Pursuing the Pursuing God

(Message given at Newberg Emerging Friends Church on July 15, 2018)

Tonight I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love! 

This has been at my core for so long. 

I believe it with all my heart, and it’s how I have oriented my life for decades. God’s real and healing presence is what got me through the last several years, and I am so grateful. I can’t imagine a life for myself where I didn’t orient my life around Christ.

And yet I also know this is not everyone’s experience. It’s not just those of you sitting in this room that are on my mind as I speak tonight. I’m also thinking about many people for whom God’s presence has been distant or absent, for whom the experiences of life and community have broken any ability to speak similar words of faith and trust in God.

I grieve this. I grieve the way church pain has tainted how some see and experience God. And I have been frustrated for a very long time that, while I have had many long years of what are to me clear experiences of the living God, there is the inexplicable truth that some who have tried have not had that same experience.

And of course I, too, have had times where God seemed distant, absent, and frustratingly impotent to fix what I was experiencing. My guess is that’s that’s the case for most of us. It’s not just that some people experience God and some don’t, but rather that our own experience of God…or lack thereof…changes and varies over time.

There are times where the power and overwhelming beauty of the presence of God is tangibly, touchably real; and there are times where we are overwhelmed with disappointment and disillusionment, with apathy and anger, because our experience seems so out of touch from the God we’ve been taught to know. 

I want to experiment with something tonight, and if it totally bombs, oh well.

Take a second to think about the times in your life where it feels like praying is yelling into emptiness, when trying to find comfort from God feels futile. What’s that feel like? What words describe it?

I want to ask you to pull out your phone and use that to participate and give input tonight. My hope is trying a new mechanism will let more people participate than just the ones who are comfortable yelling things out.

We’ll see if this works. Use your browser to go to that website, menti.com, and enter that code. You should then see my question and three boxes to type in words and then submit. You don’t have to fill them all, you can do one or two or three and hit submit, and then you can do it again as many times as you want. What words describe what it feels like when God feels absent? 

As we all submit our words, this will update in real time in a sort of word cloud. I think of this like a community spiritual practice, a group creation of art, that we are working on together. You may even want to look on the screen, and if you see a word that resonates with you, go ahead and enter it yourself and those multiple responses will make the word grow larger. 

Go ahead and keep thinking and participating while I keep talking. It will be an organic part of the teaching tonight that will keep building.

[Here is what we created:]

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 9.28.26 PM

In May I was sitting over there during open worship thinking about this dilemma: if God wants to be known, why do some of us experience God’s presence and some don’t? 

And the Spirit pushed me to wrestle with Cain and Abel, and how their story connects to this idea. Strange, I know! But I hope this strange place can be fertile ground… even if it is the story of the first murder on human record. Turn with me to Genesis 4.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering–fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

(Genesis 4:1-5, TNIV)

It’s the end of verse 4 and beginning of verse 5 that really cause problems for me.

God choosing Abel over Cain is the part that’s difficult for me. 5 or 6 years ago, it got worse when I read Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite scholars, saying that there is no good reason given in the text that shows Abel did anything more deserving than Cain. Wow…does that mean God just arbitrarily chooses one human over another? Maybe Brueggemann, as much as I like him, got this one wrong.

But I found most scholars think the same. In other places in the Old Testament, people offer grain offerings just like Cain and they are accepted by God. He didn’t do anything wrong.

Both brothers are trying to worship and experience God. 

And what they find is that it works for one, and not for the other, and we don’t know why. It’s the same dilemma I have as I look around our world. Why is it that some of us experience the pursuing, healing, justice-seeking love of God, while others…others who are trying just the same…simply don’t?

Let’s try another question, just for fun: Lately, is your experience of God more like Cain, more like Abel…or neither? Pull out your phones and let’s see what we get while I keep talking.

I’ve started trying out a new approach to interpreting the bible, particularly Old Testament passages like this one that really seem to rub against how the wider arc of the bible describes the character of God.

We believe the bible to be inspired by God, and written in the words of human authors, human authors bound by time and cultural blinders. I’ve begun wondering whether statements like this which describe God’s interior thoughts and will, might be more from the human cultural worldview than from the divine inspiration part. What if the Israelites assigned motives to God in the text that really aren’t accurate to who God is?

