Tag Archives: sabbatical

When I visited other churches (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 4)

2 May

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One of the most frequent questions I got before going on sabbatical was, “Where will you go to church?”

When I asked people what they thought I should do about church, they had many responses.  Some people suggested I take a break, which is essentially the definition of sabbatical.  I seriously considered not going to church during the whole sabbatical. I concluded that it would not be wrong to take three months off.  But I was excited about another idea.

I looked at Sunday morning as an opportunity to visit other churches.  From my first Sunday, when I felt nervous and awkward going to another church, to my final church visit, it was like being on a field trip each week.  Remember the energy you felt as a kid when your school class went on a field trip?  Each visit was informative, even eye-opening.  I would return home, open my laptop and write a report about the visit.  I recorded my thoughts about that church’s website, their parking lot, their greeters, lobby, worship service, bulletin, use of technology, sermons, and on and on. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

First of all, we need to visit other churches!  I would recommend that all of us, pastors included, should be visiting other churches at least once or twice every year.  Some people say that is what vacation weeks are for.  Others say vacation weeks are for taking a break from church.  I’ll let you decide.  I believe there is very good reason to take a break sometimes.  During my sabbatical, I took a few weeks off, and that was needed.  I also found it beneficial to visit other churches.

The writer of Hebrews say: “Let us not give up meeting together.”  The Christian habit of gathering together is not some random, legalistic biblical principle.  Being highly committed to a weekly practice of gathering as a church family is important, the writer of Hebrews says, because when we gather, we encourage one another.  When you prepare yourself to gather together with other Christians, get yourself ready by praying, “Lord, I am asking you to help be an encouragement to my church family today!”

Also read Acts 2:42-47, which describes the pattern of the first followers of Jesus.  They gathered regularly to hear the teaching of the word, to pray, to give, to encourage one another, and to worship God.  They met both as a large group at the temple, and and in small groups in homes.  We need to make our church family’s regular gatherings a priority.

Within that context of intentional, consistent gathering, I recommend that at least once or twice each year, though, you visit churches outside your comfort zone.  Think about it.  What expressions of church or which worship styles seem most distasteful to you?  Attend them.  Go to a liturgical church. Go to a megachurch with rocking music.  Go to a house church. Go to a church from a different ethnicity.  It is good to put yourself in the place of a first-time guest.

Second, we need to reach out in kindness to guests.  It is hard to be a first-time guest.  It feels awkward. The parking lot, the lobby, the service, the fellowship time…all of it is brand new.  A guest has no idea how it works or what will happen.

At one church I visited, they instructed guests to fill out a connection card, similar to ours.  I am not in the habit of bringing a pen with me, and there were none in the pews.  I couldn’t fill out the card.  It wasn’t a big deal, but it felt awkward.

At another church I walked into the lobby about 8-10 minutes before the service was to begin, and it was nearly empty.  I peeked in the sanctuary doors, and though the lights were on, the sanctuary was empty.  I was confused.  There were plenty of cars in the parking lot.  Where was everyone?  Did I get something wrong?  I then realized they had Sunday School first, but still I thought, shouldn’t there be more people here with only 8 minutes to go before the service began?  It felt awkward.

Soon a whole bunch of people started entering the lobby from a different part of the building. I overheard people saying that they had been at a congregational meeting, and it only let out a few minutes before their worship gathering started.  Now I understood what had happened. But there was no signage about this.  And the few people in the lobby never greeted me.  It felt really uncomfortable.

Another church was in the middle of a sermon series that relied on printed materials that they had given out at a previous date.  It was a guidebook that had Scripture and notes pages.  During the worship service, at the point where they were to read Scripture, they told people to go to a particular page number in the guidebook.  As a guest, I never got one, and was uncertain of what they were talking about.  No one offered to share.  Again, this is a minor concern.  I could follow along in my own Bible.  But as a first-time guest it immediately had me feeling out of place.

And then there were the liturgical churches…they took awkwardness to a whole different level.  I’ll talk about them later on.

You also need to know that a couple churches greeted guests very well.  They had people at the front door who were friendly, people in the lobby with big smiles on their faces, welcoming me.  That made a difference.  To come to a church that is new, especially where you don’t know anyone, takes courage.  It feels super awkward, and that is why so many people just stay home.  But in the smaller churches like mine, we know right away when someone new comes. The newcomer knows that too.  So we need to go out of our way to reach out to guests with balance and grace.  We don’t want to overwhelm people.

I encountered a few more things about interacting with guests, about finding that healthy balance of being friendly and welcoming without being overwhelming:

There was the church where, at the end of the service, a guy seated in a pew near me actually engaged me in conversation.  He showed interest in me.  Asked me questions.  It wasn’t overwhelming.  It was just nice, and made me feel like a human.  That should be the minimum we strive for.

At one church I actually stayed for a fellowship meal afterwards.  During the meal people at my table entered into lengthier conversations which was wonderful.

Let us be a people who reach out to guests, and by that I mean actually go to them and talk with them. Ask their name, where they are from. The basics.  Offer to answer any questions about the church.  Invite them to have coffee and tea in the fellowship hall and to stay for classes.  This goes for those who are not just first-time guests.  Reach out to those in your church family who you have seen before but don’t really know.  Even if you have seen them many times.  Reach out.  Make connections.

As you talk, be gracious and non-pressured.  Have in your heart and mind that those seeking a new church family are in a very stressed situation.  Leaving their previous church was likely an emotionally conflicted decision.  Often it came after many months and lots of deliberation.  It is daunting to step foot in a new church.  It means they are being courageous, but they are also often coming to church from a wounded place.

So we need to be gracious.  It is not about us.  We don’t want to give any impression that we are salivating for new people to join us.  It is about God’s Kingdom and what is best for his Kingdom.  We can be gracious and admit that our church might not be the right church family for a person for many reasons.  That’s okay.  We are who we are, and we can be secure in that.  It is okay if guests are looking for a different kind of expression of Christianity than who we are.

The next big thing I learned from visiting other churches is that there were intentional elements of worship services that left me totally confused or distracted.

One church had a lady tastefully waving flags throughout their singing times.  I was aware that some churches do this, but as a guest who had never experienced it before, I had questions that were never answered.  What was the purpose of the flags?  They were green and white.  Did the colors mean anything?  I wish I had understood a little more about what things meant.

At the two liturgical churches I visited, I was really out of place.  The Catholic Church had no bulletin. If I had not gone with friends I would have been totally lost.  Even with my friend’s guidance, there were a few instances where I felt like I was line dancing at a wedding. Have you ever been line dancing, and you have no idea what to do, but you want to join in and not be the awkward one left out?  So you’re watching the person next to you, but you’re constantly late with a step, or totally off, and you feel like everyone in the whole room is watching you make a fool of yourself?  That’s me every time I’ve tried line dancing.  That’s also how I felt at the liturgical churches when there was kneeling or standing or making the sign of the cross.

But hear this: it can be a good thing, a very good thing, to feel out of place and out of your comfort zone.  We also need to remember that most people in our culture do not like that feeling.  Just showing up as a first-time guest will feel like that, no matter what church you are in, simply because it is new, with new people.  How out of place do we want people to feel?  What is the balance?

There are times when we change things up at Faith Church during worship, when we experiment, and we do that purposefully so that we all feel a little out of place.  There is a time for routine and habit, and there is a time for getting uncomfortable, as it can and should cause us to learn.

But I also think it is very healthy, like I said last week, for us to have an honest opinion about ourselves as individuals.  Today I ask that about our large group worship expression.  Are we so different or confusing that we are actually distracting?

Faith Church family reading this, how are we unique or different or odd?  Our open-mic sharing time?  Not a single other church I was in did that.  I suspect it is rare.  Sometimes it is awkward, isn’t it?  But we keep doing it because we believe that all of us are participants in worship.  Sharing the good and the bad is what a family does, and we want to be able support and care for each other.

