The Good of Waiting

Homer Simpson once told his children, “Now we play the waiting game. . . . Ahh, the waiting game sucks. Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos!” And that’s pretty much how our society views waiting (as the commercial above illustrates).

To some degree, our society is right in this. As American humorist Evan Esar put it: “All things come to him who waits, but they are mostly leftovers from those who didn’t wait.”

We should be active not passive. We should not wait for life to happen. We should make things happen.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described this powerfully in his poem, “A Psalm of Life”:

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

This is a poem about doing, acting now and not waiting. The poem, however, ends in a tantalizing way:

Let us, then, be up and doing,
with a heart for any fate;
still achieving, still pursuing,
learn to labor and to wait.

Learning to wait. It’s as if Longfellow understood that as much as we want to act, waiting is a part of life.

In fact, we wait all the time. We have to wait to get our driver’s license, to get married, to have children, to find out what job(s) we will have, to see how our children will turn out. When things change or collapse around us, a new start eventually arrives, but it often takes time.

In the Bible, waiting is not only part of life, God makes us wait. The whole Bible, in a sense, is about waiting. In the Old Testament, people are waiting for the Messiah to come. In the New Testament, people are waiting for the Messiah to return.

When Jesus went into heaven, he told His followers to wait for the Holy Spirit. Why didn’t the Holy Spirit come right away? They had to wait 10 days before the Holy Spirit came? That’s not that long, but why not right away?

These biblical facts indicate that waiting is not a necessary evil. It is good. But what good could there be? Consider:

1. Waiting builds anticipation.

When my wife leaves and goes to the store, I’m happy to see her return. However, when she goes away for a week, the anticipation of her return builds throughout the week. By the time she returns, I have a new appreciation for her and greatly anticipate her return, making our reunion all the sweeter. The waiting built the anticipation.

2. Waiting enhances enjoyment.

One thing I have done this past year is try to do fasting, purely for health not religious reasons (though I do believe in fasting for religious reasons). I tried to do at least one 24 hour fast (lunch to lunch) each week. By the time I got to the lunch that ended the fast, I was more excited than normal to sit down and enjoy the food. I felt like I was feasting because I had been fasting. Waiting enhances enjoyment.

3. Waiting builds strength.

Waiting is saying “no” to present good in order to experience something good later. When we say “no” to present good, we become stronger. We learn to live without. Pleasures have less control of us, and we become more self-controlled. When we trust that God will give us good things in the future that we don’t see now, we build more dependence on God and less dependence on things. That’s how waiting builds strength.

4. Waiting engenders gratitude.

When you move to a new place, you have to build new relationships. This takes time. As you wait, you feel lonely. During this time, you can take stock of who is currently in your life, who has been in your life, and who could be in your life. As you feel lonely, you realize how good it is to experience the blessing of love and friendship. You become grateful for what you actually have, and so waiting engenders gratitude.

5. Waiting awakens desire.

I talked to a gentleman recently who had lost his parents at a young age. This was a terrible event for him and extremely difficult. However, what it did do was make him realize what a good thing he had in his parents. This awakened his desire for community and made him more ready to embrace it wherever he could find it. The lack made him desire something all the more.

Waiting is rarely easy and sometimes extremely hard. However, it does promote virtues that enable us to grow as individuals in a way that few other things can. If we can see that waiting has good in it, then the next time we have to wait, we will be better equipped to embrace it and let it have its work. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (40:31).

Helping Pastors Plant and Renew Churches

Unless we are planting new churches and renewing old ones, the church is dying. Organizations do not naturally move toward health. There’s enough pathology in every organization to ultimately ruin it. Churches need to renew, regenerate, and reproduce. In dependence on the grace of God, the leaders of the church need to take responsibility to make sure that is happening.

That’s what the regional church planting and renewal conference in Chattanooga, TN this past week was all about. I had the privilege along with 100 other pastors and church leaders to attend this three day conference. It was put on by Tennessee Valley Presbytery’s Mission to North America (MNA) committee and Flourish Coaching with support from our denomination’s MNA committee.

