Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

Three days ago, I’d never heard of a rover called Opportunity or the Valley of Perseverance. I first heard about it from the Holy Spirit himself. I’m in one of those seasons right now. It isn’t darkness, exactly, but it is dimmer than usual. There is a subtle resistance in my spirit, a sense that I’m having to work just to keep moving, having to press through when I’d rather lay low. We all have those times when it feels more like walking through mud than walking on water, and I’m in one of those. I wouldn’t classify it as depression or doubt or fear or even anxiety. Nor is this a time when God seems silent. To the contrary, he seems remarkably close. My times in his presence are rich. I can hear his voice. That makes me suspect there is more to this season than a bad mood.

But what to call it, then? When I asked the Lord about it — “Lord, am I sliding backward? Am I spiraling down into an old familiar darkness?” — here’s what I heard: “This is the Valley of Perseverance.” I’d never heard of such a valley. I assumed it was in the Bible somewhere, but I couldn’t recall where so I looked it up.

It isn’t in there.

The Valley of Perseverance is a place on Mars, and I’m just finding out about it though it happens to be in the news right now. Earlier this year the rover named Opportunity got stuck there. Somewhere in mid-June, a dust storm kicked up, a big one that has since grown to epic proportions. Because Opportunity is powered by solar energy, the severe dust is keeping the rover’s solar panels from being able to absorb light. So now, two months into this storm, there sits Opportunity surrounded by dust and grounded, unable to charge its batteries for the lack of light.

Researchers monitoring the situation are hopeful for two things to happen. Eventually, the dust storm will settle, they assume, though that won’t be the end of Opportunity’s challenges. When the dust settles, it will inevitably settle on the rover’s solar panels, solving nothing. The second hope after the dust settles is that a wind will blow through and clear the panels of dust. This is a quote from a NASA report on the situation (but doesn’t it sound like something out of Isaiah?): “The sun breaks through the haze over the Valley of Perseverance, and soon the light there should be enough to allow Opportunity to charge its batteries.”

But for now, the only option open is to wait it out. 

I’m stunned by this revelation, taken by it. That God would draw from this story to speak to my inner angst is powerful. It reminds me that he is not just my friend, or even the God whose got the whole world in his hands. He is the God of the universe, and certainly big enough to hold me in the valleys.

In this word, he has shown me that not all down days (or weeks, or seasons) are generic. Some of them are specific and require a specific response. This one I’m in? This is the “dust” of a flurry of projects and responsibilities running concurrently. Most of them are not storms of my own making. They are moments and circumstances and situations with expiration dates that require my patient endurance as they play out. Weighty though they are, most are best conquered with waiting. Doing nothing, even.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control will necessitate our sitting in the Valley of Perseverance for a season. Nothing to do but wait it out.

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

In Paul’s encouragement to first-century Christians dealing with pressures of faith, he writes that “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2b-4). Perseverance in Paul’s use of it is about handling pressure with grace. It is a solid biblical word that gives one the sense of a floor beneath the feet in confusing times. It is a prescription for allowing tough seasons to build character.

So I hear you, Holy Spirit: Hang in there. Wait. Don’t force things. This storm will pass. The dust will settle. The wind will blow. The light will shine. The batteries will recharge.  As with Opportunity, who sits on a far planet also under Your gaze, the call is to persevere, and to use this waiting to build character.

It is a good word, and a gift. I hear it. Give me courage and wisdom enough to let it form me.

Lord, give us wisdom and patience to wait out the storms, the dust, and the confusion. Give us grace to endure seasons in the Valley of Perseverance, so we can again draw strength from your light and move beyond this place.

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When the Church Hurts (part three)

This post is part three in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our first post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict. The second post began addressing practical ways to maturely deal with unresolved anger and conflict from a biblical place. In this post, we continue exploring ways to respond redemptively to conflict. Find the first three points in the second post

People come and go from churches, jobs and even their own homes for as many reasons as there are people. Some reasons are valid — a geographical move, or a family circumstance — but not all reasons are created equal. Some people simply misunderstand the nature of community or the work of the Body of Christ. Some of us are self-seeking and some of us are broken. We are easily wounded, easily distracted. Many of our decisions come not from what we know about ourselves, but from what we don’t know about ourselves.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a high bar to reach in its mission. It is here among us to offer the truth of Jesus Christ, freedom from sin and the fear of death, healing of wounds, and an authentic, loving, supportive community in which our new lives can be redeemed, healed, and shaped for significance.

Only in community can we become whole and healthy, everything we were designed to be. Christianity isn’t self-serving, nor can it happen in a vacuum. Community is essential, but communities are made of people — broken, wounded, in-process people — and because of that, conflict is inevitable. Hurt people hurt people. When that happens, the best recourse is repentance and reconciliation. The only way to learn how to live in healthy community is to live through the hard times.

