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Saturday, October 31, 2015

The tortures of preparing a weekly message as a Pastor...

Some might wonder what it's like to be a pastor coming into the weekend services.  Most people, probably don't care.  But for those of you who wonder, I thought I'd let you know what it's like for me.  It's Saturday Morning which is the time I go over my message again after my day off on Friday and it still surprises me all the emotions I feel as I embark on another weekend of ministry.  This is my 19th year of ministry and the feelings are the same, if anything, they've intensified because the stakes seem higher.

Here are my honest thoughts about getting my message ready for the weekend...

1. I never feel like I've prepared enough no matter how much time I've put in.  I always feel like I should have researched more, or found a better analogy, or dug a little deeper to find a better way of saying something.

2. I feel pressure to connect to people who are used to amazing communication and presentation.  People in our culture don't know how spoiled they are all the time with seamless transitions and awesome visual and audible genius via television and the internet.  So to keep up with the dynamic nature of life in the 21st century can feel nigh to impossible.

3. I feel a tension in my brisket for days leading into the weekend wondering if I really have anything to say that is worth listening to.  I wonder if it will be boring and leave people disappointed.  My fear is that I'll think it's good and that people will leave thinking, "Did he think that was helpful?"  That I could be so close to my craft that I don't have a good sense of whether it's good or not.

4. As the weekend gets closer, I have to fight off dark thoughts...every week.  Thoughts like, "People aren't coming this weekend...they have better things to do."  "You are getting kinda repetitive and people aren't as interested in what you have to say."  "You're going to bomb tonight.  Your content is so commonplace."  "People are talking about church lately and they think things are getting boring."  "You're in over your head...you can't keep this up."  It goes on an on...and these are some of the grey thoughts...I don't want to share the black ones.

5. I sometimes feel like my relationship with God isn't where it needs to be to speak for Him.  I feel unqualified to stand in His stead and share His Word with people when I feel like I have so far to go.  It is worse when I come off a week when I feel like I've struggled with sin or selfishness.  A week where I'm burnt out on people's problems and the world's ills.  I don't feel like a beacon of hope...instead, I feel like I want to stand up in front and say, "We're losing...sin is winning."  I've never done that, but coming into a weekend and living in this world, I feel so overwhelmed with the power of evil.

6. This is crazy, but sometimes I want to get in my car and drive away.  I want to just run.  I feel so petrified at the paranoia in my mind that I want to get as far away as possible.  I feel so scared that there doesn't seem like a better option than running away.  I've never done this, but that's a feeling that fills my mind on some Saturdays coming into the weekend.  I know...crazy.

7. I feel like my mind is so full of what I've studied, that having conversations or interacting with random things other than my message can be difficult.  I feels like I can't do anything or talk about anything until after that last message on Sunday and my brain has been opened up to entertain other thoughts or ideas.  The worst is when someone unloads a problem or critique or bit of bad news with me while I'm preparing my mind to share God's Word.  I can hardly take it in without it feeling like they've jabbed a needle in the balloon of my heart and deflated my growing energy.  It also clouds my thoughts and makes me feel like what I'm going to say isn't where people are actually living.  I'll want to change my message.

8.  I'll end with this thought...I always feel a desire to change my message about 40 times a week.  I'll get done and what felt good on Wed. night will sound stupid and silly on Thursday Morning...I'll tweak it a bit and feel better going into my day off, but on my day off I'll think about the topic and some of the points I'm going to make and they seem detached and distant...like they don't make any sense to me anymore.  I stay away from my message on Friday, but on Saturday morning (like this morning), I review my notes and often feel like I want to scrap everything and start over.  Whatever I was feeling early in the week seems like a lifetime ago and what I'm feeling today couldn't be further from the content in my message.  I have to wrestle with regret and the desire to rework everything.  But I can't now, because I've sent it to our tech team and the programming is already being aligned with what I sent them earlier in the week.  And so I pray that God reminds me of what he put in my heart early in the week and seek to reconnect with why he put the message on my heart like he did.  I ask for His heart to fill me while mine is so undependable and capricious.  He is usually good with covering me with his Love...though I don't always feel it.

There are more things...but these are some of the tortures of weekly preparation for weekend messages as a pastor.  I love my calling...but I'd be lying to you if I didn't say there are parts of it that I hate with a passion...this weekly gauntlet is one of them.

