...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Stepping out

I am about to step out of my office for the last time. My blogging will step-down a bit, since I've done it entirely from work and we don't have the internet at home. I'm not quitting the blog, though. Please pray for us as we get our home ready for (a potential) sale and seek the Lord as to where to go and what to do next.


Base closure politics

I was finishing up the painting in the youth room this afternoon, and had the radio on to the Rush Limbaugh show. I actually dislike Rush quite a bit and find most of his show to be self-serving and bombastic, which is no big surprise to anyone. He frequently distorts matters and relies more on verbosity and volume than sound reasoning. Today was another brilliant example:

Senator John Thune, who recently displaced Tom Daschle in South Dakota, has announced his intentions to vote against John Bolton's appointment to the UN in retaliation for the closure of a military base in his state. Rush admits that he cannot blame the guy - South Dakota is a small state and will experience a greater financial hardship than a larger or more populous state. Further, Rush suggested that the White House should have actually closed a base in the state of one of the "sell-outs" who crafted the deal to avoid the so-called "nuclear option." The essence of Rush's argument is that base closures should be made on the basis of political infighting instead of either a sound defensive posture or economics.

In my opinion, this is one of the key failings of democracy. Though it is still a vastly superior system to anything else yet tried, it will always eventually come down to political considerations over the best interests of the state and her people.

Cleaning out my office

I've spent the last half hour or so cleaning out my desk & office. I've pretty much removed all the personal stuff and now it only remains to sort through the remaining paperwork to see what should stay and what should go. A bit surprisingly, I don't really feel anything - nothing bad anyways. In some ways, there is actually a spark of hope and freedom. No longer am I tied to this place and to this way of doing things. No longer will I have to hold my tongue in the midst of anyone, students and staff alike. No longer will my livelihood depend on a boss whom I don't respect - its on God now. And I trust that he will not continually be caught up in the latest thing (there are no fads in heaven) nor move us around unnecessarily. The future lays before us, my wife and I, like a wide open plain; anything is possible and we will follow our Guide where ever He leads.


The Perv Factor

I scanned through the referrals on my Sitemeter report and was disturbed to see that probably half of the hits on my blog are due to perverts conducting searches for various things related to fighting, the fairer half of the species, and various "romantic" scenarios. I won't quote any of the search strings because heck if I want to make it up any higher on those search lists; lets just say I chose poorly when it came to my blog name and when I decided to post about conversations I've had with kids in my youth group. Still, its boosting my stats, so come on in all you looking for fighting videos - you won't find what you're looking for, but maybe I'll help you find what you need.

Conversations with pastors

This last week I was fortunate enough to have extended conversations with both my former youth pastor and the priest of the Orthodox parish my wife and I attended for a few months. The youth pastor's name is Jeff and the priest is Fr. Chris.

The conversation with Jeff was marked by bitterness well on its way to joy - a "weeping is just for the night" kind of pain. He feels betrayed by his church and with little wonder; more than anything else, internal politics are what pushed the search committee to pass him over. They thought he was too close to the former senior pastor, even though Jeff was constantly trying to hold him accountable, to move him towards repentance & change. As we were talking, Jeff kept dropping little bits of advice and wisdom - the hard-won rewards of years of successful ministry. As we were talking, I kept thinking to myself "Why couldn't my senior pastor have been like this? Under this man's leadership, I could have done some amazing things." The pain of what might have been kept creeping up on me. Jeff's major concern with me was that this experience did not spoil me on ministry and he encouraged us to stay on the trail, so to speak.

Now, I say his ministry was successful, and truly it was - but not because of its size. Yes, under his care, the youth ministry grew to several hundred kids (twice the size of my entire church, actually) but I've never found numbers alone to be an adequate mark of success. On Sunday morning, I witnessed a church saying a loving goodbye to her pastor, her leader and in the audience were not just the current high school kids, but several dozen former students and adult volunteers. These were the people around when this ministry first got started, and Jeff has ever been a center of gravity in their lives. No matter where they've gone or what they've done, the students who came through Jeff's very capable hands & loving care have always known they have a place to come back to. And its not a soft place; its a place that will accept them, but challenge them to repentance and growth. To me, that is success and I think it will always be a criterion by which I judge my own ministry.

