditating, and God took me to the first chapter of Jeremiah, and using Jeremiah's call, he made very clear what his call was for me. As I came to terms with that call, I began to understand why I lived with the frustration that I did during former pastorates. I was trying to be someone other than who God called me to be. I still struggle with some of that tension today--the tension to be what other people think I should be and being true to myself and God's call on my life. But Nigeria was a defining moment. God's call on my life is not unrelated to the circumstances around my conversion and the years of ministry which led me to Nigeria. It was important for me to revisit some of these places and events during this time apart.

I came back from Nigeria a changed person with a deeper understanding of my call and the role I was to play in the church. However, I had no idea as to how to do this. To make this worse, when we returned it was quickly evident to me that something had changed in American culture while I was away, and that served to reinforce my quest for new ways to lead the church. Fortunately God led me to some mentors, and He was faithful in continuing to guide me as I seek to do his will.

I mentioned at the outset of this post, that my call to ministry is a very personal thing. The re-call I experienced in Nigeria was equally personal and emotional. I still get teary-eyed when I think about it. I would like to share some of this call with you all in a future post, but I want to be careful that I convey things clearly. The more personal the experience, the greater the possibility that it might be misunderstood, by oneself as well as by others. That for another time.

Another Update

It's been too long since I have posted for you all to stay connected. I apologize. This is another update, for your benefit and for mine, as I keep a record of my sabbatical.

My last update mentioned that Doris and I were traveling with some friends and that I was planning to spend a few days with Paul Grout in Vermont. I am writing this as the train is leaving Phila for Vermont, with me on it of course. I likely will not be able to post this until I get to Paul's place tonight or tomorrow morning.

Let me share a few things. Before we left for our travels with our friends the Bollingers, Doris and I had the privilege of meeting with the pastors of Ephrata Community Church, where we have been worshipping while I am off. We met the pastors and two other lay leaders for a season of what they call "prophetic ministry." Basically what happens in a meeting like this is people with prophetic gifting (remember our study of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit where in we learned that some of us have prophet giftings) and meet with us for a season of prayer and spiritual discernment. While praying we all listen for God to speak into our hearts with any images, words or promptings that might relate to my life and ministry. We entered this time with anticipation of what God might say, and were not disappointed. While I have been in other settings like this, it was a first for Doris. It proved to be very encouraging. I need to digest some of this and might blog about it later.

On our trip with the Bollingers, we went to church where Phil and Sarah are worshipping while the work towards their doctorates. I think it was called the University Christian Fellowship, and was basically filled with 20 somethings from the various universities situated in that part of Cincinnati. The speaker that morning was a young man from Philadelphia who was in town for a convention related to the ministry of transforming our cities and culture for Jesus. I do not remember the name of the organization, but know that it is related to the work of Tony Campola and his Phila based ministry. The speaker was particularly interesting. Doris spied him in the café before the service, not knowing he would be preaching--long hair, handing in brads to his waist, a bandana on his head, sort of grubby clothes. She was a bit taken back when he came up to preach, but boy what passion for Jesus and what courage to take on the decaying neighborhoods of Phila, in Jesus' name. I left feeling very much that if he represents what is often called the "emerging church" I am confident that the church is in good hands. Oh how little my generation has done.

After we got back from our days with the Bollingers--which were great times of hanging out with a couple that has been a part of our lives for over 35 years--my friend, Jim Chronister, came to spend a few days with us. I met Jim and his wife Karen back n '79 when he still lived in York. We have been long time friends, and our families sort of grew up together. Jim preformed the wedding ceremonies for all three of our children, and I did for one of his two kids. Jim now pastors in the Church of the Brethren in Western Ohio. For a year or so, Jim has been talking to me about helping him put a clutch in his old pickup truck, which his dad bought new back in '87. I agreed to do it during my time off, mainly, as I told Jim, just to have a few days with him. He arrived at our house on Sunday (Nov. 1) and we jumped into the clutch job on Monday morning. To make a long story short, a job I thought we could do in a day took two and a half days, and we finished up around one pm on Wednesday.

The time with Jim was good for me. I felt a bit sad after he left on Wednesday evening as I relived our days together, realizing that it might be a long time until we would have another chunk of time together. The clutch job really took its toll on me--at 56 I'm a bit old to be crawling around under a rusty and grimy old pickup for three days. (I've been wearing a knee brace for the last few days, letting my left knee recuperate from too much bending and crawling.) As we finished up the job I realized a spiritual principle was at work. I mentioned to Jim that the degree of suffering one will endure for another is directly related to the depth of one's friendship. I was thinking of Jesus, who was willing to die for his friends (John 15:13).

In between these endeavors, I have been doing some work on our house and helping my one son-in-law with some home projects as well. And, of course, there has been plenty of time with the grand kids. We have taken the older 6 grandkids over night, two at a time, and this past Friday had our two four year olds. What a blast.

Watch for more posts this week--there are a few percolating.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Just a quick update to all you following my blog. One of our sabbatical goals has been to spend some time with old friends with whom the vigors of normal life sort of get in the way.

I am writing this from a resort in Tennessee. We traveled here with our friends, Tom and Sue Bollinger, for a few days with them. We left home on Saturday (Oct. 24) and headed for Cincinnati, where their son, Philip and wife Sarah, are both working on Doctorates in Biblical Studies. (If you have been around ECOB for a few years you may remember that Philip spent a month or so with us while he was in college.) From Cincinnati we headed south to Fairfield Glade Resort in central Tennessee. We plan to arrive home on Thursday evening.

Back to blogging after that.

Also newly developed are plans for me to travel to Putney, VT, during the second week of November for a few days with Paul Grout. Paul is a key leader in the Church of the Brethren, a prophetic voice within the church, a bit out there sometimes, but via a brief conversation on the phone and email, I believe I need to spend some time with him during this Sabbatical.

I'll share more about this later.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Half Way

Today I begin the second half of this sabbatical. Surprisingly, I am only now really beginning to feel relaxed and released, for lack of better words. I sensed this yesterday in worship. Let me share a bit about it.

As I wrote earlier, Doris and I have been trying to worship consistently at Ephrata Community Church. In reality, we have been getting there every other week, and attending worship with our kids on the other Sundays. Anyway, this past week was a really moving time for me in worship. The ECC band did their rendition of "Taste and See" (Hillsong). Every church has songs that seem to hold special meaning for them and I sense "Taste and See" is such a song for ECC. Anyway, the congregation really cut loose and the worship flowed freely. I love seeing people worship with abandon and seeing a church really open up in worship. And since I had no worries about what is coming next, I too could just let my heart go. From this song the band went into "Holy" by Brenton Brown. Part of the lyrics for "Holy" go like this:

"Holy is your name in all the earth.
Righteous are your ways, so merciful.
Everything you've done is just and true.
Holy, holy, God are you."

As we sang these words, I wept. They were tears of joy and praise and thanksgiving for the righteous, just and true ways God has moved in my life over the years. They were tears of joy and praise and thanksgiving for the love God has for me, as unworthy as I am, and how gracious and kind and amazing God has been. It has been a long time since I was able to let go like this in worship, and it was so very good.

Why this moving experience now? Not sure, but it had something to do with what I have been working on the last few weeks. I have been reading, studying and praying. There remains in my soul a great quest for increased intimacy with God and I have been asking him for this, wondering if I am being selfish. But God heard my prayer and on Sunday gave me another glimpse of his glory and grace.

