Our Need for Lament.

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lament
We must take time to Lament.
In a world that looks for instant answers and solutions,
In a world that seeks to point fingers utilizing one-upmanship and memes,
desiring to be right more than compassionate,
We must take time to lament.

Lament takes patience.
It cannot be microwaved, or achieved instantaneously.
It cannot be swiped through, pushed through, nor sped through with haste and hurry.
Lament must be inhabited.

In lament we experience the darkness, the extinguished light of hope.
In lament we recognize the void, we listen to the void, we experience the void.
In lament we hear the created silence,
and we sit in it.
Lament must be occupied.

Lament is not comfortable.
It is not pleasurable.
It is not amusing nor delightful.
Lament is where pain is clutched,
where we look pain in the eyes, acknowledging its existence,
confronting the mayhem it has created.

In lament deep calls to deep, for what is in the depths of your being cries out to be connected with the depths of God. To be connected with his suffering, to know his suffering, and to know that he suffers with us. We are not alone.

In lament we experience the depths of God’s love for us. We are not alone.
In lament we are confronted with God’s reality,
that this is not the way things are supposed to be,
or were supposed to be,
or will be.
Huh… Or will be.

As our long national nightmare continues on, we must learn to lament. We must pause to grieve, to connect deeply and profoundly with our own pain and suffering and with the pain and suffering of others. No matter how much we desire to escape or sidestep pain and suffering we cannot, we must not. We must allow that connection and experience to others pain and to our own to change us both individually and collectively. We must be changed by our pain… because if we are not, then what is it for?

The vision of Jesus is to bring people together, meeting one another, dialoguing with one another, hearing each others stories: loving each other. Jesus wants to tear down the walls that separate us, bringing healing and wholeness… this is why we must sit in each others suffering. We must know each others pain, and from the knowing grows compassion, and from compassion grows action, and from action comes change: real change, true change–change that not only breaks down walls but breaks down the systems and structures that tear us apart. That is why we as the body of Christ, the Church, are called to be at the forefront of this mission. We have a call to make our world a place of love and peace.

It’s our move.

Empty Laments and So Many Words

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Lin Manuel Miranda“Where were you when 9/11 happened?” Or Columbine… or the Challenger explosion… or Kennedy’s assassination? There are events that leave a collective scar upon the conscience of our society, that mark us deeply as a people and as a country. Will the deadly and bloody events of Sunday, the deadliest shooting in American history be one of those moments?

I woke up on Sunday morning to the giggles of my little girl, staring at me in the face. “Get up papa,” she laughed before turning around and running out of our room. I rubbed my eyes, gathered myself just a bit and thought, well I’m going to just lay here for a bit while she sprints around the apartment… why is my child such a boisterous morning person?! I grabbed my phone and was immediately met by a notification, “20+ dead, 50 wounded in mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando.”

There was no shock in my reaction. There was no surprise. There was no outrage… no sadness… no emotion. I simply thought, “Yeah, sounds about right.” There have now been 1,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, since we declared, “Never again!” So much for our collective will.

One-thousand mass shootings in 3-and-a-half years.

1,000.

Let that sink in for a moment.
We just hit the century mark.

1,000… and just for good measure, outside of the Orlando mass shooting, there were 5 other mass shootings that weekend with 10 more being killed and 12 wounded.

As the numbers continue to grow day-by-day-by-day, I’ll admit I have become numb to these events, I have lost my ability to lament or grieve in these tragedies. They have all become numbers, statistics. There once was a day when the lament came quickly, even easily but I fear that my heart has hardened beyond repair and I wonder if our collective national heart has too.

In the wake of these tragedies, it seems that everywhere I turn is another argument full of feigned outrage and platitudinous compassion. The talking heads on the news are full of the same sentiments reading from the same worn, tattered, overused script. Social media screams out with the same sort of overused collective vitriolic scream: “We must ban guns!”; “We need to arm every citizen!”; “This is a mental health issue!”; “Guns aren’t the problem, people are the problem!”; “Muslims are the problem! Ban them!”; “Why isn’t the President using ‘Radical Islamic Extremist’? (He’s a secret Muslim you know!)”; “This is ISIS and the President isn’t dong anything to protect us!”; and on and on and on the back and forth grows.

In the wake of these tragedies we have become practiced screamers, spewing angry words from our fingertips, we trot out our trite and cliché hashtags, and link article after article to support our point, and when all else fails we become professional “Memeticians”*.** We have turned to blaming liberals for being weak and conservatives for being bigoted; liberals for being socialists who want to take away our guns, and conservatives for loving guns more than people. We have thrown blame and dodged it just the same, over and over and over in this cycle we inhabit.

And as we are tossed about in this spin cycle of our creation, we have lost our ability to lament. We have lost sight of the real tragedy that has unfolded in front of us and continues to unfold in front of us day-by-day-by-day. We are more concerned with winning the argument or maintaining our “rights,” whatever we believe they are. We have replaced lament with grand-standing and grief with self-righteousness. We see the suffering and the pain but we do not feel it, we cannot feel it, we’ve become numb, stuck in our feigned outrage and platitudinous compassion.

