Saturday, December 30, 2006

Final parting shots...

Some pictures of friends and family as we said goodbye last week. If I can figure out the caption tool, you'll be able to see who they are.

(Coming soon!)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas and more goodbyes

We had an amazing, too fast, sort-of-sad Christmas season this year. Amazing because the time with family and friends seemed so much sweeter with the move looming. It seemed to blow by because our eyes were on the flight and final preparations for living in London. And of course, it was sad because we really have loved being so close to our families, all in the same area for this many years.

Ian and I got our final haircuts as Julie closed her business as a hairdresser. That was another step toward making this final...and real. Ian will be starting a new school soon, and looks so grown up with shorter hair.

So much of Christmas is spent talking about the coming of Jesus--it's all about the arrival of someone. This year it has all been about our leaving, about departing our home for a new way of living the life God has called us to. I'm enjoying the clash of those two things--knowing that Jesus came, that he was really here for a while, somehow makes all of this survivable. We never really leave our Christian community, we just join that family in another place.

We're waiting for the flight as I write this. Next stop, London.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Leaving our house...

We woke up on Sunday for the last time in our house. It was sort of sad and sort of strange. We were exhausted from several high-intensity days of working on the house (more on that below), but the three of us snuggled on an air mattress for a while and watched some squirrels play in the front tree. It was one of a handful of milestones leading up to our move to London, and as much as I wanted to get things moving that day, I’ll always remember those few moments we spent huddled together looking out the window. Making a new home always means leaving another, and that’s exactly what we did. But not before 5 days of pressure-filled work to get the house ready for the renter.

Last week we realized that we had a ton of work to do—and things to move—before the house would be ready for a tenant. Julie bought all the paint (she has a better eye than I do), and I got all my painting tools and dropcloths ready for the task. I spent Thursday patching holes and priming places where our walls had been repaired, and that evening prepared to paint the living room. The guy I used to paint for when I was in college, Dave Chambers, came over and started to roll the walls out. Right from the start we knew something was wrong—the paint was so yellow, and it didn’t match the original shade. The paint store had mixed the wrong color, and it was too late to reutrn it. Dave, who is truly an artisan when it comes to painting, came over the next day and spent 2 hours with his tints and our paint, and left us with more than a gallon that matched our walls perfectly. I ended up painting 3 bedrooms, a hallway, the dining and living rooms, and a handful of windows and doorjambs.

It was an extremely hard couple of days.

The house needed some serious cleaning. Julie moved from room to room vacuuming, wiping, and packing. When the carpet shampooer went on the fritz, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing it clean. Ericka organized the job, and Neil, Dan and my Mom came over to help, but Julie took the brunt of this one, and I’m glad it’s done.

In the midst of that my brother-in-law Bill helped me all day Saturday as we moved our remaining furniture to various homes for storage. What you don’t know is that Bill has a very painful arthritis condition that causes him almost constant discomfort, and that he never mentioned it once as we made 5 separate deliveries of items all over the area. There are men and there are men, Bill is the real deal—strong, loyal and generous to a fault. I learned on Saturday that Bill still has a lot to teach me.

We’re at my Mom’s house now, and starting to let up for the first time in a while. Mom put a lot of time into getting her house ready for our invasion—comfy beds, lots of food and wine, and a fire in the fireplace. Ian, who had been showing the stress of the process, seemed happy and relaxed. Thanks, Mom.

Transitions remind us of just how meaningful our relationships are. Friends, family members, even neighbors, we got encouragement and help from so many people. The lady next door left a big hunk of fudge on the seat of the moving van—that was sweet in so many ways. I’ve also been hearing from folks at the church in London, about how they’re preparing for our arrival by cleaning the manse, stocking it with food, helping us get our cell phones and assigning someone to show us our new neighborhood (Belsize Park). In the Bible it says that God puts the lonely in families, and as we leave one close-knit group of friends and relatives, God is preparing us to be cared for in another. We’re getting more ready all the time.

Just 9 days before we leave.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A going away party for the ages...

