Category Archives: Autobiography

Finding the right words as an introverted pastor

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In personality tests I’ve always landed on the introverted side of the spectrum. This can be kind of awkward given the fact that I’m a pastor, a profession that requires quite a bit of social interaction. Even in my “secular” work in engineering I’ve slowly shifted away from programming and into project management, again a fairly socially demanding position.
A friend recently shared an article which offers an explanation for why introverts often have trouble finding the right words to speak in social situations. I can relate a lot to the article. I hate, but often experience, that feeling of being caught flat footed in a conversation.
This struggle isn’t limited to social situations. It is often heightened in preaching. Early in my ministry preaching was especially stressful. What if I lose my train of thought and can’t find the right words? Over time I have developed some strategies for working through these challenges, especially as it relates to preaching. (Note, I think these are good strategies for any preacher, but might be especially helpful for introverted ones.)
1. I always rehearse my sermon in its entirety at least once. This way I am confident not only in the conceptual line of thought, but also in my ability to verbalize that line of thought.
2. I often write out particularly difficult parts of my sermon. The article referenced above notes that introverts often think more clearly in writing than in speech. This is absolutely true for me as well. If I’m having trouble thinking or speaking things clearly I will sit down at my computer and write it until it’s clear. Once the thoughts and words are written it’s a lot easier to put them into speech.
3. Preparation, preparation, preparation. The more I have internalized whatever I’m teaching on the better. The more familiar I am with the content the less nervous I am that I won’t be able to find the right words.
I probably don’t need to go into my strategies for dealing with run-of-the-mill social gatherings, but if you see me focusing my attention on my kids, or if I happen to pull out a board game, you’ll know that’s the introvert in me.

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“Every inch of you is perfect…” or a better solution to our self-esteem problem

“All about the Bass” has reached the anthem status in pop culture. It’s a song of revolt against the unrealistic picture of female beauty in our culture. Trainor sings, “I see the magazine workin’ that Photoshop / We know that s* ain’t real, come on now, make it stop.” Trainor’s response? Don’t listen to the culture that creates a cookie cutter beauty. Instead she encourages women with the words “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.”

I’m against the same thing that Trainor is against – a culture that promotes a particular vision of physical beauty to the exclusion of many people. The effect of this visually driven culture is to plunge many girls in a sense of self wherein they evaluate themselves in terms of physical appearance and against a standard that isn’t physically attainable by 99% of the population. I have a daughter, and I am deeply concerned about what this culture could do to her self-esteem. I also have a son, and I worry that he, too, will have a false understanding of feminine (and masculine) beauty. To the degree that Trainor is in revolt against that culture, I’m with her.

But her response is inadequate and, I think, doesn’t actually lead to long-term improved self-image. Now, granted, Trainor is singing a catchy pop song, not writing an essay, so perhaps I’m expecting too much. OK, I’m definitely expecting too much! Nevertheless, her song gives voice to a broad worldview and that worldview is inadequate for at least three reaons.

First, it still gives men too much power to define beauty. For all its supposed girl-power the message of the song still puts a lot of power in the hands of men. “Yeah, my mama she told me “don’t worry about your size” // She says, “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night” And again, “’Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase” What’s the message? If you have that extra “booty” that’s just fine because boys will still want you and will be attracted to you. If I were singing this to my daughter I might say, “Yeah, my mama she told me “don’t worry about your size… because what a man thinks really isn’t all that important anyway!” Instead, Trainor is still stuck justifying why not being a size two is beautiful by saying that it is so because “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”

Second, it still puts too much emphasis on physical beauty. Yes, it’s a revolt against a narrow vision of beauty but the emphasis is still on outward appearance entirely. This is, unfortunately, about the only place our materialistic age can go. Again, singing Trainor’s lyrics to my daughter I would modify them to be…”don’t worry about your size… because inner beauty is far more important than outer beauty any day!” (I know what you’re thinking, it’s a good thing I don’t write song lyrics.)

Third, it’s a lie. Trainor’s line, “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top” sounds good but it’s just not true, and everyone knows it’s not true. No one is physically perfect, no matter what they look like. Telling ourselves we are is just untrue and since we KNOW it to be untrue the encouragement eventually loses its meaning and dies.

So none of us our physically perfect, but guess what, IT DOESN’T MATTER, and that’s the message we need to get across to our Photoshop world.

Is there a better way? I think so – and it comes from recognizing the fact that we are more than our bodies. Our value/worth doesn’t come from men (or women), from external cultural standards of beauty (whatever they may be), from physical beauty, or even from “within.” Our value is given to us by our Eternal Creator. We are created in the image of God, body and soul, and so we are valuable to God, unconditionally, body and soul. In light of this reality physical imperfections or failure to meet particular cultural standards or less than enthusiastic response from members of the opposite sex simply melt away into insignificance – or at least can be understood within a broader perspective.

