Back But Not The Same

I started this blog on April 7, 2019. I was not at rest. A month earlier, I had resigned as Lead Pastor of a church in San Antonio, Texas. I didn’t resign because things were bad. Things were going super well. I didn’t resign because I didn’t want to be the pastor of that church. I loved my church family, and God’s kingdom was being expressed in beautiful ways there. I didn’t resign because of some kind of moral failure…I hadn’t done anything morally wrong.

But I did resign because I had fallen–and I had fallen hard. It’s often called “burn-out.” The term seems mild for what was happening internally, but it’s the only name I could give to it at the time.

April 7, 2019 was my last Sunday in Texas. When that service ended, I closed the church down for the last time, had lunch with my family, and drove to Galveston for three weeks of solitude. When I drove away from my post at the church and from my family, I felt like I was driving away from everything that made me anything. I wondered how in the world I had gotten to that point. It was the scariest feeling.

After 21 fun, energetic and successful years of ministry, I was driving through Texas on I-10–feeling completely alone, with no work to define myself by, and without the comfort of family. After three days of complete disorientation, I started this blog. In retrospect, I did it because I didn’t know how to be alone. Looking back now, reading between the lines of those first few posts, I realize that I had already “let the cat out of the bag.” It wasn’t a blog that was beginning. It was a transformation. A re-birth.

I had no idea what was coming.

SHORTEST BLOG EVER. This blog lasted all of two weeks, and my last post was on Easter Sunday 2019. By that time, 21 years of self-reliance had caught up with me. It was bad. Really bad. I stayed in a condo owned by the South Texas District Church of the Nazarene. That condo became the place where the trajectory of my inner life changed; I am forever grateful for the gift of that space. It became a place of wrestling…with God, and with myself.

Let’s be clear: God wasn’t picking a fight with me…but because of what I had come to see in the mirror, I couldn’t help but wrestle with God. What God says about me and what I was saying about myself weren’t matching up. It was dark. I stopped posting – there’s no way I would have had anyone else look over my shoulder into that darkness. I lost my words. I lost my prayers.

I’ve never cried so much, so deep, so hard in all of my life. For hours on end, day after day. I was emptying myself of “something.” There were two prayers and one quote that I could speak. The two prayers were the “Our Father”, and a version of the Jesus prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, according to your steadfast love.” This was the quote:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone is enough.

Teresa of Avila

My entire life, I have feared being alone. And for the very first time in my life, it was just me and God. God’s way of helping me in my darkest moment was to take me toward my greatest fear. But Teresa of Avila was right…God alone was enough. Over the following weeks, transformation startedand continues. One year later, I’m in awe of the Holy Spirit. I’m standing again. But now, instead of standing on my strength, I feel “propped up” by His.

Next to my closest friends, one of the bright spots of my journey as been a guy named Terry who mentored me through that season and continues to be there for me. I will forever be indebted to Terry for his love, his acceptance, his willingness to confront me, his honesty, and his determination that I realize the peace of learning to let go.

I’m just now able to start making sense of the cyclone that was “sabbatical”. I want to find ways to begin talking about it, but every time I think I’m ready to do so, I lose heart, and feel insecure about making any summary statements about it. The truth is that even a year out from my sabbatical, I am very much still healing from burnout.

THE PLAN WAS…during Lent 2020, to begin writing about all of this as the Holy Spirit helps me to make sense of it all, for my own good, and for the good of those who travel through a “dark night of the soul” themselves. AND THEN WE ENTERED A PANDEMIC…pastoral ministry took a hard turn, and old tendencies started to make a resurgence. Pastoring during the quarantine caused me to wonder how far I’ve actually come from burnout.

I think I’m ready to begin formulating some blog posts to work through things. But don’t hold your breath…it will come when it comes.

DISCLAIMER. This blog might not be comfortable for readers with a more avoidant approach to life. If you’re not comfortable with questions, you might open a new browser window. If you’ve got God in a neatly packaged box, this would definitely be your stop on the line.

But the only way to understand me now – my words, my sermons, my gray hairs (in my goatee), the crows feet on my eyes, my smile, my hope, my discontent with church as church has been “because that’s the way we do it,” my belief in the capacity of the Holy Spirit to do “immeasurably and abundantly more than we could ever ask or think” – is to know the road I’ve been traveling. My hunch is that it’s a more common road than any of us want to admit; my hope is that, as I am able to give voice to some things, it will give some of you the words that you need at this point in your life.

So I’m back…but I’m not the same.

