On Death and Glass

I once cleaned windows for a dead man.

I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when it happened. And it still grips me, even today…

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Several years ago, I was working for Brad’s Window Cleaning out of Rockford (best company I’ve ever worked for, so I am unashamedly promoting them!).  One day, we had a cleaning job for a cottage by a lake. Nothing unusual about this job; a quick exterior power washing and in/out window cleaning. Since I was the crew leader for window cleaning, I headed inside the house to begin my work.

I was greeted by a kind woman, probably in her late 60s, and later met her husband who was sitting in a recliner in front of their television. I don’t remember their names, but the impression of their personalities is engraved on my memory.

It was a lovely cottage. A brightly toned, open living room facing the lake to the East, with large peak windows that needed a ladder to reach. There was a set of French doors that led to a deck, so the whole room filled with natural light.

As with most homes by a lake, most of the window cleaning was done in one or two rooms that face the scenery. So, as I was expecting, I spent the vast majority of my time in that living room – moving my ladder around, handing screens, and moving furniture.

I got to know their family quite well, even though I don’t remember all the details. They had a recently married son who did business somewhere in the South. I believe they also had a daughter who was rather successful in her field. This couple were proud parents, and they expressed interest in getting to know me as I cleaned the dust off their sills.

The television was on most of the time, and the sound was a dull white noise to us. I recall it being Fox News, and the story of the hour was a natural disaster or political upheaval in a foreign country. Something like that.

The main thing I remember was that the conversation between us was cordial and inviting.  I actually missed them as I went to other parts of the house to finish my work.

The following year, I pulled up to their cottage in our work van, and felt excitement at doing this job once again (we had some customers who were… less than exciting to work for. But some customers were a blast to have!).  I was by myself this time, as it was a small enough job that didn’t justify more than one cleaner. I will never forget being invited in and walking into that living room; that sacred space.

This time, however, the recliner was empty. I asked, “Where is your husband?”

“He passed away.”

I remember just standing there, staring at the chair. I so clearly remembered our conversation a year earlier while he sat there, and I was dumbstruck that he would never be there again.

I don’t think I ever paid so much attention to detail as I spent that afternoon working quietly around her house. I even cleaned up the dead spiders and bug carcasses that fell on the ground as I cleaned the garage windows (If you’ve never had to clean a garage window, consider yourself blessed by God. They’re the worst!).

Sometimes, while I’m cleaning windows, I still remember those moments. I learned, then, that even minuscule tasks can be significant. Ever since that day, window cleaning was no longer my job. Window cleaning became my ministry.

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On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.

 

 

On Ministers and Marriage (Part 2)

Ever since I accepted the call to ministry I have had this creeping suspicion. I only mentioned it a few times while I was attending school, and it never came up in classroom discussions that I know of, but I have always had this nagging sense about ministry.  My time spent travelling across the Midwest (and East Africa) served to make my suspicions grow.  In fact, it wasn’t until this last year, while I have been searching and waiting for a pastoral position, that my suspicions were confirmed.

I was on the phone with one of my mentors talking about life. In the midst of him offering insight into what I should do with my time now that I’m in a waiting period, he began to talk about my finding a good woman to marry. This isn’t the first time this topic has come up. I’m a single minister, so marriage comes up fairly often. This time was different, however, because he segued the conversation into an informational talk about how church leaders and even church members are not comfortable with single pastors.

And with that, my suspicions were confirmed: being a single minister has a negative effect on one’s qualifications for ministry. At least, in the eyes of others… who you depend on for getting into a ministry position.

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At first I had a feeling that it may be just this one mentor of mine, and he was sharing some personal angst with how he perceived single ministers had been treated in his eyes. But, not too long ago, I met with another mentor of mine who said the same thing: most church leaders and church boards aren’t comfortable with single pastors leading congregations.  Even though this is mostly true of a senior/lead pastor position (staff pastors who are single are generally treated very differently), there is still a negative stigma attached to ministers who are single.

I have had several people explain to me their thoughts on single vs. married pastors. Some people don’t mind a single pastor, citing the more flexible personal schedule, more time to spend caring for the local church, an acute ability to relate to younger people, and a smaller financial need. Some of them point to how being married shows a sense of maturity, wisdom, and stability that most churches want in their leaders. Others get more specific and say that married men are better at counseling, work better with church boards, are better preachers, etc.  In fact, I was interviewed for a pastoral position earlier this year and one of the two main reasons the interviewers were not very confident in me and my ability to lead was because I am single.

