From the Front Porch

We exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. – Saint Paul, (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

What do pastors do all day anyway? Of course, the joke is that we only work for one hour on Sunday mornings.

Sometimes we get strange requests. I’ve been asked to pray for a pet pit bull that it would be healed from a terminal disease. I’ve listened to so many strange stories I can’t tell you. I’ve seen snakes slither across the stage during church. I’ve seen deacons drop the Lord’s Supper elements during Communion.

About a year ago I received a note from someone attending our church…

Pastor,

I have an “unspoken” prayer request and please keep this “confidential.”

Signed,

Anonymous

Aside from the basics of officiating at funerals and weddings, visiting the sick in hospitals, preaching on Sundays…what do we do? Or better asked, “What should we be doing?”

On two occasions in my ministry, I have been called “Father.” Each time it took me aback. We Baptist don’t think of ourselves that way. It is foreign to our ears. I do find that over the years I have felt that the office has a paternal feel to it.

I’ll the first time this became apparent to me was when a part-time staff person who led our music when I was in my mid-thirties told me that I was a father figure for him. He was forty at the time. I couldn’t understand how I could be a father figure for someone older than me at such a young age. Then it dawned on me that it wasn’t so much me as it was the role and office of pastor.

There is an old adage that says, “a mother is only as happy as her saddest child.”  As a father, I know that to be true. Of my three adult sons, I have one son who is struggling with his faith right now and one is not living for Jesus at all.

Remember the famous story Jesus told about the two sons? Jesus never mentions that the reason the younger son wanted his inheritance early so he could leave and squander it was due to any failure on the father’s part. Perhaps I am reading too much into that, but I find some comfort in that thought.

This past summer my father and I were backpacking, and Dad asked a question and told me a story. He asked why me, my brother and sisters were so deeply committed to Jesus. We discussed that for a while then he told me a story. He said that my mothers’ grandfather, Dad Conway, who was a deacon in my dad’s first church and would come to him and say, “Let’s go to the church house to pray.” They would drive down to the church and pray. One time my great grandfather, Dad Conway, made a promise to my dad that he would pray for each of his children by name until the day he died.

He kept that promise.

Dad told me that he would to the same thing for my kids and grandkids. I told my mother this story and she said that she has been doing that for years.

My heart aches for my two sons. Their faces are always at the front of my mind. At the same time, there are many other faces that press against the glass of my imagination. Not children of mine. I see faces of congregants and friends; people who are trying so hard to find their way in this world without Jesus. Oh, they go to church. Some regularly, some intermittently but they are in my flock and I am their shepherd.

And while I am delighted with our church family and I am at peace with Jesus, I am also very aware that my sense of melancholy is tied to the saddest member of my church.

I am careful about boundaries. I am quite willing to let people feel the full weight of the consequences of their sins. These consequences can be their best tutors. It is a delicate balance for a pastor knowing how to be available to and accommodating with congregants and not neglect your own health or the health of other primary relationships.

There is a difference between legitimate needs and perceived needs. You learn on the difference the more kids you have. The first child you are a Shiite protective parent. You are there in the room with him every time he turns over or whimpers. By the third child, a crying baby is like your alarm on Saturday mornings. Getting up when it goes off is really optional.

Part of what pastors do is to discern the difference between an urgent need that is not very important and an important need that has turned urgent.

One time a man who had been recently married called me on Saturday and told me he needed to talk to me. Said it was urgent. I asked him to explain. “Well,” he said, “You know Betty and I have been married for seven days now, but I want an annulment. Do you do annulments? Can you help me?

I said, “Bill, I would be happy to help you. Let’s set up a time to visit the first thing Monday morning.”

He said, “Pastor, did you hear me say that I need to talk to you right away? This is serious.”

I can tell by the tone of your voice that it is serious, “Let’s set a time for us to get together the first thing Monday morning.”

He wasn’t happy with me but agreed to meet Monday morning and they are still married.

Not all pastors are good at this. But being sensitive to legitimate needs in a congregant’s life is one of the most important practices we have to learn. A haunting question I frequently ask myself is as follows:

“Am I daily living the life I am inviting others to live?

A life of reflection?

A life of obedience?

A life of prayer?

A life of silence and solitude?

A life of justice and mercy?

A life of grace and truth?

