Wednesday, September 28, 2011


As I have prayed about this sabbatical for oh, at least the last six months -- probably more, but I don't want to exaggerate -- the message I've continually received in response has been "Rest."  This message has come through any number of different means.  Sometimes it's been an almost-audible voice in my thoughts.  Other times it's been a compelling sense that I'm supposed to read a certain book or a certain portion of scripture that directs me to rest.  Other times individuals have prayed for me and spoken this sense that they had about the agenda for my time away -- and it has always come down, one way or another, to rest.

So now I'm almost two weeks into this sabbatical.  It's been a challenge to rest.  At times I can't get to sleep at night (like tonight).  At times I occupy myself with an agenda -- a list of to-do items, or a project that I think needs to be done, or that I have promised to someone else.  Sometimes I have a situation -- a vehicle that needs repairing, or a daughter that needs to get to class. So I find myself running around, working on things, scrambling to complete my agenda.

One of the real joys for me has been that lately I have had more time than usual to read scripture.  I started back in August reading the gospels, and today finished my first time through.  I'm going to start again through Matthew.  I'm trying to get to know Jesus better, and I don't know a better way.  That's been fun.

Rest is hard to come by, and I am saying that as a man on a sabbatical.  How difficult it is for most of us to rest when we are in the throes of jobs, schedules, social engagements, volunteer activities, and all the rest!  I at least have the excuse that I am on sabbatical.  Most of us are haring here and there all over creation.

Once, many weeks ago, when I was praying, presenting my list of Sabbatical Agenda Items to God for his approval, he told me to Rest, and to let go of my agenda.  I wanted to make sure he knew what he was asking me to do.  So I said, "You know, don't you, that for me rest in the fall means sitting in a treestand?"  At the risk of saying too much, I had the distinct impression that God laughed, as if amused by the idea that I could surprise him.  I have spent a great deal of time and energy since that day praying about, testing, pondering, and praying about what I am to do on my sabbatical.  Always the theme is the same: Rest.  And I have the distinct impression God knows that my version of rest will include a great deal of hunting, and that he's okay with that.  (For the record, I have tried hard to adjust my sabbatical agenda to include writing, teaching, studying, reading, and other such "productive" pursuits, and I have been stymied at every turn.  Sometimes scholars debate about just what is meant in Acts 16 when Luke says that Paul attempted to go into Bithynia but "the Spirit of God would not allow" this course of action.  I'm convinced after the last six months that God has many, many possible ways to deter his followers from any given course of action, if they are attentive.)

So I've spent some time working on a few other projects, getting vehicles in working order, doing fall projects, enjoying a good deal of time with my wife, and I'm starting to get ready for a few different hunting excursions.    It's easy for me to fall into one of two ditches as I do this.  First, there's a ditch in  which I believe these are just hunting trips like any other hunting trips and the biggest thing to do is get away and try to shoot a grouse, a deer, a coyote, or whatever, and have a good time.  The other ditch, the opposite error, is to think that these are going to be amazing, special, restful, spiritual hunting trips and that God is going to show up in some burning-bush way.

At the moment, I'm just doing my best to be obedient.  If I am obedient as best I am able to the best of what I understand God has been saying, then I figure it's his business to handle the outcomes.

There's a lot of truth in that.  Usually the problem with us is not our schedules or our agendas, but our hearts -- because our hearts don't want to be obedient to the little bit of God's will that we do know.  If we were obedient to that little bit of God's will we know about, he'd bless us in ways we'd find hard to believe.  But our hearts are hardened, willful, and self-centered.  If I have a prayer on my way out to the woods, it's just this:  I want to be obedient, Lord.  You told me to rest.  Here I am.  I want to know you, I want to meet you, I want to see you, I want to grow into the image of Jesus.  I trust that you want that, too, and this command you've given me is going to lead me in that direction.  Here I am.

Friday, September 23, 2011


I have started my sabbatical now, which is a little weird.  I'm not going to Central to work, but it's not exactly vacation either.  My goal these days has not been to avoid work, but rather to take a step back and try to gain some perspective.  For a number of days now I have felt like I had little or nothing to say, like the words had just gone away -- a little intimidating for a preacher and a writer, I can tell you.  But God is there in the wordless places as well.

Partly I've been doing some fun things.  Julie and I came back today from a couple nights camping in northern Wisconsin.  That was good, but rainy.  We found a couple wonderful coffee shops along the way, played Scrabble (Julie won this time) and did some reading and some journalling and some hiking and some just kicking back around the fire.  Today we climbed the observation tower at Copper Falls State Park, and had a nice conversation with a whitetail doe that came wandering by the foot of the tower just as we were about ready to start climbing.

