Monthly Archives: March 2011

Lent #6 – Living Out of Weakness

Today I was pulled toward reading 2 Corinthians 12. This is one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, where Paul talks about a man (probably himself) who had a vision of heaven. He “boasts” as he tells of this man, but quickly says if he is going to boast he will boast about his weaknesses. I love what Paul says in verses 7-10:

“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak then I am strong.

Continuing through this season of lent, and with the building of rhythm toward Easter and resurrection, I am perhaps more in touch with my own weakness than ever before. When we fast we realize some of the deep addictions we have toward food (or other “things”) and the stranglehold they have on our lives. What we find ourselves craving are the things that have sufficed for true fulfillment and satisfaction.

But what if we learned to live out of our weakness?

What if we really believed, like Paul, that God’s power was made perfect in our weakness?

Would the thorns in our flesh be any less painful? No.

But would we approach our weakness with a quiet resilience, believing God’s strength was rumbling just below our fragile exterior? I think so.

It is the heart of a Kingdom-ambassador that can step into their own weaknesses and say with Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

May you today embrace your weakness. May you be courageous enough to quiet your heart and lean not on your own understanding. May you open your hands and relinquish control of “things” to the all-sustaining Creator of the Universe. May his power be made perfect in your weakness.

Lent #5 – Death in His Grave

In the buildup of lent leading to Easter, I’ve fallen in love with this song. You should too.

Messy Community and Systematic Theology – Eugene Peterson 2


Part of my biggest fear of deciding to walk through seminary was the dreaded systematic theology classes. For those who had recommended I go, these were often the classes they talked the most about. These were the classes I “needed” in their view. A focused time to take me through logically orthodox Christian belief.

I never liked the thought of a system of beliefs being laid out like a paper full of check boxes for me to see if I still fit the mold. (Thankfully, the seminary I attended didn’t teach it this way either…) Call me postmodern, or millennial, or just rebellious–but that model just seemed to simple in light of the Scriptures and the narratives they tell.

As I mentioned yesterday I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book “The Pastor”. He deals with some of this in his memoir as he writes of his time working on his Ph.D. and serving in his first pastoral role in New York. Peterson speaks of his pursuit of academia and the fact that he never saw himself becoming a pastor. Yet, it is in this time of pastoral responsibility for a small congregation in the city that he meets congregants like Virginia. Virginia has a husband with extraordinary gambling debts being threatened by debt collectors, and she is terrified. Peterson is forced to call a retired Brooklyn cop for help. He sees Virginia each and and every Sunday as a “shy worshipper,” but no longer overlooked. He says, “Her presence in the sanctuary was proof against any superficial assessment of people in the congregation as complacent shoppers for a comfortable pew” (20).

He goes on to spell this out as the reality of his theological formation. For Peterson, systematic theology is grounded in the day to day life of his congregation. Later he says,

“Every act of sin and every event of salvation involved a personal name in a grammar of imperative and promises in a messy community of friends and neighbors, parents and grandparents, none of whom fit a stereotype… the only hour of the week that had any predictable, uninterrupted order to it was Sunday morning, when the story of creation and covenant was told and the prayers of confession were said and sung. I was learning that for a pastor, the rest of the week was spent getting that story and those prayers heard and prayed in the personal and unique particulars of these people” (22).

How true is this? We stand on our theological concrete until it is shattered beneath us by the reality of relationships and brokenness in the MESSY COMMUNITY. This is the beauty of the Church, the necessity of saving grace, and the reality of sin. Systematically speaking–it is chaos. And it is the beautiful, fertile ground for theology that is life-giving to rise up in our hearts.

For my pastor friends out there I’m curious–where have you seen this take place? Who are the faces you see week in and week out who have served to give life to your theology through their own chaos?

*As a side note… I did find great value in my systematic theology classes. Our text was more helpful to me in understanding the wide and great nature of God and his people than perhaps any other book I read. So now, I guess I am one of those seminary grads who would recommend systematic theology as a “needed” class for those coming up in ministry… And a part-time job in a really messy church. :)

A New Beatitude

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be the comforters.