But what about when leaving seems the healthiest option? In our last post, I offered three places to begin. Here are three more:

4. Offer peace.  “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Bitterness chokes the Holy Spirit’s ability to move, both in individuals and in the church. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt. If we explore every creative opportunity that might lead to healing, God will surely bless us.

Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward. If we are still angry with someone at another church, then perhaps God is calling us go back, offer forgiveness and get closure. Even if we don’t go back to stay, it is both wise and biblical to go back and make peace. In making amends, we discover that we don’t have to keep talking about the past because we’ve made peace with it. Take the challenge to make this step for the sake of the Body of Christ. Visit during the week or call. In some positive way, let the pastor and others know you are at peace so they can move on. Paul said this was the ministry of Jesus: “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

5. Write a note of blessing. After Paul split from Barnabas, he took time in another letter to defend the work of his brother in ministry. What a positive and grace-filled act! A written word of blessing can be such healing medicine. It can remind someone we’ve loved of the good times and of the ways they contributed to our faith. When we offer grace-filled and hopeful words in an email, text or note, we create open doors for future opportunities. After all, they may need us again one day … or we may need them!

Once we’ve learned to speak positively about the congregations we leave behind, we’ve prayed through our disappointments, we’ve offered forgiveness where it was needed and extended the hand of peace, now – and only now! – we are ready to commit fully to the ministry of a new congregation.

6. Make a solid commitment to your new church. Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful.

Let me say that again: Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful. It misses the point of authentic community, which is what the Body of Christ is designed to be. Simply put, you can’t be part of a community you’re not part of.

Likewise, bouncing between churches can send negative signals and create unneeded tension. Doing so implies that my feelings are the ones that matter most and that simply isn’t part of a healthy Christian worldview. We find healing in stepping outside ourselves and becoming fully a part of the work going on around us.

So dig in. Invest in the time it takes to understand the vision of a new community of faith. Every church is unique and has a unique place in the community. We recognize that what worked in another church may not be right for this new mission. God delights in doing new things, so we want to be open to new ideas and to discovering new spiritual gifts. We must bloom where we are planted. Then when we are given a place to serve, we can support that work wholeheartedly — with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.

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(Not) just another week in the UMC

Come, Lord Jesus.

It was the prayer of the early church as they strained toward the Kingdom against tides of conflict and persecution. “Come, Lord Jesus!” This week, I find myself praying that prayer with fresh energy as we in my tribe brace for a judicial ruling concerning a bishop elected to the western jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

To be clear, I do not believe the bishop in question is within biblical bounds, nor am I in step with those who believe the best course of action at this point is to simply disregard the structures and covenants of the UMC in order to get where they’d like to go. More important still, I don’t think the issue that will have our attention this week is the core issue that divides us.

I remain convinced that the real issue at stake in the United Methodist Church (as with most mainline denominations today) is what we do with the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. What has energetically driven Methodists apart for decades is an inability to unite around John 14:6. Many who serve as United Methodist pastors consider Jesus as a way, but not the way. This is neither suspicion nor recent trend. Pluralism has been seeping into Methodism since the early twentieth century, and is ultimately responsible for all our talk about tolerance and unity. If ours is a one-issue conflict, then it is about how Jesus and the Bible influence all our other choices.

Progressive theology would have us focus on tolerance; yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Let’s be clear on this: holiness reminds me that my primary call is to lead people to Jesus, not get them to “act right.” Jesus, not behavior, is the key to salvation; until a person knows Jesus, nothing else matters. I don’t get to “save” anybody (Jesus already has that job), but my behavior will determine another person’s openness to Jesus. Holiness demands — among a host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled.

But I admit frustration. As our debates over issues surrounding human sexuality continue to boil, I find myself praying the prayer of the frustrated: “How long, O Lord, how long?” I wonder why we haven’t made more before now of our differing views on the nature of Jesus. I become discouraged when I hear the conversation lean toward tolerance and unity as our key values, rather than holiness and respect. I hope we have not made an idol of “big tent” structures when God may be up to something else entirely. What if a return to theological integrity is the better move for us all?

So … what to do with the events of this week when our collective eyes will be focused on an issue, a person and a situation that so obviously obscures our bigger fissures? The world is watching and our collective response will be noted. I am praying for a response among United Methodists that proves our commitment to the values of Christ. I am praying for the values of holiness to prevail. I am also praying for gracious commentary. I am praying for the spirit of Jesus to descend and give us a better answer than the ones we’ve fashioned. I’m praying that we will all commit to a posture of humility. After all, whatever our separate views we are still responsible for treating one another with holy love. The Bible doesn’t give us an option on that.