Friday, October 30, 2015

It's not the gift...it's the card...

This month is Pastor Appreciation Month.  I'm not sure who came up with it, but if you're a pastor like I am, it seems like a pretty good idea.  Although yesterday was "Cat Day", so it's important to keep in perspective that every living and non-living thing is getting celebrated with it's own holiday these days.  We live in a culture that doesn't want anyone to be offended, so everyone gets a blue ribbon in our culture.  But I digress...

I get a few cards during the month with some kind words and usually a gift card to some restaurant or another.  It's really kinda cool.

I appreciate the gifts, but the older I get the more interested I am in the card.  This is good and bad.  Good, in that I realize that the consumer part of me is giving way to what is of greater worth, community.  Bad, in the sense that most cards don't say anything at all...they are just vehicles to encase a gift...the thought that counts, without the words of affection that really account for the strength a soul needs to make it to the end with honor.  Cards can be very disappointing when they are hollow instead of hallowed.

I want to see someone's handwriting. I want to hear people's feelings put into words.  I love the plastic gift card that pops out...but my heart is eager to hear who it's from and what led them to go out of their way to write it.

Sometimes it's just the generic limerick inside that says, "You are appreciated" or "You're a great pastor", etc. and the person just signs their name under the kind expression or pre-fab poem.  But sometimes you get lucky and the person actually articulates their heart...this is gold to me.  This is the currency that sustains me.  Person to person edification.  Human contact and connection.  Relational exchanges of affection.  Encouragement and empowerment from someone who takes the time to speak out their heart into my heart.  The card is more important that the gift.

This leads me to last week...

We got a long letter written with tender loving care.  It was so deeply connected to my family, my marriage and my life.  Every phrase and sentence and paragraph was thoughtful and non-general.  It was very specific and as such, special.  My wife read it to me in the car and as she was reading it, I remember thinking: "This must be what it feels like to be pursued, fought for, and rescued."  When someone is coming for you and disallowing you to write it off or blow it off, it's powerful.  When the things they are saying represent everything you're living for that you wonder if anyone knows or sees, that's nourishing.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone really knows or cares....beyond the surface.  And this letter just kept going, which meant it just kept coming.

I'm used to being the one to try and help others and it almost made me blush as this letter went on and on regarding my heart, my family, my life's work, my leadership, my love, my dreams, my pain, my pressure, my gifts, my glory, my friendship...my friendship.

It is a letter I won't soon forget.  The card was packed with pathos.  I felt known and loved.  I truly felt like they appreciated me deeply...not just because their was a holiday forcing them to conjure up something to say.  It was meaningful.

The gift in the card was unforgettable as well.  It followed the unique path of the letter in that it was unexpected and almost unbelievable.  How could someone care so much?  How could someone lavish such love upon us?  You almost don't believe this sort of love exists anymore, getting used to it's absence as normal.  So when it appears, it's almost too resplendent to behold.  You want to turn away feeling unworthy.  Run away for fear that you are pitiful.  I say pitiful, because love doesn't feel like charity in a world were it is so rare, it feels like pity.  And that makes you wonder if you're needy or did something to get attention.  I never want to be "that" person.  But when someone comes after you with such fierce love, it's so rare that it can feel like you did something wrong to trigger the benevolence.  Does that make sense to anyone?

All I know is that it went way beyond a goofy man-made holiday called "Pastor Appreciation" to an appreciation that was rooted in "knowing".  Deeply being known carries a majesty that borders on magic.

It's less and less about the gift and more and more about the card.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The homestretch that doesn't feel like home...

I may be an anomaly as a dad, but I hate when my daughters move into seasons where they are preoccupied, distracted, non-affectionate, and busy with life.  It's not like I can't relate, but still.

I've noticed lately when I reach out to give a hug, they are on the way to doing something, so they roll their eyes and give an obligatory--stiff--hug (but I can tell it's not 'all in') and move on.  Or it's something like, "Dad, I will in a bit, I have homework."  They are rushed in their minds and don't seem to have the free time to just sit and chill.

