Posts Categorized as: grace
For those of you who might not have heard, my family and I are leaving the wonderful town of Lincoln, IL
and moving to the wonderful town of Dallas/FortWorth.
I accepted the offer of Compass Christian Church to be their “Missions Pastor” and will no longer be teaching full-time here at LCU as of July. This has been a very fast decision that, in all honesty, snuck up on me. I had no plans of leaving LCU or of doing anything but the tasks laid before me by my own conscience and the administration of LCU. Some of my friends have wondered (aloud) if my post about the Mills moving was a pre-emptive move to announce my own intentions. With some of these questions coming to me personally, I suspect that, among my students at least, there might be some other questions floating around. So before I get to my letter, allow me to say a few things:
- I am not leaving LCU because of any reason. I’m not frustrated, worried or bothered by anything at LCU in a way that would make me pack up my toys and go elsewhere.
- I am not looking for greener pastures. This move is not a “get-to-civilization” attempt or a chance to be somewhere that’s really “moving.” Truth be told, I was not inclined to even listen to the offer from Compass at first…and that was because I have been happy to be here at LCU and my family was doing great.
- However, I AM trying my best to listen carefully to God’s call on my life. I will write more about that later.
- And I AM convinced this is God’s invitation to our family (through CCC’s gracious invitation).
- LCU and CCC have all acted with grace, kindness and respect through the entire process.
- I will still be connected to LCU in a big way. I have officially accepted the position of “Professor-at-Large” (which is a legit title…) and will teach online as well as in-person at LCU in an intensive format (2x/year).
With all of that being said, I wanted to write something specifically to those of you who have been my students over the last 7 ½ years. I would also say that this would apply to many of you who have studied with me on a personal level.
I have thought about this letter for some time. As I prepare for a new phase of life and ministry, I thought hard about what I would like to say to you as I shift my primary focus from teaching to leading. After some time to sort things out in my own heart, I think I can pull this together. I hope and pray that this will be helpful to you.
First, thank you for your friendship and your time. You paid a great deal of money to sit in those seats and I have never taken that lightly. Each class period to me represented a significant investment on your part and it still amazes me that you would so humbly be part of my classes. I am acutely aware of my many limitations, my speech patterns that get annoying (“follow?”) and my lack of depth as a true scholar. Yet the joy that came from spending my life with you in classes, retreats, the Warehouse and in my office was a constant source of joy to me. At times I was weary but there always were some of you who brought hope and renewal to me. I also want to thank you for your patience. Between the doctoral studies, my extra work at LCU, the journey with Shannon’s Lupus and my own parents’ aging, you have been patient with my slow emails, texts, time limits and office hours. Your patience with me was very Christlike and I will not forget it. While you may not know it (or even even have felt it), you were a delight to me and I owe you a debt of love. Even when I was aggressive or grumpy in class, I never took your attendance and attention for granted.
Second, you still represent (at least to me) the best hope of the church. The power of college students who willingly give their lives to God during the 18-22 age-range is simply stunning. The historical data really backs that up! It is a supra-cultural phenomenon that transcends time (think of Patrick’s training of the young) location (the Syrian Christians and their schools of leadership) and culture (a school in an unnamed country comes to my mind here). Young leaders who, like Timothy, have an entire life ahead of them to serve God, represent a formidable opportunity to both grow wise as well as deep. When I see you on campus or around town, my thoughts are ever hopeful, ever positive regarding the potential you have. On the other side of that coin, it also grieves me deeply to see students still enslaved to sinful habits or thought-patterns. Most of you have more latent talent than you might realize and I am ever hopeful that you will be unleashed, through the power of the Holy Spirit to serve those who are either far from God, or deeply hurting while serving God. As you have led Restoration Week trips, weekend ministries, Quest and a host of other service ops, I have seen you grow in astounding ways. I am so impressed with you!