This, for instance, is how I am able to stomach the genocide that takes place with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. That horrible action did happen, but perhaps the Israelites chose that path for themselves out of fear, and then assigned the command to God as a way to justify it. The bible still is reliable and helpful for how humans and God interact in the world, but maybe the authors didn’t always fully understand God’s inner thoughts. Maybe they even projected their own stuff on God.

If we try this out here in Genesis 4, how does it all play out?

What if the human author was a bit presumptuous in saying God looked in favor on Abel and not in favor on Cain? What if we just wrestle with the experience here? Two people do their best to experience God, and it works out well for one, while the other is left empty and feeling God’s absence.

That opens up some intriguing possibilities for us. Before Cain was the murderer, Cain was someone who tried to experience God and came up empty. Like some of us. Like the tension I’m wrestling with as I look at our community and the world.

How does the rest of the story play out if we try this way of looking at it? Let’s keep going.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’

(Genesis 4:6-7, TNIV)

Now God shows up directly!

Whatever happened with the sacrifice, whatever didn’t get through to Cain…now we have God interacting with Cain in a very direct way. The one who felt God’s absence experienced a more direct encounter. God pursues Cain and offers a clear choice to him. 

I think there were times earlier in my life where I read these verses in a way that sounded like this: “Why are you angry Cain? If you had done what was right, wouldn’t I have accepted your offering?” I think I read it that way because, if God really did choose Abel over Cain, if the author was right about God’s internal thinking, then my sense of justice requires that Cain must have done something wrong.

But look at what it actually says. It’s not past tense. In fact, it’s more future. It’s an intervention, an option, a truth about what can be ahead for Cain even after the encounter with the sacrifice didn’t go as Cain wished.

God shows up with a promise, and a warning. The promise is that even now, even though your attempt to engage me has felt empty to you, I still want to walk with you. The warning is, these times of spiritual struggle are ripe times for us to be pulled to unhealthy and even evil things.

Even in this story, I see the same God I described earlier…

…which lets me stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love! 

I don’t know why Cain’s worship experience didn’t go well.

Nor do I know why some seem to experience God’s grace and presence in all kinds of ways while others feel like their prayers bounce back off the ceiling. But I do believe in this God, who shows up to an angry, downcast, frustrated Cain and says: Do what’s right and I’m there. Evil things pull at you, want to pull you away from me, but you can fight it and find me. I’m not giving up on you.

But of course Cain doesn’t take God’s advice.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’

Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
But the LORD said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

(Genesis 4:8-15, TNIV)

Here is a perfect example of the injustice in the world that makes our hearts ache. Cain has made the horrible choice and committed the injustice. And still God pursues him. God identifies first with the one who suffered injustice (“Where is your brother Abel?”). But God is still pursuing Cain, God even protects Cain when the consequences feel too great. God’s mark of protection rests on Cain, despite his choices, despite what Cain has done. 

Here is the pursuing God, despite injustice, despite what we’ve done!

Even in the story of the first murder, even in horror, even in pain and broken family and community, we find God pursuing, guiding, and even protecting people who give in to the sin and evil “crouching at their door.”

Sometimes it has felt to me that the experiences we have gone through as a community in the last few years have given only the Abel and Cain options. Either people are unjustly destroyed despite their faithfulness, like Abel; or people feel God’s absence and stop pursuing God, and find themselves like Cain, struggling in a far and distant country.

But I think there are other paths to walk and to live besides these two extremes. Because God is always there, because God pursues us, because God wants to live in relationship with us no matter what happens…I still choose to respond as faithfully as I can to this pursuing God.

As clearly as I can say it, I don’t want to shame those who are disillusioned and tired and unable to engage with God or community.

I don’t want to put “shoulds” upon you.

And, I also don’t want to fail to share my own commitment to take actions to pursue God through the struggle of the past few years. I don’t want to fail to share the reward it has brought to my life.

