Learning to say no

At least once each year, I will reach a state of mental exhaustion, where I am running largely on fumes and stubbornness. I last felt that way in mid-October. I was serving as a staff member at a men’s conference in Kentucky and I had nothing left to give. I was grateful for the leadership; a few of them checked in with me, encouraging me to make sure to care for myself.

Admittedly, these times are largely the result of my own choices. In October, I chose to go to Kentucky two weeks after returning from Nashville, with intermingled ministry work in between. I choose busyness, increasingly aware of its toll. I love my day job. I work as a clinical neuropsychologist, so I spend my days helping people unravel why they think, feel, and act the way they do. I help them to understand their brains so that these things begin to make sense. But I am also a pastor, what some call a “bi-vocational” or “tentmaking” pastor. I felt called to this work before I had ever even heard the term “neuropsychology.” I serve my church with joy. Though working with the embodied brain is a remarkably unique and fulfilling career, it cannot hold a candle to helping people to know Jesus better. I am privileged to preach frequently, every few weeks on average. I just finished four weeks in the pulpit, first teaching on “daily rhythms” and then preaching one of my favorite series ever (truth-goodness-beauty). But just as neuropsychology involves a lot of “behind the scenes” work, so too does pastoring. There is preaching, of course, but also sermon preparation, spiritual direction, meetings, and prayer for the congregation.

I was reflecting with my wife this morning that each of the last four days, I have been out of the house by 6:00AM or shortly thereafter, and I am typically home by 5:00. I do not envy my medical colleagues who must do evening and weekend call. However, this time of the year, evenings are often occupied as well–high school group, life group, leadership training, and Friday church when we decide to go. Certain weeks, it’s hard to catch my breath.

Having said all that, I am increasingly recognizing how elements of my personality contribute to these patterns. I am a 2 on the enneagram, which suggests that I like to help. At its best I can be encouraging, giving, and other-centered in a way that is not self-damaging. However, I can also have a hard time saying no to people. I thrive on needing to be needed. I am a people-pleaser. When attending to the needs of others without caring for one’s own needs, a host of difficulties may arise from bitterness to physical illness. I am also sensitive to the potential effect upon family, the people lest likely to express their desire for time with me.

As I continue to learn about myself, I recognize that one of the most important spiritual disciplines I could practice would be learning to say “no,” to recognize that I do not have to be…even cannot be…all things to all people. Time is finite. If I fail to set limits if I do not prioritize my commitments, if I do not learn to say no, I fear the damage will not be limited to me alone.

Why do I share this? Perhaps in hopes that you will pray for me. Perhaps in offering me grace when I say to no to you. Perhaps it is simply an acknowledgement, to myself principally, that I too am finite.

Shalom Challenge

What if for the next two months, we intentionally committed ourselves to actively pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty?  What might the world look like if we purposed ourselves each day to look for ways to bring light to a dark world? How might hurts be healed if we actively sought to pursue relational wholeness?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I look around me, I see so much hurt. Our world exists under a smog of brokenness. When all we see around us is damaged, we begin to live as if the world were supposed to be gray. It becomes all we know. We fail to hope because we know from experience that hopes are rarely fulfilled and we become cynics.

We are surrounded by more people than ever, 7 billion and growing. The worldwide availability of technology allows us to communicate with startling speed. We can still handwrite letters if we wish, but we can also call, text, email, message, Snapchat, Skype, Facetime, or Hangout. We have the freedom to share every passing whim on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Yet, despite more people and more ways to communicate with them, people feel less known than ever.

When I read my social media feeds, I am stunned by the mix of good and bad. On the one hand, there are encouraging flickers of human kindness and love. On the other hand, there is so much anger, dissension, haughtiness, and sarcasm that the dark clouds seem impenetrable. I watch conservatives criticizing liberals and vice versa; Catholics demonizing Protestants, and vice versa. In any given day, we can find 10,000 things that make us angry and indignant.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
-Isaac Watts

If you have been concerned about this, like I have, or you have contributed to it, like I have, I want to suggest a challenge. For the next two months—November 1st to December 31st—let us actively seek peace, goodness, and beauty.  Here are some ways to implement this challenge:

  1. As you begin each day, ask God’s help in pursuing peace, goodness, and beauty.
  2. Actively resist posting negativity on social media. In other words, do not share things that actively stir dissension or controversy. If someone else posts something controversial and you feel the need to run to your keyboard to “set the record straight,” resist doing so. If you can, let it go. If you cannot, reach out to the person individually.
  3. Similarly, avoid sarcasm. Yes, I understand that sarcasm is often just in good fun, but in reality, it often wounds people in ways we do not know and, if we are honest, it can mask unresolved conflict we have with others.
  4. When you are met with negativity, respond with kindness. When you are met with anger, respond with peace. When you encounter evil, respond with goodness.
  5. Actively seek for ways to demonstrate peace, goodness, and beauty. Stay attentive to ways in which you might encourage and serve others. You might offer a kind word or a listening ear, share something of beauty, or help meet someone’s physical needs. The opportunities are endless.
  6. Look for ways to create beauty yourself. Perhaps your first step here is to set aside your belief that you are simply not creative and then get about the business of creating.
  7. Encourage others to join in to this #shalomchallenge. Think of at least five people to invite to participate with you. An old African proverb says that “when we go together, we go far.”