Thirdly, I want you keep learning! This is hard to overemphasize. I don’t mean that all of you should apply for seminary (while several of you should indeed), I mean that as you grow older and wiser, your need to keep learning does not decrease! The problems and issues I deal with at this stage of my life are far more complex and difficult than any stage of my life thus far. My hope is that you’ll continue to keep learning about character development so you can finish well (CCL anyone?)! I pray you’ll learn more about the ontology and application of spiritual formation practices so you are abiding in the Vine. It is significant in this era to be wise about how to help and not hurt the poor. Economics, metaphysics, prayer and project management are all within the scope of the Christian leader. Knowledge and wisdom bring blessing, resources and application to a host of situations in the “real world” and I want you to have these. Wisdom is supreme.
Next, I want to encourage you to stay humble. When I was starting my doctoral work I had a chance to speak with Dr. Dallas Willard. I asked him for advice about entering into a scholar’s life and he told me to be very careful. After our conversation was over, I wrote down what he said to me and he warned me that the temptation to study for your own sake is very tempting. He was right. The academic world is (at least in my opinion) incredibly important. But there is an inherent danger there to be infected with a significant “Competency Extrapolation.” For those who work hard to understand things, this temptation is very, very hard to avoid. Being smart in one (or more) areas leads many of us to believe we’re just plain smart in all areas. This leads to some very difficult issues. The reason I mention this is that I have personally struggled with this and have watched many of my friends do so. Happily, I have also found some mentors and scholars who have maintained a powerful humility that leans toward Jesus and willingly suspends judgment as they pursue truth as best as they are able. These folks not only do great scholarship, they also come at the process as stewards and servants. They have inspired me and I am growing while I watch them. It appears that a significant key to maintaining this humility is that you work with broken people on a regular basis. It means stay in the church and stay in the trenches while you study.
Lastly, I would like to encourage you to learn to live in and practice being in the Presence of God. I am aware of the difficulties of that statement. I know that to say that when God is omnipresent, the issue of “Presence” is confusing to many people. I also know that there are theological positions that decline to highlight immanence for several reasons. Yet I would still maintain that being aware (at the very least) of the friendship and power of Jesus during your earthly sojourn is the highest level of power and joy available to humans. I also think it to be the source of the kind of work that will last and endure for eternity. This will take surrender and seeking. Your will and efforts must be focused on this quest but as you experience it, you will have that amazing sensation of working hand-in-hand with your Father on something He cares about. This is what I suspect Paul was referring to in Philippians 3. The seasons of my life that have been the most joyful have been seasons where this was paramount to me. Even during desert seasons, the constant seeking of God brought me nearer to the Word of God and was rewarded by God. There is far, far more to say about this, but suffice it to say, it is the highest good I have had on earth so far—and I wish it for you as well.
Fifteen semesters does not seem very long when I compare myself with people who have taught 40+ years. But for me, this has been a massive journey. You, my students, have been at the heart of it. I deeply love you and I am so very thankful for your willingness to learn from someone like me. I pray God’s richest blessing on you and I ask (as I often do) that God would remove the foolishness or folly of my teaching and leave what is of Him. Please pray for me—I am acutely aware of my need. And may God bless you for blessing me.
 From Humilitas by John Dickson, Zondervan, 2011
Its amazing to me how much I tend to avoid pain. Motivational sayings, biographies, historical studies and THE BIBLE all point to the idea that pain is not always just a simple result of the fall—pain is often a gift and a tool in God’s hands (Hebrews 12, James 1 etc ad nauseum). It can be something used to purify our faith (I Peter 1) or something that produces perseverance (Romans 5). While I don’t ever want to be masochistic (we know that’s pathological) and get to the point where I enjoy all pain like I enjoy the feeling of really hot salsa, I DO want to get to the point where I stop whining to God about it and learn to endure.
One of the ways I’m growing in this is walking with my parents, from a distance, in the twilight of their days here on earth. I absolutely love every conversation and every minute I get with them, but it’s just part of God’s plan that our lives on this earth will sometime come to an end. I have grown to respect my Dad even more as he is making preparations for his transition from temporary to eternal. One of the things he’s done is try to make all the arrangements for his and Mom’s passings ahead of time. So, during his long stay in the hospital last fall, he took the time to write out his life’s history and his and Mom’s obituaries. Here’s the problem: He wants me (as the family academic) to type them out and put them in proper English. So, I took the two steno books full of Mom and Dad’s achievements and started working on them—that was very hard to do. It seems so final yet they are both still here… it’s been weird.
