Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

In the early days of processing and researching I didn’t share with anyone what I was doing. Looking back over my journal of that time I was very careful what I wrote there. I remember fearing that someone would pick up my journal, read my thoughts and not understand what I was doing. At that point I assumed I was just being kind to the memory of my wife’s mother, yet something else was  already at work.

Even now I as write about this journey I recognize that my words will be received through various filters. Some will be put off, convinced I’ve been deceived. Some will read with interest because they have perhaps sensed a similar drawing. Others will wonder why this was such a difficult thing because they haven’t struggled with approaching their Christian faith from a different perspective. I understand that. In some ways it is difficult for me to go back even two and one-half years ago and put myself in the place that I was.

Part of me did not want to enter this investigation; part of me felt drawn to it. But how was I to go about it?

About this time I read that one of my seminary professors had passed away. It was from him that I took my first class on Christian Worship and an introduction to worship and liturgy. His class was like opening a gift that I didn’t know existed as I learned about liturgy, the liturgical calendar and seasons of the Church such as Advent and Lent.

I also had a book by Henri J. M. Nouwen called In the Name of Jesus in my library and I was reading it, not because he was Catholic, but because of the subtitle: “Reflections on Christian Leadership.” More than a year into a church plant I was desperate to be a better leader and I had picked it up. A quote from the prologue grabbed my attention.

I…came to see that I should not worry about tomorrow, next week, next year, or the next century. The more willing I was to look honestly at what I was thinking and saying and doing now, the more easily I would come into touch with the movement of God’s Spirit in me, leading me to the future. God is a God of the present and reveals to those who are willing to listen carefully to the moment in which they live the steps they are to take toward the future. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus says. “Tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34).

Okay Lord! I trust you to lead my on this journey. You will not despise my sincere heart.

In 2012 I came across a book by then Presbyterian sociologist Christian Smith called The Bible Made Impossible (2011). Several in our local congregation read the book and found it very helpful in making sense of some of the issues that tend to divide and separate Evangelicals as they seek to follow Scripture. In late 2013 I heard through the grapevine that the author was now Catholic. As I googled it to make sure I found another book that he wrote after that: How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.

Step by step the author laid out the misconceptions that I had regarding the Catholic Church. I was beginning to see and hear things from a different perspective. On December 7, 2013 I wrote in my journal:

Charlotte asked me if I was recording my evolving thought process regarding faith expression. I said I was, but realize that I haven’t written anything specific related to my own thoughts (what I referred to above). I want to be careful and thorough and keep my heart and mind open to what the Holy Spirit is doing in me through the Word and through the other resources available to me. Suffice it to say for now, these are significant times in my life and I feel or sense that I’m being drawn “home.”

I find my heart continually drawn in one direction as I continue to read and meditate. It is as if I were being led or drawn home to a place of deep roots with deep and rich significance. The implications are massive and must be weighed accordingly. I am in continual conversation with Charlotte and she is supportive. I certainly want to pursue this with great care and due diligence and with utmost prayer and devotion. Any decision this important merits my full and dedicated attention.

 

Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

Fruit Inspector

I confess that I have been a long-time fruit inspector. I’ve never worked for Dole, Tropicana or Chiquita, but I could have been an asset to their teams. No fruit that was blemished, bruised or aged would pass my approval. It had to look “perfect” to enter my mouth! I’ve mellowed out over the years. I will now even look for a banana with some brown spots because I know it will be softer and probably taste a little better than the pristine yellow one.

Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel that “by their fruits you will know them.” Growing up in a conservative Christian environment there were certain things that were indicators of how spiritual someone was or how committed they were to Christ. For my parents’ generation much was made of the length of a woman’s hair or her coiffure. Wedding bands, jewelry, hemlines could all point to the quality of the fruit. As I grew up I associated certain habits or vocabulary with the fruit of a person’s life: smoking, drinking or bad words. The story is told that as a little child I would call any of those things a “bad bird.” I guess I couldn’t say “bad word.”

The “gospel train” that I referred to my third post was my way of categorizing and organizing how “good” a person’s fruit was. Of course, doing that was way above my pay grade. Yet that had been part of the issue of my perception of the faith of anyone who hadn’t grown up with the same spiritual DNA.