I have found, through God’s grace dropped in my lap; through discipline, through trial and error…I have found a different, more raw, more earthy faith. In my failure and my brokenness I have found the real presence of this living, pursuing, healing, justice-seeking God. And it has sustained me and remade me.

When I hear God’s words to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” I no longer hear them as condemnation, as expectation, as something I must live up to or find God’s rejection. I hear them as God’s promise of God’s pursuing nature that will not let me go. I hear them as encouragement to turn to God in and through my struggle and pain, in and through the times of feeling God is absent, and find a resource of strength.

I made choices in the most challenging moments of the last few years to stop and to pray and to pour out my anguish and fear to God.

I made choices to ask the Spirit to empower me to act in ways I knew Jesus taught–to repay evil with kindness, to forgive as I have been forgiven. I made choices to try and do what is right…not out of fear of being rejected, but because I so desperately needed the experience of God’s promised presence.

I keep reading the bible, even when my experiences aren’t matching what I am reading. I keep naming my desires and my grief to God. Recently I have searched for, prayed, and mediated on prayers from the ancient church as a practice of spiritual help for myself. I keep doing what I can to pursue this God who I believe pursues me.

And for me…as I step back and I remember, I realize that God’s Spirit has been an ever-present help in time of need. I realize that for me, the Jesus I read about in the bible matches what I experience of God today. I realize that in an inseparable way, God’s pursuit of me and MY actions to seek and follow Christ have woven together into a bedrock of strength and peace that is beyond my efforts, beyond my experiences.

As I see the pain that is in our community and our world–some from the church stuff, and of course all kinds of things outside of it–my heart still breaks and my eyes still well with tears. But more than ever before, I still long with all my heart for everyone to find Christ as a bedrock of strength and peace, too. I pray for it and work for it.

This is why, tonight…

I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love!

May this God be your bedrock and strength too. May it begin right now in our time of open worship.

Risking Community

I still grieve over the pain so many feel after years of church turmoil. Uprooted, displaced, hopes raised and then dashed, confused, unsure, frustrated, angry, lost, lonely, questioning, doubting, sad, disillusioned, powerless, let down…and grieving. 

I’ve wrestled with whether or not to write this. I was in leadership and part of what has created this landscape. But that’s also a big part of why I care. There are so many I love who haven’t found community because they still see a lack of safety for the marginalized. There are ones I love at NEFC. There are ones I love at NFC. There are ones I love who don’t have any sense of a community and may think no one even misses them or notices them. I hold so many of your faces up to Jesus on a regular basis because so many of you are in my mind and heart. 

Part of being in community, part of creating a faith community, is to share our journeys. I’m trying to continue to share some of mine, and I hope others will share some of theirs.

Even while I was pastor of one of the most institutional of institutional churches for 15 years, I was very conflicted about institutions. I spent the first 4 years genuinely confused why I ended up there, when my mind, heart, and spirit were asking so many questions. And then, I spent almost a decade watching the benefits of it all for my kids, as so many others spoke into their lives and shaped their own faith. I came to an uneasy acceptance of institutions and their benefits alongside all their pitfalls and dangers. 

Community sounds so much better than an institution. But practically, they are so intertwined. Communities become institutions and institutions create communities, and there is intentionality and unintentionality going both directions. I don’t know how to separate them except in the theoretical sense. Individuals create systems, and systems shape individuals, and again some of it is intentional and some is unintentional, some is for the better, some is for the worse. Human history tells us we cannot be guaranteed to only do things for the better. God help us all, and I mean that as a very literal prayer.

I’ve experienced and wrestled and learned a lot over the last year. I am so grateful that Jesus has been so tangibly real to me that I have never once thought of chucking my faith. I’d be glad to talk about those experiences with anyone. 

For months last summer, I had no regular faith community. I visited communities, but it was always clear I was not a part. I ached to be with people. Even with all my anger and hurt over institutional junk and people who had hurt, it was worse to be alone. I had to do (and I am still doing) so much work to name my grief, my hurts, my guilt, my fear, my desire to hurt, my defensiveness, my disappointment that God wasn’t guiding me as clearly as others. I did (and am still doing) this work in therapy, journalling, praying, crying, reading, and over lunches or coffee with safe people. Bringing this stuff to God has led me to keep trying to be in community with others, and to let it be what it is, instead of what it used to be, or what I wish it would be.

