My Life Was Threatened.

It’s true.

Just a week ago Kaile, Silas, and I sat down with my parents, Ann and Greg. We were in the Richmond near Geary and 19th at a little Indian place. Moments after we had settled in with our naan, chai tea, and tikka masala, I heard the man behind me speaking.

His voice grew louder.

And louder.

I’ll kill each one of you. But I will spare the mother because of the baby inside. I’ll f*cking kill all of you with my bare hands. You’ll bleed out instantly. You don’t deserve to live another day.

I looked across the table at my father, whose now-graven face and hazel eyes were locked on the non-gentle man issuing threats. I mouthed the words, “is he talking to us?” Since my back was to the crazed man, it seemed that turning or standing to confront him would do more harm than good. “I don’t trust that guy in the least,” came my dad’s whispered reply, still making eye contact with the man who had now stood to his feet, continuing the threats.

As my palms began to sweat, I thought through a list of possible outcomes: would he attack? Would I literally risk my life for my wife, toddler son, and 60-something parents? Am I really the pacifist I profess to be? Does self-defense count?

As the threats continued, my dad slipped out of his seat and quickly went to speak with the owner of the restaurant. In an instant he was there to gently ask the man to go about his day. My dad’s experience working in an urban pharmacy helped reinforce the wisdom of seeking a local expert, the restaurant owner.

Still breathing threats of violence, he walked out of the restaurant and down the street.

Phew.

Unsurprisingly, the fellow who threatened the four earthly people who know me the most was one of San Francisco’s numerous mentally unstable denizens: likely homeless, probably addicted, surely lacking in needs that most of us take for granted.

Yes, it was startling, but no, this incident is not typical in my life. I can count with one finger the number of times this kind of thing has happened [yes, once is all].

The experience made me think of certain Psalms that I’ve never quite been able to comprehend. Take for example Psalm 140. In the NRSV verses 10-11 read like this:

Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent! 

Whoa whoa whoa.

That’s a little much, isn’t it David*?

These verses and others like them are picked over by skeptics: the Bible incites violence! How is this good advice for anyone-much less the word of God? Yeah, I get the reaction. Much ink has been spilled as an attempt to discredit Jewish and Christian faith on account of the anger found in the Psalms [and elsewhere, but that is another story].

Is it really too much? Should we toss out these angry imprecatory** Psalms and keep the nice ones that talk about quiet streams and shepherds and mountains?

I’d say no. In fact, I wonder how much violence has ceased because of these Psalms. Here’s the twist. The anger in these Psalms could just as easily be directed to the writer’s enemy. But look! It’s not directed at the Psalmist’s enemy; the anger is directed straight to God.

Indeed, many of the Bible’s Psalms came during dark times of loss. Some have come from very specific situations in individual lives. The angry emotion contained in these poetic phrases comes from lived experience, not from abstract or existential feelings.

As I write, I can almost hear a response: “good grief, Ben, most people don’t have that kind of anger, and if they do it’s just a mental instability and they probably need therapy.”

I don’t buy that for one second.

What if the anger came from a terrible loss? From genocide? From having lost a child to abduction or murder? From having seen family members shot or tortured? When human beings go through upheaval of this nature, anger is an inescapable response. You bet therapy is in order, but any therapist understands and counsels the wisdom of effectively coming to grips with one’s emotion and finding the best way to move through it.

These Psalms encourage those experiencing rage to find its proper channel: prayer.

Only in connecting to God can we become open to the true darkness within our own souls. Only in connecting to our Savior, Jesus, can we find someone who truly identifies with human loss-yet who also communes with the Father and the Spirit.

Ignoring our anger leads us nowhere, and acting on it will surely lead to further destruction. Consider the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu and other leaders helped the citizens of South Africa move forward after countless acts of murder, racism, inexcusable and unspeakable hatred carried out under the banner of apartheid. Little doubt some seriously angry pray-ers sought solace in a God who is concerned for justice yet allows humankind to be his agents.

Going back to my opening story, I’ve thought more about the situation. No, I’m not praying imprecatory Psalms and asking God to avenge me. The man at the Indian restaurant probably needs some antipsychotic medications, a meaningful community, and a sense of self-worth; he needs hope; he needs Jesus.

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Photo Credit: Susan Ragan of Reuters

But the experience is also teaching me to empathize, in small ways, with folks, rather unlike my middle class self, who do in fact have reason to pray their anger to God. Take for example the family and friends of Alejandro Nieto, shot numerous times by San Francisco police in 2014 at Bernal Heights Park. He was armed only with his licensed tazer that he was legally carrying for work [he was a full-time security guard]. An example from a different perspective comes from the grieving family and friends of police officers Liu and Ramos of the NYPD who were killed the same year, 2014, in their police vehicle. Neither had any connection to acts of police brutality.

There are a great many situations that lead our hearts to a pure and unadulterated anger. Resonating with the heart of God, we desire justice and for the law to do its strong work.

And yet, Scripture insists we pray our anger to God. As we do, we remain honest to the depth of our emotions yet also to the hope we have in his justice. After all, Jesus was unjustly accused and killed on account of it. And yes, in his desperate hour, he prayed that God would allow for another way, but eventually his prayer went unanswered as it turned into, “not my will but yours be done.”

God hears, yet even Jesus, the Son, did not always receive the answer he desired. But, with Jesus as our advocate, whether we are ecstatic, underwhelmed, or incensed, we still pray.

And why not start with the Psalms?

