This weekend I stumbled on a short interview with the author of a very personal memoir. Kate Bowler is a Duke University professor who happens to be a Christian and who recently wrote a book entitled Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. She is a follower of Jesus, as well a professor, wife, mom, and woman facing an incurable cancer diagnosis. Time magazine did a recent interview with her to discuss her latest book and the realities of facing a cancer diagnosis. In the middle of the interview Kate made this marvelous observation.
“When the world shuts down, then you realize, these are my plot points. This is my one job, this is the one man I love, this is my one kid. Infinite possibilities can be exciting, but sometimes even more beautiful is doubling down on the life you have.”
I love that insight! Our culture’s increasing struggle with FOMO (fear of missing out) brings with it the eager pursuit of the next newest, coolest, funnest possibility to experience. Oh, and when you add that we’re all being constantly told that anyone can do anything and everyone’s dreams really can come true – then you end up with a bunch of people overlooking the life they actually have. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live like that. Kate is absolutely right, it is an even more beautiful thing to double down on the life I have right now with this wife, these kids, this home, this church in this city at this time.
Just the other day I had a great, very honest, text conversation that led to an ever richer phone conversation. I was talking with one of the great, passionate, and godly individuals who has left Faith Community Church in recent years in order to launch an important ministry that is capable of reaching a whole other group of people our ministry isn’t equipped to love. He was being really honest about how hard it is to follow God’s call, put yourself out there, and lead a new mission for the benefit of others. It’s an exciting, refining, awesome and yet very stretching process. Growing up and then investing your maturity in the cause of others isn’t for sissies.
It’s quite a journey when you go from being convinced that the life you’re building on your terms is awesome, to then discovering you’re really a sinner that’s actually building a pile of crap that you’re calling “a life.” When you go from recognizing you need Jesus as just your Savior, to then letting Him be Lord of your life sometimes only when you happen to agree with Him, to growing up into a pre-commitment that He must be allowed to be the kind of Lord where His brilliance calls the shots in all things, to stepping out into a mission for your life where you cease being a spiritual child anymore and grow up into a spiritual father/mother for others – it isn’t a simple or convenient journey . This kind of growth journey is not for sissies, but it is an important journey that has happened in the life of my friend who texted me, and our culture needs it to happen so much more often in the hearts of those who follow Jesus.
I haven’t really known what to do or say about the array of sexual harassment stories that have come out of the #MeToo movement. However, when I read the story last week about Pastor Andy Savage receiving a standing ovation from his church in Memphis after openly admitting from the pulpit that he had in fact been a sexual predator of a young woman who was a minor when he was a youth pastor I just feel I need to write something. Yes, I’m thankful his church is willing to show him some grace, but I’m deeply bothered by the mere idea of giving a standing ovation even for alleged abuse. Sadly as Ed Stetzer of Christianity Today wrote on the subject, “Again, the church has to be taught to listen to victims. And churches need to learn to respond better. It’s not a PR issue; it’s a justice issue.”
I know this #MeToo moment can be wearying for people. For some it is wearisome because there’s just so many allegations and reports that it’s hard to digest what is and isn’t factual. For others, namely some men, it can feel like another way in which our culture continues to pile on and accuse them of everything that is wrong in society. While I understand some of the weariness, I invite people to recognize this as an important time. It is an important moment when the structures of privilege and power, and those holding the privileges are being called to account for the ways they have abused others just to satisfy their own needs and lusts. Anyone who believes in truth and justice has to care about the stories the victims are sharing, no matter how many years have passed since their victimization first occurred.
As the son of a beautiful mom, the husband of a beautiful woman, father of a beautiful daughter, and a pastor to an amazing array of women – I just want to say that I’m grieved and sorry for what many of you have endured in the face of structural evils stacked against you as women. I personally have felt the pain of women very close to me, who have faced harassment that has deeply wounded them and I understand just the slightest fraction of how difficult it was to admit the hurt and shame to themselves and then to those who felt safe – let alone to have enough courage to confront their harasser/abuser. I encourage all women who have endured such things to stand up and share your story with the people you trust, and be a part of toppling evil structures (including those in the church) that for too long have cast a blind eye on these kinds of abuses for far too long.
On Monday our nation took the time to appropriately celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. and remember the sacrifices he made in order to speak truth to power, and confront racism and injustice in America. One of his quotes resonates with me at this time in my life as a pastor in ministry at a local church.
“Nothing is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King observed it’s quite dangerous to the well being of society when average people choose to continue living in sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity about systemic evil, and allow that evil to slide as long as it doesn’t personally affect them. Ignorance is dangerous to that which is good. At the same time, when average people leave ignorance and conscientious stupidity behind, they become quite dangerous to evil itself. I’m watching this happen in my own church. We’ve been sensing God’s call to look at systemic injustice and to move toward more work for the causes of justice. We’ve started a task force that is filled with awesome people, and yet average, regular people. They are becoming dangerous to evil. One of the women on this task force has said to me, “Once you’re eyes are opened it’s hard for them to go back to being closed again.” God is stirring her heart as she is beginning to witness and comprehend how the weak and helpless in our society are being harassed. Even today I waved as a group of three empty-nester women, drove off to have their eye’s opened even more. They were going to a seminar to hear more about human trafficking so that God could guide them into His heart for our own church’s work against injustice.