Also, I have been spending some time reviewing my spiritual journey over the years, as you know from previous posts. And I had just spent some time with two close friends of mine--two guys I went to high school with whom God grabbed and and set on a path of following him during the same eventful year that I blogged about. As I was hanging out with these two guys and their wives, including attending a wedding reception for one of their children, I again saw how gracious God has been in our lives. We three couples have ten children, and now a host of grandchildren. The ten children we raised are all believers who are actively following Jesus and are plugged into the church. Those who are married (all but one) chose well and have spouses who are also Christ-followers. Some of our kids are on staff at their churches, some serving abroad in missions, some pursing advanced degrees in biblical studies and psychology, some following the call to ministry and some providing important services in their communities. And emerging now is the next generation--little people to invest our lives into. God has been so merciful and gracious, and unbelievably kind.

As I reflect on this, it comes with great humility. I speak for myself and Doris, but we were not perfect parents. We made our share of parenting mistakes. There were times when we wondered if our inadequacies and blunders would leave scars on our children that would turn them away from God. But righteous are his ways, so merciful; and everything he does is true and just. We give God all the glory. I know there are many families where the parents were just as sincere in their faith as we and their family stories are very different. I do not know why. Many factors come to bear on the lives of our kids, some far beyond our control. But God is sovereign and his ways righteous and merciful, and so I trust in him and thank and praise him for his mercy.

So as I worshipped on Sunday, the goodness of God flooded my soul. My heart filled with joy and gladness as God blanketed my soul with is mercy and love. I cried tears of joy (and clouded up my contact lenses for the rest of the day!). It was sweet and refreshing. Tears have a way of cleansing more than just your tear ducts. Doris and I worshipped side by side, arm in arm, as we basked in the glory of the Lord. It doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday was a great half-way point for this sabbatical.

Here are some YouTube renditions of the songs I mention in this post. The videos are, naturally, from other places and by other bands, but you get the gist of the songs. (Reminder: some of you who receive this by email will not be able to see these links and will need to log on to this blog directly to see the videos. I do not know why this is. Sorry.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Last week--I think it was Wednesday, not that it matters--I spent some time at the Lititz Springs Park, Bible in hand and journal open, as I relived the early months of my Christian life. In the summer of 1973 I attended (at Scott's invitation) Thursday evening Christian gatherings in the park, which were led by some youth leaders in the area. These were, as far as I know, non-denominational gatherings that drew kids like me and Scott. We gathered, studied the Bible, prayed together and worshipped. On occasion, we would plan times where we went out into town to share our faith on the street.

I came to these meetings hungry to know God. Here, I learned the basics of the Christian faith and God laid down some important foundations in my life. I learned to pray by first listening to others pray. I learned the basics of Bible study as I listened to people share what God was teaching them and as I stumbled around in my paperback Good News for Modern Man version of the Bible. I grew into a personal relationship with Jesus that summer that did not include any of the trappings of traditional religion--only the bare essentials of a love relationship with my Lord. As I did so, my life changed in dramatic and not-so-dramatic ways. It shaped who I became and who I am to this day.

I do not remember a lot of the detail from that summer. But I have vivid memories of one event. We met in the open pavilion near the concession stand. I remember exactly where I was sitting when this experience occurred and I went there this week and sat at the exact spot. One evening when we were worshipping together, one of our leaders shared that as he was praying and reading scripture, the Lord gave him a song. It was based on these words from Psalm 20:7.
Some men trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will remember the Lord our God.
As he sang this verse to a tune that he received from the Lord, I felt a significant spiritual movement in my life. This was the first time I experienced anything this "personal" with God and the first time I remember witnessing this kind of movement of the Spirit. I have remembered this verse all these years and can still sing the tune. Amazing. (Really amazing if you know anything about my significant lack of music ability.)

What significance does this have? Why did this event, out of many others that I had that summer, impact me and stay with me for over three decades of life--decades packed full of events, change, adventure and experiences with God? What does this verse mean for me? Though the verse and tune were given to the leader that evening, I have often felt it was also for me in some significant way, I feel even more so now. I have been asking myself this, and prayerfully discerning how this verse and this experience relates to my life message, the call of God on my life. Whatever it means, the concept of this verse forms part of the foundation of faith that has guided me all these years. Some people--some pastors even--trust in their own abilities, cunning, intellect, personality, human gifts, strength and the like--but we--no, I--will trust in the name--the nature and character and power--of the Lord, my God. Foundational, bedrock.

There remain many other foundational things I learned that summer, but the gift of this verse and its accompanying Spirit tune, set in motion in my life a journey of mystical and sometimes, mysterious, experiences with God. The magic of those fresh experiences that summer cannot be recaptured. I know that. My life now comprises layer upon layer of feelings and memories and encounters and experiences accumulated over the years which shape me and my walk with God. But the relationship remains. There is no sweeter voice than the voice of God spoken sweetly into the soul of one he loves.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Divine Appointment

There is an old Southern Gospel Song that goes something like this: "Roll back the curtains of memory now and then, show me where you brought me from, and what I could have been. Remember, I'm human and humans forget, so remind me, remind, Dear Lord." Wise words. Though the scriptures encourage us to forget what lies behind (Philippians 3:13) they also encourage us to remember (Ephesians 2:11-12). Sounds like a contradiction. Not at all. We all have things we should forget and things we should remember. We need wisdom to know which is which!

Anyway, while on Sabbatical I wanted to revisit some places that contributed significantly to my spiritual journey. Last week I went by one of those places. At eighteen I had a life-changing encounter with God. Prior to that I was aimless and self-focused. In a word, lost. I had graduated from High School in the middle of my class, having never taken a book home (other than library books) in the entire course of my High School years. (If I couldn't get it done during school time, it was not worth taking home and interfering with the things I wanted to do.) I spent my energies on hot cars and fast girls (or was it hot girls and fast cars?). During my last year or so of High School, I worked at Bob Lutz Tire on Fulton Street, but had left there in late summer for a job in the big city--a Philly-based tire firm in Lancaster. However, I had quit there just in early December, for justice reasons (which is another story), and was unemployed for a month or so while I lounged around home (to my parents dismay) and rebuilt the engine in a 60-something Ford (it blew a piston one day coming home from Lancaster on 222) which I used as my run-around car so that I could keep my tweaked-out 69' Trans Am out of the rain.

So sometime early in 1972 I was looking for a job. I had checked out a few places to no avail. In hindsight I clearly see that God had a divine appointment for me. Someone told me that Kinder Manufacturing in Denver was hiring. I remember driving up the entrance to the office parking lot twice, and then turning around and leaving. "I did not want to work in a factory." Kinder manufactured furniture for the mobile home industry. Finally, on the third approach, I went in and was hired.

Factory work there resembled factory work everywhere, I suppose. People were nice, but rather crude (the women on the upholstery line had the foulest mouths I had ever heard, and remember I hung out with car guys). The work was routine and mundane. Though I was soon offered a management position, I could not see myself there long term. But in the midst of all the, shall I say, darkness, one person stood out. Scott oversaw one of the lines (at least I think that is what he did) and was clearly different from the rest of us. He came out of the hippy drug culture of the 60's. Long straggly hair, unkempt beard, tattered jeans, a bit of a glazed look in his eye (no doubt from too much LSD), but unashamedly in love with Jesus. Scott talked about Jesus all the time. Boy did it blow my mind (to use a good 60's term).

Scott could tell, I think, that I was searching and my questions paved the way for his interest in me. We would take lunch together and he shared his story and his heart with me. He took me to my first Bible Studies where I cut my spiritual eye teeth (that for another post) and began to grow in the ways of the Kingdom. As spring blended into summer, my life changed. I cannot point to an exact moment of transformation, but it was real and it was intense. I hungered for God and spent hours in his Word, no matter where I was. (I remember going to the beach for a day or two that summer with my buds and all I wanted to do is read the Gideon Bible in the hotel room.)

