25 Years in the Same Place

What I have learned by twenty-five years of staying in the same place

This summer has been crazy like most summers. It was so busy that an important milestone was passed, and I missed it. I just realized this week that this is my 26th summer in the same place. For some of you, that sounds unattainable. For others, I’m just getting started. It has been a battle, and it hasn’t always been easy. Growing up, my family moved every three to six years. It wasn’t awful. I made some good friends and learned things I couldn’t have learned any other way. But the thing that was hard for me my whole life was that I never had a place to go back to. A place that defined me, a place I called home.

We came to Utica, New York, and stayed for twenty-five years in the same job at the same church and have lived twenty-one years in the first house my wife and I bought. We have made a life and have old friends. We have cried lots of tears and have laughed till we cried. We raised kids away from family, and it wasn’t easy. My wife worked from home so we could give our kids a home and a place. Somewhere that is imperfect, but when our kids close their eyes when they are forty, they all will have the same picture of the home. They will remember the same church and old friends.

In a hyper-connected world, we think we are shaped by what we know, who we know, or who’s posts we like most often. Instead, what shapes us is particular places and particular people. Our culture has become more connected and more transient than ever. We don’t allow place to shape us. We are shaped by the time and place where we have been sovereignly planted. What job you work for is not an accident. The neighborhood where you buy a house is not an investment; the town where you become a part is not a fluke. These communities of time and place are the tools God uses to chisel and chip away at the unformed exterior of which only God can see the beauty of what it will become.

We see jobs, homes, and communities as tools for personal fulfillment and happiness. When we view a home as an investment and a job as a career, it shapes us. We move to a bigger house because our kids want their own rooms; what our kids need is proximity. They need to be forced to respond right in proximity to community, not retreat in the face of adversity to their curated spaces. What we need isn’t a new job; it’s to fight for joy while being misunderstood. It’s to do the right thing when others don’t. Remaining in a particular place forms your soul in a way that career advancement never can.

When you stand still in the middle of a world, gone crazy, you proclaim that your priorities are not shared, you bear witness to a different set of priorities that have shaped your loves.

Eugene Peterson was asked, “What do you like best about being a pastor?” The question came from a young woman, Stephanie. “The mess,” he said. A group of seminarians from a nearby school—there were ten of them—had asked him to lead them on a thirty-six-hour retreat. They were about to graduate and enter into the vocations they had just spent years preparing for. For three of them, being a pastor meant starting over in a second career. They wanted to spend a couple days in prayer and conversation as they anticipated what was ahead of them.

Petersons’ answer, “the mess,” was unpremeditated. It stopped the conversation. But sometimes, a spontaneous response reveals something important that had never surfaced just that way before. But mess wasn’t quite the right word. He backpedaled. “Well, not exactly a mess, but coming upon something unexpected that I don’t know how to handle, where I feel inadequate. Another name for it is miracle that doesn’t look like a miracle but the exact opposite of miracle. A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context, in words or action that takes me off-guard. Theologian Karl Rahner was once asked if he believed in miracles. His reply? ‘I live on miracles—I couldn’t make it through a day without them.’ Still another name for it is mystery. Pastors have ringside seats to this kind of thing. Maybe everyone does, but I often feel that pastors get invited into intimacies that elude a more functional and performance way of life.”

When I was in my twenties, I thought the key to success was recognition and struggled when it never came. The miracles and the mysteries of life are seen not in the spectacular but in the ordinary. The ordinary looks like us showing up for our friends without being asked when they are hurting. When we remain when everyone leaves, when we stand in the middle of a world wracked by anxiety as a non-anxious presence, when we allow the people of God in the place, God has placed us to be the tools that shape us more and more into the image of God. Stay in your small house, work through the offenses caused by family and friends, and don’t think that that next job will make you happy and whole. Allow yourself to be shaped and formed by time and place.

Eugene was right. We want spectacular miracles, and those do happen, but most often, God’s miraculous work is A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context. Twenty-five years of staying have taught me that God most often works and speaks in the every day and the mundane. That when you stay, you proclaim God’s grace, not your spectacular ability, is what makes you and what keeps you. My plea to you is to stay in your small house on your small street in your small town near your small church and love the people God has placed in your life to form you into his image for his glory alone.

Don’t Burn Bridges.

Remember when Facebook was for sharing photos of your children and videos of otters holding hands? Me neither. Social media has become a battlefield of conflicting ideas. A minefield of potentially explosive issues. It has gone from a digital scrapbook to a digital equivalent of a dual. Every post seems to be about the defense of a person or idea and with those who disagree hurling horribly generalized caricatures of who they think you are based on what party they think you are a part of.

As Christians, we have to guard against this. Some of the most scathing reprimands of scripture are towards those who can not control their tongues. In James 1 where we famously quote the passage that states “True religion is taking care of the widows and orphans.” This is a feel-good statement that is completely true and we love it. You know what it says in the verse right in front of it. James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle (control) his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Every sin that we commit is first a sin of the heart and second a sin of our mouth before it is a sin of our actions. Therefore what we think about, what we desire affects what we say. How we speak and what we type is a pretty good indication of the state of our heart.

Here is the bad news. None of us do this. Why because the Bible tells us our heart is desperately wicked. Kierkegaard called this the crooked timber of the heart. Our words will not change until our hearts have been transformed.

A preacher I respect greatly said this: “[James] calls for us to have a tamed tongue. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re a Christian. And if we do, it’s evidence that we’re walking in obedience. And as you look at your life, beloved, if you see those things coming out of your mouth that ought not to come, you need to confess it as sin and turn from it. And how you react to those times when bitter water comes out of the sweet fountain is the key to your spiritual strength, the key to your spiritual effect and power.”

