Friday, April 26, 2013

Todd Gothberg: Lessons from Louie

Last week I mentioned my friend Todd Gothberg in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings. This week he posted about his experience on his blog BELIEVE. Check it out:

I've been through a lot in my life. And then I went through this year's Boston Marathon. While I finished an hour before the blasts which tragically rocked a city, a nation, and a world, I found myself experiencing a range of emotions from the point I learned of the attacks until the second suspect was captured four days later. Shock. Sadness. Despair. Anger. Regret. Guilt. Relief. Peace. And while I was not physically impacted, I way underestimated the emotional toll Boston would take on me. Depression had parked itself in my soul. I know this is hard to believe, but I even found myself not wanting to run - the one "escape" I had gone to over the years to cope, my "therapy" became a reminder of what had gone terribly wrong just a few days earlier. Instead of basking in the glow of my 15th Boston finish, I was struggling to find purpose, passion and reason to move forward with life as I once knew it. 
And then, as I added a few new books to my work library, I came across Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" which I had read two years earlier and recalled meeting the man about whom the book was written. I met Louie Zamperini at Rev. Billy Graham's home in Montreat, NC; the book chronicals his incredible story of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds and the brutally sadistic treatment by his Japanese captors during WW II. He told me that day that the key to survival and not being "broken" by his circumstances was the hope he held on to which displaced any fear, the dignity he maintained which kept his soul alive, and the conviction in his heart that everything happened for a reason - that in the end, it would all eventually come to good. Out of despair, out of tragedy, out of evil, out of hatred, eventually these things prevail: Hope. DignityConviction. and Love. Louie had reminded me that day that just as with the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, my experience did not end that Monday with the death and despair at the finish line. The story was not complete. And while I couldn't change what had happened or what I had been through, I could change my outlook and my perspective moving forward. I could once again be the light that people were seeking in a dark world. I needed to be the light that people were seeking in a dark world. I needed to simply trust, and to Believe that death once again did not and would not have the final say.    
"I have told you these things so that you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world" - John 16:33

This is Claude again: I highly, highly recommend the book Unbroken that Todd mentions. Not only is it a thrilling page-turner--it's one of the most inspiring stories you'll ever read. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

More on Sabbath

From Rocky Point on Ferguson Knob, looking west toward Mt. Pisgah

Following up on yesterday's post about Sabbath: 

Sometimes when I talk about my Monday Sabbath, people say, "What about us normal people? Must be nice being a pastor... I wish I could have Mondays off from work!" 

And I have two replies: 

1- Yes, it's true that as a pastor I have a flexible schedule.  Full, but flexible. And yes, being able to set aside a weekday as Sabbath is a benefit that many people don't have. But there are trade-offs. A flexible schedule is nice, but many's the time I've envied people whose schedule is structured and predictable-- people who know where they will be when--who know that when they leave work and go home they're done for the day. Every job has upsides and downsides. Not complaining, just sayin'...

2- Go back to something I said yesterday: Each of us is responsible to find time to STOP and rest, refresh, restore, and renew. It has to be done. It's not just a commandment for pastors -- it's for every one of God's people. In fact, it's one of God's Top Ten! You wouldn't say, "Hey, it's OK for me to steal because I'm so busy" or, "I can't help committing adultery, my job demands it." 

Find a way to keep the Sabbath. If you don't have to work on Sunday, then don't. Let that day be an oasis of spiritual peace in your week. It's not a rules-based religious duty. It's a gift from God.

If you do have to work on Sunday, then find another day. Or two half-days. Set the time aside. 

You need it. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


The day before yesterday (Monday) was my Sabbath. 

I'm a firm believer in the spiritual discipline of Sabbath. It's more than just a day off. It's time to rest the body, refresh the mind, restore the soul, and renew relationships.

One of the most important spiritual activities in my life is hiking. Good for the body, good for the soul. I often find that I meet God in the woods better than anywhere else. Fortunately, this Monday was a beautiful day for a hike.

I drove south on 74-A, parked on the Eastern Continental Divide, and hiked up to Ferguson Knob. I still find it hard to believe that such a beautiful place is only a few miles from my house. I took this picture with my iPhone, looking down into the community of Fairview where I live. The large mountain all the way to the left of the picture is Cedar Cliff mountain, which overlooks Covenant Community Church.

After my time of solitude, I picked up a few groceries and fixed dinner. Then I spent a rare evening at home with Lorie, just the two of us, enjoying each other's company.

So why am I telling you all this? One reason is because I wanted to show you that picture. But the main reason is to encourage you to make Sabbath a part of your life.

God intended us to live by certain rhythms. He built rhythms into the universe: The sun rises, the sun sets; the tide goes in, the tide goes out; planets rotate and revolve; the seasons change. One of the rhythms that God created is the rhythm of work and rest. One day out of every seven, you get to rest. You need to rest. You are commanded to rest!

