This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happy Holidays

Advent Blessings!

Over the last several years, there has been quite a bit of consternation from Christians about what they perceive to be the "unChristianizing" of American culture. Now, I have quite a bit to say about that, and we could probably have a good time discussing it, but I'm not going to delve into that big picture conversation today. Rather, I am going to address just one small bite of it.

There are folks who get exercised because government entities, businesses, and media seem to avoid the traditional "Merry Christmas" greeting in favor of a more generic "Happy Holidays." Or, they are offended that some folks list out several other holiday greetings along with Christmas. Or public schools have "holiday" or "winter" programs rather than the explicitly Christmas programs of their youth.

I'm going to try and be kind here, and I mean this in all true love and affection:


There are many things to be offended about in our society that are explicitly anti-Christian, including the general coarsening of our culture. (Feel free to jump back to February, 2012 and read my blog "I Don't Curse.") More importantly, there are aspects of our society that explicitly draw folks away from the love and grace of God and lead to idolatry, such as consumerism and idolatrous nationalism. If we were talking about those, I would be interested in participating.

But getting offended because someone greets you with "Happy Holidays!" Seriously?

The truth is, we cannot expect our local, state, or federal government - in all its manifestations, including public schools, and the public square - to explicitly tell the story of Jesus. We cannot expect businesses to go out of their way to remind folks of the true reason for the season. We cannot expect the media to get the Christian story correct. After all, every time I see a news article, TV report or internet story reporting on something about which I have a direct connection, the media gets it wrong.

It's not the government's job to declare the Incarnation. It's not the bottom-line mission of most businesses to  preach the gospel. And it's not the media's responsibility to bless us with the message of the birth of the Savior.

It's the job of the church.

And if my community is being inundated with the message of "BUY, BUY, BUY" but not hearing about a virgin with child who is the Messiah, then it is the fault of my church and the other churches in our community. And if our children are so busy learning "Jingle Bells" and other secular songs - and even songs that celebrate the holidays of other groups and traditions - and are not learning the songs of the real meaning of Christmas, that is not a failure of our schools, but a failure of our Christian homes.

The story of Christmas is our story to tell. We tell it first with our lives, with how we treat people all year long. And by building relationships, we earn the right to tell them about the Christ and how his birth changes everything.

And, to be honest, I would much prefer that people smile at me and say "Happy Holidays" then swear at me with a frown and a look that can kill. Although, I must admit, that doesn't happen as much in rural Pennsylvania as it used to in Boston.

Some of those folks could make "Merry Christmas" sound like a curse.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Extroverts, Introverts, and the First Week of College (reprise)

Extroverts, Introverts, and the First Week of College


In honor of a new academic year, I am rerunning this blog from over a year ago, safe in the knowledge that, like the lyric from the Talking Heads song reminds us, "same as it ever was."
I have enjoyed reading the Facebook updates from those young scholars who are starting the first year of college. Well, I’ve enjoyed reading some of them - those written by extroverts. Updates from introverts, if they write them at all, can be painful to read. You see, the first few weeks of college are paradise for extroverts. It’s all about meeting new groups of people, and participating in social activities designed to help you fit into a large group of other new people. It’s extrovert heaven, primarily because it is orchestrated by other extroverts - those college student development staff members and student government types who are in those roles and given this task because, well...they are “people persons.” In other words, they are extroverts. And all those new freshmen who write on Facebook about how wonderful college is and how much they love it ... after just 4 days: well, guess what - they love it because it hasn’t really started yet. 

These first few days of college life are completely divorced from what the academic side of higher education is all about. Oh sure, an occasional dean or provost tries to throw in a philosophical discussion here and there, but those are few and far between, and are always led by the most friendly and outgoing young professors and graduate assistants. They don’t let the majority of the faculty anywhere near the place and the faculty aren’t complaining.

In order to become a college professor, you have to spend thousands of hours working alone or in small groups, mostly in libraries and laboratories. You have to be comfortable focusing your attention on things most other people don’t care about - and you really only like to be around folks who are interested in exactly the same things you are interested in. You don’t like social gatherings where the goal is to meet as many new people as possible. You see, most college faculty are largely - in a much higher percentage than the population as a whole - introverts. And when they think back on their undergraduate experience, they remember that the first few weeks of their freshman year was the worst time of their entire college life.

