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

scribble-post

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.

_________________________

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.

Now is the Time: A Lenten Reflection on John 12

Cross

John 12:23 And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. 24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. 25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. 26 If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. 27 Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. 28 Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. 29 The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. 30 Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. 31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. 32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. 33 This he said, signifying what death he should die.

Now is the Time
A Lenten Reflection

The hour has come
Now is the time
For all the Caesars and Pharaohs
and Herods and Neros
to be turned into zeroes
While the Egyptians crying “Ya Rab, Yesua!”
with their final breath
become the heroes
and the ones with the swords
find they’ve pierced their own souls in the cutting.

The hour has come
Now is the time
For the Son of Man to be glorified
And kernels of wheat fall to the ground
Only to get multiplied
While the prince of this world
is driven out
by the blood of the Crucified
And the ones who’ve lost it all
Find they’ve found a life that will never run out.

30 Years of New Life Church: A Thank You Letter

NLC_Pikes_Peak Photo

This last Sunday as I was in the church foyer, a South Korean friend of mine came up to me for a chat. I’ve known and worshipped with her for 10 years, so this was nothing out of the ordinary. She’s every bit of 75 years old and no more than 5’0’’ tall. This particular Sunday she was wearing one of those big, Russian fur caps with earflaps that tie above the head or under the chin, and a long winter coat. It’s cold, so I hugged her tight and thanked her for the lovely Christmas card.

But talking to her this time was different. In her scratch English she told me a story I had never heard before.

It was somewhere around 1990 and our church had just bought a piece of ground to build a sanctuary. A place to put down some roots. Up to that point we had hopped around from place to place, worshipping wherever we could—a year here, three years there. A basement. An old hotel ballroom with threadbare carpet. A commercial space situated between a bar on one side and a liquor store on the other. Wanderers, probably more like the children of Israel than we could ever know at the time.

But not anymore! That was all going to change now. Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, and now, by the grace of God, we’ll have a place to lay our heads!

But this is where her story stopped me in my tracks.

She told me about a group of people that would meet at the newly purchased land at 4 a.m. every morning to pray. She told me that they’d walk the whole plot of ground and how many of them would lay in the dirt field, in this undeveloped and up-to-this-point outskirt-ish part of town, and cry out to God to make it a place of salvation and healing, of restoration and joy. A place where the lonely would be set into family, where the overlooked would be situated in the center of God’s love as demonstrated by this group of people.

Did you hear me?

They lay in the field…on clods of dirt…in the darkness that accompanies 4 a.m.…and they prayed. Holy people on holy ground.

When I heard that all I could think was, Someone has got to thank these people! I pulled her close and wrapped my arms around her. I thanked her for her prayers those many years ago. Then I started thinking, We’re all here today because a bunch of people took God seriously and prayed resolutely.

And indeed, those prayers are still being answered. This coming Sunday our church, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. And there are just so many people that must be thanked:

To Ted and Gayle Haggard, our founding pastors, who had the guts to pray and fast and seek the Lord for what He was saying, and who had the gritty faith to leave the life they had known in Baker, Louisiana to plant a church in Colorado Springs, thank you! We live in a world that often remembers people for their worst moments, but when I think of you I can’t help but thank God for the enduring gift you have given so many people, myself included.

To every person at New Life Church, past or present, who has ever devoted a moment of your time to serve another person in the Name of Jesus, thank you. You may have been setting up chairs or making a hospital visit; you may have been opening your home to share a meal or caring for small children as their parents were hearing the word of God; you may have been vacuuming the floors or praying for someone that sits in the row behind you, but whatever you were doing “for one of the least of these, your brothers and sisters,” you were doing it unto Jesus himself.

To every person at New Life Church, past or present, who has ever given a dollar when the little white bucket was passed, thank you. It has become easy in our day to be skeptical about “the offering plate,” but something spiritual and instrumental happens in a moment of sacrificial giving. It’s one of the ways we worship, and it’s a form of worship that does something—namely, it makes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the widows and single moms of our city possible. It makes it possible for us to host and officiate funerals for people who’ve never set foot in our church, but who need to be dignified and remembered in the moment of death.

To Brady and Pam Boyd, our senior pastors, who obeyed God and showed up here not having known a single person, who were yet willing to do the hard work of giving your lives here for the sake of a congregation you would grow to love and who would grow to love you, thank you. You’ll probably never know the mark you’ve made on our church and our city.

To every staff member, to every elder, to every family, to every hospitality worker and parking lot attendant, to every usher and greeter and café server, to every bookstore worker, to every band or choir member, to every person that’s ever served in the children’s ministry, past or present, who has taken God seriously and prayed resolutely for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done in Colorado Springs as it is in heaven, thank you.

To God, who alone deserves all glory and honor for everything good that’s happened at New Life Church over the last thirty years, we give thanks.