For me, the spiritual association of eleven million people is worth the time and effort it takes to stay in the conversation and stay in prayer. It is tempting to check out, but I believe orthodox Wesleyan theology is worth the fight. Whatever the ruling this week, there is much else in our church that desperately needs our attention. The biggest irony is that most lay people (and not a few clergy) have no idea what is happening to our beloved tribe. Most don’t realize how close we’ve already come to a full-fledged split, or how likely we are to end there. That is a conversation every Methodist ought to be having, and the conversation must move beyond symptoms to root causes. The Body of Christ deserves our utmost. It is the great gift of Jesus to his people, and I intend to do all I can on this earth to make his Bride ready.

Come, Lord Jesus. May your Kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

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What is your 5%? (or, learning the risk of relevance)

I learned this from Wayne Cordeiro: 80% of the stuff we do every day, anybody could do. Just about anyone could answer our phone calls, read our emails, hang out on our Facebook page.  Someone else could sit in our meetings or drive our car. These jobs, anyone could do. Another 15% of what we do could be done by anyone with a little coaching. Maybe they’d need a few pointers, but with a little help they could respond to our texts, fill out an excel sheet, run Adobe Photoshop, play an instrument. With some coaching, most anyone could handle at least 15% of what we do.

That leaves 5%.

That 5% is stuff only you can do. For instance, only I can be a wife to Steve. Only I can be a mom to Claire Marie. Only I can care for my physical health, and only I can take responsibility for my spiritual life. No one else can do that for me. Likewise, you also have 5% that no one else can do but you. And no one else can do it for you.

What is your 5%?

Cordeiro says the 5% is the part of our activity that will actually last. The rest of it, not so much. We will not have any sense of accomplishment when we reach the end of life and think back on the boxes of paperclips we purchased at Staples or the laundry we folded (Lord, no). But that last five percent? That’s that part we’ll remember. That’s the part they’ll remember. That’s likely the part we’ll be held accountable for. That’s the part that gives life, rather than sucking the life out of us.

That’s the part that will make a difference.

I’m convinced that the 5% happens only under the Lordship of Jesus. One of my Facebook friends wrote this line recently and it resonates: “Eventually, you have to risk and participate in the situations that call you to trusting obedience.” Yes. Eventually, we have to risk the trivial stuff and the things no one will remember and the busy work and the things we can control for the sake of the risk — the subversion — of trusting obedience.

The work we do at Mosaic of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced is glorious work. That is in our 5%. We are uniquely gifted for the work of loving those who live in the margins. There are a lot of other things we don’t have to do, but we do them because we are fallen people with distorted views of what success looks like. We do them because we are broken people who lean too heavily on ambition and not enough on trusting obedience. We are working on righting that wrong. We are trying to figure out our 5% because we want to be the kind of church that focuses on what will last.

So how does a person get out of the tyranny of the 80% to focus more on the 5%? Here are some things I’m learning as I adjust my life toward the risk of relevance:

Be intentional. This is about focus over form, which is especially relevant when we talk about spiritual formation. Rather than focusing on the mechanics of spiritual formation, focus on intentionality. In other words, don’t focus on what you do so much as that you do.

Brother Lawrence learned this lesson. He was a monk with a pretty simple approach to life. He spent his days practicing the presence of God — sitting in the chapel in God’s presence, peeling potatoes in God’s presence. He learned that even menial things could be an act of worship and  an opportunity for spiritual connection with the Father. The key is intention, not passivity. For those of us who prefer physical motion to stillness, the challenge is to choose activities like walking that free up the mind and spirit to be in conversation with God.

Prioritize. Given that no person has more than twenty-four hours in which to work, prioritizing is a key. Which things am I doing that no one else can do? Which things pour into the lives of other people?

The golden word in the work of prioritizing is the word, “no.” Marva Dawn says that “no is a freedom word.” I can’t say yes to the things that are in my 5% until I say no to some that are in my 80% (or worse yet, that belong to someone else altogether). Prioritizing is about listening for God and consciously obeying his voice.

Focus on character, not accomplishment. Character is like an iceberg. Some of it may be above the surface, but most of it is developed beneath the surface. We tend to like doing the things people can see and congratulate us for, but the things that last most likely live in the unseen realm.

Steve Seamands says this about David, the man after God’s heart in the Old Testament. Seamands notes that before he became a warrior, David learned to play a harp. Before he was lauded for his bravery he was a worshiper. “This is always the order in spiritual warfare,” Seamands says. “First, we ascend into worship, then we descend into battle.” Focus on character, not accomplishment, because character will lead us toward the 5% every time.

