Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God. God's Will. Discerning God's Will. Knowing God's Will.
Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2007 by Mark D. Roberts
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Why Move? An Introduction
Part 1 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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If you've been reading my blog recently, you know that I've just left my position as Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church and have begun my new role as Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge. This change has, of course, necessitated a major move for my family and me, from Orange County, California, to the Hill Country of Texas, just outside of San Antonio.
I expect many of you have wondered why I have made this move? Several of you have asked me about this. Why leave a wonderful church where I was pastor for sixteen fruitful years? Why move my family from their home to a place that won't feel like home for a long time? Why put so much space between us and our beloved friends and family in California? Why endure the physical and especially the emotional dislocation of moving? In a nutshell, why move? Why now? And why to Texas? (Thanks to Van Partible for the cartoon of my face.)
These are important questions, questions I have been wrestling with for many, many months. Though I now have answers to these questions, those answers didn't come quickly or easily. In fact, the decision to move to Texas was, by far, the hardest decision of my life. Not that it was mine alone, mind you. It would be more correct to say that this has been the hardest decision that my wife and I, with input from our children, have ever made.
Now that I'm on this side of the divide (literally, the Continental one), having left California and moved to Texas, and having finished my work at Irvine Pres and begun at Laity Lodge, I have not second-guessed our decision. I still believe strongly that we have done the right thing. But I am impressed with how hard it is to move, especially at this stage of life. When I went away to college, I had one trunk, two suitcases, and a typewriter. Now my family and I filled a large moving van, not to mention two cars and a trailer. The physical challenges of moving are indeed many. In fact, I've been unpacking for weeks, and I still can't find much of my stuff because it's hidden somewhere in boxes stacked in the garage of our rental house or in a storage unit a few miles away.
Yet the physical challenges of moving pale in comparison to the psychical challenges. Moving messes with one's psyche. It plays tricks on the mind. It involves changing virtually everything that is familiar, comfortable, and assumed. For example, I am now in the process of learning two new addresses, three new phone numbers, a brand new layout of streets, a new configuration of the local market, a new computer system and phone system at work, a new set of weight machines at a new gym, forty new names of my new colleagues at work, etc. etc. This past weekend, for the first time in over two decades, my family and I had to decide where to go to church. Soon we faced a new parking lot, a new campus, a new order of worship, several new songs, a new preacher, and lots of new people in the theatre seats next to us. All of this newness, which can be exciting at times, takes a huge amount of psychical energy. And that's just for me. If you add into the equation the physical and psychical changes for my wife and two children, you've got a lot of change happening all at once.
In this blog series I'm going to explain why I, along with my family, have moved. At least I'll give you my perspective. You'd hear different things from my family members. And, in the end, who can say exactly what God has in mind here? My approach is to begin by telling the story of the last couple of years of my life. It's a story about stewardship, wineskins, and the enigmatic will of God. If this sounds strange, I hope it won't after a few days of blogging. I'm telling this story not only to explain why I've moved, however. I'm hoping that my example might offer a bit of encouragement to others.
This series will eventually get around to explaining why I find Laity Lodge so compelling that I've moved my family to Texas so I, along with my wife, can join the Laity Lodge team. Since most of my readers are not familiar with Laity Lodge, this will also give me a chance to introduce its diverse, exciting ministries. In the meanwhile, I'll start telling my story tomorrow.
Part 2 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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I could begin telling the story behind our move to Texas at several different places. I could recount conversations in my grandparents' breakfast room when I was a boy. Or I could relate things I learned from my pastor when I was a teenager. Or I could describe the first time my wife and I experienced Laity Lodge. I expect that, in time, I'll touch upon all of these. But for the sake of brevity, I'll begin with something that happened at Irvine Presbyterian Church in 2005. (Photo: Veritas in worship)
In January of 2005, we began our Veritas worship service. Veritas, which means "truth" in Latin, was our "post-contemporary" service, intended primarily for folks under 30. The musical portions of the service were led by an outstanding rock band. I was the primary preacher. We incorporated a variety of elements, including live painting, stirring visuals, and classic items of Christian worship, like the Lord's Prayer.
I loved Veritas (and still do, for that matter). What I most loved about that service was the eager participation of people who had, for the most part, never before connected with our church's more traditional forms of worship. My heart rejoiced to see in Veritas the kind of people we had been missing for so long: teenagers, young singles, newlyweds, visitors with piercings and tattoos, and even a few of us older folk who connected with God through the musical genre of this service. For fourteen and a half years I had worked and prayed to see Irvine Presbyterian Church include in worship those we had for so long ignored. In January 2005, it finally happened. I was thrilled.
Along with that thrill came a sense of completion, combined with an unexpected feeling of unsettledness. So much of what I had labored for as pastor, so much of what I had been called to the church specifically to do, had finally been accomplished. When I came to Irvine Pres in 1991, I faced several daunting challenges, including:
• Bring health to the ailing youth ministry.
• Help the church embrace its local evangelistic responsibility.
• Rebuild and expand the staff to support a growing ministry.
• Help the members of the church see themselves as ministers and live out their identity in both the church and the world.
• Get the stalled building program back on track; lead the church to build a new sanctuary and an administration building.
• Develop new ministries for fellowship and Bible study, so that people might grow as disciples.
• Expand the church's missions program, with more hands-on involvement by members.
• Broaden the appeal of our worship so as to draw in new people, but without losing the core of the church who preferred a more traditional genre.
By God's grace, we were able to meet several of these challenges during my first few years as pastor. In 1996, for example, our youth ministry was healthy, and we completed construction of a new sanctuary and youth center. But other goals on my list took more time. It wasn't until 2005 that we finished building the administration building. And, as I noted above, in the same year we began our Veritas worship service. For the first time in my tenure as pastor of Irvine Pres, I felt as if I had completed much of what I was called there to do. This was a wonderful feeling, but, as I mentioned above, the finishing of my obvious to-do list also left me wondering what was next. Perhaps it was time to generate a new list for the next fifteen years of my ministry at the Irvine church.
In one sense, a pastor's work is never done. There are always more sermons to be preached, more lessons to be taught, more people to be discipled, more needs to be offered to the Lord in prayer, more lost sheep to be carried home. As I began to wonder what I was supposed to do next in service to the Lord, it wasn't as if I had nothing more to do as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. In fact, I was working hard, often feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work required in a growing church. For example, Veritas added about a half-day of work to my week, given extra meetings and preparation, but I had not delegated any of my other responsibilities to someone else.
Yet, even as I had more than enough to do as pastor, I began to wonder where I should be focusing my energies in the future. Assuming, as I did, that I'd be the pastor of Irvine Pres for many more years, I began ruminating about how I could best use the gifts and opportunities God had given me. In theological language, I started to wrestle with the issue of stewardship. No, not fund raising for the church, but stewardship or wise management of the gifts God had given me for ministry.
Next time I'll say more about the issue of stewardship and how it played out in my life.
Part 3 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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It might seem strange that I'm talking about stewardship in the context of explaining why I have recently left Irvine Presbyterian Church in California to begin a new ministry at Laity Lodge in Texas. The word "stewardship" is not commonly used these days, and when it is, it is usually associated with environmentalism and church fundraising. When pastors need to raise money for churches, we preach about stewardship (rightly so, I might add). So when churchgoers here the word "stewardship," they're inclined to run away. But please don't do that! I'm not going to hit you up for money in this blog post.
Stewardship is, in fact, a much broader and, if you'll pardon the pun, richer topic than we sometimes assume. It has to do with using well what God has given us. That's why some contemporary communicators prefer the word "management" to "stewardship." As Christians, we are to manage God's gifts well, recognizing that God is the true owner of all things, including ourselves, that we are accountable to Him for what we do, and that we are to use His gifts for His purposes. (Photo: the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church)
In my last post, I explained that in 2005 I had an unusual sense of completion in my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. Of course the core of my pastoral work continued much as it always had, as I preached, taught, prayed, led, supervised, counseled, and encouraged. But the larger, specific goals that I had taken on in 1991 when I came to the church, such as building a new sanctuary and refurbishing our youth ministry, had been fulfilled by 2005. Even as I felt grateful for all that God had done through my pastoral work at Irvine Pres, I also felt unexpectedly restless. What were major initiatives would come next? What was I supposed to do with the next fifteen years of my life?
At the time, I considered the last question almost entirely with the assumption that I would remain as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. I felt no desire to leave the church, and had never considered any other offer that came my way. In fact, I thought I would complete my professional ministry at Irvine Pres, and this thought was a very pleasant one for me most of the time. I loved the people of the church, and my family was very well settled in the church and the community. Moreover, we had wonderful friends and extended family in Southern California. Who in his right mind would move away from this?