So let’s be odd, but in a balanced way.  Let’s know how we are odd and why we are odd.  Odd is not always a bad thing.  It’s okay to be doing something different from another.

Fourth, I learned that in every church gathering there was something unintentionally disruptive.  And that gave me great solace because of how often disturbances happen during worship at Faith Church!

At one church a baby cried during the entire sermon.  The parents and baby were sitting up at the very front!  I kept thinking “Why don’t they take that baby out?”  I wondered what the pastor was thinking.  It can be hard to preach when there is disruption. And it can be hard to listen when there is disruption.

At one church the projection system stopped working just before the service started. The computer locked up and the same slide was showing on screen from the time I sat down a couple minutes before the service, through all the welcome and announcements, the whole way to the midway point of the third song.  Before he started playing music, the worship leader deftly mentioned the technical difficulties and led us in beautiful worshipful singing anyway.  In that third song, you could start to the see mouse pointer on screen moving all over the place.  Then finally, they got it working and displayed the correct slide.  I will admit I took some solace in that situation, thinking about all the times we’ve had technical difficulties at Faith Church!

The much larger church I visited had a worship service with no distractions that I noticed.  But after worship there was one major oversight.  They ran out of coffee!  Ha!

Our goal for our worship gathering is not to produce a perfect show.  We want to pursue excellence, for sure.  If we make mistakes, we strive to improve.  But our goal is to worship the Lord, and to help our church family learn from him.  If and when mistakes happen, I encourage you to be gracious and smile.

Finally, I want to talk about what I learned during my visit to the Orthodox Church.  I went to Christ the Savior Orthodox in Harrisburg where my friend is the priest.  Father Stephen and I were in the Clergy Leadership Program together.  The Clergy Leadership Program is a pastoral education program based out of Messiah College, and our cohort met from 2015-2017.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Orthodox church, it has a legitimate claim to be the oldest Christian denomination.  They would say that the Roman Catholic Church broke away from them.  While they are quite similar to Catholics, there are also many differences.  My personal impression is that I felt like the Catholic worship service was mostly familiar.  The Orthodox worship service felt like a whole new ballgame.  I want to describe the Orthodox church for you a bit more in detail because there was an idea that struck me that day, an idea that I want to share with you.

The first thing I noticed was the numerous times throughout the Orthodox service where they used incense.  I like smells.  But I struggled a bit with that smell, which I suspect was frankincense.  I wonder if they can use other smells such as fresh bread?

Incense was not the only way Orthodox worship was so different.  There was no technology, except a couple microphones.  There were no musical instruments.  Zero.  Instead there was a call and response choir in the back.  They did call and response during the entire 2 hour and 15 minute service.  Sometimes we would sing with them.  And did you hear me say that they service was 2 hours and 15 minutes?  Also I would venture a guess that 75% of that time we were standing.  That included a period of about 45 straight minutes of standing during communion at the end of the service.

There was tons of kneeling and bowing and kissing.  Anytime the liturgy mentioned the name of God, they made the sign of the cross, and the liturgy said the name of God a lot!  The service followed a prayer book which was in the pew.  I was constantly flipping pages, thinking I found the right spot, and then getting totally lost, and flipping pages again.  Afterwards my friend told us that the whole time we were in the wrong section of the book!

And then there was the communion part of the service.  I was not allowed to participate in either Catholic or Orthodox communion, because you have to be a member of their churches, and I respect that.  So I observed from my seat.  At the Orthodox church, I had never seen anything like it.  Participants went forward in a single-file line.  They had deacons holding a napkin right under each participant’s chin so as not to drip a single drop of the blood of Christ.  The priest holds a huge goblet, into which is the bread soaked in the wine.  He then dipped a spoon into the goblet, ladled out a piece of wine-soaked bread and spoon-fed it right into the participant’s mouth.  Person by person by person. At the same time the choir in the back was repeating one line over and over, slowly, chant-like, “This is the body of Christ, the fountain of eternal life for you.”  The congregation was singing with the choir during the whole communion.  I think we must have sung that line at least 50 times, maybe more.  My feet hurt, my back hurt, and I admit that I got to a point where I wanted it to be done.

And you know what I thought?  It was actually refreshing.

It was long, smelly, and made my back and feet hurt from all the standing.  It was confusing at times, beautiful at others, and somewhat hard to follow.  Yet I found it refreshing.  Why wasn’t it distracting like some of those other worship services?  You know why?

Because the Orthodox Church is what they have been for centuries, and they stick to that. Furthermore, every single element of worship carries significance.  From the incense to the candles to the kissing and the liturgy and the icons and the spoon-feeding, all of it has a theological underpinning.  There is a beauty to the depth and symbolism of all. I found that super-refreshing.

I get it that other people might find Orthodox worship very distracting.  That’s okay.  To be honest, my feeling of finding it refreshing stems from a couple places.  First, the priest is my friend. I have a personal connection.  Second, I am a pastor, and my feelings were impacted by that.  Let me explain.  A pastor in the Orthodox church doesn’t have to make sure the PowerPoint is good, or that he has great videos, or cool illustrations in his sermons.  There is no pressure to have really awesome worship services to reach people who could just as easily go to the ultra-cool church down the road. They just don’t care about the consumer-minded culture of their people.  And man, that was a breath of fresh air to me.

That is the idea I want to share with you.  We Americans are steeped in a consumer culture, and we bring that to church.  But we should be on guard against that.  A consumer is one who chooses between a multitude of options as to what they like, and they select what they like, and they consume it.  The focus is on them.  The Orthodox church, in how it worships, assaults this notion of the consumer as the focus. Clearly Jesus is the focus.

We low-church protestants tend to give high-church liturgical worship a bad rap.  We say that we don’t see high liturgy anywhere in the New Testament.  The reality is that when I read the New Testament, I also don’t see the kind of worship that non-liturgical churches like ours practice.  What worship is acceptable to Jesus?  Probably all of it, if he is glorified, his word is preached, and people are encouraged to be faithful to God, with an opportunity for the sacraments.

I saw Christ honored in every single one of the churches I visited.  Jesus was glorified at the megachurch, and at the small church. He was glorified at the liturgical churches, and he was glorified at the churches with worship services like Faith Church.  I saw a theme in all the churches I visited: worship should help us stop being self-focused consumers, and reshape us to be God-focused disciples of Jesus.

I don’t think Faith Church is perfect or better than those churches I visited. But I can say that I love where we have come on our journey learning about gathered worship services.  We have learned some important biblical principles that we are trying to apply week in and week out.  Worship, first and foremost, must glorify God.  He is to be the focus of all we do.  Worship should be participatory.  That means including a variety of people in the service.  Worship should be experimental, meaning that we should be teachable learners, admitting that we don’t have the corner on the worship market, and thus willing to try new things from time to time.

That experimental attitude was at the heart of my desire to visit other churches.  It is something I commend to you too.  So at least a couple times each year, go visit a church you’ve never been to, and be a first-time guest, be a learner, worship God with that local expression of what he calls his body, the church, and come back and report on what you learned so that we, this local expression of his body that we call Faith Church, can learn from what you experienced!

How to learn the truth about ourselves (What I learned on sabbatical, Part 3)

24 Apr

Image result for the most difficult thing in life is to know yourself

One of the major events that Michelle and I participated in during sabbatical was the EC Pastoral Assessment Center (PAC).  It was that experience that led us to consider a sermon idea.  But first let me explain PAC.

PAC is basically the starting point for people who are exploring the possibility of becoming pastors in our denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church.  The process starts because the individual has some sense that God might be calling them to pastoral ministry.  So they talk with their pastor, and if things progress, they obtain a recommendation from their pastor, and they apply to attend PAC.  If accepted, they and their spouse must attend PAC together.  It meets at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown for a week every January.