When I look around, there is still so much hurt that needs to be processed. There are still real differences in philosophy about how to build community. Some see how much needs to radically change so that those who have been marginalized can truly be safe and have agency, and so want to go slowly to build it correctly. Some see the damage having no community can bring, and want to do what they can to build something as safely as possible. I hate that these differences are still causing damage to our relationships and our communities. I don’t have a solution.

For myself, I’m choosing to still risk trying community, imperfect and dangerous and full of potential hurt as it is. 

I’m trying to regularly practice spiritual disciplines to give the Spirit every possible chance to call me to repentance, to give me love for others that I don’t have in myself, to have God’s love move through me outward. 

I’m trying to take actions that are consistent with what Jesus did, recognizing that my actions and my use of my power and privilege not only affect others, they shape who I am becoming. 

Because I’ve watched others disappoint me, because I’ve seen my own mistakes, I continue to remind myself I might be wrong and that even my desire for justice can lead me to harmful actions. I believe the way forward is to cultivate submission to Jesus through active testing of my leadings (in other words, not sitting passively, and not acting impulsively). 

I’m trying to risk reaching out to others, even as I fear that others won’t give what I need. I’m good at self-centered fears.

And I keep naming and releasing my hurt, my guilt, my frustration, etc. etc., asking God to take our ashes and make them beautiful.

The Shape and Smell of Grace

I have a new frame, a new construct, a new living memory for what grace is.

Which is extraordinary, because grace is such a cornerstone concept for people of faith. Grace is God’s orientation, relation. Grace is God’s approach to us and with us. Grace is the heart and the gift and the offering, so profound that in some Christian traditions it takes on a sort of subjecthood, a personhood, an existence. Some warp it into a perimeter, a limited space for a limited few. But grace, I believe, is relationship and community and wonder and safety and wide open space.

And grace is profoundly transformative.

Growing up, I was so often given a specific definition of grace that hearing the word in my mind immediately brings the response: unmerited favor.

God’s grace is favor. It is goodness, maybe even preferential goodness, to me. On the dangerous side is the way that slant of the word can slide toward my superiority, my worthiness over and above and against some other person. On the miraculous side, grace can somehow actually create worth in its recipient, can actually confer and beget and birth and call forth value in me. In you.

Whoa.

That “favor” does come with the modifier “unmerited”. I don’t merit it. I don’t deserve it. I don’t do anything to justify its existence in me. And here there are precipices on (at least) two sides. On one we plummet down a crevasse of self-incrimination and self-punishment, reminding ourselves always that we don’t deserve, we aren’t enough. This fights the very power of the word it is modifying. And on the other side is this strange abyss where we trick others and ourselves into a life of humble-brags, where we try to demonstrate by certain social-spiritual behaviors that clearly we must possess this grace, because see, look what I’m doing. And we thereby work hard to earn the unearned-ness.

Sigh.

When Jesus speaks grace into existence, it often carries a lot of seeking, striving, working. But the foundational pivot that we often slip to the wrong side is that Jesus always speaks of grace as God’s striving, not ours. Grace is the woman frantically sweeping her home to find the lost coin, the shepherd clawing through thorny vines to find that one wandering lamb, the elderly, broken-hearted parent endlessly scanning the road for any sign of the wandering child’s return. Grace is God seeking us out in order to shower love upon us. Grace is found-ness. And grace seems to call forth a community’s celebration when the coin is found or the child returns or the lamb is rescued. Which means grace is personal, and grace is communal. Grace is God’s nature and character, and so it’s one of the things we can expect to find the Spirit replicating in us, we God-bearers, we imitators of Christ.


I’ve lived a long season of Lent. A journey of release, of giving up, of grieving what has been lost. It’s important work, necessary work.

Last May, in the heart of the slog, our kids and our people surprised us with a scavenger hunt and a party and a gift so overwhelming, so over the top, that I just kept shaking my head and then burying it in my hands and my lap. “We can’t take this. We can’t take this.” Over and over those words went through my head, as I couldn’t wrap my mind around a gift of love that was such a magnitude of offering beyond anything deserved.