Yet the question of stewardship kept nipping at my heels. As much as I felt I had used my gifts well at Irvine Pres, I wasn't convinced that I should continue in the next fifteen years in the same way I had in the last fifteen years. Why? Because in the time since 2000 or so, new ministry opportunities had opened up for me, largely through my writing. And God had been clearly blessing these new efforts, suggesting, perhaps, that He wanted me to do more of the same.
That is not to say my books were selling like hotcakes. More like lukewarm cakes. But I did hear from many people, especially from pastors and other Christian leaders, that my books had meant a lot to them. Several preachers told me they had based sermon series on Jesus Revealed or Dare to Be True. Many others had written to share how much No Holds Barred helped them to have a more intimate relationship with God. My books, which were loosely based on my sermons, extended my pastoral ministry in new ways. The same could be said for the writing I did for several magazines, notably, Worship Leader.
Though I had a modest impact through traditional written media, the new media opened up stunning new opportunities for me. I began my blog, markdroberts.com, on December 22, 2003. I started blogging, not because of any convictions about opportunities in the blogosphere, but because my friend Hugh Hewitt had pestered me into it. Moreover, I figured my blog would be helpful to members of Irvine Pres. I was right about this, in fact. But what I didn't anticipate was the extent to which my blog would attract millions of readers from throughout the world, and give me the chance to make a major difference in the church and in the world. I was blown away, for example, when a Justice of a state Supreme Court wrote to thank me for my blog, noting that he was a regular reader. I had similar notes from well-known journalists, entertainment industry leaders, and politicians. Some of the most moving e-mails I received came from soldiers serving in Iraq who wrote to thank me for my blog. Last year I received a request to use some of my blog materials from a chaplain serving with an Army battalion on the front lines in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, my blog opened up opportunities for me to exercise leadership in other contexts, in public lectures, or radio interviews, or in consultation with religious and secular leaders. The kind of thinking I offered through my blog seemed to be helpful to people in other settings as well, and they began to seek me out.
No doubt, at first all of this spun my head, or, if you prefer, gave me a bit of a big head. It was exciting to get thousands of visitors to my blog in a single day. But before too long I stopped checking my blog hits (which I almost never do) or being impressed with my being an "influencer." Blogging and the doors it opened became simply ways to use the gifts God had given me for His sake, as I tried to offer a calm, respectful, thoughtful, and faithful voice in a world that has way too little calm, respect, thought, and faith.
In 2005 I began to wonder if God wanted me to use my gifts and opportunities in new ways. I began musing about whether my pastoral role at Irvine Pres could be redefined so as to free me up to do more writing and leading. It wasn't that I didn't value or even like some of the managerial tasks I hoped to delegate to someone else. These were necessary for the health of the church, to be sure. But I just wasn't sure that it was the best use of me to sit for hours refining a job description, even though I knew that such a process needed to be done, and done well. How, I wondered, was I to be a faithful steward of the unique mix of gifts and opportunities God had given me?
For the most part, I kept my stewardship musings to myself. I shared them with my wife and a few close friends and counselors, but that was all. I wasn't ready to share them with my board of elders at church, partly because my ideas were ill-formed. And I had absolutely no interest in looking for another position where I might use my gifts better. This was true even when, in 2005, I received an attractive information packet from Laity Lodge, announcing their search for a new Director and Executive Director. And it was still true when one of my best friends, one who knows me well and wants the best for me, told me that the Laity Lodge opportunity was perfect for me. "There's no way I'm moving to Texas," I told him, "so forget about it." When the person leading the Laity Lodge search left a voice mail message for me, asking me to call back, I did the mature, polite thing, and never called her back.
As I reflect upon this season of my life, I'm impressed with how, at the same time, I was both open to and closed to God's will for me. I was truly seeking God's will for how I might best use my gifts for His purposes. I spent hours upon hours in prayer and meditation on this question of stewardship. It felt as if my heart was truly open. Yet I had clearly limited God's options. I wasn't asking, "How can I best use my gifts for You?" but rather "How can I best use my gifts for You as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church?" This wasn't a bad question. In fact, it was a great question, the kind of question every pastor should ask, and that every person should ask with respect to their work. The problem was that I wasn't open to the possibility that God had other plans for my life.
Yet God, in His grace, didn't give up on me. Nor did He make things easy for me, by the way, sending an angel from heaven to announce that He was calling me to Laity Lodge. No, God's work in my life was slower. There was much more I needed to learn and to experience before I would be ready to ask the stewardship question without restricting God's answer. And much more needed to happen before I, along with my wife, would be willing to seriously entertain the wild notion that God might want us in Texas.
I'll have more to say about this next time.
Stewardship and My Session
Part 4 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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In my last two posts I explained how, in 2005, the combination of completed tasks at Irvine Presbyterian Church and opportunities afforded through writing got me thinking about how I could best use what God had given me for His purposes. I started to wonder what it meant for me to be a responsible steward of my gifts and opportunities in the years ahead.
As I was puzzling over this stewardship question, my life as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church was getting busier and busier. During my tenure we had almost doubled the size of the congregation and the staff, and had tripled the number of our ministry programs. Whereas in 1991 I preached twice each weekend, by 2005 I was preaching four times, twice using digital projection that I prepared. And, as people in the congregation came to trust me as their pastor, they were more eager to meet with me or e-mail me to discuss their personal concerns and struggles. I was doing good things as pastor of Irvine Pres, to be sure, but too many of them. Meanwhile, I continued to do my writing, mostly on "my own time" in the evenings and on weekends. But I was feeling increasingly overwhelmed by my workload at church. Furthermore, I was concerned that I was spending too much time in tasks that were not the best use of my gifts and opportunities. In a nutshell, I feared I wasn't being a good steward.
I was slated to begin a three-month sabbatical from my pastoral ministry in April of 2006. One of the great things about Irvine Pres is its sabbatical policy for pastors. In the first months of 2006, I was looking forward to my sabbatical like a thirsty traveler hiking through a parched desert on the way to a well-watered oasis. Finally I would have an extended time to be refreshed physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and also to devote considerable time to my stewardship concerns. I would have three restful months to ask the Lord what He wanted to do with my life.
Before I left on sabbatical, I decided to share my thoughts and feelings with my Session (the board of elders and pastors at Irvine Pres; photo to the right: some members of my Session in a skit for my farewell party). In a Presbyterian church, the Session has almost complete authority over the life and ministry of the church, including much of what appears in a pastor's job description. I wrote a long letter to my Session, reading it out loud at a meeting in March 2006. In this letter I told the story of my ministry at the church, explaining how I had completed many of the goals that had been set for me when I began in 1991. I also shared my frustration with the unmanageability of my administrative and pastoral responsibilities. Finally, I talked about my sense that God was opening up new doors for me through writing, and I wondered how this might fit within my calling as the pastor of Irvine Pres. Summing up my current state of mind, I wrote this paragraph, the only italicized paragraph in the long letter:
I want to use the distinctive gifts and talents God has given me for maximum benefit for His kingdom. I want to be the person God has created and saved me to be. I want to do the work for which He has uniquely fashioned and gifted me. To use theological language, my passion is to be a good steward of the gifts God has given me, for His glory.
My Session received my letter graciously, aware that it was unusual for a pastor to share such things so openly. Usually, in the Presbyterian church, pastors process their calling privately, and then announce their findings to their Session's once when they have figured things out. There is some wisdom in this practice, by the way, because it can be unnerving for church leaders to hear of a pastor's unsettledness. By sharing as I did I risked becoming a lame duck pastor, at least in the minds of some of my elders. Nevertheless, it seemed right to me to share honestly with my Session what I was thinking and feeling so that they might be partners in my stewardship search. My hope was, furthermore, that they might work with me on retooling my position at Irvine Pres so that I might stay on as pastor and, at the same time, be a better steward of my odd combination of gifts and opportunities. That retooling process began in March 2006, and continued through until summer of 2007, when I shared with them my new call to Laity Lodge.
I'll continue this story in my next post.
Stewardship and My Sabbatical
Part 5 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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As I explained in my last post, in the early part of 2006 I looked forward to my pending sabbatical as a time for seeking God's direction for how best to use my gifts for His purposes. My three month sabbatical would provide an occasion to wrestle with the question of stewardship in an intentional and relaxed way.
My sabbatical began on April 17, 2006. Shortly thereafter I began seeing a spiritual director named Doug. He was a wise, mature Christian who had received training in helping people pay attention to God's activity and direction in their lives. Spiritual directors do not actually direct those who meet with them, contrary to what the name might suggest. Rather, they help people discover and discern God's direction for their lives. With Doug's assistance, I sought to work on my stewardship question. I believed he might help me identify God's leading from my own confused inklings. Was my desire to focus more on writing and leadership a reflection of God's direction? Was it a matter of faithful stewardship? Or was it simply an implication of my laziness, or my unwillingness to do tasks that I didn't relish? Questions like these were the focus of my regular meetings with Doug.
