Thinking Out Loud

September 22, 2016

A Pastoral Career: The Parabolic Curve of Church Size

Filed under: Christianity, Church, writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:34 am

Conrad sat in the living room staring at the “yearbook” that Central Church had given him when he resigned several years ago. Well, “resigned” wasn’t exactly the right word, but other than that, there was nothing about his time pastoring the 700+ member church that did not evoke fond memories. He was only the third pastor Central had ever known, and while he did not experience the rapid growth of his predecessors, he’d seen the church grow from 556 members to 703.

Not that it was about numbers. Well, maybe it was. His first church was 168 members, but he was only there for three years. Then he jumped at the opportunity to go to a 289 member church, where he stayed for five years. Next, he entered a four year term with the 374 member — oh, my goodness; it really was about numbers; he couldn’t believe he had remembered all that detail.

Short StoriesBut Central was the pinnacle as it turned out, twelve years, and average weekend attendance just under a thousand in two services, with 703 of those people full members.

And then he got sent to East Valley on an interim pastor assignment, that ended up lasting six years. Smaller numerically. A little backward culturally. He was balding now and the 414-member church was an older demographic that signified, along with his own age, the numbers might start dropping. And then it did.

Before he knew it, he was doing a meaningless job in the district office waiting out the years to retirement. He had ridden the entire parabolic curve of church size.

He put the yearbook down and sighed.

“You’d better get ready to go;” his wife Carla admonished from the kitchen, “The service at Whispering Willows starts at 2:00 PM.”

So this is what it comes to, he thought. Sunday afternoon chapel services in the local seniors’ home.

The pianist assigned from the Salvation Army didn’t know any of the hymns he’d bookmarked. “We tend to do Army music;” she confessed, “But I can do Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art.”

“That’s all they ever want to sing anyway;” Conrad told her, and at 1:55 Whispering Willows staff started wheeling in the dozen-and-a-half women and three men who had signed up to go to chapel that week, plus two staff. Okay, a few of the residents used walkers, but he noticed that everybody that week had some type of appliance necessary to get them around.

At 2:00 he opened in prayer. At 2:01 they sang How Great Thou Art. At 2:05 they sang Amazing Grace. At 2:08 he asked the pianist if she would play a little number from her Salvation Army hymnal. She gladly obliged, but the tune was unfamiliar and the melody was incomprehensible. But now it was 2:10.

Conrad checked his watch again. These services ran an hour, usually 40 minutes of singing and a 20 minute message. He knew he needed to stretch, so he asked if anyone had any prayer requests. “Just put your hands up.”

Surprisingly a woman in the second row did just that. He nodded toward her to share anything with the group and she said, “This isn’t the dining room.”

“No it isn’t;” Conrad replied.

Silence.

More silence. He noticed the ticking of a mantle clock he’d never noticed before. Things had never been this quiet.

“You know;” the retired pastor said, “I come here each month and I’ve never really told you much about myself, so before I share today’s scripture reading and message, perhaps I should share my story.”

So he spoke about his call to ministry late in high school, and how he had gone off to his denomination’s Bible college, and how he graduated and started climbing the ministry ladder. The problem was, as he had done before leaving for Whispering Willows, he was sharing more about the metrics of the various churches than about anything else that had happened in those various communities.

There was no story about Fred, or Jill, or Michael, or Jennifer, or anyone else. It was about the 168 and the 289 and the 374 and the 703 at Central Church and down to the 414. There was no reference to Carla standing by him in all those years in ministry, or raising a daughter and two sons in those various churches.

And then Conrad stopped. He had been listening to his own story. And he realized that it sounded pathetic.

It wasn’t that all he cared about were the numbers; it’s that he was bitter about never again getting the adrenaline rush associated with being able to speak to a thousand people each weekend. About being bounced down to a smaller church. And then left to deteriorate in a useless administrative position in the district office.

Another resident raised a hand, this time one of the men.

“You left out a number;” he said; “22. There’s twenty-two of us here, twenty-four if you count yourself and the woman who can’t play the piano.” (Of course he had miscounted by one and ignored the staff, but…)

“Well actually;” he said, trying to do some damage control, “I think she did those hymns really well, she just doesn’t know the ones that are in your book.”

“Well I grew up Salvation Army, so hey, Miss, do you know Thou Christ of Burning, Cleansing Flame?”

“I don’t think we know that–” he started to say, but the pianist suddenly lighted up and launched into a rather rousing introduction, uncovering previously hidden keyboard skills, and the man stood to his shaking feet and in a loud and clear voice sang verse after verse.

As it turned out the song had a hook, a line that repeated constantly and by the 4th verse, all the residents were singing. Singing loudly, “Send the fire, Send the fire, Send the fire.”

By now it was 2:40 and he was back on schedule.