Inside one of the steno notebooks I found a note dad had written during his hospital stay. “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”— Albert Einstein.
I was really taken back by that. Dad was lying in a hospital or nursing home bed for 5 months and that’s the kind of thing he’s thinking about! At that point I decided that I would stop praying for God to stop Mom and Dad’s pain (and mine too) and ask God to continue to reveal himself to Mom and Dad in spite of it—to use it to draw all of us closer to him.
Think of what God asked Abraham to do with Isaac. Or what Joseph went through. Think of that poor lady who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment or the man born blind just so God’s glory could be revealed. God’s use of pain in our lives helps us. I hate that because I want to be comfortable and (when I’m dead honest) kinda rich. But as I’m watching my folks invest in eternity what I am seeing is that although I’m tempted to avoid pain, there is something I absolutely want more.
I want to love God with all that I am, and I recognize that to do so means I have to pick up my cross. It means I have to follow regardless of what that costs me; to go wherever he leads me. At this point it is tempting to say that, in the end, it will all be given back (like Job), or turn out for my good (like Joseph), but it’s possible that pain will endure all the way to the very end (like my Mom). There’s no guaranteed pain-free ending on this earth but that’s ok. What I am seeing in my Dad is that an absence of pain is not the indicator of things being right—it is the presence of God, despite the pain, that shows us what life really is and where it comes from. It is a life that transcends the loss of pregnancies, the loss of loved ones, horrible meetings with doctors, irrevocable diagnoses, long nights (and months) in the hospital, lonely seasons at work, frustrating colleagues, difficult financial situations, hurtful family situations and, thanks be to God, aging parents.
God’s good use of pain allows us to die to ourselves to the point that our sinful, mewling selves learn to approach the light of God’s presence that begins to burn away the selfishness. And in doing so it leaves a well of love. I resonate with the words of Madeline L’Engle when she says
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
Before, when I have preached or spoken about pain, someone inevitably comes to me and suggests that I’m perhaps missing the point of the gospel. Jesus did indeed come to set us free! And, truth be told, when people speak of the cross, sometimes they forget to discuss the joy that is given. What I really believe is that it is our fear, sin and brokenness that keeps us from the most abundant, life-giving and soul-satisfying life that can be had on this earth. And sometimes, God uses pain to get us there. And sometimes it lasts all the way until the end. But He is still worth it…in every way, for all time. I keep going to God and one day I’ll finally learn to stop dodging the pain. When that day comes, my life will be full of a light that is lovely enough to draw others.
God, have mercy on Mom, but in your way, in your time and with your design—however that turns out for all of us. May God’s mercy be on you too. Thanks for reading.
My Mom and my son Garrett along with our dog, Sugar at my Mom and Dad’s house in Nebraska
In May of 2013 my Dad had to make the hard decision to place my Mom in a facility (“Emerald Courts”) that specializes in caring for people with Alzheimer’s. We found out about Mom’s condition about three or four years before this and her condition had worsened to the point that this facility was the most loving thing for her. When she first arrived there, the facility asked us to not come see her for a few weeks so that she could acclimate to her new surroundings. When it was time to come visit, all three of the brothers (Dan from Oregon and Chip from central Nebraska) came with families to see Dad and visit Mom. It had been about six months since we had seen her and the experience of seeing Mom like that was excruciating. While we first visited I barely kept the tears at bay the entire time.
That summer was also a time when Shannon had surgery, Garrett had his wisdom teeth out and my dissertation was finally due to be defended and edited.
After we left Nebraska, Dad soon had some difficulties of his own. He needed major surgery on his small intestine. From August until December Dad had a total of three major surgeries and spent nearly the entire time in the hospital or in a nursing care facility. I suppose that without trying to be melodramatic, I can say that from May of 2013 until January of 2014, I was in one of the deep valleys of life.
I would not dare to compare that season with the valleys of those who have lost a child or who have battled cancer for years. Nor does it even compare to those Christians who are being persecuted around the world. I’m bringing it up because of something that happened to me recently and I hope to become more articulate in thinking about God and hardship.
