Merry Christmas???

I’m going to come right out and say it. Christmas is far from my favorite time of year. I hate the rush, the constant push of advertisers, the endless Christmas songs that speak of what it could be, when the reality is that it is something far more shallow. Of course, my working in retail doesn’t help with that.

Add to that that my daughter Anna has been struggling a lot over the last few weeks. She wonders why she can’t be “normal.” She wonders if she will ever be happy again. She has been struggling with cutting again. In fact, last week while I was on air recording our weekly cigar podcast, The AshHoles (yeah, that’s the name they gave it, but it’s actually a very fun show and I enjoy doing it. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing podcasts in the country), she sent me a picture of her hand with needles stuck in it. She was begging for help. Fortunately, my dad lives close by and was able to head right over, and I left for home as soon I could. That was a hard night.

In a word, the last few weeks have been brutal. More so for my wife who is with her much more than I of late. It is hard for her to see her daughter struggle so hard. She struggles with the voices in her mind that try to convince her that it is her fault. Of course none of it is. She could no more cause Anna’s mental illness than she could alter the rotation of the earth. But a mother’s love and personal connection makes those thoughts hard to fend off sometimes. Truth be told, she is not happy with God’s providence right now. She feels ignored at best and punished at worst. Will things ever get better? Will things ever change? Her questions are very similar to Anna’s.

I keep this picture of Anna on my tablet.

It was taken in September. She and I were able to enjoy some daddy daughter time in Wolfboro, NH. We were staying with some friends who took us out for a ride on their boat. She was, as the picture testifies, genuinely happy. I loved the joy on her face. I wanted to remember it. I wanted her to remember it. I wanted her to remember that it is not always Dark; that joy was not something she never experienced. I wanted to remind her that her heavenly Father would not leave her in the Dark, or forget about her. These times have not come to stay, they have come to pass. How or when I do not know, but I know that they will. That is what that picture means to me.

For similar reasons, I have been learning that is why it is important to keep in the Word and to pray. Keeping in the Word reiterates God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness, and redemption. Reading Scripture I find not only God’s promises, but the stories of people whom I identify with. I’m sure Isaac was wondering what was going on when he was on the altar. Joseph, I am sure had times when he looked around the foreign prison he was in and wondered if the dreams of God’s blessings from his youth were more delusion than prophecy. I can only imagine what Jonah was thinking when salvation from drowning meant being eaten by a gigantic fish. And we all know that Job was asking the same questions, and clearly wondered if death was preferable to living through his crap. But in all these cases, God came through. They all found God’s mercies abounding on the other side.

Rotten circumstances, lousy people, headaches and heartaches cannot undo what God is doing. They cannot kill the grace that is in your life. But they can cover them like smog and lead you to think they are gone. Prayer, I have been learning builds thankfulness and reminds you of the blessings that God has been planting in your life. They are still there! Smog may hide the Golden Gate Bridge, but it can’t make it disappear. Scripture and prayer act like the wings of a plane that can fly you above the clouds and let you see that the Son is still shining.

That said, do not think for one minute that prayer and Scripture reading are going to make your problems go away. Oh, some might that is true. But that is not always the case. And as tempting as it may be to believe that if we prayed better, or studied the Bible harder, or had purer faith that our problems, doubts, and pains would evaporate like the morning dew, you need to know that that idea is categorically false. This is one of the points of 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NIV), Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Sometimes, to grow in grace we need to see how weak we are, how powerless we are, and how dependent on the Father’s grace we are.

Lessons from Teddy

Tuesday and Wednesday after work this week, I went and visited my friend Teddy in the hospital. Teddy was a regular customer at the cigar shop I work at for years before I started working there. He had MS and was confined to a wheelchair. He would come in like clockwork from noon to 2:00pm.

His MS progressed to the point where he was having trouble holding his cigars. So the guys all got together and made a gizmo which attached to his wheelchair that held his cigar and caught the ash. You should have seen his face when they presented him with it. It was amazing. He loved his cigars!

When I saw him Wednesday night, in spite of his family’s attempts to rouse him, Teddy was unresponsive. They assured me he was just sleeping, that it just took some doing to wake him up. Then I had an idea. I took a cigar from my jacket pocket, removed it from the cellophane, and held it just under Teddy’s nose. “You smell that, Teddy?” I asked, smiling.

He did, and his eyes popped wide open, and this little smile came across his face. I tell you that cigar worked better than smelling salts, only with a much more pleasant after effect!