He read the text for the message, a sermon from the files of the glory days at Central Church, slightly shortened to fit the 20-minute window. In his mind he was back there. Two services. Almost a thousand people every weekend.

One of the two staff members held up a cardboard sign that said “One Minute Left.” He thanked everyone for coming and gave a short benediction. The staff members started getting ready to pull wheelchairs out of rows and into the hallway.

“Wait a minute! Stop!” yelled the man who had introduced the last song into the service mix; “That number you forgot. We aren’t 703 members, but there’s twenty-two of us, and we’re the best damn twenty-two people you’ve got right now.”

Conrad looked deep into the man’s eyes, and then noticed the smile.

And then he smiled back.

And then time froze and the staff stopped moving wheelchairs and everyone waited for Conrad to say something in return, except he couldn’t think of anything. Nothing at all. So he said the first words that popped into his head.

“This isn’t the dining room.”

 

August 26, 2016

Blogroll Update # 5

It’s been a full year since we last ran an update of some of the Christian blogs I’ve bookmarked in my computer. The blogroll that appears daily here is only a small part of the sites I have visited or used in the compilation of the weekly link list and includes some well-known writers and some obscure ones.

close-to-home-on-blogging1Here’s the link to part one. (The really big one from almost two years ago.)

Here’s the link to part two. (Sixteen months ago.)

Here’s the link to part three. (14 months ago, includes my news sources.)

And here is the link to part four. (One year ago, includes blog aggregators and people who do things similar to the Wednesday Link List)

Blogs
Home | Ratio Christi
Christ Hold Fast
john pavlovitz | Stuff That Needs To Be Said
Bethany House Fiction | Connecting you with your favorite authors.
Stumbling Zombie | Insights of a zombie stumbling towards the Light.
A better country
Vic the Vicar!
James Edward Sharp | … musical take on the world.
Disciple All Nations | Great Commission for the 21st Century
Redeeming God | Rescuing Scripture, Theology, & Church…
Her View From Home
Pilgrim’s Rock – Worldview Apologetics Online Courses Books
Uniting Grace
Janet Mefferd | A Christ-centered look at life
The Christward Collective
Acculturated
Slowing Down and Speeding Up Time | Shalem Mental Health Network
Welcome to the BreakPoint Blog
Justin Petrick
ChurchPOP | Make holy all the things!
Brain Pickings | An inventory of the meaningful life.
GoodOleWoody’s Blog and Website
Purple Theology | The Blog of Austin Fischer
Art of the Christian Ninja
Enrichment Journal
Unsettled Christianity
Junia Project Home | The Junia Project
Gender Equality Blog | The Junia Project
The Evangelical Calvinist
Technology, Christianity, Culture | Second Nature
East Coast Veritas | … church planting in Atlantic Canada
Devotions — Proverbs 31 Ministries Devotions
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Jeff K. Clarke – Jesus (RE)Centered
Life in the Kingdom
Teaching Nonviolent Atonement | …Building Cultures of Peace
Theology in the Raw
The Mordecai Blog
CaroleMcDonnell
Liturgy of Life | Sacramentally Cultivating a Household
Christianity in College | Rejoice always, pray continually…
Alan Rudnick | Pastor, Author, and Speaker
Uncommon God, Common Good
Christ Almighty!
Blog – What’s Best Next
A Life Overseas | — the Missions Conversation
Sheep To The Right
Daily Devotions
Randy Bohlender | Family – Faith – Adoption
Mark Buchanan
Christian Funny Pictures – A time to laugh
MOS – Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Jessica Hammer
Samuel D. James | Assorted thoughts on life, faith, and culture
Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice
Read. Engage. Apply.
Circling The Story – Life: mundane and glorious
Ponder Anew on Patheos
Nail to the Door | A call to a new Reformation
Words of Faith, Hope and Love
The Recovering Legalist
That Mom — real encouragement for real homeschool moms
Cerulean Sanctum | …1st century Church in 21st century America
Johnblackmon’s Blog | swimming in the inkwells of indelible grace
Home – Simply Jesus
Blessed Earth | Inspiring Faithful Stewardship of all Creation
The Abuse Expose’ with Secret Angel
The Wardrobe Door
Adventures in Faith & Art | MANUEL LUZ
DyerThoughts – Home
Standing on my Head
JarridWilson.com
firstthreequarters | Christian Old Testament interpretation
Sinner and Saint
Life’s Great Dare
WINTERY KNIGHT
Tin Roof Sky | Listening for God’s voice in the everyday
Amber Cantorna | Beyond
Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely aka Mennoknight
dispatchesfrombrian
The End Time
Reachout Trust | Reachout Trust
Scattered and Small
Faith, Fiction, Friends
Abandoned to Christ
Watch Keep
Heart Language
Quadratos
Ched Spellman
hisgracemygrowth | … life as a Christian wife and mother…
aaron niequist
Facts and Trends
Matthew David Brough – author of the Del Ryder Series
Families First Magazine
EveryStudent.com – Exploring Important Questions about Life and God
Disciples of hope | Living the hope that comes from Christ
spiritual maturity | What does a mature Christian look like?
Tish Harrison Warren
Thimblerig’s Ark | One writer’s journey through faith, art, and life.
Pete Enns | the Bible for normal people
Building Old School Churches
Conventional Futures – On the future of the SBC — J.D. Greear
Survey of Christianity | A personal exploration through my beliefs
A Church for Starving Artists | Where the passionate are fed
Bible Study Magazine
From frightened to father
Carlos Whittaker » BLOG
Scripture Paths
Magazine – Shattered Magazine
The Free Slaves Devotion | A quest to know who I am in Christ
Bryan Hodge | Applying New Testament Christianity to life today.
Encourage Me
The King’s English
You Have Heard it Said
The Iridescence of Grace
MarkHowellLive.com
Blog | Mark Buchanan
The Apologetics Minion – Following Jesus With All My Mind
Produced by The High Calling – The High Calling – Theology of Work
The Christian Reviewer
MOS – Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Apostles Creed – Reformed Orthodox Confessional
Sets ‘n’ Service
Bloggin’ The Word
Society of Evangelical Arminians
Exceptional Christian | Christian living – a lifelong learning process, striving to become more like Jesus Christ every day.
Gene S. Whitehead • Faith, Family and Life
Seeds for the Soul | Planting Biblical Truth Every Day of the Year
Redeeming God | Rescuing Scripture, Theology, & Church from the Shackles of Religion
Faithful Thinkers
Hot Off the Press | Living On Tilt
Blog — Jonathan Martin
Welcome to WFM – Worship Facilities Magazine
Blessed Beyond Words
Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur
Missio Nexus – Connecting the Great Commission Community
First 15 devotional – Denison Forum on Truth and Culture – Home
Chocolate Book
The Road | Obedience is Better Than Sacrifice