I'm doing more devotional work -- just investing in my relationship with Jesus -- than I normally do.  This is a very good thing, especially when I run short of words to talk about God.  For example, I've been continuing my trek of reading through the gospels.  Right now I'm in the middle of Luke.  (I already read the other three, starting with John back in early August.)  Since Central is working through Ephesians this fall, I've been listening to a set of Chuck Swindoll's cassettes (!) that I found on a shelf at church a few weeks ago.  Chuck does an amazing job of exegesis as he works through Ephesians, and applies the texts personally as well.  I have especially loved his work with the last few verses of Ephesians 1.  Amazing.  I listened to that one twice.

One of the most intense relationship-with-Jesus things I've been doing lately involves going on Youtube and setting up playlists of Jesus Culture music.  It's not terribly intellectual stuff (that's okay) but it's passionate and intense and drives (usually) one simple idea to the core of your consciousness if you let it.  I wouldn't think it's a good substitute for scripture (though most of the songs are deeply rooted in scripture), but as a way to pray and meditate differently, it's great.  I've needed that focus, that discipline, that intensity because it feels like I'm trying to break through some old wineskins, old walls, and hoping to give the Spirit of God some more room to work and change me.  (That's one great line from Chuck Swindoll's Ephesians series -- to paraphrase, he says that if you're connected to power, the surest sign of it is change.  So his question is, how has God changed you lately?  If you can't name some changes, you're probably not connected very well.)  Not sure yet where that leads, specifically, but I do have a sense that God is working in these sabbath days.

One of Jesus Culture's songs that has especially captivated me lately is called "You Won't Relent".  The repeated verse says simply, "You won't relent until you have it all; my heart is yours."  Then superimposed over that later in the song are the words, "I don't want to talk about you like you're not in the room; wanna look right at you, wanna sing right to you."  The song climaxes with the chorus, "Come be the fire inside of me, come be the flame upon my heart.  Come be the fire inside of me, until you and I are one."

I feel so often like Jesus is that kind of a Lord -- one who won't relent until he has it all, who is jealous, passionately jealous for us, for me, who longs to be the flame of my existence, to drive me, to grind me against the rocks of this life, to sift me.  It's often an uncomfortable relationship, an uncomfortable life.  Much of the writing I hope to complete on this sabbatical explores this relentless relationship.  We'll see where that goes.

One of the realities I struggle to communicate well is that for me, this uncomfortable, passionate edge of my relationship with Jesus is somehow all tied up in (and most accessible, and most real, and most confusing, in the midst of) my love of hunting and wilderness.  God has consistently used wilderness places and experiences to drive me deeper in my relationship with him.  Often these wilderness experiences are uncomfortable, too.  But I am thoroughly addicted on all counts.  So I have taken some flak for scheduling my sabbatical during the fall, and those who know me well have raised an eyebrow and said, "So, doing some hunting on sabbatical, huh?"  And I grin and nod.  But those who know me better look right through me, right through my jokes about hunting seasons and vacations.  They nod and don't say much.  They know that the God of Sinai, the God of Jesus' temptation, will meet me out there.  A precious few will go hunting with me in the wild places, seeking with me what their souls and mine crave together.  My daughter called me the other day and said she'd freed up a weekend from her college obligations and she really, really wants to go hunting together.  That's like rain on dry ground, let me tell you.

So I don't apologize for starting my sabbatical on the opening day of the bowhunting season in Minnesota.  (For the record, I haven't been out hunting yet.  That day is coming.)  I don't understand the link in my heart between wilderness and spirituality, but I know I can't deny it, any more than I can explain it.  I just have to live it for a while.  That is at least part of what this sabbatical is about.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Don't Miss the Miracles

(This post is reprinted from Leon Stier's email devotional.  If you would like to see more of Leon's excellent work, visit and sign up for his daily devotional.  What you are about to read starts with a remarkable true story that took place in Washington, D.C. a few years ago.)

    If you go to the downtown area of any big city, you will see street musicians.  They will be leaning up against a building, playing their guitar, saxophone, violin, trumpet, or whatever.  Their instrument case or hat will be lying open on the sidewalk ahead of them, in hopes of receiving some coins or dollar bills from appreciative (or sympathetic) people walking by.  Some of these musicians are better than others.  Some are pretty enthusiastic and entertaining; others have that ‘hangdog’ look, and you can tell they have pretty well given up on life.  But they are probably hungry, and desperate for the few coins that might be thrown their way.