The meeting with Fr. Chris was, needless to say, very different and not just because my wife was with us. He is a young man, probably in his early 30's, but displays a depth and maturity well beyond his years. We spoke for a while about our troubles and trying to find what God has for us next; the difficulty of finding patience for the waiting. He is, somewhat, in the same boat. He is interested in pursuing his PhD because he would like to be able to teach at the college level some day, but he does not want to attend an Orthodox school. This surprised me, but I respected his reasons (and saw a lot of myself in them, as well) - he wants to be challenged, to hear the other side of things and then bounce it off of the Church's teaching & faith. This is basically what I did as an undergrad getting my degree in Religious Studies, but right now I cannot imagine doing it at the doctoral level. Fr. Chris was very encouraging to us, urging us to move forward in faith. He also urged us to move back to Phoenix and to come back to his parish, but he admitted that was based more on his desires than what may be best for us. That was nice to hear, though.

As is obvious, I deeply admire and love Jeff, but I don't know how I can follow his advice when I have my doubts about the ground the trail crosses. Until I settle this doubt, or rather, until God settles this doubt, I cannot continue in a Protestant pastoral position; it would be dishonest. I don't really believe all that an evangelical church would require me to affirm and I certainly couldn't go into a theologically liberal church, thus I'm stuck. Now, Fr. Chris' advice resonates with me, but its probably because its what I want to hear. I don't want to "settle" for something - I want to do something big. But that is likely out of pride and certainly not a good reason. So while I feel somewhat less tumultuous than I did before going to Arizona, things are no more settled than when we left. If anything, they are less - I had not seriously considered moving back to Arizona until we got out there and we saw all of our old friends. Now, though, it looms as another possibility.


Old friends and pairing off

So far, this trip has been good. Thursday night I went to "poker night" at a friend's house (the groom from the wedding we're going to tonight, actually) and saw the whole group of my old guy friends from church. It was good but left me feeling a bit odd. I did 2 deployments with the Army, one for 6 months and the other for 9, and while I was away I hardly heard from any of those friends. No emails, no letters - nothing. The same has been true since we left Arizona for Illinois, though this time it was not too surprising. After coming back from Alaska, the old group just didn't cohere for me like it used to. Part of that was the fact I was working a full-time, corporate job that prevented me from staying up till 2 and 3 in the morning like we used to. And the rest of it was being married, with all the new dynamics that that introduces. But seeing all the guys again was easy, it just settled in like we really hadn't missed a beat. Aside from a little catching up about work and the like, it didn't really seem like a whole lot had changed.

I'm not sure if that is good or bad, but I'm leaning towards bad. It seems like there should be a more noticeable gap, something that says "we've been apart for a long time". Some have praised that feeling of non-interruption as a mark of true friendship, and perhaps it is, but at the same time it introduces a strong sense of detachment, of hollowness to the relationship. The absence has not mattered, with all the implications that statement brings.

We had dinner last night with an old college friend and his pregnant wife, and this morning we had lunch with my wife's aunt & uncle - a nice, retired couple of a deep and committed faith. In both instances, the men and women ended up pairing off and speaking exclusively to each other most of the time. In the instance of the old friend, its none too surprising - we had a lot to catch up on and we're both having to consider a career change and grad school in the immediate future. The women, of course, were talking about the baby and (I imagine) their thoughts on their husbands' respective career problems. But there seemed to be no reason for the pairing with my wife's aunt & uncle; I would think they would be far more interested in talking to her, being related and all. I remember, though, this seems to happen quite a lot, even when its only 2 couples - and this strikes me as odd. Why can't the entire group have a conversation? What causes us to automatically shift into man-man/woman-woman communication when in mixed company like that?


Made it

We have made it safely to Arizona. It was, thankfully, an uneventful trip, the only problem being that we had to get up at 2am to drive up to Chicago to catch our 620am plane. Which meant we got less than 3 hours of sleep, and while I was unconscious on the plane, one really cannot call that sleep.


Leaving on a jet plane

The wife and I are heading back to Phoenix for a friend's wedding tomorrow morning. The wedding is on Saturday and it just so happens that the Sunday will be my former youth pastor's final Sunday at his church. Last year, the senior pastor was fired for infidelity and possibly embezzling a small amount of money from the church. The youth pastor had posted for the position, but was denied by the church. So now he's going to be a senior pastor at a church in Tigard, OR. We'll probably end up going to the farewell service, but I was hoping to hit St George's - the Antiochian parish we attended for several months - one last time. Maybe I'll email the priest to see if he can't get together for lunch or something.


The Resurrection

I have been working through the Gospel of Luke with the kids during the last semester, and last week we got to the final 2 chapters. But since we didn't get as much covered as I'd like, we're going to spend some more time on them, especially chapter 24.