Feel free to use the comments to make suggestions for others I should consider, but check the other lists — use your computer’s ‘find’ feature — to make sure they haven’t already appeared here. 

Note: If you find something here where nothing has been posted for six months, let me know and I’ll delete it. Also, if you find a link which points to a specific article rather than a homepage, let us know that, too.

July 3, 2016

Yard Sale Bonus

Filed under: Christianity, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:25 pm

it will be a blessing to you

Not far from us, a large Pentecostal denomination operates a summer camp and retreat center. At the beginning of July, they have a giant yard sale which we try not to miss.

As I walked by one table on Saturday, a woman was describing a large waffle iron to a potential customer. Sensing she was about to close the sale, she added to her description, “I think you’ll be blessed using it.”

“Wow!” I thought; “You just don’t get that type of guarantee at a regular yard sale.” This is a waffle iron that comes with an added blessing.


Many times in my 20s, I was on the other side of the commercial transaction table. I was helping my boss, who owned a Christian music distributing company, exhibit at concert and festival venues.

Not lacking a dry sense of humor, he would often stand there while someone held the vinyl record, cassette tape, or compact disc in their hand inwardly debating the purchase, and he would say, “You will be blessed.”

Strangely, the joke never got old. It was the same principle; the idea that the purchase of the item included an intangible; a blessing for the recipient. I think sometimes it tipped the balance and resulted in a sale.


In Christianity, we throw terminology like this around far too loosely. Better to be honest: “I got a lot of use out of that waffle iron and it’s still working perfectly. I think you’re making a wise purchase.”


Looking into the Biblical meaning of blessing further resulted in Tuesday’s post at Christianity 201, appearing July 5th around 5:30 PM EDT.

July 1, 2016

The Music That God Likes

Today’s guest post is from Ruth Wilkinson who may or may not be related.


It was hot. I was tired.

I was spending the summer working in the kitchen of my favorite camp, supervising and cooking. And when you’re doing work you believe in, with people you like, it’s easy to run to 16 hour days.

I’d finally hung up my ladle, made a cup of tea, and sought out a quiet, dark and relatively cool spot to relax before going to bed.

The porch. Concrete floor and walls. Old wooden pews against the wall. An unimpeded view of the moon on the lake. Behind me, a window, open to the ‘lounge’, which was busy with other staff playing games, chatting, making music. And me in the shadows outside, listening.

Under the window indoors there was a piano. If not for the wall, I’d have been leaning against it.

Two people came to the piano and sat down. His camp name was Rocky, one of the senior summer staff, full of character and wit.

Her camp name was Joy.

If you met her, you’d know that it could never be anything else. She’s one of those people who carry light with them into the room. A 100 watt smile, always ready. Hugs, encouragement, hope.