Each morning began with a time of worship and preaching. Robby Holt and Brian Fikkert spoke to the whole group about individual renewal in the Gospel that leads to a vision of Christ renewing all things. For example, Pastor Holt pointed to the prophecy in Zechariah 3:9: “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.” This is a reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice that brings forgiveness of sins. He then told us to look at the next verse. “‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” It made me think that justification and forgiveness are unto flourishing that leads to hospitality. It made me ask and still makes me ask, do I think about the Gospel in that way?

After the worship services, the large group divided up into several workshop tracks. There were tracks for urban church planting, rural church planting, renewal, pastor’s wives, missional communities, and a few others. I attended the workshops on renewal. The renewal workshops followed a pattern of what they called “head, heart, and hands,” that is, something to think about, something to move our hearts, and something for us to do. The first workshop gave us a framework for thinking about renewal through three phases: incline, recline, and decline. In the “heart” section, Pastor Matt Bohling, Executive Director of Flourish Coahing, simply preached the Gospel to us, encouraging us to find our identity in Christ. In the “hands” section, he taught us a simple method for doing strategic planning. He encouraged us to do a SWOT analysis (what are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats?), develop a few specific actions out of that analysis, and assign them to specific people.

Those who attended the conference also had many opportunities for building and renewing relationships during lunches, dinners, and breaks. In my view, the best opportunity was through cohorts or small groups. During the workshops, we broke down into groups of four or five to process the various talks. These small groups provided a context to get to know people on a more intimate level. I walk away from this conference knowing several gentlemen much better because of these small groups.

Finally, there were other opportunities throughout the three day conference to learn and grow besides the worship and workshops. Dr. Tom Hawkes from Uptown Church in Charlotte, NC spoke at two different gatherings at Chattanooga’s Mountain City Club. I attended one of them along with a number of Ruling Elders from area churches. Dr. Hawkes spoke about how to keep the Session on mission. I got a long list of ideas from Dr. Hawkes’ description of the work at his church.

I am certain that the people who attended the conference valued it highly. How do I know this? Something happened on Wednesday morning that gave the highest testimony to the quality of this event. When I saw that the official activities of the conference ended at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday and did not start again until Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., I told my wife, “I bet half the people will leave and go home on Tuesday after the workshop.” This was based on dozens of experiences of church meetings and conference through the years. So, Wednesday morning I was shocked when I walked into the worship service and saw that it was just as full as the previous two days. Everybody stayed!

Several leaders of our denomination want to re-produce these conferences in the various regions of our nation. I hope that they do so and that if they do, you will make an effort to be a part of them. Highly recommended!

How to Make Good Life Transitions

How do we let go of the past and embrace our present opportunities? The key is learning to make good life transitions.

We all will experience many changes in our lives: leaving home, marriage, having children, watching our children grow up and leave home, moves to new places, retirement, new jobs, deaths. How will we navigate these many changes?

For those looking for help in making good transitions, I would recommend William Bridges’ Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Bridges provides a helpful framework for thinking about how to make good transitions. He argues that moving forward consists of three elements: saying “goodbye”, waiting, and saying “hello” (his terms are an ending, the neutral zone, and a new beginning). Let me explain each element.

Bridges makes a distinction between the actual events and our ability to accept them and embrace them in our hearts and minds. Saying “good-bye” is not the actual change, i.e., the move, the lost job, or the death. It is the point when we come to accept the change in our hearts and minds. For example, we may move somewhere new, but a “transition” is the process of coming to accept living in the new place.

All societies have recognized the importance of saying “good-bye” in their funeral rites. Funerals are a way of saying “good-bye” to a loved one. In our society, we often rush through it, but the wisdom of the ancients recognized a lengthy time of mourning. We also often miss that other changes require a “good-bye” like growing up, retirement, moves to new places, and different seasons of life.

The second stage in a good transition is waiting. In between the “good-bye” and the “hello” is a waiting stage. This is a time when the old is gone but the new has not yet fully formed. A good example of this is the death of a spouse. An old way of life has died with the spouse, but what the new way of life will be is not immediately clear. There is a time of waiting. Retirement is often also like that. For years, you have had a rhythm of going to work. Now, you don’t know what you are going to do. Before the new pattern emerges, you must walk through the wilderness of waiting. This can be hard.