We had a good talk after that, though he dosed in and out. I think my favorite part was when he asked me to lift his left hand up to his face so he could scratch his nose. I enjoyed serving him in that way. I prayed with him and for him. In the end I told him that I loved him, that all of us at the shop missed him. And then I whispered in his ear, “But I will see you again.”

I don’t think I will ever forget the look on his face. He knew exactly what I was talking about. His smile said it all. Yes we would see each other again. And then he would no longer be hindered by this dreadful disease. His body would no longer be fighting against him. All the pain, heartaches, and suffering that he endured here would fade away in the healing that heaven brings and in joy of seeing His Master, Jesus. He knew that moment was coming, and he was longing for it. And though it hurt, I longed for it for him.

Teddy knew that there is not a single disease that Jesus cannot cure. And he also knew that He does it one of two ways: He heals you here, or He bestows on you the “Ultimate Healing,” and brings you to that place where He will wipe every tear from your eyes. Where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4 NIV). When the Father chooses to bring a son or daughter home, it does not mean that He failed to keep His promise. Heaven is the ultimate fulfillment of that promise.

Jesus said in John 14:1-3:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

This morning, Jesus Made good on that promise, came into his bedside, took Teddy by the hand, and led him Home.

I am now filled with a heavy happiness. I am glad his suffering is over, but I am not glad that he is gone. The hard part is that we are not always ready to go, or see people go, when Jesus comes to bring us home. Even though we could see this one coming from a mile away, when it happened, you find that you are not nearly ready for it, and that is hard.

Yet, my sadness is not one without hope. This hope is not some desperate wish that something might come about. No, this hope is an assurance of something that will come about. Jesus came to give us hope. He came to free us from hopes that don’t live up to the hype so we could be set free to live and run and dream with a hope that cannot be stolen, that cannot be broken, that cannot be lost, and that cannot fail.

God wants you to know, you can put your hope in Him because He has not held back anything from you, and has committed all that He is to insure that his promises of help, healing, and hope will come to pass.

This is the hope that allows us to press on, to go through the hard times. Jesus is totally in love with and committed to His family and He was willing to sacrifice everything He had, even His life, so that He could guarantee every person who comes to His Father through Him has everything they need in this life and the next.

Because of that hope, because of Jesus, I know that Teddy is whole and healthy again; and that with each breath of heaven’s air he realizes he is more alive and full of joy than he ever thought possible. And I am willing to bet he has already enjoyed a few heavenly cigars with Jesus (yes I am serious). One day, perhaps sooner than I would like to think, Jesus will take me Home too, I will have the joy and privilege of sitting and smoking with him again.

Lessons from Mrs. McCarthy

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, NIV).

My wife and girls like this BBC show, Father Brown. It is a mystery show based off of The Father Brown Mysteries written by the famed by G.K. Chesterton. As the title suggests, the sleuth of the series is Father Brown; a Catholic Priest with a penchant for solving mysteries and murder.

One of Father Brown’s “sidekicks” is one Mrs. McCarthy. In the TV series she is excellently played by Sorcha Cusack.

One of the reasons I say she is excellently played by Cusack is that I can’t stand her! She drives me nuts! Cusack’s performance totally nails the persona of the quintessential old church lady. Prim, proper, and excellent at baking. She sees herself as being kind, pious, righteous, and as a woman who should be respected. But the reality is that she often comes across as very self-righteous, judgmental, and given to gossip, and she has no problem jumping to negative conclusions about people who don’t live up to her expectations. If the elder brother in the parable of the Lost Son of Luke 15 were a sister, she would be it.

To me she represents what many think of when they think of what a “Christian” is. One of the reasons that perception exists is because there are more than a few Mrs. McCarthys in the church. I know. I have run across many myself. I tell you, sometimes I have wished that these people who tell people that they are atheists and help us in reverse!

It is next to impossible to expose one of these Mrs. McCarthy types to themselves. They are often so convinced that they are right they can’t see their hypocrisy.

What can you do?

You need to show them some Father Brown.

No, I don’t mean the TV show or the books, I mean you need to treat them like Father Brown treats Mrs. McCarthy.

Father Brown loves her and is friends with her knowing full well who she is, and loving her anyway.

He does not always respond to every jab or dig or insinuation he makes. But when he does it is never a put down.

He is very forgiving of her.

More than once when Mrs. McCarthy was in the wrong because her wrong thinking or conclusions, or attitude, she nevertheless led Father Brown to a break in the mystery and so he responds by thanking her for helping him so much.