Now, I could make all kinds of arguments against that mentality while gleaning from my years of visiting both married and single pastors and saying that marriage doesn’t inherently make someone more mature, wise, stable, or better at counseling, preaching, or whatever. I could talk about how the apostle Paul was single, or that Jesus himself was single. I could weave in church history that involved the fact that Paul was trying to convince Christians to not divorce (because they thought marriage limited their ability to serve the Lord), or talk about how the church ought to rely on the work of the Holy Spirit instead of relying on the pastor. I am sure you have heard these same arguments, but frankly they do not matter. The truth is simple: being a single minister limits your opportunities in ministry.

Some may argue against this point, but I have been informed by trustworthy people and have experienced my share of unmarried prejudice to know that this is, in fact, true. Even those who are single and currently serving as pastors feel this burden… People in the church consistently referencing marriage, or trying to set you up with their relatives or hinting that you should date so-and-so, or refusing to respect your leadership because you’re not ‘grown-up’ enough… all of these indicate how single minister simply aren’t “good enough” for many churches and /or many people within the church.

There are certainly exceptions to this, and I myself have been blessed with a church family that does not treat me as less significant of a minister because of my relationship status. In my travels, however, I have had to realize that I am an exception. And an exception is just that: an exception; not something to be expected in the majority of encounters.

This reality does have an effect on how one dates, or if they date. Now that I think of it, how many careers withhold advancement if someone isn’t married? I mean, wouldn’t this kind of conversation change the way you view your relationships:

“You’re single!? Well, we aren’t comfortable with you being the manager in that case. We’ll give the position to this other person over here.”

“But.. she has less experience than me.”

“Yes. But she’s married. Therefore, she’s more qualified to be the manager.”

It is too bad that these interactions – while not always verbal – happen quite often in ministry. When they do, there is this added pressure to hurry up and get married to someone. That kind of pressure really sucks, too. Because then it’s like you can’t afford to take your time with a romantic relationship. You need to marry someone, and quickly! Otherwise, you’ll never get into a ministry position and live out God’s call upon your life (after all, the reality is that when it comes to ministry you aren’t subject exclusively to God’s will, but the will of the Church as well).

Sometimes the most helpful thing one can do is gain an awareness for their situation. However, if you’re looking for something positive then maybe I can end with some advice that my mentor – the one who originally told me about this de facto – gave me: If being single is bothering you, and you are feeling the pressure, then go out there and start meeting new people! Find a good godly man/woman. Get married. take your time with it, but sulking and complaining about how no one wants you because you’re single isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Or, get over the fact that it sucks that you’re being held back. You can’t do anything about it anyway. People are always going to be picky, and there will always be chances for someone to nitpick something about that makes you feel unacceptable.

Or, get creative! If you feel like you can’t do anything because you’re not married, then try something new with ministry. If you make a mistake, big deal! People may already look down on you for being single, so why not experiment a little bit while your bar is set low? Embrace the low standards – it makes it easier to impress.

I wish I could say that things will change, but I can’t say that with any real confidence. In the end, we all have to come to grips with the fact that, in the eyes of many people, single ministers don’t make good pastors.

 

On Disconnect and Player 1

I was working on a long blog post, but my thoughts got all jumbled and I had to start over. This happens from time to time.

Anyways, I had an interesting interaction earlier this week between a couple students and myself after one of my Formation groups got out. After group was dismissed, two of my students came up to me and we talked for a good hour or so. We talked about some interesting stuff; the practice of prophecy in the Old Testament, the nature of God throughout the Bible, different genres of music, and one thing that really caught me off-guard. One of my students is an avid Zelda fan! I was pretty psyched to share my favorite childhood experience with a like-minded individual. It was a unique experience that made my week. It also led to a conversation with a good friend of mine this morning.