Truly, profoundly “unmerited favor.”

People I love sacrificed and gave so that Elaine and I could go to New Zealand. And for months after the party, I couldn’t get myself to think or plan or dream about the trip. I was blocked. Stuck. I could not walk into that perimeter. I finished serving as pastor and everything I had stuffed, everything that was lost, everything that had hurt…it became the entire space I inhabited. Loss of what had been shut out what could be. What was lacking in my life overwhelmed the good that was there.

I had to do that work. Oh let’s be real, I’m still doing that work of naming and releasing what I wish was still here day in and day out. But as Elaine and I ticked off the days and crept closer and closer to boarding the plane for our adventure, I talked candidly about wanting to shift. Wanting to move toward thankfulness, toward gratefulness for what is. To search and to find…favor. To find the grace I believed (with knuckles white with straining!) had to be there.


It was the morning of our second full day in New Zealand. Elaine was driving us through the heart of the South Island. We wound our way out of Christchurch, out of industrial zones, out of farmland and vineyards. We started climbing, curving our way into wilderness and light and snow-dusted peaks rising out of azure water. And I laughed. I cried. I thought of more than a hundred people at home who literally chose to take money they earned and hand it to us so that we could smell this, see this.

The next day we sweated our way on foot, past skittish sheep, up switchback trails to stand on Isthmus Peak. I spoke as many of the names of people that I could remember, spoke them out loud as the wind buffeted us at the top. Thank you Rachelle and Stephanie and Natalie and Hayley and Aubrey, thank you Michelle and Alan and Steve and Diane and Elizabeth and Steve, thank you Lisby and Jon and Di and Bruce and Carol and David… I spoke for far longer and with far more names than I’ve written (so yikes don’t be offended if I left you out here; I know how many and I have gone through the list since I’ve been home and I have named you ALL).

It was like breathing in grace. Wading in grace. Drinking and sleeping and eating in grace.

I mean, I lived a 36 year old dream when I landed a six pound native brown trout on a dry fly. My shoulder literally ached with the strength of that beast, and the throbbing pain was grace. How do you open your mind and heart enough to comprehend people taking the dream of a lonely 13 year old moping in a school library, and then giving that dream to the almost 50 year old man he became? How do you accept and integrate that special and unique and wondrous expression of love?

As overwhelmed as I was by the surprise in May, this was more. We inhabited the space of grace, and it has transformed me.


We’re back in our normal (scratch that, our new normal) world. I got sicker than sick for weeks after we returned. I’ve still had my moments of crying and grieving and questioning and frustration.

But.

I breathe grace.

I choose to name out loud the gifts of this new normal life.

I choose to write or speak a prayer of thanks each day.

I celebrate the Giver and givers of good gifts, my God and my community.

And my thankfulness to Giver and givers is so difficult to put into words. (This is me trying.)

Thank you for giving me a living memory where we inhabited grace.

Christmas Eve in New Zealand

We trickled out of our hostels and hotels, we travelers from far-flung spaces, winding our way by twos and threes and sixes to tiny St. James Anglican Church. It wasn’t until Elaine and I reached the quiet one lane highway that I realized we weren’t going to be the only out of place visitors in the congregation on Christmas Eve, far from home.

In truth, there were only two members of St. James there. As the priest introduced herself, she confessed that she, too, was a visitor–from another part of New Zealand, here with her husband and son to gather us in worship with nine lessons from scripture, an Advent Candle, and song.

Looking at it one way, we all botched it. The priest’s iPad quit sending out sound, though it had worked half an hour before. When it did finally work, the recorded pianist couldn’t keep a steady time; we struggled to find our way as we sang, one time finding ourselves a whole bar behind. We lit the candles out of order. At one point, a man in his twenties in the second row on the left had to put his head down and cover his mouth to keep from laughing. Looking at it one way, our visiting congregation with the visiting priest performed horribly.