In a word, he does not give up on her. He loves her in spite of her blemishes and failures. Not because he does not see them. But in spite of the fact that he does. He knows that he can’t change Mrs. McCarthy. But he knows that is not his job. That is God’s job. His job is to love her as best he can….and to solve the disturbingly high number of murders that take place in the tiny English countryside village of Kembleford!

Father Brown represents what we Christians should be. Out for the truth, but to build people up and bring them closer to God, not to simply show them how they fall short or to expose them when they sin for the sake of exposing them. It takes no special talent or spiritual acumen to do that. But to do what Father Brown does? That takes spiritual maturity! We could all do well be channel a bit more of Father Brown…including myself.

Lessons from Repeats

Exodus 4:12 (NIV), I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.

About a week or so ago I was invited to give the Sunday sermon at a local church. That is not so unusual. What was a bit unusual was who asked, or rather who didn’t ask. It want the pastor, it was someone who my wife knew from a childbirth class she taught (he and his wife were her students). So years after this class was over, he reaches out to Mandi who reaches out to me to reach out to her friend (also named Dan by the way). Anyway, Dan tells me that their pastor has been out of town taking a summer course at a seminary and needed to be gone a week longer than planned, hence the request for me to come.

I had no relationship with the pastor or the church for that matter. What to do. I mean, I said yes, but what would I give as a message?

One came to my mind right away, Cornered for Grace. As I read over it, I realized that I needed to hear it myself, so I decided to run with it.

This church begins their Sunday service by asking for concerns, joys, and needs to pray for.

The first said, “I just lost my job, I don’t know what to do.”

The second said, “My friend is dying and is so upset she won’t talk to me.”

Those are two I remember, but there were a number that were basically: I feel lost. God is quiet. I’m confused. I am anxious.

Mandi leaned over and whispered, “They need to hear your message today.”

My message was based on Psalm 13 and the point is that God is not interested in making me feel capable, He is interested in showing me that He is capable.

It was very clear that God had put the right one on my heart. These people were going to hear it for the first time. I was hearing it for my fifth. But I needed to hear it as much as anyone.

Some things bear repeating. We need reminded, redirected, and corrected. Especially, I find when it comes to grace. We seem naturally pulled to focus so much on the wind and the waves that Jesus seems to have disappeared (see Matthew 14:30).

I posted this sermon a bit over a year ago. If you are feeling like you are wondering what God is doing with your life, where He has gone, why you are where you are, or feel like God has been silent in your life, then you might want to give it a listen. Even if you have heard it before.

I’ve been learning that….

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing worse than a dry, boring, or poorly done worship service. God wants us to worship Him with excellence. But if the service, or the sermon, or the music, or the personalities, or the experience is what is center stage–if they are the draw–we are missing something. Life has plenty of entertainment, distractions, and shows. But to meet Jesus, to see the Father, to encounter the Spirit. To be caught up in the embrace of His grace, nourished by His truth, and to be directed by His love… that is something else.

Odd Transitions

Yesterday morning I officiated a funeral. That is something that most people would expect a pastor to do. After I was done with that, I spent the rest of the day working at a cigar bar. That is something most people would not think a pastor would do. The change in mindset from one job to the next today is certainly odd to me.

I think Jesus knows how I felt. After all, He often had weird transitions too. For instance, John 2 starts with Jesus attending a wedding and ends with Jesus clearing the Temple courts. In Chapter 3 Jesus teaches the Pharisee Nicodemus. In Chapter 4 He is teaching a Samaritan woman at a well in Samaria, a person and place no self-respecting Pharisee would go and talk to. John 7:35-50 shows both these worlds colliding, being at a Pharisee’s house for dinner, and then having a “sinful woman” make a scene crying at Jesus’ feet.

Do you see what I mean? Jesus hung out with some very godly people and He spent significant time with and investing in people who were nothing like that.

I suspect many people know what I am talking about. For most of us, our work looks very different from church. But I have been learning that the main thing stays the same. The goal—be we at home or at church or at work or out with friends—is to be learning to love God and love our neighbors better and better and to help the people we are with (in big and small ways) to love God and love others better.

So, while I may feel transitions like today are anything but complimentary, I am learning that they are not at all unlike what Jesus experienced. And if I am to be growing to be more and more like Jesus, I should expect that these seemingly opposite circumstances will continue.

Lessons from Spiderman (Special Graces in Common Places, part 3).

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers (Matthew 23:8, NIV).

In my last two posts, I shared that common and every day experiences were often what served as the springboards for Jesus’ lessons. Scripture was His textbook, life was His classroom. Over and over again we see that Jesus took advantage of “everyday life” to teach His disciples.