Popping over to Matthew 27 & 28 for a description of the precautions the authorities were taking to prevent fraud on the part of Jesus' disciples, I'm struck in verse 4 that after an earthquake that rolls away a large & heavy stone from the mouth of the tomb, the angel sits down on the rock! I love the picture that creates - the earth shakes, the rock rolls, the Roman guards are passing out and this angel just nonchalantly takes a seat. Perhaps to watch the fun as the guards wet themselves or to wait patiently for the women so that he can make his momentous announcement. But either way, he's just sitting there. You know - talk amongst yourselves, no big deal; just a little earthquake and abject terror, folks.

First call & suit shopping

Got my first call about a job I had applied for this morning and have a phone interview set up for next Tuesday. It would be semi-local, ie, its in the next town over, which would make for a bit of a commute, but not a terribly long one. We'll have to see how it plays out.

My folks came into town for a couple of days and are now driving to Iowa to see my brother and attend his fiance's graduation party. My mom asked if I had a suit for job interviews, and well, no, I don't. I was in the Army, and they give you a suit. Its all earth-tones and pockets, but at least you don't worry about stains. I then worked in a business-casual office for over a year - khakis and polo shirts; these didn't wear very well and I am now low on khakis and polo shirts. I then worked as a youth pastor in a seeker sensitive church, which is all jeans and t-shirts and go-tees. So no suit. Bless their hearts, my parents took me out and bought me a nice, new suit and a tie. And if I do say so myself, I looked rather dapper.

What is it, though, about the sales people at suit stores? Why on earth do they have to touch you so much as you try a jacket on?! A little pull on the lapel, a yank on the sleeve, smoothing the shoulders, messing with the buttons, the collar, you name it. I am a big personal space guy, so it weirded me out a bit. Besides, what's the point of doing that? You don't have someone to tug and smooth your jacket when you put it on to go to work - shouldn't you want it to look right without all that?


Catholics are scary

Two anti-Catholic sentiments were issued in the staff meeting today. The first: a man had approached the senior pastor and handed him the information card we stick in every program. It has a space for name & address if you want to be added to the mailing list, a list of small group/activity options and a list for prayer requests. The man was apparently a very nice, outgoing guy that really made an impression on the senior pastor. On the prayer request section of the card, the man had written "pray for us sinners." The church secretary, who was raised Catholic and attended parochial schools until she became a Protestant during college, said under her breath "sounds Catholic to me" with more than a hint of disdain. She repeated it again a minute or so later, again with disdain. Apparently even the use of Catholic-esque language is verboten.

The second was occasioned by the death of a woman in our church over the weekend. She had cancer and was undergoing chemotheraphy, but her death was still a surprise. Her chemo was progressing well and even if it did not take care of her cancer, she was still expected to live for several months. She checked herself into the hospital because the latest round had left her extremely tired. She awoke in the middle of the night and requested a drink of water from the nurse. The nurse returned a few minutes later and found her dead. This woman was a strong woman of faith who left a significant legacy both within this church and in the lives of those around her. There is no doubt that she was welcomed into heaven as a good and faithful servant. Monday night, the church had an informal time of prayer & celebration for this woman's life. The church secretary, with deep suspiction, asked "what exactly were you praying for?" They said it was prayers of thanks for her life, for a quick and quiet death, for her legacy, prayers for the salvation of her family and for the upcoming funeral. The secretary said "I was just wondering because the Catholics would be trying to pray her into heaven", with sarcasm and vitriol echoing in her words.

Today, both of these anti-Catholic statements came from the same person, but this is unfortunately par for the course here and frequently come from a variety of sources. And frankly, I'm damn sick of it. I'm sick of the judgmental arrogance that assumes Catholics are just a bunch of delusional idiots who are going straight to hell. I'm sick of the lack of historical understanding that a whole lot of what Protestants, particularly evangelicals, believe is not even close to what the early church accepted or practiced. I'm thankful to be leaving.

Brian McLaren blogs

Brian McLaren, the uberemergent, is being hosted on a number of blogs for a discussion about his newest book "The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt and a New Kind of Christianity". I haven't read much of McLaren's work - I've skimmed through a couple of his books and read a few articles - but I have to say I find his guest-blogging rather disappointing. His initial posts are terribly short and don't seem to make a real point you can get your hands on. His answers to questions in the comments section are similarly brief and thin, so much so that there isn't really much to respond to - you can't tell if you agree, disagree or where you could even start a dialogue.