Monday afternoon I spent some time on YouTube catching up on the Tony’s. I wanted a break from the banality of the spin cycle. I watched beautiful performances and even caught a couple of acceptance speeches. However, there was one sonnet in particular–yes a sonnet–that captured my heart and broke the cycle for me. Lin Manuel Miranda stood in front of a theatre full of people and spoke passionate words of truthful lament into the hearts of a nation:

“When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day…

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
cannot be killed or swept aside”

I stepped outside of the spin cycle and was reminded of what really matters in this life. It is not the argument, it is not my rights or your rights, it is not fear and terror, it is not platitudes. Perhaps what was the most surprising of all was that it only took a minute. A minute to listen to an artist call attention to the truths that surround us. That above all it is love. There is faith, there is hope, and there is love but the greatest of them is love, love is what remains. And we are implored, follow the way of love!

We are beyond the point of well reasoned arguments and logical statements and sentiments. We need our artists to help us feel again, to stir up a passion within us that we cannot ignore and cannot deny. We need our artists to call us out of our malaise, to pull us out of our spin cycle now more than ever. We need artists to employ their craft to remind us of our story, of our shared humanity.

Who will write the song of Orlando? We need you. Who will write the song that will help us grieve, that will connect us to a love unmistakeable? We need songs that help us grieve! Poems that call us towards love! Paintings that illuminate and reveal what lies beneath the story! We need sculptures and sonnets and dance! Artists we need you! Artists, let me say it again, we need you! Our culture needs you. Now more than ever. Please tell the story of Orlando, make us feel it like we’ve never felt anything before and never, never, never let us forget.

* Memetician (n) someone who utilizes memes to spread an idea, behavior, or style from person to person throughout culture.
** I too am guilty of each of these activities and behaviors.

Guns. Guns. Guns. (Yes, guns.)

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GunsI was guided into my office where I was greeted by an FBI agent and a Sergeant from the city police department. “Aaron, you should sit down for this.”

I sheepishly sat down, hands trembling, palms sweating, I held my breath. “The threats are credible,” they told me with a mixture of seriousness and compassion. “We’re here to protect you and the congregation.”

Just a week before, my house had been broken into while we were away–later described as an intimidation tactic. Members of our congregation had received numerous threats, and orders of protection were issued for the church, my home, and the homes of a couple of our elders. A whirlwind of events occurring just after his felony gun charge was somehow dismissed and he was released from custody. The “he” in this story wasn’t just some random stranger, we all knew him, respected him, trusted him, loved him. He wasn’t some crazy random stranger.

I sat in silence as my mind wandered into the abyss of numb nothingness.

“Aaron,” the FBI agent said to recapture my attention. He leaned in and looked me square in the eyes with more confidence and seriousness than I had ever seen in anyone’s eyes, “I want you to know that you’re safe. If he comes into the building and he doesn’t stand down…” he paused to laser focus his words, “I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head.”

My eyes grew big as the gravity of his statement rang long and hung heavy in the air:

“I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head.”

I couldn’t catch my breath. The tension in the room grew unbelievably thick and painfully uncomfortable. Everything blurred and it felt like the room was spinning. My mouth dropped as if to say something, anything, but I was at a complete loss. There were no words, no sounds, no breath, only shock.

With a wink and a head nod he blurted out, “Now go get ’em preacher!”

Go get ’em?

“Go get ’em?!”

I guess this was an attempt to cut through the tension, to bring about some sort of levity, maybe some normalcy to the Sunday experience. The officers stood up to walk out of my office, we shook hands, and I stood there staring at the door… the same door that only a few weeks before served as my only protection when he came into the building and threatened me. I wanted to curl up into a ball in the corner. I wanted to cry. I was desperate for some sort of emotional response, but nothing came. The overwhelming stress and life altering fear of these previous weeks had robbed me of every last emotion possible. I was empty.

I took seven long steps to the top of the stage that morning, and with each step I felt more and more vulnerable, more and more exposed. I never realized just how high the stage was until that moment, my feet well above the tops of everyone’s head. I tried to make myself as small as possible, my only protection being the thin flimsy metal music stand and three pieces of paper containing my notes. ‘Surely this will shield me,’ I reassured (lied to) myself.

I scanned the three exits in the back of the auditorium wondering from which one he was more likely to emerge. “Hopefully the middle one,” I thought as I saw the FBI agent standing there faithfully and confidently on guard. I gathered as much confidence and courage that I could muster, looked at the nearly 400 faces staring back at me, inhaled deeply, and began.

Aaron, get your gun!