    A while back a man quietly took his place against a wall in a subway station in Washington, D.C. He took out his violin, placed his hat on the ground, and began to play.  For this day, he had chosen six selections by Johann Sebastian Bach.  During this sidewalk performance, several thousand people walked by.  A few stopped to listen briefly, and some slowed their pace; but most of the money in the hat came from people who did not slow down at all.  They just dropped something in the hat as they rushed by, perhaps out of pity, but certainly not in appreciation for the music that they did not even stop to hear.

   On several occasions little children stopped to listen, but every time they did the parent would pull them on, much like one does with a dog that wants to stop to sniff at something.  Maybe it was for the kids just a child-like curiosity.  Or maybe, like a sniffing dog, the children sensed something special was there.  And actually, it really was something very special.  You see, the street musician that day, that shabbily dressed ‘beggar,’ was the world renowned violinist Joshua Bell.  The violin he was playing is valued at 3.5 million dollars.  Just two days before, people had packed a Boston theater to hear him, paying an average of $100 per seat.

   That day in the subway station Bell made a total of 32 dollars.  When he finished, there was no applause, no standing ovation like he usually receives, nothing at all to acknowledge the magnificent talent that had just been on display.  For nearly an hour, greatness had appeared in that otherwise bleak subway station, but no one noticed it.  People just rushed by, unaware.

   This interesting little experiment was carried out by the Washington Post, but the same thing goes on every day, everywhere, for everyone.  There is greatness, beauty, magnificence, and miracles all around us, but we are usually blind to it all.  The heavens and all creation declare the glory of God, says the Bible, but we usually miss it.

   Once in a while we might get a glimpse.  The other day I say a wonderful photograph of a leaf.  It was just an ordinary leaf off a tree, but the photo showed its tremendous beauty.  The leaf had for the most part decayed and disintegrated, and all that was left was the intricate system of little veins going out from the center stem to the outer edges.  The photographer had the leaf held up against the sun, the light was shining through the silhouetted veins, and it was beautiful.  This was just a common leaf-- how much more wonder is all around us all the time?

   I am always amazed to see an old Michael Jackson video, and watch how he could move, and especially the way he could do that incredible moon-walk.  But the most amazing thing is to be able to walk at all, and most of us can do that.  A full description of the actual process would fill a library.  There first must be two living legs, the tissue being maintained by outside energy that is processed in the digestive system and the respiratory system, and delivered by the circulatory system.  The exhausted energy must then be delivered back by the circulatory system to other organs that process it for elimination from the body.  So far, this is all just to maintain the tissue.  Then the movement must be commanded by the brain, another miracle, with the message being delivered by the nervous system, and the command carried out by a precise arrangement of muscles, ligaments, and cartilage, with the necessary structure and support of the skeletal system.  There are a million things all must work together, all at once, in order for you to put one foot in front of the other.  If there is even a small glitch anywhere in the system you are in a wheelchair or even dead.

   Eight centuries ago St. Francis taught the world to see the extraordinary blessings and miracles of God in the seemingly ordinary things of the natural world all around us.  In the hymn “All Creatures of our God and King,” based on a poem of St, Francis, we sing of how nature itself sings praises to the glory of God, with the sun and the moon, the clouds and the wind, water and fire, fruits and flowers, all declaring the wonder of God’s creation.  God has chosen to reveal himself in the ordinary.  If you look for God there, in the ordinary, you will see him all over the place.  Think of that the next time you take an ordinary step, and give thanks to God for the miracle of your ordinary body, and, give thanks to God for Jesus, who promises an even more perfect body, one that will last for all eternity.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


From mid-September through mid-November, I'll be taking a sabbatical.  Traditionally, sabbaticals are designed to accomplish three separate but related purposes:

1. It's an opportunity to rest and be renewed.
2. It's a chance to study and learn in a focused way.
3. It's a time to work on special projects.

As I have reflected and prayed in the last several months, I'm ordering those priorities 1, 3, 2.  Over and over again I've been brought face to face with God's desire for me to rest and be renewed.  I have had to fight my own ambitious ideas about all I could get accomplished during that time.  Repeatedly it has become clear that God's agenda for me includes a lot of down-time.  So I'm taking this time during the fall, which is traditionally a busy time for pastors.  It's also my favorite time of year for a variety of reasons, not least that fall is filled with hunting opportunities.  One of the best ways for me to be renewed is to sit on a stand up in a tree in full camo, waiting for a whitetail to wander by.