So, if you are the parent of a new college student, and he or she is a bit overwhelmed by all the new people and by all the forced social interactions - and just the idea of walking into the dining hall is overwhelming - tell them to hang on. It gets better. In just a few days, they will settle into their classes, and the focus will not be on making friends, but on the intellectual tasks of the college experience. That is usually much more in the “sweet spot” of introverts. And they can find a few people who are interested in the deep conversations and activities in which introverts thrive.

Of course, walking into the dining hall will probably never be their favorite thing, and dorm life is not near as much fun for some as it is for others. But it gets better, especially if someone sends real mail,  and that mail includes brownies or an occasional check.

1 comment:

  1. I hated high school because of much of what you are saying. Did not like the social and stayed away from most extracurricular activities. College was a bit different. I would never say I became an extrovert at ENC but I felt much more comfortable in that social environment and found friendships and social gatherings were easier from the start. Maybe because I knew people from camp and the district. That is my experience. Wouldn't trade my years at ENC for anything.
Appreciate your comments. Disagreement is okay, but rudeness is not.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Time Sure Flies When You're ...

It was ten years ago this month when our family began a journey that led us to leave a quite comfortable place for us, and take us on a new adventure. The anniversary has led me to think of what we've seen over the last ten years. Specifically, I've been thinking that:

I really stink when it comes to career planning. By any reasonable understanding, the job I left was more prestigious, more desirable, and from a purely human perspective more attractive than the one I have now. When folks ask where I came from, they are surprised, and even say - "Don't people usually go the other way?"  Honestly, yes. If you were planning out a career trajectory, this is not the way it would go. (The funny thing is, thirty years ago I taught a course in career planning.)  Of course, I did not plan out this career trajectory, I obeyed it. Remember the TV show The West Wing? I clearly remember the scene when all of the main characters recited "I serve at the pleasure of the President." Well, I can relate. I serve at the pleasure of the Lord. Wherever, whenever, and however.

I am not a victim. I have had several people, in fact more than several, who have approached me over the years wanting to know the details of my departure from my old position. Absent any real facts, they fill in the blanks, and make up whatever story they want. It seems that some of them think I was a victim of other people and circumstances. Sure, there was a human side to the story, but that's not the whole story. Being a victim is a popular narrative in many people's lives, but I have come to the place where I refuse to allow it to be mine.

God does not waste anything. Over the last ten years, I have been amazed at the way God has used the experiences of the past to work in the present moment. If we allow, God will take what we have learned, even and sometimes especially through the pain of the past, and appropriate it for blessing in the present. And our present challenges are the raw material for the blessings of the future. Bertha Munro said "God does not waste a consecrated life," and I believe God does not waste a consecrated moment in that life.

Challenges lead to challenges and adventures lead to adventures. General Norman Schwartzkopf once said that when you are successful at meeting a challenge in the Army, the Army doesn't give you a vacation, they give you a greater challenge. The same is true for Christ followers, and Jesus even had a parable or two explaining it. In 2000, when our kids were 11 and 9, for our summer vacation we went to Sighisoara, Romania. It didn't make sense to many folks, and we were lectured on the risks by doctors, and on the strangeness by colleagues and family members. Taking your family to Disney World they could understand, taking them to a poor country still recovering from Communist oppression they could not. Of course, we joked with our friends that instead of going to a make believe world, we were going to the real home of Dracula, and we would visit real castles. But the actual reason for the trip would not be realized until years later. Two years later, when we left the only home they had known and moved to a new life, while it was challenging in many ways (more so for my wife and children then for me), the idea that we were being obedient to God's call was not a foreign concept. Over the last ten years our family has gone back to Romania, and our children have returned there twice. And today, as young adults, they are pursuing their own adventures and challenges, as they clearly follow God's call. The journey to Nashville for one, and Mongolia for the other, began with the journey to Sighisoara.

Relationships are the most important thing. Today, we are blessed to be a part of kingdom work and see miracles every day. My wife Esther serves as a high school music teacher, and her vast experience in creating environments for students to express their passion and creativity blesses both her students, her school, and our church. I serve a church that is making a difference for the kingdom in our community. Every day we see God changing lives, and every day we are witnesses to the transforming power of God's grace. And every day we remind ourselves that it is God who called us here, and God who empowers us to do what we are called to do. And every day we see the blessings that come through our relationships with people, and with a God who truly loves and cares for everyone.