“You know, if you had a gun up there with you in the pulpit, things would have been different,” pastors and Christians have scolded me. “If your congregation had been armed,” they said, “he never would have thought of showing up in this ‘gun-free zone!'” “It is your responsibility to protect your flock, how could you not have armed yourself to take him down? How could you not tell your congregation to arm themselves? How could you have led them like sheep to the slaughter?” each statement overflowing with chastisement, rebuke, and reprimand as they penetrated my heart deeper and deeper.

I absorbed these criticisms, I allowed them to shred my heart and pick apart my soul; I was overcome with guilt. “These people trust me to shepherd them, to protect them, to care for them… why didn’t I have a gun?” I wrestled long and hard with these thoughts and allowed guilt to be my guide.

It is no secret that I do not like guns nor am I a fan of the current gun culture in America. However, that wasn’t always the case. As I stood on that stage 10 years ago, I took great comfort in having an FBI agent standing guard with a gun at his hip. While I was fearful of his words, “I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head,” they were, in some strange way, comforting. Five years before with a group of Quakers (read pacifists) in the mountains of California I learned how to shoot a gun (ironic, I know). I learned the ways of the shotgun and the ways of a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. I was actually a pretty good shot (probably from years and countless hours of Duck Hunt!) I was comfortable with guns. However, as I worked through the words of Jesus, the Old Testament narratives, the Psalms–even the imprecatory Psalms, searching for answers, allowing Scripture to form my understanding, more and more my perspective on guns changed. I changed.

While all of these criticisms that were levied against me were well-meaning, asking me to consider my own self-preservation and the protection of others under my care, ultimately these pragmatic ideas missed the mark by failing to take into account what these types of actions do to our soul.

The soul, according to Dallas Willard is that which encompasses and organizes the whole person, it is the entirety of the self (the heart–or will, the mind, the body), forming one person functioning in a flow of life. Often times we like to think of the soul as a mere component of our being, an element, an aspect of who we are. But the soul is who we are.* So when someone talks of soul formation, they are speaking not of some purely mystical experience that affects one aspect of who you are but rather of a holistic experience that affects every aspect of your being—which is a way of saying your soul affects everything and everything affects your soul.

As a pastor my role is fairly clear, to guide people into a transformative relationship with Jesus. This is soul work. It is much deeper than a simple introduction to Jesus but rather the careful and intentional transformation of your soul (your entire being) into the image and likeness of Jesus. Theologically speaking this is called Theosis, or a union with Jesus (God)**.

Soul work is not about actions or behavior modification, those are the fruits of soul work, of the transformative work that is done in the very depths of your being that affect the flow or output of your life. Often times we simply want to look at our actions, at the question “What would Jesus do?”–which can be a valuable exercise–yet we miss the deeper work that is necessary in becoming like Jesus. This requires that we first understand who Jesus is–which is a long-term process birthed out of relationship–because we cannot become like Jesus without first understanding who he is: otherwise, we are simply putting on a veneer of actions and behaviors that are incongruent with our being (Matthew 23).

So, who is Jesus?

Answering this question is something that you have to investigate/discover/experience for yourself, Scripture speaks of Jesus as God, as the source of all life (Colossians 1). I love how Jesus contrasts himself in John 10: “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that they may have life!” Jesus, the source of life, the giver of life, the bread of life, stands in opposition to death, in opposition to destruction.

Each one of us has the capacity within us to do great good or great evil, to give life or to take life. And as I wrestled with the questions before me, I understood that ultimately this is a heart issue at play. However, the tired old adage: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” falls short. We have the tools at our disposal to take life, to destroy life, and the question is should we who are being transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus employ those tools?

In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul says that everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. And maybe that’s why Jesus allowed some of his disciples to walk around with weapons, it was permissible. But the moment Peter deployed his weapon, using it in self-defense and in the defense of Jesus, he was rebuked for his actions. Jesus was stern with Peter for using a weapon and then he healed the man’s ear. It’s interesting to note here that in all of the recorded history of the Apostles, not one of them used a weapon in self-defense when they were later captured and killed, many with their families. They never used a weapon to defend themselves or their families. Tertullian remarked, “Christ,  in disarming Peter, disarmed every [Christian]…. The Lord has abolished the sword.” This episode of Peter’s rebuke changed everything in regards to armed Christians. It goes on that the employ of weaponry or weapons of war in the early church for any reason was forbidden. St. Athanasius would say nearly a century later as a forgone conclusion, “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.” This was the weapon of the church: Prayer. All through a transformative encounter with Jesus.

Understanding Jesus changes you, it changes your perspective, your outlook, your understanding. And if Jesus is life, and if we are to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus, the question then becomes: Can a gun do that? If I am supposed to be transformed into the image of Jesus, if I am supposed to be like Jesus, can I do that through the barrel of a gun? Does a gun bring life?

