Inward First

Inward First

An observation as one who spends his days making disciples…One challenge in discipleship is that most adults have never been taught to pay attention to their inner life.

Whenever I am troubled in any way, the rush is to find external explanations for what I am experiencing. In that sense, the cause of my discomfort is always outside of me – someone or something else has caused it. In my mind, I tell myself that if I could just change that circumstance, go to a different place, surround myself with different people, all would be great. That’s what I tell myself, but I know all along that it’s not actually true.  The truth is actually much closer to me than I’d like to admit.

There’s an old adage which says, “wherever you go, you are there.” Do you remember that one? Sobering words, right?

 
In the rush to find an external cause for our every discomfort or misadventure, we forfeit the golden opportunity to look inward. Though often avoided, looking inward is an incredibly powerful practice that we must discover or rediscover if we are ever to mature spiritually and emotionally. Learning to look inward and inward first, is an essential part of living a “whole and holy” life.

As a pastor and leader, this is especially true for me. Tending to my inner life is a 24/7 gig and it’s not easy at all. Yet, I lean into this practice because of the reality that who we are internally will eventually show up externally. Rather than being paralyzed by the fear of how your inner brokenness might eventually show up and wreak havoc on your life and the life of those around you, why not get started on the work of becoming aware of your inner life and working to transform it? As you getting started in this work, may I suggest a resource?

 

The single best modern resource that I’ve come across for practice of inner transformation is a book called The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Pete Scazzero. Helping leaders to see a connection between their emotional health and spiritual health is a part of Pete’s life work, which that you can learn more about at EmotionallyHealthy.Org. The Emotionally Healthy Leader is an incredible resource that helps the reader pay attention to their heart, their past, their motivations, and many other elements of the inner life. You’ll explore topics like sabbath, leadership shadows, marriage and singleness, boundaries, and more. I highly recommend this book and the workbook that goes with it!

Regardless of your career or stage of life, your inner life matters. You’re never too late or too early to begin this work. Today is a good day to get started!

Questions:

  1. What do you think keeps most adults from doing that needed inner work? 
  2. Over the years, have you learned any helpful strategies for looking inward? 
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2 Plants

2 Plants

Now & Later

2 potted plants.

One is in full bloom. The other is only recently planted.

Many people will extol the beauty of one and denigrate the other. Other people will see that they’re both beautiful in their own way. They’re just in very different stages of growth.

I look at the one on the left and imagine that, at some point, it looked like the one on the right. I look at the one on the right and smile because with patience and care, it can one day bloom as fully as the one on the left. 

Think about your life. Think about the lives of those around you. Think about the institutions and organizations that you belong to. Are they the plant on the left or the one on the right? Or both?

What’s true about these two plants is true of much of life. At our best, we see that. We get that…and we experience the richness of life because of it! 

Grace & Peace!

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#GospelChallenge, Part 3

#GospelChallenge, Part 3

Over my last two posts, I’ve described what I see as a huge obstacle to discipleship in urban areas. That obstacle is racial strife.

In the first post of this series, I described racial strife as a past and present struggle which makes it very difficult for people of different ethnic and “ racial” backgrounds to connect, develop trust, and grow together. I contended that the gospel message often runs into a wall because the Church in America refuses to confront its racist legacy. In the second post of this series, I described the image problem that the Church has and challenged us to begin to re-imagine what it means to be “the people of God” in urban areas.

In this third & final post of this series, I’ll share a bit of my story, highlighting the road that has brought me to this place of understanding.  Finally, I will offer up some practical insight from my experiences that may prove helpful as we journey forward together.

Check it out and share your thoughts…


While I love the city and my ministry here, I am first and foremost a country boy.  I grew up in a small community in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. My family was a part of a small church there, maxing out at about 100 people on Sundays like Easter and Christmas. We had a “larger than life” pastor and no other staff. I have very fond memories of our pastor placing the youth of the church on the front row for Bible study and teaching us the Scriptures there, alongside the adults. It was there, in my childhood, that I developed a love for the Scriptures and a love for the Church. Even while I struggled with my faith during my college years, that love persevered.

My wife and I moved to Minneapolis in 2005 and after a year, I took a position as a youth pastor at a large Baptist church on the Northside of the city.  North Minneapolis was often described as the stereotypical urban area:

    • high crime (often violent crime), high rate of family breakdown, high in nearly all the societal negatives
    • low-income, low property values, low performing schools, etc.

Even so, or perhaps because of those things, North Minneapolis was the community that I felt called to. I wanted to serve that community faithfully. I cared deeply for the people, and my heart broke over and over again to see the plight of the people there, especially, young black and brown children.  Despite its reputation, I knew that God was at work there, and I wanted to be a part of what God was doing!

