Friday, January 31, 2014

Details and posters

Not surprisingly, life has gotten crazy busy with a ton of details lately.  Monday I submitted my letter of resignation to Central.  It was mailed and emailed to the congregation on Wednesday.  I have been so blessed by dozens of conversations this week with people who want to both express their grief at our leaving Central and who want to wish me well and share their excitement for my new position at Calvary.  What a gift!

We have been prepping our house to sell -- new carpet, new paint, patching up nail holes and generally fixing all those detail things that needed fixing but didn't get done until it was time to make the house look good for someone else.  And, like most people, we look at the old house and think, "Gee, I don't really want to leave here!"  It's been a great house, of course.  All through this process I've felt a little like Abraham being told to go, but not where (exactly) to go.  It must have been hard for that old man to leave his familiar surroundings and his people behind, too.  Who knows?  Maybe God asked Bert and Mike and Sam to go as well, and they all chickened out.  We never heard their stories.

I remember a poster that hung on the wall in a student lounge during college.  It said, "The secret of life is this: To be ready at any moment to release all that you are in order to achieve all that you may become."  You've got to be a little careful with a statement like that, because taken to extremes it can mean that you keep throwing away good things in hopes that the next shiny object will be better.  That's horrible.  But with tenacity and discernment being your default position, it's important to be willing to let go of good things in order to grasp best things.

That's the kind of God we serve.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Letter of call!

Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley voted today to call me as their senior pastor.  I'm sure I'll be processing this one for a while -- this is a major transition for me in my role as a pastor, and will be a significant transition for my family.  But at the moment it is exciting and humbling and more than a little overwhelming!

For the last several weeks I've found myself looking around at Central and being so, so grateful for the people, relationships, experiences, events, and ministries that I've been blessed with there.  The staff team, pastorate leaders, the Alpha team from way back when, and so much more -- these are key ways God has shaped and formed me over the last decade.  I think about how much of what I bring to the table as a leader that has been deposited into my life through this congregation.  What do I have that I have not been given?  Nothing, it turns out.  So I am blessed.

And those blessings, those relationships, create a powerful sense of grief as I think about leaving Central.  Yet I am also so excited, so very excited, to take on the role of senior pastor at Calvary.  I have immense respect for Calvary's history and identity as an evangelical Lutheran congregation.  What a great church!  We've met so many outstanding people who are key leaders at Calvary.  The passion and eagerness I've seen about about moving forward -- even if that means getting uncomfortable -- is amazing.  The people of Calvary seem ready and willing to do whatever Jesus calls them to do.  It's stunning to think of the plans God might have for a congregation like this!

As I said, I'm quite sure I'll be pondering this call for a long time to come.  Right now there are some logistics that need to be attended to -- submitting letters of resignation and signing acceptance forms, getting things filed in triplicate and planning out timelines.  God is faithful, even in the bureaucratic details.  As a very good friend of mine texted me tonight, "so we cling to Jesus."  AMEN!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Discerning your call

I had the privilege last night of speaking to 9th and 10th grade students and their parents for a Confirmation Parents Night.  We do this about once a month, and I have come to love these evenings.  There's a dedicated group of parents who come to be with their sons and daughters, to hear a word that applies to them and their families, and to consider how best to partner with the church in passing the gift of faith on to these young men and women.

Last night we talked about discerning your call from God.  It seemed like an appropriate topic, given the discernment process that I'm going through with Calvary Lutheran and their upcoming vote this Sunday to decide whether to call me as senior pastor.  I told the story of how I was called from Williston, North Dakota to Central -- another call that I had not been seeking, but one that definitely came from God.

We talked about the many diverse ways that biblical characters were called by God.  Moses had a burning bush.  David was anointed by Samuel when all his older brothers had been passed over.  Mary received a visit from an angel.  Joseph had a dream.  Isaiah saw a vision of God.  Amos was among the shepherds.  Ezekiel was among the exiles on the banks of a river in Babylon.  There is no one way to hear God's call.

For younger people, as we talked we established that there are a few things to do that will put you in a place to hear God's call.  First, get to know Jesus.  Get to know him well.  Read and reread the gospels.  Dig into Jesus.  Then, as you continue reading, ask, "Who am I?"  Who do I find myself to be in these stories?  Do I identify with Peter?  John?  Mary Magdalene?  Mary of Bethany?  Who am I?  What do I learn about myself here?  What is true of me?