The purpose of a gun

The purpose of a gun is plain: to kill, injure, or destroy. While we might want to say that guns are there to protect and save life, the reality is that the only way a gun protects and saves is through killing, injuring, or destroying life in the other (or through the threat of killing, injury, or destruction). In fact, in using a gun for self-protection/preservation you are trained and encouraged, “Shoot to kill!” In this, the purpose of a gun stands opposed to the very being of Jesus. And ultimately, regardless of the situation, a gun in my hands makes me less like Jesus.

I did not have a gun.

I finished my message. It was all a blur. As I walked off the stage my hands were still trembling and sweating from the fear.

He never walked through those doors. He never showed up.

The most frequent command, or as N. T. Wright puts it, “the most surprising command” in all of Scripture is this: “Fear not!” I experienced fear that morning. I experienced fear that week. I experienced a deep seeded fear throughout that season. You see, fear is a belief; it is a belief based upon the anticipation of evil. A belief that evil will strike at any moment. Yet we are commanded: Don’t anticipate evil, don’t expect evil to happen.

And I know we so quickly want to say, “But, wait! Hold on now, evil is all around us. It’s encircling us, it’s right there on our doorstep just waiting to pounce!” I know some of us have had direct experiences with evil, many in ways not all that dissimilar from mine: we’ve been threatened, terrorized, some of you have been beaten, abused, mugged, and I know it has changed us. We have tasted fear up close and we never want to go back there again. We want to take control. We want something tangible in our hands that can give us a sense of safety, of security.

But in doing so, by carrying a gun, are we not living in anticipation that it’s going to happen again?

Are we not living in anticipation of evil?

Are we not being prepared for evil to strike?

Because if you’re not expecting or anticipating evil, then why have a gun?

“Fear not!” is not just a command, but it’s a dream that I believe God has for our lives. He doesn’t want us to have to live that way.  You don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to live in fear, in anticipation that evil will strike at any moment. We can walk away from fear—which is becoming increasingly harder to do as our current American society and culture entrenches itself deeper and deeper into fear.

Dallas Willard once remarked, “As we mature in Christ, it is actually possible to outgrow fear.” A different reality is possible when we drop our weapons of fear and instead turn into the God of peace and love and life. It is my hope and prayer that the I will continue to outgrow fear, and that my Christian brothers and sisters will do the same.


“Come, my children, listen closely;
I will teach you the ways of worshipping the LORD….
Turn from evil and do good;
embrace peace–don’t let it get away!”
Psalm 34.11, 14

* In fact, I might argue that if we are going to accept Willard’s understanding of the soul we need to drop the definitive article in front of soul and stop referring to it as “the” soul. By doing so we are making soul something other, something separate, extracting it from the self, changing its nature to something elemental, when in fact “soul” is you’re entire being.

** Michael Gorman has written a fantastic book around Theosis that I’d highly recommend.

Ted Talks: My New Single-Serving Friend

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TED-TalksBefore the plane even made it to the tarmac, Ted introduced himself, made some small talk and asked what I did for a living. “What do I tell him?” I thought, “PhD Candidate or Pastor,” because whichever route I went down would determine the rest of my flight. If I’m a PhD Candidate, he’ll want to talk about what I’m studying… if I’m a Pastor, well: conversation over! (At least that’s been my experience in my nearly 20 years of ministry.)

“I’m a pastor.” I said.

Conversation over. I can sit and listen to Radiohead’s new album for the millionth time or James Blake’s brilliant new album, (I Need a Forest Fire anyone?!) catch a quick nap, do a little reading, nice and peaceful… this is a 6 am flight, mind you!

“Really?” Ted said. “That’s interesting!” His eyes lit up.

“What have I done?!,” I thought as my shoulders dropped and the slew of questions began: “Tell me about your congregation! What is a church plant? What is truth? What is your stance on homosexuality or the bathroom issue with transgendered people? How can you trust the Bible? How do you understand the Trinity? What about the apocalypse? What’s your training? Why are there so many denominations if Truth is unified? Isn’t seminary pointless in this day and age?, Isn’t God really a genocidal maniac?, etc, etc, etc.” It was an absolute onslaught of questions each from a completely different direction and in no way connected one to the other, in some ways feeling more like an inquisition.

I hadn’t had enough coffee for this! I was caught off guard, discombobulated and left wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Why didn’t I say PhD? Why?! We could have talked about racism, lynching, and white privilege, which would’ve lasted for only a few minutes before I could’ve made him uncomfortable enough to retire to the window.

Recognizing that I was completely off balance, Ted began to tell me his story: “I have a lot of Christian friends who don’t consider me to be a Christian… I grew up in an agnostic home before eventually joining the church.” Wait, what? Say that again? Now I’m really confused.

Ted continued his story integrating some of my fragmented responses to solidify the position of his church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For the majority of our flight I was being slowly reeled into an evangelistic conversation with a Mormon; I had no clue. Ted presented himself as a person seeking understanding, looking for answers to some of life’s hardest questions before spinning on a dime and presenting Mormon Doctrine and belief as the ultimate answer to each and every one of these questions. Everything was now starting to make sense.

