I Knew This Day Would Come

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About two months ago, we noticed a house finch making a nest in the hanging planter on our front porch. Didn’t seem like a smart move to me because it’s right in front of a window that our kids love to look through every morning (and every time they come up and down the stairs). And at night, our porch light never goes off. It’s really not the best choice in lodging, in my opinion. But what do I know? I’m not a bird.

Momma Bird was always a little skittish and almost always flew away whenever she heard us coming. But it wasn’t long until we started to see some eggs appear in the nest. First there were two. Then five. Then one more. Six eggs. And Momma Bird wasn’t leaving the nest quite as frequently. She’d sit there calmly. Maybe she’d gotten used to us.

Or maybe she had a purpose that kept her grounded even when she wanted to leave.

Pretty soon we were seeing little wet heads and beaks along side their soon-to-hatch brothers and sisters. Poppa Bird was coming around now, too. Bringing food. Checking the nest. And making sure everybody was safe.

We watched as the weeks produced more feathers and voices, especially when Poppa Bird was sitting on the edge with some food. Everyday, he’d come. Usually early in the morning. Give them their food for the day, chirp back and forth with them, and then sit there until he saw me or until I got too eager and tried to go outside and see if I could get a better look. He didn’t trust me.

I get that. I don’t trust Life. It’s too unpredictable.

I’m constantly running through escape procedures in my head about how I’d get my family out of harms way. I’ve come up with some really dreadful events that would require these but it’s good to have a plan for, let’s say… when zombies come in through the fireplace, right?

I think about it a lot. How to protect my family. More than I probably realize and certainly more than I admit. But I have to be sure they’re safe, out of harm’s way, and prepared for a fruitful, meaningful, long, fulfilling life with a family of their own.

But I can’t always protect them. And I can’t leave them in the nest. I have to show them the way.

Poppa Bird has been coming around pretty often and Momma Bird is only very rarely seen. For practical reasons, the babies are growing and they need their space. They are literally laying on top of each other fighting for daylight. But maybe the bigger reason is this… all her nurturing to get them to this place is finished. Now they need to fly. Any of the comfort or care that only she can give must be done “Out There.”

I know a bunch of moms right now who are about to have a panic attack, my wife included. Baby, it stresses me out, too. They grow too fast. They need their space. And one day, our hands-on nurturing and providing slows. to. a. stop. They move away to college. They go on adventures in foreign countries with other newly-fledged companions. They call home on occasion. They bring their laundry (if you’re lucky). And then they’re gone.

I don’t know how that’s gonna wreck me, but it’s gonna hit me hard in about eight years. And then it’s gonna hit me over and over again until our last child moves away. I’ll never forget the sight of my mom’s shoulders slumping over the dishes the moment I told her I was moving away after high school. She stood silently and I could see her shaking as she tried to cry without me seeing. I felt so guilty for delivering the news. But I knew it was my time to go on an adventure and learn my way around the “Out There.”

Yesterday was the last day for the last two birds. Poppa Bird was there as he was for each of them as they took their first flight. He’d perch on the edge of the basket. Fly down to the sidewalk. Look up to the nest. Chirp up to the waiting fledgling, “Come on. It’s okay. You can do it,” or something like that. Keep his eyes on his little one as he watched him fly away.

It was a proud moment and friggin scary moment all wrapped into one. And I was only a human watching some birds. I don’t want to think about what it will be when those are my kids. My oldest is 10. We’re talking about eight years maybe before he drives away to college. My youngest is 4. And as God brings other babies to us, my worry and fretting will only continue, maybe until the day I die. I knew this day would come for the Finch family and I know it will come for us as well. The “Out There” is not an easy place to maneuver. But these babies are not ours to begin with. They belong to the world; placed here for a purpose, laid out before the world was made. And our Father will keep them even when we can’t. God help us parent them well.

John 14:18-27, Matt. 10:30-31

Gotcha Day

Gotcha Day 2008

Five years ago today I became a dad for the first time.

