There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability;
there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. - M. Scott Peck



Thursday, December 30, 2010

Old Year, New Year

God gave us seven days between Christmas and New Years so we could recover from the Christmas rush and get ready for the New Year. Good and gracious God. I’ve had some quiet time to do some thinking. If you sat this week and thought about your small group, what would you tell us? Here are some of my thoughts about our group:

- All 11 guys carved out some time to dive deeper in a weekend retreat – an amazing experience for all of us
- This group leader has deepened his faith and moved forward in his faith journey because of the guys in my group - thanks for the blessing
- If you haven’t felt challenged, angry, confused, exhilarated, authentic, excited, sad, dishonest, humbled, questioning, hurt, like a “poser”, hopeful, more trusting, guilty, arrogant, closer to God, farther from God, are you really leading and is it an authentic group
- One guy’s commitment to Baltimore Station has kept the rest of us grounded in the needs of others and humbled by the effort some people at the Station put in to remaking their lives
- Anger, lust, guilt, money, priorities, and many, many more topics were wrestled with and dealt with real honesty
- Watching a guy struggle to save his business is hard, but not as hard as trying to save it
- Memorizing verses from scripture can anchor your life: “I know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God.” (Paul to the Romans)
- The singing is getting better, but the guitar playing is still a work in progress
- Feeling the presence and power of God work every week in a small group is awesome
- Sharing the pain of one guy’s impending separation and the relief of a Christmas shared with family who loves him makes Christmas special
- There are great cooks in our group who are beginning to get a handle on portion control
- Struggling with whether you believe in God or not is a great reason to be in a Nativity small group
- Blogging is like journaling only more public and more scary
- Telling your story – and multiple times - to a group of guys you have come to trust will change the way you tell your story next time
- Authentic relationships only come when people help keep each other honest
- Three new guys joining the group can make the group even stronger
- Staying connected with a brother in Afghanistan is hard – prayers help
- Christmas pot luck suppers are a lot of fun – and quite tasty
- Nativity message series are not for the faint of faith – they will challenge you, threaten some of your old beliefs, and grow you as a follower of Christ
- Eldredge on prayer can change you relationship with God – really
- The challenge of a small group is to become more authentic in your relationship with God and everyone around you
- “Posing” is hard to do for long in a healthy small group
- How does a tight group who enjoy coming together face the challenge of opening up to more guys who need what a great group can offer – prayer

I am blessed by my group and my Heavenly Father’s real presence there. My prayer for 2011 is that all of you and many, many more are blessed by the grace and gift of a strong, healthy, authentic small group. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Christmas Gap

Focusing on the simple story of Christmas this Advent opens up so many parts of the story that I have missed over the years. I always think of Advent in terms of “expectation” and “repentance” and “preparation” and “sacrifice.” How do I prepare for Christmas? What should I give up during Advent for penance? How do I get ready for the coming of Jesus? All good stuff. But “healing” was never an Advent word for me.
Our group spent some time talking about healing and what we needed to have healed or restored in our lives. One guy needs his heart healed in the middle of a painful separation and likely divorce. One of us (who probably spoke for many of us) needs to be healed from the pride that makes him want to do it all alone. Another member wants healing from the deep loneliness that settles on his heart during the holidays. Another wants healing from the anger that quickly rises to the surface.
As I listened, I thought of the gap that exists at Christmas. There is such longing at this time of year for happiness, joy, contentment, fulfillment, and peace. And yet there are so many stories of sadness, loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and even ill will and tragedy. The Christmas Gap. It was amazing how the areas that need healing in our lives seem to rise more quickly and more frequently to the surface during Christmas and can overwhelm the happiness and joy that we really want during this season.
And then we try to fill the gap - with Ipads, new cars, bigger screen TV’s, expensive parties, pretty decorations, busyness, expensive presents and lots of them. Our culture certainly recognizes the gap. But it seems to offer only one solution – bigger, more, more often. Most of us have tried those gap fillers with limited and very short term success. I can fend off my unhappiness and longings with new stuff for a while, but I’m quickly in search of what’s next to fill the gap that hasn’t gone away.
God understands the Christmas Gap and knows that the way we try to fill it – even in Jesus’ time – is focused on the wrong things. We try to satisfy desires. God is about healing hearts. So God gave us the simple story of Christmas. And healing and restoration are such an important part of it. God fills the Christmas Gap with faithfulness and the promise of a restored heart; by sending Jesus in the most humble form with the most powerful message of healing and restoration. The Christmas Gap is only really filled by the healing and restoration of our hearts in Jesus.
Trying to satisfy my wants with stuff only exposes the deep longings of my heart. Advent points to the restoring and healing of our hearts as the only way to satisfy our deepest desires. Where do you need to fill the gap - have your heart healed and restored this Christmas? Whose heart can you help heal and restore this Christmas? Spend Less. Give More. Love Others. Worship Fully.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Simple Story

We talked about what we hoped for at Christmas in group this week. We hoped our kids (and grand kids) would come to understand the meaning of Advent and Christmas. We hoped for more family time without outside distractions. We hoped for a new start in our lives. We all had hopes.
But what did we base our hopes on? Is G0d the source of our hope? That was a tougher question. If you view God as a God Judgment (which my God was for years), it can be difficult to center your hope there. If God is solely the "Final Evaluator" of how we lived our lives, hope can be fleeting. Maybe it's this view of God that has many people looking elsewhere for hope. Unfortunately, they often find a false hope based on what our consumer culture promises. Christmas consumerism leads to brief happiness, but always disappoints. Our Christmas story places hope in a completely different context.
In the face of the story of the birth of Jesus and what it means for our future salvation, the false hope of a consumer oriented Christmas is shattered. Our Christmas story is one of true, lasting, unwavering hope. Our Christmas is grounded in God's faithfulness demonstrated over the centuries (Abraham, Jesse, and David attest to this faithfulness). It is God's faithfulness that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi placed their hope and trust in. It is God's faithfulness to us - personally and individually - that is the center of our Christmas story.
The players in the first Christmas story were certainly afraid, doubtful, and questioning (just like me). Even for a trusting person, this is a pretty amazing story - angels appearing in the night sky announcing to mere shepherds; shepherds abandoning their flocks (the sheep owner can't be happy with that move); three rich guys following a single star for weeks not knowing where they were going; a husband putting his new bride and soon to be born child in a dirty stable; a young woman at the center of it all who must have been the most amazed of all. Quite a story for the birth of the Son of God.
The amazing events of Jesus' birth can't help but give us comfort - no matter what the turmoil in our lives. Our God is a God of faithfulness and not merely judgment. The Christmas story points to a God who is eternally and individually faithful. It is a story that should overcome all our fears and give us great hope.
I am spending more time this Advent sitting with the simple story of Bethlehem, the faithfulness of my God, and the real reasons for me to be hopeful this Christmas. Are you hopeful this Christmas? Are you sharing your hope grounded in God's faithfulness with others who are searching for a Merry Christmas? The simple stories can be the most amazing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's A Conspiracy

We shared our Christmas experiences in group this week and I was struck by how much of what was shared went against the popular image of being “merry gentlemen.” There was loneliness, anxiety, separation, loss, routine gift giving or no gift giving, family conflicts. Not the stuff of Hallmark cards.

As I listened, three thoughts rolled around in my mind. First, Fr. White said we need to “Christianize Christmas.” Next, Advent Conspiracy talks about Black Friday being a “worship event” for many. And finally one of the guys in our group commented that in his life “Invariably, ‘stuff’ doesn’t deliver.” I guess it’s not hard to see how the emotions many of us expressed surface when set in the context of these three phrases. We have let the simple Christmas story get away from us and we’re finding little real fulfillment in what our consumer society has offered in its place.

At the heart, Christmas is a really simple story. God loving us so much that Jesus is sent to restore our hearts and deepen our relationships. And it's that story that makes these simple phrases so powerful: Worship fully. Spend less. Give more. Love all.

How did Christmas get so complicated? How did it lose its depth of meaning? How did we let it get so out of hand? Interesting questions, but probably not very productive to spend a lot of time on those questions. We’re being challenged to spend time in much more productive ways that directly impact those questions. Worship fully. Spend less. Give more. Love all. But, in the face of the tidal wave of Christmas that is sweeping toward us, these simple phrases are not so simple to live. Especially if you try to make them come to life in very personal ways.

Giving to provide lunches for kids in Haiti – that’s a home run. Carving out more time for personal prayer during Advent - a stretch maybe, but doable. Spend less? Give more? Now that’s where I’m pulled up short. Ellen and I worked on the Advent Conspiracy concepts last year and it planted some seeds in us. And it seems to be bearing fruit this year. We suggested to one of our daughters that, instead of giving us some wine as she had planned, she donate the money to the Haiti lunch program. The seed was planted last year and she didn’t bat an eye at the idea. A check was written and the conspiracy spread. We have the AC2 bags from church for the rest of our children. We expect the response to be as positive. But now the real test – what do I give Ellen for Christmas?