At the beginning of Summer 2020, I’m once again pastoring an incredibly beautiful congregation of people in Lilburn, Georgia that I love deeply, and who love me and my family. Again, I’m experiencing a beautiful expression of the Body of Christ. In fact, the church that I shepherd now made my sabbatical possible. The Holy Spirit brought Harvest Community Church into my life for such a time as this…and I honestly believe that this journey was just as much for them as it was for me. I’d keep my eyes on HCC if I were you – God is up to something new there – and it’s name is not Brad.

I chose the image of a record player for this post; I listen to records now. I love to hear the friction of the needle rubbing the record, because it’s that friction that can produce the most beautiful music. I understand that now.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21, NRSV)

resurrection

One of the great gifts I’ve received during sabbatical is the church that I found in Galveston. It is a beautiful expression of the kingdom of God breaking into American society. The highlight of the three weeks that I attended was Easter morning.

I was served the Lord’s supper by a recovering addict…whose face was soaked with tears as he choked out the words, “the body of Christ, broken for you.” Earlier in the service, he had shared about how he has recently come to Christ, how he is recovering and learning to surrender to God, and how he definitely isn’t “there” yet, but he’s trying.

What impacted me was the reality that churches are usually pretty picky about who can do certain things, not least of which would be serving the Eucharist! But in that moment, I realized that nothing could communicate the possibility of resurrection any more profoundly to me than being served by this broken one. The paradox is that this one who was just beginning to understand the meaning of it all, actually seemed to understanding it better, and perhaps to experience it more deeply, than those who “had it all together.”

It reminded me of something: I once recruited a drummer from a bar because we didn’t have one, and the drummer came to know Jesus after weeks of playing for us. He didn’t even embrace Christ when we started, but the words of the songs he was playing, and the love and acceptance (of people who historically aren’t good at loving and accepting the sinner) led him into faith in Jesus.

I then remembered countless times we’ve recruited people in youth and kids ministry to study and teach lessons when those people weren’t “ready” in the eyes of some of the “seasoned” ones in the family.

Once, when I was a Family Pastor, I had given a new Christian couple a preschool Bible story book to read to their little girl each night. I was full of joy – and conviction – when they stopped me in the hallway at Church weeks later to tell me how God had been touching their lives through these preschool Bible stories that they were reading to their child; ones that they had never heard before.

Do you realize how much the people Jesus released the mission to didn’t have it all together yet? I wonder what kind of shake up would occur if Jesus started call the shots on how we do ministry, who we involve, and how we treat the broken. There wasn’t an ounce of “us vs. them” mentality in Jesus; for Him it was all just us…the whole broken lot of us.

It’s messy following Jesus. It’s an absolutely beautiful mess. My prayer is that I won’t forget that drummers who aren’t even Christians can be resurrected by being invited into the mission; parents who don’t have their faith together yet can be resurrected by being invited into the mission; recovering addicts who are still very broken can be resurrected by being invited into the mission.

Here’s the real irony: the guy who most churches wouldn’t think of choosing to serve the Lord’s Supper, became a pathway for the kingdom of the heavens to come to bear on the life of a pastor who’s been following Jesus for 30+ years.

He is risen! He is risen, indeed!

thankful

At the end of sabbatical week 2, Krista and the kids came down to join me for the weekend. I can already tell that this journey is good for me. I feel much more present with them than I was in the months leading up to this break.

I have missed my family so much! One important commitment I’ve made is to do whatever I have to do to come home at the end of the work day and be present with these people that God has blessed me with.

The time goes too fast. We’re losing our marbles (that will only make sense to some of you family ministry folk). Thankful for this time of rest and recovery, and for my family who has been super supportive.

unexpected beauty

This was a heartbreaking scene today in Paris, and we hurt for those for which this iconic church is home.

In the middle of such a devastating scene, there is something beautiful. I’ll leave you to decide what it is.

Blessings this Holy Week. You are loved.

perfection vs. beauty

So ever since I’ve been in Galveston, I’ve been searching for the perfect palm tree to get a shot of. No dice. Being from South Carolina, I have an affinity for palm trees, and so I’ve been a little frustrated.

Today I was walking though a park full of palms and I knew I’d find the perfect one. I didn’t. They all looked like they’ve had a rough life. Then I realized…they have.

We’re not vacationing here on the days when those trees are fighting for survival. Hurricanes, floods, constant battering from coastal winds…maybe the beauty of these trees is that they’re still hanging in there…more than that, they’re still providing shade from the hot sun.

In fact, maybe during this sabbatical I’m being reminded that there is a great difference between something being beautiful and something being perfect.

