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The Sacred Gift of Listening

A case for intergenerational communities

“It might be cancer.” When those words were spoken, it wasn’t clear who was more stunned—Michael or me. He was our beloved small group pastor. A true people person, Michael was the lubricant which kept staff friction to a minimum. Quick to laugh, he loved good steak, good wine, and good conversation.

We sat less than a foot apart in the small dining room, surrounded by 20 other church leaders. He was grooming me to teach them how to listen well. Everyone paired off and took turns sharing something personal for 10 minutes. The listener’s role was to take everything in without interrupting and then incisively mirror back what we had heard. But when the word cancer came out of his mouth, the game plan changed. I leaned in and asked, “Wait! What did you just say?” He repeated himself and when the enormity dropped in, we looked at each other and both started to cry. The previous day, Michael had visited a specialist in the hope of discovering the cause for his ongoing abdominal pain. He received the diagnosis of stage four colon cancer the following week and died 20 months later at age 36.

Seven years have passed since that morning in the church dining room, but I remember it vividly. Because we were focused on listening well, there was none of the normal half-tuned-in-half-tuned-out that I am guilty of far too often. It would have been so easy to miss the profound emotional connection that moment offered. In leadership situations, I’m often tempted to listen in a somewhat perfunctory “I’m listening so I can help you solve your problem” mode. But that morning, Michael needed me to be as vulnerable in my listening as he was in his sharing.

Research has confirmed ...

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Thu, 30 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
3 Questions to Ask Yourself before Letting Go

What keeps you hanging on?

“The sheer volume embarrasses me,” I admit to my husband while standing over piles of clothes on my bedroom floor. Coats, shoes, shirts, and pants pulled from my closet on a Saturday like leaves letting go of sturdy branches and falling in a heap. Outside, sun slants through a canopy of changing colors with invitation, but I’m choosing a shift in perspective on the inside.

This is more than a seasonal wardrobe change; we’re moving across the Atlantic without knowing any of the details about income, job placement, or residence.

All we know is that keeping a mountain of “what-if” is no longer an option. Soon we’ll be living in England without walk-in closets, a garage, or an attic. This new reality is redefining needs and wants. The underlined Scripture verse in my Bible “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6:21) is no longer a warning to ponder but a conviction that results in repentance.

As I make piles to give away, sell, and keep, I’m blushing, not about the extravagance of riches on hangers but what the excess illustrates. People refer to this move to England as brave, but my closet says I am fearful.

As the wife of a pastor, this is my ninth move in 24 years of marriage; we are experts in lengthy, uncomfortable transition. But our first international move reveals something different than the others.

At the core of my clothing insurance policy is the subtle question “What if Jesus isn’t enough?”

My what-if’s flow into my kitchen cabinets and pantries, underneath my bathroom sink, and into an overflowing garage and attic. In the subtlety of everyday choices, it seems I’ve ...

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Mon, 27 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
Faithful through the Ages

A case for intergenerational communities

Several years ago, we were invited to join a small group which met weekly on Friday nights. We arrived the first night with our young kids in tow, eager to connect with other couples in a similar age and stage. What we found was a much more blended group of couples, ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies. My first thought? Awkward! This is not what I expected. I’m not sure this is going to be a fit for us.

We decided to give it a try because we connected well with several of the couples. We have been part of this intergenerational community now for three years. Here is what I can say now about this experience, with a bit more perspective:

Intergenerational community is more complex and far more rewarding.

Stella* leaned in and grabbed my arm. “It’s Alzheimer’s Disease,” she confided. She wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already figured out. John’s behavior had been erratic for months. He couldn’t place us, although we’d been meeting together for two years. Sometimes his signature smile was gone and he seemed irritated or grouchy. Sometimes John remembered to give out the Werther’s candies to our kids, and sometimes they lay forgotten in his pocket these days.

“He started getting lost years ago when he was driving home from work. I’ve been trying to find a way to tell you all for weeks now because I know he is getting worse,” Stella whispered as tears welled in her blue eyes. I hugged my friend and thought about how our small group might support our eldest couple on the difficult road ahead.

Shepherding a group felt easier to me when everyone was at a similar age and stage. Sometimes in a homogenous group there ...

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Thu, 23 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
Can I Follow You As I Follow Christ?

People dont want to hear your words; they want to see your actions

It is a privilege to serve as a leader in the kingdom of God. It is an honor to be entrusted with the gift to teach and disciple the people of God. Yet with this gift, leaders are held to a higher standard. James 3:1 warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

It is important that we teach well, but we must be very careful that our lifestyles don’t let people down. Will we be perfect? No, we will not be perfect. Nevertheless, let us be the type of leaders who lead not only with our words, but also with our lives. Let us be able to say with confidence like the Apostle Paul, “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing” (Philippians 4:9, emphasis added).