She was also about 80% deaf. A hearing aid in each ear. Her parents, as some do, had decided not to have her taught sign language. They wanted her to grow and live in the world of the hearing. So her interaction with the people around her was through lip reading and her own slurred, exaggerated speech.

But Rocky and Joy had decided that it was time for her to learn to play the piano. ‘Cause camp is like that. Behind me, out of sight, he sat down at the high end of the keyboard, and she at the low end. I doubted they knew I was there.

He hit a C chord and sang “Je – sus..” and showed her where the C note was. She hit it. Bom.

He played a G chord, sang “loves me…” and showed her where the G note was. Bom.

A minor. “This I….” G is one up from A. Bom.

C. “Know…” Back to the first one again. Bom.

F chord. “For the…” Which one’s F? Yeah, that’s right! Bom.

And on they went, all the way through 2 verses and 2 choruses, patient with each other.

C chord. “So….” Bom.

They laughed and high fived each other. He was called away.

I thought, “Well, that was nice. I’m glad I heard that.” Sipped my tea, looked at the moon, rested my head against the wall and thought about grace.

But she stayed at the piano. Playing notes, combinations of notes, what she thought might be chords.

I thought, “Oh, dear.”

She began to play more loudly, more confidently. Crashing and tinkling.

I sighed.

She started to sing. The singing of the deaf. Loud. No tone, no melody. No rhythm or any relation to what her hands were playing. Right out the window, over my head.

I groaned.

She sang, “Jeeeeeeee – sus! (crash) Jeeeeee – sus! (bom) I love you Jesus! (crash) I love you God! (bom) Thank you for saving meeeeee! (tinkle) OH, GOD, I LOVE YOUUUUUUUU! (crunch) YOU ARE BEAUTIFUUUUUUUL! (kabom) YOU CREATED THE UNIVERRRRRSE! (CRASH BOM)”

I thought, “God, I’m tired. I just wanted some peace and quiet. Is that so much to ask? How much longer is she going to keep making this NOISE?!”

I’m not exactly sure how to describe the next sensation I experienced. The closest I can come is when you’re a kid at the grocery store with your granny, and you say something rude to the guy behind the counter and she slaps you across the back of the head.

SMACK!

And in that moment, I heard that voice that you hear with every nerve and fiber of your body. Whispering.

“She’s not singing for you. And you have no idea what she sounds like from here.”

 

~Ruth Wilkinson


Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

May 27, 2016

What You Blog When No One’s Looking*

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, writing — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:08 am

*with apologies to John Ortberg’s Who You Are When No One’s Looking

img 052716

With a 74% U.S. readership, the idea of writing something in-depth on the day most of my readers are packing up for a Memorial Day Weekend activity makes me think it would be a good time to just post something simple — a cartoon, for example — and let it go.

That said, on this site’s worst day it draws more readers than those belonging to the many people who faithfully post their thoughts without consideration of numbers. These are like the original “web log-ers” (from which we got the word blog in the first place). They write for the sake of writing and don’t frequent their stats page. For those who post daily, it’s about faithfulness and consistency.

I am reminded of the original goal of Christianity 201. I decided to something that was just for me and whoever else wanted to tag along for the ride. I was managing eight different blogs back then, and it took a year for C201 to arrive at an established format or concept. I would just post something I thought was more spiritual than the topical issue of the day on Thinking Out Loud. I needed balance. I needed to do it regardless of who was looking.

As I pulled all these thoughts together, I was reminded of a trip Ruth and I took to the northeastern states a few years ago. I’ll let her tell it:

Boston was one of our most recent expeditions. Really interesting city, American history machine aside. Cool architecture, good subway, Chinatown, really easy to get lost, terrible maps, good food. Perfect. Some historic churches. Mostly for “freedom” reasons, of one kind or another.

We chanced upon one that really struck me. Not as old as some of the others, probably. No “Paul Revere slept through the sermon here” plaques. But a lovely red brick building, tucked away in one of the more serpentine neighborhoods. We climbed a few steps to a back door and found it unlocked, so we went in. Found ourselves in a foyer of sorts, creaky floored and unlit. There was another door in front of us, so we pulled that one open. Creak. Stepped to the threshold. Creak. Peeked through the door. Creak.

It was beautiful inside. Warm and hushed and soaring. Stained glass windows, old dark pews, draperies and candles. It smelled of polished wood and wax and flame and time and prayer. But we didn’t go in any further. We closed the door and left. Creaking all the way…

…You see, the reason why we left without really going in is that when we opened that inner door, we heard something.

Someone speaking. One voice.

One voice echoing through the room, over the pews, off the windows. The pews that were completely empty, the windows that were telling their stories to no one.

One voice, chanting in what might have been Latin. Reciting a text that no one would hear. Except the speaker and God himself. Because they were the only ones in the room.

As we left, we looked at the sign on the fence outside. “5:00 pm. Mass”. It was 5 pm. So the Mass was being said. Whether anyone was there to hear it or not. It had to be said.