We were blessed with the gift of a going away party hosted by some friends at church. The party had an English theme (appropriately enough), and so there were a handful of James Bonds, some Bond Girls who were a handful, and one glorious Rumpole of the Bailey (the pastor of our church). We ate shepherd's pie, bangers and beans and sticky toffee pudding made by my mother-in-law.

But the best part was mingling and talking about our move with these friends we'd worshipped with and served with for the last 10 years. Church has a lot of functions, but one of the most important is the role it plays in helping people identify their gifts, providing the chances to test them out, and helping disciples find their places in ministry. Glendale Presbyterian Church has done that for Julie and for me. After a long hiatus, it was a pastor at GPC that cajoled me into preaching again. That was about 15 preaching dates ago--I rediscovered that gift and calling in the context of life at this church, and for that I will always be grateful. Julie has been involved in children's ministry here for the last few years, and has taken on new challenges in that role, things she wouldn't have tried without the support of this church. Put another way, we simply would not be in a position to make the move to serving the American Church in London without the encouragement and nudging of Glendale Presbyterian Church.

At the party my brother-in-law and close friend made a teary speech (it's bringing tears to my eyes just remembering it). He went through the various points in time in our relationship, how I pursued a friendship with him, and wept as he told me he loved me. I got to say back to him, and I'll say it here as well, that I sought him out because he's an amazing man, and that I'm a better man for having known him. Billy, I love you too. (That's the two of us above at Thanksgiving this year.)

Goodbyes are hard, but some are better than others. The Artimes and other hosts really outdid themselves in giving us a chance to say 'thank you' and farewell.

Just 3 weeks now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A moving experience

Well, the day has finally arrived. The packers came on Monday to get our house ready to go, and the shipping container is in front of the house waiting to be filled with our furniture and clothes and other things (see the pics). It's very strange watching other people pack your stuff. We've made some discoveries--things we'd forgotten we had, and sentimental items we hadn't looked at in a long time. My first thought was that as American consumers we certainly accumulate a lot of material things. I found DVDs still in the wrapper--I'm sure at the time I really 'needed' them. The list goes on: clothes we haven't worn, special foods we never ate, books that were never read. Moving is a great time to re-think our buying habits, and that's what we're doing.

But apart from that, this process of packing and shipping is bringing us one step closer to our new lives in London. I woke up at 3am last night with a sermon idea. Ian is mapping out his favorite museums again, and Julie is talking about this restaurant in our neighborhood that we visited in June. I said in an earlier entry that this is gradually becoming real to us, and this week is a huge step forward.

We're going to 'camp' in our house for the next week, doing minor repairs and saying goodbye slowly. Then we're moving in with my Mom about a mile away (thanks, Mom!). She's been making a temporary home for us, and we're grateful. I'm working at the Foundation until the 22nd of December, and Julie will be cutting hair through the 23rd (I'm her last appointment).

This Sunday some friends from church are throwing a goodbye party for us. I'll post pictures on Monday.

We leave exactly one month from today.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

To Nashville for some more goodbyes

I was in Nashville this past week for my final management team meeting with the Presbyterian Foundation (that's all of us in the picture at a restaurant called The Stockyard). I think it occurred to me while I was flying there that I was really going to miss these folks. The meetings were fairly typical--some planning, some assessing past work, some, er, spirited debate. On Wednesday night four of us went to Roberts Western World, an old time club on South Broadway. It was raining but I really wanted to see a band play live in Nashville, and my colleagues were good sports about finding a place. We ended up seeing the Travis Mann Band, a great rockabilly quintet. I got a good picture of them.

I suppose I left reminded that even when this group is at its most conflicted, there is something to be said for being in the company of people who want to do their best work--who are willing to fight for their vision of how we can best serve the church. I'll miss them a lot, probably more than they'll know.

That was my last business trip for the Foundation. When I got home Ian ran to me and hugged me with more strength than I thought he had. I've traveled a lot in the past two years, and it's ironic to me that the move to London will mean less time away from Julie and Ian.

We leave in 40 days.

Monday, November 13, 2006

...but for the grace of God...