In January of 2007, after serving that church for 3 months, I entered a master’s program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  It was a truly  transformational time!  A few questions were my constant companions throughout seminary, as I served and studied:

    1. What does it look like for a disciple-making church to take root and flourish in an urban area, specifically North Minneapolis?
    2. How does racial strife and segregated churches contribute to what we see happening in these communities?

I wrestled with these questions for 4 long years.  Even today, I’m wrestling with these kinds of questions.  After graduating from Bethel Seminary in 2011, I took a position at a large, urban, intentionally multiethnic church in the same community. I moved out of a sense of calling but also because my wrestling with these kinds of questions had grown more intense.  Today, I’m a part of the pastoral team at that church, and I’m still wrestling with similar questions.

While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I’ve observed a number of things in both study and practice that I’d like to offer up to you,  not as an expert but as a co-laborer in Christ:

Urban churches and ministries need a more balanced view of discipleship. 

Due to the sheer nature of urban life, discipleship can quickly lose its place of priority in the urban ministry.  In urban ministry, the needs are often glaring and overwhelming.  Mission drift happens easily and effortlessly.  As a result, I’ve seen urban churches and ministries drift into one of three categories:

  1. Group One churches turn their attention and resources upward, towards purely “spiritual things.” Their strategy is to become increasingly heavenly minded as a way of dealing with the dire situations around them. These churches become experts of great choirs, prayer meetings, and pastor’s anniversaries but little else.
  2. Group Two churches turn inward in response to the conditions that exist in the community.  They become a proverbial oasis in the city, a country club in the midst of vast poverty.  What matters to these churches is what happens within the walls of the church. The people who matter most to them are the ones who call this church their home.
  3. Group Three churches make the decision to fix their attention and resources outward, focusing entirely upon meeting the social needs of the community around them. These churches move from project to project, from this drive to the next, while neglecting spiritual or communal things entirely.  These churches often have a revolving door of socially conscious people who come and go because of burnout and a lack of meaningful relationships.

I believe that each of those churches can teach us something, but that each has failed to be balanced in their view of discipleship, therefore producing one-sided believers. An unbalanced church is an ineffective church.

The folks at 3DM paint a much different picture of discipleship, one built on rhythms of:

  • Time with God (Up)
  • Time with other believers (In)
  • Time in the world on mission (Out).

I believe that urban communities would see great transformation when urban churches and ministries call them towards passionate spirituality, radical community, and missional zeal!

Racially homogenous churches & ministries are at a severe disadvantage and will struggle to overcome their own cultural preferences. 

There is a common occurrence in urban ministry that seems to be on the upswing as urban ministry becomes “the flavor of the day”.  Regularly, I witness the entrance and growth of large, well-meaning Christian ministries. They are well-resourced organizations with lots of paid staff, plush buildings, name recognition, and much more.  None of this is troubling on its own.  The inherent problem is that many, if not all of these organizations, have a staff that is 100% white in areas that are mostly non-white. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these young, white staffers come from colleges and backgrounds where they have never had to wrestle with issues of privilege and whiteness.  In many cases, they enter urban areas and do serious damage because of a lack of cultural intelligence and self-awareness.

I contend that racially homogenous churches and ministries must become a thing of the past.  I agree with the writers of United by Faith when they argue that, “The best antidote to national & evangelical struggles over racial & ethnic issues is to build multiracial congregations (organizations) whenever possible.” This point feeds into my next point.

You will not reach and disciple an increasingly multiethnic world by holding onto to mono-ethnic preferences. 

Even today, in the eyes of many people, to be a Christian is to be white.  This is not to say that to become a Christian a Black or Brown person must change their skin color, but many believe that Christian culture is largely synonymous with suburban, white culture.  In other words, too much of what we pass off as Christian, is really what is comfortable for white people.  Consider our worship styles.  Consider the milestones that we celebrate. Consider the way that we view things like time, honor, conflict, even aging.  From where do many urban churches/ministries adopt their values?

Before the gospel is able to really take root in urban areas, we need to have some open, honest conversations about how we exist as the people of God.  How much of our current existence as the people of God is tainted by Eurocentric bias? How much of what we do and believe come from cultural biases? It’s a challenging conversation, but I see the church as a worthy “crucible” where we can work out some of these issues of race, ethnicity, and other “isms” in a grace-filled way.

Us vs. Them is a self-perpetuating impasse. You need indigenous leaders in meaningful positions within your organization

I’ll say this succinctly. The greatest testimony that you can have as a ministry in an urban area is the track record of raising up indigenous leaders and handing off meaningful leadership responsibilities to them. How quickly can your organization move from a place of “us” and “them” to a place of “we?”