Soon after the death of my mother-in-law, a friend who worked with me in several justice initiatives died in an accident. This friend was from a historic mainline denomination. My friend’s political and social framework was different from mine and honestly that impacted my assessment of this person’s fruit. After attending my friend’s memorial service I wrote the following in my journal in November 2013:

Attending the memorial service got me to thinking even more about my place in this world. As I was praying I thought about my heart being squeezed by an iron band as an appropriate description of the smallness of my perspective and perception, that I have typically focused on the limits or made very small the arena out of which I live and operate. I think the milieu in which I have lived can best be described by the question Charlotte asked me when I was telling her about the memorial service–“was X a believer?” I almost took offense at the question. Actually I did! Yet that has been the very question I first ask so often in trying to evaluate people. I have been notoriously a “fruit inspector.” The scenario surrounding my friend is a continuation of the conversation I had with my father-in-law after my mother-in-law’s death regarding her faith and relationship with God.

Something inside of me is crying out for more authenticity, more grace, an open heart–I pray that this is the Spirit that God has placed within me. As I prayed this morning, I don’t want to lag behind God in this, nor do I want to be out of tune or down some rabbit trail. What I know is that I have been very guarded and exclusive when it has come to matters of faith expression.

Nearly 10 years ago as I was approaching my 50th birthday I asked the Lord to not allow me to become calcified in my spirit or in my outlook. I wanted to be open to God so that the Holy Spirit would always have complete access to my life. Up to this point I thought I had pretty much achieved that. Yet God took my prayer very seriously. Of course it was God who birthed that prayer in my heart. Little did I know that I was beginning a journey I could never have anticipated. Lord have mercy!

 

Fruit Inspector

Christ Is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Today is Sunday of the Fourth Week of Easter. Most of my life I never thought of this day in that way. Of course I celebrated Easter, but after that, life, even life in the church, went back to a normal pace. One of the criticisms I had of Catholics in the past was that they focused so much on Good Friday and Jesus on the Cross, but did not give Easter its proper attention. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is an Octave of Easter, so that Easter and the next seven days are like Easter all over again. And then there are seven weeks of Easter tide all the way up to Pentecost Sunday. This morning as I turned to the Liturgy of the Hours for my devotional time the hymn was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley. Yes, sometimes we are victims of our misconceptions.

I share this as I return to the last part of 2013 and the intensification of the challenge that God would place before me: are you really serious about Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, even as He and the Father are one?

It was October 2013. The Trinity Grace Church parish in Washington Heights had reached the 18-month stage of existence. The one-year anniversary was a high point, but following that there were the normal and persistent struggles that a church plant goes through. As a pastor I was seeking how to lead the parish forward. Over the summer I began to seriously consider adopting the cell church model for our congregation. I connected with a leading expert on cell churches to ask him to coach me on a monthly basis.

On Sunday, October 13, Charlotte’s mom suffered a heart attack and by the following Sunday, October 20, my mother-in-law passed away. The next morning Charlotte’s dad came out of his bedroom and sat down with three of his children and me. We could tell there was something heavy on his heart that he needed to express. He talked about faith and how he and his wife had sought to love and follow God and love Jesus. He expressed how important their Catholic faith was to them. The statement that challenged us both, especially Charlotte was when he said that her mother loved Jesus just as she did.

He expressed sadness and confusion over why faith seemed to be such a divisive issue in the family instead of something that drew us together. As he spoke I began to regret all the wasted opportunities to affirm them in their faith and find commonality with them. His was a gentle rebuke, but I was convicted that I had discounted the genuineness of their faith in the Catholic tradition. Yet I had stated often that I wouldn’t rule out that there were real Christians in the Catholic Church, not because of the church, but in spite of it.

Suddenly my preconceived notions were being held up to the light of the experience of someone who was asking me why I held that view. I had no idea at that time where this would lead, but I knew I owed it to my wife’s parents to take a serious look at their faith and give my father-in-law the courtesy I would to another Christian brother.

 

Christ Is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The Happy Day Express

The first two posts of this blog covered the first 57 years of my life in broad strokes. Early on I was intrigued with the idea of the unity of the body of Christ, His Church. Throughout the years I’ve had the opportunity to meet and know other Christians who did not come from my particular ecclesiastical pedigree. It was an enriching experience, but it also brought up a lot of questions. How could we read the same Bible and yet differ on some very significant doctrines of the faith? Did it matter? And if it didn’t, why did we tend to hold each other at arm’s length?