It is my contention that Jesus has not changed His methods, and that through the Holy Spirit, He is doing the same for us; giving us special graces in common places, lessons that He wants us learning to help us work out the grace that He is constantly working into us (Philippians 2:12-13).

As Jesus is constantly discipling us through our everyday life so that we can be learning to love Him and love others better (Matthew 22:36-40), we need to be learning to listen to Him so that we can join Him in helping others do the same (Matthew 28:19-20).

You see, love is not a concept to be understood but a relational commitment to be lived out with everyone you meet. And while you certainly have plenty of opportunities to be learning that here, most of the opportunities to do so are out there in the everyday.

What I want to do today and tomorrow is to share a little bit with you about what that looks like. After all, it is one thing to agree we are no less the church when we are “scattered” than when we are “gathered;” but it is another thing to be learning it. So much of the Christian life is just as much caught as it is taught.

I’m going to do a little “Pastor Dan: Unplugged” for you. I’m going to share a little about what God has been teaching me lately and some of the special graces that I found in some very unexpected common places.

I’ve been learning that the work that God wants me doing is not always the work I want to be doing, or thought I’d be doing.

I have felt a bit like Peter Parker in Spiderman: Homecoming.

Peter was recruited by Tony Stark to join the Avengers (of course that actually happened in Capitan America: Civil War, but they recap it—ha! Re-CAP, like Capitan America’s nick name! hahahaha!—in Homecoming).

Tony outfits him with a supped-up-super-suit and he holds his own against some powerful opponents.

When he gets back home, which is where Homecoming picks up, he is so pumped! He anxiously awaits the next call, the next mission. And he waits. And he waits. And he waits. But the call never comes. Even when he stumbles on a real legitimate bad guy, he doesn’t get the call. He has to stay in school, do homework, and trust that Stark knows what he is doing.

He’s got great gifts. He’s got the heart, the smarts, the courage, and the creativity to do great things. He’s got crazy potential to be a super superhero. But the call never comes. He’s going crazy just waiting. Have any of you ever felt like that?

After earning three degrees in biblical and theological studies and getting well under way on a fourth I thought I’d always be working in the church or teaching or writing and speaking. But for the last two years, God has had way different plans. I’m working in a cigar shop. I’m a co-host on a weekly cigar podcast.

I’ve been waiting for answers. How long is this season going to be? What’s the reason for this season? When am I going to get back to pastoring? When is the next call coming?

I have been asking questions like those a lot. I have been praying over them, asking God what, when, and why? I have been reading the Bible with an ear to those answers.

Psalm 37:7, Be still and wait for the Lord.

Proverbs 3:5 (NIV), Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.

Have faith. Trust. Wait. Yeah, I get that. It is easy to understand. But how do you live that out in the everyday stuff? It is not always so easy is it? The way to live out God’s commands is not always clear.

Having knowledge of the truth is important. But that is not the same as knowing how to apply it, how to live it out in any given situation. That is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. That is why we need Jesus to give us special graces in common places. We need to have the Spirit’s leading to live out the truth we know.

I want to share with you how I have been discerning Jesus’ answers to these questions of mine over the last few months.

Now, the point of sharing these things with you is to give you an example of the special graces I have found in the common places of my everyday life. My hope is not so much that you take to heart anything I say. No, my hope is that the Spirit starts working in your mind and heart while I am speaking to make you realize that He has been no less active in the common places of your life.

Sunday night of this past Memorial Day weekend, I found myself at the hospital with Anna again. Her feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger had been uncontrollable. I was there with her all that night through Monday evening. It took that long to find an open placement for her. What a way to spend Memorial Day weekend right?

One of the things that God was teaching me that night was that right now I can’t be in formal pastoral ministry. In fact, a weird providential twist of irony, twenty years ago on that very day, I had graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. I was set to go from there into a lifetime of pastoral ministry.

Now on the 20th anniversary of that graduation, God was clearly saying: “Stop interviewing with churches. I don’t want you leading a church right now.” And as that thought sank in, so did reality. God had been saying that through a bunch of different ways for a long time. I had sort of surrendered to that, but had not submitted to it.

There is a difference you know, between surrendering and submitting. Never once in the Bible is the word surrender used in a positive light. Never once are we told to surrender to God’s authority. We are, however, a number of times told we are to submit to His authority. God doesn’t want you to surrender. You can surrender without agreeing to or liking His authority!