We haven't had Daddy-Daughter dates for several months because of practices, games, homework, not to mention tight finances.  This is something we've enjoyed their whole life and for some reason this season is just squeezing it out of the schedule.  A lot of it is in my head, but it affects me to not feel close to them.  I hate feeling like the gap is widening between us...I don't know if I'm doing something to cause it or doing near enough to stop it.  I don't want to overreact and push them away and I don't want to underreact and let them drift away.  I've worked so hard all these years to keep close to their hearts, it feels like such a waste to let it all play out as it will from here on.  I don't know.

I know the teen years are tough, and despite a parent's best efforts of setting up life to be filled with cherished times of closeness, often times our adolescent children want to be with friends, by themselves, or watching television instead of connecting with their parents.  I get it, I was there...but something about it is so hard to accept.  Again, I wonder if just accepting it is the problem...do you fight it?  Do you say, "over my dead body"...or is that very posture that pushes them away.  They can sense codependency and it's my belief they run for the hills if they pick up on it.  They don't want our mood to be connected to their good or bad day.  Enough stuff in their life is ungrounded, the last thing they need is waffling and wavering parents who base their quality of life on the basis of their child's performance.

Our bed times haven't been all that meaningful lately either.  I'll climb in bed with them (some nights not even that if they did homework till the wee hours of the night) and I feel like everything is rushed and routine.  Like they don't want to talk, laugh, chill, let alone snuggle.  Again, this is a new trend.  I don't think it's because they don't want to, I just think life is so busy and their minds are so busy that they just don't know how calculated they've become.  Life has little to no room for spontaneous conversation and connection....or so it seems.  I will ask questions and they give one word answers as if to say, "Dad, I'm tired.  I don't want to talk.  Just give me a kiss and get it over with."  I leave the room after saying, "Good night.  Love you." and I just feel less than ok with this exchange night after night.

Last night it felt like they all wanted to talk a little more and reached out and initiated hugs and connection...(I think Heidi might have talked to them about my feelings that they were brushing me off...I don't know...but even if she did, that feels codependent and weird).  Either way, it felt good to feel that they wanted to linger in a moment longer then 25 seconds.

I feel for their schedules and the demands on their lives these days.  There's a lot of pressure to being a kid in this age.  They are doing a great job handling it all, but I long for the simpler days...the olden days of free nights and free time.  Every moment seems to be filled with carting one here and another one there.  It's part of the teen years....but I don't like it one bit.  I just gotta say that.  It doesn't sit with me well.

It's not all on them...I feel like my life is full of pressure and performance reviews as well.  It seizes my mind and makes being present a real discipline.  They probably can sense that as well.  So we'll both have to work on this trend of life crowding out connection.  That's not an option for me.

I've invested too many hours into my girls to let the homestretch feel homeless.

Prayerss for the Day...

Here are some prayers that come to mind to pray throughout the day that I thought I'd throw down in print:
At I start of the day:
- "God, I'm yours, use me today."
- "Show me the blessings around me."
- "Let me be a blessing to people today."
- "Give me a forgiving spirit today, Lord."
- "Let me be constantly aware of your presence, Lord."
- "Lead me today, and help me to follow your lead."
During the day:
- "Help me, Lord."
- "Give me your eyesight and heartbeat right now, God."
- "Let others see you in my actions."
- "Give me courage to face that conflict, Jesus."
- "Fill my mouth with words of wisdom."
- "Help me to resist temptation, God."
- "Give me strength to do the hard thing."
- "Sustain me with your peace."
- "Let the joy of the Your heart be my strength.
- "I cannot do this without you, Lord."
- "I need you desperately right now, Lord."
- "Help me to overcome this struggle, God."
- "Convict me of my own sin in every situation."
- "Don't let me run away from pain, join me in it, Lord."
- "Give me an attitude of encouragement to share with others."
- "Give me your perspective in this moment, Jesus."
- "Don't let me react selfishly today, God."
- "Give me pure motives and flush out my flesh."
- "Make me a vessel of love."
- "Fill me right now as I make this hard decision."
- "Don't leave me alone...I'm a goner without you."
- "Bring me great success as I bring you glory."
As I head home:
- "Help me to shed the stress, Lord."
- "I cast my cares on you, Jesus."
- "Fill me with your energy and ambition...I've none of my own."
- "Surprise me with unusual joy tonight, God."
- "Give me a spirit that fills my home with hope."
- "Help me to listen to my family attentively."
- "Allow a relaxation to come over me right now, Lord."
- "I want to leave work behind me, I need you to help me do that."
- "Help me to be present, body and spirit tonight, God."
- "Restore my injured soul this evening as I lean into You."
- "Give me the energy to speak into and listen to my spouse's heart tonight."
- "Give me a gracious and forgiving spirit when expectations aren't met."
- "Speak 'Peace, be still' into the tempest of my mind."
- "You are in control, Lord, I am not."
- "Let your presence hover over me and my home tonight."
- "Receive glory right to the last second of this day."
- "I'm yours, Lord, I'm yours."
Hope these help you today. Maybe it will give someone a jump start on "practicing the presence of Christ". It is these sorts of short phrases that buoy me in the storms of each day and make my life one of consequence. I pray the same for you.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Running in the Rain...