 

 

Footnotes

*Biblical scholarship has opened up our modern view toward the authorship of the Psalms. Some are certainly traced to David, but certainly not all. King David most likely wrote some, but assuredly not all of these artfully-crafted poems.

**Imprecatory or its noun format, imprecation, are words used in biblical studies to describe Psalms or other passages that espouse anger and violence toward the writer’s enemy.

 

The Moment That Changed My Life

 

Around 4am on October 15th of 2015 I lay, as one might expect, soundly asleep. Silas, who at the time wasn’t yet sleeping through the night, was gracefully asleep, as was Kaile. Without any prompt, I was awakened-and it wasn’t a midnight snack or bathroom visit that I needed. It wasn’t Silas crying out or Kaile bumping me that woke me. I’m a frustratingly deep sleeper, as anyone who knows me well will attest.

So there I was, awake.

And, I believe, it was all God’s fault.

To provide a brief background to the Fall of 2015, I had recently finished seminary and was working part time at a church doing music primarily, and part time at a Christian mental health hospital caring for adolescents from broken homes. During that season Kaile was staying home with Silas. But she had recently expressed that she was going to apply to several graduate programs for drama therapy, a program only three school in the United States offer. One was in Manhattan, one in Boston, and one way out West in San Francisco.

After Kaile told me she was applying, my heart was immediately not at ease. The weight of possible transition and change was heavy upon my soul. We had recently purchased a home and invested time furnishing it; we had amazing friends in the area; our families were both nearby.

Change? Now? And what about my vocational journey? We knew not a soul in any of the places Kaile was applying to for graduate studies. And there was so much gravity keeping us in the greater Grand Rapids/West Michigan area.

For much of the first half of October, I was not at all centered. I prayed fitfully, wondering about how to participate as a co-leader in my family. I spoke with a couple people about things. I peppered Kaile with questions she could not answer [how will grad school work financially? what about Silas? we have a house now, remember!?]. This went on for some time, not at all helping our marriage or relationships. I was stressed. And, quite honestly, I do not have an anxiety-prone mind. To a fault, I can be too easy-going.

But the stress remained.

Until October 15th at 4am.

Snap back to the beginning of this little tale, and there I was, asleep when *wham* I am awakened. No amount of careful verbiage will convince you that this experience dripped with the power and presence of God, so I’ll save my words. Plenty of folks, even Christians reading this may doubt me-and I understand why. What I’m saying is bold! But, I’ll remind you, this kind of stuff doesn’t often happen in my life.

Never before had I sensed God intervening in the course of my existence in this particular fashion.

Anyway, after getting up, I felt a push to go to my room and write in my journal. The theme was centered in my deep sense of peace. The tumult in my spirit was rapidly dissipating, and I felt a supportive sense of God’s presence.

Goodness, it probably sounds like I’m writing fiction right now. Hang with me!

After journaling for about twenty or thirty minutes under my desk light, I finished my task. Then I read a Psalm. I think it might have been Psalm 40-I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined and heard my cry… I will sing, sing a new song…”

Then, I couldn’t sleep, so I read a book I had been assigned during ordination that tracked a missionary couple from the early 20th century [it’s ok-you can laugh!]. Within minutes, I was crawling back in bed.

The next morning, I woke up and told Kaile that I sensed God had given me peace. She told me, “well it’s about time!” and moved about her day. My worries had genuinely dissipated, and I stopped concerning myself about possible change on the horizon. I kept moving with my studies and my work.

I had peace, now, but no particular direction.

It wasn’t until mid-November that we had realized two things: 1. the best school for Kaile was in San Francisco and 2. I learned that I also had a tiny connection there.

At the end of November, I interviewed for a pastoral position at City Church, where I now work. I spoke with Fred, the senior and founding pastor. It was a pretty terrible interview, especially looking back on it. But at the end of Fred’s West Coast day, he had sent an email with an invitation to fly out for an in-depth interview on December 12th. The next morning, I received it early in the morning, having gotten up before Kaile for work.

I wrote her a good old-fashioned note letting her know we were going to be heading to San Francisco for a possible job opportunity. She texted me back that day and let me know that her [possible] graduate school had invited her to an open house-on December 12th. Probably a coincidence, we thought. Couldn’t be an answer to prayer, could it?

After the dust settled from the interview, our time in San Francisco proved deeply meaningful. But the job hung in the balance. The school hadn’t let Kaile know whether she was accepted. And, at the end of December, Kaile conceived our second child.

Then, things began to come together. Mid-January, I got the job. Later in the Spring, Kaile was accepted into the drama therapy program. In March, our house went on the market the day we left town to find an apartment in San Francisco. When we touched down, I got a call from Dave, our realtor, letting us know we had a solid offer on our house. I then disagreed with him [the only time I’ve done this] and told him maybe we should wait until the next day before moving forward. And the next day, sure enough, two more offers came in; a small bidding war ensued, and we ended up getting significantly more money from our bungalow home than we had asked-and well beyond what any of us expected, Dave included.

So there’s those details-maybe it’s coincidence? You be the judge.

[I always include a picture in my blog posts, so here’s your image-it’s from a day trip we made this summer. We traveled south on highway 1 in a friend’s Subaru to the beach towns Pacifica and Pescadero].

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With our second child two three days overdue, Kaile and I are left with some time to process our lives and how everything has come together. Just today we spoke over lunch at a favorite local spot, Sweet Maple [strange name, I know] about the strange increase of answers to deep prayers we have witnessed in our lives. We have bothered God for a long time with our relatively minor and middle-class concerns, and we are both confident to insist he has responded.