But in our fast-paced society, we ignore the rhythms. We work all the time. Electric lights let us work late into the night. Smartphones, email, and text messages never let us get away from work.

The fact that we live in opposition to the rhythms God created is destroying us.

And the community Sabbath when businesses close and everybody rests is a thing of the past. So it's up to each one of us to figure out when we're going to STOP (the word Sabbath literally means "Stop") and take time to rest, refresh, restore, and renew.

I hope you can set aside a 24-hour period of time each week to do that. If an entire day is not possible for you, then maybe you can set aside two half days. I would encourage you to start planning right now, in the middle of the week.

For some thoughts from a Christian author who wrote a book about Sabbath, CLICK HERE.

For some ideas on how to observe Sabbath, CLICK HERE. (Note that I don't necessarily do or endorse everything on this website; nonetheless, it offers some very interesting suggestions.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Passing of a Ragamuffin

One of my favorite authors died just over a week ago. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Brennan Manning changed my life.

Or more specifically, one of his books changed my life.

It all started with Rich Mullins. I loved that guy. Bought all his albums. Saw him in concert. He called his back-up band "A Ragamuffin Band." After Rich died, the Ragamuffins continued to tour without him and I saw them twice.

At one of their concerts, there was a book table. And on the table was a book that was advertised as Rich's favorite: The Ragamuffin Gospel (hence the name of the band).

So I picked it up. I read it. And I haven't been the same since.

The Ragamuffin Gospel is about grace. Manning writes about it in ways I had never encountered before. He illustrates grace with powerful true-life stories, including many from his own life as a recovering alcoholic and a Catholic priest who dropped out of the priesthood.

It's not that I didn't understand grace before I read Ragamuffin. And it's not that I had never experienced grace. In fact, I had a life-changing experience of grace when I attended a Walk to Emmaus.

But something about Brennan Manning's powerful descriptions made me see that I needed to do ministry differently if I really believe that people are saved by grace and nothing else. And I needed to treat people differently. Starting with myself.

Manning describes grace as a scandal, lavished by God on ragamuffins (the word means a dirty, unkempt child). You receive it by being brutally honest. Once you receive it, you can no longer elevate yourself above others. And yet at the same time, once you receive it you come to realize that you are loved more deeply, and valued more highly, than you can ever imagine.

My paltry words are not doing it justice, so here are a few quotes:

Any church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of grace. 

Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams.  He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims, and even used car salesmen.  Jesus not only talks with these people, but he dines with them…[Jesus] proclaims that he has invited sinners and not the self –righteous to his table…In short, Jesus hung out with ragamuffins.

The way of the ragamuffin is a considerably different view of the Christian life than that of traditional church culture...Ragamuffins don't sit down to be served; they kneel down to serve. When there is food on their plate, they don't whine about the mystery meat or the soggy veggies...Glad for a full stomach, they give thanks for the smallest gift. They do not grow impatient and irritable with the dismal service in department stores, because they so often fail to be good servants themselves. Ragamuffins do not complain about the feeble preaching and lifeless worship of their local church. They are happy to have a place to go where they can mingle with other beggars at the door of God's mercy. 

Will we ever understand the gospel of grace, the furious love of God, the world of grace in which we live? Jesus Christ is the scandal of God. 

Well,  even these snippets don't really capture the power of Manning's writing. So I guess you'll just have to read the book.

Farewell, Brennan Manning.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Just for Fun: Special Pictures

Lorie's Birthday

This past Sunday, we celebrated Lorie's birthday with Lorie's mom Marty, our son David and his wife Lauren, and our daughter Mary. We went to one of those Japanese restaurants where the chef cooks at your table and does tricks with the cooking implements and acts crazy. This guy did something I'd never experienced before: He threw chunks of chicken at us for us to catch in our mouths! (Only David succeeded.)

Our waitress that evening was a good photographer:

A Child's Tribute

A while ago, children in our children's ministry were asked to draw a picture of something they like about Covenant Community Church. One of the kids--I don't know who--drew a picture that hangs in my office, right where I can see it everyday:

I love that this child gets the importance we place on relational service. And it's so good to know that somebody thinks I'm funny!

Monday, April 15, 2013

On the Radio!

L-R: Mark Roberts, Domica Kincaid, Ed Cocciadiferro, and me
This past Friday I got to be on the radio, on 100.7 FM WRES-LP, "Home of the Asheville Tourists." Being on the radio was so much fun! Sitting there with the headphones on, talking into the took me back to my college days, when I was a disc jockey on WXYC, our campus radio station. In those days, we really were disc JOCKEYS, meaning we actually played vinyl records on turntables that had to be cued up and started and mixed by hand, record by record, song by song. No mp3s or digital playlists in those days!

