A dark Saturday

Light piercing the darkness after Holy Saturday

Yesterday was Good Friday – the day Jesus was crucified on the cross. It’s the day that the Son of God himself was executed. His enemies were victorious. His followers were in disarray. It’s the day that is remembered throughout the world because without Good Friday, we couldn’t have Easter. Without the death of Jesus on the cross, we wouldn’t be celebrating his resurrection three days later.

And that’s what we like to do in churches. We recognize and even celebrate Good Friday, but then we skip ahead to the celebration on Sunday, reminding everyone that it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Somehow during this remembering and celebration we minimize the fact that there is a Saturday in this story. And it feels pretty bleak.

Imagine with me for a moment that you’ve been following this man throughout the countryside. He’s proclaimed Truth. He’s healed many. Throngs of people greeted him. He had performed countless miracles. People’s lives were changed. Your life was changed.

You were there when he entered Jerusalem and was greeted with crowds of people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And you watched them make a path out of palm leaves as you followed him through the city.

Then the bottom fell out.

Within a matter of hours, your leader was betrayed, condemned by the authorities, and publicly executed by the State. Everything you thought you knew was proven wrong. The hours following Good Friday were a frightening, lonely, and hopeless time. They had no idea that their world was about to be changed and everything Jesus had promised was about to come true. They were surrounded by darkness, questioning everything they believed.

And the demons celebrated. All signs had pointed to hell’s victory. Evil had triumphed over good. Everything was spiraling out of control.

I’ve been there.

You’ve probably been there, too. If you haven’t been there yet, you will be someday. It’s part of the human experience. You could suddenly lose your job and find yourself wondering what on earth you’re going to do next when the bills are piling up. I remember waking up the day after my father in law died, hoping against hope that everything had been just a dream. I had a similar hope when my nephew died. Life is full of our own personal Holy Saturday moments.

Some people never leave their dark Saturdays. It’s like they’re stuck. They’re stuck on Saturday. And it’s because so many people are stuck on Saturday that we cannot rush through Saturday to get to Easter Sunday.

If you’re feeling isolated, abandoned, or alone, this day’s a great reminder for you. Maybe you are heartbroken, betrayed, or feeling completely helpless and hopeless. This day’s a great reminder for you.

If you feel like nobody is listening to you, this day’s a great reminder for you. And if it feels like your prayers are just bouncing off the ceiling and God doesn’t really care, this day’s a great reminder for you.

If the reality of death is looming over you, this day’s a great reminder for you.

If you’re surrounded by darkness and despair, this day is a great reminder for you. Light and life are about to burst forth out of the tomb. The world is about to be turned upside down.

It’s Saturday.
But Sunday morning is coming.

Do you see it? The light is peeking around the corner. The darkness will not last forever. Let me say this again: the darkness will not last forever. It’s Saturday. But Sunday morning is just beyond the horizon. It is about to pierce through the darkness. Do you see it?

Hallelujah.
Amen.

 

A few Septembers to remember

septembers-to-remember

September is a strange month for me. I’ve already talked about how September 11 is a mixture of laughter and sorrow in our house, thanks to our new family traditions. And, of course, there’s the anniversary of bringing Mihret home from Ethiopia. But there’s also a series of days in September that lead me to some self-reflection, contemplation, prayer, and even a little bit of dreaming. These anniversaries aren’t necessarily things I celebrate. They turned my world and my family’s world upside down. But I think they’re worth discussing,

September 1999

I did not attend Milligan with the intent of going into Youth Ministry. I don’t know what I really thought I was going to do with my Ministry degree, but youth ministry really wasn’t in my plan. Thanks to the recommendation of one of my professors, a church search committee approached me. Would I consider moving to Kentucky to take over the ministry programming from preschool thru college-aged students?

i’d recently graduated. I was a newlywed. And this position kind of fell into my lap. OK, it didn’t exactly fall into my lap. It wasn’t handed to me. I had to go through the interviews. We had to go through the process. But it was clear that doors were opening. So, although it was never part of my grand plan, I became a Youth Minister and moved our tiny little family of two to central Kentucky in early 1999.

It was clear from the beginning that I didn’t know what I was doing. Really. I can say that with almost two decades of analysis. I was ill-equipped. I can’t blame my alma mater for that. I just didn’t pay much attention to anything anyone said about youth ministry during my ministry-related classes because I was convinced I wasn’t going into youth ministry after college.

I was wrong. And it showed.