Ted was bold. But perhaps beyond his boldness was an amazing commitment to his faith, a commitment that even at 6am on a long flight he wanted to share with me, a stranger. Once I moved passed the annoyance, I was honored. I could feel his sincerity, his conviction, the urgency for me to believe in his god.

This commitment to evangelism is one of the marks of Mormonism, something ingrained early in their faith journey and not culminated but formulated deeply in a 2-year missionary experience. With a commitment like this, it’s not hard to see why it is one of the fastest growing religions.

It made me wonder, “Why aren’t Christians like this?”

I read an article in The Atlantic a few years back where those who don’t believe in Christianity said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Which makes me wonder pessimistically, “Have we really been transformed by the Gospel?” Do we really believe what Jesus said about the Good News of the incarnation, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension–you know the Gospel that Peter preached in Acts 2… or that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15? Do we really believe that the Gospel changes everything, that it brings wholeness, peace shalom? Or are we, as Americans specifically, continuing to allow Christianity to devolve into an American civil religion, a political platform or voting bloc?

According to Lifeway research, while we believe that sharing our faith is important, we really only pay it lip service. The reality is the vast majority of Christians never actually act on that belief. They never share their faith or do so once or twice in their lifetime.

Penn Jillette famously said a few years back:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

We could have a conversation all day about the proper tactics and strategies for sharing your faith, the right way, the wrong way, the insensitive way, the judgmental way, the sales pitch way, etc, etc, etc. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We have turned evangelism into nothing more than a bevy of criticized strategies, castigating each other for how they have chosen to share their faith (missional, evangelism explosion, relational evangelism, Romans Road, etc, etc, etc). The reality of the matter is that evangelism stems not only out of our transformation, but out of our transformed love for others. It is in our ability to see others as human beings, to see the Imago Dei in one another, and to love our neighbor as ourself.

As we parted ways in the airport, he put his hand on my shoulder and implored me to pray to his god… to feel the warmth in my heart of the truth of his gospel message. I was honored by his commitment to me. I was honored by the value he saw in me. How is it that the Mormons are better at showing this form of love and commitment than we are?

“What Two Books Would You Recommend for Young Leaders?”

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Leadership Books

The other day a friend asked me this question: “If you could recommend a young leader two books on Leadership, what two would you recommend?” What a great question! But TWO? Really? That’s it?!

That made a great question really difficult to answer considering there are so many great books from which to choose!

As I let the question roll around in my head and as I noodled on it a bit  I thought, “What are the two things young leaders need to learn/know/be more than anything?” Well, that makes answering the question a whole lot easier. And so I couched my answer in those two realms.

Realm One was the easiest: Jesus. A young leader needs to center themselves and their leadership around Jesus, plain and simple. Henri Nouwen does as good of a job as anyone in talking about this in the short book “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.” Nouwen writes:

My own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”


“Do you love me?,” Jesus asks.  It is from there that everything flows. If your life is not built upon a foundation of love for Jesus, then your ministry will be all about you, your platform, your popularity, your power. This book hit me hard when I first read it 15 years ago, and it still speaks to me today. In fact, it’s why this is one of the books that I read every single year.

Realm Two was a bit more difficult, but pretty self-explanatory: Know Thyself. A young leader needs to know who they are, and also whose they are–which Nouwen gets into in a second book called Life of the Beloved (not the book I’m recommending in this section, but well worth your time!) Parker Palmer walks the reader through an intimate relationship of listening to the Holy Spirit and understanding your true self in the short book “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.” Palmer writes:

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent. . . . Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail—and may even do great damage.”


One of the greatest struggles of leaders and especially young leaders, is to model themselves after someone else and not be true to who they are, who it is that God created them to be. We keep the unique nature of our true self locked deep within as we dress ourselves with someone else’s uniqueness. Leaders, we must be true to who we are and honor that God-given nature that is groaning to be released. This is also the reason why I have read this book every year since I first encountered it 12 years ago.

I’d like to pose this question to you, the reader: What 2 books on leadership would you recommend to a young leader?

“Good Friday”

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blackWhat have we done?

Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon us.

For He hangs up on the tree, the symbol of shame and humiliation, nailed upon the tool of torture and of control.

He hangs up on the tree for you.
He hangs up on the tree for me.

Fastened to the wood.

And His blood?

It pours.

Every last ounce drained for our transgressions.
Every drop squeezed out for our iniquities.

His blood,it pours.
It pours because of you.
It pours out because of me.
It pours.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,” writes the prophet Isaiah. “A man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hid their faces.

“He was despised, and we held him in low esteem. But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

“For he was cut off from the land of the living and assigned a grave with the wicked though he had done no violence, though there was no deceit in his mouth.

“He poured out his life unto death…”
poured out every last drop…
poured out every last ounce…
for you.
for me.

What have we done?

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always hated that designation… for what can be good about today?

What can be good about his torture?
What can be good about his shame?
What can be good about his humiliation?
What can be good about the Son of God agonizing away on the cross, his life slipping away?

