Category Archives: ministry life

finishing

“When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.” –John 21:9

 

Finish strong.

I used those words repeatedly in the classroom as the fourth nine weeks of the academic school year arrived. Students have a tendency to slack off as they see the finish line approaching. Accordingly, I offered them a push to not give up … to not allow the strong effort of the three, previous nine weeks to be dimmed by a lack luster, weak conclusion. For the most part, as long as my “push” was present, so was theirs.

A strong finish is often accompanied by a strong cheerleader.

But every now and again, despite the encouraging voices along the way, there comes a season when we don’t finish strong. Sometimes, we just finish. Not strong. Not pretty. Nothing to brag about and not a single cheerleader in sight. Instead, we wearily drag our lives, our work and our witness, sloppily to the finish line, hoping for an acceptable conclusion but realizing deep within that it could have been so much more–a better, stronger finish.

It’s not a comfortable fit for me. Still and yet, it’s one I’m wrestling with today as I prepare for the closing of one chapter so that another one may begin. There are some loose ends dangling around the edges of my heart, some regret about the messy steps I’ve taken toward this particular finish line.

How about you? Do you have regrets–things you wish you had said, done … not said, not done?

Regret is a heavy burden to bear, and if I’m not careful, it can quickly overshadow the many positive, strong steps I’ve made along the way. Perhaps you understand. Maybe you, too, are crossing a finish line with no personal fanfare, no pats on the back, and no gold medal in sight. This hasn’t been your strongest finish because you haven’t given your personal best. The outcome is less because the output has been less. Your hands are empty, but (in contrast) your heart is filled with the pangs of would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.

Thankfully, there is a workaround for regret, a way to move past regret and to move forward in hope for the next lines in your story. That workaround?

It’s found in Scripture. It’s found with the Scripture-Writer, the Truth-Teller, the Grace-Giver … Jesus.

On this particular occasion as recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus was also known as the fire-Starter, the fish-Catcher, the fish-Cooker, the fish-Feeder and the bread-Bringer. After a season of sloppy, woeful finishes by his disciples at the Crucifixion, Jesus stands on the other side of that line to offer them a breakfast full of hope. Instead of casting further shame into their hearts, Jesus lays before them a bounty of fresh fish and bread. In doing so, he offers them a fresh start. He didn’t remove their regrets from their minds; instead, he holy and profoundly reframed them against the backdrop of his grace.

Their Cheerleader wasn’t MIA after all. He was waiting for them on the shoreline, calling them in for breakfast, and feeding their hearts with the gift of his presence, his love, and his willingness to entrust his kingdom to their fledgling faith. Shame and regret didn’t get the final word in the disciples’ lives. Jesus did.

He speaks the same over you and me. His is a message of undeserved grace, love, and trust. Jesus Christ stands at all the finish lines we’ll cross on this side of eternity. At times, we’ll finish strong. At other times, we’ll just finish. But in all times, in all finishes, God offers the gift of his grace, the gift of a second race … a third, fourth, tenth, hundredth race. Another opportunity to finish strong … to finish with Him.

Jesus Christ is our workaround, friends. Always. When we fail to finish as beautifully as we would have liked, he never fails to meet us at that point of frustration and to remind us that all has not been lost in the night.

The dawn is approaching. The embers are burning. The fish are frying, and the Master is calling.

Breakfast is served. Won’t you come and taste grace today? I’ll meet you at the table. As always …

Peace for the journey,

a time to keep

Packing while unpacking.

It seems like a contradiction, but it’s really just a delicate consideration about things kept, things discarded, things remembered, and decisions therein. One doesn’t pack up a house … a history … without a little unpacking of the soul alongside.

A time to keep and a time to throw away, as Solomon would say.

Such has been my portion since April 10th, the day I first learned of our impending move to Benson, NC. It almost seems like yesterday when our moving van pulled up to the parsonage in Laurinburg and we began to unpack our lives here.