I was exceedingly self-conscious about my appearance when I was a teenager. An elderly woman said to me on regular occasions something she thought was “cute” but was not particularly helpful, especially at the time: “You’re too pretty to be a boy.” The truth of the matter is that I was humorously skinny, had (and still have) wrists the size of toothpicks, have a gap between my front teeth, had weird purplish stretch marks across my back (that have mostly faded), have an “inverted sternum,” and have freakishly long second toes. I met no cultural standards for masculine beauty. These are all things I cared a lot about as a teenager. Two things got me out of that funk. First, maturity that comes with age and provides perspective. Second, the realization that my worth was eternally secure in my Creator.

Romania Travel Journal – Gaujani

After our visit to Cozia Monastery we traveled north into the mountains to the village of Gaujani. We drove for at least an hour along narrow winding roads. For the first time since coming to Romania I felt as though I was in a world completely foreign to my own. While traveling to Guajani we saw more buggies than cars, though at least one of the buggy riders was busy looking at her cell phone. We also learned the meaning of “when the cows come home.” We were frequently blocked by cows and their herders who, at dusk, were literally, coming home.

Gaujani at dusk, just outside the church

Gaujani at dusk, just outside the church

We arrive at the Guajani church and “senior home” just as the sun was setting. The senior’s home, a ministry of the church, was a modest building with a kitchen/dining room, a bathroom, and six or so small bedrooms. When we arrive there was a caregiver and three seniors gathered in the dining area. We passed out some bread and bananas we had picked up at the store and sang “Amazing Grace.” We then visited the rooms of the seniors who weren’t in the dining area. I was struck by the gratitude of the people who lived there despite their meager (by American standards) list of possessions. In one room we sang “Oh, How I Jesus,” which it was clear truly captured the heart of our host.

From there we visited the church itself, the oldest evangelical church in Valcea County, at 75 years old. We heard stories about how it survived communism and was even partially aided by the communist spy who attended every service. This church was also instrumental in planting other churches in the county. The big struggle for the church today is a lack of young people. According to our guides there were no more than 13 kids in the entire village. We swapped some ideas about how to reach those kids with the love of Christ.

inside the gaujani church

By this point it was getting quite late and we were all starving so we stopped at a sandwich shop on the way home. But since dinner was still on the table when I arrived back at the apartment (it was now around 10pm) I was obliged to have dinner number 2. Yes, my visit to Romania was filled with hardships.

Romania Travel Journal – Cozia Monastery

After our mini-conference in Ostraveni the team, along with Pastor Dorin, traveled north to visit the village of Guajani. On the way there (after picking up some meds for one motion-sick passenger) we stopped by Cozia, a beautiful Orthodox monastery. The visit was simultaneously inspiring and sad. The landscape, architecture, and art (the whole interior and exterior of the main building was painted with murals) were outwardly moving but the religion expressed there was lifeless. The “service” was unintelligible chanting. The gift shop sold “blessed” items to bring the buyer good luck. The museum held artifacts of a bygone age. The place was itself a relic: interesting to observe and ponder but containing little or no spiritual vitality.

Inside Cozia

Outside the sanctuary

Inspiring view of the Olt River

I have no doubt that there are many Orthodox believers who are true followers of Jesus. Jeremy believes he met a priest who had a clear understanding of the gospel on the Sunday we were there. But even that priest admitted he was an outlier. For much of the country, according to the pastors we spent time with, religion there is a matter of culture, not true belief.

It is infused with superstition, especially in the countryside. Some of the horses we saw in the village had ornaments on them so that no one would give them the “evil eye.” We also saw places where “believers” gave food and water to the dead for their travels in the afterlife. Many people in matters of religion are ruled by fear, not by love.

More disturbingly, religion is often infused with power, often State power, which can be used either for personal gain or to invoke fear. The Pastor I stayed with had many a story of intimidation from the local priests or religious officials. He had his tires slashed. He had rocks thrown at him. He had gangs threaten his church.  People in the villages were told not to go to his church or they would lose their salvation. In the villages we went to we would often see rows of small shacks followed by an extremely nice house. I pointed this out to Dorin on one visit. “That’s where the priest lives,” he said.

Orthodox Christianity is intermingled with the State in ways that would be disconcerting for many Americans. The “religion” teacher in every school we visited was an Orthodox priest. In political discussions I learned that some politicians were promoting the building of a large cathedral in Bucharest called “The Salvation of the People.”