We were having our weekly breakfast time, and the topic of expectations came up. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly we were saying, but the conversation got to the point where I expressed my frustration with how I am viewed when I bring up my affinity for gaming. It has seemed, throughout my life, that when I bring up my hobby of gaming that I am viewed as immature, or at least childish in some way. It’s as if gaming is something you eventually grow out of. I believed this idea for a long time. Before I came to Olivet I sold all of my gaming devices and games except my Gameboy and N64 (you can’t toss the classics), because I believed that I was not a grown-up and would develop a more sophisticated hobby. What I have found, however, is that I had to eventually come to a defining decision, and it happened last year: I admitted that I am a gamer.

Hanin' with Navi

It’s true, I love to game! I love talking about game theory (philosophical messages of games, timelines, characterizations, themes, etc.), playing all kinds of games (FPS, RTS, Tabletop, card games, MMO, RPG, and recently I have gotten into MOBA’s), and interacting with other gamers. What I have found, once I owned up to the fact that I am a gamer for life, is that the gaming community is very disrespected by people who are outside of it. For instance, the Olivet newspaper came out with an article that talked about how there is a League of Legends team forming at Olivet and will attempt to compete with other teams in the area. When I mentioned this to my professor, he laughed at the notion that gaming could be a sport (because people who form these teams compete in E-sports tournaments). I looked at him and in all seriousness started talking about how difficult these types of games are; they require strong teamwork, quick reflexes, incredible strategizing, impeccable micromanaging and macromanaging skills, and a lot of dedication. Whenever I bring up stories about my gaming escapades, like how I started pwning the Hearthstone ladder with my constructed Druid and Paladin decks, or played some old school Pharaoh, I am usually met with sideways glances, smiles that say, “you’re kind of pathetic,” or an outright laugh. At best, gaming is seen as an inefficient use of time by most non-gamers.

What many people fail to realize is that the gaming community is an extremely close-knit group, and it is largely non-Christian. Not only is it non-Christian, but it is violently so. Go onto any gaming forum and mention anything about God, the Church, Jesus, the Bible and you will be met with an incredibly aggressive response. In internet terms, such conversations end up being “flame wars;” massive arguments that burn everyone who comes in contact with it. But, contrary to popular belief, gamers are very social… with each other. If you become a part of a gaming community, then you basically become a part of a tribe. It has its own language, social expectations, allies and enemies, and belief system (this is hard to explain if you don’t game). I know this because I grew up in it. Ever since I was a kid I have been connected with this community. It’s because of these reasons that I mentioned to my breakfast buddy that I cannot give up gaming.

I feel called to this largely unchurched community. Does this mean that I will become an internet pastor? No, it just means that my ties to gaming won’t end just because I take on a church. I grew up in this community, I know what these people are like, and I know how they think. How could I reject such a community of people who, in many cases, are socially exclusive to their gaming brothers and sisters? If people can develop sports programs in churches to reach people, then why not gaming teams? Why not start a Pathfinder society in our church, or an ESO guild, or a Final Fantasy Fan club? Granted, not many people in the churches I go to even know what an RTS is. I bring this up because I really want to do this in my church. I want to have my church serve as a place where like-minded people can gather and enjoy something together that we all love. Of all the places to gather, should the church not be the best place? What an incredible opportunity for relationship building and evangelism – you are a gamer, and that is okay. Honestly, most of the classmates I met during my time at ITT-Tech would never step foot in a church or listen to anyone who mentioned “God.” But you bring up the topic of gaming and suddenly they’re hooked in the conversation.

I think we need to stop making gaming out to be a waste of time and something that the church has no place participating in. Gaming is a hobby, like anything else. It’s an incredibly social activity. Plus, it’s freaking fun! I don’t know how many other gamers have wrestled with this idea that they are somehow less of an adult for gaming, or less of a Christian for doing so, but I would imagine that it is a good number. I do know that this is something that took me until I was 25 to accept.

To my fellow Zelda-loving student and all my closet-gamer Christians out there: enjoying video games doesn’t require being sent back to Kokiri Forest, so take the Master Sword out of the pedestal and game on!

On Dating and Marriage

The atmosphere for the message was set.  I had been worshiping with the congregation for about 20 minutes, and even though there was some awkward reverb going on, my heart was ready.  The songs, the prayers, and the readings had allowed me to focus in and hear from the Lord.