The lesson for me continues to be that it’s personal. Once Ellen and I changed the way we looked at Christmas, it was easier to show others a different way to approach Christmas. Such a small change - one person, two people, three people. But what if those numbers multiplied? What if others joined? What if small pockets of our culture could change the way they celebrate the birth of Jesus? What if…it’s a conspiracy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Personal

When does your small group really become personal? When does it become more than a Wednesday night get together with a group of guys? When is it more than just a “church thing?”
Our group meeting was good last Wednesday night. We continued with Eldredge’s “Walking With God” which has really grabbed the group. How do you guard your heart? What does that even mean? What longings or desires really drive you? As usual, our answers were varied: desire for peace; desire for validation; desire for freedom from financial fear. In the midst of this, we grappled with what are you willing to tell your spouse about your desires. What should you tell your spouse about your desires? What’s best left unsaid? And of course, we had to close with a conversation about tithing. Definitely a topic for further discussion in our group.
Pretty typical group and all good. But when does it get personal? I’m on the 15th tee at Mount Pleasant Saturday afternoon (game going south after a good front nine – also pretty typical for me) and I check the phone for messages. One of the guys in our group wants to know if I’m free for coffee. I know from our group meetings that there’s a lot going on in this guy’s life and most of it, at the moment, isn’t great. Plans for the afternoon get revised. After a relaxing round of golf on a very pleasant November morning, I'm sitting in a Panera’s diving into the depths of gut wrenching tears, fears, doubts, guilt, anger and an overwhelming sense of loss.
I’m sad and have prayed all the way from the golf course for my friend. I can't think of anything to offer that can touch the emotional pit I know he’s in. I sit and actually listen for what God wants me to hear for my brother (it’s an Eldredge thing I’m slowly coming to believe in) who is in too much pain to hear much of anything for himself. God is asking me to tell him to trust God more. To turn his most deep seated fear, the one thing he dreads most in his life at the moment, over to God. To cross a very difficult line into deeper intimacy with God. But isn't that the standard, somewhat trite, "church" answer to all of our problems? Can I really tell him that in the midst of all his pain? Is that really what he needs to hear right now? But I need to trust God, too. And that’s what I tell him.
That’s when small group becomes personal for me. When one of your brothers trusts you enough in the depths of his pain to call you on a Saturday, ask for help, and know that, if at all possible, your brother will sit with you for two hours, listen, and risk saying things that you may not want to hear. I hope your small group is personal. If it’s not, the hard work to make it personal is absolutely worth it. And I know 10 other guys who will tell you the same thing.
It’s not about Wednesday night and it’s not about Sunday morning. It’s about when Church gets personal for two brothers and their God.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Heavy Night

Our group was not very uplifting this week. There were seven of us which is a bit small for our group. It clearly pointed out to me the power of presence and strength in numbers. We are better when most of us are in the room (even a couple of guys missing makes a difference) and there’s no substitute for sharing, praying, and just being with a group of guys struggling to make life work.
As we went around the room to just catch up on our week, the weight descended on the room like a heavy, dark mist. Five of us talked about feeling burdened, heavy hearted, weighed down. Three of us are really burdened - facing significantly reduced income and the very real possibility of losing jobs. One of the guys facing income or job loss is over 70 and another has five kids at home. I sat and felt the weight that I was feeling (certainly nothing like these guys) deepen. What do you say? How can you help? What can you do? The impulse to end the meeting and just go home was very real.
We were about to plow forward with a DVD when one of the guys said he wasn’t up for it and just wanted to talk. And we did. We talked about the message series and getting our priorities straight; about how we are all really blessed; about the anxiety of losing our job and the impact of that on our families; the difficulty of praying when everything around you is screaming out for attention and immediate solutions; how hard it is to trust God when life seems to be spinning out of control; and more.
The amazing thing for me was that no solutions were offered for anyone’s problems. No quick fixes were provided for financial problems. No facile platitudes were sprinkled around about how it will all turn out OK. No shallow encouragement to just simply pray more and trust God more. But this is a guy’s group, right? Isn’t that what we do – fix problems, offer solutions, just keep on moving forward?
In the end, we sang a couple of songs, prayed around the circle and headed home. I still felt weighed down. I know the other guys did. Not much had changed in our worlds when we left – there was a lot staring these guys in the face when they got home.
But as always, God was present. Jesus didn’t reduce any of the burdens. If anything, I felt more heart heavy when I left than when I showed up. But there was a definite sense that we weren’t on the journey alone; that we didn’t have to carry the burdens by ourselves. It seemed clear that Jesus doesn’t show up necessarily to fix our stuff, but often just to walk with us and help us bear the weight of our stuff. And what I appreciate most about the guys I meet with every week is that no one in the group is trying to fix my stuff either. It’s just a group of guys seeking a better relationship with Jesus and willing to help bear each others burdens on the journey. A heavy night made a little bit easier by a band of brothers and a loving God.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Awesome Stuff

Ellen and I are doing a Pray 10 and I’m drawn to the question of why I haven’t blogged recently. Amazing stuff has been going on in my small group.
Eleven guys juggled life’s demands and spent all or part of a weekend together on retreat. Great food (and lots and lots of it), good wine, great weather, some fishing, some golf and more than our share of tears and brokenness. We shared our stories for 7 hours (a couple of our newer guys hadn’t heard all our stories) and I was drained, exhilarated, saddened, uplifted, exposed, challenged, and humbled at the end. What an amazing group of guys and how awesome is God’s presence when we are together.
We were using John Eldredge’s Walking With God DVD for the retreat. Two questions, among several, stuck with me. Do you believe God speaks to you directly? Not just in scripture, not just on Sunday, not just generally, but directly, to you, every day in your ordinary circumstance. And do you hear God speak to you? Not in formulaic prayers, in the exercise of weekly ritual, or in “thou shalt” or “thou shall not”, but in a way that directs and determines how you live your every day life. I’m still coming to grips with both those questions, but the questions clearly hit home in our group.
In our meeting the following week, we continued with the Eldredge DVD, and it challenged us to pray for one of our group members and listen for God speaking. I was very skeptical, almost put off by this exercise. Then I was asked to share something I struggled with and allow the group to listen to God and pray for me. What an amazing, powerful experience. And I heard God speak to my brokenness. Not a voice, not a blinding light, definitely hard to explain, but real.
Now I know what you’re thinking and I’m right there with you. That’s pretty crazy thinking. It’s a bit over the top. How much wine was I drinking? But if you listen to Eldredge, you might have to admit the possibility. If God created the universe, if God is in control of it all, if everything amazing comes from God, why couldn’t God choose to speak to me or anyone else directly and personally? And why wouldn’t God want to be that personal? Maybe the problem is that God is speaking to me and I’m just not listening or placing myself in a position to hear God’s voice.
And so why haven’t I been blogging? Eldredge has taught me to believe in the spiritual battle that exists with a very real, very personal Satan. Again, not an image, or a theory, or a concept, but a real, tenacious Evil Being that wants to bring me down and separate me from God. Jesus believed in the existence of this Evil Being. Jesus fought this Evil Being and his constant attacks. If Jesus knew Satan was real and active in His life, it’s not much of a reach to believe Satan is active in my life.
And so why haven’t I been blogging? Is it because Satan is actively working against any good that might come from my blogging? Have I bought into the lie that blogging about my group is a waste of time? Or that I don’t have anything of value to say? Are my efforts to develop a deeper, more personal communication with God coming under attack? Were our efforts at the retreat moving all of us closer to a loving relationship with Jesus and Satan hopes we forget about it and move on with our daily lives?
I believe that any time we try to reveal God’s glory in our life we will be assaulted. I believe that Satan wants nothing more than to quiet the voices of those struggling to deepen their relationship with Jesus. I believe listening to God means fighting all the distractions that Satan puts in our way every day.
I am blessed and strengthened by my band of brothers. God is truly at work in a special way when we are together. I pray that all of Nativity small groups experience this blessing and resist the temptation to be quiet about the awesome things God is doing in their lives.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Messy and Awkward

Our group was a bit messy this week. There were a few things that happened where as a leader, I wasn’t sure what to do. Our group as a whole also seemed unsure of how we should handle a situation and so it felt awkward for a few minutes. Although none of us likes feeling awkward, if we are in relationship with people and sharing what is in our hearts, it will happen from time to time. Life is messy and not always easily sorted out.

Messy awkwardness will happen in small groups. The good news about messy awkwardness is that the awkwardness doesn’t last forever, but subsides. The good news is that if we battle through it, usually life change and stronger relationships are on the other side. Maybe your group has had some awkward moments. As you experience them, look at them as opportunities for growth and not as something to be avoided. In fact, moments of messiness and awkwardness are sure signs God is up to something in your group. It often means God is moving.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pray 10

This past week groups were asked to get separate and spend 10 minutes alone in prayer. Your group may have had different experiences with that time. Maybe it was awkward, maybe it was great and refreshing, maybe it was something in-between or both. The encouragement to pray ten minutes was an important action for groups for a few reasons.

First, one of the purposes of small groups are to help make it easier for us to actually live out our faith. From time to time it is worth breaking from the routine of just talking in a group to actually doing what we are trying to accomplish.