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. Yet we considered him punished by God,”
stricken by him,
afflicted by him.

But he was pierced for our transgressions.
he was crushed
for ouriniquities;
the punishement that brought us peace was on him.

And by his stripes we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him…
every white lie,
every lustful thought,
every impure motive,
every arrogant action,
every deceitful scheme
every slanderous word
our sins. The Lord has laid on him… our sins.

The abuse you spew out on others…
our sins,
the gossip you spread around…
our sins,
the back biting and underhanded comments you speak about your boss, your neighbor, your friends, your pastors…
our sins… the Lord has laid on him our sins, the iniquity of us all.

For he has bore the sin of many, and made intercession for you… for me… for us… the transgressors.

As Paul writes in Colossians: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth
visible and invisible
whether thrones, or powers, or rulers, or authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Once.
Once you were alienanted from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior, your transgressions, your sins.

But now… Now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

For you,
For me,
For us.

As Christians, the cross is a sublime moment of unarmed truth and unconditional love manifest in the face of the catastrophic. It is here on this cross, on this tree, on this device meant to humiliate and execute, that God, our merciful God, our gracious God, our loving God, paid for our freedom and showed the perfection of his love for you… for me… for us.

Oh merciful God,
Forgive us.
Oh merciful God
Forgive us for what we have done and left undone.
Oh Son of God
Rescue us.
Rescue us now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

It is finished.

About Last Night: Trump, the Ides of March, Empire, and the Church

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Trump-Empire
I love politics; I am fascinated by the gamesmanship, the strategy, the political maneuvering, the hyperbole, even the lying and manipulation that occurs on the regular. The lengths we will go to acquire, increase, and fight to maintain power says a lot about who we are as a people. And really, isn’t that’s what politics is all about: Power.

As this entire political season has unfolded the lament of the people has risen throughout social media and across the print media landscape decrying the peculiar ascendency of one candidate in particular: Donald Trump. Pundits have spoken and written at length trying to understand how an incendiary candidate such as Trump could rise with such popularity, such influence, while using the rhetoric, language, and tactics he has; it is as if the pundits are attempting to verbally process this seemingly ahistorical phenomenon that continually races on ahead of conventional thinking. Last night was no different.

On the Ides of March, we witnessed the assassination of the Republican party as the final “establishment” candidate suspended his campaign and exited the fray. As insiders and party members scramble to save the party, looking towards a “savior” to emerge, the candidates have still pledged to support the eventual GOP nominee, even if it is Trump; as if this pledge of party loyalty and support will somehow resurrect a party gone mad.

As Trump once again marched ahead with giant strides towards the GOP’s Presidential nomination, social media and pundits let out a collective angry roar of disbelief: “How can we stop this man?”

I have been accused from time to time of being too liberal for my conservative friends, of being too conservative for my liberal friends, of being too pro-government from my libertarian friends, and too libertarian from my pro-government friends. The challenge is that I cannot be cubby-holed because my political philosophy is not derived from party affiliation nor allegiance. Rather, as a Christian, my political philosophy is derived from the red letters of Scripture (the words of Jesus). While I would love to say that my understanding of Jesus is the right one, the correct one, the best one, it is not without flaws, without fullness, still lacking the proper nuances and correctness. My understanding of Jesus is still growing, still developing, still maturing—as I hope is everyone else’s: for he who has stopped growing is dead.

As a Christian it is to Jesus and Jesus alone that I pledge allegiance, not a flag, not a president, not a country. Is this not what we mean when we declare “Jesus is Lord?”

The conflation of Christianity and Americanism has done nothing but dilute the values of Jesus within the church and among Christians (mainly among Evangelicals) in favor of propping up and supporting a political party in its pursuit of power. We are trading our sonship our daughter-ship for a piece of bread and stew. Let us not be so manipulated by the siren call and smooth talk of politicians who co-opt Scripture and use the church as a stepping stool, a means to their own political ends.

The apostle John, in describing the Church’s relationship with empirical power (specifically the Roman Empire) exhorted, “Come out of her, my people,” separate yourselves from the Empire that has engulfed and manipulated you. What’s fascinating about this “come out of her” language is that, according to scholars, this is actually erotic, R-rated sexual language: the same used for coitus interruptus, or to interrupt sexual intercourse before climax. John is describing a steamy love affair in which the Church and the Empire are not just “in bed with one another” but are intimately entangled. (In many respects this reminds me of the story of Hosea! Isn’t it interesting how history continually repeats itself?) “Come out of her!” Disentangle yourselves, and instead run back into the arms of God, remember our first love and once again proclaim that “Jesus is Lord!” If we do not, if we continue our sordid love affair, if we continue to take the affairs of politicians more seriously than Jesus, then Pax Romana becomes our gospel and the president becomes our God.

