Closing thoughts of an almost-no-longer-single pastor

C&J

4 days.

Four more days of singleness.

It’s a strange thing to consider — almost 32 years behind me as a single guy, with musings about relationships and romantic interests and sermons on singleness; a lifetime ahead of me as a married man, with a whole host of new joys and challenges.

My counselor told me once:

Change = Loss = Grief

In other words, any change involves a loss of some kind — whether of good things or bad things — and there is a grief that accompanies that. Even if the change is a positive one, a step in the right direction, things are lost that may never be regained.

In the quiet moments with God that I’ve been able to snatch amidst the busyness of wedding preparations, I’ve been excited for what’s to come — getting to spend the rest of my life and the adventure that’ll continue unfolding with Carolyn; I’ve been grateful for the faithfulness of God throughout this chapter — during the times when I was striving and impatient and frustrated as much as the times when I was content and at peace (the latter were far less frequent!); but I’ve also had time to grieve the end of this part of my life.

I like to say — and only part-jokingly — that it took me 29 years to fully comprehend the gift that singleness is. And then I met Carolyn.

But seriously … there are things that I learned to appreciate as a single person, ways in which God grew me, for which I’ll forever be grateful:

  • being present and available and stable for friends as they went through some difficult times;
  • having the time and freedom to see and hang out with as many people as my schedule and boundaries allowed;
  • getting to experience singleness for most of my twenties and into my thirties, and thus being able to empathize with and minister to those who have been — and some who remain — single for longer than they’d like;
  • discovering and pursuing God’s call to holiness and God’s design for us to be in relationship (whether in a romantic relationship or in relationships of family and community) and God’s value of us far beyond our relationship status.

From Friday, I’ll no longer be “the single pastor.” It’s strange to think that that’s been part of my identity, part of the way I’ve labeled myself, but that’s the way it’s been for the last four years — and in a church that’s almost three-quarters single, that’s been a unique point of connection. I don’t know how things will change when I’m married, how relationships will change, how ways of relating will change.

And so in this, just as with any step into the unknown, looking back with gratitude and grief, and looking forward with hope and excitement and eager anticipation, I place my life into the hands of a great, big, loving God, and see what happens. I know that some things will be different and some things will remain the same — I’m not sure exactly what just yet nor all of the details, but I’m stoked that I get to figure it out with two of my favorite people.

Here we go … see you on the other side.

For old times’ sake, here’s the blog series taken from last summer’s “Being Single” sermon:

  1. An Apology
  2. Not a Waiting Room
  3. Not a Terminal Disease
  4. Sex
  5. A Gift

Slow down

Lake

Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

– Dallas Willard

In the spiritual life God chooses to try our patience first of all by His slowness. He is slow: we are swift and precipitate. It is because we are but for a time, and He has been for eternity. …

There is something greatly overawing in the extreme slowness of God. Let it overshadow our souls, but let it not disquiet them. We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and the lightning, in the cold and the dark.

Wait, and He will come. He never comes to those who do not wait. He does not go their road.

When He comes, go with Him, but go slowly, fall a little behind; when He quickens His pace, be sure of it, before you quicken yours. But when He slackens, slacken at once: and do not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for He is God.

– Frederick Faber

Going slow is difficult for me. Especially since I’ve learned what it means to put my faith into action, and I just want to do it. Especially in a church that’s committed to the work of justice and the renewal of our city, and there’s so much to do. Especially in a city where your value is often based on your activity.

But in these contexts, going slow, even stopping, and learning to listen are particularly important. Because it’d be real easy to think when you’re busy and active that it’s what you do  that matters, rather than who you are and who you are becoming.

Who you are and who you are becoming are far more important than what you do.

So …

  • Remember to sabbath.
  • Build your life on a foundation of love and devotion for God.
  • Spend time tending to your soul by spending time with God — quality time.
  • Make time for things that give you life — whether that’s with friends or on your own (or both).
  • Build in habits of rest and silence and solitude and prayer.