Christy tried to help me as much as she could. The staff tried to help me as much as they could. But in the end, there were too many unsaid, unmet, and unrealistic expectations. I had them. So did the Board. And so in early September, 1999, the Elders and I agreed that we should part ways.

This hurt in a lot of ways. This might be one of my biggest regrets. In retrospect, I believe things could have changed. Everything could have improved. And if I could go back and change things, I probably would. I was already emotionally exhausted just a few months into this ministry. So I left. And it hurt.

But I learned a lot from it. I was more confident than ever in my calling into some type of full time pastoral work. So I started addressing some organizational and administrative issues. I also talked to other youth ministers, attended some conferences, and had a better vision of what I thought a dynamic, impacting youth ministry would look like. And so I approached my next ministry position with a fresh outlook and renewed vigor.

September 2002

After everyone survived the Y2K non-disaster, I joined the ministry staff of a church in the Indianapolis area. With a great group of adult volunteers, some strong student leaders, and a passion to impact Indy, we made a difference. We went on a mission trip to serve a ministry reaching the Navajo nation. We began a student-led Sunday night worship service that was pretty fabulous. We hosted Christian concerts. We attended CIY’s summer conferences and Believe conferences. We had a written purpose and Vision. An abandoned firehouse was transformed into a student outreach center. Teens were getting baptized. Lives were being changed. I was turning down job opportunities at other churches. Things were clicking on all cylinders.

Then the wheels fell off.

Administrative issues kept rearing their ugly heads. Instead of addressing them head-on, I just pretended they didn’t exist. I wasn’t spending enough time with some of our students. Some parents were upset. That got other people upset. Including my immediate supervisor.

Bada-bing, Bada-boom…

I left the Student Ministry position in September, 2002. I felt betrayed, alone, and uncertain what to do next.

The Interim

I found myself questioning God quite a bit during this time. While I told my youth ministry kids, “Don’t give up on the church,” I have to admit that I was close to doing that myself. We tried attending churches nearby. We were always met by former members from my former employer. “What are you doing here?” they would ask, oblivious of the events that had recently transpired. It was a completely innocent question, but it cut like a knife.

Every. single. Sunday.

We eventually found a church in Fishers. It was a small church plant with big dreams. It was a place where we could get plugged in, but we could also start the healing process. It was like a soothing balm for our hurting souls.

Christy and I had two very young kids by this point. I did whatever I could to provide for them. I worked in warehouses. I managed a pizza joint. I was a substitute teacher. We moved in with my father in law for what was supposed to be just a month or two. Maybe three. It eventually turned into two years. I still attended conferences. I got some counseling. I learned some organizational tools that still help me today.

We knew this was just a season. But I’m not going to lie. It was hard. I had interview after interview. Christy and I wound up visiting all kinds of churches all over the place: from Iowa to Florida.

Nothing.

To make a long story short, we returned to Upper East Tennessee. I enrolled in seminary to solidify whatever cracks may have surfaced in my ministry foundation.

September 2011

After Christy earned her M.Ed degree at ETSU and I had completed three years of seminary, we started to sense that our season in Tennessee’s fair eastern mountains was coming to a close. In the Summer before what was going to be my final year in seminary, we loaded up a moving van, hugged some dear friends, and waved goodbye to Johnson City. I had accepted a preaching position in a small church south of Muncie, Indiana. It was a homecoming, of sorts. And because of a series of events that included some wide open doors and some doors that had been slammed shut, I was confident we were where God had led us. I think it’s safe to say, though, that I never really felt at home there.

Some great things happened during that ministry. There were some pretty high highlights. I baptized Aiden and Alyson there. But I’m not going to lie. It was a rocky time. Whenever I’d get together with other pastors from the area, someone would always wind up saying, “I can’t believe you’ve stuck around with them this long.” And this was without telling them anything that had been going on.

I’m not gong to lie. I questioned God. A lot. Why would God lead me somewhere like this? There were days when it felt like I couldn’t do anything to ever satisfy some people in the congregation. I felt like a punching bag sometimes.

But when you look at people like Jeremiah, Elijah, and even Moses, it’s important to remember that “calling” does not always equal “fun times.” Sometimes God asks us to do things we don’t really want to do. And since I was still sure that God had led us to East Central Indiana, I needed to stop complaining and keep doing my best to reach our community. But I quietly looked around for other opportunities.