Ten years later, and we are thankful that God has brought us here. And time sure flies when you're having fun!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Doing a New Thing!

Last week my lovely wife Esther and I spent a few days at a beautiful retreat center located on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay. The purpose, besides getting away, was to participate in a program called “Wellness Week.” The event, led by several ministries focusing on health, allowed us to spend concentrated time addressing our physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health. Last year, Esther attended the week and received a jumpstart to some changes that have made a significant difference in her life. I hoped it would do the same for me.

Over the last few years I have noticed some changes in me that I didn’t like. The most obvious, the change that everyone could see, was my weight. I had gained a lot of weight, and was the heaviest I had ever been. Other changes were less noticeable to others. I had less energy, and less focus. I was tempted to attribute this to getting older, but that was just an excuse.  

So, hoping that I would receive the jumpstart that Esther had received, I said yes to traveling with her to the retreat. While I knew that the schedule would involve exercise sessions, and a restricted diet, I psyched myself up for the challenge. After all, if my daughter Carissa is going to spend a year in Mongolia, I can spend a week at a retreat center beating up my body.  

I won’t bore you with the sweaty details, but I did find out some things that I think are worthy of conversation.

1. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit - If I am going to serve God and people in the way God intends, I need to take better care of myself. The lower energy and less focus I had been experiencing were not only the result of eating an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, they were a signal that something needed to change.
2. Short-term pleasure is not worth long-term pain - How many times have I read the story of Jacob and Esau, and Esau’s unwillingness to deny himself short-term pleasure, with the result of long-term pain. I preach spiritual denial of self, yet was presenting to God and my congregation an unwillingness to deny my body for God’s work. This had to change.
3. I don’t like the process, but I like the result - This should not surprise me, as it is a truth seen throughout Scripture. If we want long-term benefits, we must be willing to endure short-term pain. I dislike exercise, but I like the results. I dislike getting out of bed, but I like how I feel after an early morning walk. I dislike making some of the substitution decisions regarding food choices, but I like the result - not just in weight loss, but also in the way I feel after I eat. Short-term pain is worth it for long-term pleasure.
4. With God’s help, I can replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones - Again, how many times had I said this to people, yet failed to live it myself. That is hypocrisy, and God was not only willing to forgive me, but ready to re-train and discipline me.
5. Who we have in common is greater than what separates us - Most of the folks at the retreat are believers in Christ, and actively seeking to follow. However, many of the leaders are from a theological tradition that I have spent considerable time and energy talking about, explaining to those of my tradition “Why we are not like them.” Some things came up during the week that had the potential to separate us, and take the focus off the centrality of Christ. All of us chose not to do that, and it was fun to worship, fellowship, and journey together. I truly hope that the manner in which we handled such things was a blessing and not a hindrance to those few in attendance who are not yet Christ followers.
6. There will come a day when I am not able to do this, but today is not that day - I have no fear of death, yet I have much more to do in this life. I was not able to do all I have been called to do, because of my lack of care for the equipment God has given me. My lack of care for my body was beginning to affect my mind with a lack of focus. If this continued, I would be consistently living at less than God’s desire for my life. This is sin, and I refuse to live there.

I also learned some other things: I like starting my day with exercise, especially water aerobics. (Never thought I would say that!) I like eating healthier, although I will probably always miss my late night bowl of ice cream. Just because I know I will not enjoy something (like a rock climbing wall and a 25’ “big swing”) doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. 

Well, I am just beginning this journey. I have set some goals, and some routines to point me in that direction. So far, so good, but I have a long way to go. It is probably way too early to go public like this, but I function best with accountability. Feel free to ask me specifics, or initiate a conversation about your journey.

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:19

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Flags in the Sanctuary

Yesterday I met some new friends.
These four people, all from Korea, have come to the United States to pursue theological education. They have recently been introduced to my theological tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, and have decided to unite with us. They are mature, passionate, and gifted. I am looking forward to working with them and seeing how God will use them. But that is not why I am telling you about them.

Each of these four young people said something marvelous and eye-opening, and so relevant to what I am thinking and feeling these days that I need to ask you to think about it too. All four of them left Korea, and none of them plan to go back. Two plan to go to China as missionaries, and two plan to remain in the United States and work among diverse groups of Asians living here. As they were sharing the story of their call from God, each one made a prophetic statement that was the last thing I thought about last night, and the first thing I thought about this morning.