Ted Haggard is on my mind this week. After the shock of his admission that he’d been leading a secret life, after the press had a field day with the news during the week of the elections, after seeing the reactions of my Christian and non-Christian friends… Mostly I’m sad for his family and his church and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), but I grieve some for him as well.

Some background: The NAE has been damaged by Haggard’s behavior, and that’s very sad to me. Among evangelical coalitions, the NAE are the good guys. Here's how they came about. In the early 1930s a man named J. Elwin Wright got frustrated that Christian groups spent so much time fighting each other that they didn’t get much Christian work done. He started an organization called the New England Fellowship, and virtually invented the movement known as cooperative evangelism, which allowed evangelical churches to work together based on their agreement on the big issues (who Christ is, the belief that the Bible is inspired by God, etc.), even if they disagreed on some of the small things (how churches are governed, details about the ‘end times’, etc.). This movement was successful with all but the crankiest of fundamentalists, and by 1942 it went nationwide in the form of the NAE. Wright said this at the first meeting of the NAE:

"We must speak out with courage against apostasy and apostate movements, but we must, at the same time, be wise and gracious enough to recognize that there are differences of doctrine among Bible-believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ upon which there is little hope that we will see eye to eye until the day when we no longer 'see through a glass darkly,' but face to face with our Lord."

The point is that this group was founded—and has continued—to be a faithful witness to the Christian message without being divisive or militant. In our present climate of vicious attacks both within the Christian movement and from those who watch us from outside, the NAE has been faithful to their original model of being faithful, courageous and humble in their interaction with the culture. This is the group, let’s not forget, that came out with a strong pro-environmental statement earlier this year because they recognized that care for the Earth was a central doctrine of our Christian faith.

The first president of the NAE, Harold John Ockenga (also the first president of Fuller Seminary), closed that first set of meetings with this comment:

"It is my earnest prayer that all of us will demonstrate ourselves beyond the age of adolescence and in the full stature of manhood, with all the mutual respect, tolerance, and graciousness which a mature man gives to another."

Now apart from the cultural sexism of the language he used, do you see the wisdom in what he said? Wouldn’t our Christian faith find more willing listeners if we treated the culture—and each other!—with mutual respect, tolerance and graciousness? Evangelical Christians have spent so much time fighting with each other and attacking the culture that we have forgotten that our primary task is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a world that needs so much to hear it.

But I digress…

Ted Haggard’s self-destruction has caught my eye and heart as I head back into pastoral ministry. The weight of expectations, the addictive drug of praise, the perception of wisdom and the granting of authority, all of these are minefields for those of us who step into church leadership. I don’t have to share Haggard’s specific problem to know that temptations are there, ready to trip any and all of us. Those temptations, and our unique sets of weaknesses in the face of them, are constant reminders of our need for God’s strength and protection, and also his grace when we fall.

In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul says this: “To keep me from becoming conceited . . .there was given me a thorn in my flesh.” After pleading with God to take away this weakness, God refuses and says to Paul: “My grace is sufficient , for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Now I’ve always liked the fact that Paul’s thorn is never named—it prevents any of us who don’t share it from dismissing the point of the story. And what is that point? For all believers, it teaches us that God does not demand perfection, only that we are willing vessels for his grace to be made known. But for pastors and other leaders there is a different point. We get credited more often than not with strengths we don’t really have. When that happens—when we believe the flattery—we run the risk of forgetting that God is the source of our wisdom and vision and ability, and that only in our weakness and impotence can we model and communicate Christ’s gospel in all its fullness. Ted Haggard may have forgotten that, and he may have done irreparable damage to his family, his church and the NAE because of it. But if God is to be believed, it is at this moment—in the despair and guilt and feelings of failure—that Haggard may experience and share the true meaning of Christ’s mercy and love and grace to the people around him. For the rest of us on this path of discipleship, it’s a reminder that God’s work in us is precisely that. It’s his work, not ours, no matter what our fans tell us.

