Eugene and Me: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Me with Eugene and Jan

Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has been the topic of conversation the last couple days. If you have not heard anything and would like a quick summary, his literary agency has a short statement here. So, I thought I would take a moment to tell you about the Eugene Peterson that I have come to know and love. This will be a three-part series, and I’ll cover a range of topics, including his recent comments critiquing megachurches with some of my conversations with him in years past that will broaden the conversation.

Eugene and Me, Part 1

Nearly eleven years ago, life changed for me. I had been on staff at New Life Church for a year-and-a-half when suddenly we lost our pastor due to a moral failure. Lisa and I were in our mid-twenties and she was pregnant with our first child. We had moved away from both of our families and friends, and now this. It was a moment of great sadness for so many people. Thirteen months later on a snowy Sunday morning, a young man stormed onto our campus with an assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition and killed two beautiful sisters in our parking lot before storming into our church building where he was confronted and took his own life.

As a church, it felt like we had nothing left. As a young pastor, I was spent.

Continue reading “Eugene and Me: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message”

Humanizing the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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For some time now, I’ve ached watching the disintegration of Syria. I’ve found myself praying early in the morning and late at night for the many people that have been displaced–the vulnerable children who have seen way too much and are suffering from what psychologists are now terming “human devastation syndrome”; the feeble elderly and infirm doing their best to traverse the unfriendly terrain; the dads and moms doing whatever they can to keep their families together. My heart has been breaking.

And then out of nowhere World Vision called me and asked me if I wanted to go.

This past week I flew with a few other pastors from the United States into Beirut, Lebanon to see if we could identify ways to be a part—if only a small part—of the solution. Upon our arrival, we got into a van and snaked up a winding mountain pass before descending down into the Beqaa valley, a lush and fertile agricultural basin with snow-capped mountains all around. Being from Colorado Springs and living in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, I could appreciate the rugged beauty.

But the beauty of the landscape carries with it a stinging irony. The Beqaa valley has become home to some 1.5 million refugees, and no amount of breathtaking scenery could mask the desolation of these precious lives.

So let me introduce you to some of them. Meet Sayeeda and Abdul Kareem.

Sayeeda (Arabic: سعیدة) is a 50-year-old single mother of 5 children. She used to work in agriculture back home and had a good life with extended family all around her. When ISIS stormed into her rural town, they fled to Aleppo and then got a taxi ride to the Lebanese border. From there they walked a long journey to the informal tent settlements in the central Beqaa valley.

She relayed to us rather dispassionately that her husband left her amidst the chaos of the civil war. I’m guessing she probably doesn’t have a lot of extra emotional energy to spend on something that has become just another sad fact of life. Her oldest child, a son, is 20, and having refused to serve in Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime he was forced to flee for his life across the border into Turkey. He left over three years ago and Sayeeda talks to him probably three times a year. When she told us that, her matter-of-fact demeanor melted into a display of deep maternal love. She sobbed and sobbed, using her hijab (a veil traditionally worm by many Muslim women) to dab her eyes. Can you imagine the pain she must feel?

Sayeeda’s youngest is Abdul Kareem.

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When we walked up to their tent, Abdul Kareem was sitting nearly motionless in a small green bucket, unable to speak. If I were to have guessed his age, based on his size I would have said 7. I learned he was 12. Sayeeda simply said, “Epilepsy,” and then invited us into her tent.

The whole time we were in her tent, the boy sat alone in his green bucket. The whole time I was thinking that a boy like him would have so many more options in the so many other places in the world because he’d have doctors who could help him. But instead his angular and emaciated frame sat inactive in a little green bucket. These are the sad realities of a people whose lives have been so violently disrupted.

And then there’s Omar, Labiba, and Amira.

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This young family came to the valley from Homs, Syria. In the fight to expel ISIS, military forces overtook Homs and 14,000 people were flushed out of the region overnight. Omar, now 25, told me that his last memory of leaving Homs was his father getting kidnapped on the road out of town. That was over three years ago and they’ve never heard from him again. He was most likely kidnapped by ISIS with a goal of conscripting him into their army. Anyone refusing to fight would be killed. Omar was sure his dad would never fight with them.

Omar’s wife, Labiba, is 5 months pregnant. Last year she delivered a stillborn baby in her tent after carrying the baby for 36 weeks. Thankfully they have their 3-year-old daughter, Amira, who keeps them busy. I’ve noticed that kids have a way of keeping us going, even when grief arrives. Little Amira has a form of Hepatitis, but her parents find her to be resilient. Her name means “princess,” and as I spoke with her parents, I watched the little princess play with the two little toys she owns.