A student of mine was visiting a church recently and he found a series of “positive proverbs” on the walls of the worship area of the building. Here are a few of them: Everything happens for a reason, Forgiving means forgetting, Faith can fix anything, A Godly home guarantees godly kids, and the one that I want to talk about today—“A Valley Means a Wrong Turn.”
I am convinced that good intentions and reductionism are somewhat ubiquitous in the Christian world. It is kindness (I think and hope) that leads people to try to distill the mysteries of Godliness into bite-sized pieces that are sticky to the mind. We want people to be happy. We hope they can find the abundant life in Jesus that we claim is available, we really want our churches to be full of life and full of new visitors. Thus, we capitalize on an element or two of faith and put it into a proverbial format and hope that people will somehow translate these pithy sayings into a better attitude and thus, a better life. Now before you think me the cynic, please know that I do think faith changes our realities and I do believe that a positive (and thus thankful) attitude has causal effects on our life here on earth. Yet, the part of this particular saying—every valley is a wrong turn—speaks to the avoidance of suffering as a wrong pathway. This is clearly a misunderstanding of things. In fact, I later found out the minister of that church was trying to do the same thing I am: stop that kind of unhelpful thinking.
The reason I take issue with this is not the urging for people to look for another, easier way to live. It is the idea that somehow the valley is wrong. This becomes deeply problematic! Who would say that the sadness of watching my Mom die little by little and yet still be walking around is somehow a wrong choice that we can somehow undo? Or is it a wrong turn in life to have to take care of my Dad who has always been self-reliant? Or do I have a behavioral/temporal solution to nurse both my wife and son back to health for problems that are simply genetic? Much suffering can be avoided by living like a disciple of Jesus but clearly, not all valleys indicate a wrong turn in life. Some simply come upon us. Perhaps some (see Hebrews 12) are even sent as a gift.
A better way of thinking about this is not to assume that hardship per se is the indicator of a wrong path but to examine what God is doing inside that valley. For some it is the testing of their faith (I Peter 1), for others it is to participate with God in mission (Col 1:24). But the sad fact is that we have an enemy and we live in a fallen world. If you add up the bad choices we make, the things that have victimized us, the way we have hurt others and the systemic evils of the world, its hard to see how a pithy saying about valleys being wrong turns is helpful. I don’t mean to be hurtful to people who do have good intentions. But thinking clearly about suffering is part of what it means to be a Christian leader (maybe just even being a Christian…) and knowing that the issue really isn’t the avoidance of pain. The issue is about whose hand we are holding when we are in the middle of the pain.
During Christmas of 2013 I took our family to see Dad and to go visit Mom again. It was sheer delight to see Dad back at home and to help him get the fireplace ready and start to get acclimated back to living on his own. It was also a chance to stop by Emerald Courts and see Mom. When I was approaching the door I had to stop and pray and ask Jesus to be present with me. The sorrow of seeing Mom slip away little by little is overwhelming sometimes. Of particular pain is how she is unable to speak very often. After I was inside I approached Mom slowly and softly said, “Hi.” She turned her semi-blank stare my way. After some time, she took my face in both hands and studied me without looking away. A slow smile crept to her face and she softly said, “I think I like you.” As my tears ran hot I whispered, “Oh, I like you too.” We stayed that way for several minutes. After some time we sat down in some easy chairs and just quietly held hands. During that time I whispered prayers of blessing and prayers of help for her and Dad. Occasionally she would see me as if all over again and say, “I like you.” By then I was grinning and saying, “I don’t just like you Mom, I LOVE you!” She would smile and we would return to silence. This went on for some time. Imperceptibly at first I began to feel another presence in the room with us, holding hands, going back and forth saying, “I like you.” By the time I was aware of this Mom turned to me once again and said, “I like you.” Before I could answer, she patted my midsection and said, “But you’re very fat.” I laughed so hard I began to cry again but this time those tears were not born of sorrow.
You might be going through a valley right now. Perhaps your own choices caused your suffering and perhaps it was simply a bad season. In either case, there is only one wise turn to make: toward the real and good presence of Jesus. His nearness to us is what gives us life even as other things try to take it away. Valleys are not always wrong turns; sometimes they are God’s gifts—hidden springs of life.