Monthly Archives: January 2009

quotable blessings – Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

Enjoy…

Quarelling with God is a time honored biblical practice: Moses, Job, David, and St. Peter were all masters at it.  It is a practice in which men and women in ministry have much practice.  We get a lot of practice in this because we are dealing with God in some way or another most of the time (in theory), and God doesn’t behave as we expect.

Speaking of Jonah’s anger in Jonah 4 (and giving me timeless biblical help in my current life and pastorate):

Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool.  When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that something is wrong.  Something isn’t working right.  There is evil or incompetence or stupidity lurking about.  Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood.  Diagnostically it is virtually infallible, and we learn to trust it…  What anger fails to do, though, is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us.  We usually begin by assuming the wrong is outside us – our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry.  That is what Jonah did.  He quarelled with God.  But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us – wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart. 

Thanks for the help Mr. Eugene… not that I have any anger or know any angry people.  Finally, consider this TRUE description of ministry.  Recently, I sat with a friend in the PCA – Jay Thomas – and when I asked him what kind of ministry he prayed that he would one day participate in, he oddly answered “The messy kind.”  JT – you’ll like this.

A group of seminarians I was leading once asked me what I liked best about being a pastor.  I answered, “The mess.”  I had never said that before; I don’t think I had even thought it before.  The answer surprised me as much as it did them.  Sometimes a question does that, pulls an answer out of us that we didn’t know was there, but the moment we hear it we know immediately it is exactly true, more true than if we had had a week to formulate an answer.

Actually, I don’t like the mess at all.  I hate the mess.  I hate the uncertainty.  I hate not knowing how long this is going to last, hate the unanswered questions, the limbo of confused and indecisive lives, the tangle of motives and emotions.  What I love is the creativity.  And what I know is that I can never be involved in creativity except by entering the mess…

Creativity is not neat.  It is not orderly.  When we are being creative we don’t know what is going to happen next.  When we are being creative a great deal of what we do is wrong.  When we are being creative we are not efficient.  An artist makes attempt after attempt at the canvas…  A poet writes draft after draft of a poem, mercilessly excising cliches, feeling for the true rhythm, filling the wastebasket with crumpled paper, and eventually getting words together that tell the truth and tell it truthfully.  Lovers quarrel, hurt and get hurt, misunderstand and are misunderstood in their painstaking work of creating a marriage: apologize and then explain, listen and wait, rush forward and pull back, desire and sacrifice as love receives its slow incarnation in flesh and spirit.

Now that, my friends, is a beautiful, true, honest picture of all that God has taught a young pastor in the mess of life and churchplanting.  I love the mess.  I hate the mess.  I think I see the need of the gospel in the mess.  I know I have seen the creative power of the Spirit in the mess.  Bring it on, O God.  Show us that we are poor and needy, messy and in the right place for transformation. 

So to sum up this morning’s reading of The Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson (p.155-167): In the mess, I meet God.  But I often quarrel with him.   In the mess, I meet my anger and that of others… which helps diagnose the mess.  Then, the mess becomes the place of mercy – unprogrammed, unanticipated, unknown Creative mercy.  God is there.  Messy ministry is the better kind.

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Psalm 40 – my psalm

This morning it was warm – only 20 something degrees.  So I walked to work (took the days off that were in the single digits).  Actually, I danced in the streets, so it felt in my heart.  Not sure why.

Kori questioned me at lunch – what was it?  Well, for one – our family seems to be done vomiting.  But I don’t think that is it.  I read Psalm 40 this morning and it seemed to be filled with divinely inspired words describing my life over the past few months. 

Weird, because in the Psalm, David even references that “the scroll of the book was written of him” (v.8)… which promted him to delight all the more to serve the Lord and safekeep the  law within his heart.  I could not have had more of a feeling than that “the 40th Psalm of the book was written of me.”  I considered v.9, how I have spent the last 3 months preaching as the launch-pastor of West Valley Presbyterian Churchplant (our sermons are now online by the way – www.westvalleypres.org).   Yes, I have sought to “tell the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation.”  We have  not failed to celebrate and declare the gospel alone through the Word.  But this has not just been formal declartation.  Of late, I have shared with our congregation the work God has been doing to rescue me from myopia and some of the internal people-pleasing and selfish struggles of my life that a church plant has revealed… all the way down to family dynamics (is a pastor supposed to keep such growth plates hidden?).  It has been kinda like v.10 – “I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”

Then v.12 hits the heart of the matter.  “For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see.”  Interestingly, I have been overcome by iniquity before, since about … O … age 2.  I can name them: anger, lust, pride, self-righteousness.  But this season has been one in which I have felt encompassed by the evil of a fallen world – sickness, dark winter depression, anxiety… things that seem outside of the realm of the iniquity I know so well!  It has been a miry bog (v.2) that has ironically collided with a glorious time for WVPC!  While in the miry bog, I didn’t blog much, reach out much, or say much – even though things were moving well by God’s design in “the great congregation.”   Why the melancholy?  Because I couldn’t see (v.12) 

Wow.  God you are a God of grace and mercy who truly loves the broken-hearted.  You have shown the hearts of many at West Valley PCA just how broken we are SO THAT we can now offer a sacrifice that is pleasing and acceptable through Christ our righteousness.  Thank you. 