I asked them about their life back home in Homs. This question, I discovered, always brought people to life. Maybe it was their way to escape the harsh realities, if only for a minute, while they remembered. Omar told me that he worked in agriculture, farming the 200 acres he owned. This was his ancestral land passed down to him. The property had over 200 apricot trees, which was lucrative for him. He had cows, chickens, and sheep. They lived off the land as self-sustaining farmers. He said, “We left everything behind…we had tractors, cars, a beautiful home, everything you could want…but we had to leave everything behind.” Omar was wealthy…until he became impoverished overnight…by no fault of his own. That’s enough to mess with anyone’s mind. It is hard enough if someone loses everything because they’ve been stupid. But what about when you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong and the rug still gets pulled out from under you?

He said to me, “Please tell your friends in America that Syrians are hard-working people. We want what you want: a simple and a good life.”

But why are you telling us these heartbreaking stories, Daniel?

I’m telling these stories for those who find themselves musing on the politics of these realities without having any contact with the people living in these harsh realities. I’m telling these stories because I want to humanize what’s going on. If we’re not careful, we’ll only see this as an issue, a crisis. In the abstract, a “crisis” like this is always about “refugees” but rarely about Sayeeda and Abdul Kareem, Omar, Labiba and Princess Amira.

As I was sitting in those tents last week, I started thinking: compassion is nearly impossible without exposure.

If you ever get the chance to go sit in one of those tents and listen to their stories, take it. But if you can’t make that trip—and most of you won’t be able to—do what you can to find a refugee family (or an immigrant family) where you live. Find someone who might feel lost, or displaced, or overlooked. Find some folks who might just feel stuck on the outside and invite them into your home. Feed them the best meal you know how to make and ask them to tell you what they love and miss about home, and please be patient enough to listen. I promise you that if you’ll do this right, at least two things will happen: (1) you’ll help others know that they are seen and their cries are heard, and (2) your life will be enlarged in process.

 

[Quick note: I’ll share more about possible action steps for those interested in getting involved in my next blog post, but for this first post I wanted you to get to know some of the people I met.]

Scribbling the future into existence: some thoughts for writers, speakers, and creators

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I’ll start with a silly confession: for years, I’ve been jealous of journal-ers.

Some time ago I discovered that there exist people who are able to sit with their thoughts in a place of quiet reflection, and on their first attempt at synthesizing the maelstrom of joys and hopes and fears that swirls at the core of human existence, they’re able to write out these most gorgeous entries.

How do they do it? I wonder.

While I’m being a bit dramatic for affect, the reality is that for some time I’ve felt like my creative process is inadequate. I’ve had this Goliath-like figure that stands up in my soul and taunts me, threatening to turn me into one of David’s sidelined older brothers.

The Philistine Ogre shows up unannounced, in unpredictable intervals, and struts out to say something like,

  • …If you could just be more creative…
  • …If you could only acquire the secret mojo…
  • …If only you were more like so and so who is so talented…
  • …Then you’d be able to make some sort of significant contribution…
  • …And what’s wrong with you anyway? It comes so easily to everybody else.

Here’s how my process has worked. For years and years, I’ve jotted down incomplete notes on scraps of paper, Chick-fil-A napkins, and on legal pads that double as my to-do list for house projects. Fragments of sermons that ended up on the cutting room floor; sections of blogs I tried to write but never completed; an attempt at writing a short poem; scores of Word documents that’ll never see the light of day; a white board covered with the constellation of thoughts I’ve been having about the text I’ll preach this week. (See the picture above, which is my attempt at working out the sermon I’ll preach this weekend.)

The notes are strewn about my desk, some tucked away in green folders in my filing cabinet tabbed with imprecise titles. Many of these notes can be found in the middle console of my car or in the side pocket of my gym bag.

What a dumb process, right? How disorganized, ya? I thought so, at least until recently.

I stumbled onto a book called A. Lincoln, which is a 700-page biography of the 16th President of the United States. It’s gorgeous and reads like a novel. In it I discovered that Lincoln’s creative process was so imprecise, so choppy, so seemingly random. At first blush, one might think he was easily distracted and unable to see a project through. Lincoln would scribble out thoughts in the margin of the morning newspaper and tuck it into his top hat to develop later. He had scraps of paper in every pocket and every drawer of his desk—a pithy aphorism that would work well rhetorically, a reflection on a certain general’s strategy for the eastern front of the war, some of his own commentary on an op-ed in the Washington Star. These notes were incomplete, but as you find out later in the book, they served as the first drafts of what would become his most brilliant, nation-shaping, slave-freeing speeches.

These fragmentary notes were not about precision. They were about practice. Abraham Lincoln spent years practicing his way into a future that would require the very best of his literary and oratorical skills, and he did it by filling up one scrap of paper at a time. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that as the nineteenth century unfolded, President Lincoln was somehow always able to rise to the occasion with a “word fitly spoken” that became like “apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). This was no accident. He was able to go to the bank and make withdrawals when he needed because he had made so many deposits along the way.