I stuck around with them for four years before they decided they’d had enough of me. It was pretty apparent early on that I wasn’t going to retire there. I was never going to be seen as a “local.” I saw first hand how the stereotypes about small churches might be more true than we want to admit. And there was plenty of talk about people and their problems instead of talking to them. And very little was actually decided upon by those in leadership. People just kind of did what they wanted to do and claimed the leadership had agreed to it. And that worked because nobody really knew what they really did or didn’t agree to do.

It is no secret that I was not surprised when they fired me. But it still hurt. A lot. The sense of betrayal cut deep. I could go into details, but I won’t. Let’s just say that it took a long time for those wounds to heal. It honestly took a good teeth-kicking.

Moving on

Things have certainly changed over the years since we were pushed out of Eacst Central Indiana. Our family has grown. I’ve picked up marketing/PR skills and experience. I know who I am. And I know Whose I am. That’s where I find my satisfaction and worth. I don’t need a title or position to have meaning.  Although I do preach in some area churches on occasion, I’ve moved on.

I’ve moved on.

Do I question my calling? Nope. I believe God used me in each of those ministry situations. I also firmly believe that He is using me right here where I am now. And that isn’t in the pulpit.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I plan on returning to the pulpit full-time. I say that I’m not against it. But it will require a giant neon sign floating in the sky that refers to me by name with a very specific set of instructions.

And I’m only half joking.

After seeing the dark underbelly of, for lack of a better word, church “politics,” you might wonder what I think about church in general. I think it could be argued that I’m even more dedicated tot he ministry of the church throughout the world, I’m spite of my not-so-positive experiences. In reality, all of us are messed up. And when messed up people get together, they’re likely to make messed up decisions and mess up some things along the way. That’s the beauty of the mission of God. He uses messed up people with messed up lives to accomplish His plan.

Don’t believe me?

There are countless examples in the Bible. If you need for me to, I can spell them out for you. If I was still preaching regularly, it would make a great sermon series. Maybe I’ll just write a book instead.

Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I don’t think I need a neon sign for that one.

Egyptian Christians, St. Bartholomew, and counting the cost

In light of recent news of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt because of their faith, I was reminded of something that I had written 10 years ago for a church history class while in seminary. It was a meditation based on the painting of St. Bartholomew. Christian tradition says that Bartholomew the Apostle was martyred for his faith. It was a brutal execution.

St. Bartholomew

You can read the whole devotional thought here, if you’re really interested. It’s OK if you aren’t. That’s not really the reason I’m writing today.

I really want to share one of the meditation’s final paragraphs. Because the point is just as important today as it was when I wrote it ten years ago.

The image of St. Bartholomew calls upon us to pray for the persecuted church around the world.  It tells us the story of the millions of Christians who have given their lives for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.  It is a startling reminder that the price of following Jesus Christ is not cheap.  It is not a road that will be traveled lightly.  There will be trials and persecution of all kinds.  In the end, it could cost the believer everything – including the loss of life.  It is the example of St. Bartholomew that encourages the believer to press on towards the prize, knowing full well the costs involved.  It is with that same confidence that we face the perils of following the Lord of all things.

I think these martyred Egyptian Christians do the exact same thing. While the nations rage and come up with a fitting response to these barbaric acts, let us count the cost and take up the cross with reckless abandon. Let us live in boldness, full of hope, joy, and love, as we press on towards Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

I know it’s not easy. I’m not pretending it is. But this is how we are going to change the world, my friends.

A former pastor’s plea: Encourage your pastor.

Recently, I found myself looking through some archived emails of mine. I was searching for an old piece of information. I don’t remember what I needed, exactly. But I remember that I needed the information for some type of job application.

Mr Popular

During my quest, I stumbled upon some conversations that happened during the years I was pastoring that small church in East Central Indiana. While I believe I have completely moved on from that experience, having let go of whatever bitterness I had harbored (remember when God kicked me in the teeth?), I’m not gonna lie. Reading some of those emails hurt my heart.

Not one of the emails I had read was positive. My inbox was full of messages that pointed out what I wasn’t doing right. They focused on the negative. Not one of the 8-10 emails that I skimmed had a positive comment. That still hurts my heart.