For example, abortion is one of the most talked-about subjects in the evangelical church. It is the deciding factor in elections, the topic of many sermons, and the reason some choose to protest with pictures of unborn babies that would cause even the toughest man to squirm. The church is screaming “pro-life,” but I contend mainly in propaganda and not in action. What do I mean? It is easy to be pro-life or pro-anything behind a computer screen or in speech. However, the world needs to see consistency. It needs to watch our lives and say, “Yes. Yes, they truly do care about this issue.” As leaders, our followers need to see beyond our words and witness our actions. Are you that kind of leader?

I recently discovered that type of leader. I was talking to some friends recently about our mutual friend, Pastor Odai. We were discussing his love for the people in his congregation ...

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Mon, 20 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
Lead Me On: Brave & Bawling

What happens when we give God a chance to use our relationships to change us?

A few years ago, Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler delivered Harvard University’s Class Day speech. In a fake Bostonian dialect, she joked, “Just because yah wicked smaht doesn’t mean yah beddah than me.”

Then she got serious.

“All I can tell you today is what I’ve learned, what I have discovered as a person in this world, and that is this: You can’t do it alone. Be open to collaboration…it will change your life.”

“We all grow up afraid of something,” she said. Letting others in “should make you feel less alone, less scared.”

A beautiful sentiment. Which is fine, until somebody ticks us off.

As was the case for Joseph.

Joseph was the tenth son of Jacob. He had a Technicolor coat that annoyed his nine older brothers and dreams that bugged them even more.

So they shoved him in a well and left him for dead.

Wherein, a reader registers once and for all that the Bible is not a book showcasing the moral elite. Joseph’s narrative painfully highlights jealous siblings who were jerks, a sexually frustrated woman who was a jerk, and a chief cupbearer who really did not keep his promise to Joseph for a long, long time.

Jerk.

Eventually, finally, the tides turned for Joseph. The chief cupbearer ultimately introduced Joseph to Pharaoh, and after some dream-interpreting, Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring and a nice gold chain and said, “I hereby put you in charge of the entire land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:41).

That was Joseph’s condition—he was practically a king—when his life’s initial heartbreak came full circle and he wound up face-to-face, once again, with his nemesis brothers.

They ...

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Thu, 16 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
Build True Community through Service

Lets live as if we belong to each other

What would it look like to build community with servanthood as the foundation, to shift from an independent mindset to interdependence?

Our culture values community with words, but individualism with actions. When the rubber hits the road, it’s often not about “we”; it’s about “me first.” If “we” becomes the end result it’s a bonus. We all love the idea of community, but to love the idea of community will only end in us breaking community. We must truly love one another, preferring one another above ourselves, for authentic community to flow naturally.

The reason community often fails is because we want what we want first. We want our freedom, our dreams, our desires. We have been sold an individualistic message that tells us these come first, but in order for God’s idea of community to manifest, we must lay down our freedom for one another. This is where we know we’re not just talking about love, but living it. Love that is shown through sacrifice is sacred. Jen Pollock Michel puts it this way in her book Teach Us to Want: “Community, you could say, puts a restraint on desire.” There’s a message we don’t hear much of: embracing our restraints for the sake of one another. We are so accustomed to consuming that the idea of investing our lives for the sake of others sounds inspiring but is often the road less travelled.

In church community we often reflect and put our focus on our personal relationship with Christ. We forget that we belong not only to him, but to one another as well. He has chosen his church, his bride, to reveal himself to the world. The way the church loves one another becomes one of the greatest manifestations ...

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Mon, 13 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
How to Really Serve a Community

It begins with listening

Have you ever experienced someone trying to help you in a way that wasn’t all that helpful? As a new mom, this is something I experience often. Someone gives advice that’s more discouraging than helpful. Another person offers to pick me up for lunch—not realizing that having to transfer all the baby gear to her car really is more work than help. I know that people mean well, and this compels me to show them grace in the situation. But it can still be uncomfortable and frustrating.

Unfortunately, the same concept can hold true when we try to serve people in our communities. We can make people uncomfortable and frustrated—even when we’re trying to help, even when we have the best of intentions. The only way to avoid this is to get to know the people we’re serving and actually listen to what they need. Far too often, though, we begin serving by brainstorming ways we think we should help. We assume we know what others need, and that isn’t a wise way to begin serving.