At PAC there are two groups of people.  Candidates and Assessors.  Candidates are the people who would like to become pastors.  Assessors are pastors and pastors’ wives who evaluate the candidates.  Michelle and I were candidates at the January 2003 PAC.  And then at the January 2018 PAC, 15 years later, we were assessors.

Candidates are required to complete a number of assessments before coming to PAC.  Personality Tests, marriage tests, financial statements, leadership tests, and more.  They have to submit fairly extensive paperwork talking about pretty much every aspect of their lives, including why they are interested in pursuing pastoral ministry.

Assessors are given candidate’s info packets prior to PAC.  We read all candidates’ applications and survey results.  Then at PAC, we are placed into assessment small groups where 4-5 assessors are responsible to do deep evaluations and interviews with one candidate and his wife.  Michelle and I were not together in those small groups.

From Wednesday morning until Friday afternoon (by which time the interviews are complete) we assessors are watching every move the candidates make, listening to every word.  Whether it is over meals, in group projects, on down time, and of course during interviews.  Our job as assessors is to observe, to learn, to ask questions, to get to know these candidates as much as we possibly can.

Then on Friday afternoon, all the assessors got together privately and have a big assessor’s-only meeting to decide what our final response is going to be for each candidate.  We give them either a green light, yellow light, red light or no light.  Green means proceed with the process of becoming a pastor in the denomination.  Yellow means proceed with caution, as there are a few issues we want them to work on, but proceed.  Red light means stop, they cannot proceed.  And No light means we are not sure.  Not yes or no, but maybe work on some areas and come see us again in no sooner than two years.

Then after a group worship service on Saturday morning, the assessor small groups meet with each candidate and their wife to tell them our decision.  As you can imagine, it is a tension-filled morning. The candidates are unsure what light they are getting.  The assessors are nervous because, even if our candidates are getting a green light, we are being forced to speak honestly with them.  Green light doesn’t mean they are perfect, and we still want to give them guidance, some suggestions about things to work on.  But the conversations get tougher from there.  Yellow, at least they are moving forward, so an assessor has that going for them when we share the cautions.  But red lights and no lights are just simply tough.

It is very, very hard to speak blunt truth to people.  In Ephesians 4, we are taught to speak the truth in love.  That sounds really nice, with that word “love” in there.  Just love people, right?  The reality is that speaking truth to people can be hard, even if you love them.

As Michelle and I talked about PAC, one of the topics that we came back to time and time again was how hard it is not only to tell people the truth, when it is a truth that we perceive will be hard for the person to receive, but also how hard it is to hear and receive the truth about ourselves.

We came away from PAC convinced that this might be one of the most important issues for disciples of Jesus.  Some of us do not know the truth about ourselves.  Or we do know the truth, deep down inside, but it scares us and thus we avoid it like the plague.

How does it happen that we can have a wrong impression about ourselves?  I’m talking not just people who think that they are called to ministry.  Any of us can miss out on the truth about ourselves.

I think we humans have a natural proclivity to see ourselves in the wrong light.  We are so often harder on ourselves than we need to be. Or we are too quick to let ourselves off the hook or not see ourselves in an accurate light.  In other words, we think we are better than we are.  Or maybe we are really hard on ourselves in one area but are unable to see the truth about ourselves in another area.

Have you ever known the person that has a personality quirk or habit or tendency, and everyone around them knows about this.  The people around them talk about it behind the person’s back.  But the person themselves, the person with the tendency, they seem to have no idea about it.  How is that possible?  And yet we know it is possible, because it happens so much.

How is it possible that people don’t know themselves enough to see something that is obvious to everyone around them?  It could be a long-term habit or quirk or lifestyle choice that has never been addressed, and months or years go by and it becomes ingrained, even feeling normal.  You can forget that it is actually not normal.

In 2000-2001, Michelle and I and our two older boys lived in Kingston, Jamaica for one year.  Tyler and Connor were little then.  Now they are in college (yikes!), but then they were 4 and 3 years old.  And they couldn’t say the letter L quite right.  It came out sounding like the pronunciation of the letter W.  In Jamaica it was particularly noticeable because of all the chameleons that would crawl around our house.  We had screens on the windows and doors, but those things still found ways in the house.  The boys would chase them and try to capture them.  And you know what the boys called them?  Wizards.  Because the speech development phase they were in, lizards became wizards.  It was really cute and funny.  But what if Michelle and I thought, “that is so cute and funny, and we don’t want that to change”?  And what if we never taught them how to pronounce the letter L?  They could have gone for years pronouncing it wrong, and kids in school might have mocked them, and why? Because we never took our parental responsibility to love them enough to teach them the correct pronunciation.

This is not just about little children and correct pronunciation.  I am talking about older children, teens, adults, and even older adults who do not know the truth about themselves.  I am not saying the some people are completely deceived about every part of their lives.  But I do think that many of us might have at least a small part of our lives that we are misinformed about, or maybe we misunderstand, or perhaps have misinterpreted, and in that area we might not know the truth about ourselves.  The result is that we are hampered in our ability to have healthy relationships with God and with others.  We might be hampered in our ability to serve the Lord.

I would go so far as to say that we might be actively deceiving ourselves about this reality, or we might be totally unaware.  And sometimes the people who know us best are totally aware of the truth about us, but they are not telling us the truth!  Why?

Because it is crazy hard for some people to talk personally and deeply with us.  They don’t want to offend.  They think, “I should talk with them, but…maybe my friend is doing is not really that bad…and I’m scared to hurt their feelings.”

It can be hard to talk with people about the deep inner parts of their lives.  Maybe a friend you love is extra negative but unaware of it.  Maybe a family member criticizes quickly and it’s hurtful.  Maybe you know someone who frequently talks about themselves.  Or maybe someone in your life is bossy or has a bit too much of the “know-it-all” attitude. Those things are heart attitudes.  They need to be addressed.  Whether they are in you or in your friends.

You and I and anyone cannot be disciples of Jesus unless we are willing to place every, single last element of our lives under the lordship of Jesus.  If we think about it, we should want to place ourselves under his lordship, under his control, because he cares about us, about every part of our lives, more than we can ever imagine.  Jesus’ death and resurrection means that we no longer need to be slaves to sin.  We can be set free to become the new creatures that he wants us be.

As Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 5:17: In Christ you are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.

A big way we experience that new life is to actively seek out the truth about ourselves. The people around us, those who love us, just might not be able to tell us the truth about ourselves.  And we should not trust ourselves to have an honest, healthy, balanced opinion about ourselves.

How then do we get a true perspective on ourselves, our personality, our tendencies, our behavior?

It starts with humility, teachability, actively seeking out the truth.  Actively opening ourselves to others’ opinions about us.  Not becoming a doormat where people mistreat us, but instead having a willingness to be receptive to the fact that maybe we don’t have things all figured out, and maybe our view of ourselves is not accurate.

How do we get this balanced view of who we are?

First of all, we need to know God’s view of who we are.  What is God’s view of who we are? 

Right at the very beginning of the Bible, we are taught that God made us in his image. Read Genesis 1 to see what I mean.  I know that the concept of the image of God can be a difficult one.  We have a will, we have intellect, and we have a limited amount of creative ability. All those are like God. We can have relationships, love, etc.  These are amazing gifts from God, and ways in which we are made in his image.

We can know then, that we are loved by God, because he created us, because he gave us Jesus, who through his birth, life, death and resurrection made it possible for us to have access to God.  Read Hebrews 10, and reflect on the amazing work that Jesus did for us.

Michelle is doing a couple different studies right now, and one of them had this quote that we thought helped to explain this.  “The Creator is the Searcher – the initiating Seeker – who does not seek in order to learn.  Omniscience leaves no gaps to fill or caves to mine.  But, still God seeks us.  The God of the universe seeks us, at least in part, for the pure pleasure of knowing those by whom He longs to be known.” (Beth Moore, The Quest)  So the God of the universe intimately loves you.  Start with that and rest in that.  No matter the truths that are out there to be learned and understood about you, the God of the universe seeks to be with you and to be known by you.  He loves you.