Why? I have no clue. But it had to be said. If only to the antique pews and the priceless glass and the glowing candles and absolutely not a living soul. Haunted and driven by tradition. Disregarded by life and humanity…

In the end, it’s not always about the audience, or the feedback, or the recognition. Sometimes you just do what you do.


 

 

May 16, 2016

“I heard you perfectly, now tell me what you said.”

Writing Literacy CommunicationIn an age when we are bombarded with voices and information, it’s easy to miss the essential core of what someone is trying to say. I often find myself going back over sentences, paragraphs and pages to make sure I get the gist of what the writer intended, and am currently re-reading a book I recently finished because I want to make certain I’ve internalized the writer’s message.

There are probably a number of reasons this becomes necessary, such as:

Overly Idiomatic

Some writers clearly overdo it when it comes to use of cultural or idiomatic expressions. One friend of mine, who worked with a “Biker Church” loved the cutting edge Bible translations but not The Message which he felt overused American speech patterns. I don’t agree, but it’s a reminder to guard the temptation to speak in nothing but clichés.

Over Concision

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?” I believe that texting or Twitter can force us into communication which is simply too abrupt. A few more words or sentences would better flesh out the story or argument. Many times I will go back through something posted here and tighten it up, but alas, as I’m not paid to do this, much that you read here is first draft.

Overly Prosaic

The opposite of the above problem is writing which overflows with flowery language and description. Some people are simply too verbose. (Notice that I kept this section short!)

Overly Cute

This becomes an issue in a world where people are accustomed to cutesy headlines and teasers. It leads to a “style over substance” situation where people end up impressed with your wit, but have no idea as to your intention. This type of writing or speech often distracts or misleads.

Poorly Structured

Living as we do in a bullet-point world, people want to follow your train of thought from (a) to (b) to (c) to the conclusion. Unfortunately, prose doesn’t offer us the possibilities seen in, for example, a flow chart, unless we’re prepared to do a lot of backtracking. In my own writing, I am very aware of overuse of “however…” or “On the other hand…” and sometimes it is unavoidable.

Too Culturally Specific

In a fragmented culture we don’t all see the same movies or listen to the same songs. If you referencing a film, it may be necessary to take a paragraph to set up the plot rather than assume that the storyline is part of a common culture.

Lack of Annotation

Especially in written works, some background or sourcing needs to be provided in footnotes or appendices, where it goes beyond the flow of the article to do it in the type of set-up paragraph noted above. This way the reader who is lost can get back on track.

Loss of Focus

Going back to our introduction, and my re-reading of a recently completed book, some of the responsibility has to rest on the listener or the reader. It’s possible that my own first exposure to what you wrote or said was ruined by my own lack of focus or ADD tendencies. In conversation, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Do you mind repeating that?”

Topical Ignorance

Again, this is reader/hearer problem. It’s possible I’ve waded into a subject with which I lack sufficient background knowledge, or a breaking news story or trend of which I was completely unaware. No amount of re-reading or asking you to repeat will cover my need to take three steps back (yes, an idiom) and do the necessary research in order to catch up.

Previous Bias

If I truly don’t like the speaker or author, it’s easy for me to be dismissive of the source. If you don’t believe the book has anything to say, you might find yourself skimming its pages instead of attempting to properly digest the contents.

Generational Shifts

People communicate differently from generation to generation. As you get older, you often need to brush up on the communication styles of, for example, Millennials, or you might miss the full impact of what’s being said. Included in this is shift of meaning of individual words. A few years ago, if your son said he “had a wicked time at youth group;” this probably meant it was great, not evil. You would need to know the word usage in advance. 

Terminology Differences

This problem arises frequently in the type of topical writing we do here and occurs when people of different faiths use the same term, but are using it entirely differently. It’s hard to not mention the example of Mormonism, where discussions often break down because people don’t stop to define their terms as used in their church. It’s a more serious problem than the generational changes of the previous section.

Generally, communication isn’t complete until the reader has fully understood. The adage that “If the learner hasn’t learned the teacher hasn’t taught” may oversimplify the situation, but I believe it’s applicable more times than it isn’t.

May 6, 2016

When You’re Overly Concerned About What Others Think

Filed under: Christianity, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:18 am

John Wesley quotation

When going through old blog posts here, I sometimes find a graphic that I decide to re-use on Twitter. That was the case yesterday when later in the morning I posted the above quotation from John Wesley. It had been used here on the blog just the one time before.

And then I noticed something I hadn’t seen before, which was the source of the image printed in the bottom right corner.

For several minutes I stared at the screen trying to decide if I should immediately delete it. Thoughts of:

  • Am I appearing to endorse something?
  • Would people think I am part of a particular cause?
  • Do I want people to interpret the quotation in that context?
  • Is it not easier to crop the image and remove the credit?

were countered by thoughts of:

  • If you’re borrowing the graphic you should really give proper credit.
  • The statement, “Jesus Loves Gays” is not untrue.
  • How did you miss the rainbow and the attribution two years ago?