God did three very important things in my life during these months. First, he taught me about his guidance and sovereignty. Twice I turned away from Kinder before I went in and landed the job that placed me in a position to meet the person who would lead me to Jesus. But the third time I went in and my life was changed. A mystery of our faith and God's power lies right here; could I have turned back that third time and never returned? Would God have had another plan? Food for thought. I learned that God does have a plan for my life and that he will accomplish that plan, and the plan is always good.

Secondly, God shattered my pre-conceived notions of what Christianity is all about and what Christians are. Scott, in appearance at least, broke nearly everything my parents said was important in regard to how a Christian should look. And yet, Scott demonstrated more Christianity and more spirituality than anyone I knew up to that time. How could this be? Could it be that my conservative, Brethren, rural, culture had somehow got somethings wrong? Well it did, and does, and I continue to face the challenge of sorting out what is real, essential Christian faith and what is merely my cultural preferences, and worse, baggage. (But that too, needs to be another post.)

Thirdly, God taught me about his protection. I remember the very first time I heard God speak into my soul. It was spring of that year and I was in a long-term relationship with a woman. As God began to rebuild my life, one of hardest things related to the rebuilding of relationships. Friendships had to change, and God very specifically told me (so specific that I heard his voice in my spirit) that this long-term relationship and to come to an end. And so it did. However, there was another woman at work whom the Adversary quickly used to attempt to entangle me in another unhealthy relationship. She was about my age and had recently lost her husband in a car accident. We worked across from each other and developed a friendship that led to some casual dating. (She had a wild Olds 442 that I loved to drive.) However, God spoke again that summer, and again made it clear that this relationship had to end. The point here is that God was teaching me about his protection. As God rebuilt my circle of relationships (and I should say that some of my former friends also met God that summer and so God was rebuilding my life in a number of ways), I eventually met Doris in the fall of '72, and as we say, the rest is history!

These three early lessons went on to play a huge part in my Christian life, and continue to do so today. In many ways they shape my life and my ministry.

So last week I sat in the parking lot of what was Kinder Manufacturing (it is now some other company that makes mattresses) and, as the Gospel song encourages, I remembered. I remembered what I was and what I could have been. I remembered the gracious hand of God on my life and how he moved. I journaled around those memories and relived the moments of transformation. It was sweet.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what ever became of Scott and cannot even remember his last name. I left Kinder early in 1973 and never saw him again. As I end this post, I lift up a prayer for Scott:

God, how awesome you are. Thank you for the year I worked at Kinder and for the divine appointment of meeting Scott and his influence in my life. I do not know where I would be today had I not walked in that office and applied for a job. Dear God, thanks for the foundational and elementary lessons of faith you taught me that summer--they have served me well all these years. I thank you for Scott--I do not know what ever became of him or if he is even still alive. I entrust him to you and ask that somehow he might be reminded of this year in his life and that he might find joy in knowing that he has left an lasting impact on at least one life--a life lived for you. Amen.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Presence

I have been thinking a lot this last week or so about 2 Chronicles, chapters 5 through 7. This is the account of Solomon finishing the Temple, and its dedication.

Some of you are sort of joining me on part of my sabbatical by reading Gordon Fee's book Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (for ease of typing, I am going to refer to this book as Paul). I read this book before going on sabbatical, and in preparation for my reading of the companion book by Fee, God's Empowering Presence (likewise for ease, I will refer to this book as Empowering), which offers the academic work which lies behind the smaller book. The second chapter in Paul deals with the "Spirit as the Renewed Presence of God." When I first read this, it really spoke to me and now as I am reading Empowering I am thinking more about this concept of God's presence. In the second chapter of Paul, Fee talks about how God has come to dwell with us, his people, though the Holy Spirit living within us. That, quite naturally, was not a new concept to me. Fee goes on, however, to link this dwelling of God in us with the dwelling that God did in the Tabernacle while the children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness, and the with the way God dwelled among his people in the Temple.

This connection--that the New Testament indwelling of each believer, and consequently of the church, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament's dwelling of God among his people--caught my attention like never before. What an amazing idea, and Fee does a great job in both books of anchoring the idea in scripture. It is clearly what God promised in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31-31-33. I just never really thought of it in that way. But think of it. When the Tabernacle was finished, God showed up as a Cloud of Glory by day and a Pillar of Fire by night (Exodus 40:34-38). Again, when the Temple was finally built by Solomon in 2 Chronicles 5-7, God showed up again and filled the place with his glory so that the priest could not even go inside. Everyone fell down and worshiped.

Viewing the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit from this perspective brings new meaning to the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. There was a rushing wind (the cloud?) and what seemed like tongues of fire (the pillar of fire) on that day, as well, as the Holy Spirit filled the disciples and the church was born. This is the New Testament fulfillment to those Old Testament events and images, and it means we are the chosen people, the people of God, loved by him, filled with his presence. But in our case, it is not just the facility that is filled (the Tabernacle or the Temple), but it is our hearts. We are the Temple of God and thus God is with us always. And when a group of us gather for worship, God is there in a big way.

Part of me is saying that I have known this all along; but another part of me is saying that there is something new here. Fee says somewhere in one of these books that the distinguishing mark of the Christian is the Presence of God. If that is so--if God lives in us--then it ought to be readily apparent. We should know it and others should sense it. And sometimes we do and they do. Also, if God dwells in the church as he did in the Temple (God dwells in us and we are the church), then his presence should be felt in the church. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not. I believe this second chapter holds importance for my life and for our congregation.

I was wondering as I pondered this, if when I am heading out to attend church on Sunday morning, if I am thinking mostly about the encounter with God I will have as I gather with other God-filled persons for worship, or if other things occupy my mind. Is worship about encountering the God who dwells within me and among us, or is it about fellowship or tradition or something else? Is worship about God or about me? Of course too often for me, Sunday morning worship is about preaching and doing the work of ministry. One thing the gift of this sabbatical has allowed is for me to worship freely without the responsibilities of leadership.

As you know, I have been seeking a new/renewed experience with God during this time apart. As I have been thinking about this concept of dwelling and reading Fee and the Bible, I have also been listening to another song that has held special significance for me during the last year or so. Let Your Glory Fall was our theme song a few years ago when we did the Elijah series in worship. When I first heard it, I thought it was about the Mt Carmel experience of Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al. But then I realized that it was based on the time when God filled the Temple as recorded in 2 Chronicles. Here is a link to the song; join me in my prayer that I, and the church, experience a transforming visitation of the Holy One.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Gloriuos Thought

This past Sunday Doris and I attended worship at East Fairview Church of the Brethren because our son, Nathan, was preaching. It was his last sermon there, and he did a great job. He has resigned his position as Director of Youth so that he can return to seminary on a more full-time basis, and be more of a stay home dad while Nicole finishes her residency.

We attended the 8:30 service and God did an amazing thing in my heart. It was not in response to our son's sermon (sorry Nate), but rather during a song that preceded the sermon. Just prior to the sermon we sang the song "In Christ Alone" accompanied by a video. I know this song, and have sung it often (we use it in worship during second service), but this day it really spoke to me. As you know, my prayer has been that I again feel God's hand upon my heart, and it happened while I sang this song on Sunday. God stroked my heart with his love and I cried. It was a glorious moment. (I entitled this post "A Glorious Thought" because it is the corollary to an earlier post entitled "A Not-So-Glorious Thought").

Here is the song and the actual video version of it that they used on Sunday.