Second, small groups exist to actually bring us closer to Christ. We hope small groups develop into friendships -friendships that help develop a deeper friendship with our Savior. Hopefully the ten minutes reminded you of that.

Third, we need solitude in order to have community. To bring my best to the small group, I need to be connecting with God on my own so that I have something to offer. Hopefully after you prayed for 10 minutes individually your group had much more to talk about on the subject of prayer.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Miracle in Chile

Our group prayed last night for the miracle that took place in Chile. I was struck by a number of things as I watched. How many miners dropped to their knees thanking God for their rescue as soon as they were released from the capsule. How many family members centered their hope for rescue in their faith in God. How trust and faith in the Divine served to drive rescuers harder to do all that was humanly possible to aid those trapped. How 33 men – some who only knew each other for a day and some who were life long family members – supported and cared for each member of the group as they faced a seemingly hopeless situation. How the bonds shaped by sharing difficult times will bind these men forever.

Here’s a great quote about the miner from Bolivia: “Despite the offer to return to Bolivia with his family, which President Morales said was effective immediately and he would even fly him home in his presidential plane. The miner made it clear he wanted to stay in Chile, at least for a few days. He said he plans to meet up with the 32 other miners on the surface once they have recovered from their ordeal.” He was offered a job and a house, but he first needed to see the men he can become brothers with in the mine. Talk about band of brothers.

I sat in a circle with nine guys last night with none of us ever wanting to experience the sheer terror of 2 months underground (I start to panic after two minutes in tight spaces). And no one could ever want to see that rescue scene repeated. But I do want the faith that many of the miners and their families demonstrated. I do want a band of brothers who will support me in whatever tragedy life may bring my way. I do want a faith in the Divine that drives me to do all I humanly can to help those in need around me. I do want to celebrate victories in my life with people who have prayed for me, cried for me, and worked hard to help me.

It isn’t hard to see God’s hand in a miracle like the rescue in Chile. But God isn’t limited to the big stage. In fact, most of God’s best work is done in the quiet of our every day life. In the quiet of my family, in the quiet of my workplace, in the quiet of my small group. Big miracles are often easier to see and they grab our attention. It’s the small miracles that we often miss. And it’s through small miracles that most of God’s work gets done.

God bless the Chilean miners, their families, and their rescuers. And God bless every one of us who are working out our own smaller, personal tragedies. May we all experience little miracles like the big miracle the Chilean miners did through faith in God and support from good, caring supportive people around us.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fatherly Anger

When a group of guys talk about anger, the topic of children is almost always part of the discussion. I listened last night as we talked about anger and being a father. The experience of “father” took on many forms: five kids at home; grown kids living away; step kids breaking in a new father; teenagers with messy rooms; some of us enforcers and some instigators; and at times using our work as a place of refuge, sanity and control. For most of us, it wasn’t hard to tap into anger as a part of this season of our life.
I’ve been challenged by the series with why there isn’t more healthy, God honoring, righteous anger in my life. One of the places where I do feel the righteous anger is when I see men not stepping up to their fatherhood responsibilities. Fathers who skimp on quality time with their kids (no time to help coach once a week, but never miss their round of golf). Fathers who don’t set needed boundaries for their kids (letting kids cross clear lines of behavior because it is easier than engaging in daily limit setting). Fathers who abdicate their financial responsibilities or even abuse children. While I have not always been a good father or step-father, I’ve always worked hard at it. I’m angry when a father doesn’t work hard at being a great father. It one of the most important jobs we'll ever have. That's righteous anger.
Sitting with guys who fathered differently, but have good relationships with their children – old or young, at home or not – is a real treat for me. Anger – no doubt. Sometimes (often times?) unrighteous anger – yes. Struggles for balance and boundaries – of course. But mostly, God honoring efforts to be good fathers.
We were a few guys short last night. One stayed home to help his young son with homework because he’s having such a tough time in school and it’s impacting the whole family. One was driving 10 hours with his married daughter to help sort out some messy family stuff. I think they both would have preferred to be at group last night to sip some wine and share life. Good choices. Good fathers. Blessed to be among them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Seventy Times Seven

Anger and forgiveness are automatic conversation starters in our group. No warm-up or DVD needed. Here are some thoughts we tossed around:
- anger can easily become a habit of the heart and lodge deeply there
- our level of anger is a reflection of our overall satisfaction with our life, more of a symptom than a cause
- forgiveness only comes from the heart, not the head – saying it doesn’t make it so
- our world is full of petty anger and not nearly enough God honoring righteous anger and we stand convicted by our lack of righteous anger
- seasons of life – our circumstances – are a factor in the level of anger in our life
- forgiving a deep hurt is incredibly hard even when we know we should and want to forgive
We finished the DVD and the words “seventy times seven” echoed subtly and weighed somewhat heavily in the room. While we struggle with anger, we struggle with forgiveness more. The deep wounds inflicted on us by others are hard to forgive. And especially hard when the person who hurt us doesn’t care about the hurt or doesn’t want to be part of our healing the hurt. How do you forgive someone like that? And what if the hurting continues – over and over again? Can Jesus really expect us to forgive someone over and over who hurts us over and over?
As I sat struggling with words I have always found hard - Seventy times seven? Really? – my lens shifted. What if Jesus was also saying that He knew how hard forgiving is for us? What if He is saying that we will have to forgive over and over and over – seventy times seven – before we will be able to root those angers and pains that have lodged deeply in heart? What if the “seventy times seven” Jesus was talking about wasn’t just about us forgiving someone who repeatedly hurts us, but was also about how hard and how often we will need to work to root out the deep hurts from our heart?
I often beat myself up and feel like a failure because I know I haven’t really forgiven. Oh, I’ve said the words, I know I should be forgiving, and even tried to forgive. But deep in my heart – and that’s the key – I continue to be angry and unforgiving. But isn’t Jesus saying He knows our heart, He knows our struggle, He understands how hard forgiveness is for us. And so He asks us not to stop trying, not to become discouraged, but to keep forgiving the same hurt until it is rooted out of our heart – even if it takes seventy time seven times to release the hurt and truly forgive.
Inflicting a deep hurt can be a matter of a single event. Forgiving a deep hurt can be a lifetime process. Jesus encourages us in the process. He knows it’s hard for us, but He wants our hearts to be free of the darkness of our anger. He encourages us to keep trying, to keep forgiving again and again and again until we have released our hearts from the angry chains that bind us so deeply. Even if it takes seventy times seven times.

Reading and Ragging

I learned this past weekend how very intimidating this blogging thing can be for me. I spent the weekend at a family wedding (why do weddings and funerals bring out the best in families and the worst in families?) and was more than a bit surprised when Becky and Brian, our two oldest, started ragging on me about the blog. I wasn’t surprised by the ragging – they’re both good at it and I keep providing them lots of material to work with – but it put a whole new lens on these blogs having them as part of the audience.
You get very little feedback about who reads these posts so it’s easy to imagine – and I often do – that I’m writing to this admiring audience who hang on my every word (see what I mean about material for ragging). And many people reading this don’t really know me or else have formed opinions of me from others. But few have gone through the peaks and valleys of my life like Becky and Brian. They have seen the eye of the storm of my anger (“Jack moments”), the tears of my complete failures (divorce and job loss), my unrealistic expectations (why can’t a 10 year old kid repeatedly field rocket shot ground balls hit by a maniac), my crazed competitiveness (life long Yankee fan – enough said), and much, much more.
Knowing they might be reading this notches up the honesty factor – I’m now sharing this with two of the most important people in my life and I owe them nothing less than my best effort at honesty and humility. And it reduces the “what a nice guy” posing factor – I can’t hide behind that fa├žade as easily with them in the front row.
I intend these posts to be one way for me to grow in my faith and, at the same time, share my faith journey with others. There are few people more important for me to share it with than you guys. I hope you guys will keep reading and keep ragging.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flying Solo

I was sitting on the deck this morning with a cup of coffee enjoying the view of the ocean over the dunes. Today was shaping up to be the only quiet day to myself (we have a week of family wedding craziness ahead), but I was thinking about this blog and what I’d be missing tomorrow night. It always a bit of a loss for me when I can’t make it.
Getting up for the second cup of coffee, an email from one of the guys hit my inbox (once again the “no blackberry at the beach” rule was violated). He had forwarded us the daily reflection from John Eldredge. The reflection ended with this quote: “…community cannot live without solitude.”
I was brought up a bit short by Eldredge. I have been such a zealot for small groups (a friend kids me about being a St. Paul extremist for groups) that God knew I needed a little more of His perspective on small groups.
I found myself thinking about the model Jesus gave us – the balance God wants for us is pretty clear. Jesus found many opportunities to speak to people in rows – in the temple, on a hillside, from a boat off the shore. Delivering clear, practical, often challenging messages to large groups was important to Jesus.
He greatly valued his small circle of brothers. He prayed with them, ate with them, traveled with them, and shared His pain with them. This was an incredibly important part of his life.
And in the midst of all that swirled around Him, He created time to be alone with His Heavenly Father. This time alone rejuvenated, strengthened, and comforted Him. Jesus made this time happen – no matter what.
Circles, rows and solitude. All are part of what God wants for us. Even zealots need to fly solo sometime. I’m thanking God for the quiet time He gives me, my circle of brothers, and the rows at Nativity. I am blessed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

God's Anger. My Anger.