Before coming to Romania a lot of people asked me why I was going to a country that was already Christian. Indeed, most everyone there would claim Christianity as their religion. But what I saw in most cases was that their religion had little resemblance (and I’m not speaking culturally here!) to following Jesus. Religion there pointed people to “The Church” or to the priest, but not to Jesus.

But there are many who are faithful and many are faithful in the face of stiff opposition. And it was this faithfulness that I got to witness in the village of Guajani.

Romania Travel Journal – Principles from Ostraveni

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday was split into three acts. Act 1: Mini-conference in Ostraveni. Act 2: Visit to an Orthodox Monastery.  Act 3: Trip to Gaujani.

Act 1: Mini-conference in Ostraveni

The team – Jeremy, Jessica, Donna, and myself – were finally all reunited at the Pentecostal church in Ostraveni, a “suburb” of R.V. (we had been divided on Sunday). Ostraveni is not a village like the other places we visited but is still in a very urban setting. This was also the church that I preached at Sunday night.

We were there for a mini-conference of sorts, which really served as an opportunity for us to give a brief presentation of Attic After School. We had each brought along a jump drive with pictures of Attic After School for the occasion. The morning started with refreshments but moved quickly to the presentation.

The presentation itself was rather brief. I started with a brief devotional on the Great Commission, moved to a brief history of the program, shared what we do, and then showed some pictures to give everyone a good idea of what an average day looked at. I didn’t really think to share some of the underlying principles of ministry but as the discussion time progressed, and as I reflected further upon those conversations, I realized that our ministry is based on some core principles, even one that I hadn’t articulated until forced to explain it.

Explaining Attic After School in Ostraveni.

Explaining Attic After School in Ostraveni.

Ministry is chosen based on the intersection of call, need, and opportunity

The question naturally arises, Why do an After School program? The answer, for our church, was that the After School program met at the intersection of call, need, and opportunity.

Call: We are called to obey the great commission and our church was actively seeking ways to do this. Without this sense of call we wouldn’t have even started the process.

Need: Members of the broader community, including the mayor at the time, recognized the need for an After School program to provide a safe and positive place for teenagers between 3 and 5 pm, a time when crime and gang recruitment are at their highest. In developing the program we met a need in the community, which was not only a good in itself but has also ensured us the support of other community institutions such as the police department and the schools.

Opportunity: Finally, we had the opportunity – the resources (a newly updated “attic”/youth room), the leadership, and the volunteers – to make it happen.  I suppose with a different set of gifts and resources we may have done a different ministry.

I’m not expecting churches in Romania to suddenly start after school programs but I did challenge them to look at the needs of the community and their own set of resources. We do, however, all share the same call.

Ministry doesn’t require a lot of resources

One major concern in Romania is that the church doesn’t have many resources, or at least, consistent resources. One of our goals was to show that ministry doesn’t require it. Attic After School, especially in its beginnings, but even now, doesn’t require it. When we started we were all volunteers – even our director at the time. We had a set of volunteers bring snacks. Games and game tables were donated. Ministry doesn’t have to be big to be successful or effective.

Ministry requires broad church participation

What we lacked in resources we made up for in participation, which flowed naturally out of a sense of call. As a church we “own” Attic After School and this is true at the individual level as well. There are many ways to participate – volunteering as a counselor, bringing snacks (especially early on), ”
“adopting a student” (prayer ministry), buying a “warm fingers and warm toes” bag, or participating in a related ministry. Even those who do not participate directly in Attic After School support the ministry and, I believe, take some level of ownership for its success.

It simply would not have worked if only a select group of leaders thought it was a good idea. We needed, and we continue to need, the whole church.

If I were to go back and offer advice to the Romanian pastors we spoke to that day I would recommend they focus their attention on energizing their congregation to look for ways to fulfill the great commission. An energized congregation will participate freely and enthusiastically if they see they are meeting a need and you give them the opportunity to serve.

In Discipleship, think relationships and steps

OK, this one requires a diagram!

One of the comments we had when we showed pictures of Attic After School was this: “You put a lot of focus on games and fun, where do you put in the gospel?” There are three answers to this question. (1) We have a Talk Time which is 10 minutes of sharing the gospel directly. (2) We make an effort to share the gospel in intentional personal conversations. (3) We use Attic After School to invite kids to other programs, especially Youth Group and Sunday morning worship.

Use relationships to move unbelievers and new believers through deeper steps of discipleship.

Use relationships to move unbelievers and new believers through deeper steps of discipleship.

This final answer is perhaps the most important and effective in making disciples. Attic After School is a “wide open door”. We want to make it as open and accessible as we can without pretending to be something we’re not or removing the offense of the gospel. We could, for instance, make Attic After School more inviting by removing our “talk time” but to do so would be to take out an essential aspect of our ministry.