Why now, during this song, at this location. Not sure, maybe just a combination of my knowing that I needed forgiveness (see my previous post), and my having unwound enough during these first few weeks of sabbatical that I could simply allow God's love to flow through me, and my study these days around the work of the Holy Spirit and my prayers and desires that I again feel the presence of God in my life (as Misty Edwards sings in "Awaken Me"). I don't know, and don't need to.

Anyway, I was overwhelmed by the gracious love of God and his particular love for me, and with what Jesus has done for me in his life, death and resurrection.

God is so good.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Darkness Within

Yesterday Maria (our second daughter and mother of four) asked for my help and I hesitated. She has been sick with the flu or something. Doris went to help on her usual day and another one this week, and Maria's husband, Matt, took a day off work to help. But she was sort of stuck with today. Doris is with Jacob (our son's, son) all day and thus is not available and so she asked if I could come up and take Rian and Lukas out a bit while Logan sleeps so she could get some rest--and I hesitated.

Actually it was worse. Initially, when Doris asked me, I gave a flat "no." But when Maria asked me directly, I did not say "no" but I did hesitate before saying I would help, and in that hesitation I saw a dark spot in my heart, and I hate myself for it. She heard the hesitation and thus Matt decided to take another day off from work to be at home. No doubt this is a better option anyway in that he will be able to take care of Logan and the others, and will be there all day, which will be better for Maria.

But I still feel bad that I hesitated in the first place. Why? I have been probing my heart as to why ever since. All I can say is that there remains in me a selfish darkness that has yet to be fully redeemed. I had my day planned. I was irritated at some other contributing factors to this situation. I felt it as an intrusion into my life. And in the moment, I hesitated. So what, it was my daughter asking and it was time with some of my grandkids. Dumb. I can be so dumb. Hesitating went against everything I want to be; it violated my heart and left me feeling unclean; it was a sin.

Being on sabbatical made this worse, and it gave me a clearer picture of this selfish place in my heart. If I would have been asked to give up some commitment of time to something else, other than time I had planned for stuff I wanted to do (albeit it "spiritual stuff"), I would not have hesitated. But this was an intrusion into my time; into time given me by the church so that I can work on my issues; and my hesitation showed that life is still too much about me. I hate seeing that and I hate that it is true, but it is.

I have just been reading Fee's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 2:6 through 3:2 wherein he delineates the difference between pneumatikos (spiritual), psuchikos (natural) and sarkinos (fleshly). My response was so very sarkinos, of the flesh, and I so very much want to always be pneunatikos, spiritual. But alas, the psuchikos, the natural man, raises his ugly head and drives me again, back to the grace of God.

So now I have my day back, since Matt is home with the kids, and it just does not feel right. I have made my apologies to Maria and since she knows I love her and the kids, things will be Ok. But there is still this heart thing that I need to contend with, and so in my solitude, I fight my demons. But, not in my own strength.

Henri Nouwen once said ""My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered the interruptions were my work." He is such a wise man.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Power of Solitude

We're back from our road trip and had a great time. We got in on Thursday evening, a few days before we thought we might. But when your done, your done.

I remember a conversation I had with a park custodian in the New York State Park at the Niagara River whirlpool. We were there rather early in the morning and he was emptying trash barrels and the like. I struck up a conversation and he asked where we were from and headed, and told him a bit about our trip. He responded by saying something like, "Traveling is good for a person. You need to get away and see new places and get refreshed. When you get back you will be ready to tackle whatever is there for you." He was a great guy who loved his job and had learned some wise lessons in life. I thought about Tafiya ya fi zauna.

Anyway, a bit to my surprise, getting back from the journey and settling into sabbatical life has not been as easy as I thought it would be. Not sure why. I think some of it is just finding a routine, and some of it relates to my nature of being rather task driven. Normally,my days are full with responsibilities and involve significant contact with people. All great, but taxing. At those times I long for a day alone, but now that I am faced with a lot of alone time, I find it challenging. Henri Nouwen speaks to this in the book I mentioned in my previous post (and which I listed in the side bar of this blog). In his section on the need for solitude, he shares about how in solitude we have to face our issues, or demons, if you wish, and we come face to face with our bare souls. He is so very right, and this part of sabbatical is so very important.

A quote here will suffice:
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding; no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me--naked, vulnerable , weak, sinful, deprived, broken--nothing. It is this nothingness I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential and very attractive--or poor, ugly and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vain glory. The task is to preserve in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone...That is the struggle. it is the struggle to die to our false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our own strength. Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool....We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with him and him alone.
(Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pp 27-30)

I have been experiencing some of what Nouwen defines. It is hard, but so very good. I am surprised at the compulsions that normally drive us, and the places from which we glean our self-worth and value. My position in Christ is my value and my authenticity, not my work, and this time of solitude is taking me to me places in my ability to live in and out of this spiritual relationship.

Though one of the central goals of this sabbatical is to have significant time for solitude, silence and prayer, I am taking some time to reconnect with a number of people who have been important to me in the past. Nouwen points out that solitude leads us to a place of being authentically compassionate. I have said that the move to Ephrata and the demands of leadership in the congregation have taken their toll on some of the friendships we have had outside the church, and Doris and I are taking the advantage of this sabbatical time to reconnect with a few significant people. I do not regret this, only recognize it and want to do some reconnecting.

Yesterday (Monday, Sept 21) I begin my work with Fee's tome, God's Empowering Presence. This book is divided into two sections. The first, and largest (nearly 700 pages) records Fee's exegetical work with all the verses in Paul's writing that deal with the Holy Spirit. I hope to have worked through this section in the next three weeks, taking time to work with some of the scriptures myself. The second section (about 200 more pages) of the book includes Fee's attempt to synthesize the information learned in the exegetical section, into more of a systematic and comprehensive teaching on the the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. (Those of you who are reading Fee's other book, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, are reading a condensed version of this section.)

Yesterday's read included several important insights for me, which I suspect I will blog about in the days to come. One thing I have recognized, and you will notice this in Fee's smaller book as well, is that a recurring theme in relation to the Holy Spirit is joy. I know that there has been a level of joy lacking in my life for the last little while and I also know this has spiritual ramifications. I have been asking God to restore to my soul the Joy of the Lord as I wait on God and study his word.

Please join me in this prayer.
Enough for now.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Last year, before Tim left, the church graciously gave me an extra three weeks off. I was rereading my journal for that time and found my thoughts that I wanted to adopt a simple goal, which I heard first from Mennonite leader, John Drescher, who wrote the book Spirit Fruit. Anyway, the goal has three simple elements to it.

Each day, I purpose to
Speak with God before I speak to anyone else
Read God's Word before I read anything else
Listen for God's voice before I listen to anything else.

Well it was a good goal, but not realized at the time. When I came across this in last year's journal, however, I realized that it was now happening. Since the first day of this sabbatical I have awoken early without an alarm and have been able to have significant uninterrupted time with God, reading, praying listening and worshipping.

I know it will be easier to maintain this while on sabbatical, than it was or will be when I am back to work. While carrying the responsibilities of pastoral work, I often have evening engagements and then when I get home, need to unwind a bit and before I know it, it is 11 pm. Too many days that means I'm not up til 6:00 and then it is often off to a breakfast meeting or to the office by 8:00 and my time with God gets really crowded. And there is always the temptation to check my email or watch the morning news, before I have spoken with God, read his Word or listened for his voice.

I have been rereading Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart while meandering the back roads of upper New York state. Drawing from the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries, Nouwen writes about the need for us to experience solitude, silence and prayer, especially those of us in ministry. The book calls me again to be intentional about building these things into my life.