It isn’t at all typical in Kaile’s life or in mine to experience a season of such lavish gifts from God [or, for the skeptic, strategic coincidences that resemble acts of God?], but honestly, really, sincerely: it’s a season of profound answers to much prayer. It’s almost impossible to list the answers to prayer we have received since moving out West. And apparently it’s not stopping. 

In a few weeks, our family of [hopefully!] four will be moving to a two bedroom apartment in a much quieter and family-friendly corner of the city, thanks to another family moving out and leaving us with a good landlord and a great deal on rent.

In ancient times, people who experienced God set up altars [like Abram in Genesis 12:7].

In the 21st century, when an altar built outside our high rise might irrupt the neighborly vibes and compromise city ordnances, it might be more appropriate to let life events of this grandeur be engraved deeply on our souls, to blog about them, to talk and process with others about them.

I’ll return, in the future, to pounding on the *doors of heaven* as it were. I’ll return to bothering God with small issues. I’ll return to waiting and wondering. No doubt I’ll experience more of the spiritual dryness that has sometimes marked my journey. No doubt I’ll lose friends, let people down, miss opportunities, get sick, experience tragedy, have an accident. No doubt I’ll be frustrated with God, disappointed, crying out Psalms of lament as I long for answers. Can’t be sure, today, whether tomorrow will even come for me-

But for now, I’ll say thanks-and remember.

Pushed off My Bike: A True Story

There I was, on my cream colored 7-speed bike, pedaling my typical route. Turning a corner, I was cut off-a black Kia came within inches of me. The driver was on his way to the stoplight in some kind of hurry, so that’s where I saw him next.

Once the light turned green, he flew past me yet again, again with far more speed than was necessary, again cutting into my lane without a concern for my safety. Naturally, another red light waited for him ahead.

Finally, there he sat, caught by yet another red light at 9th and Mission. After all his racing and lane changes, I quietly rolled up next to him on my bicycle. And I mustered my courage and knocked on his window. As I did, I noticed the Uber sticker on the windshield. This guy probably lives far away from here and he’s in town to make a hot dollar getting San Franciscans to their lunch appointments, I thought to myself.

Mind you, I have done this before. It wasn’t my first time politely [seriously-I really try to be straightforward with people!] asking someone to slow down, quietly pleading on behalf of families and pedestrians and cyclists for drivers to lay off the gas pedal. The last time I asked was right in front of the building where we live. It was a young guy in a white Ford Mustang. He mumbled something to me, then when the light turned green he was off to the races again.

This time was different.

When I knocked on his window, my ring incidentally made contact. Without meaning it to, my knock likely sounded like a metallic cling from inside the car.

And then it happened.

As I sat on my bike, I could see the man inside angrily put his late model Kia into park. He stormed over to me, cursing. At this point, I was immediately reminded of my work at Pine Rest caring for adolescents from shattered homes. I have been assaulted a number of times before, just never in a situation quite like this.

Whad’ you do to my f*ckin’ car man? I oughta f*ckin’ kick your @ss,” he bellowed, raging his way toward me. Caught in an awkward physical position yet unsure how to respond I simply stood over my bike. Before I knew it, he was in my face-and he was a lot bigger than me. His punch thankfully turned into a shove and he bowled me over backwards, and I collapsed on my bike. I didn’t expect to need my helmet while standing on my 7-speed, but hey-I’m not complaining.

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Gathering myself up from the heap on the ground that I had momentarily become, I formed a response. I was angry, but I did my best to follow through with what I genuinely felt compelled to say. “Listen, I’m sorry man, I think my ring tapped your window. I didn’t mean for that to happen. But you almost hit me three different times. Please, slow down. That’s all I’m asking you. Families live here-kids too. You can go to jail for hitting someone, and I seriously don’t want that for you.”

As I said this, I realized a small group had formed on the sidewalk behind me. No doubt we were a spectacle on an already tense corner, Mission and 9th. A tough looking black guy came over and suggested to the driver, “hey man, you don’t wanna do this, why don’t you just breathe for a second.” A woman in traffic said, “man, you get back in that car and get goin’!”

I couldn’t believe myself. I couldn’t believe the situation. Somehow I was verbally deescalating a potentially disastrous situation. At the same time, I had fostered support from folks who had watched the incident play itself out.

After my impassioned request for him to slow down, he got back in his car. I stayed, letting the gravity of the moment sink in. Moments later, he rolled down his window. “You ok man?” he asked humbly. “You just about hit me three different times, then you knocked me off my bike!” came my response, almost as unexpectedly as my initial, gentler words. “Yeah, and I thought about it and I’m the one in the wrong,” he answered, shockingly apologetic. “Please, man, slow down ok? I’ve got a little toddler son and my wife is pregnant with our second. Just slow down-seriously.” “Alright man, I hear ya.” We shook hands through the open window, looking each other straight in the eyes. And he drove off.

And, walking my bike, I proceeded to announce to the curbside spectators that the show was over.

Go ahead and make your judgment about whether I should tap on car windows-that’s fine. It’s a small thing that I occasionally do to seek after peace and safety in my neighborhood, and it’s not the point of the story.

As a Christian, husband, father, and pastor, I’m now reflecting on my own actions and the bigger picture. Clearly this guy overreacted after I made the mistake of letting my ring tap his window. And I stand behind what I said to him yesterday.