The result of knowing that we are made in God’s image and he loves us is that we have a solid emotional, spiritual, intellectual, relational foundation in him.  Remember that parable that Jesus told at the end of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, that we can build our life on him, the Rock, and if we do so, we cannot be shaken?  That is a crucial teaching by Jesus.  We can get to the point where can be stable, we can accept criticism, and we can benefit from it.  In other words, we can hear the truth about ourselves without being crushed by it.  Actually because we have Jesus as our foundation, our support, our strength, we can learn from God and others about the truth about ourselves.

Therefore, on a regular basis, ask God to help you know the truth about yourself.  The great King David of Israel in Psalm 139 gives us a prayer we can prayer, asking God to speak to us about who we really are.  David begins the psalm describing how God knows him thoroughly.  There is nothing about our lives hidden from God.  Then David concludes with these powerful words, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  What a great prayer to pray to learn the truth!

During sabbatical I learned another excellent prayer that can help us learn the truth.  Created by St. Ignatius, it is called the Prayer of Examen.  It is a prayer you can pray anytime, but I find it especially fitting for the end of the day. Through the Prayer of Examen, you are asking God to help you examine your life so you can learn the truth about who you are.  I use an Android phone, and on the Google Play store I found an excellent Prayer of Examen app that guides you through the prayer.  The app is called Reimagining the Examen by Loyola Press.  Check it out.  Consider making it a daily practice.

Next, after asking God to speak truth to you, do you have people who speak bold truth to you?

I sat through PAC thinking to myself that every disciple of Jesus needs to go through that kind of evaluation.  I don’t mean that everyone should pursue becoming a pastor.  But all those tests and evaluations and interviews could be just as useful for any disciple of Jesus.  The reality, though, is that we so rarely place ourselves under evaluation.

I think a disciple of Jesus should aggressively pursue deep evaluation of themselves.  And by that I don’t mean that I believe everyone has secrets or hidden parts of their lives or personality quirks that you need to own up to.  What I mean is that a disciple of Jesus is a person who is desperate for new life in Christ.  That means getting all the areas of your life out in the open.

It is a process, and it requires cultivating humility in your life.

Consider the example of David and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25:32-34 and 39. Abigail had a loser of a husband, Nabal. Nabal was super arrogant, and disrespectful, and even after David and his men had helped Nabal’s men, Nabal unwilling to return the favor to David when David needed assistance.  So David is angry, and starts making preparations to attack Nabal.  Nabal’s wife, Abigail, hears what went down, she knows that Nabal was a jerk who wouldn’t listen to anyone, and so she takes it upon herself to ride out and meet David.  She begs for David not to attack.  David, unlike Nabal, is a man who will listen to people.  David acknowledges that if it wasn’t for Abigail’s intervention, David would have made a huge mistake in attacking Nabal.  David was stable enough, humble enough, teachable enough to listen to Abigail.  And in that society, listening to a woman was radical.  David was practicing what his son Solomon would write about years later in the Proverbs.  There are loads of Proverbs that apply to this story and to our topic today.  Here a few examples:

  • Proverbs 10:17 – he who heeds discipline shows the way of life
  • 12:1 – Whoever loves discipline, loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.  (Dang. The Bible called people “stupid”!)
  • 14:8 – The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception.
  • 19:20 – Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.

We could go on and on.   The book of Proverbs is filled with amazing wisdom like that.

So the final step in becoming a person who seeks the truth about themselves is to ask others to speak to you.  There are two sides to this.  We need to be people who actively seek the truth about ourselves, even if it is scary.  We need to be people who speak the truth in love to others.

And, ask for it.  When we were PAC candidates we knew we were asking others to get to know a lot about the ins and outs of our worlds, our marriage, our finances.  All candidates going through PAC know they are asking for this examination.  Even if the results might be difficult to hear.  Who do you need to ask?  It isn’t everyone’s business to know and see everything going on in our worlds.  But it should be someone’s.  Who sees you, knows you and can be given permission to speak difficult truths to you?  And who can also speak edifying and uplifting truths to you and help you to accept those truths as well?

It is a difficult, tricky situation.  Truth speakers are far and few between, and they can easily speak too much, too harshly and hurt people.  We can speak truth to people who we hardly know and hardly spend time with, thinking we know them better than we do, and we really ought to be quiet.  Truth speakers need to be investing in time with God and asking Him if/when is the right way/time to speak. Paul reminds us in Galatians 6 that not everyone should confront others.  Some truth speakers have no business speaking because they lack self-control and spiritual maturity.  But we need to give truth speakers grace. They have a tough job because when they do speak truth to people they know, the people they are speaking to so rarely receive it well. So truth speakers out there, you would do well to dwell in the Proverbs too:

  • Proverbs 15:4 – The tongue that brings healing is the tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
  • Proverbs 25:11 – A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (In other words, it is worth a lot.  We should be people who see how valuable it is to speak words of truth in love.  And we should seek them about ourselves.)

In conclusion, here’s an idea: force yourself to go through a Disciple Assessment Center.  I don’t think one exists though!  So get a coach.  A person who will disciple you.

Get 5 or 6  people to meet with you, sit in a circle, and ask them all to speak brutally honestly to you in answering the question, “How do I come across to you?”

I came away from PAC and sabbatical thinking that I need to do better at speaking truth in love.  In sermons, and in large group meetings, it is easier for me.  I feel a certain distance from the crowd.  I am not preaching to one person, I am preaching to all.  I don’t have a particular person in mind as I speak. I am preaching and speaking a message that I feel is either straight from the passage of scripture or on a topic that I feel God has for us as a whole to study and learn about.  So it doesn’t feel personal.

But one on one I struggle to say anything that it is a critique because it can seem so in-your-face.  The result is that I too often say nothing, too often let people off the hook, and just focus on encouragement.  I need to get better at that.  Because care breeds truth.  Jesus was 100% truth.  And Jesus was 100% grace.  That is a near impossible combination for us to get right, as usually we err on one side or the other.  Maintaining a healthy tension between the two is the goal.  Truth with love/grace.

This kind of truth-telling is the heart behind our Faith Church logo and resulting Growth Process.  Our Growth Process asks each person in the Faith Church family to start by evaluating themselves.  Where are you on the four boxes in the Faith Church logo? Who can help you have an honest, balanced, healthy assessment of that?

Who is discipling you?  Who speaks bluntly to you?  Who encourages you in good and in bad?  And who are you encouraging in truth and grace?  Who are you in relationship with and how can you grow in these areas?

And are you a humble, teachable person who is willing to receive correction?  To the point where you actually start to work on making changes?  It is one thing to hear the truth, totally another thing to do something about it. Are you looking for it?  Willing to ask for it?

If you feel like finding the truth about yourself is difficult or scary, there is hope. God is in the business of making all things new.

I love Ephesians 3:14-21.  We can be strengthened inwardly by the Spirit of God, so that Christ may dwell in us by faith.  Amazing words!  That is how much God loves us and that is what Jesus did for us.

It’s a bit unnerving, but we all want to grow.  Being more like Jesus is the goal.  It won’t be easy, but it will be so good.  Why? Paul explains in Ephesians 3: so that we can be rooted and established in love, having power to grasp how wide, long, high and deep the love of God is, and so that we can know this love!  So that we can filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. And then that love will overflow in a way that can be understood by ourselves and by the world around us. Amazing!

How Distracted I Was From God (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 2)

19 Apr

Image result for distracted by screens

On January 1st, I started a sabbatical daily log.  On that day I wrote three paragraphs about what was happening in the life of the Kime Family, and mixed in there were these five words:

“I deactivated my Facebook account.”

For those of you who use Facebook, deactivating your account might feel like a big deal.  Especially if you use it a lot, like I did.

For those of you who don’t have Facebook, or rarely use it, you might be thinking, “no big deal.”