William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery activist and parliamentarian — I’m guessing he was probably fairly busy — said,

Of all things, guard against neglecting God in the secret place of prayer.

Doing good is good. Doing good is important. But doing good won’t last long if we’re disconnected from God because we’ll constantly feel stretched thin, worn out, and burned out. We weren’t made just to do good. We were made to live with Godto do life with God (and part of that involves doing good).

And doing life with God means we have to move at God’s pace — James Houston wrote, “The speed of godliness is slow.” So slow down a little; don’t miss what God’s doing.

[Both quotes taken from John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.]

What can separate us from the love of God?

Just a reminder. Romans 8:29-39:

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:

They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.
We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

3 things to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed

Apparently, the last post (“9 signs you may be at your limit”) struck a chord with a lot of people. I think many of us felt at least a few of the indicators, and have felt that the way we’re doing life right now isn’t the way we’d like to do things for the rest of our lives — nor would it be sustainable.

Question markThe next big question that several people asked was: “What can we do about it?”

Here are some ideas (learned from others!):

1. Audit your time. Many of us feel overwhelmed but can’t place our finger on exactly why — we might point to something broad like “Work’s a lot right now,” or “There are too many people to try to catch up with.” A helpful exercise — one taught me by my brother Clem — is to actually sit down and look at how you spend your time. You may discover, as Clem did when he did this a number of years ago, that you’re trying to pack too many things into a finite number of hours. So consider:

  • How much time does work take?
  • How much time do you have after that?
  • How much time do you spend watching Netflix or TV shows?
  • How much time do you have to recharge your batteries?
  • How much time do you give to your family?
  • How much time do you spend with God?

2. Differentiate between a busy season and a busy lifestyle. This is something my counselor mentioned to me, and I found it a really helpful distinction. Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us there’s a time for everything, but it can be hard for us to discern whether we’re ‘just’ in the middle of a particularly busy season of life or whether we’re living in an unsustainably busy way.

Snow on the doorknobOne question to ask yourself is, “Is there a discernible end to this season?” Christmas and Easter are particularly busy times of year for me, but I know that once those days pass, things will calm down (a little). Just as there are signs when seasons change (like, for instance, oh … the snow stopping when it’s time for spring), busy seasons should have clear indicators of when they’re ending.

However, if you’re thinking that your busy seasons just keep following one another, you’re probably living in the Southern California of life — where there’s only one season, and it’s busy. And if it’s unsustainably and unhealthily busy, you may need to re-prioritize and practice saying no (even, and especially, to good things).

3. Establish healthy rhythms of life, building in time for things that give you joy. Whether you’re currently in a busy season or engaging in an unsustainably busy lifestyle, there are some helpful rhythms to practice to move toward a healthier, fuller way of living. Ruth Haley Barton lists a few in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership:

  • Work and rest. Learning how to sabbath is key to counter the workaholic busyness of our culture without descending into laziness; and if you’re in this for the long haul, learning to rest is indispensable. (Click here for more on sabbath: “In the beginning … rest.“)
  • Engagement and retreat. There are times when we press forward, starting new initiatives, beginning new projects, taking on the challenges of life and work in a broken world; and then there are times when we step back in order to recover, to recuperate, to heal the wounds caused by those challenges of life and work in a broken world. Remember that the weight of the world does not weigh on your shoulders; remember that God is at work — he was long before you came onto the scene and he will be long after you’re gone.
  • Silence and word, stillness and action. “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,” reads Proverbs 10:19 (which Ruth quotes). Too often we jump straight into sharing our thoughts or leaping into action without first being silent and still before God to hear what he might want for us, or even to figure out what we really think or want to do. Should I engage in this new venture? Should I say yes to this possibility? Should I voice my opinion or say what I think? Learning to live out of a deep reservoir usually involves pressing pause before pressing play.
  • Self-knowledge and self-examination. It can be tempting to think that once we’ve taken enough tests (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Strengths Finder, etc.), we can just rely on our instincts or our understanding of who we (think we) are. But the call of Jesus is constant and continual discipleship, learning and relearning how to do life with God. Psalm 139:23-24 should be a constant refrain in our lives: “Search me, 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.”
  • Finding a way of life together. Our inclination is to be self-sufficient, to find more and more ways not to need others (buy all your own stuff, have your own back yard, etc.) but the way of Jesus is one in which we do life in community. If you aren’t already, find a local church to plug in to, join a small group, cultivate connections in which you give life to others and others give life to you.  Don’t lone-wolf this. (Yes, I made that a verb.)

