Waiting for Lent in the Shadow of Christmas

Easter comes crazy early in 2013; March 31. And with an early Easter comes an even earlier lenten season (Ash Wednesday is February 13). Ten days ago I picked up and began reading N.T. Wright’s Lent for Everybody, Luke. Our church is thinking of using it this year as a study. After a few pages I looked up and saw Christmas decorations scattered all over the floor. The Christmas tree was still lit.

I was waiting for Lent in the shadow of Christmas.

Wright’s writing has always challenged me. His ability to draw out deep theological questions while not shying away from a firm conviction is fantastic. I only read bits and pieces of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and only glanced over Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, but both those guys, while being phenomenal (and sometimes divisive) communicators, seem to be N.T. Wright light (read Surprised by Hope to see what I mean).

This little book is a great. He gets to the point of Lent on the first day.

..come with your hopes and longings, your awareness of the ways in which the world is still out of joint. You might begin, today, by thinking about some situations, whether in your own life or far away, where the world is not yet right. Hold them before God in prayer and patience. And then look for the signs of hope around you, the first stirrings of God’s new life. And give thanks to God for the way in which he is at work in the world today.

  • The world is out of whack – We’re reminded of this daily. We’re all hurt and we all, intentionally or unintentionally, hurt others. (read Romans 3:9-20 for a morning dose of total depravity).
  • But God is still at work – All too often we forget this. Our sinfulness keeps us from seeing what God is up to in the middle of our broken world. God remains perfectly good. And we’re in need of his perfect grace.
  • Prayer and Patience – Ultimately, this is what the season of lent is about. We wait. We pray. We give thanks. How are you doing these things?

I love the season the Church will be entering into in a month. It’s rare that we get to celebrate Jesus’ birth, mourn his death and return to celebrating in the resurrection in such a short amount of time (just over three months). Lent always teaches me something. I’m looking forward to what this year will bring.

Malawi, My Remedy

When Hailey and I left Malawi in July 2011, I vowed I’d return within a year. I wasn’t sure what it would look like or how I would get there, but I knew that if God willed, it would happen. At the same time I was ready to leave. Our funds had run out, we were tired, we longed for our families and (to be brutally honest) we really missed the comforts of Southern California. It was time to come home.

As I was called to St. Peter’s, I made it clear that I still had a passion for what God was doing in Malawi. I still had much to learn from my brothers and sisters. I’d like to think that part of the reason I was called by St. Peter’s was because of God’s call on my life for missional living. Regardless of the cultural context, I have a deep desire to see God move in new and different ways. Staying connected to Malawi reminds me of my calling.

A generous tax return for 2010 (that’ll happen when you’re married and only one of you has a consistent job for half the year) provided the funds. Talks with my wife and boss provided the timeframe. And a call to my good fire-fighting friend Brandt, presented a travel partner (I would have come alone, but part of being passionate about what God is doing in the world is sharing it with others—that, and 36 hours of solo travel sounds miserable…). I’m thankful for his sacrifice and adventurous spirit.

We’re on the familiar leg between England and Kenya. I despise this part of the flight. I can never sleep on these things. The cabin is dark. A few screens flicker. And even though the guy across the aisle has the entire center row to himself, he is sprawled out uncomfortably close to me. I smell his socks and something’s up with his leg. He keeps itching it on the armrest as if it were a tree and he were a dog with fleas. No wonder I can’t get any sermon writing done…

I’m tired. Emotionally, spiritually and physically—I am beat up. And, I’m going to a place where I’ll preach a ton, be in constant conversation and live in a house where I always have to be “on.” I’m not even there yet and I’m uncomfortable. But, there is something tells me I am flying to the remedy of my fatigue.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t I think I will come home completely rejuvenated, full of energy and ready to figure out all of the cultural issues and challenges of growing a church in Huntington Beach.  I won’t have the solution for dying denominations, stale approaches to community development or apathetic families.

The problems of the country are complex, but, somehow, life itself remains fluid. Maybe that’s just it. What attracts me to ministry in Malawi is its simplicity. The Gospel matters. Everything else is secondary. I don’t think I always see life through those eyes when I’m in Southern California. My second home, the warm heart of Africa, reminds me of what my priorities should be.

Christmas and Church Culture

For many, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But for some Christmas is miserable. Think about how hectic it would be to work in retail right now…You can only hear the same song over and over again so many times or squeeze out a fake smile to the over-the-top rude customer who has to get the perfect gift for their kid.

And then there are the awkward family moments (you’re either 7 or are lying if
you’re thinking, “nah, not in my family.”) or the painful memories. I don’t mean to be Scrooge or the Grinch, but for some, January can’t come fast enough.

Working at a church during the Christmas season can be equal parts mesmerizing and horrifying. On one hand, it’s the time we thrive. Generally, as we approach the 25th of December, talking about Jesus is accepted by most in American popular culture. And more people come to church than any other time of the year. On the other hand, it is when the church is at it’s worst. More often than not, we fall into the trap of over-programmed services and under-whelming theology. How do we balance the proclamation of the birth of our Lord and the commercialization of Him? When do the popular (and generally accepted) views of Christ water down the significance of the Kingdom come?

This dichotomy is even more noticeable when Christmas falls on a Sunday (every six or so years, give or take a leap-year).

A week ago I had a conversation with my sister and she wasn’t happy. Her pastor had cancelled services on Sunday morning. A few days later, enough people complained so Sunday morning church was back on (which got me thinking, when does the act of people pleasing get in the way of the health and direction of the Church?—a blog for another day…).