Just 45 days before we leave.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Moving and standing still

So much of our lives is in motion these days. Plasterers, painters, landscapers and haulers—they’ve all had us surrounded for weeks now. I’ve been going through files lately, shredding things we don’t need but that reveal our Social Security numbers to potential identity thieves. Julie is doing much better at this than I am. I find myself forgetting things that I said or did or learned just minutes earlier—my head is struggling to balance work, family, home repairs, preparing for shipping our household, and trying to think of what to preach and teach in my first 6 weeks in London. So much about this move requires me to be in constant motion.

So naturally I got into a car accident this week.

It was nothing too serious, as fender benders go. Someone 3-4 cars ahead of me stopped short, and I was the last in a chain of cars to bump. It was my first accident in 22 years (that one was even less significant), and only my second ever. My car is in the body shop for the next three weeks, and we’re out another $500 for the deductible. So…I’m stuck in the house for the second straight day. All this motion is going on around me, and I can’t go anywhere.

I suppose that I should be looking for the deeper meaning here, some sense of the value of stillness. But I think my brain is too busy for metaphors just now. I’ve got things to do, and I don’t have a car. That’s how native-born Californians envision Hell.

On further review, though, there is something to the idea that I’m going to benefit from slowing down. I’m getting some of the little things done that I had ignored for a while. I wrestled with Ian for a long time last night, and we played dinosaurs again this morning. I was here to show our house to a new prospective tenant. I won’t say that I’m glad the accident happened, but I will say that I needed something to take me off the track I was stuck on over the past month. I’ve focused on so many things that everything has become blurry. Slowing down has helped.

In Philippians 4:6, Paul advises his friends this way: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your needs to God.” So I suppose as Preacher Guy I ought to pay attention to that. It’s OK to be needy and thankful at the same time. I need more help right now than I ever have at any time in my life, and yet I’m also so grateful: to God for this new calling and adventure; to Julie for being so honestly willing and reluctant at the same time; to my family for taking this in stride and being so supportive. It is such a feeling of richness to need, and to see that need met by God and the people around me. It makes me almost compulsively grateful—Paul had it right in this passage. I’m thanking God and asking for his help all at the same time—the two are connected. Maybe I’ll stay home one more day.

We leave in exactly seven weeks.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Saying some goodbyes

I spent this past weekend with some old friends. I grew up with these guys—we were in the nursery together at the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank. We sang in a boys’ choir back in grade school, played on the same sports teams, and participated in all sorts of church events. Three of us went to the same high school, where we played against the other in baseball. We all graduated in 1981, and continued to see each other and travel together on skiing and backpacking trips. I performed the wedding services for two of them, and have counseled the other through a divorce. We met at a house in Shell Beach, about three hours up the California coast from where we grew up. My aunt has a house there that we all visited as kids, and so it was the perfect place to gather.

We could not have grown up to be more different from each other. One is a police officer in our hometown, while another is a prominent emergency room physician at the busiest hospital in Philadelphia. Another is a foreman for a construction company, building homes along California’s Central Coast. And then there’s me. I’ve worked in churches and Christian non-profit organizations my whole adult life. The four of us could hardly be more different, and yet…

We share a common history that binds us together.

We four don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything—far from it. But in a meaningful way, even when we disagree, we understand each other because we’ve known each other for so long. Not many 43 year-olds can boast of significant friendships that span 40 years, and we recognize the gift we have together. That history helps us understand our separate presents and futures, and gives us hope that we’ll continue as friends for years to come.

Another thing I like is that our friendships are rooted in our time in the church. Faith has always been a part of our individual and corporate relationships, even though we’re all in different places in our relationships to Christ. But God knows our stories, and knows that they’re built on time we spent in Sunday School, in Youth ministries, on mission trips and in worship. And that gives our relationships a dimension that means something, even when we’re not sure exactly what that is.

The American Church in London website says: “If you are in London for a short time or a lifetime, we invite you…” It’s an invitation to worship and serve Christ in a community of faith, to build relationships and make histories together that will last long after we part ways. Lots of clubs and organizations can provide something like this, but only Christ’s Body offers a present reality tied to a future hope. That’s the gift people are giving to each other at ACL, and to those who haven’t found their way in just yet. Churches exist for a complex of reasons: to provide worship time and space, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, to encourage fellowship that grows into deep community. I’m looking forward to seeing how ACL will live and grow in these important areas.