So… today, why did I float to my ipod down main street?  Is it not because “all who seek you will rejoice and be glad in you; we who love our salvation will say, ‘Great is the Lord!'”(v.16)  Yes, I think that is it.  And no vomiting.  And yet, the posture of a pastor in the great congregation (OK, a churchplant of chaos but growth) is told to me at the close of the the text in v.17 – “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought of me.  You are my help and my deliverer, do not delay, O my God!”

Yes, I can say that I see I am poor and needy, yet the Lord looks upon me so much that he would SHOW THAT TO ME in these first 3 months at West Valley.  Thank you God.  When I am weak, then you are strong – in my home, my life, my vocation.  Amen.

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prayerless words – weak fool

I have spoken many prayerless words in the past 24 hours.  Words matter.  Hard reminder when I see the effect of my mouth on my family.  God have mercy.

When I consider that my words can wound as they do… I am suddenly struck by the words of the Ecclesiastes passage I am working through – “What is crooked cannot be made straight.”  Sometimes that’s how I feel about the parts of myself that don’t add up.   When I am angry, why do I speak.  I know not to.  I do anyways.  What a crooked part of this fallen world.  The things I don’t want to do I do…

Crooked words point to a crooked heart in a crooked world that I can’t make straight.  Once again, weakness as the catalyst for a gospel prayer, hope, dependence and love. 

Today I feel like a crooked pastor because I can’t make things straight in my home… and yet, somehow by grace (in spite of all I said last night) there was a familial experience of peace this morning.  Could it be the peace that God, in his time, will straighten what is crooked.  Will bend my words into obedience and blessing for his glory?  Please do O God.

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words. semantics. logos.

Below is an “unpublished” prayerletter that I almost sent out to our West Valley PCA church plant prayer partners.  Upon reading it, my wife commented that it was less about God’s work in our church plant, and more a reflection/confession on his work in me.  It is written like a blog, she said, not a prayerletter.  And so I post it as a blog, for anyone who cares to read… and pray!

______

 

 

I love words.  For good reason, I think:   En arche en o logos. (“In the beginning was the Word.”)  By words, I do not mean my existence as a talking head (which is something that just happens, something that I do not enjoy, something that God is bound to change as he shapes me through Kori).  I love the written word.  My affection for creative literary verbiage has prompted self-discovery as often as it has created strife.  Despite being a traditionalist on many fronts, I have learned that being a semantic challenger de facto makes one a non-conformist.   I can thank my High School friend Carl Gregg, who threw a novel in my lap one lunch period, saying – Read this.  It’ll improve your vocabulary. 

 

Words.  They can release us from the prison of other people’s ideas even as they rescue us from our own incomplete thoughts!    Undeniably, effective word formation and articulation defines who we are. 

 

Yet, how dangerous words can be.  In his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant – An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene Peterson exposes me to the scary truth of word-flirtation:

 

Somewhere along the way… I saw that alongside and intertwined with being a pastor I was also a writer.  My vocation was bipolar.  In writing I am working with words; in pastoring, I am working with people.  Not mere words or mere people, but words and people as carriers of spirit/Spirit.  The moment words are used prayerlessly and people are treated prayerlessly, something essential begins to leak out of life. 

 

In this first prayer letter of 2009, I share with you my greatest lesson of the first 3 months as pastor of West Valley Presbyterian Church.  The lesson is this: culturally-nuanced and intentionally-contextualized words – even those with a localized gospel-semantic and aesthetic – they are just words… unless God’s Word and Spirit inhabit them through prayer.  We have used many words at West Valley; words which I believe have resonated with our intellectual, yet spiritually stymied culture.  Words like brokenness, community, authentic, weakness (contra strength), gospel meta-narrative (creation, fall, redemption, glory), worldview, otherness, newness.  More than a few people have settled at West Valley PCA because they are hearing the gospel in a new semantic that I fully believe is a faithful semantic.  Words matter to God. 

 

And yet, confess that I have often used words “prayerlessly.”  (Prayerless words.  Thank God they are not empty words – for he has used them.)  I know this, because over the first months of God’s good work at West Valley PCA, “something essential has leaked out of my life.”  Joy… compassion, to name only two.  Our family has gone through deep spiritual depression, difficult health challenges, personal trials of a wordless proportion.  My own words have been incapable of relief, recognition, or recapitulation for others.  You, our faithful praying friends, should know this. 

 

And yet, thanks be to God for his Word, which is unchanging!  Regardless of its semantic expression (exhortation, rebuke, psalmody, poetry, narrative, lament) it has bathed a broken young pastor in a language understandable.  It is hearable, and because it is true – restorative faith has come again by hearing (Romans 10:17)!  Kori and I stand up and attest that the Word of God is powerful and beautifully diagnostic for broken and sick people such as we have been.