I urge you all to stay with me here.  Because there is more to the story.  The next part of the story happened this week.

I was at the pet store this week.  Buying dog food.  Row after row of choices…for my dog.  When we got him, he had been at the Humane League because his previous owners couldn’t care for him.  He was sick from drinking pond water on their property.  So the Humane League put him on special dog food for “Sensitive Digestion”.  In other words, my dog is a vegetarian, and there is dog food for that.

No surprise, though.  That is just like nearly any store, for nearly any product; we live in a society with so many choices.

We have been trained up from birth to be consumers.  We have been told by our society that we should have a lot of choices, that we should get to pick between 50 kinds of chips, or cars, or anything.  And so we have grown up under the influence of Consumerism, what Webster’s defines as “the theory that a greater progressive consumption of goods is beneficial.”

This applies to all of us: we are consumers in a consumerist society. We want our choices, we want to buy things, and when we use them up, we want more and better things.  Our approach to media is no different: we consume media.

We live in a media-soaked world.  I’m not just talking about social media, but also television, radio (especially talk radio), podcasts, sports, movies, publishing, music, and advertising.  Think about how much media you are exposed to in one day’s time.  Seriously, count it up.  How many hours of media do you consume every day?

In my own family, there can be some sort of screen/media, whether it is social media, Xbox, TV shows, Netflix, podcast, playing nearly all waking hours. There are times when we are watching TV on one big screen, working on our laptops with smaller screens, and checking our phones at the same time!

So when I think about the fact that I deactivated my Facebook account on January 1st, it is curious to me that in my sabbatical journal, all I said was those five words, “I deactivated my Facebook account.”

Why is that curious?  Because at the time, it felt like a bigger deal.  I thought there would be sirens or explosions or something.  But there was nothing.  I worried it would negatively affect my life.  But as far as I can tell, not having Facebook in my life, has not affected me negatively at all.  That surprised me.

Why?  Well, I had spent a lot of time on Facebook over the years.  I started in 2008, I think.  Over ten years, all the hours and hours reading posts, liking, sharing, and commenting.  Being in the know.  Posting, wanting people to like my posts, to share my posts.  Checking.  Updating.  Checking again.

Simply put, Facebook was a big part of my life.

That’s why deactivating it felt emotional.  Like I was cutting off something.  I would no longer be in the know.  But I had a sense that I needed to do this for sabbatical, so I did it.

I have been off Facebook for three and a half months, and I don’t think I’m going back.  Yeah, I miss out on things.  But if there is something important, Michelle lets me know. Just last week she told me about friends expecting a baby! She found out on Facebook. But since I deactivated my account, there have been surprisingly few important things that I missed. Instead I feel free.  More on that later in this post.

I feel free from Facebook, but there is more consumerism in my life than just Facebook.

As I looked over my sabbatical daily log, I found another trend. Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety.  The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about distraction.

I realized that I was a consumer of distraction.  Social media was only one way I was distracted.  How about you?  Are you a consumer of distraction?  And distraction from what?

A few days after I deactivated my Facebook account, I wrote this:

“I think right now, at this early phase of the sabbatical, I am realizing, painfully, how much distraction I have had in my life.  My life has been drowning in distraction. So as I think about sabbatical, what I have found thus far, in the brief moments I have removed distraction, is that I am alone with myself. And I can’t say that I like it.”

In those early days and weeks of sabbatical, once I had cleared away some distraction in my life, guess what I found?  I found a person with anxiety, a bit too cranky, a person looking for a distraction when I really needed to just be present for my family, or be alone with myself and my God.  All that anxiety I talked about last week?  I would use social media, TV, and phone games to try to distract myself from the anxiety.

I was surprised to learn that social media might have made it worse!

One report in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 people.

Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.

You know what the study found? The more time someone uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.

Another study said that “all social media platforms use something called intermittent variable rewards.

“Imagine a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable means you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won.

“What you are winning on social media?  A new follower, a comment, someone liking what you posted.  And what happens, the researchers found, is that you become more discouraged and depressed when people don’t give you the likes.  Just like slot machines, when it comes to getting rewards out of social media, you often lose more than you win.”

So, for me, what started out as a good way to connect with the kids in the youth group (that’s when I activated and started my FB account, when we were youth pastors here and interacting with the kids in youth group), became too much of a regular part of my day and world. I could scroll through the news feed endlessly. To justify that use of time, I would say that I was I was learning about how things are going with people.  But as I look back on it, I was mostly distracted.

I have no doubt that social media, screen time, talk radio, reading fiction books, or whatever is a distraction for you, is not all bad.  But it can become a major distraction.  What is a healthy balance to use of media?

That is a question each person needs to answer for themselves.  And it starts with simply admitting that you can be distracted.  For me, it was a battle in my mind.  I didn’t want to admit that I was so distracted by social media and phone games.

Ask yourself this: how distracted are you? If you are spending more time watching TV than you do with your family or with God, then perhaps that is a yellow flag for you.  Think about how much time you read books, listen to talk radio, watch movies and Netflix.  Are you giving loads of time to those things, but little to God?  That might be a yellow flag to investigate.

When we do a time study of our lives, will we find that we have been distracted from spending time with God and from spending time with the important people in our lives?

We are consumers who can very readily seek to satisfy the desires of our hearts, our longings, our need for satisfaction through distractions like social media, through sports, through television, through phone games, and we will find that those outlets do not satisfy.  There is one place to find the satisfaction we crave: in the presence of the Lord.

Do you ever feel that desire to be in the presence of the Lord, but it seems impossible or irrational? If we hear ourselves saying, or if we think to ourselves, that we feel distant from God, or that we don’t hear God speak, is it because we are so distracted?

During sabbatical, I read the book Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, and here is a quote that hit me between the eyes, “God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him.  We complain that he does not make himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door, and we answer, “I am busy, I am sorry.” Or we do not answer at all because we do not hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain about the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is.”

When I thought about my life, I knew Bloom was describing me.  The way I treated God would have been a relationship-killer if it was a human.  Imagine that was how you treated your spouse, or your best friend.  Imagine you gave them only 5, 10, or 15 minutes each day, and during that short time, all you did was spout off a list of things you wanted them to do.  When you were done with your list, you said goodbye, and you didn’t talk with them again until you read a new list again the next day, and the next, and the next.  During any of these brief daily meetings you did not ask how they were doing, or listen to what they had to say.  How would that work out for your relationship?  It will kill that relationship.  And yet, Bloom says, that is how we can treat God, and have the gall to blame him for not talking to us.  I don’t know if that describes you. It sure did me.

But hear this amazing good news: Because of what Jesus did, through his death and resurrection, we can have access to God our father.  The God of the universe wants to be with us!  Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden walking and talking with God.  Think of the Prodigal Son returning home and his father wrapping his arms around his son in a huge welcoming hug.  These are pictures of what God wants.  And we can avail ourselves of that. We can spend time with him!

In Hebrews we read that Jesus is our great high priest who opened the door for us to have access to God.  That is good news!

In James we read “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That is good news!

What do you need to do about the distraction in your life?  What do you need to do to spend time in God’s presence?  I invite you to take action.  For me, Facebook had to go.  Games on my phone had to go.  More distraction still might need to go.  I had to learn about listening prayer, and I had to open up space in my life to make room for it.

Another article I found described a recent experiment where people voluntarily opened space in their lives. “The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.

Conclusion: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.”

The author then shared numerous examples of how people’s lives, freed from distraction, improved:

–> An engineer realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).

–> A writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.

–>  A retired stockbroker began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.

–> A PhD candidate described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”

–> A government worker replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.

Look at the amazing thing that happened when people removed distraction, and opened space in their lives!  Imagine what could happen if we do the same for God?

Maybe you’re not a social media person, will consider a break from TV?  Author Tim Willard gives the following advice:

First, you must be devoted to getting off your couch and turning the TV off. That’s step one. Stop trolling social media for people talking about the next new great show, ranting about how much they hate basically everything they don’t agree with.