The second priority for me during this time is to work on some writing projects.  I've been writing a manuscript that follows Jesus from a hunter's perspective.  As you can see, this project will complement my rest and renewal time quite well.  My goal, at least at the moment, is to finish the manuscript by late October.  There are also a couple other writing projects waiting in the wings.

While I'm not taking any formal courses or attending any seminars, I'm planning to do some focused reading and reflecting during my sabbatical as well.  Central is currently in the midst of changes that are not exclusive to our church, but are sweeping across western Christianity as a whole.  I've written about many of these changes in this blog.  If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you heard me go on (and on) about the book Total Church, which expresses a radical new way of doing church in mid-sized communities.  I'm looking forward to reading more about these mid-sized communities and related changes affecting churches like Central.  My biggest reading focus -- one that I've already started -- is the New Testament.  The last few weeks I've read both John's gospel and Matthew's gospel.  I'm planning to work my way through Mark and Luke and then start the gospels again, then work my way through the rest of the New Testament.  It's been fun to pore over these stories, always asking the question, "Who are you, Lord? I want to know you better!"

What will my sabbatical mean for this blog?  I will still be posting from time to time to share some of what I'm learning and experiencing.  Apologies in advance for what I expect will be more sporadic posting.  But do check back from time to time, or better yet become a "follower" by clicking on "Join this site" to receive notifications whenever there's a new blog post added here.

My hope is that you will pray for me during these two months.  For a kid raised on the farm, it seems a little weird to take a couple months off work.  (We raised beef cattle, not just grain.  The grain farmers understand about taking a couple months off.)  As many of you have told me, "That's not a bad deal if you can get it."  I take seriously the fact that this is a gift given to me by the congregation of Central, and that it comes with some responsibility to use my time wisely, to be renewed and to grow so that I can come back in November with renewed passion and energy.  Above all, I want to grow in my relationship with Jesus.  I recently heard a speaker define success in ministry this way:  You love Jesus more at the end of your life than you did anytime up to that point.  What a great definition!  So thanks for your prayers.  These would be good directions to pray for me!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Two Years Later

September 4, 2009 was a gorgeous Friday.  I had the morning and early afternoon off, then later in the day I was going to officiate at a wedding in Minneapolis.  I spent the morning checking gopher traps and doing some light chores in the yard.  It was one of those peaceful mornings that, if you're lucky, you can enjoy in early September in Minnesota.  About nine-thirty, Julie told me she was going for a walk around the three-mile loop.  I took the book I'd been rereading -- C.S. Lewis' classic book The Great Divorce -- and retired to the hammock I keep strung up out in the pine trees.  What a perfect way to kick off Labor Day weekend, I thought to myself.

I came in the house after a half hour or so and started straightening up the living room.  I remember reaching down to pick up a stray pencil, and BAM!  In the back of my head, right at the base of my skull, I had the worst headache I'd ever experienced.  I honestly thought one of the vertebrae in my neck had shattered, because if I turned my head I heard and felt a terrible crackling sound, like bones grinding against each other.  I tried sitting down in my recliner, then leaning back.  No good.  I tried laying on the floor, rolling up a towel under my neck.  Nothing helped.  The pain was excruciating.  Eventually I started to sweat, then I got chills.  Nausea came next, in waves, and I staggered to the bathroom and lost my breakfast while trying to keep my neck immobilized.  By this time my shirt was soaked through.  I gingerly moved back to the living room and eased down into my recliner.  Whatever else was happening, I knew I wasn't going to make it to the wedding that afternoon.  I figured I'd better find someone to cover for me.  I called one colleague who couldn't do it, then a second who was able to cover the wedding for me.

About that time, Julie came back in the door from her walk.  She took one look at me and decided we'd better call someone.  She talked to a nurse for a few minutes and decided to take me to the emergency room.  I reclined the passenger seat in the car and tried to close my eyes and make the pain go away.  We pulled up in front of the ER doors and I struggled to get my seat upright, get out of the car, and walk into the emergency room.  Julie parked the car and joined me a few seconds later.  A young doctor did a quick CT scan and told me there was some blood accumulated on the surface of my brain, and that they were going to call a helicopter and take me to the University of Minnesota hospital.  He called the U of M and let the phone ring twice, then he hung up and said, "They're not answering.  We'll try North Memorial."  His hurry was the first time I had a sense of just how urgent my situation was.