Early in my sabbatical a publisher sent me a book that was soon to be released. It was written by the best-selling author Max Lucado, and was called, Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot. The timing of the arrival of this book was truly providential because it spoke directly to the very things I was trying to sort out. Lucado explained that God has created each of us as unique beings, and our uniqueness fits us perfectly with a certain kind of ministry in the world. Finding and doing this ministry is "living in your sweet spot." That was exactly what I was looking for in my own life. What was the "sweet spot" God had intended for me?
During my sabbatical in 2006 I didn't have any flashes of insight about my future. No "road to Damascus" events for me. I did have experiences that helped me to know that, though I wanted to do more writing in my life, I didn't want to be only a writer. Ditto with itinerant speaking. I came to see clearly that being part of a ministry team helped me use my gifts well. So, at the end of my sabbatical, I returned to Irvine Pres refreshed and ready to see how my job at church might be reconfigured to align with my unfolding sense of calling. Curiously and sagely, my spiritual director wondered if God might have something new for me to do, but he didn't denigrate my new-found enthusiasm for church. He simply urged me to remain open to God with "patient eagerness."
When I got back to church, I was pleased to discover that the Session and Staff had already reconfigured my job and our staff alignment. Now I would supervise only four people directly, who would in turn supervise the greater staff. This allowed me to focus my efforts for greater effectiveness. I still had plenty to do, but as I told my Session, "Before I went on sabbatical I felt as if I was drowning. Now I'm able to tread water. I'd still like to be able to swim forward, but treading water is a whole lot better than drowning!"
During the fall of 2006, I met individually with my elders, talking in detail about my hopes for a refocused job that would allow me to be a better steward of my gifts. The elders were supportive, and were willing to engage in a process of discernment in the months ahead. They were rightly concerned about what would be best for the church, and I encouraged them in this concern. But we sensed together that there could be a coming together of vision, need, and giftedness. Good stewardship of my gifts could very well be good stewardship of Irvine Presbyterian Church's resources and mission. This seemed to bode well for my future at the church.
As I think back on the events of 2006, I continue to be grateful for my sabbatical. Even though I ended up leaving Irvine Pres just a year after I finished my sabbatical, I think the church got a reasonable return on its investment in me. My preaching was never stronger than in my last year. And, though my conversations with the Session about the future turned out not to impact my future at the church, those discussions helped the elders to prepare for the crucial process of clarifying the church's mission, so that they can call the right person as the next pastor.
I realize that most folks aren't given the gift of a sabbatical. But all of us can, if we make appropriate choices, build into our lives the kind of rest that refreshes us and helps us discern God's will with greater clarity. When I'm caught up in a flurry of activity, I'm not especially attentive to God. Hearing God's voice requires an extended time of quiet and solitude. At least that's true for me. I think I'm not alone in this need, however, because Jesus Himself often took times away for quite and prayer. If He needed it, so do we all!
I didn't receive any heavenly visions during my sabbatical. In fact, I came back to Irvine Pres with new energy and hope for my role there. During my sabbatical I didn't have one conversation with any potential new employer, and had no intention of pursuing such a conversation when I climbed back into the pastoral saddle. But my time of rest, including wise input from folks like Max Lucado, my spiritual director, Doug, my wife, and other trusted counselors, helped me to be in a new place of attentiveness to God, even if I never dreamed where this would lead to in my life. In the fall of 2006, Texas was nowhere near the horizon of my future, as I envisioned it.
But, of course, God had other plans. I'll begin to discuss these in my next post.
The Problem of Wineskins
Part 6 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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When I was in college, The Problem of Wineskins by Howard Snyder stirred up lots of controversy. Snyder had the gall to suggest that many common church structures did not adequately contain the new wine of the gospel, and must change. Church folk tended to be unhappy with this book, while collegians like me loved The Problem of Wineskins.
Early in 2007 I had my own, personal problem of wineskins, but it didn't have to do so much with the church as with my own discipleship. If you're just now joining this series, let me say that in 2006 I was trying to discern with greater clarity how best to use my gifts for the work of God's kingdom. I thought this would happen in the context of my being the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I had served for over fifteen years, and where I had hoped to minister for many more years to come.
Early in January of 2007 I received an impressive packet of information from a leading Presbyterian church on the East Coast. They were looking for a new senior pastor, and asked if I would be a candidate for the position. I scanned their material for a couple of minutes and noted that they were a fine, evangelical church. But I quickly sent a note declining their interest. Leaving Irvine Pres to become pastor of another church, even a larger and more influential one, simply wasn't something I seriously considered doing.
Meanwhile, I was working my way through the Gospel of Luke in my weekly preaching. The second week in February brought me to Luke 5:37-38, a passage about new wine and old wineskins:
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.
On Thursday, February 8, I wrote the sermon called, simply, "New Wine." In this sermon I warned folks about the fatsal disease of "Oldwineskinitis," what which kills churches and debilitates disciples. Echoing the insights I had once learned from Howard Snyder, I called our church to a costly, scary openness to the new wine of Christ and the new wineskins required to contain that new wine. Here's how I ended that sermon:
Some of you might now be thinking: "Wow, pastor, you've stepped on enough toes here today for a year's worth of preaching. Keep doing this, and you'll be looking for a new job!"
Indeed, I may. I hope not, of course. But let me be very clear about something: I'm not the wine; I'm just a wineskin of this church. And if there ever comes a time when I'm not the best person to help contain and communicate the new wine of the gospel here, then new pastoral wineskins are needed.
If this sermon leaves you a bit unsettled today, remember that Jesus has been unsettling people for almost 2,000 years. I don't know how we can honestly and faithfully hear Jesus talk about wine and wineskins without being unsettled. Yet if we offer our unsettledness to the Lord, if we invite Him to be sovereign over our lives and over our church, if we open our hearts to Him, then He'll pour His new wine into us, the new wine of salvation, the new wine of the kingdom.
And this, my friends, is the point. The new wine is the point. The good news of Jesus Christ is the point. The truth of God's Word is the point. Loving God, each other, and our neighbors is the point. Changing lives is the point. Making disciples is the point. Restoring God's creation is the point. The new wine is the point. Everything else is wineskins.
In my excitement over the implications of Christ's new wine, I wrote more than could be contained in a single sermon. So I took the personal implications of this parable and put them in one of my Pastor's Letters. Here's an excerpt from that letter, composed on February 8, edited and mailed on February 12:
In a larger sense, our lives are wineskins for the new wine of Christ. This means that we need to let the new wine renew and transform, not just the obviously religious parts of life, but everything. We need to ask the Lord: How can my work be an effective wineskin for Your new wine? And my marriage? And my family? And my finances? And my professional goals? Etc. etc. etc.
I confessed in Sunday's sermon that I am by nature a conservative "old winer." That's true for my personal life as well as my church preferences. I tend to hold on tenaciously to my favorite wineskins, including those that may have outlived their usefulness. Thus I am challenged to surrender my life to the Lord, to offer to Him all that I am. I realize that doing this is risky, because God may just have plans for me that require new wineskins. In principle I know that God's plans are always the best. But in practice I'm more comfortable with what's predictable and familiar. So I find Jesus's talk of new wine and wineskins to be personally challenging and unsettling. . . .
Your challenge is the same as mine: to surrender to the Lord all of your wineskins and to ask for the filling of new wine. If you do this honestly, I'm convinced that the results will be wonderful. But I'm also convinced that you'll be called upon to give up some old wineskins and take on some new ones. This is the hard part, the part we tend to resist. So I pray for you, as I pray for myself, that God will give us the freedom to surrender our lives to him, so that He might fit us with new wineskins and fill us afresh with His new wine.
As I wrote this sermon on the Thursday before I preached it, including the portions that ended up in the Pastor's Letter, I felt unusually passionate. It seemed as if this word about wineskins was exactly what God wanted to say to Irvine Pres as a body, and to each of us as individual believers.
But I had no idea on that Thursday just how much God wanted to say to me about the wineskins in my life, and how He would use this text to change my life in ways I had never imagined. Stay tuned . . . .
The Problems of Wineskins (continued)
Part 7 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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As I explained yesterday, on Thursday, February 8, 2007, I wrote a sermon based Jesus's parable of the new wine and wineskins (Luke 5:37-38). In this sermon I passionately warned my flock at Irvine Presbyterian Church about the dangers of "Oldwineskinitis." I called them to a daring openness to the new wine of the gospel. I had so much to say in that sermon that I included some of what I had written in a Pastor's Letter, where I called individuals to "to surrender to the Lord all of your wineskins and to ask for the filling of new wine."
As I finished writing that sermon, I felt strangely moved. It was as if the word I had just written was much more than my best insights into Scripture. I felt as if what I was about to say to my congregation was like a word of prophecy, a clear and direct word from God to my people. I remember praying with particular fervor that God would give us ears to hear what He wanted to say to us. Yet I had no idea how God would answer that prayer in my own life.