Anyway, I was part of a panel discussion on the ABCCM "Our Circle" program. I was there with Rev. Mark Roberts, the director of the program; Ed Cocciadiferro, an ally like myself; and Domica Kincaid, a "Circle Leader" -- a young single mother.

Domica shared her testimony of growing up in poverty--not having what other kids had, being taunted and bullied, feeling isolated, feeling hopeless. She talked about her pain, her struggles, her post-partum depression, and how she found herself sitting in her apartment not knowing what to do. 

Then she shared how Circles gave her a second chance. She learned how to use the internet, how to fill out a job application, how to interview, and how to get CNA training. And now she has a job! And she attributed her success to the relational support she received from her Circle.

Domica went on to share her goal of returning to school and getting her LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse). She also said, "My biggest achievement through this program is learning to love myself--and learning that I can do it."

Awesome! Who doesn't want to be part of that?

Ed and I shared some of our experiences as allies, such as learning about the many barriers faced by people in poverty, and the joy of what we at Covenant call "relational service" -- getting personally involved rather than giving from a distance.

The show airs again on Wednesday at 11:30. If you happen to be near a radio or a computer at that time, give it a listen.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Violence of Modern Life

Just got back from a 2-day spiritual retreat (see yesterday's post). The retreat leader asked us to consider this passage from the writings of Thomas Merton. It definitely spoke to me. How about you?

There is a pervasive form of modern violence for which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent method most easily succumbs: activism and over-work.

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,
To surrender to too many demands,
To commit oneself to too many projects,
To want to help everyone in everything,
Is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his or her work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

--Thomas Merton

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spiritual Retreat

The Starette Farmhouse outside Statesville, NC
When you read this, I'll be attending a 2-day spiritual retreat for clergy. It's called "School of the Spirit," and it's sponsored by the Spiritual Formation Department of Davidson United Methodist Church.

We'll spend a lot of time in silence. We'll arrive and depart in silence. We'll eat some of our meals in silence. We'll be sent out to walk the grounds of the Starette Farm retreat center in silence. 

Some people would be driven crazy with this. Me, I love it. I have become convinced that if you want to hear from God, you have to get quiet. Silence. Solitude. Absolutely essential if you're going to grow spiritually. 

Maybe you remember the story of Elijah and the "still small voice" in 1 Kings 19:1-18. Elijah was exhausted. He was burned out. He was discouraged and depressed. He went to the mountain of God, and dramatic things happened. Powerful signs. Great wonders. Plenty of flash and bang. But God was not to be found there.

A mighty wind -- but God was not in it. A powerful earthquake -- but God was not in it. A devastating fire -- but God was not in it.

Where was God? In the still, small voice. Some translations say, "the sound of a gentle whisper." One of my seminary profs said the correct translation might be, "a silence so profound you could hear it."

Elijah met God in the silence. That's what I hope to be doing when you read this. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Just for Fun: 50th Birthday Video

OK, this might be the end of my credibility right here. BUT...

Almost six months ago my son David and his wife Lauren made a video about me for my 50th birthday.  Some folks who have seen it suggested that I post it here for everyone to enjoy. So here it is. 

But before you watch -- the video has a few inside jokes that might need explaining:
  • I like to tell jokes. OK, if you know me at all you know that. But for some reason, I always crack up every time I try to tell the muffin joke. 
  • I met Lorie at an interview for a mission trip that involved college students from various universities. You'll see my initial impression of her.
  • The night I proposed to Lorie I did not have a good plan. I tried to put the ring in my pants pocket so I could give it to her at the restaurant, but it didn't fit. So I ended up hiding it in a sock before dinner, and then taking her back to my apartment after dinner to try and propose there. Then... well, you'll see.
  • When the kids were in school, Lorie used to coordinate a mind-numbingly complicated schedule of carpools and pick-ups.
  • Once on a beach trip a black swan who was nesting chased me around and almost killed me. I yelled out for my friend Tim. When he didn't appear in a timely manner, I added his last name, Roberts.
  • A pie safe is a piece of antique furniture. In the old days they would put freshly baked pies in the pie safe to protect them from bugs and rats, etc. One day Lorie bought an antique pie safe, and I spent the rest of the day teasing her about it. Then that night, just as we were about to fall asleep, she said something that cracked me up. That scene may not be funny to anyone else, but it cracks me up because Lorie is usually so serious and rarely makes jokes.
For the record, I have never told some of the jokes David tells in this video. How to tell which ones are which? If it's good, I told it. If it's bad, David got it off the internet.