Well, actually… that’s not exactly true. I was already a dad, I just didn’t know it.

Eli is my firstborn. My eldest child. My son. But I didn’t know him until he was two and a half. We met at a baseball field. He was sitting on his momma’s hip as they walked past the concessions stand. And I knew the moment I met them that we were connected. I couldn’t get them off my mind.

Eventually I asked his mom out for a date. We spent hours in the coffee shop talking over a book we’d both been reading. Eli had made a train out of all the unused chairs in the shop and was the proud conductor. I marveled at him. I’d never met anyone so special. This little boy who had trouble saying my name was slowly changing my life — both of us unaware.

I learned that Eli’s “genetic contributor” had bailed out very early on. By this point I was already head-over-heels for Eli and his mom. But I remember standing in the shower one morning and I began to hear God whispering to me as if he were letting me in on a secret he’d been keeping for some time. It was like a new awakening. Eli was my son.

I remember asking Kelley to marry me. The next day, Kelley and I asked Eli if I could be his daddy.

He said yes.

And from that day forward, I was his dad. But we wanted to make it official. To see my name in the box on his birth certificate that read ‘father’. Friends told us to just let things lie quietly. “Don’t rock the boat,” they’d say. “He’s made no attempt to contact his son. Don’t stir things up and put yourself in a place where you could potentially lose the life you’re enjoying now.”

There was truth in what they were saying. It was hard not to listen to them sometimes but we knew God was asking us to trust Him for something better. We filed the appropriate papers. Sent them through the process.

And we waited.

Until one day, we got the news we’d been praying for. We set a court date. I don’t remember all of the details of that day. But here are some highlights. The judge asked me why I wanted to adopt Eli. I just began to weep and simply said, “Because he’s my son and I love him.” I’m not sure I actually got all those words out through the tears but the judge stopped me and said, “That’s all I need to hear. I was adopted when I was Eli’s age. I see in front of me a home where this boy will be loved.” Then he called to Eli to come sit where the judge had been sitting. He handed over the gavel to Eli and let him call for the declaration. Moments later, what had been true in our hearts was now evidenced on paper.

Eli is my son.

See, I was a dad long before I knew it. I was Eli’s dad. I wouldn’t meet him for a couple of years. The night Eli was born was, for me, very routine. I’d been wanting and praying for a wife. For a family. And that day seemed like any other day. But what God was working under the surface was something spectacular. He was answering my prayers.

We’re Not Looking for Perfect

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About three years ago, Rosie was admitted to Children’s Hospital as a ten month old with RSV. Before that night, I’d never heard of RSV. Since then, I hear about it quite regularly. Most of the time kids are fine. But whenever I hear about a kid with RSV, it’s always accompanied by a moment of quiet panic because of what we went through with Rosie. I won’t go into the details of it all. If you’d like to read about it, you’re certainly welcome (and the rest of Dec. 2009).

The main reason I’m coming back to it is this… Kelley and I learned a HUGE lesson on prayer during that time. Good church people will always tell you that prayer is powerful. That it changes things. That it moves mountains. I never got that. Never really saw it happen. I wasn’t really sure what prayer was for other than to help with meditation and to tell God that you’re thankful for this or that.

But as seems to be characteristic of God when He’s teaching me something, there would of course be a test. A week or so before Rosie was admitted to the hospital, I’d been confessing my doubts about the efficacy of prayer. I was really uncertain that it was beneficial at all. I knew most people would say that it was but I didn’t really understand how. One afternoon while driving home from work I kept thinking about the brain and how it’s designed to pass messages along through the body. And it dawned on me (this is the short-version of the story) that prayer was like synapse. A synapse is designed to pass a signal from one cell to another throughout the body.

Prayer is like this.

I used to think that prayer was for God’s benefit, but I soon discovered that prayer was much further reaching than that. Prayer is the network of communication that runs through the Body (of Christ – you and me) to keep us responsive to His promptings. A series of messages, if you will, moving from cell to cell to create a response.