While having an internal debate about this cultural conundrum, I came across this blog where Jon Acuff talks about Christmas, being a pastor’s kid and the positives of canceling Sunday morning services this year.

Over the years I’ve mentioned this a few times—one of my greatest fears in being a pastor is the affect my profession will have on my family. What will they have to give up? Who will they be with on Christmas morning when I have to work? What traditions am I missing out on because duty calls.

But how much of this is cultural? In Malawi, no matter the day on which Christmas falls, there is a morning church service. But on Christmas Eve, I wasn’t even close to church because there was an expectation that I’d be elsewhere. The priorities were different. Three years ago I was in Norway over Christmas. Days before Christmas it was IMPOSSIBLE to find a shop that was open (outside of 7/11), yet everywhere you looked there was smoke coming from chimneys and families in the living room (a living Thomas Kinkade painting).

Yet, in the U.S. we say, “shop like crazy, Church happens Christmas Eve and Christmas day is for family.” And often our church holds it as Gospel. Christmas falling on a Sunday is a good thing. Even if it is just subconsciously, it forces us to ask questions about who we are, what we believe and where the Church fits into the mix.

Starting Over: Huntington Beach

Installation at St. Peters

Starting over can be exciting, especially in ministry. But it can be dangerous as well. When we jump into a new job, role or duty in the church we can’t help but think about how we can bring a new energy or point of view to the congregation. It’s easy for me to pray and dream about how the community would benefit from one change or another.

But, in doing so, I often fail to honor the tradition or history of those who have put their own blood, sweat and tears into what already exists. In the process of thinking of or introducing a “needed” change I end up belittling something that may have had a profound impact on someone’s faith or life. It makes it hard to sit back, watch and learn about the culture of the church and surrounding neighborhood. Patience is a virtue because so few of us possess enough of it.

At the same time, there is a reason I was called to this church at this time. The balancing act of old ways, new spins on old techniques and new philosophies of ministry are often lost in a mirage of excitement.

At the ripe age of thirty, this is a lesson I have continuously had to re-learn.

Over the last two years I’ve been ordained, commissioned, inducted, decommissioned (which was changed to a send off in hopes of a continued relationship between the PCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in Malawi) and now installed. Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind.

Now that the storm has settled a bit, I finally feel like I’m in the place I’m going to be for a while. Huntington Beach is wonderful. And St. Peters By-the-Sea is a great church—a community ripe with potential. I’m trying to rest in God’s grace while learning about what role He has for me. To do so, I am fighting the temptation to move and shake before kneeling and praying.

My last sermon in Malawi was on God’s Sovereignty and how it relates to leadership. There were 8-10 Malawian pastors there, so I talked a good amount about being called into leadership and, specifically, into ministry. Here is a clip from my manuscript:

In Malawi it seems being a pastor is a sought after and respected job. If you become a pastor, it is like you have obtained some sort of rank. People look up to you like you are a chief. (ASK CONGREGATION: “Am I right?”) In many homes you are seen as an honored guest and are served first. While everyone else sits on the floor, you sit in a chair…you get the picture. I’ve even been told that sometimes people here aspire to become pastors because they want that status. To these people I want to say, “You’re in the wrong job. Jesus was washing feet and serving his disciples, not sitting around getting big, fat and happy.”

Before Malawian Induction Service with Vasco and Sydney

I went on to say that we need to follow the Apostle Paul’s message, “follow me, while I follow Jesus.” Vasco Kechipappa, the Moderator of the Nkhoma Synod (which means he is in charge of about 140 churches), was in attendance and had been in the middle of a nasty countrywide attack. I told the congregation that we all followed him, because he is this type of leader.

A few weeks ago his two-year term came to an end, and even though he was hoping he wouldn’t be re-elected, he was…collecting almost 90% of the votes. People follow him because it is so clear that he is seeking after Christ with all of who he is.

It is my deepest desire to lead this way—Patiently praying while following the Father.

The Stress of Getting Settled

Fargile? Someone was tired while packing...

It’s crazy how stressful moving can be. There is something about coming home from a new job to a new house that welcomes the old friend of anxiety. And there is something about driving on new streets or going for a run in a new neighborhood that brings about the old friend of confusion.

Everyday you set goals like, I’m going to unpack ten boxes and organize half a room. And then you end up putzing around in one box because you find something that you haven’t seen in five years. When did I get that? or Why do I have this? The boxes speak of what once was. Each is full of stories and memories. But if you hold on to what once was too tightly, it’s hard to move forward with what’s happening now.

Two years ago I was a stay at home husband. It wasn’t exactly a title in which I took pride. I looked for jobs, but couldn’t find one. It was a blast getting to ride my bike and surf as much as I wanted. I enjoyed cooking and taking care of things around the house for my wife. But, deep down, it stressed me out. It got old very fast. A year ago I was getting ready to move to Malawi. I packed up my life into a ten by ten storage unit. I was worried about moving all the way to Africa and about saying goodbye to what was comfortable. It too stressed me out.

And now, I have a job that I am going to love. I live in a community that I am going to love. I live with the woman I love. I’m not far from family and some of my best friends that live less than 15 minutes away. And…it’s stressful.

As a trophy husband, as uncomfortable and humbling as it was, I eventually reached a place where I was at ease with my role. And, believe it or not, I actually could have lived in Malawi longer than I did and would have been just fine. I know Hailey and I will grow to appreciate our new community in Huntington Beach and I know my gifts are a perfect fit for my role at St. Peters By-The-Sea. But that doesn’t make the transition easy.

I look forward to actually being here. But for the time being, the process of settling down is simply unsettling.