Once you get to know Jesus, start trying things.   Young people need to try lots of things.  I have to confess that I thoroughly enjoyed some of the surprised looks when I started to say last night that I was not always a pastor.  I worked as a janitor, both in a health clinic and in a church, among other places.  I washed dishes.  I served as a footman for a man whose business was running a team of horses and a coach shuttling guests from the parking lot to the wedding.  I stocked shelves at Target.  I farmed.  You have to try lots of things.  In some of those jobs you'll discover what you're definitely not called to do.  In others you'll find God blessing your efforts and giving you great joy.

Pursue those things.  Dig into them and see what doors God opens.  Too many young people feel a great sense of pressure to figure out a career too early.  And too many adults identify their career with their calling.  It's not always so.  God gives some of us jobs in order to fund our calling, which is totally separate from our jobs.  You have to recognize when that's the case.

Discerning calling is different for those of us who are a little older.  After the students left the room, the parents and I talked about what it's like to discern calling as middle-aged people.  I cited Terry Walling, who told me, "Jeff, you've come to the age when you no longer have to prove what you can do.  You can do lots of things.  No, the question now is what should you do?"  There are lots of things I can do that I will never seek to focus on.  Playing guitar and leading worship is a skill I have, but it's not where I'm primarily called.  Stripping floors and waxing them is something I can do, but I will not pursue it to discern my calling.  I'm capable of lots of things, but I'm called to just a few.  I am at an age when it's time to narrow down, to focus on the things I do best.

We ended the evening with a  couple difficult caveats.  I talked to the parents about how easy it is for us to confuse following Jesus with being middle class.  So often our dreams for our kids are just simply about them having stuff, about keeping up with the contented Joneses, about hoping they get good jobs and aren't miserable.  None of that is God's call on their lives.  The danger for us as parents is that we will yearn for their comfort when God wants their commitment.  We will advise them to choose contentedness when God wants their radical edge.  What happens when you dream of a college degree for your child and God has called them to a year or two of mission work?  Can you let go of your smaller ambitions for your child and let God take them beyond your dreams?

It's true for ourselves as well.  No matter what your age it's always tempting to pursue your own security rather than God's best plans for you.  Get away where it's quiet and let God speak into that.  Dig deep into the gospels and notice how Jesus called his disciples -- not telling them where they'd end up, but simply saying, "Come, follow me."  Are you willing?  If you have an idea what God is calling you to do, test it out.  Talk it out with friends who know Jesus and who know you.  Pray through it.  Fast from food or technology for a day or two.  Let your heart get humble and quiet before God and hear what he has to say.

If you do these things, I guarantee that the journey will not be dull.  God will lead you into places you may or may not have dreamed for yourself, but it will be far better than what you'd have chosen.  Too often we are willing to settle for a crust when he wants to give us a full meal.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Potential transitions

Most of you who read this blog know by now that I've been recommended for call to be senior pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley, MN.  Calvary is a strong church with a long history of biblical teaching, dynamic mission and regional influence.  There are lots of parallels between Calvary and Central.  Both have deep Lutheran roots; both went through the difficult process of leaving the ELCA a few years ago.  (Calvary has remained an independent congregation, while Central affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.)  Calvary will vote on January 26th whether to extend that call to me.  You can learn more about Calvary and their process here.

This opportunity is tremendously exciting and deeply humbling for me.  I heard after the fact that my name had been submitted to Calvary's call committee.  I just laughed.  Why on earth, I wondered, would Calvary take me seriously?  In the months since that day I have often returned to a couple verses that seem entirely too appropriate.  First, from Amos, where the prophet talks about his call and says, "I was among the shepherds of Tekoa ..."  Later in the book of Amos, he replies to his challengers by saying, "I was no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs ..." (Amos 7:14).  The other verse that has brought me back time and again is from 2 Samuel 7 where the Lord tells David, "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel" (2 Samuel 7:8).  In the margin next to this verse I wrote the date in December when I heard that the call committee at Calvary would recommend me to the congregation to be their next senior pastor.