So four hours of agonizing over this later, I checked out the actual Facebook page. The content there is written by someone (or several) who see their gay-ness as completely compatible with their Christ-following. This isn’t a new development. We’ve written enough before about ministries such as the Gay Christian Network and New Direction to know that opinions on this subject cover a wide spectrum. (To see all the coverage here on this issue, check out the first 3 pages or so at this link.)

But what matters most for our discussion today is that I was concerned about my image than I was about the quotation. Would I lose Twitter followers? Start rumors? Be pigeon-holed into a certain category?

…Oh, so now you want clarification where I stand? If you’ve ever heard me speak on this, you’ve heard me speak of The Good, The Better and The Best. Basically, God has a best and once you are convinced of that, you realize that anything else falls short of that. Several blog posts touch on this, but I’ve never really written one which presents this succinctly…

Alas, here I am now trying to defend myself. What follows is a general letter I wrote five years ago following the suicide of one (or several, I can no longer remember) gay teen. It’s already appeared here twice before today. I think this is a clear picture of where I’m coming from, though it’s not as clear as many would like.

Oh, and by the way, I left the Tweet in place.

Dear __________,

Somehow I found your blog today. I’m from a different part of the world, and a different generation, but I want you to know that there is no mistaking your pain, and I could feel that pain in your writing and I care very deeply for you.

High School can be a terrible environment. People commit verbal and physical abuse easily, and even the kid with the greatest degree of conformity can unwittingly become the target of the week. The bullies act out on their own insecurities, perhaps even insecurities as to their own sexual identity, though you don’t dare suggest that out loud.

Your life is a story that’s being written page-by-page, day-by-day. Only you get to choose the ending. I know you’re going through a period of depression, but your story doesn’t have to have a tragic ending. It doesn’t have to go the way you think it does. Your story can have an ending where you conquer, where you rise above the circumstances and perhaps even get to change some of the circumstances. You can write new chapters where things move in a different direction, where you can look back and say, ‘It didn’t get better overnight, but here’s a scene that was the beginning of where it got better.’

You should also know there are now alternative high schools where people are more accepting of your present sexual orientation. You might want to seriously look into that. Your parents would have probably helped you with college and university costs, they just need to be convinced that in your case you need that help sooner. But you might be able to find something closer to home if you live in a larger city. There are many ways to get that high school diploma.

I said present sexual orientation, not because I want to get into that discussion, but because you’re still fairly young, and like I said, there are always new chapters being written. On the one hand, I recognize that you know your feelings better than anyone, so the people who say, ‘This is just a phase he’s going through,’ aren’t being honest about how things are. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want you to believe the lie that says, ‘This is who I am.’ Your sexual identity isn’t 100% of who you are, what you can accomplish and the person you can become. If you write on a piece of paper, ‘I am gay;’ write it in pencil, not in pen. You might actually some day need the eraser. I say that not because I’m doubting the reality of who you are now, but simply because, as a young teen, you are still a work in progress.

I should probably end by telling you that part of the reason I’m taking the time to write this is because I believe in a God that loves all people and therefore doesn’t hate anyone. I’ve seen other blogs written by young teens who are gay but have a deep faith, and are trying to follow Jesus in every aspect of their life. They pray, they read the Bible, and they try to find ways to serve others in Christ’s name. They are making a difference in their world. I have no doubt about that, but of course, also being gay, they remain a bit of a mystery to some of my Christian friends. I think God’s capable of sorting that, and I invite you to reach out to him in prayer, because I believe that He alone is the only source capable of helping you through the pain. I believe if you take one step toward him, he will come running to you.

Paul.


May 5, 2016

Moving on to Bigger and Better Things

life's journey

As many of you know, I follow an unofficial and invisible ‘algorithm’ of sorts whereby I consistently return to same month posts from previous years to look for new material and new approaches to old topics.

Sometimes there are surprises: The particular item we quoted or linked to has been scrubbed from the site, or the entire blog or website no longer exists. I’ve never purged an article from any of my sites. If it was worth saying that day, I think it’s worth being able to go back and examine it again.

But often, it’s just a case of the writer stopped writing and rode off into the sunset.

The reasons vary, I suppose; but this one got to me:

This week I signed a publishing agreement with [name of publisher] to write my first book.

And with that, he was gone.

I recognize that you can only be active on so many fronts and perhaps if I had a book deal with that publisher — which came close once; they read my manuscript — I might reconsider the daily posts here. But then I keep thinking: It was probably their blog that got them the attention which led to the book deal, and now they’ve stopped doing the thing that got them where they are.