God, I desire you more than anything or anyone else. I confess that I have now given you the time you deserve, often under the excuse of the pressure of your work. How absurd is that! Forgive me. Thank you for doing this new thing in my life, being my early morning alarm clock, and calling me to this place of waiting on you. Amen

A few weeks ago I came across this song by Misty Edwards. Misty leads worship, along with others, at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. I have a bunch of her music, but was not familiar with this one. The song is called "Awaken Me" and the video is from the prayer room where IHOP maintains worship 24/7. This song captures the cry of my heart right now. (If the video does no appear below, visit the blog directly).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Taking it Home

We all have heard the saying that it is the plumber who is fixing everyone else's clogged pipes who has a drain stuck at home that he just never gets around to. Or maybe it is the teacher that does a great job in the classroom who comes home and losses it with the kids.

I think part of this breakdown exists because when we get home we simply do not what to do what we have done all day. We need a break. That makes sense, but it becomes dangerous for the preacher. We see it all the time--the preacher's kids end up going astray. I used to think that was because the kids rebelled because they didn't want to be drug to church all the time. Now I know that is not the case. Often church leaders' families fall apart because the kids see who dad (or mom, if she is the preacher in the family) really is and what they see at church and at home is not the same thing. When this is the case, I do not blame anyone for walking away from the faith. I worked for a short time with a man who was a real bear to work with (he supervised me), but every Thursday evening he prided himself in his attendance at a Christian Business Men's gathering. Every Thursday, as he left work gloating over his sanctity, I left saying if Christian faith produces what I saw in his life, I did not want it. Fortunately, God had another plan, and through a long haired, tattered jeans, converted hippy, I met Jesus.

What does this have to do with my sabbatical. Simply this. For the last long while, I have not had the spiritual relationship at home with Doris that I desired. We have a good marriage, but I often got home and really did not want to do what I did all day with people. That is, pray with Doris and share very much in her spiritual journey. One of my sabbatical goals is simply to rebuild the spiritual foundations of my relationship with the most important person, next to Jesus, in my life. This will take time, but it is beginning on this road trip. We have had opportunity to pray together each day, in the morning and at other times. The pressure is off and I can just be me.

No doubt God wants to take Doris and me to even deeper places in our relationship with each other, and with him, but this new start feels really good. I know as I write this, and as my coach Geoff will read this, he will immediately begin to frame questions that push me to figure out how I maintain this when I am back in the thick of pastoral work. Go for it Geoff.


Tafiya ya fi Zauna

(written Friday morning, Sept 11)

I used this saying from the Hausa culture (the dominate language where we lived in Northern Nigeria) in my sermon on the last Sunday before beginning sabbatical. Loosely translated it means that traveling about is better than staying at home. In planning how I would invest this sabbatical time, my counsel was that on the front end I should take some time to unwind, relax and do some things that I enjoy. When I first heard this Hausa saying years ago, I understood it. Doris and I have always enjoyed travel and have found it refreshing. So we decided (or maybe I did) that at the beginning of my time off, we would do some traveling.

Travel is not new to us, of course. In the early years of our marriage we took a number of road trips with the kids, often connected to attending the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference (which rotates around the USA). That, in addition to preaching and teaching assignments in over a hundred congregations, took us (me) to all but, I think, four of the fifty states. During the last twenty years, we have done a considerable amount of international travel, some of it related to our mission work in Nigeria, so that we have spent some time in a dozen countries on four continents. Just this past June, we were privileged to visit the Dominican Republic (my second time, Doris' first) and help with leadership training for our pastors there.

So when it came to sabbatical, I was feeling like it was time to see some more of the good old USA. In my meandering cyber space, I hit on the Seaway Trail, a combination of roads that skirts Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, from the Ohio/PA line to Massena, NY.

Thus far it has been great. And I was wondering this morning as I woke up "What is it about traveling about that brings refreshment to the soul?"

Part of it is the lack of schedule. I can feel myself unwinding and relaxing. There is no pressure to be anywhere at any specific time, other than I call ahead each evening to make a room reservations for the next night. (Knowing we have a place to stay helps take the pressure off.) This is giving Doris and me uninterrupted time together, and that is another benefit of traveling with someone else.

Part of the refreshment, for me at least, comes from experiencing new places and cultures. Granted, on this trip, the culture is not that much different from back home. And yet, it is different. This kind of road trip allows us the time to meet people along the way. Almost exclusively we are staying at privately owned, mom and pop, motels or B&B's within sight if the water, and eating at local places rather than national chains, and the proprietors at these places are great people. In a time when there is so much increased violence in our world, it does my soul good to meet and chat with everyday working Americans who share the goodness of their hearts with you.

And there is the beauty of this land that God has so graciously given to us to call home. As Doris prayed yesterday morning, she thanked God for the beauty of the world. It is a window into his nature and his heart. Everywhere we have been, not only on this trip, but on every other one, has held wonderful beauty. Seeing and experiencing it, stretches our hearts as well. In all of this, there is also the realization that darkness and evil exist. Wednesday we arrived in Alexander Bay and spent the night there and part of yesterday. As soon as we arrived in the town, I began to feel oppressed. By dinner time, I understood that it was some kind of spiritual darkness that gripped the community. I said something to Doris and she had been feeling it too. The darkness was evident in the somewhat shabby nature of the town, unlike most of the communities along the St. Lawrence. It was weird. From there we traveled the few miles to Clayton, and immediately felt a different feeling. This too is part of the experience of travel, and it confirms for me that there are spiritual cultures that exist in places. The church's mission is to share the Gospel so that darkness is lifted and the Light of Jesus descends, not only on individuals, but on communities as God transforms our broken world.

And last of all, a road trip has to be taken in a car. In this case, we are traveling in the MR2 I resurrected from near death a few years ago. A mid-engine, two seater sports car does not allow for much storage space, so that means we are traveling light and are not able to accumulate much stuff along the way (not that there is anything we need). I am getting a lot of satisfaction from cruising about in a car that I have nearly completely disassembled and rebuilt. It is a sweet ride.

Here are a few pictures to close out this post:

The car, of course, in front of the Tunkhannock railroad viaduct in Nicholson, PA

Sunset over the St. Lawrence from our hotel room, near Massena, NY

Ogdensburg Lighthouse, Ogdensburg, NY

Monday, September 7, 2009


I mentioned in an earlier post that I would blog about where we will attend worship while on sabbatical. Yesterday was the first Sunday, and the end of the first week, of my three month break. As I planned for the sabbatical over the summer months, I was praying about where to attend church. I learned some things from the first sabbatical I had ten years ago while at Conewago (the church I served previous to this one). During those three months Doris and I did not worship at the same church on a regular basis, and in the end, I found that I did not find the refreshment in worship for which I had hoped. Sabbatical gives us the opportunity to worship with our kids at their churches, and it gives me the opportunity to visit a number of churches and learn from what they are doing. That is good and what we did the last time. But by doing so, we missed the consistent worship that only happens when you settle in at one spot for a while.

So going into this sabbatical, I knew I needed a place to plug in on a regular basis. But I also wanted to take some time to worship with our kids and to visit some other churches. The answer to this dilemma would be a church that had a Sunday morning worship service and one at another time during the week, like Saturday evening or something. That way, some weeks I could attend church on Sundays with the kids or where a friend preaches, but also have the consistency of being in the same church for worship. You may remember, if you were there, that last Sunday as I outlined some of my hopes for this sabbatical, I talked about the difficulty I have in worshipping in an undistracted way when I know I am up next to preach.