In a matter of a few minutes, a helicopter arrived and I was wheeled out, lifted in and the gurney was strapped down.  My memories of being wheeled outside, lifted in, of meeting the flight crew and taking off, are all a blur.  I stared at the ceiling of the helicopter wondering if I was going to survive the flight.  It was not a panicky or fearful thought.  Lord, I thought, whatever you want in all this.  I trust you.  I wanted to see outside, suddenly, and I levered myself up on my right elbow to look out the window at the Mississippi River below us.  It was gorgeous.  Not a bad last image, if that's the way this goes.

That was the beginning of an adventure that kept me in the ICU for a day and a half, on the neurology floor for thirteen more days, and out of work for over a month.  The docs called it a subarachnoid hemorrhage.  Three CT scans and three angiograms later, they never did find a reason for the bleed.  Some small blood vessel let go, then sealed up again.  Of people who experience a subarachnoid hemorrhage, roughly a third die.  Another third experience major long-lasting effects.  The final third heal up and go back to life as normal.

People ask me, even today, why I think it happened.  I don't have a clue.  I did see God at work in the middle of the whole experience in hundreds of small and big ways.  But I don't think I'll ever see one grand purpose.  I see dozens of tiny things -- good things -- that came out of that time.  The closest I come to a reason, or a lesson, is something that occurred to me the last couple days I spent in the hospital.

For fifteen days I lived with the reality that my brain might explode (figuratively speaking) at any moment.  Through it all, God gifted me with a deep sense of peace.  I realized over and over that facing death is about trust.  There were a few times when I thought, like that moment looking down at the Mississippi, that the timer on my life might be counting down to less than a minute or two.  In those moments, all I could do was trust.  I was so thankful over and over again that I know Jesus, the one who has been through death and waits for me on the other side.  I know the one in whom I have put my trust.

One day, just before I left the hospital, I sat looking out my hospital room window and trying to get my brain around a huge transition.  I had been focusing on my death: writing out funeral plans, having those hard conversations with Julie, writing "what-if" letters to my girls, looking friends in the eye and acknowledging without words that we might not see each other for a long, long time.  Now I had to turn a corner and begin to focus not on dying, but on living.  I had become strangely comfortable with living in trust in the face of my death.  It was a lot like lying back in a hammock, trusting that the knots and the webbing would hold.  My existence, and my safety, depended on someone else.  Now, turning back to focus on life instead of death, I realized something.  Facing life is exactly like facing death.  You can't do it on your own.  Your existence, your safety, are  not up to you.  You have to trust.

If there's anything like a big lesson that came out of my experience in the fall of 2009, that's it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Crazy busy, part two

I've been thinking the last few days about a letter to the editor in the local paper on Saturday.  A woman wrote in to ask for help concerning her six-year-old boy.  She wanted to know what community activities were available for him at this age.  He's only in every-other-day kindergarten, but he's too old for the community activities slotted for 3-5 year olds.  What is he to do with all that spare time?

We as parents are so often guilty of overscheduling our children -- then we wonder why they're stressed, sick, medicated, resentful.  A six year old doesn't need community ed; he needs to build stuff out of legos and help mom with housework and ride with his Grandpa (or a suitable grandfather figure; genetics are less important than availability) to the hardware store with an illicit stop along the way at a coffee shop or Dairy Queen.  He needs one-on-one time with adults who will pour attention into his life and let him use his imagination.  The last thing a six-year-old needs is a group of teammates who are just like him.  He is getting more than enough of that in his three days a week at kindergarten.

The Bible talks about raising up a child "in the way that he should go"  (See Proverbs 22:6).  Part of that duty is understanding how children are designed to grow.  They are not designed to be scheduled all the time.  They are not designed to have teams, activities, tasks, and obligations every day.  They are designed for play, which is the best way young children learn.  Watch a child play for a while.  Listen to their playful talk.  You will realize that they are figuring the world out as they imagine dragons or princesses or tea parties or shootouts.  They are discerning the difference between good and evil and they are finding their place within the world.  They're figuring out how they are powerful and how they are weak.

When this boy approaches ten, he will begin to grow into a need for teammates.  It fascinates me that among many Native American tribes, at about ten a boy was usually inducted into the warrior societies.  Until then he lived with his family, with the watchful (and often frustrated) eyes of mother and grandmother and aunts watching out for him and trying to keep him in line.  A radical change took place in his life when he was able to start taking on the role and responsibilities of a warrior.  His life went from mostly play to serious training.  We have muddled the categories so that we think a six year old needs training and a thirteen year old needs play.