Life is constantly changing — new technologies (or TV shows) to distract us; old friendships fading away, new friendships popping up; quitting a job, finding a job; finding new hobbies, forgetting to make time for old hobbies; families growing and shrinking.

Listen to the words of Jesus:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

This is our God. This is the life he invites us into.

There isn’t a formula that allows us to plug in certain data and come up with the secret to good living — but part of what makes life worth living is the sometimes-arduous, never-boring, ultimately-rewarding process of becoming the kind of people who are actively seeking to live as God would have wanted us to live; the journey of learning how to be more like Jesus; and the privilege of having the Spirit of God help us do that with peace in the busyness, with joy in the brokenness, with hope in the pessimism, and with focus in the anxiety and freneticism and stress.

“Take heart,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

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A Lenten Lesson: We Can’t, But God Can

[Adapted from the message at last night’s Ash Wednesday service, jointly held by The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church. Listen to the sermon here.]

Ash Wednesday

At Lent, we take time to remember the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. At Lent, we prepare ourselves for Easter, the time when we celebrate the most important event in history—Jesus’ death and resurrection. At Lent, we are brought back to and reminded of the truth that forms the foundation of our faith; and that is this:

We can’t, but God can.

On Ash Wednesday, we have ashes placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and as that happens, these words (or something like them) are spoken over you, from Genesis 3:19:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Those words, which God spoke to Adam, are reminders of our mortality, our finitude, our limits. Those words encapsulate that truth that we can’t, but God can. 

I have loved ones who are struggling with health issues, friends who are stuck in jobs that swing from great one day to abysmal the next, or are just difficult; I know people who are wrestling with addictions to alcohol and pornography, folks who are fighting to keep marriages together or raise their kids well, or who are feeling the weight of the aging process in aching joints and sore muscles, faulty memories and slower processing power. I wish I could take their burdens on myself and make everything well, but I can’t. I can’t even do that for the things that I have to face.

And that’s true at the most basic, fundamental level of the soul as well. As I’ve written before:

the presupposition of the Christian faith is that we can’t; the prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t. We can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people or all of the havoc that’s been wreaked on our lives. We can’t.

There are a few practices that Christians throughout history and all over the world have done during the season of Lent; three of the key ones are fasting, praying, and giving to the poor. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “When you fast, when you pray, when you give to the poor,” not “if”—he assumes that we will do these things. These practices, just like the season of Lent, bring us back to that truth—bring us back to both sides of that truth: we can’t, but God can. So hopefully these practices aren’t restricted to six weeks during the year.

Think about giving to the poor. Giving to the poor reminds us that we can’t but God can. Giving to the poor speaks incisively into the mess of voices that tell us that our money and our resources are our own: It’s yours to do with as you please. Giving to the poor is the action that says, “No, we are but stewards, called to discharge our responsibilities with the resources that God has blessed us with.” Even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that money does not own us, but that we belong to God, that we are engaged in his mission of bringing freedom from materialism for ourselves and investing in the work of justice and compassion for others. But even more than that, giving to the poor reminds us that our Lord, for our sakes, became poor. And not just poor in comparison to being God—actually, literally, socioeconomically poor. So giving to the poor reminds us that Christ is in every face we see, in every person we encounter. That’s why we give to the poor.