“I didn’t know that!” is not usually the best words to fly out of the mouth of a leader. A leader is supposed to know what’s going in the organization she or he leads. If you lead, its assumed that you know the full impact and the scope of what your organization is doing. You just don’t openly admit, “I didn’t know that.” But yesterday morning in front of my whole congregation I admitted what I didn’t know about the full reach of our church in this world.
You see that’s the fun thing about leading a church, as opposed to any other kind of organization. A healthy church has all kinds of things being enacted by the prompting and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of every believer. So though a pastor knows quite a bit about the kingdom work of the church he or she leads, they never know the full scope of what’s actually going on. Yesterday morning Bart Barker, who is leading a small missions team to Zambia next month, got up to talk about the project. He talked about the many projects they would be doing, but also shared the story of this under-20 soccer club he and his wife have been quietly sponsoring who just won Zambia’s under-20 national tournament! Not only that, but his club (the team named their club “Bart FC” after their sponsor) uses every opportunity at every game, and every tournament, to openly tell other teams about the Gospel and lead other teams in bible studies. I didn’t know that – but what’s cool is that I didn’t need to know that for God to act through Bart and his wife Kelly to sponsor these young men, and for God’s Spirit to prompt these young soccer stars to represent Christ on soccer pitches throughout Zambia. If you want to know more about Bart FC you can check out their Facebook page.
Yesterday morning was a reminder to me that when I am faithful to God’s work, when anyone is faithful to God’s work, all kinds of positive things happen as a result of that work. I’m just a little pastor of a small, and thriving healthy church filled with lovely people trying to follow Jesus. I know some of what’s happening through our church, but there is so much more going on that I may never know – and I need to remember that every day. Sometimes we get to know the impact our service to God is making in our world, but a lot of the time we don’t really know how far-reaching the impact of our service actually is. We simply need to remember that our God is active, and working, and the little part we play in His kingdom work actually matters.
Billy Graham spent a lot of the last half of the 20th century coming to a town near you, setting up shop at a large venue, attracting a crowd, and then presenting the simple and transformative message of the Gospel. After he finished describing the Good News his music guy, Cliff Barrows, would lead this massive guest choir from all the choirs of the local churches in every verse of the hymn Just As I Am as hundreds of people came forward and decided to say “yes” to Jesus’ offer of salvation. In those days the speed at which so many people entered into eternal and abundant life was so fast.
I’m not seeing a lot of that happening these days. Now, in my neck of the words here in Santa Cruz California, the message of the Good News makes its impact at a more glacial pace that would have driven Billy and Cliff crazy. The Good News is still “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believe” (Romans 1:16) but the pace at which it finds its way into the human heart, convicts that heart of the tragic reality of sin, and convinces that heart that Jesus actually might be the way, the truth, and the life is much slower right now. In a post-christian culture it just takes more time.
But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. It’s just that I’m finding we all need to adjust to a slower journey into faith for the people we love. I’m finding that as I stay present and not give up (and I’m talking about years of staying present and not giving up) the conversations begin to open up and God begin to work in the lives of the people I’ve been praying for, serving, and sharing the Good News with over the course of time. So, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9
Here we go. Now we all begin to get back into action after the holiday season. I hope your holiday was enjoyable. What is it about the holiday season where you often find yourself looking back into the past? I loved listening to our classic Bing Crosby White Christmas album where he sings, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the tree tops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.” I admit I listened to the album many times throughout the season, while decorating our home, and while making many dinners with our family and friends. Each time I heard the song, and many others popular Christmas tunes, I entered into this hazy nostalgia about the past. Some of my thinking certainly involved actual memories from my childhood and Christmas’s in my past, but it also was heavily influenced by plain old nostalgia which Webster’s dictionary defines as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” What’s funny about a lot of the sentiment is that it’s not even based on my reality. Just take the lyrics from White Christmas. Bing sings, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas just like the ones I used to know” and yet I’ve never, ever had a white Christmas in California so why am I filled with sentiment about it? Bing also sings, “Where the tree tops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow” and yet nobody I know rides sleighs in the snow anymore and I’m still getting all happy inside about this image in my mind. During the holidays I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the past, and then starting to re-engineer the past in such a way that I almost wished I could leave my present and go back to the past.
The instant I started to think this way, I remembered this sobering observation by Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes.
“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ for it is not wise to ask such questions.” Ecclesiastes 7: 10
Oops, that is kind of an important reminder. Yes nostalgia can be fun for the imagination, but it just isn’t wise to reside in hazy sentiment and then find yourself really wondering, “Why can’t the present be more like the past?” It is not wise in that it is a waste of emotional focus and energy on something I can no longer influence (the past) when I need to focus that energy on what I can influence (the present). As I leave the holidays season behind I’m reminded that I need, and we all need, to be fully present to our present because our present needs us to be fully engaged in what God is doing in our time now.