A man in a suit walked up to the pulpit to introduce the revival speaker for tonight’s service, and after he had prayed over the service in preparation for what was to come he began to introduce the man who would bring the word of the Lord to us this evening.  But then it happened…

The audio feed for Olivet’s Live Streaming  website cut-out, and I couldn’t hear anything through my headphones anymore.  Since there wasn’t even a video feed to look at, I decided to go for a drive.

The morning message was good.  Very good, in fact.  I sat with my group of fellow Preaching Ambassadors and heard how our lives shouldn’t be lived through our efforts and actions, but that God should live in and through us in a way that our lives naturally produce good fruit. (the spirit of Christ in us – holiness).  It wasn’t until my drive tonight that something began to solidify in my heart and mind.

I enjoy driving.  Especially evening driving.  The day is winding down, not many people are on the road, and there is a general calm to the world.  Not to mention the low lighting gives a sense of privacy when driving a car with no tinted windows.  Evening/night driving has always been a time of quiet reflection and prayerful thinking for me; and a time to tune in to whatever God wants to talk about.

Apparently he wanted to talk to me about relationships.  I can’t say for sure if he had ever ‘said’ anything to me overtly about this topic ever before, either because I thought relationships are too ungodly to talk about, or because I have always been oblivious to what the word actually means when it is lived out.  But this time was different.  And in a world that has so many mixed and perverted messages about dating (or courting, or whatever you want to call this period of a relationship) and marriage, it was refreshing to hear what my Heavenly Father had to say about them as they pertain to my life.

As most of my conversations with God start out, I admitted my general stupidity about a lot of things.  I don’t claim to have a corner on relationships, and even though I worded my previous paragraph a little pointedly, I could very well be mistaken in my understanding and (God forbid!) I am putting words into God’s mouth.

What if our relationships didn’t exist for the sake of the relationship?  What if we dated someone for something more than just the dating experience?  What if marriage was not an end to a means, and dating a simple ‘phase’ to get through with no inherent significance outside of engagement, which has significance only in the fact that it precedes an ultimate goal: marriage.  What if our romantic relationships existed for a purpose greater than romantic and emotional fulfillment?

The Christian life is about living in a way that points directly to God.  Holiness is about being sourced by God; not leaning on our own strength, abilities, and understanding, but being entirely dependent upon the Spirit.  After all, the ultimate purpose of a Christian is to show God’s love to the world, correct?  Living selflessly, thinking of others before ourselves, showing grace and forgiveness – these are all ways that we demonstrate who God is and how much He loves us (and all people).  And what is important to know is that we cannot live in such a way on our own, which is why we need God to live it out through us by his power, by his mercy, by his love and grace.

What has been on my heart and mind recently is this:  What if my relationships did the same thing?  What if the purpose of my relationships was not to reach an ultimate goal, or fulfill some desire, but that the purpose was to show God to the world?

This morning before the service I jotted down something in my phone, and it says:

“What if the purpose of [a] relationship is to be a means by which the love of God is communicated to the world?  Wouldn’t that force us to focus beyond ourselves, to desire to build up and support each other?  To forgive mistakes and show grace [quicker]?  To love each other more?

“What would it look like if our relationship was not about us doing all things for the sake of the relationship and constantly trying to weave God into the mix, but that it was a vessel God uses to show the world who He is by the way we treat each other?”

If that were a reality, then everything changes.  Rather than constantly looking forward to the next anniversary, engagement, marriage, and whatever other major points in a relationship, every moment becomes significant.  Dating is no longer an awkward pre-engagement phase – it has a true purpose.  engagement becomes more than wedding-planning.  Yes, there are many nuances of relationships that are complicated, but what would it look like if communicating/displaying God’s love to the world was the primary purpose behind it?

Suddenly, marriage no longer becomes a goal.  Marriages becomes a part of the overall story of the relationship.  The two people get married because they can’t not get married.  They love each other so much that they can’t not commit their lives to each other.  They love each other so much that they can’t not forgive each other.  They love each other so much that they can’t not give up themselves for each other.  And all of this is not because they inherently have an ability to love each other in such a way, but because God has loved through them.  God is so alive within each of them, and is living through each of them, that they get wrapped up in this active and vibrant display of His love.  It is not merely a story of each person loving each other, but God loving each of them through each other.

Would that create a beautiful image of God’s love for the world?

“You see this couple and how they love each other?  That is how much I love you.”

What are your thoughts?