I am so extremely grateful for the encouraging voices of those around me in the recent weeks. God has truly used the past brokenness of other lives to speak courage into my own. There is the beauty coming out of ashes–and I pray someday I may offer the same gift to others.

Eugene Peterson 1 – "The Pastor"

If you haven’t been inundated with the media frenzy and Christian civil war taking place in the past couple weeks over the release of Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins,” you’ve probably been more productive than most of us. While I was home this weekend I went into Barnes and Noble and picked up the book with the intent of buying it (and actually forming my own opinions). But a minute later I put it down and ended up walking out with Eugene Peterson’s latest release called “The Pastor“.

From the inside flap this is labeled a memoir of Peterson (who helped translate the paraphrase of the Bible The Message) who says, “I can’t imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor, I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived, all kinds of things, seemingly random experiences and memories, gradually began to take a form that was congruent with who I was becoming, like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly–a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life, a vocation: Pastor. But it took a while.”

I was immediately drawn to the book. Maybe it’s because after 8 years of full-time work in churches I left for Chick-Fil-A and the dream of a nonprofit. Maybe it’s because now, after just five months I’m leaving that dream and following God’s leading back into full-time vocational ministry as a pastor in Michigan. Mainly I think it’s because of that last line of Peterson’s — “But it took a while.”

Speaking very openly, I’ve never felt entirely at ease with the label of pastor. It has always felt a bit like being the one in the room full of people dressed up who decided to wear a bow tie instead of a necktie. It just didn’t fit right. Of course there’s also the whole issue of calling. Aside from the question of what to think when we don’t feel God’s presence in our lives, this has been the single biggest issue for the students I’ve worked with over the years. The idea of calling, especially now in my life, has always been like trying to orient yourself in a forest of trees when it’s foggy. You do your best to figure it all out, but there always remains some uncertainty.

Anyway, I’m only a few chapters in but Peterson is a master. I’ll be reflecting on the book here as I go and sharing a few of my own thoughts about pastors. For now, here’s a great line from Peterson’s opening chapters as he reflects on his father’s mountain cabin in Montana:

“I grew up in a church environment that tended to be dismissive of ‘this world’ in favor of ‘spiritual things.’ By buying this lakefront property and building this cabin, my father provided me and, as it turned out, many others, with a rooting and grounding, a sense of thisness and hereness, for the faith that was maturing in me. He provided a shrine, a sacred place where ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ could be prayed and practiced. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate all this at the time, but in retrospect I recognize that a strong conviction was forming in me that the life of faith cannot be lived in general or by abstractions. All the great realities that we can’t touch or see take form as ground that we can touch and see.

And We’re Off to the Thumb of Michigan!

Well, it’s time to update you all on a few things. I know some readers already know all that’s been going on with Carrie and I, but I wanted to inform the rest of you as to what we’ve been up to. Our time in Penn State has been amazing and difficult in ways that we never could have imagined. Instead of reframing everything here for the blog, and in order to stay consistent with our communication I’m just going to post below the letter we have sent out to the supporters of In Between Trees.

Friends,

Hi there! I hope things are well with all of you.

I wanted to send you all an update. I know we’ve kind of been out of the communication loop for a while and I wanted to fill you in on where things are here in State College with In Between Trees.

This has been probably the hardest and best thing we’ve ever done.

If you have not heard yet, Carrie has moved back to Pittsburgh and we have finished our lease here in State College. We just couldn’t keep up with the mortgage/rent payments together. I am currently staying with friends here (Bruce and Lori Herold) who have been gracious enough to offer me a room in their house.

With that happening, there were also some other difficult things. Our five-year old Malia was having an extremely difficult time adjusting to my schedule at Chick-Fil-A. She’s always been a super-structured kid, but I didn’t expect this level of stress on her. A few weeks ago she cried every day that I left for work. She just didn’t understand how I could be working some nights, some days, etc. She never figured it out. I have seen my dad work as a retail manager for over 35 years so I knew the hours would be different and harder than what I had at a church, but I didn’t realize the effect it would have on her.