Maybe this challenge will be fruitless.
Maybe after two months, you will miss engaging in controversy.

But maybe, a life could be transformed and that life could just be your own.

Lofty Eyes

Pride is poison to the soul and none of us is immune, though the symptoms may manifest uniquely in each of us. Pride in possessions, pride in health, pride in righteous living, pride in right theology–even, ironically, pride in humility.

In the past several decades, several streams have converged that seem to make human pride all the more evident. The self-esteem movement, beginning with noble aspirations, has become a corrupted thing where self becomes preeminent and sin is excluded as a construct without meaning. The culture of self when combined with increased connectivity through social media creates a witch’s brew of hubris. The first ingredient contributes to a strong sense of our own rightness, whereas the second provides a mechanism of delivery.

And Christians are not immune, far from it. Every day on social media, I watch arguments unfolding over too many issues to name. I see Christians tearing down believers and non-believers alike, all in the name of rightness.  When Christian leaders fail publicly, it chums the social media waters for attack. Christian sharks influencers on social media and elsewhere smack their lips and prepare to feed.

Sometimes, it is not even an issue of one’s moral failure, but grows from a place of disagreement and an assumption of right belief. How many good and godly ministries have faced public attacks and charges of heresy by those who are “clean in their own eyes.” In recent weeks, one of the godliest men I know has been excoriated publicly by another believer. I wish this were uncommon; it is not. Indeed, there are “ministries” whose sole purpose is to identify and expose the ways other believers are in error.  They are not proclaiming the good news, they are airing what they perceive to be dirty laundry. They want to be seen as legitimate news, but in truth they are tabloids.

This ought not be so. The apostle Paul instructed Titus, “Speak evil of no one. Avoid quarreling. Be gentle. Show perfect courtesy to all people.” (Titus 3:2). When God calls people to be ministers of His word, He does not invite them to an easy task. Public proclamation of God’s word inevitably leads to challenge, criticism, and attack, yet I believe every one of these willing leaders would gladly request that other believers stop shooting them in the back.

Speak evil of no one.
Avoid quarreling.
Be gentle.
Show perfect courtesy to all people.
-St. Paul

As Francis Chan said in his excellent sermon Think Hard, Stay Humble “It would be like a great basketball player who never misses a shot but keeps shooting into the opponent’s basket. He may say, ‘I was five for five today from the three-point line,’ but his teammates would respond, ‘But you’re killing our team! You’re shooting at the wrong basket!’ He answers confidently, ‘But I did not miss.’ That is the kind of attitude that Paul is confronting here. You might be brilliant, but you’re killing our team.”

None of us is immune. Not one. Before weighing in on controversy, before criticizing another minister of the gospel, before denouncing other believers or their ministries, consider asking yourself:

  1. Is it possible I am wrong?
  2. Am I more interested in being right than being loving?
  3. Have I considered that I may not know all of the relevant details about the person or thing I am criticizing?
  4. If I were face to face with this person, would I be willing to offer the same criticism? Would I use the same words? If not, why not?
  5. How does my response align with Titus 3:2 (and an abundance of other scriptural references)?
  6. Is it possible I am wrong? (Yes, I know I asked this question above. I ask it again because I want each of us to consider that, in our fallen state, our knowledge is tainted. We have perfect knowledge of neither the content of Scripture nor the intent of God).

I’ve Got This

Close your eyes. Paint a picture of Jesus in your mind. What does he look like? If eyes reflect the soul, what do you see in his?

Listen to him. How would you describe his voice? Think specifically, what was Jesus’ tone when he said to the woman with the discharge of blood, “daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace” (Luke 8:48). What did he communicate to the woman caught in adultery when he said “neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). When I read those words, I hear compassion and mercy.

Consider another story. In the upper room, Peter boldly proclaimed that he would lay down his life for Jesus who responded, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly I say to you the rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times.” What was Jesus’s tone in this case? As Jesus predicted, Peter denied him. In Luke’s account of the story, we read that after the third denial, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.–A.W. Tozer

When Jesus caught Peter’s gaze, what was the look upon his face? For most of my life, when I have heard this story, I have imagined that when Jesus was talking with Peter, an edge of irritation intruded as though Jesus were thinking to himself, “Impetuous Peter. Why did I ever choose him, he’s such a screw up.” Then laying eyes upon him, a look of disgust, eyes that communicated worthlessness.