Trump is not our savior. Cruz is not our savior. Kasich is not our savior. Even Bernie with all his popularity, nor Hillary are our saviors. (In fact none of them may even be the savior of the Empire.) Presidents and politicians will disappoint us, and why wouldn’t they? Their whole game revolves around manipulating the populace in their quest for power. So while we may lament the results of last night, let us remember that as Christians it is to Jesus and his kingdom that we pledge our allegiance, not a flag or a country.

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt. Rushmore (Pt. 3)

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SpiritualMtRushmore
Each of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend to that spark in such a way that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

Part 1 was about the “Founding Fathers” of my faith. In Part 2 was about the “Author” of my faith. Here in Part 3, I want to look at Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt created and set aside a great number of national parks and sacred spaces within our country that were left protected for future generations to explore. On one occasion while camping with the great conservationist John Muir in Yosemite, Roosevelt remarked, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

There’s a beauty and a connectivity with God that occurs in the wide open spaces. The freedom to wander, unencumbered and explore the vastness of who God is and how He interacts and plays and smiles and truly enjoys our company. There is a real freedom in Christ… and unfortunately we have all too often forgotten this and instead traded our freedom for the chains of legalism or traditionalism or fundamentalism. It’s constraining. It’s a yoke that Jesus never intended (“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”) For many of us, freedom is an afterthought, it is a pipe dream. We’re simply unable to find the wide open spaces, let alone be let loose in there. This is a process. It is a process that requires someone who can guide us and take us into the plains and valleys, someone who knows the terrain and can help us become more and more unencumbered as we go and truly live in the joy of relationship with Jesus–in the vastness of the wide open spaces.

**Just a side note, but an important one I think–the Hebrew word for salvation, which not coincidentally is the root of Jesus’ name, literally means to bring us into wide open spaces. Sort of brings a beautiful new idea to our understanding of Psalm 23 and others like it!

You see, we need someone who can introduce us to the vastness, the space; someone who can guide us and take us into the plains and valleys, the places where true awe occurs. For me, that guide was Dr. John Castelein.

Dr. Castelein was my advisor for my Masters program. We talked a lot about postmodernism, postmodern theology, the Emerging Church, LOST–yeah it was a big deal at the time! He guided my thinking into the vastness of what is and could be possible, never chiding or deriding any thought but encouraging me to think differently, think deeper, to go beyond and think graciously about myself and all that could be possible. Dr. Castelein showed me a different side of God, a God that was free from constraint–and perhaps most importantly that constraint was not synonymous with holiness.

Dr. Castelein sparked within me an insatiable curiosity teaching me that this was okay–and to be gracious in my curiosity with others, something I’m still learning to do well. He showed me that it was okay to ask questions about God–and gave me permission to do so–but even more so to ask questions of God. To talk to Him with doubts, fears, uncertainties, questions, and everything else under the sun. And that this is all okay. And in doing this, Dr. Castelein ushered me into the wide open spaces, far vaster and more beautiful than anything I had ever experienced… and there I saw God.

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt. Rushmore? (Pt. 2)

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spiritual mt rushmoreEach of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend to that spark in such a way that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

Part 1 was about the “Founding Fathers” of my faith. Here in Part 2, I want to look at the “Author” of my faith. Etched onto the side of Mt. Rushmore is Thomas Jefferson, who is considered to be the “Author of the country,” the one credited with writing the foundational documents and values our country ascribes to. The one who exposed the values of the gospel to me in a language that impacted my soul was Henri Nouwen.

“The author for my Faith”
I was introduced to Henri Nouwen in college by my professor Neal Windham in one of my final classes of college: Senior Seminar in the Bible. Nouwen’s tiny little book “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership” was one of the key texts we explored in the class…

I hated the book.

Now you may think “hate” is a strong, over exaggerated word here, but let me assure you that it’s not. I took the professor to task during class when it came to this book thinking it was absolutely ridiculous–I certainly made known my thoughts and feelings on the book. Let me just state here that at this point in my life I was coming from the John Maxwell school of leadership (e.g. 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership; 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader; Failing Forward). I had read a few of his books by this point and had found him not only compelling but the “right” way of leadership — in fact Failing Forward is still remains an important leadership concept in my mind. Maxwell and Nouwen’s leadership paradigms stand at odds with one another, which led to a great deal of discomfort and struggle in my mind regarding the very nature of leadership.

While I didn’t resolve the tension that semester–life changing tensions last longer than a few days or even weeks–I did, however, find myself infatuated with the story of Nouwen, of “giving up his life” for the forgotten and the least of these.* I approached my professor about doing an independent study course on the writings of Nouwen seeking to understand him and his leadership. I think Windham was a bit surprised because of how I had responded to Nouwen in class, but he allowed me to and guided me through several of his books.

It changed me.