I count it a blessing that I grew up in a Christian home and that there is a heritage of faith on both sides of my family. My parents met at Frankfort Pilgrim College and High School in the early 1950s. At the age of six I distinctly remember praying at the altar of the Pilgrim Holiness Church in Clinton, Pennsylvania to invite Jesus into my heart. My desire to follow my Lord never abated even with the ups and downs of adolescence.

As a kid I had a visual image of the church as a train. In my mind those closest to the truth of Christ found themselves in the engine, where I knew I was with my family. Each succeeding car had churches that differed in greater degree to what I knew to be the pure truth of the gospel. What is amusing is that 40+ years later I shared this image with a friend who grew up in the Plymouth Brethren, a very distinct church from mine, and he too had the image of the train, and of course his church was in the engine!

A few mornings ago in my quiet time before the Lord I had a flashback of a song I learned when I was a child, no doubt the same song my friend sang in his childhood:

We’re going to a mansion on the Happy Day Express;
The letters on the engine are J-E-S-U-S;
The guard calls, “All for Heaven?” We gladly answer, “Yes!”
We’re going to a mansion on the Happy Day Express.

Somehow I took those words and imagined different levels of truth and closeness to Jesus. This image was challenged as I got to know other Christians from other traditions.

All that to say that two weeks ago yesterday Charlotte and I were received into the Roman Catholic Church at the parish of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Inwood, Manhattan, New York City. Now I find myself among those for whom I hadn’t made any room for as a child on the Happy Day Express.

How did I get here? Stay tuned!

The Happy Day Express

Joining God in the Renewal of All Things

It sounds like an ambitious goal. It is! But it grabbed my heart and gave purpose for why my wife and I were still in New York City in 2007. Let me back up a little. We came to New York City in the summer of 2002. After 15 years with Global Partners of The Wesleyan Church in Peru we began to sense God’s leading to a different place. As a person who had lived 2o of his years in South America and the rest for the most part in the Midwest, the idea of living in NYC was not something in the forefront of my mind.

Yet after all the years in another culture, especially discovering that I was legitimately a “third-culture kid” (a term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years), I couldn’t imagine settling down anywhere but a large city with plenty of diversity.

When the thought of New York City first came it seemed about as absurd as moving to the moon. I had never been there. My wife is from New York state, but seven hours away from the big city. Yet we found ourselves weeping as we drove through the Holland Tunnel on to Canal Street in March 2002. It seemed we had come “home.”

With our 12-year-old son we moved into Washington Heights in July 2002. Our hopes were high as we sought to plant Every Nation Church with the Penn-Jersey District of The Wesleyan Church. Space and time do not permit me to recount the joys and sorrows of those days. After three years we realized that ENC was not going to have sustainable life. The Penn-Jersey District leadership graciously understood and celebrated our efforts.

Yet we did not sense a release from Manhattan. For about 18 months we worshiped and participated with a church plant in Tribeca. Then in April 2007 we visited Origins Church in the Triad Theater on the Upper West Side. That Sunday morning Charlotte and I recognized that Origins Church, later Trinity Grace Church, was to be our church home.

We had an incredible eight years with Trinity Grace Church! The idea of “Joining God in the Renewal of All Things” was more than a mantra. This was the underlying vision and call for ministry and the incredible planting of new parishes. By 2015 the number of parishes (congregations) in the TGC family had gone from one to 11!

I had the privilege of serving first as an elder. Then in January 2009 I joined the staff of the church as the Pastor of Justice and Care. Charlotte and I also served the church walking with more than 30 couples in their preparation for marriage. Then in March 2012 we helped plant the sixth TGC congregation in Washington Heights. We can only look back over our years with Trinity Grace Church with great love, appreciation and gratitude for the privilege of walking alongside some of God’s choice servants.

One of the greatest gifts I received was being exposed to the larger story of what God was doing through Trinity Grace Church and other churches that had not been on my radar screen previously.

Little did we know that our lives were going to change drastically as we approached the last few months of 2013. That’s where I’ll pick up the story next.

 

 

Joining God in the Renewal of All Things