I don’t often use stories from my own life as examples of doing the right thing. Usually I’m the butt of the joke and the one learning the lesson. Read any of my blog posts or listen to any of my sermons and you’ll notice this to be the case. But this time, I really felt like I did the right thing. No, not the ring-against-the-window part. That was my bad-and I faced the consequences.

What I did right was answering gently. The ancient words of Proverbs 15:1 are right: a gentle answer does indeed turn away wrath. Had I spoken harsh words, I would have surely stirred up more anger within a harried motorist.

But the more I reflect on the experience, the more I realize my response didn’t really come from me. Not the me who has got into fights and bullied other kids in junior high. Not the me who was suspended from school numerous times before coming to a saving faith in Jesus when I was 13. Not the me who is still repenting of his judgmental attitude toward certain drivers.

No. I’m not some vigilant, neighbor-conscious hero cyclist. But my unexpected response is reminding me that Jesus really has changed my life. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul asks a question: “…do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you…?”

Yeah, he is, and making a massive difference. He’s taking me on a journey toward my true self, toward the person I could be.

And he’s helping me to see that-and give him credit for it too.

 

Two Powerful Questions [and Mike’s Profound Answers]

Recently I shared on Instagram about a guy I met at Civic Center Park here in San Francisco.

Mike.

Maybe you’ve met someone before who tugs at your heart strings. Earlier in life, I found it almost impossible to describe the feeling I get, and it’s still hard; but I’ll try. Mike was the kind of guy who, if he was being ridiculed or mistreated, I would want with all my heart to stand up for and defend. He’s the kind of guy who has clearly been through so much; no doubt he doesn’t have a place to hang his hat. Mike’s wrinkled skin, bad teeth, and dirty clothes masked a beautiful soul.

I was inspired to listen in to local wisdom and happenings in the wake of a “listening project” our church is doing. Find it on Twitter and Instagram with this hashtag: #wearelisteningsf. I’m not very good with chance or one-off encounters, to be quite clear, but my occasional personal awkwardness sometimes makes other people feel more comfortable. Our toddler son also helps, needless to say.

Whenever I’m out with Silas [19months] on a walk, I feel about 924.3 times bigger than I am. I’m not just another white 20something face-I’m tied to toddler, connected to a child with a bright and beautiful personality.

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Anyway, it required an intense mental dialogue, but I finally got myself to introduce myself to someone new, and I interacted with Mike quite a while, starting with a couple powerful questions. They’re not at all original to me. To be honest, I have no clue as to their provenance.

I ask my students [I’m a youth pastor] these kinds of questions all the time, and they work for just about any conversation:

What was the best thing about today? And what was the worst thing? 

Mike’s answers perplexed and astounded me. First, he told me the best thing about his day was how he was able to get up in the morning and see the beautiful world around him. Ok, wow. He’s already exploding everything one might imagine about the underprivileged.

His response to the next question was equally powerful. I had to repeat the question because he didn’t seem to have an answer. And, sure enough, he didn’t.

Ben: “Mike, what was the worst part about your day today?”

Mike: “Well you know, there isn’t really anything to say. It’s been a good day. I don’t have much, but I’m doing alright.”

As I listened, I realized how much I have to be thankful for, how I can creatively practice an attitude of contentment and thankfulness in my daily life. Mike’s words were a massive gift to me. His words put contemporary meaning to a piece of biblical wisdom found in I Timothy 6:6. It reads, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”

Here, the author is writing to an audience who seems to be under the impression that religious practice leads to financial security [read I Timothy 6 for details!].

Mike gets it. He understands contentment. And he gets, at a deep level, the God-given wisdom of seeing everything as a gift.

And he’s helping me to get this concept too, as I listen to his experiences.

…Even though I’m not there yet.

 

Shamed at the Gym

Before moving to San Francisco, I had in mind a particular stereotype. I imagined a demographic of people in their late 20s, maybe 30s. In my mind they are single, high income, childless, working in tech, doing yoga on the daily. None of these things are bad, they’re just somewhat different than my demographic. 

Back then, I was trying to prepare to be around people who are in very different life situations than me, trying to imagine ways to connect, relate, encourage, challenge, unite. I imagined the stereotype in order to foster some kind of empathy-the kind I knew I’d probably need at certain moments. Like today. 

Fast forward to now. That stereotype can sometimes prove itself to be true. Today, as my wife was sick and overwhelmed [she’s 38 weeks pregnant with our second child], Silas [19 months] and I ventured down to the gym in the lowest level of our building. He likes to explore and wave to people working out. 

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He was looking up at a woman doing her elliptical routine when it happened.

My toddler and I were shamed.

With headphones still in, she looked down at Silas [who was smiling and waving at her] then back at me. If looks could kill, Silas and I would both be mortally wounded or dead. She gave us both the look that said, “what the h*!! are you doing in here?” 

The look was rendered complete with comprehensive hand motions.

True, I suppose I could have held his hand for every second of our time downstairs. But to me, there was no harm in letting Silas walk around and wave/smile at the other sweaty denizens of the underground workout room. 

In those moments, I thought of lots of angry things to say to the angry elliptical lady. Part of me was sad, too, that she could respond so harshly toward an innocent toddler and young dad when all we were doing is occupying space and going about an average day.  

I left early, a bit defeated, and decided to trade in my 5 minutes on the stair stepper machine for a 16 floor hike [with Silas] back to our apartment. And now, arriving back in my daily haunt, I’m struck with how God is inviting me to grow into a more spacious and grace-filled kind of life. It’s daunting to even consider publishing how humbling the whole gym experience was, but I’m convinced it’s in those moments that growth happens. 