It hurts my heart because I know I’m not the only pastor to have received emails like this. It hurt my heart because I know that many pastors have received emails like that this week. Maybe even today. And at the same time, they haven’t received any words of encouragement. I know it’s easier to point out areas improvement instead of talking about what was done well, but a constant barrage of negativity, continually hearing things like…

“You didn’t do _________.”
or
“You forgot to pray for _________.”
or
“Why haven’t you brought more young families to our church?”
or
“We’re not growing. What are you going to do about it?”
or
“Why haven’t you visited _________ yet? She’s had a hangnail on her pinky for a week!”  – OK. I’m only half joking about this last one. You’d be amazed at how some people get worked up about the silliest of things, though.

A constant barrage of negative attitudes, criticisms, and complaints with no reprieve can wear you out. Pastoring can be a lonely profession. Being a recipient of such discouraging messages over and over again only makes things even more isolating.

It’s no wonder so many people walk away from the pastorate.

I know this isn’t the goal of most people who complain and gripe and criticize. But it happens. And this isn’t healthy. There’s already a spiritual battle taking place around our church leaders. Let’s try to minimize casualties due to friendly fire, shall we? So let’s do something about it. Let’s all work on being an encouragement to our pastors and anyone else in church leadership positions.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up - 1 Thessalonians 5:11

This month is Pastor Appreciation Month. It’s a good time to start fixing this heartbreaking trend. But please don’t stop when the calendar switches to November.

Here are some ways you can encourage your pastor all year long:

1.) Send a note.

You have no idea how much impact a simple note or card can have. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. All it really needs to say is “You’re doing a good job,” or something like “I appreciate you because _______” or even a simple “Thank you.” These simple gestures don’t take very much time but they are powerful.

I used to keep a “Feel Good” folder tucked away in my files. Whenever I was having a really tough day, I would pull that out and look through a couple of the notes and cards I’d received over the years. These items are always a beacon of light whenever times are tough and it feels like the darkness is creeping in.

2.) Watch what you say.

There are times you have to be critical. I get that. I understand that. Criticism isn’t a bad thing. It’s important. It helps people grow and improve. We have to help each other get better. It’s part of how iron sharpens iron.

BUT…

Don’t let the only things that come out of your mouth be negative. Consider following this rule: for every criticism/complaint/negative comment you make, say three positive things. It might sound silly, but it’s a simple reminder to keep our eyes on the positive.

And even when you need to say something critical, make sure you’re still speaking life. We are called to be life-givers. Not soul-suckers.

Speak life. In all you do and say, speak life.

3.) Help protect your pastor’s family.

Pastoring is tough. It can be even tougher on a pastor’s family. Family Life has some pretty good suggestions about how you can encourage your pastor by helping to protect your pastor’s family.

4.) Bring a guest.

You want to make your pastor’s day? Maybe even your pastor’s month? Invite a guest to participate in a worship service with you. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You don’t even have to introduce your guest to the pastor. If you’re part of the majority of churches in America, your pastor is probably begging you to bring a friend some Sunday. Imagine what an encouragement it would be if your pastor found out that you did what you were asked to do!

Avoiding friendly fire.

When I was ordained 15 years ago, I remember being told by a few people during the service that I was now a “marked man.” In other words, we are in the midst of a spiritual war and choosing to step into a role as a church leader means that you’ve decided to allow a giant target to be placed upon you. Satan wants to see the Church destroyed. A great way to do that is by destroying her leaders.

I firmly believe that a spiritual war is waging all around us. As we are fighting in this war, however, let’s make sure that the target that’s on our leaders doesn’t get moved to their backs. Let’s avoid wounding our pastors with friendly fire.

I’m open to suggestions!

What are you going to do to encourage your pastor this week? These four ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. I’d love to hear your suggestions. We’re all on the same side. Let’s work together to encourage and lift up our church leaders in ways they’ve never experienced before! When we do that, we’ll have a tiny part in changing the world.

I admit that I haven’t been as good at being an encouragement to my church leaders and pastors as I should be. So while I’m waiting for your awesome suggestions, I’m going to go sit down and write some notes to some members of our church staff.

I hope you’ll join me.

My Ultimate Christmas Playlist: Matthew’s Begats

Andrew Peterson - Matthew's Begats from Behold the Lamb of God

I like to remind people that everyone has a story. And God wants to write your story. He wants to use your story to impact someone else’s story. When I was preaching full time, I would point to genealogies like the ones listed in Matthew and Luke as examples of how God can use your story as part of His giant story.

It’s great. It’s inspiring. I still agree with it 100%.

But those names. Holy cow, those names. Some are almost impossible to pronounce – even for someone who’s taken Hebrew. OK. It was for just a semester and I didn’t do very well, but you catch my meaning.