It's not that I am minimizing my gifts or what God has done through me.  That's false humility, and it's a lie that Satan tells us in order to keep us from wholehearted commitment to Jesus.  Like David, though, I know my limitations and my weaknesses.  Part of that comes from growing up in a family and in a community where we often exercised the ministry of humility on each other's behalf -- that is to say, we kept one another from growing overconfident.  Sometimes that is a brutal process, especially between siblings.  As I have read and reread the stories of David over the last few years, I've noticed how David surrounded himself with skilled people who could cover areas where he was weak.  David excelled at pulling in strong leaders, people who could implement plans, administrators and managers.  He was a warrior, a poet, and a visionary, and he needed practical people around him who could put his plans firmly on the ground.

These Old Testament verses are a good reminder to me of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 -- "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this surpassing power belongs to God and not to us."    I've known too many Christian leaders who are consumed with a sense of their own importance and their own ambition.  It's critical to remember that the church and its mission belong to Jesus, not to us.  We serve according to his agenda and at his pleasure.

In practical terms, if Calvary votes on January 26th to call me, as seems likely, what will this mean?  It will mean the end of more than ten years of serving at Central, of course.  That is a heartbreak for me.  I was certainly not looking for ways to leave Central -- quite the contrary.  God has blessed us the last ten years in powerful ways, and I continue to be so excited about the work the Spirit is doing at Central, especially in pastorates but also in many other areas.  So we are not eager to leave Central but sense God's call to this new adventure, and we are confident if this is God's good plan for us, it is also part of God's good plan for Central.  So if the call comes, we will be moving into the western metro to be close to Calvary.  For the moment we are living with one foot in two worlds -- excited about the things God is doing at Calvary, amazed to meet some of the people in that congregation, and eager for opportunities there.  At the same time, we look around the friendships and partnerships we have been given at Central and feel keenly the grief of leaving all of this.  So we are a little bit, like Sam at the end of the Lord of the Rings, torn in two.

In all of this we trust ourselves to God.  He has made so clear in this process that he is in charge, that this is his process to control.  It feels a little like what it must have felt for Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 when God called them to go from their people, from their familiar surroundings, to go to a new land that he would show them.  So in the meantime, one foot in two places, we trust, we pray, we anticipate, we wait.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The self-made man

In America we love the story of the self-made man.  We love to hear about the guy who lifted himself up by his own bootstraps and went from rags to riches on his own power.

I believe God hates this story.

Read the Bible and see if you find anything like a self-made man.  On every page you will read how important it is to acknowledge God's sovereignty.  Frequently you will read about how many people have gone before us, laying foundations that provide stable platforms for our lives and achievements. Here and there you will read about how God redefines power.  Instead of seeking out the strongest, the fiercest, the most independent, God seems intent on using the lost, least, little, and broken.

If you want to follow Jesus, by definition you can't be a self-made person.  It's contradictory.  To follow Jesus you need to know him as Lord.  That takes the guts out of your self-made story.  You need to know him as Savior.  That eliminates the idea that you got here on your own steam.  You need to know him as Redeemer.  That eliminates the idea that you did it yourself.

I could go on and on.  So here's a question:  To what extent do you buy into the idealism of the self-made man?  Can you bring that to Jesus and confess it to him?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Pastorate in action

Last fall Julie and I were unable to gather with our pastorate because I was leading Alpha on Sunday evenings.  I think that schedule was the right decision, BUT we deeply missed our pastorate.

Tonight we got to gather with them again.  It was amazingly fun.

It was a small crowd -- just five households represented.  We started out with kids upstairs along with adults, watching a video of the "Revelation Song" that included clips from a lot of different Jesus-movies.  Powerful worship stuff, just reflecting on the words to the song and watching scenes of Jesus feeding the 5,000, walking on water, raising Lazarus, carrying the cross, etc.  One of our leaders encouraged us to watch for names for Jesus, especially for anything that connected to this morning's worship theme of Jesus as the "bright morning star."  We watched, then talked, for about 20 minutes.

Then we shared communion.  Simple, simple, simple -- Hawaiian honey bread (gluten free wafers for the gluten free crowd) and a glass each of wine and grape juice for dipping (intinction for the liturgists among us).  We took some time for prayer after that.  The people in our pastorate are aware of the potential that I could be called to Calvary, and so they prayed over us, moving Julie and me to chairs in the middle of the room and then everyone -- kids included -- gathered round to lay hands on and pray over us.  Powerful stuff.

Then we ate.  We didn't used to do meals for the sake of time management, but somewhere along the way our pastorate leaders decided that it's better to take more time and help people avoid having to scramble to make a meal.  Plus we get the full experience of meal fellowship.  It's a brilliant decision, except that I ate way too much.