Only yesterday I listened to Fred Harrell preach at our church on Luke 7:36-50, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet with perfume and tears, then dries them with her hair. In the story, there is a stark contrast between the judgmental attitude of Simon, the Pharisee, and the deep gratefulness of the woman for the person of Jesus. Convinced Jesus means something to her and to the world, she gives up everything-dignity, financial security, and a good hair day-to honor him. 

Amidst the interactions, Jesus tells a story, a parable about two people who were forgiven very different amounts of money. One was forgiven a debt of 50 coins, the other 500. Jesus then asks, “which person will love the banker more?” Simon, the Pharisee who was struggling with judgmental incredulity, responds: “I think it would be the one who owed him the most money. 

Back to being shamed at the gym.

As I think about the experience, I’m reminded that God has been pretty good to me. I relate more to the one who was forgiven 500 coins than to the one who was forgiven just 50. He forgives me everyday when I have bad thoughts toward others, when I speak harshly, when I fail to recognize and treat others like image-bearers of God. And, on top of that, I have a great family, a solid marriage, family, friends, money in the bank, a place to live. 

Who am I not to extend grace to the angry elliptical lady?

My faith calls me to put down my *rights* and extend grace. But it also equips me to do so. It is only in discovering the depth of God’s grace for me that I can authentically extend it to other people. I am not an endless pool of kindness and generosity. And, quite frankly, I’m still working on how to go about extending grace to the angry elliptical lady. I’m still trying to imagine what is difficult in her life, what is challenging to endure, what prompts her frustration. I’m convinced she has a story to tell that contains loss and difficulty. Throughout the meditations within me, one thing is for sure: I know the source of grace is Jesus. 

God caught the world by surprise with his Son, Jesus. He caught Simon the Pharisee by surprise when he forgives the sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. He caught the people of Jerusalem by surprise when he came back from the dead. 

And now, God is catching me by surprise by forgiving my feelings of ill-will toward the angry elliptical lady. 

3 Reasons Why I Go to Church

Here’s a few thoughts that have been stirring for quite some time now. But only recently have I come to my keyboard to record them.

I want to write about church and why it’s important.

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The church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The earliest Christians bear witness to this as the place Jesus was buried for 3 days.

Ok, so churches often meet in particular places, but really the church is people.

But indeed, the term church often carries with it a host of memories. Maybe yours is of a Christmas Eve service with candles that ended with Silent Night. Or it’s of that long sermon on a hot day that had you fidgety and ready for ice cream. Maybe your church experiences are categorized via your sensory systems: the incense, the cologne people wore, the sound of a Hammond B3 or a pipe organ, guitar chords, a chorus of singers swaying, hands clapping.

My own experiences of church are fairly diverse, all things considered. I grew up in a church that was part of a really good preaching tradition. Concepts like the judgment of charity, of “stepping out of the boat,” and the prayer of, “God, throw the rock here!” were all concepts that moved me and challenged me. Musically we did ok, though our clapping was occasionally offbeat.

In college I was exposed to new things, like a church where I interned that changed its entire seating and design layout every six weeks and sometimes played songs by Coldplay, U2, and Elvis Costello. After college I began seminary, and as I did I also began my first real job as a youth minister in an Episcopal church from the “high church” Anglican tradition, which means they really like structure. Worship was regal yet somehow it was also warm and inviting. I sang in the same choir that Gerald R. Ford would have heard when the Grace community met on Cherry Street in Grand Rapids, just with different people. Lift High the Cross was one tune in particular that always arrested me spiritually-check it out sometimes and let it get stuck in your head for the rest of your life.

Later, I transitioned to lead worship in a small Reformed church in Wyoming, Michigan. It was casual, relaxed, with an established mission for living out Christian practices by loving one’s neighbor. Church was relationships, connections, common purpose, common life.

Since April I’ve been worshiping with a new community as a pastor for youth and families. It’s also part of the Reformed tradition. We sing some amazing and moving songs and listen to some gripping sermons. There’s also a deep yet inviting liturgy that guides the whole thing along, and the words motivate us to go out and invest in the community we inhabit. Thankfully, the church itself provides numerous opportunities for this.

So here are my three things [skip to the last one if you’re in a hurry]:

1. I’m easily distracted from imitating Jesus.

There’s this ancient song in the Old Testament. Found in Isaiah, it’s one of the “Servant Songs.” Chapter 53:6a says this: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way…” 

Jesus [the famous guy who turns out to be the servant that Isaiah was talking about] invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, to imitate him. This is quite a challenge. And that’s why I get distracted. I need a weekly pattern to keep me oriented to God and caring about others, a consistent habit that keeps me imagining a more integrated way of living that extends generosity and grace to others and hope for people caught in destructive patterns of living. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how they love Jesus but not the church, and I get how church can be frustrating [there are people involved!], but after the dust settles I’m confident Jesus as well as the earliest leaders of the church intended for us to consistently meet together [Hebrews 10:25].

2. Church sheds meaningful light on everyday things.

For all the normal stuff of life, grocery trips and soccer games, road trips and office trips and embarrassing trips like when I flew head-over-heels down the stairway at my high school during the winter of my junior year, yes! for all these experiences, church is a place to find meaning.