An Unexpected Phone Call
On Friday, February 9, I received a phone call from a man who was on the pastor search committee for a church on the East Coast. This was the same church that, a month earlier, had expressed an interest in me as a candidate for their pastor. At that time I had declined to pursue a conversation with them. The man on the phone, Paul, wanted to give it another try. He explained why they were interested in me and why their church might be a good place for me to pastor. At the end of his presentation, he asked, "Would you be willing to think and pray about this? And then could we have one more phone conversation?"
In January it had been easy for me to say "no" to this church. But that was before I had written a passionate sermon on wine and wineskins. How could I turn down Paul's invitation when I was going to stand up in a few hours and call my people to a bold openness to the new wine of Christ? How could I cling to my favorite wineskin – my pastoral role at Irvine Presbyterian Church – and preach against "Oldwineskinitis"? I realized that I had to say "yes" to Paul or be a hypocrite who had no right to preach.
I told Paul that I wasn't looking for a new job, that I didn't want to leave Irvine Pres, and that I couldn't imagine moving my family away from Irvine. So I wasn't sure that he wanted to waste time on me. But, I explained, I felt that I needed to be open to the Lord in a new way. "If that's enough for you," I said, "then we can have another conversation." That was enough, so we planned to talk in a couple of weeks. (Photos below: my former office at Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I talked with Paul on the phone. I had a great office, thanks to our architect and a fantastic building committee. The next pastor will be truly blessed.)
What extraordinary timing! Here I was going to preach on being open to new wine and new wineskins and I was having to deal with the very thing I was going to preach. This couldn't be just a coincidence. It must be God at work.
Cornered by God
Now you might think I was thrilled to know that God was busy in my life, helping me to work through a passage on which I was to preach. Were I a godlier person, I expect that might have been true. But, to be honest, I was bugged. I felt as if God had sneaked up on me and cornered me. If Paul had called on Wednesday rather than Sunday, I would have found it easy to decline his offer, and that would be that. But, because of that doggone wineskins sermon I had written, I now had to be open to the potential new wineskins in my life, and I wasn't happy about that one bit. It made my life much messier and much scarier.
Before I get a hundred e-mails rebuking me for my terrible theology, please understand that I'm not making doctrinal statements here, but personal confessions. I do believe that God's will is always the best. And I do believe that new wineskins are best, even if they're frighteningly unfamiliar. But I often find that my thoughts and feelings don't catch up with my theological convictions right away. They're generally on the slow track of discipleship. This is a track I'm committed to going down, however, and so I did.
When I got home on Friday evening, I told my wife what had happened earlier that day. I related my phone call with Paul, and my sense that God had cornered me, so that I had to be open to another conversation with him unless I were to travel the unacceptable route of hypocrisy. Linda was impressed by what seemed to be God's unusual timing, but not altogether happy about the idea that our lives might change in some unexpected way. She loved our life in Irvine, and couldn't imagine ever moving our family away, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, Linda agreed that I needed to have another conversation with Paul. Like me, she gives God the first place in her life, even when it's scary.
At the end of my discussion with Linda, as I was walking out of the room, I turned to her and said something I meant mostly as a joke: "Well, maybe this conversation with Paul is God's way of getting us to Laity Lodge." Maybe? Indeed!
In my next post I'll explain further why I mentioned Laity Lodge at all, even in jest.
Why Laity Lodge?
Part 8 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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In my last post I told the story of how my sermon on new wine and wineskins confronted me with a choice: either be open to the possibility that God had new wineskins for my life, or be a hypocrite. Since I'm generally allergic to hypocrisy, I chose to be open to changes in my life that I had previously rejected. Specifically, I agreed to have a second conversation with a man named Paul, who served on a pastor search committee of a church on the East Coast. In sixteen years as the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I had never before engaged in such a conversation with another church. But, as I discussed this with my wife, I said, mostly in jest, "Well, maybe this conversation with Paul is God's way of getting us to Laity Lodge."
That turned out to be an ironic statement, of course. I had known for over a year that Laity Lodge was looking for a Director and an Executive Director. As I mentioned earlier in this series, they had sent me an attractive information packet, and had made an effort to contact me through Laura, their executive search consultant. Moreover, one of my best friends, who had spoken with Laura, had strongly encouraged me to consider a position at Laity Lodge. "This is perfect for you," he told me. Nevertheless, I rejected his counsel and I dodged all conversations with Laura. I didn't want to complicate my life with thoughts of Laity Lodge.
But there was a part of me that felt drawn to this place in Texas, a part I managed to suppress for over a year. My attraction to Laity Lodge requires some explanation, because most Californians have never heard of Laity Lodge, let alone feel some desire to work there. But I had, in fact, heard of Laity Lodge for most of my life.
Early Visions of Laity Lodge
It all began in the 1960s when I was growing up in Glendale, California. My uncle, Don Williams, was a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Somehow he became connected with Howard E. Butt, Jr., a groceryman from Texas who, as a layperson, had a powerful ministry of preaching and a passion for lay ministry (the ministry of all of God's people in the church and the world). In 1961 Howard Butt founded Laity Lodge along the Frio River in the Hill Country of Texas. Not long afterward my uncle began speaking there and at other venues where he teamed up with Howard Butt.
When I was in elementary school, I heard stories from my uncle about Laity Lodge and its marvelous ministry. I never saw pictures of the retreat center, however, so I imagined that it looked like the only parts of Texas I had ever seen: the dusty, hot plains of the Panhandle. Frankly, I couldn't quite figure out why anybody would want to build a retreat center there. (The photo to the right is not the location of Laity Lodge, but it is rather like what I once envisioned. The reality is immeasurably better.)
Howard Butt Impacts My Life
One time when my uncle spoke at Laity Lodge, he invited his parents to a retreat there. They were both quite involved in their church, though my grandfather had never accepted Christ in a personal way. Christianity was, for him, simply part of a disciplined, decent life. While at Laity Lodge, my grandfather heard Howard Butt preach. When he ended his message with an invitation for people to receive Christ as Lord and Savior, my grandfather did so. Hearing him tell this story gave me huge appreciation for Laity Lodge and for Howard Butt in particular. He had helped one of the people I loved most in the world become a Christian, and for this I was (and still am) profoundly grateful.
On one of my uncle's speaking trips to Laity Lodge, Howard Butt asked if he might listen to cassette tapes of my uncle's teaching. My uncle replied that he didn't have any tapes or any way to make them. This inspired Howard to help my uncle get the equipment he needed to produce cassettes of his messages. While I was in high school and college, I worked for the little ministry spawned by this effort, which further increased my appreciation for Howard Butt, a man I never expected to meet in order to say "Thank you for helping to put me through college."
Laity Lodge Once Again
I didn't hear much about Laity Lodge for the next twenty years, until a friend of mine, Dave Williamson, became a Director there in 1999. Dave had been one of the pastors at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where we met and became friends, even though we never worked on staff together. I was surprised when Dave announced his move to Laity Lodge, partly because I wondered how a Minnesotan transplant to California had ever even heard of the place.
Not long after Dave began at Laity Lodge, he invited me to speak at a retreat there. I was pleased, not only to teach the Bible to a fine group of Presbyterians from Texas, but also to see Laity Lodge at last. My wife joined me there for a retreat in 2001.
On the way to Laity Lodge from the San Antonio airport, I was surprised by how many trees filled the landscape. This wasn't the Texas Panhandle kind of scenery I had for so long imagined. Though I teased Dave about the smallness of the "hills" in the Hill Country (remember, I'm a California boy), I was impressed by the beauty of this part of Texas.
Yet none of what I saw on the way to Laity Lodge quite prepared me for my first experience of Laity Lodge itself. I'll pick up the story in my next post.
Why Laity Lodge? (continued)
Part 9 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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In my last post I was telling the story of my first visit to Laity Lodge, the retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas that I had heard so much about when I was a boy. As I mentioned before, on the way to Laity Lodge, which lies twelve miles north of the tiny Texas town or Leakey, and about a hundred miles west of San Antonio, I was struck by the surprising beauty of the Hill Country, a far cry from the Panhandle Plains I had mistakenly thought represented all of Texas geography.
My First Visit to Laity Lodge
Once we turned off the highway onto the Howard E. Butt Foundation property, we descended into a canyon, and soon approached a lazily flowing river. The sign pointing toward Laity Lodge included a surprising direction: "Yes! You drive in the river." Our host, my friend Dave Williamson, did as the sign said, and turned left into the Frio River. The river, which was only a few inches deep, provided a handy "road" on which we drove for a couple hundred yards.
Leaving the river, we entered the grounds Laity Lodge itself. I was captivated by its quiet beauty. I'd been to dozens of retreat centers in my life, yet I couldn't remember one that radiated peacefulness in the way of Laity Lodge. Soon my wife and I were sitting on a balcony outside of our room, enjoying the calming beauty of the Frio River (as seen in the photo to the right).