With these things together–the finances, Malia’s struggles, and Carrie’s fears about how things would go once Malia started school, we started questioning a lot.

Very long story made short, I was approached by a friend who is a lead pastor at a church in Michigan. As of Monday I accepted a job as the full-time Pastor to Students at Colwood Church in Caro, Michigan. It is a small town (4000-5000) and a really great church of about 500-600 (www.colwood.org). I will be overseeing 6-12th grade and serving on the senior leadership team of the church. I’m actually pretty excited about it. The best part for us is that the finances will be much more stable and they are providing a parsonage for free until our house sells. It is literally 200 yards from the church. I can’t wait to walk home for lunch.

Anyway…

As I mentioned this has been an extremely strenuous process. I HATE being away from the girls. It is not how a family is meant to exist. I honestly struggle to reconcile what I thought was a very clear call from God to come to State College and launch this ministry. In fact, from the ministry standpoint things have been great. We had begun a Bible study with about 8 students–4 of whom were unchurched. One Taiwanese girl opened the Bible for the very first time at one of these studies. She continues to dialog with me over issues of faith.

I have wrestled with God in the most Jacob-like fashion over the past couple of months, and the best resolution I have is that God isn’t really ever about a “final destination”–but always more about the journey. I know he has made me a better father and husband through this whole thing. I don’t know why we were here for only five months. I don’t understand the whole thing. But–I refuse to believe God wastes time.

That doesn’t mean I don’t hate writing this letter and I know I am battling many feelings of shame and failure. I feel as if in many ways I am letting a lot of people down–including you as donors, the students we had begun building relationships with, and the great team of employees at Chick-Fil-A. When we came here we expected it to be long-term, nowhere near the five months it has been. With that said, I’m not seeking sympathy; I only want you to understand my heart. As passionate as I was about the ministry here, I have to move my family into a more stable position and we all sense God’s leading in this new direction. I do honestly feel like Jacob limping a bit, but knowing God has blessed our wrestling. We are excited to serve the people of Colwood and very excited to be in full-time ministry again.

So, I wanted to fill you in. I am so grateful for your support during this time–both in prayer and with finances. As far as the nonprofit we launched here, there are some decisions to be made. My hope is that in the coming weeks we will be able to refocus our vision and continue the work begun with In Between Trees as a partner with the Church School in Kenya I have told you about. I feel like there are great opportunities there and we still have work to do. Of course this decision will be made with the full input and direction of our board and attorney, and I will keep you posted. As supporters of this ministry, if you have questions about the finances or things moving forward, please don’t hesitate to call me. My hope is to handle this whole thing with as much integrity as possible and faithfulness to God’s leading for us as a family and the ministry of In Between Trees.

Love,

justin

Thinking of Africa…

Today before work I was flipping through the channels and I came to Palladia. This is one of my favorite channels as they often play legitimate videos and concerts. Unlike MTV it is actually still a music station.

Anyway, as I settled on Palladia I came across a great concert from Dispatch. It was their live performance at Madison Square Garden to benefit charities helping those suffering in Zimbabwe. As they played this song I couldn’t help but go back to my trip to Kenya just over a year ago:

I miss the people there. I miss the smells and the sounds, and the overwhelming sensation of a flooding a different culture. I miss the slums around Nairobi where we spent so much time, and the houses of those women suffering with HIV. I miss seeing the students on our team flooded with emotions and overcome with a sense that God has more planned when the Bible speaks of the gospel as Good News.

I posted today that I miss my wife and kids. And Africa. And I want to take my wife and kids to Africa someday. Someday…

Just for memories… here’s our team’s video from that trip. Thanks to David Burke!

10 Reasons to LOVE The Empire Strikes Back


Okay, so it’s a departure from the heavy content I’ve been posting on here, but I got sucked into a good friend’s March Movie Madness blogging contest, and I have to defend my selection of The Empire Strikes Back as the winner… so here it is! (And check out his blog for some great writing!)