Our speech will not change until our hearts are transformed here is the good news. That is what God does best. He takes our hearts of stone and gives us a new heart with new desires and new words. Will we still slip in our speech online and offline? Yes. Should we strive to grow in the grace that God provides and be more kind in what we say think and do? Yes. This is a work God does and we join with him growing in his likeness day by day.

Here are a few things I am trying to do better when engaging people online.

  1. Ask more questions and make fewer statements – Look to learn not only prove a point.
  2. Delete more comments than you publish – If you know me, you would say there is no way you do this I have read what you have published online. I delete A LOT of comments, and so should you.
  3. Clarify when you don’t understand don’t assume you understand – This is essential offline as well as online. Communication doesn’t happen when two people speak. It occurs when two people speak, and there is understanding.
  4. If you know the person in real life call or text them to have an honest conversation about something you don’t understand – Use online disagreement to build bridges, not burn them. Talking in person builds bridges torching someone’s wall burns bridges.
  5. Take regular breaks from social media – I regularly take breaks to keep from becoming an angry, anxious, annoying person. You need to take more breaks than you do.
  6. Try to verify if a story is true before you share it – This is becoming more and more difficult to do even some fact-checking sites have become politicized. Try to use original sources, give away credit, and use common sense. If a story sounds like something, your craziest friends often say it’s probably not true.
  7. Try and stay friends with people who think differently than you. The mute button may be your friend at times, so use it. – Try not to burn bridges. Sometimes you will have to mute people online so you can stay friends offline, and that’s ok. Offline friends are more important than online friends.
  8. Know when to walk away, know when to run – Sometimes comments get ugly fast. Don’t go there. Walk away.
  9. When you overstep, and you will apologize without expecting them to apologize in return – If you only follow one of these pointers, let it be this one. I had to use it this week. I had to text a friend and apologize for what I said it was too strong and didn’t convey what I wanted to say because it was not seasoned with grace.

We all need God’s help to control our speech so that our thoughts, words, and actions convey the grace that is ours in Christ. What you say and what you type will signal to a watching world a heart that has been transformed by grace. May this be more and more true of us every day.

My 12 Rules for Life

A few months ago Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life was all the rage. I found his book interesting and him as a person even more so. What I found interesting is that his rules were based on his worldview. The truth is we all live by a set of propositions we believe to be true. Here are my thoughts on his book as a Christian. His list gave me the idea of coming up with my own list.  I thought it would be fun to give the 12 rules I live by.

  1. Stop eating before you are full – This is one of my many rules that I go by that keep me from gaining weight. I have a book I have never published but have been working on for years called “A Thin Man’s Guide to Losing Weight” – If you stop eating before you get full you will never eat too much.
  2. Teach your kids to protect the small and the weak – speak for those who have no voice. One of the things that get lost in a world where gender roles are not passed on to our kids we have kids who don’t know what they are supposed to do in any given situation. I tell my boys all the time that one of the things men do is protect those who are weaker or smaller than they are. I tell them if they get in trouble for defending kids who are picked on or protecting their sisters they will never be in trouble with me.
  3. Life can only be understood in light of the golden rule in light of the golden ruler. Everyone loves the golden rule not everyone likes the giver of that rule. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God first and the second is like it to love our neighbor. We can’t truly love our neighbor if we do not love God first and understand how we have been loved by God in Christ.
  4. Go to the buffet table last. This is one my mom always taught me. In a group of people always eat last. No exceptions. It breeds humility.
  5. Work three Jobs at the same time. This is another one my parents taught me. You will never go hungry, and you will make yourself irreplaceable in your work if you can do more than one thing.
  6. Kiss babies and old people. This is a lost virtue in our society. We used to value new life and esteem old life. As a society, we now worship beauty and wealth a culture that sacrifices the most vulnerable for the idols of beauty and wealth will always and every time destroy its self from the inside out. Ask the Greeks and the Romans.
  7. Be efficient with problems so you can be patient with people. I say this to my team all the time. We live in a culture that esteems efficiency and time management so that we can have more time to do what we want. The gospel says this is not the way we invest our life. We are efficient with problems, so we have more time to love and serve others

The Phone Call No One Wants

Reflects from a Difficult Year

Today marks exactly one year since my wife got the phone call that everyone prays will never come. I remember her calling me crying and all she could say was “come home.” I drove and prayed and asked God to do a miracle, and he did not in the way I would have done it but a year later I can say that I don’t understand, but we’ve learned to trust more. This year has been difficult because walking through cancer was difficult for everyone in our family in very different ways. It has been hard because we have lost some very dear friends a few of them to cancer. Every time I think of them my heart aches a bit because this isn’t how it was supposed to be.

To be clear, I hate cancer. I also don’t believe that it is a gift from God. I do believe that God works through our greatest pains for our good and his glory (Romans 8). While I would never wish for Cancer to come. There are things in my life and in our family I would have never known existed both good and bad if it wasn’t for the trial that took the form of cancer in our family. At the moment we were rejoicing from the good news that my wife was Cancer free a few of our friends discovered they had Cancer in their bodies. With the freshness of the pain from what we had walked through I can’t tell you how this pained my heart. Yet having just walked through something so similar and watched God move in my wife’s life and in several others I had a faith to believe and pray in a way I wouldn’t have before.

One of those friends of mine was Jeremy Lee, a guy I had recently met in person but have known online for some time. As my wife was receiving her joy-filled news 6 months ago he was received far worse news. Since the day I found out he had Cancer I began to pray with new wisdom and fresh hope for healing. This week he received a clean bill of health, to God be the Glory. I wanted to share his Facebook status with you because I found it personally helpful and profoundly true.