The trouble is that listening takes work, humility, and time. It may include messy, uncomfortable conversations about someone’s need. It may force us to visit a dangerous neighborhood or discuss touchy topics like poverty. Even at the simplest level, there’s the awkwardness of starting a new friendship with someone who may seem different from us. And it requires us to relate to people in need, to recognize that we're not better simply because we have more.

But listening and truly getting to know the people we're trying to serve make all the difference. Listening leads us to help in the ways that would be most helpful—not the ways that make most sense to us or are easiest for us.

My small ...

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Thu, 9 October 2014 08:45:00 CST
Leading to the Ends of the Earth

How to reach beyond your church by investing within your church

According to Acts 1:8, the last promise Jesus gave his disciples was that “when the Holy Spirit comes upon you…you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That promise was meant to comfort, but it can also be overwhelming at first glance. I recently heard a speaker who is radically committed to reaching the world for Christ. He sheepishly confessed that his son is in counseling and the first thing his son asked the counselor was “Do I have to reach the entire world for Christ?”

Any of us who have been involved in church leadership certainly feel the same. Just keeping up with your own congregation is a full-time job. But perhaps the solution is breaking down that verse to be applicable within the ministries in your church. “Jerusalem” would be reaching your own congregation, “Judea” would be reaching your entire city, “Samaria” could represent your region or country, and “the ends of the earth” would be the world.

Loving Your Congregation

This is the obvious one that I will need to spend the least time talking about. If you are in church leadership, you are already committed to this. You take seriously Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And of course that starts in your own church. Through ministry to children, visitors, and regular attenders, your ministry is clearly defined to those in your church, and most of the people in your church will ...

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Mon, 6 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
Finding Communal Joy in Lament

Lets sing the Lords song in a strange and troubled land

ISIS. Ebola in West Africa. Syria. The recent Middle East conflagration. Flight MH17. I stand in front of the congregation. How does my denomination’s expression of Christian worship and life together, teased out over 90 minutes every Sunday morning, mean anything really, in the face of these problems that seem epic? Avoidance isn’t the answer. I wonder how to lead us in worship that somehow makes room for the doubt, grief, and confusion we all feel. I cue the worship team and we play the opening bars of “How Long” by Stuart Townend. With eyes wide open we begin to sing our lament.

What Does It Mean to Lament?

When we lament, we cry out—in the midst of the reality of a world tainted by sin and therefore inclusive of sorrow, pain, and confusion—to a good God who has the power to change a given situation. As the majority of psalms reveal, a true lament complains loud and long to God with honesty that leaves no room for polite self-consciousness. As part of that lament, the lamenter asks God to do something and then, having named her request, closes her lament by affirming her trust in God. That affirmation of trust is as much a part of the lament as is the complaint.

There’s much our churches need to lament: the loss of so many of our youth because of our disconnected spirituality; the ecological devastation of creation; the cultural genocide of women around the world; the idolatry of Western culture’s economic worldview and exploitative practices; our need to shape and control our environments—inside and outside the church. Strong words, yet we cannot lament unless we see what there is to grieve. Perhaps we’re too…comfortable. We’re either too ...

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Thu, 2 October 2014 08:00:00 CST
Include Your Children in Life-Changing Decisions

God is working in their lives too

Standing on the driveway with my teenage daughter, we watch silently as her childhood bed and miniature table and chairs, packed in the back of a truck, pull away and drive down the street, around the corner, and onto the highway. Words aren’t necessary. We’ve resigned ourselves to the new reality.

All our possessions and keepsakes are now negotiable. We’re moving to England, not just the next state.

Rearranging the empty place in her room where the bed was once used as a couch for friends to congregate, her Dad interrupts, “What are we going to do with all these pillows?” Mounds of decorative pillows in an array of shapes, sizes, and colors cover the carpet, displaced.

“Which ones would you like to use in your dorm room and which ones would you like to visit?” I ask my daughter with slight hesitation. This season presents the biggest change in her 18 years of life. I’m attempting to balance reality with sensitivity.

Not only will she face new challenges as a college student without her parents nearby, but home will be across the Atlantic.

While this is our first international relocation as a ministry family, it’s not the first time we’ve walked the tightrope of our life-changing decisions with our children. This is our ninth move and the third for our children. The decision to leave every place we live requires the same amount of conviction that brought us there in the first place.

When my husband and I say yes to radical life change, we believe God has something important in the circumstances for them also. And we’ve learned to listen to our children differently through seasons of transition.

...

Before divulging details of potential change, ...

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Mon, 29 September 2014 08:00:00 CST
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