Other than my own father, Eugene Peterson has had the greatest impact on my vocation as a pastor. Most pastors consider him to be a pastor’s pastor. He is who we all want to be when we grow up.

His son, Leif Peterson preached at his memorial service a couple of years ago. Here is the way he closed his sermon,

When I was in high school, I used to joke with my dad that he only had one sermon. And although it was a joke between us, I believed then, as I do now, that it is largely accurate. My dad had one message.

A few years ago, there was a commissioning service in Colorado for the translation of the New Testament that my dad had completed. I was invited to say a few words. In preparation, I couldn’t shake that thought that for his whole life my dad only had one sermon—one message.

So I wrote a poem.

The Message

It’s almost laughable

how you fooled them.

How for thirty years, every week

you made them think

you were saying something new.

They thought you were

a magician. In your long black robe,

hiding so much up your ample sleeves,

always pulling something fresh

and making them think it was just

for them. And that’s just

the beginning. There was more.

Casual conversations at church picnics,

unmemorable chats at the local Denny’s

over eggs and toast. Counseling sessions

that saved marriages, maybe even lives.

And they didn’t know what

a fraud you were. They didn’t know

how simple it all was. They were blind

to your secret, only saw the magic

you performed, how you made the mysterious,

the ominous, the holy, into a cup of coffee,

how you made a cup of coffee into an act of grace,

how you could make

God into something that worked for them.

It’s so funny that they didn’t notice.

So many times I’ve wanted to

expose you. Tell them all what you’ve

been up to. And now you’re doing it

again. You’ve got this new group fooled

into thinking you’re worth millions.

They’re printing it on T-shirts, coffee mugs,

message pads, a new version every week,

for some new flock. But, I must say this,

they’ve widened your audience. Now you’re fooling

them all over the world, in churches, schools, homes,

prisons. It’s so funny.

Only my inheritance keeps me

from giving you away.

Because I alone know your secret.

I alone know what you’ve been doing.

How you’ve fooled them all, taking something

so simple, something a child could understand

and making it into a career, a vocation, an empire.

I know.

Because for fifty years you’ve

been telling me the secret. For fifty

years you’ve steeled into my room

at night and whispered softly to my

sleeping head. It’s the same message

over and over and you don’t vary

it one bit.

God loves you.

He’s on your side.

He’s coming after you.

He’s relentless.

Pastors carry you in their hearts. It is this love that keeps a father on the front porch looking down a long and dusty road for a broken and sad boy to come home. And when he sees the familiar stride of his child, to be quick to leap off the porch and run down the road to embrace his son.

And it is this same heart that makes a pastor stand on the porch of a little church every Sunday morning looking at a parking lot for that troubled family to drive up.

So, I wait and watch—ready to run to both my son and you.

For I am a pastor.

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Stumbling Towards Grace

The success or failure of my own formation in Christlikenss can be measured by how irritable I am. – Dallas Willard

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. – Saint Paul

One time I was traveling from Phoenix to my home in Seattle and got my usual window seat. I put the earbuds in, got my book out and got as comfortable as my 6’4” tall and wide-body can get on a plane. Then a lady sat down beside me and ignored my warning signs—scowl (stink eye), no eye contact, earbuds, book, etc— and started talking to me. I had to take my headphones out of one ear to hear her. She was nice enough, but she was clearly not heeding the markers that I didn’t want to be bothered. When she engaged the man in the aisle seat in a conversation, I reloaded my ear with my headphones and thought, “Just open up your book, turn the music up, never look at her, and maybe she will leave you alone.”

It worked for about 30 minutes. Then she tapped me on the arm and asked me a question. “What book are you reading?” I held the spine up so that she could see that it read The Care of Souls.

“What is that about?” she asked.

I mumbled something, but I didn’t tell her that it was about how to be present with those God puts in your path and really listen to them. I put my headphones back on and pretended to be more interested in my book than I really was.

She pulled out a newspaper she had brought on board. It was a copy of the latest National Enquirer with headlines like “Hillary Clinton gives birth to Alien Baby” and “Donald Trump Embraces Christianity” and other bizarre story titles. She spread the paper wide and leaned towards me so that our arms touched. Thus, I surrendered my territory on the armrest that separated us. I moved even further away from her. But the more I moved away from her the more she spread out.