The third stage is saying “hello.” This is the moment when we embrace the new reality. After waiting for a time, we embrace the new reality in our hearts and minds. It could occur while you are sitting on your porch and all of a sudden thinking, “This is my home now.” It could be a flash of insight that gives you a vision for a new future. It could be a decision to go back to school to begin a new career.

Let me give an example from my own life. When I came to my current church, the church had faced a hard change from a large building in town to renting a small facility part-time. They had also lost leadership. We needed a vision for what life as a church would look like in our new situation.

About a year and a half later, I was thinking deeply about the organization of the church, and I came to a realization: I didn’t need to. We had found the new pattern already. I had to make the transition away from crisis to what I might call normal church life. It was a mental transition, and it took place one day while I was walking in a flash of insight. Later, my wife and I marked this transition with a party celebrating what I called “The end of the beginning.”

Adapting to changes is rarely easy, but it is a necessary part of flourishing in this life of changes. If we can recognize ahead of time that transitions are a process of saying “good-bye” to an old reality and “hello” to a new and that they take time, we will be much better equipped to embrace the future God has for us when the next big change comes.

Where Are the Voices for Optimism?

Things are getting better all the time! That was the near universal view of the Western world in the 19th century. People were optimistic, and they believed in progress.

Today, there is near universal pessimism in the Western world. Hardly anyone seems excited about the future, and few are filled with wonder as they contemplate what the world will be like 100 years from now.

Compare the science fiction novels of the 19th century to those of today. Many of the novels of the 19th century brim with enthusiasm about future discoveries. Today, the dystopian novel is the most popular. This illustrates the pervasive optimism of the 19th century and the pessimism of today.

So, what happened? Well, two world wars and a decades-long threat of nuclear annihilation have a way of knocking the optimism out of you. World War I sent a shockwave through the Western World from which we certainly have not recovered.

But when we look at the big picture and all that could have gone wrong in the 20th century, you notice two things. We lived to talk about it, and a lot of things are actually going relatively well. True, there are problems in the world, but there are lots of opportunities. Millions have come out of poverty. World travel and communication is better than ever before. Trade is as robust as ever. Even on the religion front, religions are growing and thriving all over the world.

In regards to the Christian faith, the majority of followers of Jesus now live outside of the West because Christianity has grown so much in the southern hemisphere. In spite of the growth of Christianity, there is general skepticism among Christians about the state of the church in the West. In part, this is due to the decline of Christianity in Western Europe. In America, church attendance has been the same for decades, though the influence of Christianity has waned in the non-church going society (see Ed Stetzer on this here).

Evangelical Christians might defend pessimism by pointing to the decline in family and sexual ethics. This decline is true to some degree (I am speaking from an evangelical perspective). However, even here the news is mixed. Today, parents spend more time with their kids. Also, while less people than in past decades say sex before marriage is wrong, more people than in the past say adultery is wrong! (See the statistics on this in the book Upside by sociologist Bradley R.E. Wright). I remember talking to some folks about this, and they would not believe it. They were also fans of the television show Frasier. I pointed out that the characters on the show seemed to have no problem with sex before marriage. However, the characters clearly believed adultery was morally wrong. For example, in episode 17, Frasier tried to save Niles from having an affair with Daphne and seemed horrified that he would do so. I believe this illustrates the general ethos in America.

Another way someone might defending pessimism is to ask, couldn’t something go radically wrong and devastate our society? Yes. There’s no question that this is true, but it also might not. When I was in junior high, I read Larry Burkett’s The Coming Economic Earthquake (yes, I was and am a nerd!). I bought into it. I thought we were facing an imminent economic collapse. Then . . . it didn’t happen. I heard predictions like this again and again as the years went by. They all turned out to be false. The trouble with these sorts of predictions is that they have some, albeit a very small, plausibility, and the effects are so disastrous that they are hard to ignore. The American economy has been on the upswing for a long time. If I had started with the belief that this would continue, I probably would have been better off.

Another argument in favor of pessimism is the many daunting challenges we face today or could face in the near future. But look back at the 20th century. There were incredible challenges, and many things went really wrong. However, people also rose up to meet them. Men and women took leadership to challenge global tyranny and to build the good things that we are experiencing today. We can do the same thing, and our children can too, by the grace of God.

