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.