Twenty minutes later she folded her paper up and went to the restroom. I closed my book and put my head in my hands and sighed. I was so weary of this person and it was only an hour into my two- and a half-hour flight. When she came back and saw me with my head down, she re-belted and began to rub my shoulders. “You must be very tense,” she said over the whine of the jet engine.

What could I do? I let her massage my shoulders for what I assumed was the appropriate time for a stranger giving a neck rub on a plane and smiled and said thanks. I opened up my book again, not reading—just staring at the page. I can’t describe the bile that came into my soul if not my throat.

About this time the man in the aisle seat pulled a care-worn Bible out of his briefcase and began to read. This caught her eye and she began to ask questions about God, faith, and spiritual things. The older man smiled and answered every one of her questions with grace and aplomb.

She shared with this older man some of her pain and struggles. He nodded, listened and gently asked if he could pray for her. She allowed that he could and then took her hand and pressed it between both of his knobby hands and prayed so sweet and low that the lady began to weep.

Thinking in Jerusalem

You would think I would have rejoiced that the old man had distracted her from bothering me. You would have thought I would have paused and prayed for this woman to hear the Gospel. But I found a strange thing happening—I began to sense the resentment that had reached a saturation point with the woman, start to leach toward the grace-filled gentleman.

Now I had two people with whom to be frustrated, an irritating-National-Enquirer-reading-sinner and an irritating-King-James-Bible-reading-saint.

The woman was offensive to me, no question. But so was the kind man who was a much better saint to her than me. Why did he offend me so much? I suppose it was because he was behaving like Jesus to the woman and I was behaving like—Joe. His kindness and grace were pointing a luminous spotlight on my banal behavior.

I can still see her face and sandy-colored hair in my memory.

Lord, we’ve talked about this incident before. I want to say again, that I am sorry for my boorish behavior. There is no way for me to apologize to the woman, but I can change the way I deal with others when I am grumpy and tired. I have tried to do that since this encounter. And by your grace, I am changing—incrementally—but changing nonetheless. I can also pray for her and so I ask that You,

…Bless her and keep her;
Make Your face to shine upon her, and be gracious to her;
Lift up Your countenance upon her, and give her peace.

This was many years ago, but the memory of the darkness of my heart that day serves to remind me that I am a long way away from the man God had in mind when he thought me up. I have to keep surrendering, stay with my training, keep remembering that I am stumbling towards Christlikeness.

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Simple Prayer Podcast

Pray without ceasing. – Saint Paul

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found that 45% of Americans – and a majority of Christians (55%) – say they rely a lot on prayer and personal religious reflection when making major life decisions. The same survey found that 63% of Christians in the U.S. say praying regularly is an essential part of their Christian identity.

How often do you pray?

What is the content of your prayers?

Do you feel like your prayer-life is causing your soul to flourish?

Would you like to tweak your prayer experience?

Jeremy Frye and I enjoyed a recent conversation about our sacred journey through prayer. Perhaps you would consider subscribing to the podcast. You can listen here: Potter’s Inn Soul Care Conversations

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What Lies Beneath

Thow shall not covet… Exodus 20:17

The Hebrew word for covet is “chamad.” It doesn’t simply mean to desire something in and of itself. It means to over desire something. A domineering desire, a feverish all-encompassing desire. Lust or obsession would be accurate.

Thomas Aquinas, who was a Christian thinker and church leader in the Middle Ages said our predicament is this: we turn perfectly good desires for significance and security—into ultimate desires. And ultimately our deep bottomless longings for security, love, and significance can only find a home in God.

Christianity doesn’t ask you to ignore or suppress your desires. Christianity tells you to listen more deeply to the pangs of hunger in your life. Because those desires, as distorted as they may be, are pointing you to the only place you and I will ever find soul-satisfaction.

What is it that you are looking for, really? What is underneath our desire to eat when we aren’t hungry? What is underneath our desire to sit and be mindlessly entertained by binge-watching reruns of Friends? What is underneath our desire to check how many “likes” we received on our latest social media posts?

In 1654 scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Why do we have to have the T.V. on as background noise when we are home alone? Why do we have to have the radio blaring to the latest angry radio host? Or even to classic rock stations?

Why do you ogle after your neighbor’s house? Or grind your teeth at your sister’s waistline? Or feverishly drool over your friend’s portfolio or their shoe closet or their Jeep or anything else for that matter.

What is the question behind the question?