I’m not going to unpack all of this here because the point is this… Prayer connected us to people we’d never met to answer needs that we were powerless to meet on our own. Prayer sent a nudging into the mind of the doctor to try “one more thing” and discover what was actually going on with our little baby.

Now, I’ve told you all of this to get to one thing. I want to ask you to pray with us. To pray for us.

We feel passionately called to take up the cause of the widow and orphan. That calling has taken us down different roads through the years and our lives are richer for the relationships forged along the way. We have always known adoption would be a part of our story and we’ve been more than ready for years but God has asked us to patiently wait for the right time.

We REALLY want to adopt. And we feel God prepping our hearts, saying it is time. But we believe that God is asking us to go about it in a very specific way. A way that involves a lot of trust. And a way that involves establishing relationships with people whom we don’t know about yet. So, we are asking God to help us meet a mom who wants to carry and deliver her baby, and who chooses us to raise her baby. We want to build a family with this woman and involve her as much as she wishes. And we would ask you to pray this with us.

We aren’t interested in the “perfect” child. Our family’s joy increased exponentially when we abandoned the pursuit of perfect. So, instead of snapshots of perfect kids, clean, well dressed and smiling angelically, you’ll find our photo stream filled with pictures of smudged faces, halloween costumes in July, eyes closed and doubled over laughing. We choose to find our joy in a bigger story. A story of where God writes our character with messy faces and all.

We’re not looking for perfect. We just want to obey God.

Don’t Miss the Point

It’s easy to see symptoms, right? We put bandages on cuts. We take ibuprofen for headaches. We drink energy drinks with loads of caffeine. We’re addressing the symptoms but we’re not really dealing with the deeper issue. We’re deferring time or deflecting attention so that we can move on with whatever feels urgent right now. We are all susceptible. We are all guilty. But how long does it go on before we pull down the wall and take the time to do the hard work of trying to deal with the real issues?

What I mean is this… maybe you don’t need to take two Advil every morning with your four shots of espresso. Maybe you need more sleep. Maybe you don’t need to buy fourteen tubes of toothpaste just because it was on sale. Maybe you need to deal with the pain of losing your son. Sometimes life just sucks. So why pretend that it’s fine when sometimes it just isn’t?

The Apostle Paul sent lots of instructions that would help shape Timothy into the leader he needed to be. He warned him against people who would try to maneuver into position using money. Money was their distraction. It was a bandage. For some of us it still is. But for most of us it’s something else. And in 1 Timothy 6:17-21, Paul gets to the point. He says, “Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life. And oh, my dear Timothy, guard the treasure you were given! Guard it with your life. Avoid the talk-show religion and the practiced confusion of the so-called experts. People caught up in a lot of talk can miss the whole point of faith.”

Be careful when you get caught up in the chatter that you’re not missing the point. Get to the source. Don’t be distracted by smoke and mirrors. Don’t miss the point. Jesus even warned us there will be those who say, “But Lord, I did all these wonderful things in your name,” and that He’d still say that they missed the point. His point is that doing is not the end itself. It’s knowing. Knowing Him and what He cares about and following Him into the world. Doing is born out of knowing. Not the other way around.

What are you deflecting? How are you missing the point? Maybe it’s time to deal with it.

A Little Less Fragmented

We got news of a landmark event. Something we’ve been praying for for at least a year.

Have you read where Isaiah says we are to take up the cause of the widow and the fatherless? Well, if you haven’t read it, here ya go (Isaiah 1:11-17). Read it and think on it for a bit then come back.

For a year now my wife has stood in unfriendly places to make sure she held true to what God was calling her to do. A year ago, a young mom came into our church not knowing how to fit in. She wasn’t immediately welcomed by the majority. Our pastor told Kelley that this is exactly the mission we are on. And Kelley and I know that part of our mission as a family is to integrate the fringes. So he sent her to this young mom to help nurture her and encourage her.