It’s all digital noise, literally. Then shut off your TV for a year. See how that grabs you. One thing I switched up, I watercolor paint with my daughters every single night.

“But Tim, I don’t paint.” Excellent! Neither do I! Been afraid to my whole life. So, I got some good paints, good brushes, good paper, and I’m learning. I’ve missed maybe four days since the first of the year. The girls love it. We play classical music, light some incense, and laugh and compare paintings.

It’s the best parenting move I’ve done yet, I think.

I don’t watch television as it is. But this year, I’m not watching any programming. I stopped watching news channels and ordered a paper. It’s tough, and I’ve had to sacrifice, but it’s been so worth it. Ask my daughters.

Get some ideas, get devoted, and start doing things with real people, with your real hands. Make, create, mess up. It’s quite liberating.

Second, Willard says, Get radical and don’t look at your phone as soon as you roll out of bed. Let your first thirty minutes be making tea or coffee and reading something, like, I don’t know, a real Bible, or devotional, or something inspiring. Perhaps usually something by King David or that murderous chap, Paul.

I guarantee that if you attempt this, it will begin to rewire your brain. It will change your rhythm. And you’ll fight it at first. You’ll think you need to check the weather, or just hold your phone like “my precious.” But you don’t. Just be alive. Walk outside. And breathe deep the real analog world.

Third, Take a walk at lunch, and listen. What do you hear? Probably that’s the sounds of God rolling into your ears.

Fourth, listen to music.  Something quiet. Something that ministers to your frazzled spirit. I listen to Bach while I’m grabbing something to read. But most mornings, it’s just me, my tea, my Moleskine and the quiet blue morning.

You should read Tim’s whole article. There’s much more great advice.

What is one way you can remove distraction in your life today?  Then, and this is the exciting part, how will you use your freedom?  Be creative! Include God!

My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)

13 Apr

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A week before my sabbatical began, we went to see Star Wars.  It has become a family tradition these past three years.  My dad’s birthday is December 29th, and so he takes my brother, sister, me and our kids to see the movie together.  There were 14-15 of us this year!  I love being with my family, and I was so excited for the movie.  I love Star Wars.  Finally we were going to learn more about Luke Skywalker, and the movie was directed by a guy whose previous work I really like.  It was going to be great.

Except that it didn’t turn out great.  I’m not referring to the movie.  The movie was awesome.  I’m talking about me.  Halfway through the movie, sitting between my dad and sister, I started feeling feverish, shaking and sweating profusely.  I wondered to myself if my dad and sister could notice.  I really hoped they did not notice.  I was dripping sweat, feeling like I could vomit.  I didn’t want them to know.

After 10-15 minutes of this, I got up and walked out to use the restroom, wipe my face, and get a drink.  It helped, but back in my seat, I started shaking and sweating again, and couldn’t focus on the movie. I closed my eyes and tried breathing slowly.  I had grabbed some paper towels in the bathroom, so that helped with the sweating.  I don’t think I fully stopped shaking until hours later at home.

Was it the flu?  A fever?  Nope.

It was anxiety, panic.  Along with the physical symptoms I described, there was a swirling spiral of negative thoughts:  “Something is deeply wrong with me.  Am I about to have a heart attack?  Is this it? Am I going to die?”

If you’re thinking, “What in the world is he talking about?,” let me explain.  I am telling you that I struggle with anxiety and stress, and sometimes it results in panic attacks.  I have mentioned it only the slightest bit over the last few years.  Just a hint in a sermon or two.  But today I am telling the whole story.  Anxiety has been a very real part of my life since the summer of 2015. I’m telling you about it today because anxiety was the defining feature of my first month of sabbatical. I felt it was time to talk about it.

It is one of those parts of life that I am never quite sure if and when and how to talk about it.  It’s deeply personal, and Michelle and I have had to give a lot of thought and prayer into when would be the right time.  From the beginning of my struggle in 2015 I made our church leaders aware, as well as some close friends and long-term confidantes.  But quite frankly we weren’t sure how to talk about it in a public way because my anxiety stems from my role as pastor.  I don’t want to come across as accusatory to the church.  I also don’t want to come across as trying to start a pity party or a “poor me” article.  Michelle and I knew what we signed up for.  Pastoral ministry is fraught with intense situations, and often ones in which the pastor and his family are in the cross-hairs. I found the following stats:

  • 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed.
  • 90% are fatigued and worn out every week
  • 50% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner every month
  • 80% will not be in ministry after 10 years
  • 70% are constantly fighting depression

We also get to experience many joys in being a pastor, pastor’s wife, and pastoral family.  It is a unique role, where you are uniquely involved in people’s lives.  The joy, the happiness, and brokenness, the pain.  All of it.

So in order to avoid coming across as accusatory or like I wanted a pity party, we felt it best not to share publicly.  Until now.  We decided that now is the time to share this for a few reasons. First, I hope I have communicated clearly enough that you already know that I am not perfect, but we felt it was time for you to know this particular struggle. Pastors are people too. Second, for those of you who also struggle with mental illness, with stress, anxiety, depression, and the like, we want you to know that there is hope!

So let’s go back a few years.  Really I need to go back a lot further than that.  Anxiousness and worry is a bit of a family trait.  I come by it somewhat genetically, and I’ve always, from a little child, had struggles with worrying, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and such.  If a relationship in my life was not going well, I took it hard.  In the first half of 2015 there were multiple very difficult multiple-year situations in the church that came to a head.  Our Leadership Team handled them with grace and truth and was amazing, and by June 2015 those situations were resolved.

Then there was the trip to Kenya, which was wonderful.  But as leader, I carried the weight of responsibility, and nearing the end of the trip, as we rode in the bus from Kijabe where Lamar & Janice live and work, headed to the capital city of Nairobi, I had a brief and less intense attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and figured it was motion sickness, or something with altitude change.

In the two weeks after the Kenya trip, I spent loads of time and energy trying to complete all the loan paperwork to get our eldest son money to go to college, another loan for a laptop, and my stress levels had only increased.  One morning, after working out, I dropped our middle son off at soccer practice, and started having pains in my chest.

That did me in.  Pretty much from that day mid-August 2015 for the following two months, I went through a nonstop stress-induced agony.  I couldn’t stop shaking, and I had tightness and pain in my chest.  The chest pains scared me, and the fear kicked off even more anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle.  I saw my doctor, and he ordered tests.  A plethora of medical tests all came up clear.  My doctor also prescribed Xanax, and it was a bit helpful, but the anxiety continued.

After a few weeks, my doc suggested a maintenance med for anxiety, Lexapro.  I started on it, and initially things got worse.  Lexapro caused was a weird burning sensation in my thigh.  I couldn’t sleep for the better part of three nights.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  I called the doc in a panic. He said press on, my body was just get used to the medication.  I had started counseling with my seminary prof, and I’ll never forget that first session when I was a mess, crying in his office.

But slowly my body got used to the Lexapro, and little by little, week by week, my anxiety subsided.  I could sleep again.  From time to time the pains continued, and they would get me scared.  I learned to fight those fears.  My heart was fine. The medical tests proved I was fine.  I was just stressed out.  Very stressed out.  And that wasn’t good.

So I continued counseling which was amazing. I learned so much.  I went back to working out after taking a month off.  I started reading books my counselor recommended to learn coping techniques.

Over the next 18 months I improved enough that in the Spring of 2017 I saw my doc again, and we agreed that I could go off Lexapro.  I started doing a gradual draw-down, and by summer I finished taking medication.  But really, while on the meds I had hardly any side effects.  So I want you to hear me clearly on this: for those struggling with mental illness, meds can be a lifesaver.  They were for me, and I would go back on them if needed.