And that 5%? That’s on me. That’s my responsibility.

What part is yours? What part has God uniquely designed you for? The other 95% doesn’t carry much eternal weight if the 5% isn’t there.

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Take a little wine for your stomach (or, how to live well in a stressful world)

You definitely get the sense in Paul’s two letters to Timothy that he is writing a young and anxious pastor who is hanging by a thread. You can hear the anxiety and depression in Paul’s advice: “Take some wine for your stomach,” he tells Timothy. “Remember that if you’re suffering for the gospel, you’re not the first to do that, and you won’t be the last.”

This is Paul encouraging a young leader who is beginning to question his call because frankly, this is hard. Bearing other people’s burdens will give you stomach problems.* Watching them slide backward after you’ve done so much to move them forward can make a person downright depressed.

And all the pastors said, “Amen.”

Timothy is frustrated. It seems almost like the folks with whom he lives have gone deaf. The message he has for them seems to have no effect. Maybe they’d rather believe comfortable things than uncomfortable things. “Maybe Jesus was more like a ghost than a flesh-and-blood man,” they say, because that is an easier answer to grab onto than the idea of a man who is fully human and fully divine all at once.

Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Some of you are right there with him. Just tired. Tired of weekly reports of terrorist attacks. Tired of the day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of a political scene that only reveals our corporate insanity. Tired of conflict and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

The question seems inevitable: Why bother? 

William Blake once wrote, “You ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men.” Whether he meant to or not, Blake is paraphrasing Paul, who told the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Both the apostle and the poet are saying the same thing: God uses foolish things, foolish people, ordinary people, obscure people, nobodies, everybody to accomplish his purposes. And in fact, God refuses to accomplish his purposes without those partnerships, no matter how obscure or foolish.

In that word, I hear a word for Timothy and all of us who dare to listen: Hang in there, because what you do with your life matters.

What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of the one in whom we place our faith, which is proven by the character he brings out in us.

It is not crazy to stand for truth, to live by a moral code, to trust that there is more to life than just fallen people. It is not crazy to make your life count for something more than a bank account balance (after all, the one with the most toys still dies).

It is not crazy to look beyond a job to a vocation. In fact, it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. Maybe you will work hard and sleep less and endure criticism or worse yet obscurity; which is to say, we’re not the point even of our own calling. And that ends up being quite the point.

We don’t always (or maybe even ever) get the results we think we deserve. But here’s what we do get. We get the one thing that makes all the rest of it worth it: We get Jesus.

On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

 

* Just for clarity’s sake, I’m not proposing that we deal with stress by buying a bottle of wine. Been there, done that and by God’s immense grace, I enjoy a beautifully sober life. The point is that life can be hard but Jesus is good. And Jesus is worth it.

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Crazy, or Courageous? (or, why I keep going to work)

You don’t want to be me.

According to a series of New York Times articles* and a plethora of other studies** done on the topic, pastors are ticking time bombs. Here are a few of the more alarming stats:

  • Pastors suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.
  • The rate of depression among clergy is 11 percent which is about double the national rate.
  • 13% report issues with anxiety.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health.
  • 70% don’t have any close friends.
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.
  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.

Ours is a vocation famous for competing demands, chronic fear of failure and loss of sleep, not to mention loss of weekends. And those are first-world problems. Pastor friends in third-world countries tell me they wake up every day prepared to die.

This is nothing new. In Paul’s two letters to Timothy, he counsels endurance even when it seems crazy. In Paul’s advice we hear Timothy’s state of mind. He is hanging by a thread — tired, stressed out, anxious. “Take some wine for your stomach,” Paul advises, because bearing other people’s burdens will give a person stomach problems. Watching them slide backwards after you’ve tried so hard to move them forward can make a person downright depressed. Competing complaints can send a person over the edge. Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Timothy is tired. So am I. I’m grateful the Bible gives me permission to admit it.

Maybe you are right there with us (Timothy and me) and you are tired, too. Tired of day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of conflicts and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

Are we insane to stay with this, when so much of it is crazy-making?

My experience after seventeen years of ministry and the start of tcrazy-courage2wo congregations is that the only thing standing between me and complete burn-out is not success, but the power of God. It is the power of God that saves me from those baser fight-or-flight instincts. The strength of this gospel keeps me bound to this call because in the end I’m convinced that’s where the power is.

Herein lies the difference between crazy and courageous. It depends on the thing you’re fighting for. What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of what we believe in, which is proven by the character it brings out in us.

It is not crazy to make ministry your vocation. Given the vocational hazards it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

 

*Several articles appeared in the New York Times in 2010 addressing the issue of clergy burnout. Begin with this one, and follow it to others. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html

**http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html

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