Our weekend at Laity Lodge was delightful. The grounds, as I've mentioned, were inspiring. The food was delicious and plentiful. The Lodge staff was unusually hospitable. My sense of Laity Lodge's uniqueness was compounded when, in his welcome to the retreatants, Dave explained that they were free to attend all sessions and activities . . . or not. "If you need a nap," Dave said, "take a nap. If you want to go on a hike, go on a hike. We believe God has an agenda for you, but at Laity Lodge, we don't have an agenda for you." Even though I was the speaker, the one whose messages Dave was inviting people to miss if they wanted to, I loved the feeling of grace and freedom he conveyed. Laity Lodge was truly and gloriously unique.
A Providential Visit in 2007
Since my inaugural voyage in the Frio River in 2001, I returned to Laity Lodge as a speaker again in 2003. My wife, Linda, was so appreciative of the retreat center that she attended a retreat there in 2005. Both of us deeply valued the ministry of Laity Lodge, and looked forward to future visits. Neither of us, however, ever imagined that we might end up working in this ministry on a full-time basis. But when Dave asked me to speak for a retreat there in 2007, we were glad to be returning to Laity Lodge.
In God's amazing providence, that retreat occurred on February 16-18, 2007, the week after I delivered my "wineskins" sermon. Given my new conviction that I needed to be open to the possibility that God had something for me beyond being the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, and given Laity Lodge's previous interest in me, I wondered what my new openness to God meant in this situation. I knew that Laity Lodge had hired a marvelous new Director, but was still seeking an Executive Director. I decided that I would not bring up the issue of their search, since I was not seeking a new job and didn't want to misrepresent my intentions. But if Dave were to bring up the issue, then I'd be honest about what had been going on in my life.
The Ball Begins to Roll
Indeed, Dave did bring it up, though in a light-hearted manner because he respected my previous wishes. "So, Mark," he said with a sly smile, "are you ready to come work for us as the Executive Director?" I told him I didn't have a quick answer to that question anymore. Thus we began an extensive conversation. I told Dave where I was in my life. I shared my question of how best to be a steward of my gifts and let him know what had been going on in my life because of my recent sermon on wineskins. I told Dave, much as I had told Paul, the man from the East Coast church, that I wasn't looking for a job, and that I couldn't imagine moving my family away from Irvine. Yet I added that I knew I needed to be more open to God than I had ever been before. "If your people want to talk with me on this basis," I concluded, "then I'll talk to them. But I don't want to mislead anyone about where I am in this process." Dave said he'd share what I had told him with the people involved in the Executive Director job search.
A few days later I heard from Laura, the person overseeing Laity Lodge's search. She said she would indeed like to talk with me. And so began a process that I had never sought or wanted, and that led to a place I had never imagined. I didn't get to that place quickly or easily, however. The process was a long and often painful one. Indeed, the decision about whether to join the staff of Laity Lodge was the hardest one of my life, and the hardest one my wife and I have ever made together.
In my next post I'll say more about that process, and how it relates to the enigmatic will of God.
The Enigmatic Will of God
Part 10 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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In February 2007 I found myself in a place I had never been before. My quest to discern how best to steward my gifts for the sake of God's kingdom, combined with the impact of my sermon on Jesus's parable of new wine and wineskins, had led me to a place of unprecedented and uncomfortable openness before God. My firmly held conviction that I would remain as the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church for many years had to be surrendered to God as I sought His will for my vocational future.
The Will of God
God's will. Now there's a complicated subject, one I'm not going to get into right now, at least not in any detail. There's a legitimate debate among Christians about whether God's will for us is specific and pre-determined, as in "God wants me to serve Him in this particular place", or whether God gives us a fair amount of latitude to make choices that honor Him, as in "God isn't so concerned about where I serve Him as He is about how I serve Him wherever I am." As a Christian with Reformed theological leanings, I tend to believe that God does have a specific will for us, but that He is graciously willing to work with our choices, even when we make the wrong ones. I do not believe that God has one perfect will for our lives, which, if ever we miss it, necessarily dooms us to a second-class life. God's wisdom and grace make room for lots of failure on our part, thank God!
Much of what God wills for us is exceedingly clear and requires relatively little discernment, except in the question of application. There is no doubt, for example, that I should love my neighbor. The only questions concern how and where and when and whom. After all, I can't love all of my neighbors since there are, in the words of the classic bumper sticker, "Too many neighbors, too little time." If you go through Scripture and compile the clear commands of the Lord for us, you've got plenty of God's will for your life. Unfortunately, discussions of God's will often forget this part, choosing to focus only on the specific questions like, "Which neighbor does God want me to love?"
I do believe that God has a more specific will for us, much as He did for Abram, David, Isaiah, and Paul, to name just a few. In Genesis 12, God didn't say to Abram, "Get up and go wherever you like." Rather, He said, "Go to the (specific) land that I will show you." It's clear that God had a particular place in mind for Abram. Similarly, there are times in our lives when God answers the "Where are the neighbors I should love?" question in quite detailed and particular ways. I am fully convinced, for example, that in 1991 God was calling me to Irvine, California as the focus of my pastoral ministry. My neighbors to love lived in that city at that time.
Even if God has a very specific will for our lives, this doesn't mean we necessarily know exactly what His will is. God told Abram to leave everything that was familiar to him and to go "to the land that I will show you" (12:1). Part of God's will was very clear: Go! But the rest was still hidden: To the land I will show you. For Abram, faith translated into trustful obedience, even though he didn't know where it would lead him.
The Enigmatic Will of the Enigmatic God
Often God's will is enigmatic. This has everything to do with the fact that God is enigmatic. According to 1 Corinthians 13:12,
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (NRSV)
If you were to read this verse in the original Greek, you'd find something a little surprising. It reads, "For now we see through a mirror in a riddle, but then face to face." The Greek word translated as riddle is ainigma, which literally means "riddle." Ainigma is the basis for our words "enigma" and "enigmatic." God's will for us is often enigmatic, revealed in riddles, even as God Himself is enigmatic this side of the age to come. (Speaking of riddles, Jim Carrey made a decent Riddler in Batman Forever, but I still prefer the classic Riddler of Frank Gorshin in the Batman television series.)
Sometimes Christians, especially Christians in the evangelical tradition in which I find a theological home, get nervous when somebody suggests that God is enigmatic. They quickly point to Christ and Scripture as clear and sufficient revelations of God. I would agree that there is a sense in which God's revelation through the Word Incarnate and the Word inscribed is both clear and sufficient. Children can come to know God through Scripture, and none of us needs to look elsewhere.
Yet, at the same time, I would remind those who embrace Scripture as the inspired Word of God that it speaks of the fact that God exceeds our understanding. "My thoughts are not your thoughts," said the Lord through Isaiah (55:8). "Now we see through a mirror in a riddle," added Paul (1 Cor 13:12), who wrapped up the theological discussion in Romans with this exclamation: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (12:33). God has given us all we need in Jesus Christ and in Scripture. But this does not mean that God, including God's will, is always clear. Sometimes it is, by God's design, enigmatic.
In my next post I'll suggest one reason God doesn't make everything about His will crystal clear.
One Reason Why God's Will is Enigmatic
Part 11 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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In February 2007, I believed I had discerned part of God's will for me. I knew I was to use well the gifts He had given me for the sake of His kingdom. I believed this would involve some changes in my professional life, so that I could devote more of my time to writing and leadership and less of my time to some of the administrative tasks that are required of many pastors. I also felt sure that God wanted me to be open to Him in a new way, and this way included letting go of the "wineskins" of my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I still had high hopes that the "wineskins" of my job description at church could be renewed so that I might stay there as pastor. But by late February I was willing as never before to admit that God might have other plans for my life. Willing, yes. Eager, hardly. I loved my church family. And I loved how much my own family felt at home in Irvine Presbyterian Church.
The process of discerning the enigmatic will of God for my vocational life was, as I've mentioned previously in this series, a difficult one. It took five months for my wife and me to move from a place of miniscule openness to Laity Lodge to the conviction that this was where we should invest our lives. I wish I could tell you that I spent these five months in faithful, peaceful, trusting prayer. There were some moments like that. But I must confess that a good chunk of those five months was filled with too much worry and too many sleepless nights. When I thought about leaving Irvine and moving to Texas, I did feel considerable excitement about Laity Lodge and its manifold ministries. But counterbalancing that excitement was lots of fear: fear about what life would be like so far from the home my family and I had known for sixteen years, fear about leaving a parish ministry, fear about taking my children away from great friends and a fantastic youth group, etc. etc. Time and again I offered those fears to the Lord, and slowly, very slowly, I began to sense His peace.
One can speculate about why it too so long for my wife and me, with thoughtful input from our children, to decide to move to Texas and join the Laity Lodge team. It's possible that God had made His will clear all along, and that we were unwilling to see it. It's also possible that God wasn't rushing us along because He was interested in more than simply getting us to do what He wanted. I wouldn't be surprised if both options were true, to an extent. I am sure my own resistance to God's will made it hard for me to discover it. Yet I am also convinced that God was taking time to with us because He was concerned, not just to get us to Laity Lodge, but also to help us grow as His disciples in the process.