Back to December 2017 at Penn Cinema, watching Star Wars.  That panic attack was a bit of shocker.  It wasn’t the first.  I’ve had a handful of them.  Though it was the strongest one since the initial instances in the summer of 2015.  I doubt it will be the last one.  I’ve learned I can’t totally predict when I will have an anxiety attack. And yet, that is not totally true. If I’m willing to give it some thought, I can read the signs.  For example, in the last month before sabbatical, I had a number of stressors.  Prep for sabbatical was the big one.  I wanted sabbatical to go really well for Faith Church.  So I was nervous about going on sabbatical.  That was on top of the regular, day in and day stressors of what being a pastor entails.

Take the intensity of Star Wars, combined with my excitement about it, laid on top of those work stressors, and there you have the warning signs.  That said, it doesn’t fully make sense to me why an anxiety attack would hit right then.  And it makes me angry because it ruined the movie.   But, one thing I have learned is that when the anxiety comes out it is rarely about what is actually happening when it appears. It has been building, and I have not been pausing and working through stress as it occurs, and then it just erupts. My body is saying to me “enough!”

A few days after the movie, sabbatical started. As I read through my sabbatical journal this in preparation for this sermon, I was blown away by how much I mentioned stress and anxiety throughout the month of January.  If you thought that I went on sabbatical January 1st and was able to have a sigh of relief and peace, you were wrong.  My stress and anxiety got worse when sabbatical started.

Here is what I wrote on January 14th: “I have no reason to feel anxiety, stress, shaking, nervousness.  And yet it is there.  I don’t know what it is like for a person going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  But I’ve seen the dramatic depictions on TV or movies, and I’ve read accounts in books.  No doubt those are different kinds of withdrawal than what I am experiencing.  But I feel something similar.”

I didn’t have another panic attack during those first two weeks, but I had a heightened level of anxiety and stress, a shakiness and nervousness that lingered pretty much the whole time.  And then something eye-opening happened.

We had our small group on Friday January 12.  I felt anxiety most of the day Friday, but as our friends walked in the house, and we sat around our table, the anxiety and tightness in my chest and arm all but dissipated.  Inwardly I recognized it right away and thought, “Woah…what just happened?” You might think it was good that I found peace, and it was.  But to have two straight weeks of stress and anxiousness, and then in a matter of minutes have it be gone?  It was weird.  What was happening to me?

The thought came to mind that in those first few weeks of sabbatical I had been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.  Actual physical symptoms of withdrawal.  Like I was in a kind of detox.  It was so interesting that my symptoms just about disappeared during Care Group.  Why?

I think it is a combination of things.  First, I think Care Group was a distraction from my thoughts, from being with myself.  During Care Group I am focused on other people, on the conversation, on the study.  And that is okay.  Those are good things. I don’t think all distractions are bad.  And it might not even be fair to call it a distraction.  Care Group is an activity that is healthy.

Second, it could be that Care Group was a brief return to my “job”.  Like a drug addict getting a fix.  It was eerie how fast it happened that night.

What was going on inside me during those first few weeks?  I call it “feeling stressy” or “anxious”, but it is not just a typical kind of feeling stress on anxiety.  Instead it is the downward spiral of thoughts that gets worse and worse.  In the two weeks prior I had allowed too much self-focus can turn to wallowing. It’s good to know what’s going on in my life, but not healthy to be so self-focused.  Care Group, in part, turned my thoughts outward.

Care Group didn’t cure me.  The stress came right back the next day.  As the month of January went on, I had much time to reflect on my anxiety.  What I have learned is that I have situational anxiety.  Meaning, if I have nothing stressful going on in my life, I generally feel at peace.  But if I have stress going on, my body now reacts, and quickly.

The point, then, is learning how to deal with stress in a way that is faithful to God.  There are many ways to deal with stress.  Not all of them are faithful.  Our world is full of unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  You and I know them and can list them.

For me, I would often distract myself with my phone.  Social media.  Games.  I started sabbatical, though, knowing I needed to bring my struggle with anxiety before God in a new way.   Looking back over the last few years, I can see an arc of progress, healing and hope.  But I also knew that things could be way better.

So on January 1st, I got rid of all the games, and I deactivated my Facebook account.  I had no sermon to write, no meetings, no emails, no visits, no phone calls, no office to get away to.  I had nothing distracting me.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone with myself, my family and God, and my stress.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had a practice of personal devotions, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer.  So why did experience God in a new way during sabbatical?  What was new was that everything else I was using to distract myself from stress and anxiety was gone.  I was feeling it all the time, and that intensified the battle in my mind.  So I started reading and practicing new prayer disciplines.  Trying to sit more in God’s presence and listen.  A friend from church gave me the book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An anxious evangelical finds peace with God through contemplative prayer, which gave some very solid advice.  I read The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a world of Distraction, which was so helpful.

Then at on my first three-day personal retreat Twin Pines I had the first deep opportunity to learn and practice the presence of God in a more sustained way.  That retreat was at the end of the first month of sabbatical, and it was the turning point.  I could literally feel the stress subside as I turned the corner and drove onto Twin Pine’s campus.  I realized I should have been doing personal retreats with God for years.  I had talked about doing them, and I never did.

As a result, I can tell you that the second and third months of sabbatical were very different from the first.

Consider with me Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You read a verse like that and it is easy to think that anxiety is wrong.  Sinful.  Did Paul mean that true Christians won’t struggle with anxiety?  And if we do struggle with anxiety then are we bad followers of Jesus who don’t trust in him?  What Christian hasn’t had at least a little bit of anxiety, stress, worry?  Maybe the rare person?

For many years I had a mindset that Christians should not struggle with anxiety to the point of taking meds or seeing a counselor.  There is within Christian circles an unwritten expectation that we have to put on a smile and give a false expression that things are okay.  No doubt, as Christians we are called to rejoice, be joyful, glad.  But does that mean we should never feel anxiety?

There have been Christians through the ages that have committed the heresy of docetism, denying the humanity of Christ, saying that his perfection meant that that he didn’t feel pain, didn’t have stress or anxiety.  That is heresy.

Consider Hebrews 2:14-17 which teaches that Jesus “…shared in [our] humanity…” and that “he had to be made like [us], fully human in every way…” and that “[b]ecause he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I would submit to you that that was one reason Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested was purposefully included in the Bible to show us in very clear terms that he too went through anxiety and stress.

Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean, therefore, that the presence of anxiety and stress and worry in your life means that you are sinful.  Jesus had it in his life too.  We certainly saw him frustrated with people and showing that emotion, and stress usually comes with frustration. Instead Philippians 4:6-7 is a wonderful teaching for those in the middle of anxiety, that there is hope, that we can do something about it.  We should take our concerns to the Lord, with thanksgiving, and seek him for peace.

Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast your cares on him, because he cares for you.”

When you lose a loved one, for example, you will still feel grief and anxiety. It doesn’t mean that you are not a true Christian or a spiritual person.  Take your situation to the Lord and seek peace in him.

Another wonderful teaching is James 1 which says, “consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds”.  Consider it joy?  I hate hard times.  I want them to stop.  Why would I ever consider them joy?  Well, James is saying, in other words, use your mind to control your emotions.  That is nearly identical to a therapeutic method called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically it can be summarized as “Tell yourself the truth.”

That one is hard for me.  Anxiety is a battle in my mind.  Just ask Michelle; she’s needed to be a teller of truth in this area to me for most of our marriage, and certainly for our 15 years here at Faith Church. I have learned, though, that telling ourselves the truth is possible.

Psalm 46:10 is another classic reminder of how to tell ourselves the truth: “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist tells us that we can trust in God.  Sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and reflect on that.  In the midst of stress and anxiety, we tend to be very frantic and forgetful of reality.  But to be still means that we need to sit with God.  It takes time, it takes effort and it takes work to bestill before God and to tell ourselves the truth of who he is and what he has done.

In conclusion, let me say that I am not perfect.  I am not healed.