And yet…

She asked for volunteers to read God’s redemption story, nine passages that painted a wide ranging biblical arc. So we heard the Good News in a New Zealand accent; and an American, a British, an Irish, and a vaguely continental European accent. We watched a child from Kuala Lumpur light one of the Advent candles, and it was the Canadian young man from the second row who saved Christmas by restoring the iPad’s sound.

We became a community. Not a deep one. Not a lasting one. But we were gathered.

And for so many reasons…because for the first time in years I wasn’t leading the Christmas Eve service, because on one level it was so hilariously awful, because it was so wrong and weird to be apart from our kids and our people, because so much has withered and not stood the test over the last few years…for so many reasons I saw the heart of it all again, anew.

We became a community because we welcomed Jesus, God-come-near. From almost every continent, we vagabonds sat in a small chapel in New Zealand, gathered to honor and worship a baby born two thousand years ago in oppressed and impoverished Palestine. Christian community truly is God-instigated, not human-created.

We try to create it.

We try to make it.

We often perform it better than we rag-tag wanderers did tonight.

But we botch it. We get full of ourselves, we make it about ourselves, we build our tiny empires and identities. We exclude when we mean to include, we dig in our heels when patience is called for, we wound our own because they didn’t get it quite right enough. We are infinitely creative in our failure, and yet we keep trying.

True community, the kind our souls were created for, comes with the invitation to come. Come to the One who has drawn near, to the Word made flesh. We somehow found ourselves in a chapel full of hope, though wrapped in our human frailty and failure. We came and we found a divine home where none of us (well, only two of us) lived and belonged.

Come.

“O come, let us adore him.”

Once again, it is Jesus that I keep coming back to in this year of unsettled, magnitude ten earth-shaking. I can’t leave him. And I keep finding him, or being found, or something. Tonight we found him, or were found by him, or something. We were gathered, we found community, not because of the words we sang or the service we tried to create. We were made a community by the One we believe took on flesh for our salvation.

“O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.”

Gratefulness and Jubilee

Tonight we leave for New Zealand. Seeing those words on the screen staring back at me increases the shock and amazement already in my head.

Tonight we leave for New Zealand, thanks to over a hundred of you who gave generously, to those who planned for months and surprised us last May 23rd. I’m still so thankful to so many: Lisby Rogers Curtis Gemeroy, Rachelle Staley, and Natalie Koskela who were the main drivers; Meghan Rogers Czarnecki, Hannah Frankcamp, Joshua Reid, Nolan Staples and Sarah Staples Kelley for all their work on the party; Alan Akins, Stefan Czarnecki, Lyssa McConaughey, Steve Fawver, Natalie, Hayley, Aubrey, Jacob Graham, Shawn McConaughey, Michelle Akins, Mareesa Fawver, Stephanie Andres and Mikayla Kinnaman for an amazing scavenger hunt; and so many friends far and wide who generously gave for us to go experience unspoiled natural beauty, fly-fishing…and, um, Lord of the Rings filming sites!

This year has reminded me that thankfulness and gratefulness are choices, and that there are times when they are difficult choices. 2017 has been a year of pain and loss for many of us. It’s brought the most changes for me personally in any of my adult years. There’s no sense denying I grieve the losses of no longer being a pastor; the loss of working daily alongside some of the people I most love and respect in the world. There have been family health challenges I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’ve wrestled with countless questions and self doubt and fear. Elaine and I have said more than once it will be good to put this year behind us. But ending the year with this trip will be a conscious choice to be present and to choose gratefulness.

Elaine and I turn 50 in 2018, and she claimed for us many months ago the biblical concept of a Year of Jubilee. I want to choose to enter Jubilee by wrestling for gratefulness.

So when we post a picture on this trip, it’s gratefulness to you for your generosity. It’s a thank you for staying in relationship with us, when honestly right before that surprise party last year, I thought I had lost all but my closest people.

When we are standing alone in New Zealand’s native natural wonder, I will be choosing gratefulness for friends and teammates who saved my soul; for those of you who still let me walk alongside you through the highs and lows of life.

I will be choosing to redeem this year by finding and naming all the beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring moments of our community’s grace and care, by naming God’s faithful presence. Thank you for this amazing gift of the time to do that in a bucket-list place. I love you all.