Three topics on the table last night and we had to pick one: character, purpose, anger. (That a group of 9 guys would come together for two hours and have those as their choices for conversation says volumes about the impact of small groups.) With little hesitation, we all jumped on anger.

Everyone was in; everyone related easily to the topic. One of our newer guys – with us for 6 weeks or so – said he has had anger issues all his life. He thinks some of it might be related to his being abused when he was three years old. Another show stopper for me. Where do people get the courage to share such painful, personal stuff with 9 other people that they’re only beginning to really know and trust? We again stopped and acknowledged how humbled and honored we all were as another broken and pained heart entered the circle. (I continue to be amazed by what can happen in small circles that doesn’t happen in Sunday rows.)

We continued talking about anger. Fr. White’s statement that “God gets angry” came up over and over. We all had scripture references for what that looked liked for us. As I sat and listened, it struck me that God’s anger was always for the right reason, with the right people, at the right time. My anger is often over petty things, directed at people (usually my wife!) who are often not the cause of my anger, and is often delayed so that my anger is out of proportion to the incident at hand (my kids still call them "Jack moments").

God gets angry at the Israelites for worshiping false gods right after He saves them from Egypt and sends Moses back to straighten them out. I get angry that my kids leave dishes in the sink and I cop an attitude with my wife for the rest of the night. Jesus gets angry at the money changers defiling His Father’s house and He immediately throws them out of the temple. I start yelling and screaming because some guy with a North Carolina license plate cuts over two lanes because he’s about to miss his exit on the beltway (like I’ve never done that!) and I become a more aggressive driver for the rest of the trip. Jesus is angered by the Pharisees whose hard hearts lead people away from God and He constantly challenges them. I get angry because the 20 minute home improvement project takes 4 hours (largely because I don’t know what I’m doing) and I’m not pleasant to be around for the next three days.

Anger isn’t a sin. God is angry at the right people, for the right reason, at the right time. This is how God has modeled appropriate anger for us. I don’t need to work on my anger – I’ve got plenty of that. I need to prayerfully look at what I’m getting angry at (more anger over sexual abuse than dishes in the sink), who I get angry at (not my wife who happens to be in the wrong room at the wrong time), and when I get angry (letting anger build up in my heart that only leads to explosions that are out of proportion to the incident at hand.)

God’s anger. My anger. What about yours?

PS: The subject of multiplying came up again – and I wasn’t the one who brought it up. Touchy, touchy topic. How do we grow into greater acceptance of this?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Gentle Rains

After what seemed like a couple of intense weeks, we settled into more of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. The emotional intensity in our group the last couple of weeks, like a sudden thunderstorm, can grab your attention and focus you pretty quickly. It’s easy for me to feel God’s presence when the really emotional issues are on the table. That’s when I’m really looking for God’s presence and help. But, like the thunderstorm, you can’t sustain that emotional level for long.
One of the more amazing things about small groups is that it’s also in the quiet moments, the less intense times, that God’s presence can be felt. If you listen carefully. Here’s where we quietly wandered last night:
- Listening to Warren, we all wanted to surrender our lives to Jesus – within reason (and we’d like to decide what “within reason” means)
- We talked about the importance of sharing scripture. One of our guys described how he and his wife spent some time reading Ephesians about not uttering unkind words and then proceeded to melt down with each over their household budget.
- Another guy is assuming a leadership position at Nativity and is feeling a little uneasy about where his faith is and being asked to lead in the Church. I shared a great line Maria has used with ministers: Nativity is a place of sinners for sinners. Guess that includes leadership.
- Warren challenged that transformation comes from transforming our minds and replacing all the lies we’ve been told or tell ourselves with God’s truth.
- The only thing that using will power in our personal transformation does is create tension and stress. God’s word in scripture is more effective and transformative.
- Without personal transformation, religion is like tying apples on a dead branch. Looks good, but it’s still dead.
- Your prayer life is an indicator of what you’re relying on God for – if you’re not praying about it, you’re not depending on God for it.
- The group is a place where you can break the power of sin by speaking your sinfulness and acknowledging your temptations - if you’re willing to use it.
- And right after we finished praying around the circle and were packing up, one of the guys asked for some help defining what “character” means. That one will need some work.
Lots to unpack. No thunderstorms, just some gentle rain filling our hearts. Nice.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Small Groups - Big Change

How does it happen that, almost intuitively, all of us in our group felt that we could go deeper; that there was more depth of sharing possible; less posing we wanted to do; more vulnerability we needed to drive toward, another leve we could reach? Last week’s discussion kicked off last night’s group.

I heard this phrase somewhere (probably an Andy Stanleyism) – God’s will in God’s way in God’s time. We asked to be led deeper into fellowship and last night it was God’s will and it was God’s time for us.

I led off trying to explain my sense of urgency for our group to multiply. I have clearly created some discomfort by pushing the topic. None of us really like the idea, but we talked about our fears. Most of us are afraid to lose the good thing we have in the group. Trust takes time and hard work to build. Few of us are anxious to start over with the hard work of building trust with another group of men we don't know. We know we'll never really be “ready” to expand a circle into two circles, but I’m more confident that, after last night, we’ll know when it’s time and work through the tough decision.

That conversation was a mere baby step toward the edge of the plateau. One of our guys then took a major leap to the next place dragging us with him. He read three pages that emotionally and heroically placed his broken and troubled heart in the middle of the room for all of us to see. His self image is shaken and confused; he’s facing a painful divorce; he fears for his relationship with his sons; he’s fighting bouts with depression; he despairs of things ever getting better; has all kinds of voices telling him how he should handle things; and has few places to pour out his hurt. How does one find the courage to lay all of that out in front of seven other guys? What do you do when you’re handed someone’s broken heart?

We started doing what most guys do - offer suggestions to “fix” the situation. Seeing the deep pain in his eyes, we quickly moved away from that. We offered support, shared similar painful experiences, and mostly just experienced the ache of a despairing heart. Then we did something we have never done. We always go around the circle and pray at the end of our meetings. Last night we went around the circle and prayed specifically for our brother who placed his broken heart in our hands. There was little we could really do last night but pray with him and for him. We left humbled, honored, aching a bit more in our hearts, and wondering about this new place we may have entered. Small Groups – Big Change.

P.S. Did I mention that we had a new member join us last night? Not sure what he really thought at the end of all this, but it was certainly quite an introduction to a Nativity Small Group. God’s will in God’s way in God’s time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Plateau Jumping

We wrestled with the idea of biblical fellowship last night in group. Rick Warren’s description of biblical fellowship (authenticity, courtesy, mutuality, hospitality and unity) is a great description of small group fellowship. Most of us felt our group was striving for those characteristics. Then we pushed further - which of these did we do well as a group and which of these could we do better. That’s when we hit the plateau.
Most of us have been together for over a year, some longer. We meet every week, including most of the summer. We’ve each shared our stories, sometimes painfully so. We know each other pretty well and share pretty freely. And yet we agreed last night that we’re on a plateau and need to go deeper. Everyone agreed our relationships could be more personal, deeper, and more faith filled. So how do you get off a plateau?
Warren talks about having a spiritual partner as well as being part of a small group – someone in your group who you can call and share with between meetings. There’s no question that anyone in the group would take a phone call from another member without any hesitation and be glad to do it. And there’s the rub – that’s the plateau. While we’d gladly take the call, none of us seemed real comfortable making the call. Not sure if it’s just a “guy thing”, but asking for help, sharing problems, taking that first step is really uncomfortable. Do I really trust these guys that much? Will any of them really have time for or care about my stuff in the middle of all of their stuff? How petty will all of this sound to someone else?
Sometimes the only way to get off a plateau is to jump off. Or maybe get pushed by God.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How Personal Is Personal?