By default, the average American watches Netflix programs, cooks a meal, gets a teensy bit annoyed in traffic, and sort of tries to be a good person. Church offers perspective for why movies are meaningful, reasons to enjoy the food God provides, how to see other drivers as created by God, and a path toward actually becoming the better version of yourself that Jesus sees.

3. Church is a community that turns faith into a verb.

In the words of my old friend Steve Argue who now works at Fuller Youth Institute, the church is a “faith-ing community.” Even as a pastor and genuinely committed Christian, I wonder about things, I doubt, I wrestle with God. But I’m doing that in the context of a community that is doing faith actively.

It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but we actually want to love our enemies as Jesus instructed. We actually believe there is purpose to life beyond getting oneself ahead. There is a God to be adored and understood most clearly in this enigmatic person, Jesus, who did miracles and changed the world. There are issues to confront ranging from confronting white privilege to preventing genocide.

There’s this song that really moves me. It’s all about eating and drinking in the fresh and revived world that Christians believe God is ultimately bringing about. It’s about experiencing full connection with God and rich community with others. And, like church, tasty treats are involved.

Whether or not you believe that God created us, whether or not you think Jesus was for real, and whether or not you think we are made for eternal connection with God and one another [and this involves tasty treats, of course], I’ll bet you want to believe it. And I believe you were made that way, with the hope of good things that last engraved on your soul.

And to think, your deepest longings might just be true.

That, friend, is reason enough to go to church.

 

Rights, Responsibilities, Refugees.

Currently I am in recovery from an exhausting weekend. On Friday morning, I left San Francisco for Holland, Michigan, where I was to interview with a board of representatives from the Reformed Church in America as part of the ordination process for ministers of word and sacrament. Hopefully my ordination will be in the Fall.

The trip to Holland was great. I flew into Grand Rapids, stayed with some very dear friends, then picked up Silas, our toddler son ,from my in-laws who live just down the street from our friends. After a few moments of relaxing and catching up with my in-laws, I made my way to Holland to spend some precious time with my own family at my brother and sister-in-law’s beautiful new home.

Soon, it came time for my interview. It was an interesting setup. A group of about nine or ten pastors, elders, and theologians asked various questions about my sense of call, how my family has responded to the strains of pastoral ministry, and what compels me to participate vocationally in the work of the church. The questions reinforced how much growth has already taken place in my life, but also propelled me to continue my journey of development. I came away from the meeting encouraged and ready to continue in my role with the backing of more trusted leaders from my church network.

All too soon, it came time to leave, and I quickly gathered my things. My mother-in-law, Stacy, was kind enough to take me to the airport. With a sense of uncertainty about my own skills as a dad, I boarded the plane to Dallas for my connecting flight to San Francisco. It went really well. Silas ate snacks until he fell asleep in my arms, and I took time to reflect over the weekend’s events.

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Arriving on time in Dallas, I made my way to the gate where I’d continue proving my dad skills all the way back to our little apartment on the fifteenth floor where mom was waiting for us. But this was not to be the case; there was more in store than I could have imagined. With cinematic timing, the airline worker grabbed her microphone and said these words:

“For those of you waiting for flight #499, service to San Francisco International Airport, I have some very bad news. From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry, but your flight has been cancelled. Please proceed to gate 27 for rebooking.”

Immediately, our group began complaining to each other. I noticed two young women start saying to each other, “seriously, like, what the f***? Are you f****** kidding me?”

Our rights seemed compromised. We all sort of hope that by booking a flight we’re guaranteed that all steps in the process will work out. Nope. Forget about rights, I guess, because it just doesn’t work that way. I had no power, no options, and an 800 number that wouldn’t prove to be useful.

There was a long wait in line at gate 27 that consisted of making *lots* of new friends because of the outgoing nature of my toddler. Ironically enough, the two young women [they were probably about 13] ended up spending some quality time with Silas, sharing their stuff with him and playing. It was pretty cool to see that turnaround. Eventually, I received meal vouchers and a possible discount at a hotel that apparently did not have a shuttle. After stepping out of line, I realized it was a half hour away. And I would also need to pay $130 for about 4 hours of hotel use. Oh yeah-and an Uber ride both ways.

As I contemplated my frustrating options, a man swung by in one of those airport golf carts that differently-abled folks use to navigate the terminals. First, he asked me if I had any other kids and when my flight left from DTW. Soon, it dawned on me that he was presenting me with an option for help. Hallelujah, right? My relief faded as he took us across the terminal and down a hall to a room that, if I could describe it as accurately as I could, functioned as a disorganized hostel with no showers. There was a flouresent-lit makeshift office where I checked in [meaning, they took my boarding pass and put it in a drawer], then I followed them through a glass door behind the office where they were dragging two cots piled with a couple airline blankets each.

It was just before midnight, and I was exhausted, wondering how to care for my son. He had never slept on a cot. I did not dare tell Kaile, since that would only add stress to her thought life as she received occasional update texts from me as I tried to reassure her that we would be ok. Or, as she attempted to remind me that would be ok.

Finally, just after midnight, Silas fell asleep on the stiff cot, a tiny bundle of exhausted joy, probably unaware of exactly how we had ended up at a makeshift hostel across the room from a gaggle of teenagers.

Now, it was my turn. I would get the sleep I desperately needed and wake up the next day refreshed. Not so. Our proximity to the glass door [which was connected to a glass wall] allowed not only fluorescent light into our entire sleeping area, but also the noise of other bedraggled travelers from every part of the world. One man with a thick accent loudly protested his circumstances without as much as a reminder that he was not the only one who was stuck in the terminal in a makeshift hostel. I couldn’t blame him that much, though, since I was inwardly annoyed in the same kinds of ways.