For me, the greatest growth came in my willingness to trust God. You might think that because I have trusted Christ as my Lord and Savior for over forty years, and because I have been a pastor for almost twenty years, I might have worked out my trust issues before. In some ways and some contexts I had done this. But my relationship with God has always involved ongoing growth in trust as I give over to the Lord more and more of myself and my life. From February 2007 until late July, when Linda and I decided to move to Texas, I had to surrender even more of myself than I ever had before.
Ironically, or perhaps providentially, one of the most significant factors in my learning to trust God more was a book called Who Can You Trust? Though it dealt as much with trust in human relationships as with trust in our relationship with God, this book challenged and encouraged me to rely upon God in a new way. Now the ironic or providential part of this story is the fact that this book was written by Howard E. Butt, Jr., the founder of Laity Lodge. His wisdom and openness helped me to trust the Lord in new ways, which in turn helped me to give up the security of my life in Irvine and move to Texas to join the team at Laity Lodge. I'm quite positive that Howard Butt didn't write Who Can You Trust? as a staff recruiting tool for Laity Lodge. But, in a strange way, that's exactly what it became in my life. More importantly, it helped me to deeper with the Lord. Sometimes God's ways are both enigmatic and delightful.
Why Laity Lodge? Tying Up Some Loose Ends
Part 12 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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Earlier in this series, before pausing to reflect on the enigmatic will of God, I was chronicling the process that led me to leave Irvine Presbyterian Church and join the staff of Laity Lodge. I won't continue to give you the play by play of that whole process, which began in February 2007 and culminated on July 23, 2007, when my wife and I, with the support of our children, said "Yes" to Laity Lodge. Suffice it to say that Linda and I spent much of those five and a half months in conversations: with leaders from Laity Lodge, with close friends and family, with other wise counselors, with each other, with our children, and with God. As I've confessed before, there were plenty of sleepless nights for me as I wrestled with my fears and with the Lord. I didn't begin to feel a sense of peace about the decision to move to Laity Lodge until shortly before we made it.
Since that watershed moment, I haven't questioned the rightness of our decision, though I've sometimes felt overwhelmed by its implications. Moving one's entire life, ministry, and family from California to Texas has been a staggering task, and it won't be close to over until we sell our house in California and settle into a new home in Texas. (Anybody need a great house in Irvine?) Even then, of course, we'll still be dealing with the emotional and spiritual dislocation inherent in such a move. For example, for the first time in our lives, we're church shopping. Yikes!
At this point in my Why Move? series I want to shift gears from a more or less a chronological sequence to a more or less logical one (logical to me, at least). I want to explain as clearly as I can why I believe that it was right to join the staff of Laity Lodge and, therefore, to move my family to Texas.
But before I get to the logical stuff, I want to tie up a couple of loose ends I have left dangling. First, if you've been reading along, you know that my openness to Laity Lodge began with a phone call from Paul, a gracious man on a pastor search committee for a Presbyterian church on the east coast. I mentioned that Paul and I agreed to talk again, but then left the story right there. So what happened with that church?
Paul and I did indeed have that conversation, then a phone interview that included several other members of his committee, then a face-to-face interview with these same folk. At the end of that interview, I told Linda that these were fantastic people from an outstanding church. They had an exciting vision and were the kind of people I'd like to share life and ministry with . . . just like the folks at my own church! Though the east coast church was much larger than Irvine Presbyterian Church, and thus offered new challenges and opportunities, I didn't sense that this was where God was leading me. So I conveyed this to Paul, who was gracious, as always. Not too long thereafter his church called a marvelous new pastor.
The other loose end concerns my conversation with the elders at Irvine Presbyterian Church. As I noted above, we were engaged in a discussion about whether my sense of calling, which involved more writing and more expansive leadership, could be fulfilled by reworking my job description as the church's senior pastor. The elders, though personally supportive of me, were also concerned about what was best for the church, as they should have been. This was, after all, their primary responsibility. The elders and I didn't rush to any conclusions. In fact, when I told them early August that I was going to Laity Lodge, our conversation was still moving forward. By that time it was clear to me that God wanted me at Laity Lodge, no matter what might be worked out at Irvine Pres. The elders received my news kindly and supportively. Nobody chewed me out and said, "So why'd you make us go through this darned process with you?" In fact, as I had said to them along the way, our conversation turned out to be more about the next pastor than about me. At any rate, Laity Lodge was not some escape hatch out of Irvine Presbyterian Church, but an exciting opportunity to which God was calling me and my family.
So, now that I've tied up those loose ends, I'm prepared to explain why I chose to join the Laity Lodge team. I could make it simple and say that I did what I believed God wanted me to do. That's true. But I want to explain further why I believed this. And so I will in my next post.
Laity Lodge: Faith, Psychology, Art, and My Wife
Part 12 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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With this post I want to begin to explain why I believed (and still do believe!) that God was calling me to Laity Lodge. From here on I'm planning to provide, not a chronological description of my discernment process, but a rationale. I want to lay out some of the reasons for this move.
In my last post I mentioned that Laity Lodge was an exciting opportunity for me and my family. Yes, my family would experience the sadness of leaving friends and family behind. And they would not have the immediate benefits I would experience as I began to work for Laity Lodge. But I believed that there were good things for my family if we were to make this move, especially for my wife, Linda.
For one thing, I was convinced that Laity Lodge would be an ideal place, not only for me to use my gifts for God's kingdom, but also for my wife, Linda, to do the same. This was a crucial part of my decision-making process, as well as in Linda's. In California, she had many opportunities both for professional fulfillment as a Marriage and Family Therapist and for doing various kinds of ministry (retreat speaking, spiritual direction, mentoring, integration of faith and art, etc.). If I was going to make a move, my new situation had to be right for Linda as well. For me, this was a matter of our stewardship of our gifts, not just mine of mine.
Ever since our first visit to Laity Lodge, Linda had loved that ministry. Its sense of peace, prayerfulness, beauty, and freedom touched her heart. In fact, Linda attended a women's retreat at Laity Lodge in 2005, where she had a transformational experience of God's grace. In particular, the speaker for that retreat, Marjory Bankson, helped Linda feel confident in her calling as a minister of Christ. (In a sweet bit of divine providence, next summer Linda will speak at a Laity Lodge women's retreat, along with Marjory.)
Laity Lodge also offered Linda an unusual opportunity to develop her unusual combination of gifts and interests. She is, as I already mentioned, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has worked for years on the integration of faith and psychology. Laity Lodge has a long history of drawing together evangelical faith and an openness to insights from psychology. In fact, in many of the first retreats at Laity Lodge, Bible teachers were teamed up with Christian psychologists to provide a broad perspective on Christian wholeness.
Laity Lodge provides a safe place for people to share their spiritual journeys without having to pretend that they're perfect Christians. The willingness of key leaders of Laity Lodge, most of all its founder, Howard Butt Jr., to share their struggles has given permission to others to do the same. The result has been authentic growth in faith and in personal and relational wholeness. Linda, more than anybody I know, is willing to be open and honest about what's real in her life, even as she encourages others to do the same. Thus she fits Laity Lodge to a 'T.'
My wife is also an artist, with a special love for watercolor painting. (If you've been reading my blog for a while, you may remember Linda's marvelous paintings of the Stations of the Cross.) She has also used art in her teaching in churches and retreats. Experiencing art, she believes, can help people grow in their relationship with God.
So then there's Laity Lodge, which, more than any similar ministry I've ever known, values art and its relationship to faith. For years Laity Lodge retreats have included fine artists who both share their work and help retreatants to venture into new artistic expressions. These experiences have often been transformational for people as they discover new areas of giftedness and grace. Several years ago Laity Lodge built the Cody Center in honor of one of its beloved former directors, Bill Cody. The Cody Center includes a fantastic building for concerts and art shows, as well as two studios where retreat goers can try their hand at a variety of artistic efforts. (The picture to the right shows part of the Cody Center through the trees. In the background you can see the roof of the main building. To the right is one of the art studios.)
I could keep on going here, since Laity Lodge also provides a venue for Linda to teach, to co-host retreats, to meet with individuals as they seek God's direction for their lives, and so on. You can surely see why I came to believe that a move to Laity Lodge offered wonderful possibilities, not only for me, but also for Linda.
In my next post I'll explain further why I'm convinced that Laity Lodge provides an opportune context for me to be an effective steward of the gifts God has given me.