Another criteria for me was to find a church in our community. We are called to live for Jesus so others may know him in this community. It is our home and our mission. There is value in visiting churches in other communities, and we will do some of that, but the place of our worship needs to be in the Ephrata area.

A third criteria was to find a place that was somewhat different from what I experience at ECOB, just for the experience and for my need to be taken a bit outside of my comfort zone. And fourthly, if the church could somehow be aligned with the journey that I see myself on, one of inner healing and spiritual transformation, that would be all the better.

That was my wish list for a place to worship; a rather tall order. Does such a place exist in our area? As I prayed through this I quickly came to realize that the Ephrata Community Church offers all these things. ECC offers some additional benefits, as well. I work closely with their Executive Pastor, Keven Eshelman, on the Ephrata Ministerium and it is also a congregation with with whom we partner on some community projects. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago while meeting with a colleague (who has been rather close to me during the spiritual journey of the last few years) he mentioned, unsolicited by me, that he felt I should worship at Ephrata Community while on sabbatical. I took that as confirmation that I made the right choice.

So that is where we were yesterday morning for worship. The pastors asked if they should introduce me to the congregation and I asked them not to, at least not now. I want to remain "under the radar" and simply come as an average joe for worship. Our first Sunday there did feel a tad awkward, and it will take a few weeks to feel at home, but that is OK and in the end, it will meet most, if not all, of the hopes I had for a place to worship. (Amazingly, I did not know a single one of the songs they used for worship, even though one was by one of my favorite artists, Misty Edwards.) It did feel really good just to come to worship where hardly anyone knew me and no one had any expectations of me. I could worship, meditate, read my Bible, and have no other cares. Wow, this will be a great three months.

Road Trip

On another note, we left from church yesterday for our two week road trip to meander the Seaway Trial. Last night we stayed in Wilkes Barre and tonight we will be staying in the Adirondacks, and then Tuesday we will arrive at Massena, NY, which is the northeastern end of the trail. (Google Seaway Trail to learn more.)

Julia, Julia

We got into town early enough yesterday to catch the movie "Julia, Julia" last night. Doris has been wanting to see it, so we went and I was not disappointed. The movie is really two stories; one about how cooking legend Julia Childs begins her cooking career and the other about a contemporary young woman, Julia Powell, who decides to cook through Childs' cookbook in one year. While doing this she blogs about her experience and ends up writing the book by the same name as the movie.

The movie is a fun watch, but more importantly, for me it also carried a spiritual meaning. Even though Julia Powell had never met Julia Childs, she commits herself to following her step by step via a book she had written. Sound familiar. As Julia Powell does this, she talks and blogs about how she feels Julia Childs' presence and about how she carries on conversations with her and about how Childs has changed her life. In the end the young Julia is a transformed person, kinder, more appreciative of life, less of, in her owns words, a "b----." What a metaphor for Christian discipleship.

I encourage you to watch the movie, now or when it comes out on DVD or makes it on TV, and think about the parallels into our life as disciples and disciple makers.

Enough for now

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Apparently when I put links in my posts, as I did in the yesterday's (Open Up the Sky) they do not carry through when my post is forwarded to those of you who get updates via your email. Sorry, I did not know how that works. I guess to visit the links you will need to visit the blog. I will keep this in mind when making new posts. Thanks for staying in touch.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Open Up the Sky

Well it has begun. After all the planning and anticipation, this is already day two of my sabbatical. (And in a hour or so Doris and I will be off to Dutch Wonderland with Lukas and Marci, two of our grandchildren.)

Sunday was a great day for me and for the church. When Carol Bowman (our prayer coordinator) showed up for early service, I figured something was up. If you were there, you know that at the end of both services, she invited people to come up and gather around Doris and me and pray for us as we were being "sent off" on this time of spiritual refreshment. It was a very cool moment for me and much encouragement to see so many of you come up and gather around us and offer your prayerful support. Many thanks!

At second service, the band concluded the service with a song that has had a very special place in my life during the last months or so. I have it listed in my sabbatical playlist on YouTube, along with some other music that speaks to me right now. The song is entitled "Open Up the Sky" and has been made popular by a group called Deluge. Here is a link of them doing the song:

And in case you want to see the words, use this link:

I wrote in an earlier post entitled "Last Fall" about a very significant down time in my life. In that post I mentioned the book The Pressure's Off by Larry Crabb. The thesis of that book is that too many Christians are following God for the blessings that they think God will give them, instead of following God simply for the blessing of his presence in their life. That really spoke to me last fall--actually it changed my life in a number of ways (in conjunction with a conference at Willow Creek). God used those two things--a book and a conference--to encourage me and to lead me to reorient my outlook, which led to a new hope.

Well anyway, this song "Open Up the Sky" captures the thesis of the book and articulates what is now, and has been for a while, the cry of my heart. It is my desire during the sabbatical that I and the church experience the presence of God in deeper ways, new ways and ways that change us. What else is there that really matters?

Thanks to Dean Sensenig (our Director of Music and Worship) for being obedient to God and switching the closing song from whatever he had planned to "Open Up the Sky" as we closed second service on Sunday. (I understand that to do so required overcoming some challenges and it would have been easy to give up.) It was the right thing to do and the right song to launch my sabbatical.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Not-So-Glorious Thought

Sunday worship had some revealing moments for me. Since I was not preaching I was a bit more at ease and thus able to be more attentive to my own spiritual needs. This, by the way, is another benefit of taking a sabbatical). It is really hard for me to simply worship when I am preaching. It may be mostly my issue, and maybe other preachers experience it differently, but for me if I am preaching it is really hard to kick back and pay attention to my own soul during worship. Over time this takes its toll, and so sabbatical gives me a chance just to worship. (I will blog later about our worship plans.)

At early service this past week, one of the hymns we sang was "When Peace Like a River." This hymn has played a significant role in my spiritual life for a long time. You know how its, some songs carry special meaning for us. The third verse of that hymn goes like this: "Redeemed! Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin--not in part but the whole--was nailed to his cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul." I still remember the time when while singing this hymn, the Lord impressed on me the wondrous, glorious, mysterious truth of the thought expressed in that verse. And ever since, whenever we sing this song, that verse touches my soul in a sweet way.

Every time, that is, except this week. I sang the hymn as I always do, focusing on the words, and coming to this verse, remembering the thrill my soul feels at this glorious thought, anticipating--and nothing. I felt nothing at all. I got out my journal and made a note of this, wondering what it meant. It is not that I do not believe it any more--I do, actually more than ever. It is just that it did not stir my soul. And that scared me. It became a not-so-glorious thought.

I did not have much time to contemplate the meaning of this at the time. At second service one of the songs was "Filled with Glory." It says, at one place, "would You hear our cry, we want to see You glorified." Then the chorus repeats "Glorify Your name...we want to see You glorified." My mind went right to John 17 where Jesus prays and thanks God that he would soon be retuning to his place in heaven and would receive back the full glory that was rightfully his. He then says that he has given us his glory and prays that we would glorify him. Wow, that is my heart--to bring God glory. Why then do I feel this dryness of my soul?

Another song followed--a more contemporary rendition of Amazing Grace with includes a chorus that says "my chains are gone, I've been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood his mercy reigns. Unending love. Amazing grace." There are some chains that need to be shed from my heart.

Each of these songs, combined with my empty feeling from first service, coalesced to help me see more clearly the tired state of my soul. Unless I am stirred by the mystery of God and his redemptive work among us, I am in no position to preach it. I think it is as simple as that. Often, in the past, while preaching, my heart would sing and my soul stir as I unpacked the truths of God. Recently, it has just been hard work.