Think about praying. Prayer reminds that we can’t but God can. What other activity is there that looks like it accomplishes so little, and yet can bear so much fruit? What other activity is there in which we seem to be doing nothing but talking to air—and not even that if we’re just listening to God—and yet proclaims the truth that our God can? William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-20th century, was challenged by his critics, who said that answered prayer was just coincidence. He replied, “When I pray, coincidences happen; and when I don’t, they don’t.” Prayer is where God gets us to stop talking and instead to listen to what he might have to say; prayer is where we bring our agendas to the Almighty and he gives us his better one instead; prayer is where our words—our wise, persuasive, compelling smooth talk—meet the reality of a good and loving God, and we are reminded that in so many things, in so many things, we can’t but God can. Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton says,

In Washington, D.C., it is said that power is measured by access. Prayer is about access to the God who reigns over all.

That’s why we pray.

Think about fasting. Some of us are fasting social media because we need a detox—how many folks are giving up Facebook for Lent? Others of us like to tie it in with a health kick, or some sort of dieting goal: I’m going to give up chocolate because I need to lose some weight; I’m going to fast candy because I don’t want to get more cavities; I’m going to cut back on this or that because I ate too much on Fat Tuesday and now I need to make up for it! And while that’s a nice sort of killing two birds with one stone, I’d humbly submit that if we miss the larger point of why we do these things, we miss out on the point of Lent. My friend Eugene Cho, who pastors a church in Seattle, wonders if God sometimes looks at us and says,

Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to give up your life to me.

The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God. Jesus didn’t eat for forty days and the gospels tell us that at the end of that time, he was physically weak but spiritually strong. He was physically weak because he had given up food for forty days, but he was spiritually strong because he had given up his life to his Father.

That’s what matters: whether we are spiritually strong, whether we have been fortified in our spirits by time with God, whether we have given our lives over to the Father. See, you can be physically weak or mentally weak or even emotionally weak, but if you’re spiritually strong because you’ve given your life to God, you’ll be okay.

You may be feeling physically great, mentally sharp, emotionally okay, but spiritually weak. And when you’re spiritually weak, you’ve forgotten the truth that we can’t. We live in a country whose primary narrative is the American Dream, the notion that if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed; and if you aren’t succeeding yet, just work harder, just try harder! You may be facing some troubles: pressures at work, challenges at home, financial issues, relationship difficulties, addictions and destructive habits. If we’re spiritually weak, we will try to will our way to a better future. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we can’t—and if we’re not honest with ourselves, sooner or later, our experience will tell us the same thing. We can’t …

But God can. Jesus was spiritually strong, even after forty days of fasting, because he had been reminded that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He had been reminded that in his own strength he could do nothing, but in the strength of God he could withstand the devil himself. He had been reminded that God can, and so what better way to face the challenges—and the joys—of life and death and resurrection than to give himself over to this God.

One last thing I want to say: I’m fairly certain those forty days in the wilderness weren’t a walk in the park for Jesus; probably not much at all like a Holy Land vacation. And yet it was in those times of being without, of being tested, of being stripped of the so-called necessities of life—it was in those times that God was strengthening him by the power of the Holy Spirit and preparing him for a work and a ministry that would forever change the world.

You may be going through a season of wilderness—or you may be about to begin one—a time when it feels like all around you is desert, a period where you feel like things that were central to your life are being stripped away. Maybe, if you’re willing, the God who can will bring new life by the power of his Spirit; maybe, if you spend time with him, the God who can will make you spiritually strong; maybe, if you give your life over to him, the God who can will turn your life right side up.

As we go through this season of Lent, as we remember Jesus in the wilderness, as we prepare ourselves for the great celebration that awaits us in a few weeks’ time, as we engage in those practices of praying and fasting and giving to the poor and whatever else you may choose to do during the coming weeks, may we be reminded that we are but dust, and to dust we will return; but also that the God who created the universe, the God through whom all things are possible, wants us—invites us—to live life with him. May we be reminded of that foundational truth of our faith:

We can’t, but God can.