Some things we do in life are stepping stones. One thing leads to another. Once you’ve mastered the bicycle, you tend to leave the tricycle in the garage. I get that. But when it comes to sharing your thoughts in a forum like this one, I don’t see how you can simply not have anything more to say. What about topics that aren’t the central theme of the book you’re doing? Do you no longer have opinions on subjects that are currently on the minds of your (former) readers?

If you are a regular reader here, you know where this is going: Pastors who reach a degree of national prominence, get a major book contract, and step down from local church ministry. We saw this in the last decade with people like Rob Bell and Francis Chan.

I don’t think it’s right to sit back in my recliner and armchair quarterback other peoples’ lives. I would probably never claim to know the will of God for someone’s journey. I believe it highly presumptuous to critique the career changes of individuals I don’t know intimately.

However, in the realm of faith, I believe that the heart of ministry is local church ministry. Show me a published author who detaches himself (or herself) from the day-to-day stuff of the local congregation, and I’ll show you someone who will slowly lose the thing that got them their book contract. On a micro scale, show someone who is a pastor, but is never available at the door to shake hands after the service, or never does coffee shop appointments with parishioners, and I’ll show you a pastor whose sermons will become distanced from the very people he (or she) serves.

For those who are blessed with a deal from a major publisher: Don’t stop blogging. Don’t quit doing the everyday, run-of-the-mill thing that got you where you are. Your book won’t suffer; the non-contractual writing may in fact enhance it.

Not all bigger things are better things; they may just pay more bills.

April 25, 2016

Camp Memories (1)

Through a variety of circumstances, and with only three years experience ever having been a camper in my teens, I found myself on senior staff at a Christian camp for three summers.

The first year of the three the camp was in somewhat of a recovery mode. A previous administration hadn’t worked out and in desperation, the general director turned to an old friend who had spent a career in foreign missions to whip the place into shape. That man in turn rounded up a dozen people from the mission agency who were also catapulted into senior staff roles.

Organization PoliticsAs it turned out, that was oil and water. The senior staff was definitely split along “us” and “them” lines. One of the staff members had a baby girl, and various members of the “them” would take turns bouncing her on their knees. Let’s say the girl’s name was Carly. I did notice that the senior staff seemed divided into Carly-bouncers and non-Carly-bouncers. That was my own appraisal.

Beyond that, I was completely blind to the politics of the organization. Although most of my Christian service orientation at that point was with parachurch organizations, it was around the same time that I was discovering local church politics. But generally speaking, I was completely oblivious to the two factions that persisted at camp. I was there to do a job, and I tried to do most of my socializing with junior staff and if context permitted, even campers.

I also joined a coffee klatch, so to speak, consisting of two or three other senior staff members. The invitation to join had been highly qualified. I was told how Lewis and Tolkien and Kierkegaard would meet regularly for drinks and that the trip to the local village bakery for coffee and butter tarts (and me to pick up the camp mail) would be the equivalent. Really, they wanted to know if I, as one of the catapultees was a “them” or an “us.” And they were being very carefully guarded about what they said to me and I was being extremely vague because I had no idea about the organizational politics. Questions included shots in the dark such as, “Have you noticed anything unusual going on at camp?” (For the record, I was equally clued out about some of the young women on staff and missed a lot of social cues. If you were a female housekeeper or dishwasher that year and you’re somehow reading this, I apologize for not responding.)

However, once they heard my Carly-bouncer analogy, I was accepted as an “us,” even though it took about three weeks to get that far.

Caught in the Middle - DivorceThe mission agency people knew very little about Christian camping or even youth ministry in general, especially in comparison the “us-es” but their third world exposure meant they had good organizational skills, an ability to adapt, and a variety of gifts. Overall, I think the kids who attended that year got their money’s worth from this diversity, even if things at the senior staff level were a constant tug of war. (Important takeaway: Parachuting people from other ministry disciplines into unfamiliar contexts is not always a great idea.) I felt that within their own missions-and-development tribe, there were probably reasons to respect some of these people, not to mention their willingness to take on the camp challenge at the last minute.

What I was not prepared for was the very low view they had of those on the other side of the great divide. I had come to this job because I at a young age, I had youth ministry experience, had already started my own business, and brought an extensive knowledge of music, particularly the modern worship genre that was still in its infancy at that point. One of my other coffee klatch club members had vast experience in Christian camping, the third was studying to be a pastor and the fourth had both camping and pastoral training. Three of the four of us returned the following year when the missions people were swiftly dispatched in a spring cleanup the following spring.

So nothing prepared me for the moment when one of the “thems” came to me one day, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Your problem is, you’re completely shallow.” Wow! There’s an insult. Try it on someone sometime. Or don’t.

Shallowness I look back on it now and imagine Lucy from Peanuts, “You know what’s wrong with you, Charlie Brown? You’re totally shallow. You have no depth.”