Here are the blogs:

Tall Skinny Kiwi
Jen Lemen
Dwight Friesen
Jordon Cooper


I spent the majority of the weekend taking a group of kids to a music festival called Agape, down in scenic Greenville, IL. I don't really listen to contemporary Christian music (my daily listening for the last few months has been Ancient Faith Radio), especially of the rock/pop/punk bands that were the majority of the acts. Overall, though, the shows were good and the bands mostly performed well - there were a couple of local bands that didn't really make the grade. Toby Mac, of DC Talk fame, puts on a great show with at least 3 other vocalists/rappers, a dj with turntables and a full band. There were, at various times, people standing worshipfully with hands raised while a rock band was hammering through one of their songs - how one can worship to hard rock is beyond me, but hey, more power to 'em.

My wife and I found one thing troubling; "Christian-girl" t-shirts. Now, I'm used to all the Christian rip-offs you find at Christian bookstores & concerts - instead of "Abercrombie & Fitch" its "Abreadcrumb & Fish", or "Christ is King" instead of "Calvin Klein" - you know, that kind of crap. Great witnessing tools I'm sure, though I suspect they just make Christians look stupid. No, the shirts that bothered us were these skin-tight, pink "wife-beater" style tank tops with "Christian Girl" emblazoned in a gothic script across the chest. I'm sure the issues of modesty, guys lusting and the paradoxical message that such shirts send in general are quite clear. From the same vendor came another shirt for girls, this time in the form of a fitted t-shirt, with you choice of captions: "Looking for a Christian boy" or "I love Christian boys." On the surface, these may not seem that bad but I found these particularly problematic. The first is yet another affirmation of the message teen-age girls constantly receive: you are nothing if you are not attached to some guy. The latter echoes this same message, but its lack of specificity is the real problem - boys, not a specific boy, kind of implying that the girl will take any and all boys so long as they are Christian. Again, a girl is to get her self-esteem and self-worth from her relationships with boys, not her relationship with God.

Perhaps I'm sounding a bit stodgy and paternalistic. Perhaps there is nothing really wrong with these things and I'm making mountains of mole hills, but I don't think so. Over the last year, I have seen first-hand the corrosive effects youth culture is having on our kids, both boys and girls. As I said above, girls are being taught to derive their sense of self-worth from how they are perceived by guys - there is no other reason why junior high girls would engage in lesbian kisses for a crowd of cheering boys or high school girls in sex acts at school (true stories from some kids in my youth group). Boys, though, are being trained to be non-committal, to be "players." Girls are disposable play-things, there for the boy's entertainment or gratification until the boy gets tired of them. Then its on to the next conquest, the next trophy. It is the culture of pornography playing out in the lives of teenagers.


Hello, Mr. President

This morning, I have an appointment to call the president. No, not that president; the president of our denomination. At the urging of my father-in-law, who is head of international missions for the denomination and was a pastor for many years, and my uncle-in-law, who once was the president and was also a pastor for many years, I am going to bring up some of the issues I have detailed here in the past, as well as issues related to my termination. I'm a little uncomfortable doing this - not because the matters don't need to be raised & addressed - but because it seems almost like tattling. Sort of an "I'm going to tell my mom on you!" kind of thing. If I didn't have some genuine concerns about the way this place is governed and the failure to develop & mentor me, a brand-spanking-new pastor, I wouldn't be doing this.

The problem, though, is that this denomination has functioned for a very long time in a laissez-faire way towards her churches. The churches are largely independent; this is highlighted by the fact the denominational headquarters is called the "resource center." But the denomination is growing, both through church plants (several over the last few years) and established churches abandoning their denomination (mostly Mennonites sick of the liberalism), and there seems to be a sense that perhaps the denominational leadership needs to take a stronger hand in working with local churches. The denomination licenses their pastors (licensed pastors get a significant federal tax break), funds much of their construction/expansion projects through a specialty ministry, provides a summer camp for the kids, and provides a variety of other services - it seems like the denomination should have more of a hand in ensuring her churches are following a biblical structure, ie, having more than 3 elders, developing & mentoring new pastors and generally being wise stewards of the money the denomination has entrusted to them. Though I won't be around for it, it will be interesting to see how all this plays out.


Pawn shop

My wife and I recently joined a small group through the church plant, and we met with them for the first time on Sunday night. It was good, but long - we got hooked up with some talkers - but then again, we had a lot to share about last week's events and another couple, who recently had a child, are thinking about moving & starting a new job, so we had a lot to cover. For the summer, we're going to be reading through Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. We picked it up Sunday afternoon shortly before our meeting, so I only had a chance to read through about half of the first chapter. What I read was pretty good, and the point of the book seems to focus on moving beyond mere belief in Christ, to really & truly trusting Him in all things, particularly in the hard times.