Now, it was unavoidable. It was clear to me I hadn’t done that. I needed to submit to His will for me. And now I was seeing the wisdom of it. I can’t give the kind of time and energy to Anna and the rest of my family and also look after a congregation. I need to focus on them right now, and for the foreseeable future. Family needs me too much.

Now, fast forward to two weeks ago, I was sitting in my home church listening to Pastor Chris’s sermon, and all the sudden “Bam!” Spiderman Homecoming popped back into my head. Not because I was distracted, but because something Chris said started a conversation between Jesus and I.

Now in order to share this conversation, I have to tell you a little bit about the movie. But don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you any more than what they showed in the previews.

At one point Iron Man has to come and rescue Spiderman. He had got tired of waiting. He was feeling ignored. So he decided to take matters into his own hand and things quickly spun out of control. He had made quite a mess of things you understand. And Tony Stark steps out of his suit and has a frank sit down with Peter.

Tony: I’m gonna need the suit back.

Peter: For how long?

Tony: Forever.

Peter: But I’m nothing without this suit!

Tony: If you’re nothing without the suit then you shouldn’t have it.

Then that passage from Matthew came into my mind:

But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:8-12, NIV).

Now this passage isn’t against having formal titles like Rabbi, teacher, father, or pastor, or professor. It isn’t against calling people by titles either. Remember, Jesus gave twelve of His disciples the title “apostle.” The context of this passage is about the misuse and abuse of the Pharisees because of their titles. They were using the authority of their title and position to set themselves up over the people.

Leadership in the church—pastor, elder, deacons—is not based on having an office or title but on having influence though loving relationships with people.

The people who have titled positions in the church (pastor, elder, deacon), were the people who were incarnating God’s love in how they live life together. Leaders are not put into formal positions where they take leadership, so much as they are people where the people with whom they share life together affirm the leadership they already have, by virtue of their life, example, and reputation by giving a title.

It is relational, not hierarchical. I’m not saying that there is no authority or accountability structure, what I am saying is that the authority of the leaders and the accountability between the leaders and the congregations is founded and focused on love and submitting in love to one another, not primarily because of a person’s title or position.

And so, I really believe the Spirit started to speak to me saying, “Don’t get wrapped up in titles, Dan. You don’t need to have a pastor’s title to do what I have called you to do. If you need the title, then you’re doing it wrong. I have not removed My call by putting you where you are, I have put you where I need you to live out My call.” Leadership in God’s kingdom is not about doing things for God, it is about being obedient in doing the things God gives us to do.

Then I remembered, when I decided to go to seminary, I went with the attitude that there was no downside to it. At best, I would have the necessary academic credentials to pursue my calling into pastoral ministry. At worst (if you can say worst) I would be well educated in my faith and that would set me up to excel in my practice as a husband, father, and worker in Christ’s kingdom.

You see, there is no not being a worker in His kingdom. I don’t see myself as having been demoted or benched. In some ways I feel promoted! Or at least I think I should feel that way.

We sometimes are guilty of thinking that pastors and missionaries are the ultimate Christians. That, my friends, is not at all the case.

In truth the most influential Christian leader, mentor, and spiritual father I have ever met was an insurance salesman! Charlie “Tremendous” Jones. I have never met anyone who was more wise, more fun, or more thankful than him.

Some examples:

You will be the same person you are today five years from now except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read! Hang around thinkers and you’ll be a better thinker, hang around workers and you’ll be a better worker, hang around givers and you’ll be a better giver, hang around a bunch of thumb-sucking-complaining-griping-boneheads and you’ll be a better thumb-sucking-complaining-griping-bonehead!

You don’t give to get something, you give because you have something. If you give something to get something, you’re not giving you’re trading. What you get when you give is a greater capacity to give.

I hear people say I put God first. Don’t talk to me like that you thumb-sucker! Who are you to put God first? He is first whether you like it or not! You don’t put God first, you realize He is first and you quit putting Him way down the list when you realize He is first no matter where you put him.

…and I have never met anyone who loved God as well as he. I really can’t express how much influence he had on me (and Mandi too) over the 6 years I was his spiritual son. He held no titles, but he did more for the kingdom than most people with titles.

Never confuse a degree or a title or a position as necessary things to possess in order to do “real” work in the Father’s kingdom. Most kingdom work happens in the everyday, common, and normal places of life where none of those things really come into play… like spending 21 hours in an ER with your anxious and hurting daughter.

Do you see what I mean? Are you picking up what I am laying down?

Jesus is always discipling us, giving us special graces in common places. The question is: are we listening?