Sabbatical didn’t cure me.  That wasn’t the purpose of sabbatical.  But I do think I learned a lot.  In particular that I need to “be still and know that God is God” on a regular basis.  I need to get away and spend time with God.  My two personal retreats at Twin Pines were so good.  For years I said that I needed to do that, but never took it seriously.  Now I plan to take a personal retreat at Twin Pines every six months.

I also learned that I need to practice prayer disciplines of sitting before God daily, still, quiet, listening.  I certainly was a pastor who prayed.  But I need to become a pastor, a person, who is praying differently. For sabbatical I got rid of all social media and games on my phone to rid myself of those distractions.  I am committed to not bringing them back, and to replacing that time with more prayer, especially listening prayer.

Another helpful practice is to learn about anxiety. I started reading the book The End of Worry, and I encourage you to do the same.  Learn about stress and anxiety.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, exercise!  God made us to move!  And when we move, it has scientifically proven emotional benefits.

Finally, if you are feeling like you are losing the battle with anxiety and stress, please talk it over with your doctor, about the possibility of medicine as part of the solution.   Get in touch with professional counselors.  Some of you may need to change your view on the importance of medicine and counseling.  And, sit with our God.  Sit with Jesus.  Learn to rest in Him in a new way.

So, I am back…and there will be and there will be more difficult and stressful situations, as ministry is hard. But I feel excited about what God has taught me about this battle and I am excited to jump back in with these new habits and lessons He has graciously taught me. Thus I invite you to join me in addressing stress and anxiety in your life.

Why I am Going on a Three-month Sabbatical

3 Jan

I started sabbatical January 1st.  For the first three months of 2018 I will put my pastoral duties on pause.

I have so much gratitude to Faith Church for allowing this, and for facilitating it.  Over the last few years, as the church considered and planned for the sabbatical, there have been numerous people in the congregation who have invested much time and energy to make it a reality, and I deeply appreciate it.  Now, as I begin my sabbatical, I look at how many people in our church family are serving in new and different ways just so I can go on sabbatical.  That is incredibly meaningful to me.

As I start the sabbatical, I am keenly aware that most people don’t get a sabbatical and could never dream of one.  Sabbaticals seem most common in the educational realm, especially in higher education.  But in my congregation, filled with hard-working professionals, a sabbatical is unheard of for most.  So I’ve wrestled a lot with whether or not I should even want one in the first place.  When so many people in my church family work in fields that don’t offer sabbaticals, maybe I shouldn’t get one either.  Like me, they work long hours in sometimes difficult jobs.  What makes me different?

In most ways, I’m not different.  In other ways, very different.  For example, my denomination recommends that pastors receive a sabbatical from their church every 7 years of ministry.  I started full-time at Faith Church as Youth/Associate Pastor in October 2002.  Then in July 2008 I became Senior Pastor.  I started talking about sabbatical in 2009 when I hit the seven-year mark of full-time ministry.  But having just become senior pastor the year before, my wife and I decided to hold off on that discussion.  Once I reached seven years as senior pastor, I brought it up again.  So I am within denominational recommendations for taking a sabbatical.  But again, I question, should I?

Here’s why I pursued the sabbatical.  We Americans tend to have a very individualistic mindest, and with that, we’re loathe to admit weakness.  I often succumb to both of these tendencies.  I just don’t think of it as a succumbing. Instead, and maybe you think this way too, when I am successful as a lone ranger, I can feel so affirmed. I did what I was supposed to do. I was responsible and accomplished and strong. It’s easy to become prideful, under a guise of being responsible.  But the reality is that deep within, I feel much less certain, individually strong and accomplished than I might give off.  To reveal more of what actually goes on inside my mind, I need this sabbatical.

Pastoral ministry is difficult, and yet as I type that, I hate to admit that.  On one hand I’m concerned about coming across as saying “my job is harder than your job.”  There are many jobs that require a lot from people.  Pastoral ministry is not alone in that regard.  But I do think it is fair to say that pastoral ministry is a difficult profession.  Plenty has been written about the rigors of being a pastor.  Here is an example.  And another.  (Furthermore, being a pastor’s wife is a uniquely difficult role.)

As I have served for 15 years, I see the value in my denomination’s recommendation that pastors take a sabbatical every 7 years.  I am ready for this sabbatical.  I feel the strain of those 15 years deep within, and I feel it bubble up to the surface, all too regularly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful to God for bringing us to Faith Church, and I love my church family. I am very much looking forward to many more years pursuing the mission of God’s Kingdom together.  And I am convinced that this sabbatical, and another one in seven years, and another in seven more years beyond that, and so on, will enable us to have a healthy future serving the Lord.

I recently read an article saying that the pastor can be the greatest hindrance to the church’s growth.  Those words “church growth” can mean many different things to people.  The kind of church growth I am talking about is not more bodies, buildings and bigger budgets.  Instead I am talking about people experiencing transformation in Jesus.  That transformation looks like people stopping a selfish sinful life and learning from Jesus how to live what he called the abundant life, and after having been changed, helping more people get transformed too (which we call discipleship). I’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog.

Deep down I worry that, in my role as pastor of Faith Church, I can be the greatest hindrance to people in my church family actually experiencing that kind of transformation. I wonder if my personality, preaching and leading abilities (or lack thereof…in all three areas) are the biggest hindrance to the church’s growth.  At various times I think I don’t pray enough, visit enough, sacrifice enough.  The balance to all those concerns is that no one is perfect, and I do work on personal growth in all those areas, and know I have much learning to do.  Surely I can be a hindrance to the cause of discipleship to Jesus, because of these areas.

But that is not what the article was talking about.  The article was talking about how pastors too often do the work of ministry for the people.  In the church family people do serve and give quite a lot.  But there exists a line where that serving stops.  When people get to that line (and the line is different for every pastor), the people think “I’ve done what I can do, and now I’ll hand it off to the pastor, because it is his or her job to do the rest.”  I suspect you know what that line is for your church and your pastor.  You know what the result of the line is?  The pastor feels fulfilled because he has pastoral work to do, but the people never grow beyond the line.  If the pastor always takes over at the line, the people will only grow up to that point.

What if Jesus has transformative work he wants to do in people’s lives, but it will require them to go beyond the line of pastoral ministry?  I am convinced that Jesus does have that kind of work he wants to do, and by maintaining that line, we pastors hinder the growth of our people.

So during my sabbatical the line at Faith Church is about to be crossed.  People in the church family will be stepping across the line to do nearly everything that the pastor does.  I’m nervous about that, and I’m excited about that.

Will I be out of a job when I get back?  I don’t think so.  What I hope, though, is that perhaps I’ll need to change my job description. Maybe I have been preserving the line, when I should be pulling people over it.  I can’t say for sure.  My sabbatical has just begun.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I do have some goals.  One is to learn to recognize the voice of the Lord.  Some other goals are to read a lot, write a lot, and get away to quiet.  I’ve already deactivated my Facebook account.  Weeks before that I deleted all the video games from my phone and my laptop.  I want to learn to be more present.  I want to learn to not be hurried.  That one I learned from Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast interview with John Ortberg (it is episode 168), who was very close with Dallas Willard.  Ortberg said Willard was wholly unhurried.  That amazes me.  I’m always hurried. Always checking the notifications on my phone.  Always wanting to do not just one thing, but usually trying to do two things at the same time.  “Redeem the time” can be an excuse for all sorts of poor use of time.  I want to learn all these lessons so that they are not just for sabbatical, but so they can flow into whatever pastoral ministry will look like starting April 1st.  (Which is Easter, by the way.  I know it is April Fool’s Day too, but I have a feeling Easter is going to take precedence.  And on Easter, we talk about new life!  Very interesting juxtaposition of themes for this sabbatical.)

So this will be my final post until April 2018.  I wish I could write about Psalm 148, which was the text for my final sermon before going on sabbatical. It is so joyful, and needed after four weeks of lament.  Just read it and you’ll see.