But there was one line which referred (if I remember it correctly; I don't have the book with me today) the "dusty old pawn shop of doctrine." 'Doctrine' may have been plural, but either way, this phrase is pregnant with meaning. Doctrine is outdated & obsolete, something to be cast off or even sold. It is detritus. Perhaps if you are a collector of antiques, you may wish to brave the ancient dust to browse through these decrepit works, but only so long as you realize their value lies solely in the curious fact that people once considered these withered trinkets something important, something useful. We have, thankfully, grown beyond the need of such baubles into a mature, doctrine-less faith. We are the diet soda of religion.

I wish I could say that I don't understand this antipathy towards doctrine and creed, but to a certain extent, I do. It is born of a desire to be open, inclusive, to eschew judgment and condemnation - things Jesus obviously had a desire for as well. But any reading of the Gospels that focuses only on this "positive" side of Christ is woefully deficient. Even a brief perusal of the Sermon on the Mount shows the error of such thinking. Jesus does not deny the law, He expands it so that it is no longer a mere external prohibition. Jesus does not promote inclusiveness - He promotes holiness; throwing out the tasteless salt or cutting off the sinful member can hardly be seen as support for a doctrine-free openness.

One cannot escape doctrine - to claim Christ as Lord is to make a doctrinal statement. To call oneself a Christian, to pray, to preach - these are all statements about what you believe, about doctrine. This is where my understanding breaks down - why is doctrine bad? Why can't people recognize their own doctrines, which they certainly hold to be as infallible as anything promulgated by Pope or Council?


Pondering the future

A whole mess of stuff is going through my head right now - part angry, part sad, part hopeful, part excited, part numb, part grateful, part disenchanted, part wondering. I'm really and truly trying to take the high road - I wrote a letter to parents that is largely BS because I don't want to cause division here. I've seen it happen with other churches, one quite recently, and frankly this place has enough problems without all of this adding fuel to the fire. But though I'm trying to be positive, focused & waiting on the Lord, part of me deep, deep down inside finds some perverse delight in the thought of hacking their computers or leaving an open can of tuna fish or two to rot in the ventilation system. Petty and immature, I know, but not without some allure. :)

Staff meeting today will be interesting. I'm sure they're going to try to pawn off telling the staff on me, but that's just not going to happen. The staff can know the truth that I was fired and they can tell them on their own.

Looking ahead, the biggest struggle I'm having right now is figuring out what's next. Not in a real specific way - I'm sure God has a job lined up and will take care of us. No, I'm not sure if we should aim for something big or something simple. A month or two ago, my mom, an elementary teacher of 20+ years, wrote a couple of essays on the state of education in Arizona that were published on her local NPR station. She went in and recorded them, but did not ask for a tape of the broadcast. So I went online to see if I could find them and instead ended up stumbling on the NPR jobs postings, and though I don't have any radio or journalism experience, I thought there were a couple I was qualified for. So I figured "what the heck" and applied. About a week and a half ago I got a call - of the 250 applications received, I was 1 of 30 that they were doing phone interviews with. Of those 30, they will be bringing 10 out for a personal interview and I will hopefully hear if I am one of those people by the end of this week. Now, that right there is just an encouragement to me in the present moment - somebody figured I was smart enough and capable enough to be worth a second look. Having just been fired, that's nice. But if I were to actually get this job (a very big IF), it would require us to move to DC - a big move to a big city where we know no one and that is far from family.

The question, to me anyways, is not really about a specific job, its about what's the best thing to strive for - a simple life in a simple place or doing something that could open a lot of doors and maybe even have an impact on something big? I don't think for one minute I am going to be a huge force for change at NPR, but a conservative Christian veteran sure isn't their typical employee or listener, so just throwing me into the mix will have to have some effect. The path of simplicity is incredibly attractive, but I don't want to take it out of an unconscious fear. God will most likely work all this out for me by simply shutting a door, but in the meantime, its fun to think about.


The Announcement

Well, I'm supposed to announce to the kids today that I'm no longer the youth pastor here, or won't be at the end of May. I'm not looking forward to telling them for both emotional reasons (I'm going to miss them and I hope they're going to miss me), but also because I'm not exactly sure what to say. I didn't really decide to step down - I was fired, but it was a termination that I largely agree with. So how do you epxlain that to a room full of junior highers without badmouthing anyone or giving them the impression that this church and her leadership are going in the wrong direction? Thankfully I'm fairly good at being diplomatic, but I won't lie to them.

This is going to be hard.