They each said, "In order to be a missionary, we must give up our culture for the culture of the kingdom of God. We gave up the culture of Korea, so that we could embrace kingdom culture." They each said it, and they said it with such honesty and transparency that it was clear they did not realize how revolutionary the statement was. There was no sense that they were disrespecting their own nationalistic and tribal culture. They were simply proclaiming the primacy of kingdom culture, and recognizing the need to place everything about themselves under the authority of Christ.

Now you may be thinking, "Mike, what's the big deal? They are missionaries. Of course they have to give up their own culture. That's what missionaries do."

Well, let me try to explain why I found it so radical, and why the 20 or so other pastors who sat around the table with me also found it so radical.

1. It was such a clear statement of priority. We all know how much of our personal identity is tied up in our culture. We are products and children of our culture. The conscious decision, and the verbalization of it, that we are giving up our culture is a straight forward testimony that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.

2. It was such a clear statement of initiative. Christianity, at its best, has always found a way to bring the teachings of Christ into a relationship with culture that both prophetically challenges and embraces every culture. When we are willing to say - "I set aside my culture, the culture of my birth, for the culture of my new birth" - we are then able to embrace and speak to and alongside every culture, not in judgment but in love and grace.

3. It was such a prophetic statement to the American church. These folks left their culture, not to embrace the culture of another country or tribe, but to embrace the culture of the kingdom of God. Yet it is so difficult for us as Americans to understand the difference between American culture and kingdom culture. We have such a difficult time placing our culture under the authority of Jesus and the kingdom. We are not able to bring our culture to God and give it up for the sake of the call.

So today, as I thought about my new friends, I walked into our church. At the front of our sanctuary there are two flags. On one side is an American flag, and on the other side is a flag that has been designed to represent the Christian church. Most of the folks who come into our sanctuary probably never see, much less ponder, the inherent tension in that symbolism.

For me today, the tension is palpable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Sense of Place

I think it was William Knoke who called this the "age of everything-everywhere." If that is an accurate description, then what do we do with what seems to be our hard-wired need for a sense of place?

I think about this a lot. For example, I wonder how closely my identity is tied to where I think of when I think of "home." I was born in Baltimore, and lived the first 18 years of my life in that area. My parents, and many of my other relatives still live there. But I stopped thinking of it as home a long time ago.

I went to college in the Boston area, and after grad school moved back there. I was married there, my kids were born there, and I lived 26 years of my adult life there. When people ask me where I'm from, I say New England. Yet no one from New England would consider me from there. (You need at least 3-4 generations to really fit in, at least according to New Englanders.) More importantly, when I go back there, I realize it is no longer home.

For the last almost 10 years I have lived outside Philadelphia. My wife is here, my kids come back here from time to time, and my work is here. Yet this is not home. I wonder if it will ever be home.

I believe we need places in our lives, yet it seems those places must be integrated,  not only with our relationships, but with our most intimate sense of self. Can we truly be ourselves - dare I use the word "grounded," if we don't belong to a specific place?

I suppose it is naive to expect that I could ever be as connected to a specific place as some other people seem to be. I know a family who just lost their farm, which had been in the family for generations. The grieving was intense, and it wasn't just about the finances. Some of their identity was gone. When you have always understood yourself as being connected to a place - and that place is gone - then who are you, really?

I wonder if some social scientist will look at the relationship between our sense of place and the sports teams we root for. I used to cheer for Baltimore teams - Orioles, Colts, Bullets. But then the Colts and Bullets left, and so did I. I began to cheer for Boston teams - Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins. I wonder if I will ever become a fan of Philadelphia teams? Will that mean that I am home here? I know people who cheer for Boston teams, even though they only spent a few years in New England, and now live far away from Boston. What does that say about us?

Which brings me back to our "age of everything-everywhere." If my friendships are no longer tied to where I live, but are available to me anywhere I am via my computer screen and my social networks, that is a wonderful thing. But what does it say about my identity? What does it say about how important those relationships are to who I am, really?

And do I really need a group of people that I regularly see and touch and do life with? Is virtual community enough? Is there still a need for "church?"

If I don't have a sense of place - then who am I, really?