This past weekend my friends and I went fishing, played golf, and ate a lot of food. We walked and talked a lot, watched movies and some of the World Series, and slept late three mornings in a row. What we were doing was saying goodbye for now. With my move to London it will be a while before we can get together again. As we all drove off I felt fortunate to have this history, but even more blessed to have a future filled with ministry and service and adventure. Leaving the guys was a key step in getting ready to leave for London.

We leave in 58 days.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Something I don't usually talk about

It's always hard to talk about how God provides for me and for my family. I mean, where do I get the nerve, when people all around me are suffering through loss or pain or some other kind of deprivation that convinces them that God has forgotten them? My closest friend from seminary has lymphoma. How can I talk about God's Providence?

And yet...

This is a normal part of what it means to believe in God and trust him as completely as you can. God asks us to pray, to enter into conversation with him, not so that we can dump a grocery list of requests at his feet, but rather so we can draw closer to his presence--close enough to hear his heartbeat and align our hearts to his. That doesn't always come with a "yes" to our petitions, but it can always come with a sense of being caught up in God's plan for his creation, and that ain't bad.

But there are times when God's hand is unmistakable in my life. This is one of those times.

As I've said already here, there are all kinds of questions about why I feel God's call in my life to make the move to London. There are so many doubts about my ability, my patience, my capacity to care about things I don't care about. All the critical tools for being a good pastor. The only way I can experience what some people call "confirmation" in this process, is to pay attention to how the obstacles to our move are, well, rolled away.

We have so much to do with our house to get it ready for our time away. We have to ration our funds and decide which work we pay someone to do, and which items we do ourselves. We need a renter to move into our house before we actually leave, so we're not paying the mortgage here out of my salary in London. Julie and I both still have jobs with plenty of work to do before the move. We need to find a mover that fits within the budget of the church we're going to--it's important not to create a bad impression before we even get there. Seriously--that's just the beginning of the list.

But over the last few days we've seen so many things happen that have eased the pressure a bit, and I'm willing to say that it's God who is helping us along, moving the stones away to clear our path. The sandblasting and stucco work at the house came in under budget, and the place looks beautiful. I painted one of the bathrooms and enjoyed it enough to look forward to painting the next one this weekend. After a $22,000 estimate to move our things to London, another bid came in at about $12,000, much closer to the budget. A family member today decided to help us hire out more of the work than we could have afforded ourselves, just so that we could better enjoy the time between now and when we leave.

And here's the kicker, the one that forced us to see that we were getting a little extra help from above. The real estate agent who will be managing our house called and left a message today. As soon as I heard his voice I expected to be scolded, nudged to get the house ready to list as available for rent. Instead he told me that there was a good chance that the house is rented already. Another client of his needs to move locally, and our house is perfect. If it works out that means we'll have no sign out front, no lockbox, no surprise visits.

Of course, most of that could be coincidence. But I think it's one of the tasks of faith to strive to see God in our daily lives, in the good and the bad, the annoying and the helpful. In the end it's not that we got all this help. That part is great, don't get me wrong, but the best part is that I spent some time this evening actually thinking about the job--about the ministry to the people of my new church. This wasn't just about receiving gifts, it was about being free to focus on the people I'm going to serve. Even though we were the recipients, it will be the people of the American Church who benefit from having a pastor who isn't looking back at all the things he left undone.

One last thing, sort of an Easter moment here in the middle of October. I've been thinking about the image of God rolling stones out of the way so that we could do and be and see the way he wants for us. That Sunday after the horrible death of Christ on the cross, what does God do? He rolls the stone away, not just to show off his power, but to let us see what he's done and wants to do in our lives. It doesn't always happen, it doesn't always work out that the obstacles get moved out of our way, but it does sometimes. It did on that first Easter morning, and it did for us this week.