Yesterday I did something I haven't done in a coon's age. (whatever that is)  Once in a blue moon.  (whatever that is).

I put on my running shoes and I ran.

For the last couple of weeks I've felt nudged to run and for very selfish reasons.  I need the drugs.  I need the endorphins it releases into my system.  I need the natural high that God wired us to have when we do what he created us to do.  All these chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, etc are laying latent inside of me until I actually do what it takes for them to be released.  When I don't, my life begins to lack pleasure and take on pressure.

I feel the battle of pressure and pleasure is the best way of describing the war going on in my soul.  The interesting thing is that when I feel pressure, the last thing I want to do is something like run.  I want to work to relieve the pressure.  But the more I work, the more I spiral into a splintering of that pressure into hundreds of micro-pressures.  It's sick and sad, really.

So I've almost heard my soul screaming through the gag I've shoved down it's throat: "Put on your running shoes and run."  That's it.  Doesn't sound spiritual, but every day I've heard this line in my head rolling around like a marble.  And yesterday, after feeling layer upon layer of not-so-great-news pile upon my heart, I obeyed the voice.  I put on shorts, dusted off my black running shoes, and started jogging down my driveway toward the dirt road that was awaiting my pounding feet.

The crazy thing was the minute I jumped off my front porch, it started to rain.  I thought in my head, "I should go back inside and wait for the rain to stop."  But something deeper and louder said, "This will make it even better...when was the last time you ran in the rain?"  So I soldiered on.

I hate running for the sake of running.  I loved running as long as it was after a ball or for a victory, but competitive sports are in my rearview mirror to the tune of almost 20 years.  This business of running for the sheer joy of running is something I just can't relate to for the life of me.  But I studied some of the natural drugs in my body a couple weeks ago and exercise releases several chemicals that supposedly keep me from getting depressed and positively alter my perspective on things.  It was touted as ultimately making me feel a sense of pleasure afterwards.  So I ran.  And ran.  And ran.

Mind you, it wasn't a marathon.  It was only 2 miles that felt like 20.  But I didn't stop running...I ran through ever ache and cramp.  I ran through every thought that said, "Just take a moment to walk".  I ran through every mental barrier that said, "Don't run all the way to Bailey, turn around at that driveway just ahead."  You can't believe how many thoughts I had to overcome in those two miles.

And you can't imagine how the pain worked it's way around my body screaming at me to stop.  It started in my lower back of all places.  It felt like my back was going to give out.  But that either subsided or was trumped by the pain in my knees.  I began to feel like my knees were crippled with arthritis...it felt like cartilage was crushed and tendons were torn (they weren't).  But my knees felt better after a mile when my hips began to feel as though they were coming right out of their sockets.  Seriously.  Every time my heel hit the gravel, my hip felt like it crumbled into pieces.  But that's just the thing, all these devastating things were "feelings".  Every bone and muscle in my body was saying to me, "You're hurting me" and yet my soul was saying, "You're helping me."  Weird stuff.

I plan on doing it again today.  I don't know if it's a placebo effect or a legitimate download of drugs into my system, but it brought catharsis and relief.  It, at the very least, transferred my pain and pressure to my body from my mind.  Whatever happened, it did something.

And the rain only made it better.  I felt cleansed.  And that's a good feeling.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Writing and Writhing...(back in business)

I haven't written much lately (as you can tell by my sparse blog entries).  There are probably several reasons for this, but I think I put my finger on at least one I want to wonder about...