Six years of living history in this space. Six years of being loved, being sheltered, being known, and being well-cared for. Saint Luke UMC has been a good place to grow and to rest our hearts. Some would call us crazy for leaving this place, this congregation and this community. In fact, on paper, it doesn’t make much sense as far as pastoral moves go.

But every now and again, “what makes sense” gets trumped by something greater, something higher, something more akin to choosing “what’s best for now” over “what’s been best for the past six years.” And that best for us?

Moving closer to home.

“Home?” you might ask.

Yes, home. You see, for me, home is portable.

It’s not a place. It’s a people. It’s not a house. It’s a family.

And my membership in a family began a long time before I married Preacher Billy. Before I was part of the Olsen family, I was part of the Killian family. Before I was a pastor’s wife or Nick, Colton, Jadon, and Amelia’s mom, I was a daughter. I still am. I belong to Chuck and Jane, and they belong to me. We’ve been a family for fifty-three years.

I spent the first twenty-one years of my life living under their roof in Wilmore, KY. Eight years later, I returned home for an additional three years where they continued to parent me as well as their two young grandsons. I moved away from Kentucky a final time in 1998, and four years later in 2002, my folks followed suit, relocating to North Carolina to be closer to their family. Dad left his fruitful career as a professor at Asbury Seminary to pastor two small churches in Mayodan, NC, while mom came along for the ride as his help-mate.

Apparently, “home” was portable for them as well.

Not a place, but a people. Not a house, but a family.

Us. We are that family. We were the reason they uprooted their existence of thirty plus years and said good-bye to their community, their countless friends, and their comfort. If you asked them today, I don’t imagine they’d voice any regrets. Their great sacrifice has been our great gain. The life we’ve shared together because of their being closer to us cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. It can only be measured in the heart, in those deep kinds of ways that shore up a foundation, solidify a history, and fortify a future. My parents brought “home” to us seventeen years ago.

Two months from now, we will have the rich privilege of returning the favor … of bringing “home” to them. For how long, only God knows. But for however long he ordains, we will be able to “do life” more practically with our parents. More time together. More face to face. More memories made because of more access. And that, friends, is what is best for now.

A home delivery to the Killian family from the Olsen family.

Indeed …

A time to keep.

Even so, Lord Jesus, grant us your peace for the journey as we walk these next steps in absolute faith and expectation. Amen.

A Wounded Church

My dad, Chuck Killian, the first circuit-riding preacher I knew and who introduced me to Methodism.

 

“Even if it wounds him.”

That was the prayer that I prayed several years ago on behalf of one of my sons who was going through a particularly difficult time in his life.

It was a hard prayer to pray. No good parent wants to invite unnecessary pain into the lives of their children. Pain is a difficult teacher; still and yet, pain is sometimes the most precise, shaping tool in God’s sanctifying toolbelt.

Pain is diagnostic. When allowed its probing investigation, pain brings us to the mirror of self-examination, a closer look inward at the condition of our hearts … the foundation of our thoughts. How we feel, what we believe, and the truth underlying both considerations, … yes, this is the good, diagnostic work behind a painful wounding. To settle for less–to run and hide–would be to stop short of pain’s potential.

Woundings deserve a good look, don’t you think?

In recent days, the church has been wounded … my church … the United Methodist church. We are a global denomination and in this last week, I gathered (via livestream with thousands of others who were tuning in) alongside 864 on-site delegates to watch the already festering wound among us open up in such a way that all who were watching could not escape the pain. In many ways, albeit odd, the severity of the wounding kept us attached to the festering until the clock ran out, the mics were silenced, and the screen went black. And there we were … there I was … released, dismissed into the night with a bleeding heart that needs both a dressing and addressing–a covering and a closer look. I imagine I am not alone.

The wound belongs to all of us. The pain is ours to hold. Perhaps, at the end of the day, this is the one issue upon which we can all agree. This is a collective sorrow.