We leave in 71 days.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

This is becoming more real all the time

So after much prayer and wrestling--with God, with my wife, with myself--I accepted the call to come to ACL at the end of July. Agony aside, I haven't doubted the rightness of the decision in any significant way, but that doesn't mean there haven't been moments of panic. The decision may be right: my wife and I prayed about this a lot, and I do feel called to the job. But there are still times when I wonder if I'm really the person they want--if I'm really anywhere near to the person they think I am. I've been grateful during this process for friends and mentors who are standing with me, whispering (OK, sometimes they're yelling) encouragement in my ear and confirming that this is the right place for me to serve. Up to now I've gotten by on that support, plus I knew that this was a half-year away.

But it just got a lot more real. How?

Yesterday we--my wife Julie and I--met with a realtor about leasing our house while we're in the UK. Like a lot of Southern Californians we couldn't possibly buy our own home if we had to do it all over again--it's worth 3 times what we paid for it in 1998. We'll be moving out in November because our furniture and everything else needs to ship to the UK so it will be there not too long after we arrive at the end of December. So we're talking about the process of renting the house, and the realtor mentions the need for a lockbox, as in that thing that sits on your porch so that the house can be shown if we're not there. I'm not sure why, but that hit us both like a punch in the gut. We've got to have our house show-ready within a few weeks if we're going to get someone in here by December 1st.

The move is also more real now because I bought our plane tickets. Three days after Christmas we'll hop on a plane and move to London. Just writing that is so strange to me.

Another way it became real happened at work. In the process of making plans for my present office, a colleague made it pretty clear that my opinion wasn't nearly as important as I thought it was. I think the part that stung was that she was right. I've been working so hard not to disengage from my work, to do a good job right up until I leave, that I'd missed a place where backing off was precisely what was called for. It took a few hours to bounce back from that one.

My son, who is 6 years old, will attend a smallish private school in London. His teacher emailed us the other day and said that he had a desk in the classroom with his name already on it, and that a boy named Lucas was looking forward to being his friend. First off, that was an exceptionally kind thing to do. My son has been talking about his teacher by name ever since we got the note. But it also made me face the fact that I'm taking him along on this calling that really focuses on me. Whatever pressure there is to live up to the church's expectations is nothing compared to how I feel about changing my son's entire life.

My wife is going through an even more dramatic change. She's a hairdresser, and has had her own business for 20 years--she's had some clients for even longer than that. It's like a death for her, giving up this business that sustained her for so long, that helped her raise her daughter into the great young woman that she is. I admire her so much for making this move with me. I miss so many great opportunities to tell her so.

There are 78 days until we leave. God, make me ready.

The American Church in London

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Let's get this party started.

On January 1st 2007 I'll be starting up duties as the Senior Minister at the American Church in London. Most days I ask myself just how this all happened, so I think I'll take some time on this blog to share how the job came about, and how my family and I decided to take this huge step. Along the way we'll touch on questions of "calling" and what that means for everyone who seeks to serve Jesus Christ in this life, with some special attention to those who are called to ordained ministry.

While we're on that topic...

On my first day at Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the professors there, Gary Sattler, addressed the students who were beginning their preparation for Christian service. He re-told the parable of the wedding banquet from Matthew 22. He talked for a long time about what it meant to come to faith, and how Christ was promising this amazing party for those who followed him. He went on and on about his own interpretation of the story, about how the guests would all get new clothes and sit at a fancy meal with the choicest and most delicious foods and drink that we could ever imagine. He asked us if we could picture the celebration, and let us close our eyes to soak it all in.

Then he continued, saying that in the midst of this joyous, guilt-free cholesterol feast, some of the guests were tricked into being servers. Their new clothes were ruined. They had to put food in front of the guests, but rarely got to enjoy the meal themselves. The party became more work than fun, and in the end the servers were exhausted.

The servers were the ministers, called to serve the rest of the community of faith. After letting that sink in, Dr. Sattler welcomed us to seminary.

Along the way this blog will explore some of what it means to be called to serve Christ by serving the church and the world. It's not always a tidy topic, and I'll confess right now that far more of it is a mystery to me than I'm comfortable with. But it's also a core part of my life as a Christian, and now I'm taking my family on this leap of faith in order to live it out. If you're interested, stay tuned.