Finally, I remember 4 steps from Miroslav Volf’s excellent text, Exclusion and Embrace.  Volf argues that, “The church has been involved in oppression and exclusion. We have become so absorbed in our own cultures that we are blind to the evil of exclusion.” Volf offers up four steps that I feel must become second nature to all people who would be reconciled, especially in light of racial or religious strife.  He says that both the oppressor and oppressed are called by Jesus to:

  1. Repentance
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Making Space for Others
  4. Healing of Memory

These are not one and done steps.  On the contrary, I do not see us overcoming this great #GospelChallenge unless we are daily entering into this process.  Repentance. Forgiveness. Making Space for Others. Healing of Memory. Repeat!

May the God of Peace grant us daily the grace to be reconciled…to God and to one another!

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#FatherFactor

#FatherFactor

Last year, I was contacted by a guy named Andy from the Pacific Northwest and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a book that he was working on.  The book he described was focused on the two topics that I write/think most frequently about, faith and fatherhood.  After a quick google search, I realized that Andy was not a hacker or a serial killer, that he had an epic beard, and that this was a real book project.  Of course I had to be a part of it!

I’m happy to announce that the project is done and that on October 14, 2014, Father Factor: American Christian Men on Faith and Fatherhood is set to be released!!!

father_factor_cover

 

The Father Factor project is part of the I SPEAK FOR MYSELF book series, published in partnership with White Cloud Press.  The book explores the intersection between faith and fatherhood, which is core to who I am. The book contains forty essays by forty men all under the age of forty. We represent a wide variety of Christian faith perspectives: Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Baptist, Church of God, United Church of Christ—and a whole host of different ethnicities: Korean, Mexican, Pacific Islander, Egyptian, Chinese, African American, and Caucasian. We represent all sorts of professions – ministers, professors, a real estate agent, an actor, nonprofit leaders, stay-at-home dads, and a call center representative. We can be found in cities as far apart as Honolulu, Hawaii and Paris, France, and many all points in between. Each of us shares a compelling story about faith and fatherhood…The finished work is amazing!!!

I’d highly recommend the book for your personal library and for small group discussions.  The website is here…Take a look around and take advantage of a great discounted price between now and October 13th!

Thanks to everyone who helped bring this project into being, and I look forward to all of you engaging on some level with the book!

Grace & Peace!!!

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It’s OK to Celebrate Dads (Part IV)

It’s OK to Celebrate Dads (Part IV)

A Generation of Fathers

I’m an 80’s kids.  The 80’s and 90’s, for a number of different reasons, seem to have been a turning point where fatherhood began to decline tremendously, especially in urban areas and communities of color.  The war on drugs, mass incarceration, even certain welfare reforms led to remarkable changes to the family structure, as more and more fathers found themselves either locked up and/or separated from their families.  I was one of countless young men who grew up without their dads, having to navigate those early years without the guiding hand of their father.  I fear that the negative effects of this won’t be fully understood for many decades to come!

Even with that being the case, I see a growing trend that gives me great hope.  Many young men who grew up without the strong hand of their fathers have grown up and are now making pledges to reverse this debilitating trend.  Nearly every one of my friends is a young, active, ambitious dad.  The others are young husbands with real dreams of someday becoming dads that are present, active, and involved.  We have ongoing conversations about raising our kids together, as an extended family.  We dream about our kids playing sports together and bringing championships to the city.  We mentor and counsel other teens and young adults, giving them a vision for the day when they will become husbands and fathers.  My friends and I are working to exponentially increase the number of good fathers.  We’re serious about legacy, not just for our families, but for so many others that cross our paths.  We really are working to raise up a generations of “good dudes,” as my buddy Jesse often says!

It’s Not About Me…It’s About You

I get teased from time to time about my passion for fathers.  Some wonder if I’m being a little self-serving. I’m a good sport about it…often it comes from one of my sisters and I give them that privilege of ragging on me! In the end, though, I remind them that what’s good for the father is, ultimately, good for the family. A good father is a blessing to his family, his community, his city.  My passion is to see my city saturated with good fathers, men who are present, active, engaged, and….celebrated! I think raising up good fathers is one of the secrets to transforming our communities!

So go for it…let’s do a better job of celebrating dads and watch what happens.  Maybe one day, the norm will be that children will be able to celebrate their dads like this young brother, Joseph, does in a poem called Words for My Father. You’ll find it at the end of this post.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here now: Much of what we believe about God is impacted by what we saw in our earthly father.

May we build a generation  of fathers who will represent Our Father well!

 

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