So that said and recognized, it is just another way of me realizing how much I need this sabbatical. I want to be careful not to put too much pressure on myself nor to lay too many expectations on God, or we might all end up being disappointed. However, I remain expectant as to what God wants to do in my life during this time, and I cherish the opportunity to drop back from the constant demand of output, and to have time for Him to put some things back into my life. I am very grateful for this opportunity. The leadership of the church has been gracious and I have received many words of encouragement from people in the congregation. God is at work within both of us.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Paul, the Spirit and the People of God

The other day I finished reading Gordon Fee's book Paul, the Spirit and the People of God. This is the book I recommended that you might want to read, if you are interested in sort of journeying with me during my sabbatical (which begins in 14 days, but who's counting!).

Some of you have asked me what book you might read that would help you connect with what I am studying while off, and this is it. I will actually be reading Fee's academic work on the Holy Spirit in the Pauline churches, called God's Empowering Presence, which records the biblical study that lies behind the summaries and conclusions found in Paul, the Spirit and the People of God. But God's Empowering Presence is a huge tome which includes highly academic language and assumes a working knowledge of Greek (at least to benefit most from the work). It has been awhile since I dove into something with this much depth (the day-to-day grind of pastoral work just does not lend itself to this kind of pursuit), and I know it shows how much of a nerd I am, but I am really looking forward to wading around in Greek syntax and the theological muck of pneumatology, in quest of that which is lacking in my own soul. I know that it will take more than reading the Greek New Testament for me to find what I need--there are things I need to experience--but believe it or not, such a study will be a breath of fresh air to my soul.

Some of you have already begun to read Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, and a few of you have shared that it is a bit difficult. And it is. First off, Fee tries hard to tone down his vocabulary to the level of where a non-theologically trained person can read it with ease. He achieves this goal with limited success, and so you will encounter some terminology that may be difficult. I think this is scant, but it will happen. Given that Fee is a world class New Testament scholar, I am impressed with his ability to communicate in a down-to-earth manner, and surprised at the ease with which his prose flows.

Secondly, the book may be difficult at places because Fee is dealing with some rather deep spiritual truths which are not for the spiritually faint-of-heart. And he occasionally deals with some difficult, and controversial issues. He does so with maturity and with balance, and comes out at places that simply bless my heart and, though they challenge me, they also usually affirm my own convictions. But, nevertheless, some of the concepts are deep and challenging.

So, basically, I want to encourage you to read this book. I think the most important parts of it for us as a congregation lie in the understanding it gives us of what it means to be a spirit-filled, spirit-led community of people--to be truly the church. I believe chapters 12 through 14 contain specific words to us as a church. But do not jump there and skip the earlier parts. The early chapters have really great teaching about how the NT has fulfilled the OT and about how the presence of the Spirit today fulfills the presence of God dwelling among his people in the OT. The early chapters contain solid teaching on the personal nature of the Spirit and on the difficult concepts of Trinity. Also, Fee's balance between power and ethics is foundational for the church today, as is his feeling that for the church to be vital in the post modern world in which we now live, a rediscovery of the vibrancy of the Spirit is essential.

We will have copies of the book available at church--for sale or to borrow--or you can purchase a copy on your own.
Paul, the Spirit and the People of God by Gordon Fee: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996. ISBN 1-56563-170-6

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Last Fall

(Note: I began writing this post before my mother's health took a turn for the worse. She passed away on August 2nd and her services were yesterday, August 5. As I was finishing this today, I could feel the emotional drag on my life as well, having now lost both parents in the span of less than 5 months.)

Doris and I were together with some people from church the other evening and they had read the "Why Sabbatical" posting on this blog (the first posting, actually, which hopefully you read) and they asked "So what was going on last fall." They were referring to this statement, "There have been times (most recently just last fall) when I came close to "throwing in the towel" and hanging up whatever it is Brethren pastors hang up when they quit."

I gave them a very brief answer and said I was thinking of blogging on this, since I guessed that others would have the same question. So here goes...

Last year in late summer I was really struggling. The bottom line was that I was looking to the wrong things and listening to the wrong voices. As usual, God led me to what I needed to get me through and to reorient my thinking. Here is a bit of what was going on.

If you are connected to ECOB you will remember that on 18 May 2008 we held the Sacred Assembly (based on Joel 2). That event was the culmination of about 2 years of rather intense spiritual struggle as a congregation. Specifically, our Lenten series that Spring dealt with understanding the spiritual strongholds that often invade our lives. That series was based on the life of Jesus and the numerous encounters he had with entrenched spiritual powers of a negative nature. After the Lenten series, I preached a sermon entitled "A spiritual Journey" in which I both outlined the spiritual struggle we were facing as a congregation and called for a new way of measuring our ministry. I called this a "Spiritual Yardstick." We then began a second series entitled "Demolishing Strongholds" which laid a practical foundation for the Sacred Assembly.

The Sacred Assembly of May 18, 2008, had a number of very positive outcomes for our congregation. I can now, and actually could last summer, recognize them. But it also affected the congregation in ways that on the surface could appear negative. Although our attendance, after growing steadily for a number of years, began to decline a bit two years earlier, the focus leading up to Sacred Assembly and the day itself, took a significant toll on attendance. This, naturally, has had a ripple effect on the congregation in a number of ways. Now, more than a year past the Assembly, most of us can easily see the positive benefits of this journey on the congregation; but last fall was a different matter for me.

Even though I had preached that we would begin using a different "yardstick" for measuring the health of the congregation, I admit I was still using the wrong one--at least in part. On top of this, I was very weary from the spiritual battles of the last two years, and some of the not-so-spiritual struggles with some aspects of the life in the congregation. I was not the only one feeling this--we were all weary after the Assembly--but in many ways, as the Senior Pastor, I was the primary one. No doubt my spiritual strength, or lack thereof, was a major factor in this low time in my life.

In the midst of this Tim left to pastor his home congregation at Parker Ford. This had an impact on me and on the congregation. I had conversations with a number of people, helping them through the grief process of Tim's departure. But who was helping me? And then the congregation very unexpectedly lost John Good. I had just that spring co-taught a course with John and I picked him up nearly every month for the Ministry and Evangelism Commission meeting on which John served. It is hard to explain, especially since I really did not hang out with John on much of a social basis, but his loss really had an impact on me.

So late summer and early fall of 2008 found me really low, both spiritually and emotionally. I really did contemplate resigning and doing something else with my life. Fortunately, I do have abilities and experiences that would enable me to do other things. Actually, I had two offers last summer to move on; one to pastor a church in another denomination, which was tempting, and another to return to the mission field. It is funny how God will test you when you are weak. Anyway, God was faithful during this time, and he pulled me through. He provided a number of things for me that made a difference.

First of all, there was a book. Sometime over the summer I had picked up a copy of The Pressure's Off by Christian counselor and leader Larry Crabb. I have this book listed on this blog's sidebar as recommended reading. It is a must read. It was exactly what I needed. His thesis is a simple one (though the book is a bit hard to read at times). Crabb asks, Are you following Jesus for the blessings or is experiencing the Presence of God enough? He shows how if we are in it for the blessings--and we know we are when we expect God to give us things (like the good life) and do things for us (like keep us happy)--we will never be at peace with God. But if we realize that God owes us nothing and that his Presences in our life is all we really need, and we seek that instead of the blessings, it takes the pressure off and we can live a different way.

Wow! I knew this, even preached it, but last fall I was not living it.