I tossed and turned. By six the next morning, the lights were on and were we not-so-subtly encouraged to get ourselves going. That’s when it dawned on me, and I heard a tiny voice within me say this:

Ben, you wouldn’t make a very good refugee.

All the protesting in the world could not change the situation that I was in: the fact that I was struggling to sleep in a loud makeshift hostel with fluorescent lights, the presence of total strangers with their own stories to be shared, the needs of my tiny son. None of these things bode well for my sanity.

However.

These rather extenuating circumstances did help me build empathy with peoples throughout the world who are totally uprooted from their home communities because of genocide or war. It helped foster within me a sense of solidarity with communities that experience displacement, whether short or long term. When I pause and get honest with myself, I know full well that my airport difficulties were first world problems. Folks like me have the resources for 2400 mile flights, so should we really be that shocked when our system backfires? Should I be mad that one flight crew, for whatever the reason, did not make it to flight #499 to San Francisco?

Maybe.

But I guess I’d rather do my best to let God teach me something. No, I don’t think God ordered a couple pilots and stewards to stay home so one young dad can learn about solidarity with refugees across the world. But I do believe this, my paraphrase of Romans, a letter in the Bible’s New Testament, the part of the story that happens after Jesus shows up: “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to his purpose.”

God is pointing out to me how much I can learn and grow on account of the strange and unexpected events of Saturday and Sunday. Maybe the good that God is doing through this exhausting weekend will do good for other people as I share the story in the future or as you read this post.

But there are still other things about my airport experience that I’ll never forget. On Sunday, after my tiring night in the makeshift hostel, I put Silas down for a nap under a phone carrell in a seemingly abandoned portion of terminal B. I rocked him to sleep then placed him in my blazer, which in classic dad-fashion I had placed on the ground as a pad. There are few times when I have felt as close to my son as I did during our season of airport displacement. When he woke up from that nap, he crawled over me, giggling and smiling, and that was what woke me up [come on, it’s precious!].

For the learning and for the love that grew between my son and me, I’m thankful. And I guess I could also look at this like a set of nice moral lessons. But no, I really do think God is inviting me to receive the experience, with all its craziness, with an eye to how God is genuinely making good come from bad.

For the time of learning, and for the chance to love my son in a deeper way, thanks be to God.

Spiritual Formation Begins [at Home]

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I just sent out a version of this post to families at my church. Check it out there if you’re interested. Otherwise, read on!

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Summer continues, and with it a seemingly indomitable sense of freedom for so many of us, an unstoppable wanderlust. Many of us will find ourselves away from our home communities and in various parts of the nation and world over the summer months. I remember the trips we took as a family with great fondness, the weightless way I felt packing a small bag of goods while my parents worried about whether or not I had enough socks, the feel of cruising far from home in our teal 1996 Astro van.

One trip to the American West comes to mind. I was about 14, I think, when we visited Glacier National Park in Montana. The year was 2001, and we had only recently discovered that Y2K had not ravaged the internet. Not entirely anyway. As we traversed the byways of the Great Plains and made our way to the National Parks, my mom made note of how intricately God created the world. She had a way of letting us know how she was spiritually processing the experience, and that revealed to me how her confidence in God made a difference, even on vacation. She would often read a Psalm in the morning and we would begin our vacation days with a few simple prayers of gratitude, asking God to be present with us.

The way vacations happened in my family made a big spiritual difference for me. Looking back, I realize we were not taking a break from the spiritual journeying that happened at church. Instead, we were continuing the spiritual journey in other more ways. The ways we experienced God were radically influential precisely because I saw the integration of my life with God at church merge with my family life.

This year my family and I will be doing a short staycation here in San Francisco and taking time to see a few different places in the area. We are also doing another little adventure in August and going to Stratford, Ontario, for a week of theatre with Kaile’s parents and brother. As our son grows and vacations commence, we are excited to discover new ways to introduce him to Jesus and to the journey of faith that orients us to the God who created us. Seems vacation time is the perfect time to journey forward with our Maker.

It’s something about the sights, the newness, the readiness that comes during vacation. It’s something about leaving your home in the early morning to catch a train or place.    It’s something about being somewhere completely new and breathtakingly gorgeous.

In all these places, God is there. So.. will I acknowledge Him?

Can I Share My Faith With My Kids?

Certain conversations have a way of staying inside my head.

One such conversation was about faith and its meaning. We were speaking with Duncan, a Chinese man who was visiting my parents’ home in West Michigan. I was in high school at the time. It was 2003.

Duncan was the father of our exchange student and visited to spend time with us, the hosts, and with his daughter, who we had supported during her time in America.

During his brief stay, we delved into the topic of faith.

Amidst the conversation, Duncan told us that one of his biggest regrets in life was not having imparted faith to his daughters.

That’s the part that stuck with me.

And now, over a decade later, having witnessed the first six months of our son’s life, I have become convinced that imparting faith to one’s children is vital.

Why? Because I have experienced God. I have witnessed God’s work in the lives of others. Jesus Christ is my role model yet also my Savior. He is also a friend. I really do want people to know about this, and our son is one of those people!

Now let’s take a step back.

Various families take various approaches when it comes to parenting. Some families allow their children to sort of “make their own way” and figure things out. Telling themselves they don’t want to restrict their children, they allow them to explore and encourage them to check out all kinds of faith systems, allthewhile making sure they assure their kids that no religion is superior to the other.