 

I want you all – our church planting partners – to know that many are hearing of God’s grace and mercy at West Valley PCA through the text of his Word (his righteousness given to the unrighteous in Christ, his justice promised to the oppressed through Christ, his healing at the cost of Christ’s brokenness for our brokenness).  Many unchurched are checking into the Word spoken in a language they can understand.  You have made this possible, thank you.  Even more, I want you to know that I need your prayers to be a pastor of prayerFULL written and spoken words, when it is so easy to speak and write prayerlessly! 

 

Ironically, I long for God’s work of kingdom-explosion to continue just as it has been – by his unearthing our deepest fears, deceptions, needs, brokenness… so that through our brokenness we can see and savor Christ, and so bring the hope of his gospel (which we ACTUALLY believe, hunger for, search for words about) to the broken culture and persons around us!  Will you pray to that end – and it will be a glorious eternal end of justice and mercy and joy everlasting for those who are in Christ in the West Valley (as well as where God has placed you)! 

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There are pictures and real prayer requests in the email prayerletter I send monthly… if anyone desires to receive said prayerletters, please comment and leave your email address!

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my friend eugene

I have a friend.  I should stop this post with that.  

Sincerely, I have a friend who speaks to me things which I deserve to have spoken AT me.  Hard things has he said to me.  Honest assessments colliding with empathetic affections.  My friend is Mr. Eugene Peterson, who has come to speak with me about my life as a pastor.  How nice of him to write a whole book for an undeserving aquaintance-turned-friend as me.  Under the Unpredictable Plant – An exploration in vocational holiness is about me, to me.

I have found that I have not initially admired many of my closest friends.  Apparently, rough first impressions are a good sign for me.  As much as I long for honest assessment and compassion, I have a penchant toward judging the kinds of people whom I need most.   Mr. Eugene was one such person.  I have never read much of Eugene Peterson.  Committed to expositional preaching of reliable translations of Scripture (the ESV!!!), I have avoided his “translation” (yes, in quotes) – The Message.  It has never found its way to my study.  Sorry Eugene, please forgive me.  The first impression has passed.  I declare that I have neglected a supplemental literary gift.  My friend Eugene is a good writer; he has shown me.

I weigh his experience against my own: “Somewhere along the way, as  I searched out my origins… I saw that alongside and intertwined with being a pastor I was also a writer.  My vocation was bipolar.  I do not know how I knew so certainly, for it was to be many years before I was published, but the conviction deepened in me that writer was parallel to pastor in my vocation.  Not in competition with it, the writer and the pastor  fighting for equal time.  Not in submission to it, the writer being a servant to the pastor, writing down his message so that others could read it.  But partners, writer and pastor as vocational twins. 

Eugene, writes of himself, yet I read of myself for good reason.  It was in the chaos of being a young organizing pastor of a church plant that he felt convinced of his vocational bipolarity.  He gives word to my soul – “I felt beleagured.  I had been sent to organize a new church and so was a pastor without a congregation.  I was a writer, but unpublished.  There was no market for who I was, no job that fit my vocation.”

Why have I so seldomly blogged of late?!  Many reasons.  Why have I set aside my writing pursuits that brought joy and peace and purpose?!  Many good reasons.  And yet, listening to Eugene, I can now label what I have wordlessly felt  – I have bifurcated my vocational personality!  I love writing.  I believe God has called me to it.  Twice I have written 100 page manuscripts only to walk away confused as to why I am wanting to be what I am.  Eugene has reminded me. 

Of course, he has reminded me of much more.  His words have clarified my vocational calling to pastor God’s people as opposed to succoming to “religious careerism.”  His experiences penned have biographically sketched my first three months as the organizing pastor of West Valley PCA.  He has managed to convince me that the people to whom I have been called play a special role in my own spiritual formation.  They for me more than I for them.  “The congregation is the pastor’s place for developing vocational holiness.   It goes without saying that it is the place of ministry: we preach the Word and administer the sacraments, we give pastoral care and administer the community life, we teach and give spiritual direction.  But it is also the place in which we develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope – become what we preach.  At the same time we proclaim the holy gospel, we develop a holy life… The congregation provides the rythems, the associations, the tasks, the limitations, the temptations – the conditions – for this growing up ‘in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15).'”

Honest Eugene.  He could have told me earlier but I would not have heard him.  Yes, church planting has its glorious thrills – but so does every wild roller coaster that challenges our equilibrium and leaves us scampering away to vomit in private.  Eugene has interpreted for me the first 6 months of West Valley Presbyterian Church!  God is at work.  Congregationally.  Vocationally.  Missionally.  It is real.  It is gospel-rich.  But it has not been glamorous. 

That’s OK though – because my friend Eugene says that “parish glamorization is ecclesiastical pornography – taking photographs (skillfully airbrushed) or drawing pictures of congregations that are without spot or wrinkle.”  Thank God that such a picture is erronous – not only are the spots and wrinkles there (I have seen them)… I need them to be there.  If I would honor Christ with vocational holiness – in the bipolar sense – I need them to be there.

Thanks Eugene.

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