Speaking of our children, they are often the focus of our pessimism and anxiety about the future. We sometimes have almost a paranoia about our children, and, let’s be frank, things can and sometimes do go very wrong. However, most children experiment with the same dumb things we did, learn from it, and move on into adulthood. When it comes to our children, where is there a voice that says, our children will do greater things than we did and past generations did? Who has a vision for our children accomplishing greater things? It’s easy to look at their weaknesses and extrapolate them into the future, but we had enough weaknesses to warrant pessimism. But where are the voices for optimism?

From a Christian standpoint, we not only believe that our children are made in the image of God with tremendous potential for good and for evil. We also believe that God will be present in the future. He has been at work, is at work, and will be at work. This gives Christianity a basic future orientation and a note of cautious optimism. I like how Isaiah expresses it: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (43:18 19).

Reinhold Niebuhr summarized the Christian perspective in this little phrase: “If hopes are dupes, fears may be liars” (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 176).

I hear a lot of spokespeople for our fears, but where are spokespeople for our hopes? Where are the voices for optimism?

Why I Am Unplugging from News Media and Ignoring President Trump and His Critics in 2019

I was happy and feeling good. It was Thanksgiving. Like millions of others, I was anticipating a day of turkey, football, family, and fun.

We had traveled from Tennessee to North Carolina to my parents home where my Mother had lovingly prepared a meal for her children and grandchildren. Because we have seven children, my parents can only accommodate 5 of the 9 of us. So, my wife and two of my children stayed at the Greensboro Airport Quality Inn.

Thanksgiving morning, I went down to consume the free breakfast offered by the hotel. Sure enough, there was a cable news network loudly blaring across the room. “President Donald Trump responded to criticisms by John Roberts . . . blah, blah blah.”

I said to my wife: “Seriously! Can’t we just have one day where we don’t talk about our political disagreements and focus on good things. It is Thanksgiving after all!”

As I reflected on that experience, a bunch of things came together for me. I thought, doesn’t the 24 hour new cycle feed into most of what’s worst in human nature? Why do we need it? Does it help us?

I was reminded of the many times I had said something like the following to people: “Isn’t it great that poverty is being reduced dramatically worldwide, that hunger is on the verge of being eliminated, and caloric intake is up worldwide?”

The inevitable response is: “it is???”

How is it that in a world drenched in “news,” we don’t know this rather encouraging morsel? “Reduction in worldwide hunger,” it appears, is just not the sort of thing that makes headlines. Apparently, good long-term trends don’t lend themselves to “breaking news.”

At that point, I made a decision. I was going to unplug from news media. That did not mean that I was going to ignore current events altogether. I decided I would read only my local paper and one news magazine that is relatively close to the middle of the spectrum.

I did not wait until 2019 to do this. I started right away. It demanded changes on my part.

My most common way of following the news was my phone. A lot of my consumption of news grew out of boredom. This made me reflect on how I use my phone. I often use it as a cure for boredom not because I’ve thought it through and think it’s useful. So, I made another resolution: stop using my phone as an attempted cure for boredom.

I then unsubscribed from a variety of news alerts and emails. I removed apps from my phone. I was unplugging.

Then, a thought occurred to me. What drives most of the 24 hours news cycle in this country? President Trump and his detractors. So, I thought a little bit more. What if I just ignored what President Trump said about this or that and also ignored his detractors. Would I really lose anything? . . . Nah.

So, I began my journey. I actually didn’t think that much about it. I just cut out electronic news from my life. After that, I didn’t really think about it much or miss it.

Then, one day, I was walking around town, and I realized something. Throughout 2018, I had spent a ton of time thinking about the current “crisis” in our country, the deep partisan divide. I wrote and preached addressing this “crisis” as you can read here and here.

After a few weeks of being unplugged from news media and ignoring President Trump and his detractors, I realized something: “There’s no crisis!” I just did not experience the sort of deep division manifested in the news media in the life I live on a day to day, week to week, or month to month basis. I was now free to spend my time thinking about other things, including solving the real problems that I, my family, my church, and my community face.

I am not saying that anyone should follow my example in doing this. I certainly don’t mean to condemn or judge anyone who watches news or reads news web site. I think of this more as an interest experiment in living.

It’s already changed my perspective on life quite a bit. I wonder, what will a year unplugged from news media and ignoring President Trump and his detractors will be like?