That’s why Andrew Peterson (yes, I said Andrew Peterson. He’s back.) is such a musical genius. He can take something that can be a little dizzying when you listen to it and turn it into a pretty catchy little tune.

My wisest decision in 2013

wisdom turn the page

I don’t really consider myself “wise.” Although I do have a lot of gray hair. And that’s supposed to be some kind of sign of wisdom – right? I’m not buying it.

While I don’t think I’ve made a lot of unwise decisions in 2013, there aren’t many that really stick out as decisions that were necessarily “wise,” either. Except one.

I turned the page.

I let it go.

I stopped nursing that grudge that I’d allowed to stick around somewhere in the back corners of my soul that no one really bothers to look at. I’d held onto it for the better part of two years. Didn’t even realize I was doing it most of the time. But now it’s gone because I’ve let it go. Of course, I had to get kicked in the teeth to realize what I needed to do.

So maybe I’m not so wise after all. But I’m definitely a whole lot more free now that I’m not carrying that burden around anymore.

This post is part of the #ThinkKit December post-a-day blog writing challenge by Smallbox. Today’s prompt: “What was the wisest decision you made this year?”

You interested in participating? There’s still time to join in!

My Ultimate Christmas Playlist: O Come, Emmanuel

O Come Emmanuel

This song is, without a doubt, my all-time favorite Christmas song. I guess this really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. With musical and lyrical roots that date back approximately 1,000 yearsO Come, Emmanuel has some serious staying power. The tune is haunting. The lyrics echo the cry of a people yearning to be free. It has been known to bring a tear to my eye on occasion.

I have such a deep appreciation for this song that it has been known to show up in worship services that I’ve planned that aren’t in the month of December – like Ascension Day. After all, celebrating Christ’s first coming and longing for His return is something that should be practiced throughout the year, isn’t it?

In a good place

In addition to our brief taste of Heaven during Homecoming at Milligan, I came to a realization about life in the Todd house. I know I’ve known this for quite some time but I was finally able to admit it to myself and say it with some confidence.

We’re in a good place.

The big kids have adapted well to all areas of middle school life. Mihret is loving Kindergarten and has special services available to her that would not have been as easily accessible if we still lived in Cowan.

We’re in a good place.

Christy is working at her dream job; providing Special Education services in a Christian school environment. I’m really liking the direction our company is taking. I get the opportunity to help blaze a new trail as we strive to remain leaders in our industry.

We’re in a good place.

Show Hope Celebration

For the last 10+ years, or hearts have been drawn towards new church work. That’s why I enrolled at ESR ECS to begin with. That’s why we became so invested in Sonlife/Southside/Summit Church. That also makes me wonder why I wound up pastoring a church that was more than 110 years old. But that’s a moot point for the purposes of this conversation. It’s probably worth addressing at some point. But not now. It was what it was.

Because of the soft spot in our hearts for new church startups, we knew the moment our pastor announced the vision that we would be participants in the establishment of a new satellite campus of our church. After a year or so of being pretty gun shy about committing to any type of ministry involvement other than the occasional preaching gig, it has been exciting to participate in this new effort and to watch people come to Jesus for the first time.

We’re in a good place.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve had our share of uncertainty, worry, and heartache since moving here. But even with the difficulties that come with life, we have a strong Life Group and a growing group of friends to lean on. I’m glad we’re somewhere we can share our journey with others who rejoice when we rejoice and hurt when we hurt. I firmly believe that God has just begun to write the opening paragraphs of our next chapter here. And I think I can safely say that it’s going to be a roller coaster ride. I’m looking forward to what’s next.

Because we’re in a good place.

My Birthday and the Gorilla in the Room

Our small group was invited to a special meeting last night at church. When we got there, I dropped Mihret off in the childcare area (she was the only one in the preschool area, which meant she got to have four adults wrapped around her finger for nearly two hours 😉 ). As I came around the corner to catch up with Christy and our group, I was greeted by this:

birthday monkeys

Yes. That’s a monkey balloon. Those are monkey masks. They wore them as they sang happy birthday to me. It appears that the gorilla story has taken on a life of its own. And you can’t really stop a gorilla, can you?

In addition to the gorilla greeting, we had orange cake and a Darth Vader candle…

Darth Vader candle

Do these people know me or what?

I know. The candle’s blue. It should be red. I’ll forgive them for getting the candle color wrong. At least they didn’t get Star Wars confused with Star Trek.