I’m always a bit uncomfortable with the question of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. On a plane ride to Phoenix - I pray that I arrive safely. As I face some of the economic challenges recently – I ask God to protect me financially. When I sit at Nativity on Sunday - I am aware of the presence of God. But when someone asks me “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I become uncomfortable. I think that’s because I fear that the real answer is that I have a relationship with God when I need it or when it’s convenient for me.
When I think of the important relationships in my life I think about loving relationships, ones that have an impact on my life every day, ones that are a constant presence to me, that center me, support me, challenge me, and are always there for me – no matter what. Shouldn’t I be able to say at least those same things about my relationship with my God – and even more?
Our group listened to Rick Warren Wednesday night talk about developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As we talked about it, I began to think about how to make Jesus more personal in my life. Invite God into my relationship with my wife every day? Give Jesus a place in all my other relationships? Ask what is honoring to God before I make decisions? Invite Jesus into my meetings at work? Fill more of the spaces in my day to day life with things that are God centered (music, reading, relationships) rather than all the things that point me to the temptations and distractions of our culture. Engage Jesus directly in whatever I’m doing throughout the day?
When Jesus says personal, He means personal – everyday, all day. I find that level of relationship with God a real challenge and I fear I may not be up to it. And so maybe this is where I make my relationship with Jesus really personal – by inviting Jesus to be personally involved with me in this challenge, to quiet my fear, and let Jesus work in all the details of my daily life. For Jesus, personal is personal – every day, all day.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

When The Music Fades

We grappled with Rick Warren’s idea of worship this week. Warren expands the idea of worship beyond church walls and daily prayer requests to our everyday, practical lives. Not a new concept, but compellingly stated in The Purpose Driven Life.
The purpose of worship is to please God, not ourselves. Anything that is pleasing to God is worship. Warren’s challenge is to make everything we do pleasing to God and, therefore, worship. We all bought in to the concept – that’s the easy part. It was the practical application that brings us up short. We each talked about how hard it is to keep God front and center as we go about our daily lives – how God pops up every once in a while during the day, but is not the strong, constant presence that Warren describes.
As I sat in our circle, I was struck more and more with how central the idea of relationship is to making worship practical in our lives. Worship doesn’t exist outside of a relationship. Pleasing God is about being in relationship with God. First and foremost that’s what God wants and finds pleasing. The stronger my relationship with Jesus has become, the more practical my worship has become. God is much more present to me in every facet of every day of my life as I have deepened my relationship with my God. And my relationships with others – especially my wife, my brothers in small group, and the community at Nativity – have been key to helping me deepen my relationship with Jesus.
Pleasing God is the purpose of our lives. We please God by being in relationship with God. The practical expression of that relationship is lived out everyday through our relationships with others. Worship is about relationships. And as the song says, when the music fades and all is stripped away, Jesus looks into our heart and it’s all about our relationships.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Strong Circles

Almost 18 months ago our small group took the challenge and multiplied. Last night, for the first time since we divided into two separate groups, eight of our original ten group members (two others were out of town) came together for a barbecue. We had all seen each other at Nativity to say hello and ask how things were going, but we had not spent any time together. The strength of a good circle is amazing.
It was like we had never stopped meeting. After dinner we sang a few songs (this group is where I became the Guitar Hero for the first time) and talked about our groups. Tough questions were asked and honest responses were given. Just like the old days. “It hasn’t been the same since we split.” “We’ve struggled to go as deep as we did in our original group.” “It’s tough to find time for group sometimes.” “We have a good group, but it’s not the same.” After some great conversation, we each prayed. It felt good to be with this group of brothers.
I left wondering if we had made the right choice to multiply when we did. As one of the guys said, “There’s never a perfect time to multiply.” I think he’s right. I left with lots of questions, though.
But I’m sure of one thing – the strength of a good circle is powerful. We are all still in a small group. We are still bonded as brothers. We still want to care for and support each other. When we prayed, it was easy to feel God with us.
We have each been truly blessed by that group experience we shared. And we are each challenged not to duplicate the experience – that’s not possible – but to use the growth we experienced from that original group experience to help our new groups experience the power and depth of a faith filled circle. Given what we each gained from that experience, how can we not try to share it with others?
We sang Amazing Grace last night. A signature song for the evening. The strength of a circle – amazing grace.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Good To Be Back

After 4 weeks it was good to settle back into our small group meetings – great to see all the guys. Everyone seemed to miss it and we are all ready to get back to it. We’re working through Purpose Driven Life the next six weeks. Thought it would be a good connection to the heart of the Nativity environment and a good set up for the fall. And it certainly is a conversation starter!
What if you don’t believe in eternity? Doesn’t our purpose change at different seasons of our life? Is anyone else struggling with this purpose thing as much as I am – seems like I’ve been asking that question for years? Is salvation possible without a relationship with Jesus Christ – what about Ghandi? Isn’t life tiresome or uncontrollable at times even if you’re clear about your purpose?
One of the things I like about my group is that we have become comfortable with raising questions and not feeling like we have to wrestle the answers to the ground each week. All those are tough questions each in their own way. In the absence of answers, we prayed together. I’m looking forward to the next five week. Good to be back.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Creating a culture of small groups

In our culture (meaning North Baltimore), it is normal to go to Church. Not everyone goes to Church on a regular basis, but it is not considered abnormal to go and most people in our community have in their self-image as a Church going person. In this community it is also normal to volunteer. I think if you took a poll of people in Timonium and the surrounding area, most people would say it is good to volunteer and they try to volunteer through coaching, or helping at school or whatever. So when we ask people to do volunteer ministry at Church, people can see that as normal. It is in the framework in which people in this community view themselves.

Small groups are different. They are a complete paradigm shift. People in this community saw their parents go to Church and see many people volunteer, but groups are by nature in homes and private, not public. We are working this year to show the great benefits of groups and that very busy people carve out time for their small group because it is worth it.

One of our efforts to show that busy people are in small group is by giving out FREE t-shirts to anyone in a Nativity small group. This offer is good for the first 200 people who sign up. The catch is that we ask you to wear them to Church the weekends of September 11 and 12 through October 2 and 3. This in preparation for our Launch on October 4, our program to get new people into groups. We are still getting specs on the t-shirt, but I promise it will look good.

If you are interested in helping promote groups, please go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/sgtshirts. There are three quick questions to fill in so we can get you the right shirt.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Learning from the people at Grace

Last night Ed King, Mary Hayden and I went to Grace Community Church to talk with Michael More and some members of his small group team. Michael and his team have been very successful connecting the members of their Church into groups as 85 percent of their members are in a small group. We have about 15 percent in groups so we are trying to learn how to create more a culture of small groups.

Here are a few thoughts from our meeting last night.

1. There is no magic or for lack of a better word great savvy to their sucess, just a commitment to make groups accessible and drive everyone into a group. In fact, Michael has a very hands off approach many aspects of groups that we have spent much time and energy on. The biggest is in finding leaders and in starting new groups. He does a "Launch Night" in which groups simply choose a leader and work out when and where they will meet. We copied some of the process last Lent and will be working to make it better for our Launch on MONDAY, OCTOBER 4th.

2. Coaching for them is all about relationships and just investing in the leaders, believing in a "trickle down effect." They believe that as they love and support leaders that love and support leaders, leaders will pour into members. One coach Mike said essentially that he doesn't ask how the group is going, he asks how the leader is doing in life.

3. Coaches visit groups twice a year, not to check in but to show support. We have to look into that idea.

4. Struck with what Michael saying how they overload leaders with support in the first few months. Also, he pointed to the need to (using my words not his) script the first critical moves for new leaders so they feel comfortable. That is a ball I dropped last Lent and know I need to really support new leaders this Fall.

5. The Grace team is a humble team. Their attitude a great reminder that God gives grace and strength to the humble and resists the proud.

6. I loved Michael's use of a family/hospital analogy. He said groups are like families and from time to time members of families need to go to a hopsitl for healing. In a small group that may mean a member has serious financial issues or is going through a divorce or is in bereavement or needs counseling. In a family, you take the person to the hospital. In the same way a group should help a member get the support he or she needs.

We learned much more. I'll save that for another blog.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Doing Life

If you have never read Donald Miller you should check out his book "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years." It is a great book about living in a larger story.

On his blog today he wrote:

"Yesterday, at lunch, my friend David mentioned he’d spent some time in Colorado with the guys at Ransomed Heart. David used to work with them and went back to hang out with them for a weekend in the mountains. He mentioned that one of the guys reminded him that spirituality was not a context. I asked David what the guy meant, and Dave said what he meant was that you learn about God while learning to fly a plane or raising a child or planting crops in a field. It’s not a hard, fast rule to be sure, but the idea is that sitting around looking at your spiritual belly button isn’t going to provide an object lesson for your faith. The idea is that faith makes sense in the context of some other pursuit.

And that might be the reason I don’t migrate toward conversations specifically about faith.

In the Bible, God guides people through stories. Stories is how He teaches people about themselves and Himself. He doesn’t get the children of Israel out of Egypt instantly. God drags it out, creates plagues, guides them through positive and negative turns, all to shape their faith. He does the same with Joseph, giving him a vision, then immediately letting him be thrown into a well by his brothers.

If we think we are going to grow in faith by sitting around at a Bible study, we are wrong. That stuff is fine, but without a story, without diving into something really difficult, something that requires us to look to God for support and wisdom and comfort, it will be more difficult to become a person of great faith."

I think Donald Miller is spot on with these observations and I struggle how it applies to small group. In one way, the quote verifies why we do small groups and not bible studies. The content of groups should be the lives of group members with the discussion of Scripture to bring guidance and wisdom to the people in the group so that members see Scripture as living and active. God's word is ultimately to be lived out in us.

On the other hand, I think to grow with other believers we must do more than sit in a circle, as much as I believe in it. In his book, Miller says something along the lines that men don't really grow to trust each other unless they face danger together. I don't know how that gets applied to groups, but there is some application. Somehow we need to not just talk to each other but put our lives in the hands of the group members around us.