The kids adjourned themselves downstairs after supper and the adults moved into the living room to sit and talk.  Just plain ordinary conversation about ordinary things.  We moved without effort in and out of specifically Christian topics, and as the evening wore on we talked about some fairly deep heart stuff -- parenting was a big topic tonight.

Julie and I agreed on the way home that we really, really enjoy our pastorate.  What a great group of people.  What a privilege to be back with them for however long.  Great, great stuff.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


I have been learning to treasure quiet early mornings.

Seems like for the past several years I have a  hard time sleeping past sunrise.  I marvel more than a little at my kids who can sleep through an entire morning.  Not that I want to sleep my mornings away.  They're too precious for that.  It's just that if I'm going to get enough sleep, it has to start early.

But the advantage to waking up early is having the quiet house all to myself.  Time in scripture, time to stare out the windows and watch the lighting change on the pines -- it's precious.  Reading a few verses in the Bible this time of day and then talking with God about it makes a great way to start a day.

When the pace and pressure of change ratchets up, these early mornings become more important than ever.  I can tell throughout the day whether I've had a few quiet minutes in the morning or not.  It makes a difference!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


One of the names of Jesus is "bright morning star."  Recently it was my turn to share a devotion with our staff at Central, and I wrote briefly about this topic, thinking about the home where I grew up and some of the ways I first experienced that bright morning star there, and thinking of what it's like to go back to that place as I did several times last fall.  Here's what I wrote:

The fourth step down creaks in the inky black.
I ease around the banister into Mom's kitchen.
It's early -- no glow lights the eastern horizon.
By long memory I leave the lights off, circle the table,
open the cupboard, choose a glass from the third shelf,
run cold water from the tap.  The familiar spirits rise
to greet me here, here in Mom's kitchen.  Eighteen years
and more she is gone from us.  I see her hands in the sink
cleaning dishes by feel, eyes bright out this eastern window.
She loved to stand here, here at the window, looking east 
over the cows at their grazing, 
over her children's blond heads bobbing across
the creek bottom.  Her keen eyes saw
a case of pinkeye in one of the heifers, a hoary woodpecker
at the feeder, a child alone, too long alone, on the creek's bank.
Dad has followed her away, too, now,
and the taut wire fences and Herefords are tended
by other hands -- my brother's hands.  Out the east window --
if it was day -- you could see Dad's lawn chair, where he sat
in the evenings, sat long looking out over the bottomland,
over the creek, over the herd, over Uncle Jim's fields and woods,
over the eastern horizon, watching the twilight descend.
I stand at the sink in the dark drinking cold water.  I remember.  
It is dark here.  One bright star rises above Jim's woods in the east.
It is Venus, I know, a planet of poisonous gas and oppressive heat.
But here I stand in the chill dark, and I choose not to know astrophysics.
To me it is the morning star rising in the dark
Rising to foretell the dawn.  I stand in the dark, but light
is not far off.  My gaze wanders left, north, dark, downward
to the knot of yard lights from houses a mile away
clustered like flies around the church steeple; lit, but dim
in the ground fog.  In my mind's eye I can see the spot,
can pick it out of the dark there like a laser pointer
there, south of the sanctuary where they lie next to each other
under the sandy soil.  The coffins went into the ground just so --
each time I made sure.  Not because I am superstitious but
because when life falls apart, when death rises up to 
swallow you whole, there are only a few details you can control.
They lie there in the earth, feet to the east, as the
undertaker told me once, so at Christ's return they can sit up
and greet him.  But I am not superstitious and 
I don't believe the resurrection is about posture.
I look back to the morning star.  A glow is forming
along the horizon, as though that star at its rising
drags day up out of darkness; the sun of righteousness
will soon rise, and it will fill the sky with light.
Here it is still dark.  But the brightest and best
of the stars of the morning is bit by bit
dawning on my darkness, and my darkness will not overcome it.
One last swallow and silently I place the glass
in the tangle of dishes.  I turn.  My eyes are now used to the dark 
and I can pick out table, chairs, and the bottom step.
I climb the stairs to hope for another hour's sleep.
First, one glance over my shoulder: I see the bright morning star
hanging higher now, rising like hope, rising like the memory
of things yet to come, rising in anticipation
of reunions on a sparkling shore.