The First Noel-Final Round

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 8.20.49 PM

It was close. Very close. I almost had to break the tie between Leslie Odom and Pentatonix, but my family did it for me.

So time to vote for the last time in 2017 Advent Caroling Madness! Due by 2 pm PST on Saturday!

#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22

 

First Noel-Round 3

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I’ve never had people agree with me this much! Only Pentatonix as a 6 seed broke their way into the final four instead of my #3 pick, Whitney Houston.

Now it gets real. Four left, and since Elaine and I leave on Saturday, you need to vote quickly: deadline is Friday at 7 pm PST.

 

#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #4 Emmylou Harris

 

 

#2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22 vs. #6 Pentatonix

The First Noel-Round 2

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I’m pretty sure the voting on my bracket was not the most important voting that happened last night. Totally ok with that.

But we’ve gotta return to our duty and vote these 8 contenders down to 4. Votes are due Thursday at 9 pm PST.

#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #9 Mariah Carey

LISTEN. Even Mariah-loving-Bylsma would say: DO THE RIGHT THING HERE PEOPLE!

#4 Emmylou Harris vs. #5 Over the Rhine

It feels to me like this one will cause a lot of conflict in some people, like the Venn diagram of people who like each of these is almost just a perfect circle.

#3 Whitney Houston vs. #6 Pentatonix

Pentatonix is literally the reason I came up with the idea for Advent Caroling Madness. But I’m just simply going to say: “And IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-EEE-IIIIIIIIIIIIIII… will always love YOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!”

#2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22 vs. #7 Sarah McLachlan

This doesn’t even need a comment.

Thanks for joining! Vote! Share! Rally your troops! Yell! Complain!

Bracket Released: The First Noel

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One of these times I’m going to video myself trying to make these brackets. It is stressful, people. You have to look at who nominated what, and decide which nominations to leave out, and watch match ups, both for the actual artists but also for the people who nominated…WHEW! It is DIFFICULT!

But it’s done. We’re off and running. Voting for the first round is open, and the deadline is Tuesday at 9 pm PST.

 

 

#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #16 TobyMac

I’m claiming credit for Mary J.’s nomination, as I found it before Bylsma. It’s. Awesome. Robin Mohr nominated TobyMac’s recent release.

 

#8 Philadelphia Brass vs. #9 Mariah Carey

David Sherwood delivered a great brass version when asked for one by Robin Mohr, and Bethany Bylsma nominated Mariah and all her high register showboating. (GO AHEAD AND YELL I DON’T CARE.)

 

#5 Over the Rhine vs. #12 Regency College Choir

Martha Wood offered up Over the Rhine, a cello instrumental gem. They face off against a traditional choir from Regency College, nominated by Jenn Perez.

 

 

#4 Emmylou Harris vs. #13 Lady Antebellum

Emmylou Harris brings a very creative and vocally compelling version, nominated by Bylsma. Robin Mohr offered a nice version from Lady Antebellum, which I actually enjoyed (this is not easy to do when I listen to country).

 

 

#6 Pentatonix vs. #11 Semino Rossi

Rachelle Staley and Jenn Perez nominated Pentatonix. I already put in a vote for them with Steve Sherwood’s name on it. Willow Givens nominated a classical version from Semino Rossi.

 

 

#3 Whitney Houston vs. #14 Vince Gill

Bethany Bylsma and I both nominate Whitney. Wow. And she faces Vince Gill, nominated by Davida Brown Ankeny. This is in a way to support Lisby Rogers, since Vince is Amy’s husband…

 

 

#7 Sarah McLachlan vs. #10 Ella Fitzgerald

Sarah McLachlan was nominated by Martha Wood, Jenn Perez, and Bethany Bylsma. She faces Ella Fitzgerald, fresh off her “Midnight Clear” win, nominated by David Sherwood.

 

 

#2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22 vs. #15 Andy Williams

Davida Ankeny Brown, Martha Wood, and Carla Barnhill all nominated this fantastic Leslie Odom version, with kids from Public School 22. And I’m excited to have my first nomination from one of my new co-workers, Rena Koster. She grew up listening to Andy Williams and nominated this.