I have no easy answer to this. For now, I'm content to let it sit there. I'd love to hear any thoughts from others. I'd also like to hear from women and what they think connects them to each other.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Perspective

I had coffee today with Kevin Burroughs, who is a member of my Thursday morning small group. It was great catching up with him. We talked a bit about anger and shared one common anger. I am always amazed at how conversations with people bring perspective and that just knowing we are understood soothes our soul. I once heard, "You have a fundamental need to be understood."

That statement continues to stick with me and that's why I love small groups. Through my small group, I get to connect with people who slow down in their life to understand me and I get to serve others by understanding them. How much better would our community and world be, if everyone had a place where they felt understood and listened to?

Consider if there is anyone in your life who you know would benefit from being understood, who are struggling because they feel like no one else understands their problems. Pray he or she would join a group this Fall.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Gearing up for Fall

Brian Crook on our staff noted that once 4th of July hits, summer is just about over. He is right. All of a sudden the Fall doesn't look so far away, but right around the corner.

We are working on our plans for Launch and our prayer and hope is that it will make small groups accessible and get people excited to join a small group. It will take a great deal of work, if you are reading this take a pause and pray for our efforts. Marriages, relationships, families and the building of God's kingdom is at stake on how well we get people into groups.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Odd Feeling

Our group took the month of July off. It's Wednesday night and no group. Odd feeling. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

So, what do you believe - really?

As any good Catholic school product, I was taught the Nicene Creed. And I estimate that I've said it as many as 4,000 - 5,000 time over my life time. But I never really discussed it with anyone. Never really dug into it.
Once you do - especially with a group of guys working to build stronger relationships with Jesus - the question quickly surfaces: What do you believe - really? Not what you say. Not what you repeat from rote. Not what Sister said to believe. What do I believe - really believe? Really believe so that people see it in your life.
One of us felt that if you didn't believe the first part - "I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth" - the rest doesn't matter. But if your really believe the first part, how do you not live your life with a great amount of trust in your Almighty Father? Several of us struggled with "one, holy, catholic (is that a big "C" or a little "c"?) and apostolic Church" given what has been going on in some parts of the church over the last several years. Is the Nicene Creed our mission statement and the Beatitudes our values statement was another part of the conversation. One of our guys had an encounter with someone that left him really questioning whether he lived what he said he believed. He was so humbled by the experience that he went home and wrote a poem - about being humbled. (He also plans to follow up with the person he encountered to put his belief into practice.) Another guy struggled to articulate why he prays when one of his grown children asked him why he prays. What would my personal testimony be in answer to that question?
If you stand in a row, you can repeat the words. If you sit in a circle, you dig into your beliefs. I'm praying more people get in circles. And I'm praying that those of us sitting in circles grow deeper in our creed so that our actions scream out our beliefs.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Abba

How do you approach an “all powerful and all loving Father” when our experience of “father” doesn’t quite match up? My father came from Donegal, Ireland to the US as a young boy. I often refer to him as a “tough Irishman.” He was loving, but also often emotionally distant – that’s just the way he was. One of our guys has a father who is still emotionally distant. Another of our guys never knew his father. Even the guys who have fathers who are their heroes can talk about things that were missing in their relationship.
As we talked about fathers last night it struck me that all of us, no matter what our experience of “father” was, had a deep understanding of what we wanted, what we missed, and what “father” should be. That deep knowing and longing for “abba” is in all of us because it was planted deep in us by a God who has a great desire to be our all loving and all powerful Father. It is clear from scripture that, if we let Him, God will father us perfectly. He wants nothing better than to father us lovingly and powerfully.
And that’s why the thought that “worrying is dishonoring to God” is so troubling for me. I often call God my Father, but I am a big worrier. The two thoughts cannot be held at the same time. I believe one or the other, but cannot believe both. If I really believe God is an all powerful and all loving Father, I cannot worry.
My earthly father taught me to be responsible, self-reliant, and strong. My heavenly Father planted deep in my being a desire for complete dependence and trust in an all powerful and all loving God from whom I can draw great strength. One has lead to big control issues in my life. The deep desires are only now allowing me to be more trusting and reliant on my all powerful and loving Father. Thank you, Abba.
I’d love to know how others relate to the idea of God as Father. Comments?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Open Mike Night

Put six guys in a room, tell them it's "open mike night" - you can talk about anything - and what do you get? Comments about the Orioles mess of a season, commentary on the political scene, World Cup predictions, Ravens predictions, stock market woes, the latest golf or fishing adventure, the latest electronic gadgets on the market.....? And that's why I love my small group.
Last night was open mike night in our group. Without a pause or hesitation, one of our guys dove in to how he has been struggling for the last year with being unforgiving of some former friends who hurt him and his struggle to be forgiving. The next guy talked about how receiving a heart stent (he's still upset about missing his par putt after he was picked up after he collapsed on the 9th green when the heart attack hit - go figure) is making him take a difficult look at the stressors in his live. Next up was a painful conversation about one of our guys marriage difficulties. A fourth member, who was late for the meeting, never heard of "open mike night" (mostly because we never did it before), but jumped right in. He was able to unload a bit of the stress he's feeling because an illness in his family has upset the balance in his family and disoriented his household. And I was asked to talk about the deep sadness I feel when I am faced with the issue of suicide in people's lives.
Wow. Everyone spoke from the heart. And when it was time to pray at the end - the prayers were longer, deeper, and God honoring. God really does show up in circles.
Open mike night - what a concept!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Living In God

I was distracted at group last night. I had just attended the wake for the brother of a friend. Her brother was 52 and died suddenly. I didn’t learn until I left the funeral home that he had committed suicide. Every time I’m faced with the reality of suicide I am at a loss to understand the level of despair, pain and anguish that would lead someone to consider such a tragic act. Being unable to feel connected and loved by family and friends. Not having a forgiving and loving God to center all the pain and anguish around. Not seeing any purpose to continue living, but suicide as the only option. I feel so inadequate in understanding the despair. There is just deep sadness.

Then from my left, a voice says he understands completely. He has had the same thoughts and has felt the deep sense of despair about his future. He’s never tried to end his life, but he has sure thought about it. As we’ve each told our stories, we’ve all come to know his pain. Yet every time he voices thoughts of suicide, I feel that deep sense of sadness wash over me. And while having a group of supportive men around you who understand, at least at some level, is important, it’s not enough – other small groups have lived through the painful experience of losing one of their members to suicide.

I left group praying – and pray now – that God will enter deeply into the life of each member of our group and provide that center around which all our despair and pain and doubt can be placed. I pray that each member of our group will allow God to shoulder the burdens with us and lift us out of our despair into the beauty He has created for us. I pray that every Nativity small group becomes a place where God shows up, members come to see more clearly and deeply God’s love for each of us, and the excitement of living life in God and for God grows strongly and deeply.

Good and gracious – living God – holy is Your Name.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Circle On the Porch

We sit in a circle on the back porch. Conversation is about God's creation and how some of us lose sight of His awesome work with all of our electronic gadgets. We slide into a conversation about God's wisdom being readily available to us in Scripture and how we often fail to apply this wisdom in our lives. Some regrets (not really guilty regrets, more wistful acceptance of our life's journey) were expressed by a few of us that we didn't walk in God's wisdom earlier in our lives. How different our lives might have been?
And then I almost miss a pretty amazing comment. One of our guys, who is usually pretty quiet, was on a roll and sharing his heart. One of his statements was how he's learned to really pray in the last six months or so by coming to group. Like many of us he grew up Catholic, went to all Catholic schools, and can whip through all the standard prayers with the best of us - Hail Mary, Our Father, Glory Be, etc. But in our group, he said, he learned how to really pray from his heart. How to make God more real in his everyday life. How to turn some of his stuff over to God and let God be God in his life. And how it's made a difference in his life.
And that's why I come to group every week. God shows up in a different, special, awesome way every week in a small group. A circle on the porch can be a life changing environment.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Happens in Group

I noticed in our small group last night that in discussions (which I truly always enjoy) I have a compulsive need to offer contrary points of view -- whether I believe them or not.  I already knew that about myself, but the surprise is how much I feel compelled to do it.  I can't really say whether my motivations are healthy or not.  I'd like to think that I am just naturally oriented to question things, and to encourage others to think differently; this is true about me -- but I also think I like to instigate a little uneasiness in others.  Maybe this makes me feel better, or in control.  Hmm ... that last one is a little disturbing.

What a screwy mess I am!  I'd like to be able to recognize and splice out my motivations, but it doesn't seem to work that way.  I am sadly just a mixed bag of impulses; that's the way it is.  I suppose I can take solace in the fact that at least some of my motivations, at least some of the time (I hope), are oriented toward the good of others.



I am so thankful to have this group!  They don't always realize how much they teach me, but it's one of the best classrooms I have.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

An Invitation is All it Takes



Recent survey: 82% of Nativity members *not* currently in a small group might be willing to join if a friend invited them ... Does this give you any ideas??








Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reducing the "Buzz"

Lots of good stuff in group last night about creation, nature and God. It was interesting that everyone in the group could easily name places in nature where they connect with God. And yet, we all struggled with how so much in our daily lives isolates us from the natural world that so easily and strongly connects us to God. Computers, ipods, tvs, super highways, and on and on. We’ve even come to needing screensavers on our computers that simulate scenes in nature to remind us about nature which is often right outside our window! One of the guys talked about how humans are the only part of God’s creation that can envision new things and create them. It’s funny – or maybe sad – that many of the things that we have created have disconnected us from so much of God’s creation.
My take away – maybe I’m spending too much time worrying about the “forest” and missing the beauty of the individual “trees.” Maybe getting stuck for a little while in the trees wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I need to slow down just a bit in my daily life, turn off some of the electronic “buzz” for a while each day, and hear the voice of God speak to me through the amazing creation God has provided all around me. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Being With

Talking with a few small-group-leader coaches last week, I asked what the ratio of "relationship" vs. "practical discussion" was for them and the leaders they meet with.  As usual, I found my own thoughts clarified as we discussed things, and clarified even more afterward, once I reflected on them.  These posts are usually another clarifying activity for me ... please pardon the self-serving motivations to write.

This is an important issue for me, since I hold the conviction that relationships themselves are of primary importance in any meaningful investment aimed at emotional or spiritual growth.  These coaches all responded that their time was mostly practical (working through questions, problems and possible solutions), which made me think that the relationship side might be suffering, but I later realized (remembered) that practical discussion is often a necessary setting for healthy relational exchange.

I remember talking with a friend about how men like to fish.  Not always for the sport itself (honestly, that takes a special personality), but because the setting provides an excuse to hang out and be together.  Women like to get together to talk about their lives.  Men are often afraid of this kind of vulnerability (requesting assistance is a flag of weakness), so we act tough and find activities to mask our motives, then we spend 80% of that time talking about nothing.  All for a set up for the purpose of just being together.

I had dinner with a few friends last night, and I took away some helpful and practical things to reflect on, but the very simple matter of just being with my friends who know me and give a shit about me is a far more valuable thing.  As you were.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Belonging

I was reminded afresh this week of the significant and often lasting impact of rejection.  Especially from a spouse or parent.  We have a strong drive to find people and groups that we can connect and belong to.  Most of us seek a significant other, we keep ties with our immediate and extended family, and we often maintain relationships in clubs, communities of worship, etc.  I'm sure it looks much different than the 1950's, but the drive is still there, even in our often-impersonal technology age: witness social networking.

What became clearer for me in our small group this week is how authentic friendships can become bonds that are unique, and contain elements that sometimes exceed even marriage and family bonds.  I think the latter are significant specifically because of their permanence despite life circumstances.  I suppose this keeps the life of the community ordered.  The former, however, are perpetually and completely voluntary.  It is one thing to be accepted by someone who has made a promise to do so, or by someone who is genetically or legally linked to us.  It is another kind of atmosphere where it is seen as acceptable by the surrounding community to disengage at any time, as in friendships, yet we choose not to.  Long and meaningful friendships are indeed unique.  I am convinced that these relationships should not be seen as ancillary, even if time and commitment priorities go to the more permanent bonds.  They matter immeasurably, and provide a kind of belonging that can be satisfied in no other way.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Being Authentic

"Authentic friendships are more than just superficial, surface level chit-chat. They involve genuine, heart-to-heart, sometimes gut-level, sharing. These friendships develop when we get honest about who we are and what is happening in our lives. They develop when we share our hurts, reveal our feelings, confess our failures, disclose our doubts, admit our fears, acknowledge our weaknesses, and ask for help and prayer." Rick Warren, Pastor, Saddleback Church
"I feel like an authentic friend. I share at a level of depth that I’ve never shared with any of my friends or family. I feel real…no lies or secrets—pretending to be someone I’m not. I don’t try to impress my small group or anyone else for that matter. It has inspired me to live a simple & God-Centered Life." Small Group Leader, Church of the Nativity
I am so blessed to be in a small group where authenticity is what we strive for and often achieve. Last night was another powerful example for us of what authentically telling our stories can do to transform us and those we share our stories with. You can't help but walk away feeling the awesome power of Jesus in our midst.
It's the power of authentic friendships centered in Jesus. The two quotes above say it all for me. This is what I pray my small group will be for me. This is what I pray I will be for my brothers in my group. This is what I pray everyone in a Nativity small group comes to experience. The power of Jesus working through authentic friendships.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Origins

Last night’s small group meeting made me realize in a fresh way the powerful influence that our background story has on our lives. For good or ill, it seems we either continually try to avoid something painful from our past, or we continually try to retain or restore something from our past that we valued. This gets pretty complex, since most of us are oblivious to the force of these influences, but any good therapist (at least those I’ve encountered) will confirm that awareness of this dynamic can bring a certain amount of power over it. The danger is when that desire is completely under the radar; we can become almost defenseless against its force, unable to resist.


For me, and due to various reasons, I know that my striving consists of seeking approval. Often to a very unhealthy degree. Many of us have this general inclination, but I will even allow the people closest to me to experience disadvantage or even hurt because I don’t want to upset the equilibrium of approval from others who aren't so close. Funny that I care more about approval from those at a distance. I suppose we tend to take more liberties with people who cannot easily detach from us.

All this makes me think that I need to be more conscious of it. I developed my own game about this recently: after a typical conversation with a friend or acquaintance, I ask myself if I would have responded and acted the same way if everyone I knew was actually present, watching the conversation. This does seem to work. It’s an uncomfortable exercise for me, but it makes things much more obvious.

What are you running from that you don’t want to experience again? What are you clinging to that you can’t stand to loose?

God In A Circle

God shows up in a lot of places for me. Even when I'm playing poorly at Pine Ridge, God is everywhere on the course (God must be a golfer because God has created amazing places that only golfers get to see and Pine Ridge is one of them). Anywhere with Ellen. At home on my back porch. At the 5:30pm liturgy at Nativity. Sitting on the beach in Duck. Playing with Annabel, Sawyer and Elijah. God really does show up in my life.
But often the most amazing place God shows up for me is when I sit in the circle with my brothers in our small group. Awesome and amazing! Last night another one of our guys told his story. Wow. This is always a powerful experience for all of us. Last night was so far the only "to be continued" story in our group. I'm looking forward to next week to hear the rest.
Powerful and more. It is humbling to hear the stories. As tough as I sometimes think I've had it, I admire how the guys in our group made it to where they are given what they had to deal with. It's encouraging to hear the stories. No self pity, no poor me. Just here is who I am and how I got here.
It's spiritual. God really does show up in a special way in the small group circle. Powerful, peaceful, healing, challenging, supporting. It's great to be reading Acts and know God still shows up.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Being Bold

"Boldness is speaking up when the opportunity shows up." Pastor Michael White

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Feeling Like a 6

"How personal does Jesus seem to you on a scale of 1-10?"
This would have been a more comfortable question to answer last night in our group before we started reading Acts. My relationship with Jesus has become more personal (even though it was always pretty personal) and more pervasive in my life. The difference is largely due to Nativity and my small group. But reading Acts puts a "personal relationship" with Jesus in a whole new context. Bold? Dangerous? Fearless? Not so much. Guitar Hero is still resonating.
When I read Acts, I feel like a 6 on that 10 point scale. I'm not saying I don't have a good personal relationship with Jesus - at a 6 I'm sure I'm better than some. But the Apostles paint quite a picture of what a personal relationship with Jesus can - and should? - look like. Preaching fearlessly in the temple. Standing boldly before accusers. Constantly and with enthusiasm sharing their experience of the Risen Jesus. Going outside their safe communities to bring Jesus' words to any and all. Not caring what "men" think and only wanting to obey God. Wow - that's a 10!
Part of me feels discouraged. The standard that the Apostles set seems far out of my reach. But Acts also shows that the Apostles started out fearful, timid and hiding out. That I can relate to. But Jesus promised and delivered on sending the Holy Spirit and their lives were transformed. Jesus has made the same promise to us. We just have to believe He will deliver for us like He did for His disciples.
6 isn't bad, but, in Jesus, all things are possible - even me becoming a 10. I'm praying for myself and my brothers to be open to the Spirit and the gift of being an Apostle-like 10.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Forgive to be Forgiven

Have you ever had the experience where you realized what you were saying only after you said it?  Last night in group I had that very queer experience.

"When Jesus said that one must forgive in order to be forgiven, he didn't mean that being forgiven will be withheld until you also forgive others.  Rather, that we will be unable to believe that forgiveness is possible -- unable to accept forgiveness -- until we have had the experience of forgiving others."

Strange to hear that coming out of my mouth; I didn't really feel like I was saying it.  I was just along for the ride, listening, and thinking, "Now that's an interesting idea."  Not that I've never thought those things before, but this minor out-of-body experience made me realize that I know this to be true while still struggling to implement it personally.  I have certainly withheld forgiveness from those who have hurt me.  Even if they don't know it.  And that has kept me from realizing God's forgiveness to some degree.

My sense last night was that some of the guys felt the same.  Forgiveness is hard.  But not giving forgiveness is a trap.

Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  Help us to forgive our debtors!