What’s behind the sixty hour work week? What’s behind the relentless posting of political grenades on social media? What’s behind viewing websites that are inappropriate? What’s behind purchasing more and more stuff we don’t need?

G.K. Chesterton has famously said, “Every time a man knocks on the door of a brothel, he is really looking for God.”

Because the desire underneath all desires is the desire for Jesus. Ultimately the deep desires of your life are meant to drive you to the Living God. When we spend our lives hungry for things that God made but not God—our lives become misshapen. But God, thankfully, breaks into our distorted desires to show us that ultimately all of these desires are meant to lead us home—to him.

From time-to-time when I was growing up, my Dad would sing a solo in Church. It was always high anxiety the week we heard Dad practicing his solo as mom accompanied him on our piano. There was many a time we’d hear my mom say, “Let’s try that again. I’m not sure you are hitting the right note.” But Dad was persistent, and Mom was gracious; somehow they pulled it off and the church was blessed.

As I remember, Dad only sang three songs during his pastoring career. One that he loved to sing was Fill My Cup, Lord.

Like the woman at the well I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy;
And then I heard my Savior speaking:
“Draw from my well that never shall run dry”.

Fill my cup Lord, I lift it up, Lord!
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;
Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more–
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!

We worship our way into distorted desires, and we worship our way out. So, when you realize that you have enough but are hungry for more remember that you have Jesus.

And…

Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

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When Bob Dylan and Jesus Agreed

The wind died down and it was completely calm. Mark 4:39

When I was in High School, I was struggling with my walk with Jesus. Most of that circled around whether or not I was really called to be a shepherd of his sheep. I felt a sense of call when I was a boy, but the older I got the less attractive that vocation became. This affected my walk with Jesus.

Pro Tip: You can’t run from your call and walk with Jesus.

There is nothing like the misery of wanting to walk a life of intimacy with Jesus and running from him at the same time. In fact, it makes other discomforts that are natural life-irritations almost unbearable. It’s like one magnifies the intensity of the other. Normal everyday pebbles in our shoes become infected and debilitating sores when you are running from God.

One summer I was working on a cattle ranch in northern New Mexico and the wind was fierce and relentless. It was a day after day after day occurrence.

My lips were chapped, cracked, and bleeding; my face was constantly red from the wind-blown particles chaffing my skin. You couldn’t speak in a normal voice when you were outside, you had to yell over the din of the forever wind. I had to use a cord to tie down my cowboy hat when I rode my horse to check the cattle; which looked goofy.

John Wayne never did that.

For over two weeks, daily angry winds blew me to a shriveled and nearly insane teenager.

That summer I was trying to reignite my walk with Jesus by reading my bible every day and journaling my prayers and walking in obedience, but that wind was testing my paper-thin resolve.

On day 16 of the tortuous wind, I was reading in the Old Testament book of Judges about Gideon where he asked God to confirm that he wanted him to take on the Philistine by setting out a fleece and asking him to not allow dew to touch the ground but saturate the fleece. God did it. Then Gideon tested God again and God came through again.

I loved that story. I thought to myself, “I have an idea of how to discern God’s will for my future.”

One night, I wrote in my journal these sentences.

“I give up, Lord. If you really want me to shepherd your sheep then, like Gideon, show me a sign. Would you please stop the wind? Please? If you stop this wind, I’ll shepherd your sheep.”

I woke up the next morning to a dead calm.

You would have thought I would have been thrilled with the calm morning. I was not. I was scared out of my mind. Why? Because I realized that tucked away in a two-room mountain cow camp cabin, Someone was listening to a pimple-faced, gangly teenager.

And now—I had to do something with this answered prayer.

It was calm on the outside in northern New Mexico, but the wind was still raging in the soul of a teenage boy. Then I remembered the flannelgraph story of Jesus sleeping through a storm and then silencing the wind with a word and found some solace.

Over the years I’ve learned that the only good place to be during a storm is in the arms of God. And while it’s a good place, it may not be a safe place.

Do you remember what Mr. Beaver said to little Lucy in describing the Christ figure Aslan in Chronicles of Narnia?

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Lucy. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I don’t know what storm is brewing in your life, but maybe the answer is not only blowing in the wind but in the behavior of the wind when Jesus said, “Quiet! Be still!”

That’s a good place to be.