Friday, April 5, 2013

ABCCM Circles Campaign: Ending Poverty in Buncombe County

"When students and workers who have been in poverty (and have successfully made it into the middle class) are asked how they made the journey, the answer nine times out of ten has to do with a relationship - a teacher, counselor, coach or boss who... took an interest in them as an individual." 
- Dr. Ruby Payne, in A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Shortly after the leadership at Covenant adopted our new Vision Statement ("Reaching New Generations through Dynamic Worship and Relational Service"), ABCCM began the Circles campaign. They match young parents (ages 16-24) in poverty with a small group of middle class allies. The allies provide the relational support the young parents need to overcome barriers and achieve self-sufficiency. 

When I heard about this program I thought it was a great way to live out Covenant's vision, so I signed up. In July, I attended a day-long training that included a look at the dynamics of poverty. What an eye-opener that was.

Then in September I was matched with Tim and Christy, who you see in the picture above (along with Jackie Cocciadiferro, another member of our circle). Tim and Christy have two children: Faith, who will turn 3 this month, and Angelo, who just turned 1. 

Our number one goal so far has been simply to get to know each other. We have been able to provide some coaching and support as Tim and Christy have dealt with various life issues. We recently celebrated with Tim as he got a new job. We're cheering on Christy as she finishes high school. But mostly we've just spent time together becoming friends. 

I have several hopes for my involvement with the Circles campaign:
  • I hope that with the love and support of our circle, Tim and Christy get the education and jobs they need to provide a good life for themselves and their kids. 
  • I hope that God will use this experience to teach me, to shape me, to help me become more like Jesus. 
  • I hope that my experience with the program will inspire others--maybe you--to get involved. 

Interested? Click HERE.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Cloud is Here

The Covenant staff has been reading Zombies, Football, and the Gospel by Reggie Joiner. It's about 10 "game changers" for today's church leaders--ten things about the world that are completely different from what we may have grown up with or been trained for.  Interesting book. Very challenging.

Yesterday we read and discussed the chapter called, "The Cloud is Here." It's all about social media -- Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram...

A few tidbits:

People no longer live online. Online now lives with people.
You can no longer assume that conventional ways to communicate and nurture relationships work.  People expect you to speak their language, and social media is the new universal language. 
It's becoming increasingly important for leaders who care about people to jump in and become social media competent. 
When Jesus told his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations," they were limited by their own two feet. Now we literally have the world at our fingertips. 

I admit I'm a latecomer to social media. My biggest issue has been time. I barely have time to keep up with email and voice mail. I don't need more outlets to not keep up with!  I only started blogging at other people's insistence, and if you look back through the archives, you'll see how poorly I've kept up with that. I've been afraid to get into the world of Facebook for fear that I would tick people off by not keeping up with them.

But if I'm going to be pastor of a church that seeks to reach New Generations then I've got to learn to speak this language.

So I opened a Twitter account yesterday, and if you look to the right you'll see my first tweet. Twitter doesn't look quite so daunting--hopefully I can fire off 140 characters worth of something interesting every once in a while.

Facebook still has me spooked, but I ventured there yesterday also. I signed up--that's about as far as I've gotten so far. But spurred on by Reggie Joiner and his co-authors, I'm going to give it a shot.

And we'll see how it goes...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Blessed to Be an O-Neg Blessing

This is me at the Red Cross center in Asheville yesterday afternoon. Every Christ follower should do what I'm doing in this picture. I feel very strongly about this. Every Christ follower. 

"But," you might be saying, "I can't give blood!"

Don't worry. It's not giving blood I'm talking about. It's seeing yourself as Blessed to be a Blessing.

God has blessed me with Type O-negative blood. That makes me the universal donor. A pint of my blood can save the life of one adult, or the lives of three infants, no matter their blood type.

That's a very precious gift that courses through my veins. And I did nothing to earn it or deserve it. It's a blessing from God.

And that means it's a blessing I need to share with others. Because Christ followers aren't just blessed -- they're Blessed to be a Blessing. 

This goes back to the very beginning of God's people. When God calls Abram to become the father of the nation of Israel, God says, "I will bless you...and you will be a blessing...and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:2-3). These words are repeated throughout Scripture in reference to God's people. The concept is foundational to what it means to belong to God. God blesses me. I bless others. Blessed to be a Blessing.

If you can give blood, I challenge you to do so--especially if you're O-neg or O-positive. But much more than that, I challenge you to look at the blessings God has placed in your life and ask yourself how God wants you to use those blessings to bless others. 

Do you have money? How are you sharing it? Do you have talents, skills, abilities? How are you using them for the good of others? Do you have a house? How do you open it to others? Do you have a car? How do you use it to provide transportation to someone who needs a ride? Or to pick up and deliver cargo that helps people in need? Do you have clothes you could give away? Do you have food you could share?

Do you have Jesus? How are you sharing him?

The old song says, "Count your blessings." Do that. But then also count the ways you're being a blessing -- to others.

BY THE WAY: Yesterday I found out that I've given over four gallons of blood over the years! I have never stopped to add it up, and I was surprised when they told me that. Wow.