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If you’re anything like me, you’ve been quick to assume that your creative process stinks, and you’ve believed the lie that it comes so naturally to everyone else but you. Don’t believe it. It’s hard for all of us. It takes work. I wish I had better news for you, folks, but the only way to punch through the wall is to punch through the wall.

So keep jotting, keep experimenting, keep practicing. See where the idea—and, even better, the Spirit of the endlessly creative God—takes you. Because my suspicion is you might just be preparing for a future you could never imagine, for a moment in time when someone will need to hear a “word fitly spoken” by you.

Preaching For the Hurting on Mother’s Day

Lisa and Lillian - Mother's Day Photo

This weekend, many preachers will preach a sermon tailored towards mothers. That is wonderful and beautiful. And this weekend, many preachers will follow the lectionary—the Church-appointed scriptural texts that follow the trajectory of the life of Christ. That, too, is wonderful and beautiful. But any preacher in the First World West would be unwise to overlook the fact that Mother’s Day weekend is, in fact, a sort of “liturgical” holiday for the society in which we live. We’ve got it stamped in our collective calendars to take some extra time to celebrate, honor, and remember our mothers.

But today I just can’t get it out of my head. I’ve been thinking about the pain that so many will carry into the sanctuary with them this weekend. So how do we lead our services and preach to those for whom this weekend elicits the kinds of emotional-and-relational groans that words just can’t express?

Here are a five things I’d encourage every preacher to consider this weekend:

  1. There will be people in your congregation whose mothers have died. On a day where so many are dressed up and smiling and taking pictures and celebrating by giving flowers, let the grieving know you’re so very sorry for their loss. Let them know that you’re sad there will be an empty seat at the table at lunch. Let them know that you’re praying for the comfort of the Lord to wash over them this weekend, and that you’re praying that the memories and moments of joy, laughter, and delight that they shared with their mother—the bedtime routines of reading, back-scratching, and lullaby-singing, the family vacations, the holiday cooking, and the many happy Christmases together—would come rushing back to mind. Let them know that you sincerely stand with them this weekend as they grieve, remember, and work to hold on to those delightful moments.
  1. There will be moms in the congregation who have had children die–from miscarriage and stillbirth, a prolonged sickness, a heart-breaking and accidental death, suicide. Their will be women who have aborted. Their children are all they can think about on days like this. And though there is nothing we can say or do to remove the sting of loss, can we give them a place to remember and grieve, a place where they can feel the strength and support of the congregation of believers?
  2. There will be women in your congregation who desperately want to be moms and it just hasn’t happened yet. There are those who have visited fertility specialists, spent incredible amounts of money (that many of them have taken out loans to acquire), and, still, they lay in bed at night without a child developing in their wombs. Many of them are pursuing adoption, only to hit the same wall of financial difficulty. Will you say something to them that acknowledges that pain? And then there will be others who come to worship with you who grieve. Yes, while many women have joyfully taken “holy orders,” have embraced the holy vocation of a life of singleness—and I call it holy because I believe it to be precisely that!—there are just as many (if not many more) that presently mourn their singleness. They want to be married and they want to have children, but it just hasn’t happened yet. What if we took the time to let them know we see them, we hear their cries, and we genuinely stand with them for the desires of their hearts to be fulfilled?
  3. There will be people in your congregation who have sorrow because life was difficult with mom. Maybe it was a drug addiction that stole their mother away from them; maybe their single mother was scrambling so much to keep the bills paid—nobly working 2 and 3 jobs—that they never had the gift of much face-to-face interaction; maybe the attention they got was the attention they never wanted—physical abuse and loud screaming. Preachers, will you take the time—even if it’s just 15-seconds that helps them feel seen—to give voice to the guttural cry that’s resident in so many hurting children? And will you also help them lift their heads to the God Who nurtures, cares, feeds, addresses, and loves us? The prophet Isaiah (49:15) presents us with a God whose love far outstrips even the gentlest, most nurturing breast-feeding mother. I pray that people leave our churches this weekend having encountered such a God.
  4. There will be people in your congregation that have caused deep grief for their mother. Many of them have ignored the sins of the past and failed to apologize and repent to their mother. If Proverbs 10:1 is true—that “a wise child maketh a glad father, but a foolish child brings grief to a mother”—then the next right thing to do is to repent. Will you challenge people in your congregation to make things right with mothers (with parents!) that are still alive? To pick up the phone, to buy the plane ticket to go out and make things right? And will you comfort the people in your congregations that carry shame from their grief-inducing offenses committed against their deceased parents? For, indeed, as the prophet Micah said, we serve the God who has “compassion on us; [He] will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

Pastors, please hear me. I’m certainly not suggesting that these five things are mandatory to address this weekend. Not in the least. But if our services this weekend are only happy and upbeat and tailored to moms for whom life seems to be working at the moment, then we risk alienating and overlooking so many tender hearts that will be in the room. If we are called to preach the good news to human beings living in God’s good world that has been severely marred by sin and pain, and if it’s true that Mother’s Day elicits a wide range of emotions within people, then we ought to work to anticipate what those emotions are and do our best to proclaim a word of Good News that brings hope to people right where they are.