I see people differently now, not as projects or as objects, but as the very image of God present here and now.
I see love differently now, not as some sort of feel good, mushy gushy emotional expression, but an understanding of the fullness of love; that love is an active expression of peace and grace that works for the betterment of others.
I see grace differently now… and this is perhaps the biggest one. Grace is more than forgiveness, grace is the truest expression of love possible. Grace is costly… and I’m not speaking of the grace of Jesus alone, but the expression of grace that each of us are called to give to others. Grace hurts. And in the pain of grace a beautiful picture of Jesus emerges and reveals the nature of God in the here and now.

I am thankful for Henri’s life and his writings. They have changed me. I am thankful for Neal. I am thankful that he took the time to guide me through some crucial Nouwen texts, for the conversations we had through email and in person about Reaching Out, The Inner Voice of Love and Life of the Beloved. I am thankful for the insight he brought to and through those texts. This course and ultimately these texts changed me. They wrote a new story of the grace of Jesus into my life. They helped me to see who I truly am at the core of my being… and they continue to change me today.

Nouwen helped me to uncover my identity as a child of God, the beloved of Jesus. And that has made all of the difference.

* Nouwen didn’t give up his life… by “giving up his life” he really found his life and true identity… I think Jesus said something similar.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Prepare for the End… (Pt. 2)

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church planting 10 Be sure to check out Part 1 of this 2 part series.

Save at least 4 months of living expenses
You never know if/when the church you’re planting will shut down. I know it may seem counter-productive to plan for its demise before you’ve even begun, and some church planters would much rather live on the edge believing the lack of a safety net actually gives you a stronger drive to succeed, but that attitude is sort of like playing third base without a cup. I played baseball with a guy that had this same attitude. He refused to wear a cup at third base believing the threat to his manhood gave him a quicker first step… and then one day it didn’t. An unexpected short hop took him down for the count. This is the danger you face as a church planter… you never know when the short hop is coming.

Saving at least 4 months of living expenses is as close as you can get to wearing a cup. I wish that this was something I had done deliberately, that I had the foresight to plan this way. I didn’t. However, my wife and I did sort of stumble into this reality. For some reason or another–perhaps the impending birth of our daughter–we started spending money a little differently and ended up saving several months worth of income. This has helped us in a few different ways on the back side of church planting.*

  1. Time to decompress: I had a few months to simply rest, to be, and not really worry about anything financially–especially as it related to my family’s well being. I wasn’t pressed to get a job or even start looking. Instead I had the time to sit back and reflect on what happened and what I’d learned. This was been an invaluable period of time for me. This was a wonderful gift not only for me but my family.

    In talking with other church planters that have had to deal with the trauma of closing down a church, this is often a luxury they cannot afford. The lack of finances get in the way of properly dealing with this loss, this grief, and most of the time church planters end up completely leaving the ministry. Most do this not because they’ve lost their calling but because they’re pressed financially and ultimately burnt out.

    Here’s a hard truth to consider: When you shut down, you’re not guaranteed severance. I was given a month and a half of pay when we made the decision to shut down. That’s 45 days… which if you’re banking on severance alone to give you the proper space to decompress, it’s not enough.

  2. Time to reshape your rhythms: I have found that on the other side of church planting/pastoring, many of the daily rhythms in my life were completely out of whack. (It took me at least 45 days to simply rest and get back on some sort of normal sleep schedule.) After exiting the decompression phase, I spent a great deal of time allowing life to settle into new rhythms, paying attention to those rhythms, honing those rhythms, and realizing what’s been missing and what’s still missing. For me there are 7 daily and 3 weekly rhythms that I am working on to make sure are present because they are vital not only to my well being but to my family… what I’m finding is that they’re pretty simple when you have the time to pay attention to them.

    My daily rhythms: running, lectionary, journaling, reading, a walk with my daughter, time with my wife, and writing.
    My weekly rhythms: church, group-life, family day.

    These aren’t rocket science. I have to diligently work to re-make these as fixtures in my normal rhythm of life. I wouldn’t have the space to do this if I had had to jump straight back into the job market. This is necessary on the back end of church planting and I believe it helps you move back towards a healthy view of reality.

  3. Time to dream again: When the church closes down, the greatest dreams you’ve ever had go down with it. It’s hard to give yourself permission to dream. It’s made exponentially more difficult when you field the barrage of questions from well meaning friends and family, “What’s next?!” To get to this place once again is no easy task, and it takes time. If you have prepared your family financially for a period of time post church plant, you have given yourself an amazing gift: the ability and space to begin dreaming again. To give yourself the permission to dream once again, however, will not come easy–it certainly wasn’t for me. But you have given yourself the space, and the more space you afford yourself, the better off you will be.

Saving 4 months worth of income sounds like an impossible task for some, however I would like to remind you that it is possible. I lived in the second most expensive city in the country and was able to make this a possibility. If I can do it, so can you.

My hope and prayer is that you never have to go through the trauma of closing down a church, but if you do I hope these few learnings can help ease a bit of the trauma and help you walk well into what’s next.

* It also helped that my wife is a working professional, and helped in great ways to support our family during this time.