As an eye-witness to the wounding and now a heart-holder of an aching discomfort that cannot be unseen or easily mended, it only seems best for me to come to the mirror, to allow my very good parent, my Father, to probe the depths of my feelings and the strength of my thinking.

Pain in the hands of a Masterful Surgeon offers cleansing.

Pain in the hands of a Masterful Surgeon offers conviction.

Pain in the hands of a Masterful Surgeon offers clarity.

Pain in the hands of a Masterful Surgeon is, indeed, diagnostic. And therein, friends, lies the rub.

For pain to work its potential, pain must be given over for examination to the only Surgeon who is completely holy and wholly skilled for the job. Not many will be able to arrive at this place of deep trust, of letting go and letting God. But I can go nowhere else because I have learned that God’s hands are the safest place for me to reside. He is my only hope for holiness.

So friends, those whom I know and those who are strangers to me but who have found themselves (like me) entangled within the reach of this tremendous pain, I make an invitation to you even as I am making it to myself. If we want this wounding to matter eternally, if we want it to do more for us other than to momentarily wreck us, then we must surrender our heart-hurts to the nail-scarred hands of the Master Surgeon. This is our first and best step. He is our only way forward.

Let’s not let this be for nothing. Let us, instead, allow this to be a time of deep, soul reflection. In doing so, a better “us” just might emerge.

Even so, I love you deeply. Even so, I pray for you each one God’s …

Peace for the journey,

PS – This blog has always been a safe place for dialogue, prayers, healing, and peace. I welcome your thoughts, but I humbly ask you to not let this be the time for debate. Shalom. 

the sermon that was never heard…

I had a dream last night. So strong in its witness, I needed to “get it down” on paper this morning. Perhaps in doing so, it will get down to a deeper place inside of me so that I might more fully live it outside of me.

The sermon that was never heard.

Allow me to explain. In May of 2016 my father was scheduled to preach at the Garner UMC. There was nothing particularly unusual about this event. Dad was often called upon to “fill the pulpit” on occasions when the pastor wasn’t available. As a professor of preaching at Asbury Seminary for over thirty years, and as a pastor of several congregations in the last fifty years, my dad has always been a natural choice for such occasions. His spiritual journey, as well as his giftedness in and eloquence for telling a story, have allowed him notable stages from which to deliver God’s message. But no stage was more glorious and important to my father than one holding a wooden pulpit overlooking an audience of Sunday morning seekers. Accordingly, dad rarely refused an opportunity to fill a pulpit.

I had planned to make the two hour trip to Garner to hear my father speak that Sunday. My mother texted me early in the morning to tell me not to come, that dad wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to preach. Later that day, when pressed for more details, dad revealed that he was having trouble reading his sermon notes, that his thoughts were jumbled up inside of him. And while he didn’t have any manifestations of a physical illness, he knew something was wrong. So did we. Thus began the unraveling of the diagnosable mystery known as a stroke.

For the last nineteen months, we’ve walked with dad through this period of redirection. The adjustments have been numerous. And while dad’s aphasia has altered his daily routine, it hasn’t changed his heart or his passion for telling the story. Certainly, the “stage” has changed; they’re smaller now, more intimate. His words are fewer and, sometimes, aren’t delivered as eloquently as he would like. But the warmth is there, the smile, the laughter, the love … always the love from dad. And through it all, we’re all learning to make peace with…

The sermon that was never heard.

The words that were never spoken that Sunday morning. The “text” that (some would say) would be my father’s final declaration from the pulpit. And this morning, after tossing and tumbling all night long, after mulling over what my father’s final benediction might have been from the pulpit that morning in Garner, I have decided that God is still writing that sermon. That after nineteen months of altered steps and interrupted dialogue, the sermon that was never heard is still preaching its witness.

And therein, folks, lives and breathes the greatest story ever told. When the curtains are drawn, the script is lost, when the words won’t come, and the audience has departed, what remains is the sacred echo – the deafening whispers of the sermon that was never heard.  