Monday, February 6, 2012

I Don't Curse

I am tragically uncool.

And I have recently discovered yet another way in which I am not hip.

I don’t curse. 

Now, before you consign me to the trash heap of Christians who cannot possibly reach a generation of folks who are looking for authenticity, relevance, and who are not interested in nice, neat, easy answers - and who find cursing a way to express their existential angst - let me explain why I don’t curse.

It has nothing to do with my faith.

Okay, yes it does. It has everything to do with my faith, but not for the reason you may think. It has to do with my faith because everything in my life is connected to my faith, or I want it to be. That, and when I first became a follower of Jesus, I was convicted by God to allow the Spirit to tame my tongue, and that involved cursing.

But the real reason why I don’t curse, and find myself uncomfortable with cursing among those who are called to lead God’s people, is for another reason. I was raised to believe that cursing was the language of sloppy, uneducated, immature people - and I wanted to grow out of that. I was taught that cursing was for those folks who lacked a strong grasp of the language, and simply couldn’t think of better ways to express themselves. And since communicating is not only what I do, but  how I serve God and people, and language is the tool to do it, I should do it well. And most times cursing just seems sloppy and immature. Sorry, but it does. And I was taught all this by a mother who had never heard of the “holiness” tradition. She was not teaching me legalistic religion, she was teaching me how to be an educated adult.

Later on, I received graduate education in psychology, and this education challenged the folk psychology that every feeling should be expressed, and that the need to say what you feel at all times was the sign of, you guessed it, an immature person.

With this history, I find myself choosing not to curse, and encouraging those who are my ministry colleagues to find better words to express their strong ideas, emotions, and discomfort at the pain of life. I understand why some folks disagree with me. I really do. Just don’t ask me to join you. And try not to put me in a box as someone who sees life and faith as a Hallmark card, because I am really working hard not to put you in a box - the box I was told is the place where folks who curse belong - the box of folks who simply don’t know any better.

And, in my attempt to just be a little cool, I have scruffy facial hair and black-rimmed glasses. 

Doesn’t that count for something?

Monday, January 9, 2012


I really don’t care why the computer in the sound/video room at church keeps crashing. I just wish it would stop crashing in the middle of the service, or when I am trying late on Saturday night to finish up the PowerPoint for Sunday morning.

I have little interest in the science of acoustics, but I am tired of getting feedback from the monitors on the platform. 

I’m happy that some folks find the functioning of a furnace so fascinating. I just hope they understand why my eyes glaze over when I ask them if we can make the Sunday school rooms a little less cold and they start telling me the details of the heating system. 

It’s an occupational hazard. We assume that because we care enough about something to study it, and even become a bit of an expert, others will care about it too. Whether our field is cars or computers or audio or heating, we like to talk about it - and sometimes we talk more than we listen. We give answers to questions people aren’t asking.

Even if our field of expertise is religion.

I get paid to talk about faith, and the Bible, and Jesus, and the church. One of the tasks I have within our faith community is “theologian-in-residence,” and preaching and teaching are two of my favorite things to do. 

I talk.  A lot. 

And sometimes I forget to listen. 

These days I’m preaching through the Old Testament. In 21 weeks. The entire Old Testament. (Imagine Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all in one week.) Our Sunday school classes and adult conversations and small groups are joining in and covering the same texts. After we are done we will spend 10 weeks going through the entire New Testament.

The entire Bible in 31 weeks.

So, in my concern to cover all the material, tell all the important stories, and make sure we see the big picture, it is easy for me to answer questions no one is asking - to focus on issues and controversies that are of interest only to me. 

The only way I can avoid this occupational hazard is to stop talking and start listening. 

I need to listen to what is going on in the lives of the folks who are listening to me. If I hope to make relevant this past Sunday’s text from 1 Kings 12-16 (Rehoboam, Jeroboam -  the northern and southern kingdom “bad kings” stories), then I cannot focus my attention on what the experts say about the history of Israel and Judah. I also have to listen to what is going on in southern Chester County, PA in 2012. And in order to do that, I have to stop talking and start listening.

Oh, one other thing. 

I think the same problem of talking and listening doesn’t only apply to pastors and computer geeks and sound system experts and and HVAC technicians. 

I think the problem of talking and listening also applies to parents.

What are you learning when you stop talking and start listening?