Not too long after becoming involved, the story swirled with an ominous cloud that seemed to never relent. This mom had been reported to authorities for suspected neglect and abuse. The strange thing is that there was no evidence of such and even stranger is the person reporting this to the authorities was in a position to benefit greatly from the child being taken from his mother. The timing was urgent and we needed to get her into a stable environment as quickly as possible. I petitioned our Elders to stand for her and this little child. One of them came forward and offered to become foster parents for the little boy until the mom could get a little better situated on her feet.

At the same time, there was a lady, eager for a child she couldn’t have and seemingly desperate to make this opportunity hers. Somehow, she was able to convince the system (which is in such bad shape) to let the little boy come live with her while the birth mom got her stuff together. And to complicate things, this lady had some socially powerful friends in a very small town. If she could convince them of her noble intentions she might ultimately get to keep the child (at least that’s what she seemed to be angling for). I won’t go into the details, but it wasn’t too long until her friends came to discover how they’d been manipulated throughout this process.

Kelley went to meeting after meeting after meeting with the birth mom, the custodial caregiver, and the case worker. Most meetings ended with the caregiver cursing at Kelley. Threatening her. Threatening our family. Demeaning the birth mom and being rather belligerent to the case worker. The caregiver knew she was losing what could be the last opportunity she might ever have to raise a child. And as sympathetic as I am to that, I simply cannot stand for manipulation and disrespect. The caregiver continually created more and more hoops for the birth mom to jump through. She created scenarios where she tried to justify leaving the state with the child, even when doing so would immediately result in FBI involvement. One night the caregiver threatened the safety of our family because of her disapproval of Kelley’s involvement in this process. She said she couldn’t understand how the church could stand with someone who obviously hasn’t done anything to prove she deserves it. She said that Kelley’s involvement was an abomination and was making a mockery of the church. We came home two nights later and our house had been broken into.

The caregiver tried numerous times to convince the birth mom that the best thing for her son was that he live with the caregiver – permanently. She wanted to adopt him.

That seems noble until you realize that the birth mom loves her son and wants him to live with her and that she is doing everything and more that the state is requiring of her to get her son back. At some point, you begin to see that this the nobility has been tainted. This is an unstable situation and this child needs to be back in the custody of his birth mother sooner rather than later. And if it can’t happen soon then he needs to be placed in legitimate foster care. This sentiment wasn’t received very positively by everyone, as you might imagine. Some people were making Kelley out to be reckless and haphazard. One of our own team members (who was also aligned with the caregiver) told Kelley that she was out of line and she shouldn’t continue to do what our pastor had commissioned her to do. (Excuse me, what?!)

Here’s the deal. As a family, we make every decision through at least one of three filters – honor, generosity, and compassion. And we stand firmly to maintain those values. If someone is acting in a manner that dishonors the basic humanity of another person, we stand to build honor. And in this storyline, that’s precisely what Kelley has fully committed her heart and soul to see. We believe that every person is made in the image of God. Oftentimes, when we see brokenness in the world, it’s because someone has painted an inaccurate representation of God to an individual. We believe that we are called to help restore the image of God. And for a year, Kelley has stood beside this birth mom with honor, rebuilding honor in her heart. Telling her that she’s a good mom. That God has gifted her with love for her son and a spirit that will do everything to provide for him.

In our day and age, we don’t see as many widows as we used to, especially like in bible times. A widow then was someone who had no husband to represent her, no one to provide for her or protect her. She relied solely on the care of her other family members or if she had no family, the care from a sensitive and responsive heart. In our modern Western society, that scenario is not as prevalent. It is my opinion that single moms, especially those who’s baby-daddies have run out on them… they are the widows of our generation. They are left with the care of this child and abandoned by one who said he’d be there. These girls aren’t to be discarded. They aren’t to be ignored. They aren’t to be run over or manipulated. They are to be encouraged and nurtured. And that’s what Kelley has done for the last year.