But a friend challenged me recently. He asked, “What if the look upon Jesus face was not one of disappointment, but communicated, ‘Brother, I’ve got this. You are my beloved. Just wait and see what the Father and I are about to do.’”

Jesus never fails to look upon us with compassion. He never fails to love. Not even once. When we are in Christ, we have no need to think of God as a fickle master, for he is unchanging in his love. He is not a cauldron of boiling wrath waiting to be poured on us when we fail him once more. Every moment of every day he gazes upon us with a look that says, “I’ve got this.”

Minderhaud

In the decade since I moved away for a second time, my hometown has changed. The sleepy community of mostly Dutch settlers two miles west of Lake Michigan has flourished in many ways. New businesses are expanding to the east and to the west; new homes in all directions. A few businesses are now open on Sundays, a fact that still surprisingly shocks me. Many are still bothered by seven day commerce, even when they find their way through the doors of Mentink’s Piggly Wiggly for a dozen eggs on a Sunday afternoon.

But my interest today is in the farm. I lived in eight different houses before I turned 18, so my aunt and uncles farm provided my most consistent space. When I survey my childhood, this farm is always in the picture.

Leaving Oostburg, the land is flat enough that I could see the farm over the cornfields a half mile or so away, silos rising together. I turn north onto Minderhaud Road. The road itself holds memories. It is mostly straight apart from a few fades left and right and left again. And it is narrow; narrow enough that I am surprised teenagers ever thought it a good idea to race this road. Perhaps the danger was part of the appeal to only partially myelinated brains.

I turn left into the driveway and I’m home. I see my cousins standing under a tent in front of the “new” house, now 35 years old. My memories of the old house have faded considerably. I cannot even picture it now; though sometimes flashes of recollection emerge. The ground itself shows no trace of memory of the original foundation.

I hug Connie, Rachel, and Nikki, my sisters. We are not siblings by blood, but by love. Seeing them reminds me how much I miss them. I also embrace my dear aunt Sandy, with whom I share a love for writing, and beauty. When I write, I often write for her.

I step up into the house from the garage. New stainless steel appliances update the kitchen, but the bones are the same. There is still no dishwasher, I notice. I remember my grandma Laura standing at this sink, washing the dishes in too hot water and looking off to the south. What did she see? What does she see now?

The main level has two bathrooms. With mom, dad, and three girls, I imagine two bathrooms was a necessity when it was built. I look into the first bathroom, but I use the second. You can see through the first window from the deck, but not the second, I remember sheepishly.

Later on, I grab my camera and walk the hundred or so paces to the barn. It seems so much closer now that I am grown. I walk across a concrete slab, thinking of the buildings and the cows that stood here. The pavement is so white; a far cry from the manure that used to paint this place. I walk to the barn and look through a clouded window. Aluminum cans and building supplies line the milking parlor, but I can still see the cows and my uncle John working, working, working.

I stay out of the barn today; I don’t feel the need to go in. Thankfully, Grace ventured inside and even up a ladder into the hay mow, where she took some beautiful pictures at elevation. When I was reviewing her shots, a small part of me wondered why she would think it was a good idea to climb unsupervised, but a bigger part of me was thrilled that she grasped the opportunity right in front of her. That should happen here.

How much did these barns shape who I am? How about these fields? More important than place, how did these four women guide who I am now? How did their love and their correction affect me? And what about the mischief? As I watched my son and Rachel’s daughter playing together, I could not help but think of Nikki and me. We played together and worked together and ate together and misbehaved together. I am certain I would be shocked if my children misbehaved in the ways that we did at the farm, but I don’t regret it. It helped make me who I am today.

And every time I return to this place and these women, I come back home.

Repost: Boanerges

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a vilate of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.–Luke 9:51-56

I was struck by this passage this morning. Jesus and his disciples are not received in a Samaritan village and James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” offered to call fire down. They wanted to seem some action.  Imagine this scene.

Weary from a long day on a hot, dusty road, Jesus and his disciples entered the village as the sky was growing dusky. A band of rag-tag men, unfamiliar to the townsfolk, aroused suspicion. Jesus asked his disciples to inquire if there might be a place for them to rest for the night. At each door, they faced hard stares and firm nos. Some of the disciples were disappointed, some anxious, and some angry. All of the were tired. James and John were once again riding the waves of their feelings. With fire in their eyes, they asked their teacher, “Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Do you want us to call down fire like that?” 