Like my father, perhaps even like you, I have a few more stories I’d like to share, a few more moments of dialogue I’d like to give to the world. But I am no longer convinced that these are the “sermons” that God will most thoroughly use to live and give his witness. What I am growing convinced of, however, is that…

Not every sermon needs a stage.

Not every manuscript needs eloquence.

Not every word needs to be spoken.

Instead, our “sermons” just need to be lived in the shadow of Almighty God. With warmth. With smiles. With laughter. With love … always the love.

If we can get to that place of settled peace, friends, then the sermon that was never heard surely will be boldly proclaimed with a depth and with a clarity that may not come otherwise. So…

Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me how to live with an unwritten, unspoken, and unfinished script.

And thank you, God, for making it count eternally. As always, 

Peace for the journey,

the song of the brook …

My students and I have just finished reading Song of the Brook by Matlida Nordtvedt. As literary prose goes, it doesn’t measure up to the classics, but it does serve a purpose in our classroom. It’s one book in a continuing series of books presented annually to students who use the Abeka curriculum; they seem to enjoy keeping up with the Johnson family from year to year.

The main character of the story is Hilda, a young girl from Bellingham, Washington, who is learning to live with change: a move to a new community, the disappointment with that community, discord amongst extended family members, bullying on the playground, overcoming insecurities, and the like. Despite the chaos in Hilda’s new life, she finds solace in an unexpected place – the babbling brook running beside her dilapidated house. At night, she sits next to the open, bedroom window and listens as the brook “sings” her a song. Repeatedly throughout the story, the brook impresses upon Hilda’s heart various phrases to soothe (and sometimes to meddle with) the aches within her heart. Her brookside meditations are Hilda’s way of spending time with God and hearing his voice therein.

Even though Hilda’s story is set in time nearly 100 years ago, the problems she faces back then are not unlike the problems we face today. Who of us haven’t known the ache of relocation, the tears of disappointment, the fracture of beloved relationships, the taunts of a bully, and the crippling of insecurity? Today’s troubles aren’t much different from yesterday’s harms; the scenery simply has changed.

Unlike Hilda, I don’t have the beauty of a singing brook running by and next to the parsonage in Laurinburg, NC. I don’t raise my windows in the evening for fear of unwanted critters (or humans) disrupting my night’s slumber. The sounds of my city at night are no match for the idyllic evening lullabies of the countryside, those wide-open spaces that seem to more easily host the voice of the Creator.

Still and yet, I hear the Father’s voice. His words speak to me as I take the time to listen in, to open up the window of my soul and to meditate upon the scriptures he has written to me in his holy Word. Sometimes God’s melody soothes the aches within; sometimes his refrain meddles with my will. At all times, his song is truthful. God cannot lie; neither will he sing a song over me that will lead me down a wayward path. Instead, his song … his words are for me, for my good and, most importantly, for his kingdom good.

Lately, his holy refrain has been crystal clear:

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

Over and over again, for the past several weeks, these words have cycled repeatedly throughout my mind, like the lyrics of a song you just can’t shake.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

In living out this obedience from John 13, there are always ample challenges. Stinky feet aren’t my preference. It’s easier to touch cleanliness than dirtiness. It’s less problematic to embrace the feet of a friend than it is to embrace the feet of a betrayer. Even so, the Father sings…

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

I don’t know what this will look like for me in the days to come, how this yielding will play itself out. But of this I am certain … it will play itself out. Whether at school, at church, at home, and maybe even at Wal-Mart, stinky feet are everywhere – walking in front of me, behind me, next to me, over me, and, yes, sometimes within me. We all get our feet dirty from time to time. The Father’s basin and towel are equal to the cleansing task, yet another undeserved grace from his heart to ours that allows us to get clean and then to offer that same cleansing to others.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

The window of my soul is open. The song of the brook is singing. Even so, Father, I am listening.

As you have done for me, Lord, help me to do so for others. Amen.

 

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