Laity Lodge and the People of God
Part 13 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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Since I grew up hearing the name "Laity Lodge," I didn't realize until recently that this name can be confusing to people. My nephew, when he first heard of it, thought I was going to work for "Lady Lodge." (I have no idea what his eight-year-old mind pictured when he thought of Lady Lodge.) The voice recognition program I use sometimes interprets Laity Lodge as "Lady Large," which paints an altogether different picture of its reality. In a skit during my farewell celebration at Irvine Presbyterian Church, church leaders enjoyed the implications of "Lady Lounge." Finally they got it right: Laity Lodge.
The "Lodge" part of Laity Lodge requires little explanation, though in fact the retreat center outside of Leakey, Texas, includes more than simply one building. It's a lodge in the sense of many countryside retreats that include a complex of buildings for relaxation and recreation. (Photo: Laity Lodge is located in a canyon along the Frio River, about 12 miles north of Leakey, Texas. The white arrow points to the exact location.)
The Meaning of "Laity"
That brings us to the word "Laity." Just for fun, I Googled "laity," and came up with 3,490,000 hits. Laity Lodge came up third. The first two entries define "laity." According to Wikipedia, "In religious organizations, the laity comprises all lay persons collectively. This can mean either any person who is not a member of the ordained clergy or of any monastic order . . . ." The second Google hit is the "Laity" article from the Catholic Encyclopedia. This article begins:
(Greek laos, "the people"; whence laikos, "one of the people").
Laity means the body of the faithful, outside of the ranks of the clergy.
Here we see the etymological origins of "laity." It comes from the Greek word laos, meaning "people." This word is the source of the English word "lay," which is sometimes used in the sense of "non-specialist," even beyond religious circles. But I don't think I've ever heard the word "laity" with this non-religious meaning. When one says "laity," one means "the people of the church, not including the clergy."
Laity Lodge is, at it's core, a retreat center for the people of God. I should hasten to add that it is not only for non-clergy, because that would, among other things, preclude me from going there. In fact, Laity Lodge welcomes ordained pastors, often using them as retreat speakers.
But this retreat center is not primarily for the clergy. Rather, it is for all of God's people. From a biblical point of view, the people of God, the laity, if you will, includes all believers, even those who have been set aside for particular tasks we associate with ordained ministry. I am a member of the clergy, and also a member of the laity.
Laity Lodge was founded in 1961 by Howard E. Butt, Jr. for the primary purpose of encouraging the laity in their ministry. At that time, most people assumed that clergy were called to "the ministry," while lay people were not. They were to be recipients of the ministry done by ordained pastors, ministers, priests, preachers, and so forth. But Howard Butt had taken seriously the passages in Scripture that speak of ministry as something given to and required of all believers in Jesus, not just the few who had ordained credentials. As a layperson himself, a groceryman to be specific, Howard Butt had a vital ministry of evangelism and teaching. With the founding of Laity Lodge, he would focus his own ministry on encouraging and equipping lay people to be ministers of Jesus Christ.
Howard Butt's effort to teach and inspire lay people happened, not only through Laity Lodge itself, but also through a wide range of ministries, including the Layman's Leadership Institutes and the North American Congress of the Laity in 1978. He continues to advocate the ministry of all of God's people through his writings and radio spots that illustrate The High Calling of Our Daily Work. But thus the ministry of Laity Lodge, like that of its founder, is both focused on what happens at the retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas, and spread out to impact church and culture in a broad way. What all of the particular ministries of Laity Lodge have in common, beyond a core commitment to the Triune God and a vision for multi-layered renewal, is a mission to empower the people of God to be ministers of God in church, in family, at work, and in every other part of life.
This mission is something to which I am excited to devote the next season of my life. I'll explain why in tomorrow's post.
Lay Ministry in My Bones
Part 14 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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In my last post I explained that Laity Lodge is devoted to the ministry of the laity, that is, the ministry of all of God's people, both clergy and non-clergy alike. In this post I'll share why I share that core commitment of Laity Lodge. As I've said many times before, I have lay ministry in my bones.
I didn't start out that way. I spent my early years in a Methodist church. The man in charge was called a minister. He preached and prayed and did all the things ministers do. (He also had a son who was about my age, and who was extremely mischievous. I remember one Sunday during worship when this boy was crawling through the plants along the side of the sanctuary. My mother whispered to me that minister's children are often troublemakers.)
When I was six years old, my family moved to Glendale. We left our Methodist church in Inglewood and started attending the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. "Hollywood Pres," as we called it, had many ministers on staff, including my uncle Donny. Though the lay members of this church were active in many kinds of service, I don't remember hearing anything about lay ministry per se. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)
Lloyd Ogilvie and Lay Ministry
Then, in 1972, Lloyd Ogilvie came as the senior minister of our church. Except that's not what he wanted to be called. He said that he was the church's pastor, not its minister. All of us, he continued, are ministers. All of us are called into the ministry of Christ, so that we might serve Him both in the church and in the world. Therefore we should no longer call Lloyd Ogilvie and the other ordained folk ministers. They are pastors, people who are to equip us for our ministry. We are the true ministers.
I still remember my initial reactions when I heard Pastor Ogilvie say this. I was fascinating by the idea that I was a minister of Christ. I felt honored, empowered, and challenged. Yet I didn't like the word "pastor." It sounded odd to me, and it took a while before I began to be comfortable calling Doctor Ogilvie my pastor.
During the next nineteen years, I heard Pastor Ogilvie reiterate the lay ministry theme again and again and again. He articulated a four-fold vision for the church, which included it being "an equipping center for the ministry of the laity." Under his leadership, the Hollywood church began a Wednesday evening "Laos Academy," employing the Greek word laos, which means "people."
In 1984 I joined the staff of Hollywood Pres as the Director of College Ministries, transitioning to become the Associate Pastor of Education in 1988. In both of these roles I was expected to equip the lay members of the church for their ministry. I was assigned the Wednesday evening program, the successor to the Laos Academy. During my seven years on the staff of the Hollywood church, never once did I hear anyone question the idea of lay ministry. That's not to say that every single member of the church was living out his or her calling as a minister of Christ. But the notion of lay ministry was so embedded into the culture of the church that it was assumed to be true. We had lay ministry in our bones.
Lay Ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church
This was not true of all churches. When I came to Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, I preached several sermons on lay ministry, calling my people to be ministers of Christ in the church and in the world. I expected that what I was saying would be simply a reminder of what folks had previously heard and believed. Thus I was shocked to discover that many of my faithful members had not heard that they were ministers of Christ. Some were excited by this new perspective on their calling as Christians. But others were angry with me. I remember one church leader taking me aside after a Sunday morning service. Pointing his finger at my chest in an accusatory manner, he said, "You're just trying to get out of your job! You are the minister here. We called you for this purpose. We pay you well to be our minister. So don't try to get us to do your job!"
That was an eye-opening experience for me, let me tell you. For the first time in my adult life I realized that what I had learned from Lloyd Ogilvie wasn't the party line throughout Christendom. There were still lots of faithful Christians who believed that the ordained clergy were the ministers, and that the members were called to receive the ministry. Many of these were in my own church!
During the next sixteen years of my pastorate at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I sounded the lay ministry bell again and again. I showed my congregation that I wasn't making this up out of whole cloth. It was found within Scripture in many passages, notably Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and Matthew 28:16-20. In time, the church began to embrace its calling as ministers. By the end of my tenure there, this idea was no longer controversial. I was gratified to see hundreds of our members actively involved in a wide variety of ministries, from teaching Sunday School, to coaching soccer, to serving on the city council. In fact, this was one of my greatest joys as a pastor. (By the way, the man who accused me of trying to get out of my job changed his tune and became both a committed minister of Christ and a dear friend.)
Given the fact that I have lay ministry in my bones, and that empowering the laity has been a central theme of my ministry as a pastor, it has been easy for me to embrace this central commitment of Laity Lodge. I'm delighted to spend the next chunk of my life working in a ministry that seeks to encourage and equip God's people for ministry. This is, I believe, one of the greatest opportunities for the church today.
Thus, I have chosen to join the Laity Lodge team because I am committed to helping the people of God be ministers of Jesus Christ. Moreover, I'm excited to be part of a ministry that brings exceptional resources to bear upon this mission. I'll say more about these resources in my next post.
The Resources of Laity Lodge
Part 15 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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The stated mission of Laity Lodge is:
The renewal of society
through the renewal of the Church;
through the renewal of the family;
through renewed individuals.
Central to this mission of multi-level renewal, as I've explained in my last two posts, is a commitment to the ministry of all of God's people. Part of individual renewal is helping Christian people to discover that they are ministers of Jesus Christ, and are to serve Him in their relationships, in their work, in the church, and in the wider world.