We knew we were getting close to the day we’ve been awaiting. The birth mom got her own place. She got registered for school. Went to parenting classes. She was granted weekend visitation. And every weekend she would just beam when she was with her son.

And this afternoon, she sent Kelley a message to thank her because today she received full custody of her son! No more visitation. Mother and son fully reunited.

I’m so proud of my wife. She flew high like a flag amidst the beatings of adversity. She stood proudly for justice. She was a beacon of hope and honor. And today I place her high on a mountaintop for all the world to see as she flies as a symbol of profound victory. The image of God is a little less fragmented because of her.

The Trap of Authentic Worship

What would it look like if your preferred form of worship was taken away?

I’m a musician, a singer, and a worship leader. It’s easy for me to pigeon-hole “worship” into how I express my worship rather than actually worshipping. I have some friends who are musicians. God has clearly given them their talent and has worked in them and has directed their hearts to share their talents with the Body. I know some of them struggle the way I do. We love to worship. And for us, music is one of the most natural expressions.

I can tell, however, when we’ve gotten trapped into one form of worship. Whether it’s a musician on a worship team or a member of the congregation, we start saying things like, “I feel closest to God when I’m singing that song.” I’m not denying that something transcendent happens when we abandon ourselves in song to God, both privately or corporately. But what if you lost your voice or your ability to sing? Would you be exempt for worshipping? If singing or playing an instrument is the only way I know how to express worship, then what about those without the ability? Are they not able to worship?

As a worship leader, it’s tough to look out into a sea of faces and see such vast expressions. “How can two people in the same room, sharing the same experience have such distinctly different responses,” I think to myself? I see some sitting. And a few seats over, some are standing. Some quiet. Some singing so loudly I can hear them over the music coming from the stage. Some clapping. Some with their hands in their pockets. Unless you’re a worship leader at a Hillsong, Jesus Culture, or Chris Tomlin event, you know what I’m talking about. We seem to have some form of dissociative disorder. I get that we respond differently at different times of our lives. My fear is that we tend to get comfortable with one form and resist the opportunities to respond with other forms and expressions.

We were all created for the express purpose of worshipping God. No one is exempt. But we often justify our resistance by saying things like, “I don’t worship that way,” or “I’m a quiet person. For me to shout or jump around would be inauthentic.” But I would argue that for you to resist anything but an unfiltered response to the very one who created you is what’s inauthentic. For you not to shout or jump or sing (or whatever form it takes) isn’t really about authenticity, is it? It’s about pride.

I’ve come from a very wide circle of Evangelical Christian traditions. Some of these traditions champion lifting the hands, dancing and other physical acts as the outside indicator that a person is fully involved with worshipping God. But what if you don’t have hands or your legs don’t function the way most others do? Are you exempt? What about singing loudly? How does the mute person fit into that mold? How does God expect them to worship without a voice? I could detail other physical restrictions, but I think you get it.

The point is this… our God is diverse. And in our creation he established a variety of ways to respond to him in worship. Ways that allow everything that has breath to express worship. But when we get locked into one form or another and resist expressions that vary from “our way” we’re actually squelching a response to God that says, “I am Yours. I have no other response but total abandonment.”

Are you open to responding to God in ways that aren’t comfortable to you?

Church is Not…

I wrote an article last week about the reasons why we gather as a community (and also about some of things Sundays are not intended to be). Today, as a follow-up, I want to go a little further down that path.

I grew up in a moderately traditional Southern Baptist church in Alabama. There were some incredibly devoted people there. Some of them who today have become extremely valuable influences for me. But there were some who seemed to only come on Sundays out of respect for a ritual. At the time I pegged this a condition of the teaching of the church that didn’t challenge its people toward a life of devotion to Christ and His Church. I am confessing to you today that my indictment was off.

I’ve seen this epidemic in every single church I’ve served over the last decade. I’m wondering now if this is a condition of the individual rather than a flaw in denominational doctrines or practices. Even in the Deep South Bible Belt where religion and religious activity are marks of honor and duty, there’s a subterraneous belief that the church is nothing more than a civic club. Unfortunately we, as followers of Christ and overseers of His Church, have done little in the last few years to help accurately portray what Christ desires of the Church in these days.