Maybe there’s a difference between life being beautiful and life being perfect.

Maybe the real beauty of these trees is that they’re still standing, still pushing upward, still soaking in every ray of light possible, and serving their created purpose. If that’s true, it’s great news for all of us.

Today I found my sabbatical church…a sanctuary full of couches, chairs, pews; worshiping with homeless people, wealthy people, young people and old people; one or two who were close to picture perfect, and then the rest of us who aren’t so much; but all of us still standing, pushing upward, soaking in every ray of Light possible; gathered around the Table as a family that testifies to the reality that true beauty and significance is found in no other place than our being God’s beloved.

It’s Palm Sunday. As we wave those palm branches, may we be reminded of the difference between perfection and significance, flawlessness and beauty. And by the grace of God, may we stay standing, keep pushing upward, and soak in every ray of Light that we encounter.

Amen.

a palm sunday prayer

Today we remember how Your people praised you just days before they would reject You. We think of how difficult faith can be at times. We are reminded that – through You – often we’re stronger than we think we are; and that in moments when we are no stronger than they were, there is grace that abounds.

I’m thankful that You loved them anyway. I’m thankful that You love me anyway…

Help me to celebrate You with no shame, like the people with palm branches did…even when You decide to come through the gate on a donkey. And prepare me for those passion week moments when following You will be more difficult than expected.

Let me never forget that I do not have to get straight A’s in life to be loved by You…that I am valuable because I am…because I am Yours.

Teach me that perceived failure often leads to true success, that sometimes winning seems more like losing, and that it’s ok not to be able to tell the difference sometimes…as long as my heart and eyes are on You.

And teach us all to see others with the same prayer on our hearts that was on Yours: “Lord, forgive them, for they don’t understand what they’re doing.”

It’s the beginning of Holy Week. I’m sure that soon we’ll want to either run away or cut someone’s ear off. Don’t let us do either.

Show us how to turn our weapons into plowshares, and to wait patiently for the third day.

Amen.

without You

I can take a plane high up in the sky and fly for a million miles

Write a melody so sweet, make a tear turn into a smile

I can see the color of spring I can even feel the weather change

And soon the leaves fall and winter calls, ’cause nothing ever stays the same

When I think of where I’ve been, what I’ve done and all I own

How I think I know everything, like I made it here on my own

And like the wind that blows, like a flower that grows

Still with all I can do,

Without You life’s a song with no end

Without You, like having a heart that won’t mend

Without You, we’re just actors on a stage

Like a child who’s lost his way

Wouldn’t be here today without You

I admit that sometimes pride tries to hide my view

And even this gift that you gave me, I forget it’s for You

And all the many days and many ways Your grace I’ve abused

Still you were patient and Your love loved me through

But the wind still blows and the flower still grows and one thing is still true.

Without You, life’s a song with no end

Without You, it’s like having a heart that won’t mend

Without You, we’re just actors on a stage

Like a child who’s lost his way

Wouldn’t be here today without You

Can’t live, can’t see Your will for me, can’t do anything without You…

…life’s a song with no end

Without You, like having a heart that won’t mend

Without You, we’re just actors on a stage

Like a child who’s lost his way

Wouldn’t be here today without You

life’s a wound that won’t heal

Without You, nothing in this world is for real

Without You, we’re just actors on a stage

Like a child who’s lost his way

Wouldn’t be here today without You

Without You, we’re like a bride with no groom

Without You, it’s like seeing no sunshine in June

Without You, we’re just actors on a stage

Like a child who’s lost his way

We wouldn’t be here today without You

Without You, Jesus my life would be lost.

Without You, I’ll never know what it cost

To see You, lay Your life down for me

From my past now I’m free

Tell me where would I be without You.

Without You, by Kirk Franklin

winging it

This picture may be a little confusing at first. It’s a photo of my rearview mirror. In the car behind me is my 17-year-old daughter driving alone for the first time.

How in the world did we get here? As I’ve had some time on sabbatical, I’ve reflected on how I’m doing as a parent. I haven’t been perfect by any means; yet I feel pretty good about it. It’s funny how there’s no users guide to having children. My strategy has been to stay close to the Lord, model for my kids what the Holy Spirit is teaching me in life, and make each decision with as much prayer and faithfulness as possible. So far it’s working.

I’m amazed at how good God is at helping us to do the really important things that we don’t know how to do. If you were to ask me my parenting style, I would call it “winging it with God’s help.”

I’m so proud of both my kids. I’m sad that the time is getting short with Hannah before she leaves for college, but I could not be happier with the young woman she is turning out to be.

Thank you Lord.