Church: Healing Place or Just A Crutch

So is church about healing or about being healed? Is it a crutch or a crutch? Can it be both? Should it be both? One of our guys felt church wasn’t much of a healing place – nice to go to, but not much healing going on. As we talked it became clear healing wasn’t an event, but a process. Expecting to “be healed” by going to church certainly is a crutch – and a very unhealthy one. Most of us know someone who used this crutch and many of us have used it ourselves. Maybe we still do?
As we looked at Acts and the life of Jesus, it is so clear that church is meant to be about healing and not just being healed. If it isn’t, it isn’t church – clear and simple.
But what is healing? The blind seeing? The lame walking? The dead being raised? My problems being solved? Don’t have much experience with that myself. But I have experienced healing at Nativity and in my small group.
My sin has been forgiven – and they were no small sins. My sinful behavior has been shared and exposed – and I am much more able to be faithful. My anxiety and fear have been lessened – and I am more at peace. My lack of trust is being turned into deeper confidence and belief – and I am more centered in my God. My pride and arrogance (did I say I play guitar?) is being humbled – and boy is that good for the people I live and work with.
So in a very real sense, Nativity and my small group are a crutch for me. I lean on both in my brokenness. I need both in my brokenness. Church is about healing and a God given crutch for me. I guess it can be both – thank God.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Guitar Hero

I spent part of Easter feeling pretty good about myself. I had focused some of my quiet time on areas needing improvement in my life - greed, self-centeredness, pride. Given the story I tell about my life, I was feeling pretty good - these were all manageable. Doing better, no major issues, life pretty in control. And then we had group last night.
We watched the Pastor's message again. The conversation turned to evangelization - definitely not one of the boxes I can check off on my list of things being done as Jesus asked. But still feeling ok - several of the guys also voiced their discomfort with speaking to others about the God thing. And then I told a story of the party at our house where someone asked who played guitar - mine was sitting out. This young guy (it was a party of 20 somethings for my daughter's birthday) was in a band and a good player. Anyone who has heard me knows I'm not. But that doesn't bother me - I'm comfortable with that. But then he asked "What kind of stuff do you play?" Pause - mostly James Taylor type stuff was the response. Anyone who has heard me play in the last couple of years also knows that I'm playing mostly Christian worship music. Oops. Is this how Peter felt in the courtyard?
But the real wake up call was the response from the guys. Most voiced their surprised that I would hide what I really played. Several said it didn't seem like something I would. Suddenly, the word "poser" jumped front and center. I wanted to be a guitar hero, but was a poser instead. And as the leader of our group, who pushes others to be real with God's word, it was a disappointing revelation. I packed up my guitar and headed home thinking about how much fear still drives my behavior and how much courage I need from God to be a guitar hero.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sfumato Reflections - Thoughts from the smoke

I was tired last night and not looking forward to the trek out to Fallston and back for our small group meeting. On top of that, we had another technology challenged group last night - couldn't get the DVD to work. (I'm sure it was a good one, Tom - sorry we missed it.) The group spent the time talking about what we each got out of the Sfumato series. Here's what some of us had to say:
- the series pushed me for an increased effort to deny feelings less, especially as a guy, and honestly confront what those emotions mean and the effect they have in my life
- a greater realization of how the negative emotions seem to dominate our life and how the path to living more with the healthy, positive emotions is a deeper trust in God and living His word more fully each day
- how completely intertwined emotional and spiritual health are and how difficult it is to have one without the other
- a hesitancy to embrace the message of sfumato at the beginning was completely turned around by the idea of brokenness that opened up the idea of emotional and spiritual health in a new way
- how our culture, which encourages us to live by our emotions and seek emotional gratification above everything, creates a hazy, smoky view of life that often obscures the path God wants us to follow
There was much more and it was all good stuff. As always, I was glad I went.
On another note, we had a new member, who was invited by one of our guys, join us last night. We asked him why he wanted to be part of a small group. The first thing he said was that you can't attend Nativity very long without understanding from Fr. White's messages and being around Nativity that to be fully part of Nativity you have to participate in ministry and small groups. Clearly the importance of small groups is being communicated - even if people like me don't believe it's being done enough. It really was a moment of affirmation that we're on the right track and God is working.

Be Blessed,
Jack

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spiritually Healthy

I was struck last night at group how my spiritual growth has accelerated since I've been in group. And I don't think that it is a coincidence that our group is where I have done some of my best work on my emotional health. Admitting my brokenness, dealing with my guilt, becoming more authentic with others and honest with myself, appreciating more fully my brothers' emotional and spiritual needs - all that an more have been part of my group experience. And I am closer to Jesus because of it. What a powerful linkage - spiritual growth and emotional growth. One fuels the other and closeness to God grows. Powerful stuff. We need to keep figuring out how to share the power of authentic small group experience with more and more people. Be blessed on the quest.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Church"

One of the things that has always struck me about my small group is the fact that it is the truest expression of church that I have.  The historic Church, the universal church, and our local church are all important, but - at least for me - our weekly gathering of men where we can be honest about our failures and struggles is my most important haven, after that church that is my own family and home.  It's where I get fueled up, and re-directed to go out into the world to try to pour myself out for (and into) other people who often don't reciprocate.  These brothers would take a bullet for me, and I for them.

The historic church has rich resources to ground us, and corporate worship is certainly centering and uplifting (if you have been around Nativity, you know if is frequently coupled with a challenging message that tend to make one's palms sweat just a bit), but my true shelter and encouragement is our group.  I love these guys.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Circles not Rows

I'm not much of a blogger - either reading or contributing. Must be a generational thing - is there a mandatory age of retirement from blogging and all social media use?
While not a big blogger, I have become a big believer in small groups at Nativity. Andy Stanley talks about God really showing up in circles (small group meetings) and not in rows (weekend Church attendance). Nativity is certainly about the weekend and without that laser focus by staff and ministers, many of us would have wandered to some other community. The weekend experience is a huge key to starting the road to discipleship. The challenge to our Nativity community is moving people from their often anonymous rows to authentic circles.
I'm reading Warren's Purpose Driven Life again. I was struck by his chapter on Cultivating Community (19) and thinking about small groups. Some of his thoughts:
  • Community requires commitment
  • It takes both God's power and our effort to produce a loving Christian community
  • Cultivating community takes honesty.
  • Real fellowship, whether in a marriage, a friendship, or your church, depends on frankness.
  • Frankness is not rudeness.
  • Cultivating community takes humility - self-importance, smugness, and stubborn pride destroy fellowship faster than anything else.
  • Pride blocks God's grace in our lives.
  • You can develop humility by: admitting your weaknesses, being patient with others' weaknesses, by being open to correction, and by pointing the spotlight on others.
  • Cultivating community takes courtesy.
  • Cultivating community takes confidentiality - gossip kills community.
  • Cultivating community takes frequency - community is not built on convenience, but on conviction and an investment of time.
  • Nine characteristics of biblical fellowship: authenticity, mutuality, sympathy, mercy, honesty, humility, courtesy, confidentiality, and frequency.

We have talked about most of this with maybe different language. I am blessed to have a band of brothers where I find the environment Warren describes and where our members continues to work on creating that environment. How do we create these environments for more of our parish community so that there really is a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ? A great challenge for Nativity. I'm happy to be on that quest.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Beware Lurking Potholes

I commute to work by bicycle two or three days a week year-round. Riding a bike for me is like therapy. It slows me down and helps me deal with the hectic pace of life. Last week on the trip home, I hit a "hidden" pothole covered with water -- scraped up my face and neck, and broke my hand in three places. The ironic thing is that just a few days prior, two good friends of mine warned me about the dangers of riding while there was still so much snow and so many potholes cropping up. I took an arrogant approach: "I ride year round! A little snow won't slow me down!"

The evening I fell several folks slowed down to gawk at the scene, but I was helped by two people: a woman I never met (named Leigh) stopped to drive me to the St. Joe's ER, and one of the men in my small group (Bill) happened to be working in that ER the same night. She dropped me off, and he took care of me. In fact, he made sure that I got home along with my glasses which I lost in the fall, my prescriptions which I forgot at the hospital, and my bike which was left at the side of the road. This took him separate trips, and probably several hours of driving.

It was humbling to see how Leigh and Bill were ready to help (above and beyond) without hesitation, but I am learning that accepting help really is just as important as being willing to help. Accepting the help of good advice would have saved me some anguish. We need each other. Not just in crisis, but all the time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Paradigm Shift

First Blog ever -

this week in my small group... we watched Wk 2 instead of Wk 3 - oops. It turned out that the message on Filling Our Cups was pretty relevant anyway. My group is made up of moms with kids of all ages. About half of the women work outside the home and half stay home with our respective rowdy, character-building bunch.

All of us pour out energy, focus, creativity into the lives of those around us.
All of us struggle to refill our own cups.
We do the small things that sort of fill us up a bit: little past times, coffee, exercise and other quick energy boosts.
Most of us have a patchy habit of turning to God for that life-giving water.

Anyway, one woman said that the message she heard completely echoed what she had been struggling with - that she has limits and needs to ackowledge them because that's part of being a human. She was so grateful for the affirmation of "a major, needed shift in thinking."

Thanks God, for this small group of women, for Your Word and Spirit to guide us and for relevant, applicable, understandable messages.