That’s one approach. Here’s another.

Some families are terrified that their kids will question their faith. They’re scared that another faith system will become attractive, so they make sure to create barriers against those other faiths. They may emphasize the negative aspects of other faiths and underscore the truths of their own beliefs and the significant leaders in their own theological and spiritual leaders.

Both sets of parents care about their kids and desire for their progeny to flourish. That’s not in question. What’s in question is this: how should a family guide their children spiritually?

This NPR interview tackles this question. I end up thinking much like Kara Powell, author of Sticky Faith, an influential book [and blog] on the process of imparting faith to the young. Listen and check it out if you have time.

Anyway, as a Christian, I think of Jesus as the ultimate. His teachings are true, and his provenance is divine; he’s God’s Son. But how should I communicate this to my children?

Here are several key steps I feel compelled to take ::

  1. Trust God.

When Silas was baptized, it was a mysterious way for God to say, “I’ll take care of Silas.” We took him to the feet of our Savior, and we trust that God will work through his power to bring Silas to an awareness, first, then a simple trust, and then strong confidence in his Creator. And we trust that God will use us in this process.

  1. Model the spirituality that I desire for my child to eventually own.

It starts very close to home–in my soul, actually. My wife and I need to be the kind of people who embody faith in every aspect of life. It’s how we treat strangers. It’s how we talk about people who aren’t in the room–especially people with whom we may not fully agree. It’s our deeds and our words and our inner predisposition.

  1. Connect to a community of faith–in my case, a church–where other people are doing the same thing, and allow them to help with the parenting process.

Asking other Christians to intentionally mentor our son is one way to mitigate the problem of family systems. See, no matter how hard Kaile and I try, we will unwittingly pass on our bad habits to our son. In our tradition, it’s called “sin.” When we humbly admit our own issues and permit other people to speak into our child’s life, there are new opportunities for transformation, and we trust and pray that God will work through our community.

We cannot foist faith on our children; instead, we invite.

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And the alternative is terrifying. Think about how many systems for understanding the world exist! Peruse a newspaper or Flipboard or Instagram or turn on the tube and you’ll be greeted with a host of organizations seeking to disciple your child and offer their spiritual wisdom:

*Exercise is the key to happiness!

*Money is the goal, for it brings about so much opportunity for relationships!

*The right job will bring you the sense of purpose your heart longs for!

If we are unintentional with our childrens’ faith formation, we leave the task to the next most attractive influencer. Maybe their peers will be the ones who guide them in uncertain paths. Maybe it will be a really nice group of people that get lost in mind-altering substances. Maybe it will be a questionable website. Maybe they’ll stumble into Zoroastrianism. Hard to say, isn’t it?

I think we’ll introduce Silas to Jesus.

Parents and Children: Part 2.

In my last blog post, I revealed how I spent significant time in rebellion from my parents-about 2 years, actually. Between 2003 and late 2005, I failed to recognize how much my parents loved me and sought the absolute best for me. Eventually, God graciously helped me to eventually see plainly the concern they both have for me.

If you took time to read my previous post, you are now thinking one of two things: 1. “You dummy. Everyone should be thankful for their parents.” or, 2. “You dummy. Do you not realize that other people have strained parent relationships, bad parents, or no parents at all?”

Those are valid points! Many of us have some kind of difficulties with parents at some point in our lives, especially during certain growing-up years. Ages 12-19 may be the toughest. But it is not the case that the problem generally lies with the child. Some of us really do have terrible parents who do not care at all for us, or who are entirely absent from us. If this is your situation, I lament with you. 

I have numerous friends and connections who have strained parental relationships; indeed, some have no parents. One friend comes to mind whose father committed adultery with a family friend. Imagine the difficulties this Christian family has endured. Another friend has a mother with severe depression, and a father who refuses to get her treatment because of his beliefs. Imagine watching all of this while slowly becoming an adult; how utterly painful. Another friend, considerably younger than me, lives with his overworked mother. She has numerous children with various men. This friend has never had a consistent father figure, much less a mother who is around often enough to truly listen. 

It is indeed a broken, splintered world we inhabit. 

For followers of Jesus, there is a long-term hope: Jesus, our brother in humanity [Bible, New Testament, Hebrews 2] and our intercessor in divinity [Bible, New Testament, Colossians 1:15-20], connects us to the family of God. This does not right every wrong at this very moment, but it reveals the coming world of God. In God’s kingdom, divisions between people will cease, even between parents and children. Justice will be established for all-yes, for families too. Paul, an important leader in the early church, draws this God-as-a-parent concept out in Romans 8:12-17. God reveals that we are adopted as children. Eventually we become heirs, with our brother/savior, Jesus, of all the good that God has stored up for those who follow him.

New Life

However you understand the concept of family and the parental relationship, know today that God is your parent. Know too that God never intended families to be divided. Our relationship issues have their source in our own human failures-our sin as it is described in the Bible. The good news is that the wrongs are eventually made right. The last book in the Bible, Revelation, tells us how God, through Jesus, is making all things new [Revelation 21:5].  

It is a new year, and with it can come a fresh turn of events and a change in our inner emotions. Could this be the year we allow God in to begin healing our most painful relationships?

Whatever good or bad came through your relationship with your human parents, we can all look to God as our ultimate parent. If you were fortunate enough to have good parents, be thankful for them. If you did or do not, again, I lament with you. But together, we look forward to the coming day when God makes all things new and good and right-including family relationships.