The American Church especially is suffering from an identity crisis.

We’ve tried so hard to be appealing to the masses that I fear we’re becoming background noise in a post-Christian culture. Where I live in Western North Carolina there are just over 415,000 people. Of those, more than 190,000 people do not associate with any religious organization. Forty-six percent (46%) of our friends and neighbors (almost 1 in 2) don’t affiliate with our church or any other church in the area. In a lot of ways, I fear it may be that we don’t know who we are. To rediscover this, sometimes it is helpful to know what we are not. These may sound like some really bad marketing strategies for a church, but hear me out.

A few things the Church is NOT…

  • The Church is not a community service organization.
  • She is not a charity.
  • The Church does not exist to serve your needs.

Community Service Organization
While the local churches do well when we get involved in community service to help make our towns and neighborhoods better places to live, this is not the thrust of the Church. We must always give preference to retelling the Gospel in every way imaginable. We believe that God has called us to live in, to be an active contributor to, and to serve our communities in a variety of ways. But if we neglect to tell the story of Redemption within the context of our good deeds we are merely good people doing something nice for someone.

Not A Charity
Certainly with regard to taxes, your donations to a local church are classified as ‘charitable giving’ but that’s about as far as it goes. If one day our government decided to stop giving you credit for your donations, the Church would still continue to be the Church. Jesus taught us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The IRS doesn’t owe Christians a tax-break just because we’re Christians. Caesar still gets his part independent of what we give to God. So, yes… give to the church. Give lots. Give lavishly. But stop hoping that Caesar will take care of you and trust the LORD. Proverbs 19 tells us that he who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD and He will repay you.

Services Sector Corporation
A lot of our gatherings are full of the best-of-the-best when it comes to public speakers, musicians, creative artists, and even culinary treats. And week after week, all around the country people arrive at state-of-the-art facilities with well planned parking to take in an experience unlike anything else. All for free. It’s easy to see why sometimes the Church has gotten mis-identified as a kind of Services Sector Corporation. Multi-million dollar annual operating budgets are required to continually pull this kind of thing off. But what if we’ve gotten so good at putting on “the show,” so masterful at “customer service” that we’ve set the expectation for those attending that this is what should be demanded by a distinguished religious consumer? When worship becomes a matter of musical preference or when the dress code of the pastor becomes the distinctive for missional alignment, I fear we’ve started to believe the Church should to be run by a different maxim than what Christ would desire.

Now, I’m all for using the resources God has given you and for making sure people who attend as guests find their experience a pleasant one. That’s simple stewardship and hospitality. What I hate is when people begin feeling entitled to stuff. “Their” seat. Preferred parking. Or that the pastor speaks to them within 60 seconds of them entering the building.

Regardless of how it plays out, it’s entitlement. And entitlement is a cancer.

We are a grateful people (or at least we’re supposed to be). We enter His courts with thanksgiving, right? But it’s hard to be grateful when you feel entitled. And if entitlement is allowed to reign, the cancer spreads. Thoughts like, “I’m just not getting fed,” or, “The band didn’t play my song,” are evidence that you’ve got a Me-Monster inside that wants more, more, more. And it simply cannot be satisfied.

Let’s think about this. You (we) are the Church. So by saying that you want the Church to meet your needs, you’d actually have to say that you want to serve yourself. Right? This is narcissism. You’re frustrated because the Church isn’t meeting your needs. But that’s simply not a realistic expectation. Instead, why don’t you go find inventive ways to serve someone else’s needs and see if God doesn’t take care of you. On Sundays, connect with a guest who’s looking for a reason to stick around. Find a ministry to jump into and serve with your whole heart. Run out with an umbrella to help mom’s get their kids inside from the rain. Mentor a child or a student. Do something to serve the needs around you.

Otherwise, just go play golf on Sundays.