10. Luke’s all grown-up. No more lonely desert boy. This guy is mastering the force and starting to lead the rebellion.

9. YODA. Dagobah. ‘Nuf said.

8. The snow monster at the beginning of the film. And Han Solo’s boy scout survival move to cut open his steed.

7. No ewoks.

6. Billy Dee Williams. Okay, maybe not… but maybe?

5. Luke trains like Rocky. One-armed handstands and a creepy showdown with Darth Vader in a cave made for my favorite part of the film.

4. Princess Leia–of course.

3. No Jar-Jar Binks.

2. The lightsaber dual leading to…

1. “Luke, I am your father.” “Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

Lent #4 – Fasting Creates Feasting

I continue to learn from this experience of lent I’m taking on for the first time. I haven’t spoken much about the “things” I’m fasting from during this time, and honestly it isn’t much. I have committed to drinking water and juices for the forty days and really just trying to balance more health into my diet. But I don’t think any of that is the point.

I think what matters more during this time is a sense of a different rhythm, a movement to my life that feels slower and more intentional.

I read a blog today of someone speaking about the feasting times during lent. It was informative to learn that some approach lent with feasts happening on Sundays as a time to celebrate and partake together as communities. I LOVE this idea. Feasting in the midst of fasting.

I am in my third week being away from my family. My wife and kids are living in our house in Pittsburgh as we wait for it to sell, and I am working here in State College. It is painful and unnatural. I find myself working and then recessing to solitude most everyday. I spend a lot of time in my own thoughts and really miss the girls.

But with that said, I have also found great value in this process. When I see them, I enjoy them more than I ever have. I cherish the sensations that had become so routine in our everyday experience of each other. I can describe better for you now all of them.

I can tell you of our five-year old’s deep introspection and how she feels things so strongly. I can tell you of her empathetic heart and her timidness that causes her to see the world around her more clearly before she steps into it.

I can tell you our three-year old’s deep and belly shaking joy. I can tell you how she longs for nothing more than to keep us all smiling… until she gets unhappy. Then she becomes a thunderstorm in a petite little body–an earthquake with tiny hands and tremors of passion. She is perfection.

I can paint a picture of our 16-month old who is starting to trust her walking legs and learning new things almost every minute of every day. I can tell you of her entertainer ways, how she loves to make us laugh and tell her how cute she is–and how she is finding that her temper can sometimes be comforted by pulling her sisters’ hair.

And I can speak for hours of my wife. I can tell you all about the quiet strength she has had in this month and how she has stepped to the top of my pyramid of heroes. She needs me there, but she is strong for these girls, and making the most of every day. I love her a thousand times more now than the day we got married–and I didn’t think that was possible.

The fasting makes the feasting better.

I enjoy my family more because I am spending so much time away from them.

May we all experience life in this way during this season of lent. May we find the time to cherish the little things, the people and communities around us, the art we encounter, the signs of life in spring, and the grace God bathes his world in. May we feast on the Kingdom around us.

Lent #3 – Frail

Like so many today, I’ve been checking the news to see the latest images of the tsunami aftermath in Japan. And like so many, the images are a million miles away. It just doesn’t feel real. It’s like this every time I find myself glued to the news stations during a global crisis. I realize something is taking place but not in a realistic way. It lies somewhere between Hollywood and my heart–and I never know what to do with it.

The thing that stands out to me watching these images is the overwhelming power of mere water. The video clips and photography show manmade tankers, vehicles, buildings, and so much more being absolutely devastated by the force of creation. As I drove around tonight I thought of the people in Japan who woke up today with their lives forever altered simply by weather. It is simply overwhelming to consider.

I guess the thought today is of our frailty.

Even in the places we feel the strongest we are fragile beyond belief. In one moment–in one brief flash–we could lose it all. Our families, our homes, our possessions, our integrity and our hearts are all one breath away from brokenness. We spend somewhere between 70-100 years on this earth and then we finish. Scripture labels us mere vapors. Fragile and feeble gaseous beings with an eternal destiny.

I continue to find great hope in this season of lent. In the midst of this crisis it is amazing to see the global response already coming forward. The Kingdom is often made most evident in the midst of pain and suffering, and I pray tonight that takes place in Japan. May the hope and blessing of the resurrection be seen through the arms of the Church in the coming days.