I suppose in comparison to the travel and education opportunities she had experienced, I may have seemed like one of the kids on the farm, even if the farm was the urban ministry environment of Canada’s largest city. On that day however, the choice of words was devastating. I think it hit me hardest because it was everything I felt I wasn’t. I was a Renaissance man. I was tech and media savvy. I was well-read. I had a attended churches in a wide swath of denominations. And I did have a little travel under my belt, four countries including 40 of the 50 U.S. states.

Still, I did allow the short exchange to have some redemptive value. I worked hard to not be a one-issue candidate. To not obsess over certain pet subjects or causes. To read outside my comfort zone. To immerse myself in contexts and conversations with persons who are different. To study articles about things that aren’t my usual interests. To try to meet different people and then get inside their heads and understand their histories.

I don’t think I’m a shallow person, but…

…I do ask myself in certain situations if I’m being shallow. Is the conversation or relationship at the point of taking a leap to the next level — sure, use the video game analogy if it helps you — but I am remaining stuck at Level One? Or is the person on the other side of the exchange really hurting and I can’t see the question behind the question? Or am I missing an opportunity to go deeper because I’ve formulated some entirely different other agenda as to where I think the discussion is going? Or do I have a simplistic view of the topic at hand because I’ve never tracked with that discipline or genre? Or are my own topical choices tending toward the superficial?

Being called shallow could have been a scarring experience, but instead, I used it to form a system of checks and balances in my life. Though the rebuke was done entirely to hurt and to wound, I think it shaped me in some positive ways.

 

 

April 2, 2016

Being Needy While Wanting to Help Others in Need

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:44 am
Crowdfunding websites make it possible for ordinary people to get financial help and support when needed.

Crowdfunding websites make it possible for ordinary people to get financial help and support when needed.

Because of the particular path our lives have taken, there have been times when we have accepted financial help from friends and acquaintances. In the process, we’ve often said that the people who are least able to help are usually the ones who give. I’m not positing this as a universal truth, I’m just saying that it’s been the case in our situation.

In Wednesday’s link list, I felt moved to post a story about a family who faced unusual financial hardship during Lent because of their daughter’s illness and are asking for help. You can read that link here. 48 hours earlier, my wife showed me a crowd funding page that was set up by students (or former students) in a local high school for a guy who part of our church plant ten years ago and has had a medical diagnosis that will result in unexpected costs. You can read that one here.

I’m reading these through the lens of our own situation.

My wife came to me a few weeks ago — she’s our family and business bookkeeper — and said, “We have enough in the savings account to last us one more month, and then we’re done.” By ‘done’ she means we don’t have a back-up plan, unless we cash in one more savings fund — which is currently locked — and take a huge penalty for so doing.

I announced in Monday’s column here:

We’ve never monetized Thinking Out Loud, but this labor of love — along with our Christian bookstore — have totally depleted our savings. Still, how does one do effective fundraising in the face of other families and individuals with seemingly far more urgent needs? After our US/Canada 800-number, toll-free, call-in-a-pledge appeal failed last year, we’re looking for something that will actually help us keep going. We hope to have an answer late this week. 

But as the week went by I keep fighting taking this particular approach. Surely the two stories listed above are far more worthy of my readers’ support, right? Still, I know there are longtime readers both here and at Christianity 201 who might give if we created the right vehicle for processing donations.

Within the Christian realm, there are bloggers like Tim Challies who is able to blog full time because of referral income and sponsored posts. Author Skye Jethani is not currently on staff at a church (or at CT) and is supporting his writing and podcast ministry (and his family) through the sale of monthly devotional subscriptions, and eBooks. (Check out, How Churches Became Cruise Ships.)

Because of my involvement in a brick-and-mortar Christian bookstore (which loses money almost every day the doors are open) I still can’t bring myself to be a referrer to A-zon or even CBD, both of which have contributed greatly to the closing of such Christian shops all over North America. So I’ve never monetized the blog in that manner.

And there is the pride issue. As a twenty-something, I was told that I have difficulty accepting hospitality in all its forms. Plus there is the fear of putting it out there only to find the donations embarrassingly meager. Add to that wanting to be hero; wanting to be the one helping others, not the one asking.

So the announcement I was going to make this week is postponed for now. I leave you the comments section — if you wish — for two purposes today.

  1. If you can recommend a crowd funding type of website that isn’t time-limited and would allow people the opportunity to support Thinking Out Loud and Christianity 201, I’d love to hear it. Bear in mind that I’m in Canada, but nearly 80% of my readers are in the U.S., so it has to be American-based, but able to pay us up here.
  2. If it’s got a Christian connection, feel free to mention any fundraising page you’re aware of that’s running now. Honest! I don’t mind. (I might delete the comment after any relevant expiry dates.) Today is one day you can use the comments to promote a cause.

 

 

 

 

 

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