 

 

A Bedtime Prayer

Bedtime at our house is something.

Often the event that it most closely resembles is the moment a bunch of wild convicts attempt a jailbreak. Or, more innocently, it is probably not unlike a bunch of baby chicks trying to escape the walls of their little hot-lamp-heated enclosure, as if they’d know what to do with themselves if they got out. You get the point. Mayhem.

But as often as we can we try to redeem bedtime, as often as we can make it meaningful, we try to craft a moment that our children get caught up into.

Tonight was one of those moments.

I read a long portion of the Narnia series to Wilson, our 6-year-old boy. And I went for it—made-up-voices with wild inflection, a quickening pace before pulling way back into a painfully long, dramatic pause. Total silence.

There were a couple moments of uncontrollably gleeful yelling from him as I pulled taut the stunning string of fantasy that C.S. Lewis left for us. I could see it in his eyes. I had him. For 15 minutes he was utterly absorbed into a different world.

Then Lisa, my wife, and the one who keeps our family so beautifully in sync, took over with the boys while I went in the room next door to read to our 8-year-old daughter, Lillian. I read her the story of Elijah and his interaction with the widow of drought-stricken Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. I let her tease out how it might have felt to be that widow that day, and then she starting making the connections of other stories where God seemed to be asking so much of people just before sneaking up on them with goodness. I could feel it—this was shaping up to be the best bedtime routine we’ve had as a family in recent memory.

And then I heard it.

This is my daughter, whom I love; in her I am well pleased.

It was as if Jesus were cracking the surface of his baptismal waters all over again. The heavens might as well have opened as the Voice reverberated through my mind about this 8-year-old girl right in front of me. And so I said it over her:

This is my daughter, Lillian, whom I love; in you I am well pleased.

I told her this is what the Father proclaimed over Jesus, the Son, at his baptism and that He was saying it about her right now in this moment. And that He’s perpetually saying it about her, even when she doesn’t hear it or feel like it. I kept saying the phrase as I wove in other prayers about third grade beginning, and about her flourishing in her studies, and about nurturing great friendships, and about the joys of starting soccer practice. Then a goodnight kiss. She was at peace. She was ready for sleep.

Then I ran into Wilson’s room and lay down next to him. I started praying over him and pronouncing blessing and peace, and then I launched in.

This is my son, Wilson, whom I love; in you I am well pleased. You are a son of God, Wilson, and the Eternal Father is wildly interested in you. You are never out of his thoughts; you are never out of his sight; your existence is an existence defined by His sheer determination to love you, to keep you, to lead you, to hover over you with his delight.

I felt his tense little body slacken and settle into peace, and he grabbed my neck and whispered his love for me. It was the kind of moment I’ll always carry with me.

That’s how humans were made to go to bed.

Interestingly, our Jewish brothers and sisters conceive of a day much differently than a Westerner might. In Judaism, the day begins at sundown.

There was evening, and there was morning—the first day…

In this paradigm the day begins slowly because it is evening. Let’s eat a leisurely dinner. Let’s sit around and talk. Let’s go on a walk, and then after that maybe we’ll read a book. Evening. Now we are tired, so we should go to bed. It is evening, after all.

The Jews see themselves first as receiving beings; the doing comes last. All human work is responsive. God initiates. The very way “time” works for them is instructive—we start our day by receiving daily bread and the good gifts of friendship and intimacy. Then we go to sleep. The very last thing we do is work, which is, of course, our joyful and proper response to such a gracious God. And we’re ready for it because we’ve just woken up from resting in God’s love.

As I type this, it is 10:28 p.m., which means it is time to fall asleep. So many people will be tempted to see this as the end of their day, and they’ll struggle to rest because while they sleep the world may just race by them. They may wake up having lost ground, which is how the Fear taunts them.

But as you lie there in bed, the day is just beginning. “In the beginning God.” And while you fade into sleep, there is a world of blessing, the Father’s pronouncement of delight and acceptance and pleasure swirling about you. As the psalmist put it, “The LORD who watches over Israel will neither slumber, nor sleep.” So go to bed. God stands at the ready, he’s on the job so you don’t have to be. And take an extra 10 minutes to listen. The Father is there with you, praying over you.

You are my child, whom I love; in you I am well pleased.

Can you hear it? Will you stop long enough to receive it? Because it’s happening, it’s being pronounced, it’s poised to wash over you. If you’ll just let it.