Jesus turned and caught both of their eyes. Looking back and forth between them with a mix of conviction and compassion, he rebuked them. “Guys, you are going to face disappointments and even downright attack if you follow me, but mine is not the way of retaliation, but the way of love. If you want to be my disciples, you must move beyond your desire for retribution and power and instead begin to practice compassion and peace.” 

Something shifted in John that day. He had always been sure that the Messiah would be a man of might, come to set things right by his power, but it was dawning on him that perhaps his understanding of power was all mixed up. What if ultimate power resided not in destruction but in love? As he continued to learn to live the Jesus way, he embraced love as the way to live. 

When we pay attention, the stories in the Bible show us that people change because of Jesus. If we listen to him, we can change too, from angry, retributive victims, to loving, peaceful servants.

Band of Brothers

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.–Proverbs 17:17

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.–Proverbs 18:24

True friendship is a rare gift, especially among men. In a culture that promotes rugged individualism on the one hand, and allows people to have thousands of “friends” through social media on the other, we have lost our way regarding what friendship means. We read stories in the Bible about friendships between men and the closeness they have may seem surreal to us because they are so different from our everyday experience.

We may have buddies, but often we don’t have brothers.

We may have men that we like doing stuff with, but often we don’t have men whom we love deeply.

I am grateful that for me, at least, results have not been typical. I want to tell you about two of my friends.

Several years ago, our church held a men’s ministry event where “accountability groups” were encouraged. If you’ve never heard of an accountability group, it is essentially when a group of men get together and confess their sins to one another and pray for one another, usually guided by a list of questions (e.g., did you look at porn this week? Have you managed your money well?). My friend Brad was moved and reached out to a bunch of guys about starting a group. Eric and I, even though we didn’t attend the men’s ministry event, were the only two that responded. We didn’t even really have relationship beforehand, other than a time when I offended Brad. The three of us began meeting at 6:00 on Thursday mornings at Randy’s Family restaurant.

We are an unlikely trio. Let me tell you why. Brad runs an office–several actually–that sells bearings and transmissions. He is a whiz at math, has great spatial skills, has administrative capabilities that most only long for, and is a neat freak (perhaps even obsessively so).  Eric is a locksmith by profession, but also has an eye for beauty that many people lack in today’s culture. Whether from resin or wood, he is able to craft things that amaze. Eric is also driven and visionary. I am a neuropsychologist and pastor. I love words more than anything requiring spatial skills, something both Eric and Brad would be quick to tell you. I am also decidedly not a neat freak.

Brad likes bikes. Eric likes Dungeons and Dragons. I like books.

As I said, we are an unlikely trio, yet these two men are my brothers. The love I have for them runs deep.

When we began meeting, we used ” the list.” Each week we would walk through the questions. Some weeks, I would hope that we wouldn’t get around to me because I didn’t want to tell these guys what a mess I was am.  Week after week we persisted, bonds of friendship forming. Eventually, we put away the list. We didn’t need it to guide our conversations any longer because we had developed enough trust in one another to discuss whatever was pressing. We began to understand what it meant to encourage, admonish, help, and love one another. We were willing to dig down with one another and to allow the others to dig beneath our false veneer we put up.

But don’t get the wrong impression that deep friendship is always easy. It’s not. Every one of us have said something stupid for which we have needed to apologize. Every one of us has been confronted and wounded by the others. We have repeatedly had to apologize and forgive. Every one of us has sinned against the others, often unknowingly.

It would be so easy to live on the surface, to talk about the weather, but never get down to what is beneath. It would be so easy to walk away when conflict arises. It would be so easy to live behind our masks and never let one another see our true selves, but then we would never be truly known and honestly, then we would never grow. My friend Larry says “true growth happens when you look bad in the presence of love.” I have that with these men and I regularly thank God for them. In a society that says when things get tough you are totally within your rights to walk away, a brother who sticks close by when things get messy is an unbelievable blessing.

In John 17, perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, Jesus prays for his brothers. At the end of the prayer, Jesus tells the Father that his desire is that these men would love one another the way that He and the Father love one another and that we would be one in the way that the Trinity is one (verses 21-22). This is not love like the world defines love; it is a radical other-centeredness and commitment to one another’s good. Jesus wasn’t just praying that this might happen in heaven, but that we might manifest this in our relationships now. I am grateful for two brothers with whom I am able to strive for that goal.

Perhaps as you read this, you are thinking to yourself “yeah, that’s unrealistic,” but what if it’s not? How do you stretch toward this end? First, pray. Ask God to help this type of relationship develop. Second, persist. As I said above, when things get hard, our sinful predisposition is to cut and run rather than persevere in love for one another. Third, patience. Change happens slowly. In our instant society, we need to become people who take the long view, who trust the process of growth and relational sanctification.

Brad, Eric, and I are far from perfect, but we are committed to loving one another over the long haul.

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