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Restorative Love

And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. – Saint Paul

Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors. – Eugene Peterson

I know of a church that parted ways with her pastor in ways that left both pastor and people wounded. The pastor remained in the small town and continued to raise his family there. The church members would see him or his wife in the only grocery store and the meeting was polite but awkward.

My favorite Church

Perhaps leadership mistakes were made by the pastor, but his doctrine and integrity were beyond reproach. Yet it seemed that the pastor and people were not a good fit.

A lot of divorces could be avoided if the marriage had never happened in the first place.

A group in the church decided it was time to make a change and through a series of meetings the die was cast. Before the young pastor was fired at a business meeting, he resigned. Technically, the church didn’t fire him, but the result was the same.

Five years passed.

A few weeks ago, the Church invited the former pastor back for a meal to celebrate his ministry at the Church. At first, both people and the pastor were a little reluctant about the encounter. However, the evening was a beautiful expression of what it means when Paul said, If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

What do you do when you want to bring a group of people and a former pastor together? Everyone gathered in a huge circle in the fellowship hall and held hands. A gentle prayer requesting grace to be our balm was whispered. Each person was invited to come to the pastor and his family and tell them how much they loved them.

There were tears.

There were hugs.

There was laughter.

There was love.

During the quiet moments of that night, you could almost hear the soft sound of sandaled feet walking among the pastor and people.

Later the pastor’s wife said this:

Thank you for tonight! When I walked into the fellowship hall, I felt the grace you prayed about. I felt love. I felt peace. I felt at home.

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Breakfast with Jesus

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. – A.W. Tozer

What is the emotion that comes to God’s heart when he looks at you? Most people don’t think about that question very often and if they do usually the silent and internal answer is something like, “God is disappointed in me. God is angry with me. God has forgotten about me. God is frustrated with me. God doesn’t care about me.”

Now, I would imagine you are already ahead of me in realizing that those assertions are more about how they feel about themselves or how they perceive significant others may feel about them, rather than how the God of the universe feels about them.

One of the hardest tasks I have as a pastor and a soul care provider is to convince people that God accepts them just as they are. He is madly in love with them and there is nothing they can do about it.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Isaiah 42:3

Jesus is attracted to hopeless cases. He loves the fragile. He loves to come close to people who are beaten and who are battered and who are bruised and maybe don’t show it on the outside, but inside, they’re dying. He knows what to do with them—even if it is a self-inflicted wound.

At the end of John’s gospel, one of Jesus’ good friends is despondent because he let Jesus down in ways that few of us can even fathom. When called upon to say a good word for Jesus in his darkest hour, this man spat out a curse and claimed that he was no friend of Jesus. Then the cock crowed, and he ran away and wept bitterly.

He doesn’t know what to do, so he goes back to his pre-Jesus profession and begins to fish. Wouldn’t you know it? He fails at what he has done his entire adult life. He is a failure as a follower of Jesus and now he is a failure as a professional.

Then a voice called from the shore just at the break of dawn. Eventually, he recognizes who it is, after some help from a friend, and he swam to shore. There he found Jesus, seated on the beach beside a fire. And Jesus did not roll his eyes at Peter. He did not scold Peter. He did not shame Peter. He did not tell Peter, “I told you so.” What did Jesus do for Peter?

He offered him breakfast he had cooked on a charcoal fire and mended his broken heart.

I’ll tell you about a time when Jesus came close to me when I had a deep soul-contusion.

Several years ago, I realized that the ministry I had devoted 8 years of my life to was coming to an end. Our church in the Northwest was merging with another church and there was a good chance that there would not be a position for me in this newly merged church.

Feeling like a failure, I was embarrassed and didn’t share this with anyone.

Deadman Lake

In order to care for my own soul, I came here to Colorado and went backpacking. I spent four nights up at a remote lake by myself. I fished. I prayed. I wrote. I sang. It was one of the most soul-nourishing times I’ve ever had in the wilderness.

I had my little backpacking Bible with me. It is The Message version of the New Testament. I read one passage that took my breath away and caused me to fall to my knees. I read it over and over again through tear-filled eyes.

Here is what I read from Matthew 5,

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

I must have read those words out loud twenty-five times. I reached for another cup of coffee. I could hear the waves lapping against the shores of the alpine lake as the sun-splashed a pink glow on the peaks surrounding me. My stomach growled, and I began to eat my breakfast.

Breakfast with Jesus beside a lake.

My favorite comfort food.

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