Laity Lodge has a wealth of resources to fulfill this mission. Most obviously, it is a retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas, a complex of about a dozen buildings placed in an stunning canyon along the Frio River. Throughout the year, Laity Lodge hosts 40-50 retreats, some organized by Laity Lodge itself, others by churches and other Christian groups. One of powerful draws for me when I thought about joining this ministry was the chance to help it use the unique retreat center God has entrusted to it for His purposes. Yes, once again, it's an issue of stewardship, not of my gifts, but of those belonging to Laity Lodge. (Photo: Black Bluff, one of the housing facilities at Laity Lodge, built almost literally on the Frio River)
But Laity Lodge is more than just a fantastic retreat center for adults. It is part of the larger work of the H.E. Butt Foundation. Founded in 1933 by Howard and Mary Holdsworth Butt, the Foundation includes a wide array of ministries such as: the Laity Lodge Youth Camp, the Foundation Free Camps, and The High Calling of Our Daily Work. Laity Lodge itself is located in the center of the Foundation's 1900-acre ranch that comprises five other camps, the Youth Camps and Free Camps. I won't go into detail about these other ministries today. You can learn more about them by clicking on the links above. But I will say that one of the things that drew me to Laity Lodge was the thought of being part of a ministry that seeks to reach out to children and others who can't afford an experience in the country. The Free Camps allow thousands of people each year, mainly children, to be exposed to the love of God at camps that are literally free. Church groups and other non-profit agencies use these camps without charge.
This exceptional generosity is a hallmark of the family that lies behind Laity Lodge and the H.E. Butt Foundation. Howard E. Butt (senior) founded the H.E. Butt Grocery Company after serving in World War I. As the company flourished, he and his wife used their financial blessings for a variety of philanthropic causes. The charitable Foundation they established purchased the ranch for the Free Camps in 1954, and helped to found Laity Lodge in 1961. Howard E. Butt, Jr., and his family have continued to devote their lives and their financial resources to the varied and growing ministries associated with Laity Lodge. In recent years, others have begun to join this amazing family with their financial contributions, thus extending the impact of the Foundation and Laity Lodge.
The financial and physical resources of Laity Lodge are indeed impressive. But these are not the most valuable of Laity Lodge's resources, in my opinion. The best Laity Lodge has to offer is a network of people, some of the finest people I have ever met. Not surprisingly, I agree with Howard Butt, Jr., that the "wealth" of Laity Lodge lies in the people assocaited with this ministry. Back in 2001 when I first visited Laity Lodge as a speaker, I was impressed by the extraordinary graciousness and talent of the people who worked there. That impression has grown as I've come to know the leadership of Laity Lodge and the whole Foundation.
If I started mentioning by name all the people who have impressed me with their character, faith, and talent, this would post would be way too long. So I'll note only a few of the major players.
When I was just beginning my conversations with this ministry about joining their team, I met with Steven Purcell, the newly hired Director of Laity Lodge. Over dinner at P.F. Chang's China Bistro in Austin, Steven and I became acquainted, sharing some of our personal stories and our vision for the kingdom of God. I was deeply impressed by Steven's depth and creativity. I came away from that meeting thinking that I it would be a privilege to work with him.
The next day I met Howard E. Butt, Jr., founder of Laity Lodge, along with his son-in-law, David Rogers, who is the Executive Vice President of the Foundation. Over a long lunch we talked about our lives, our faith, and the ministry of Laity Lodge. Toward the end of that meeting we focused on what they were looking for in an Executive Director (the title of Senior Director came later). As I left that meeting, I wasn't sure that the job description of Executive Director was right for me. But I had a powerful desire to partner with these outstanding leaders as they sought to serve the Lord.
And so it has gone as I've met so many others associated with Laity Lodge. I'm thinking not only about the members of the staff. Laity Lodge involves a network of committed, visionary, faithful Christian people who are united by a love for Christ and Laity Lodge, as well as a dedication to the mission of Christ and Laity Lodge. Included in this complex of relationships are some of the most highly respected leaders I know, people such as Eugene Peterson, J.I. Packer, Armand M. Nicoli, Jr., and Earl Palmer. For many years, award-winning author Madeleine L'Engle was a frequent visitor to Laity Lodge. Literally hundreds of other leaders in business, education, government, and church are part of the Laity Lodge community.
As I considered how best to use the gifts God had given me, I became convinced that this would happen if I were to join the Laity Lodge team. This ministry offered me the opportunity to focus more of my time and energy in areas of personal strength, giftedness, and passion. I'll say more about this in my next post as I draw near to the end of this series.
The Wider Vision of Laity Lodge
Part 16 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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As I have explained previously, Laity Lodge is, at its core, a unique retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas. For forty-six years, this ministry has sponsored life-changing retreats, featuring some of the most gifted teachers, musicians, and artists in the world. If this was all Laity Lodge were to do, it would be a worthy and blessed work.
But, in fact, Laity Lodge has a wider vision. This is reflected even one of the fundamental purposes of retreats. They are not only to be catalysts for a personal experience of God, but also to empower people to go into the world as ministers of Christ, helping to renew their workplaces, families, churches, and, indeed, society as a whole. Retreats are seen, not as an end in and of themselves, but as a means to further the ultimate goal of multi-layered renewal.
Yet Laity Lodge does more than put on retreats. As I mentioned in my last post, it is one ministry of the Howard E. Butt Foundation, which includes Free Camps, Laity Lodge Youth Camp, Laity Lodge Family Camp, and The High Calling of our Daily Work. I will be working directly with The High Calling, which is a website chock full of resources to help people live out their faith in daily living, especially at work. This website regularly features radio spots by Howard Butt, Jr., as well as Bible studies, articles, and interviews by a variety of authors on a variety of subject related to the workaday world. Writers for The High Calling include: Tod Bolsinger, Scott Cairns, Harold Fickett, Emilie Griffin,Dale Hanson Bourke, Virginia Stem Owens, Earl Palmer, Olga Samples Davis, Luci Shaw, and Tim Stafford.
I have found the interviews on The High Calling to be especially insightful. They usually focus on some business leader who is also a person of faith. The questions get at things we all wonder about, and the answers are often fresh as well as wise. For example, be sure to check out Nancy Lovell's recent interview of Fred Smith, one of the most influential evangelical leaders in recent time. This turned out to be the last interview Fred Smith ever gave before his death at 95.
I will be doing a fair bit of writing for The High Calling, as well as helping to shape the content and future of this ministry. As Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, I will also be represent this ministry through writing and speaking in various settings, including this website. Since joining the staff of Laity Lodge, I've written four articles for publication in various magazines, spoken at a preaching conference, and preached at a pastoral installation service. Though I don't expect to keep up this pace, I'm grateful for the chance to spread the vision of Laity Lodge through communicating "out there" in the church and the world. And I'm thankful for the support I have received from Laity Lodge as I seek to be a good steward of the gifts God has given me.
I began this series by talking about stewardship and my desire to discover how best to use all that God has given me for the sake of His kingdom. My quest to be a faithful steward led me to an unexpected openness to leaving my pastoral ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church and joining the team of Laity Lodge. After a focused five-month process of discernment, which was actually the conclusion of an eighteen-month search for divine guidance, I finally became convinced that Laity Lodge provided the answer to my stewardship question.
I'm not done with stewardship, however. Though I expect to be a member of the Laity Lodge team for many years to come, I will continue to work with my colleagues and supervisor on how best to use my gifts to further the ministry of Laity Lodge. In a ministry with so many exciting things going on, this won't be easy!
Moreover, I believe that one of the reasons God has called me to Laity Lodge is to help this wonderful constellation of ministries deal with its own stewardship challenge. God has richly blessed Laity Lodge with the abundant resources I outlined in my last post. Along with this abundance comes a wide vision for personal, relational, institutional, and social transformation. Thus the leaders of Laity Lodge will face the continual challenge of how best to use all that God has given. It's stewardship all over again, now writ large.
I hope and pray that as I get to know this ministry thoroughly, as I build deep relationships with my Laity Lodge partners, and as I reflect with them on what Scripture teaches, I might be able, in some small way, to help Laity Lodge determine what good stewardship of their resources will mean. Along the way, I expect that we'll encounter the tricky question of what wineskins are appropriate for the new wine of the gospel. And, I'm sure that there will be times when God's will for Laity Lodge will be enigmatic. Yet if we seek the Lord faithfully, if we surrender our agendas selflessly, if we pray together honestly, if we submit to one another humbly, and if wait upon the Lord patiently, then God will guide us. Sometimes His guidance will be surprisingly expansive and visionary. More often, God will give us the next steps in which we are to walk, trusting that His way is always best, even if we don't know yet what it is.
As I wrap up this series on my move from Irvine Presbyterian Church to Laity Lodge, I hope I've been able to offer some encouragement to others who are seeking God's enigmatic will for their lives. I also hope I've been able to introduce many of my readers to the wonderful collection of ministries associated with Laity Lodge. If I've intrigued you, please check out the Laity Lodge website. We'd love to have you at one of our retreats! And be sure to visit The High Calling as well.
Finally, if you are a person of faith, I'd appreciate your prayers, both for me and my family as we begin this new adventure together, and for Laity Lodge, that we might indeed be faithful stewards of all God has entrusted to us for the work of His kingdom. To God be the glory!