Secondly, a few of us from church attended the Willow Creek Reveal conference in Chicago. During the sessions there were speakers who seemed to be speaking directly to me. This conference was all about focusing the church on its primary mission of discipleship, even if it means the church becomes smaller in order to become more faithful. I needed to hear nationally known pastors talk about this and challenge us to get our focus right. And the worship at Willow was wonderful. I could feel my soul healing. I know sometimes we may wonder if the cost of sending some people to a conference like this is worth it. In this case, it saved me from leaving the ministry.

Thirdly, some people were key in my life during this time. As always, my coach, Geoff Davis, was very helpful. Also, some of the staff at church and those who attended the Willow Conference with me, were excellent support.

As a result of my struggle and the way God spoke during this time my mind and my heart changed. I was able to again come to church focused on God and what he had led me to share, and focused on the needs of the people who were there, and not to look at the numbers. It was an extremely freeing experience, and I am much healthier today.

In many ways I needed a Sabbatical more last fall than I do now. However, If I would have taken one last fall, I would have needed the time for emotional and spiritual healing and would not have been able to focus much on my own spiritual growth and what the congregation needs in the future. This fall, even though I am still very tired spiritually, I am in a much better place than last fall and I will be able to use the Sabbatical time much more wisely.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Unlearning Church

I have preached and written about the need for the church--ECOB in particular, but all churches in general--to move away from being program based to relationally based. Another way to say this, is to move from seeing church ministry as running a bunch of programs to seeing the church's ministry as building intentional relationships with people. Lying at the root of this transition is the belief that our mission as a church is to make disciples, and discipleship happens most effectively through intentional relationships of spiritual accountability.

This shift has significant ramifications for the church. Of course the church will always run programs, but the goal of such programs in this new paradigm shifts. Instead of asking questions like "how many people were involved in this program?" or "was it done professionally?" or "did it run smoothly?" we need to ask "did people grow spiritually?" or "did the program provide opportunity to build relationships with people that allow us to walk with them on their spiritual journey?" or "were people better equipped in one of the tree "R's" of discipleship?" (Relationship with Jesus, Responsibility for themselves, Reaching out to others).

I recently came across an article entitled "Unlearning Church" by Pastor Mike Slaughter. (See the link on the side bar under "Some Other Good Stuff.) Mike pastors Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church which was one of the early mega-churches in our nation. Ginghamsburg has been on the cutting edge of using technology in worship and basically set the stage for much of what happens in many mega-churches today. I have been there for worship several times and have a friend who is very active there. It is a great church. Mike's article looks deep into present day church culture and challenges us to move toward a focus on discipleship. I encourage you to read the article.

My vision for ECOB is that we become much more of an intentional disciplemaking community. We are in the process. God is shaping us for increased effectiveness in the coming age. While on Sabbatical--especially during the last third of it--I will be working on some specifics related to what it means for ECOB to move forward into this vision. The ramifications of this on how we currently perceive of church, measure our success, deploy our people, focus our staff, run our programs, and just about everything else, will be significant. But then, can you dream with me of what it would be like to be a church that is very present in our community, where regularly new people are connecting who have never been in church before, and they are invited into meaningful relationships with believers who are committed to walking with them on their Christian journey, where every one of us assumes our responsibility to be the people of God in mission to each other and our world? Wow! That is the church Jesus envisioned and died for, and that is the church we are becoming.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sabbatical Plan

The following post outlines what my goals are for my Sabbatical which will occur, God willing, August 31st through November 29th, 2009 (returning to work on November 30th).

The focus of my Sabbatical grows out of the things that I have sensed have been going on in my life for the past several years. I have addressed those the previous post entitled "Why Sabbatical."

A Focus on the Holy Spirit

I have felt the drain of ministry most significantly on my own spiritual resources. In the past, I have found spiritual vitality most consistently through solitude, the focused and in depth study of the Word and the fueling of my personal relationship with God through the indwelling of his Spirit. Therefore I want to spend a significant amount of time during the Sabbatical working through the New Testament teaching about the vital nature of the Holy Spirit and how it is that he transforms us and empowers us. I have had a sense in recent years that I have had somewhat of a disconnect on the intimacy level of my relationship with Jesus, and I hope through study, prayer and meditation, to recover this, or better yet, to experience it anew in even greater ways.

My primary source for this part of my sabbatical, other than the Bible, is Gordon Fee's academic work, God's Empowering Presence (1994: Hendrickson). I have wanted to work through this when it was first published (wow! 15 years ago already) and never have. Fee is not only one of our best NT scholars, but is a Pentecostal from the Assembly of God church. His insights and exegesis have been hugely helpful over the years.

This "Holy Spirit journey" might also include revisiting some places/people who have been instrumental in my walk with God in the past (like the International House of Prayer in Kansas City).

Prayer support in this area would be welcome. And if you wish, you could get this book and read it with me. It is a heavy tome; however, Fee has condensed and summarized it in a book for wider readership, entitled Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (1996: Hendrickson), which will be a much easier read.

Developing Strategic Plans for the continued transition of ECOB into an Intentional Disciple Making Community

I have been working with the leadership of the church on an overall vision and strategy for becoming an intentional disciple making community of believers. This overall vision is well formulated but specifics of it need to be worked on and developed for interpretation to the congregation. I would hope to come back from Sabbatical with some specific plans on how to proceed.

My personal study of the Holy Spirit's ministry dovetails at this point. I have preached and have written about the fact that the church is essentially a pneumatic (the Greek word for spirit) community, formed by the Spirit, led by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit. At least, this is God's intention for the church. Today, the real presence of the Holy Spirit among us, in our worship and meetings and families, seems to play, at best, a minimal role in our community, rather than the dominate role. I want to be open to God changing this at ECOB.

Seeking a Fuller Understanding of God's Movement in my life

A second item, related to the above, is my quest to seek a deeper and fuller understanding of how God has been moving in my life during the past few years. To do this, I am hoping to connect with a Spiritual Director. I have been in conversation with the leadership of our local Catholic Church. The Catholics have a rich tradition in the art of spiritual direction and so I have gone there for help with this. Spiritual Directors are not counselors but rather "discerners" who listen to your heart and help you discern the movement of God. I am not sure if our how this will come together, but I am pursuing it.

I would welcome prayer support in this area, as well.

Continued Growth in my Self Awareness and Leadership Skills

I have met regularly with Leadership Coach Geoff Davis for personal direction and development and holistic health, and will continue to do that before, during and after sabbatical. Geoff helps me look both at how I manage my life and how I lead with integrity.

Down Time and Fun Time

Of course, Sabbatical will be a time to have some fun and do some things that I cannot normally do. The constraints of pastoral ministry (always on call and weekends being "prime time") take its toll over the years. I expect that near the beginning and end of the Sabbatical period, Doris and I will hit the road for some time off and to be together. My plan as of now is to take off on or about September 7 for a 2 week road trip following the Seaway trail from Massena, NY, to Springfield, PA, along the St Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The route passes 29 lighthouses, of which I want to photograph every one, as well as numerous historic landmarks, museums and other attractions. And then at the end of the Sabbatical, Doris and I will do a mini time away for our 36th anniversary, which is November 24th.

Of course there will be some time for family and for tinkering on my car.


You might wonder where I will worship during this time. Good question. I would love to worship at ECOB, but you and I both know that if I do, I would be too easily drawn back into the responsibilities of work. You should expect to see Doris from time to time, however. I plan to worship consistently at one of our area churches. I'll let you know which one later.


I desire to post regularly to this Sabbatical Blog leading up to and throughout the sabbatical time. I welcome you to journey with me via this format. You can enter your email address on the right to receive new posts to this blog right in your email. I would especially welcome prayers during this time.