There have been times I feel like writing helps me to not hide.  Others times writing can be a perfect place to hide.  I think the latter is what I worry about most recently.  I feel vulnerable to use writing as an escape from reality.  A place to frame, blame, and name things so I don't feel as hurt as I do.  A place to cast myself in the role I wish I had in the storyline.  A place for revisionist history where I clean up the truth instead of letting it be and leaving it be.  

Writing can be embellished--like you didn't already know that.  It can be an imaginary friend you play with when you're alone and you need company.  It can be a place to make believe and play pretend with objects and people.  Like a child playing house, we can turn couch cushions into castles and ragged dolls into rugged dads.  Somehow in our minds we can climb into a suspense of disbelief and convert rocks into rubies.  It's a blessing...I think it's how some children in third world countries keep their hopes and dreams alive amidst the violence that seeks to steal their innocence.  So don't get me wrong, I think God made us to dream of how things could be while we're writhing in the midst of how things are.

But virtual reality has made this behavior excessive.  Posting pictures of a moment belies the emptiness just before and just after that pose.  And the more you pose the more you feel like a poser.  You present yourself as one thing while largely living and feeling another thing.  I can began to write for similar reasons, namely, presentation.  The war is presentation or being present.  Being present is harder and harder because we are captured by what people are capturing in words and with camera lenses.  We want those good things to be something we could say or feel or look like.  So we pen and pose and posture--jostle and jockey for position really.  It's hard to keep up.  It's hard to know what's true after a while.  If you're not close to your own soul, you'll start believing your own lies.  It's crazy.

So back to writing...I want it to be as pure as I know to make it.  To write, first, because I love to.  Second, to tell the story.  Not a story, but the story.  Thirdly, to leave behind bread crumbs like Hansel and Gretel for my children to find their way home someday when they care enough to read my writings...if ever. (I began to care about what my dad might have been thinking and feeling when he was a young man somewhere around my early 30's).  I don't know, maybe that motivation isn't the purest, but I want my kids to have a record of my honest thoughts and feelings.  I want them to see the observations I made about life as it was flying by.  I want them to know that I was more like them than they thought when they were in the same exact moment with me.  I hope my commentary about life is, as much as I can muster, the no-spin zone.  There is alway some margin of human error and bias, so it will never be 100% reality, but like hand sanitizer is promised to kill 99.9% of germs, I want to have a high percentage of promise that my thoughts are as naked as I'm saying they are.  (you can even see bias in the claim of hand sanitizers...they knew they couldn't say 100% for fear of lawsuits when a child caught a bug, but they can't admit that it is probably way less than 99.9%...a good lesson in promotion and presentation for marketing.)  

I don't want to write as a marketer, a brander, an advertiser.  I don't want to make more or less of something than what it is.  I don't want to subscribe to that way of life.  

So, I haven't written much in the last year or so because I haven't trusted myself to tell the truth.  I got sucked into the cyber-cyclopst and the dizzying affect of what is "posted online" and what is "happening offline" in my life and other people's lives scared me a bit.  I got turned off and didn't know what or who to trust.  I can't speak for other people, but for me, I noticed how hard I was trying to "present" myself rather than write about my "present self".  

I'm trying to get back to that guy.  That guy is the one I like hanging out with the most.  Not the imposter (impastor) that is trolling for approval or attention.  Not the poser (pastor) who is "trying to make it look like..."  And I could say that it's not appealing to do that, but I would be lying.  It's an easy and quick payoff.  (like right now I'm wanting to post this on Facebook so that more people will read it cause no one gets on my blog).  But that's just it.  I want to write for the love of writing, not for the love of being read.  I want to hear "write, now!" about "right now" and I just want to do it without instantly being ambushed by thoughts like: "Put that out there!"..."Is that sizzling enough?"..."does this have the potential to go viral?"..."embellish this with a lying adjective connected to your true subject...an untrue adverb to a true verb".  I haven't trusted myself enough to let that stuff get collected and thrown into my archive.  The last thing I want to do is to have someone read this someday never to really meet me, only a buffered and buffed version of me.  My kids especially.  I want them to know that I fought to put down in writing what was as close to me as I could possibly be.  You feel me?

So this is the re-start of writing.  I had to say this before I started writing just to have a Manifesto of Me to go back to, a tuning fork, a true north.  Jason without guile.  I don't pretend to be altruistic, but I can hope to be battling the guile.  So, here is my best attempt at telling my story from here on out.  It might not be great reading, but it will be fun writing.  And that's true north.