Youth group goes a little deeper. We include worship, prayer, and a longer “talk time.” We still have games but there is an intentional different between the after school program and the Wednesday night program.

Sunday worship is deeper still, though we still make sure that the gospel is front and center and that unbelievers or seekers feel welcome and can understand the program and the message. We move kids through the process through relationships built between our workers and the students. These relationships are key and it is through these relationships more than anything else that we have seen young men and women become believers and grow as disciples.

All three steps are needed in our context, though they may not be needed in every context. If we took out Attic After School we would miss out on building a lot of new relationships. If we took out Youth Group the leap to Sunday morning would simply be too high for most of the kids to make and the kids would never get beyond the more “surface” aspect of the after school program. If we never invited the kids to Sunday morning they would never see what adult discipleship looks like and would be ultimately stunted in their spiritual walk.

Some ministries we encountered in Romania missed some steps. Day camps offered wide open doors but never/rarely directed the kids to a local church. Others missed the wide open door and missed out on reaching many unbelievers. Some ministries were trying to find that middle step to move unbelievers or new believers from initial faith to sustained discipleship.

Ministry requires flexibility

One of the participants in the conference offered a great analogy. She said that her grandfather was a fisherman who knew that when fishing you sometimes needed to use different bate or different pole to catch different kinds of fish. You may have a favorite pole or favorite method but in order to get the desired result you may need to move outside of your comfort zone.

Ministry requires this kind of flexibility. We need to be more committed to the mission and the call than we are to our particular methodology. Different tasks require different tools and methods. The Romanian churches are in the right position to know their particular needs and opportunities and I am confident they understand and are committed to the call of discipleship. It was fun to participate with them as they brainstormed different ways to get the job done.

Romania Travel Journal: Sunday

Life update: We’ve been crazy busy trying to get settled into our new house. On top of all the things we had planned to do – unpack boxes, setup storage, put up pictures – we’ve had plenty of unexpected adventures as well. The furnace died. So did the washing machine. But the biggest time-consuming project of all has been figuring out what to do with the lead paint in our kitchen cabinets. Oh, why are people painting kitchen cabinets anyway?

Sunday was a busy day in Romania. The team split up, each of us visiting a different church in the area. Donna, Jessica, and Jeremy each went to village churches. I stayed in R.V. and attended the service at Hope Baptist Church.

The service that morning was a special thanksgiving service so I’m not sure how well it compares to a “typical” service but I did make a few observations on how the service there differed from a typical American Baptist service.

  1. Lots of participants. There were multiple speakers – not full length sermons, per se – but each had their own devotional thought. We were also treated by several musicians and singers bringing special music. There was a choir of teenagers from the church in Copacheni.
  2. Corporate prayer. Prayer is a big deal in evangelical Romanian churches because the dominant religion of the country – Russian Orthodoxy – only practices formulaic prayers. In contrast, the Romanian churches I went to took corporate prayer very seriously and expected extensive participation from the entire congregation. The best analogy for the method employed by the Romanian church is what we in America might call “popcorn prayer.”
  3. Two hour service. Every Sunday service I attended (3 in total) was two hours long. Because of the number of participants and variety, the two hours went by quickly.

I had the opportunity to participate as well. In the morning service I preached on Deuteronomy 30:11ff. I wanted to encourage unbelievers to choose life by choosing to follow Jesus and I wanted young believers to choose life on a daily basis, submitting their whole lives to God’s rule. Dorin’s daughter, Andrada, a college student, translated for me. It’s a little challenging preaching through an interpreter but the challenge was not insurmountable. Once I got through some initial nervousness and figured out how to get into a rhythm with my interpreter the only difference was that I had to be more concise than normal, which probably ultimately helped focus my message.

Preaching at Hope Church in R.V. Notice the thanksgiving display setup with great care and then given away after the service.

Preaching at Hope Church in R.V. Notice the thanksgiving display setup with great care and then given away after the service.

After the morning service lunch was served. It was a special Romanian meal which I ate way too much of. The meal also gave me an opportunity to meet several young people from the church. One, Christian, was a fellow techie. He echoed the challenged faced by churches in R.V., that is, that many young people nurtured in the churches leave town to go to college and don’t return.

At 3:00 we went back to the sanctuary for the evening service (moved forward since everyone was already at the church for the luncheon). This was, again, a two hour service with praise songs, special music, and guest speakers, myself included. This time, I spoke on the call of Abraham in Genesis. I wanted to encourage the church to take risks in following Jesus and to obey in spite of uncertainty. Following this later afternoon service Florin, the missionary to the church in Copacheni, hosted a “quiz bowl” to give away the piles of fresh vegetables wonderfully displayed at the front of the church. The quiz bowl questions were hard and I was very impressed with the biblical literacy of the church. Our youth group would have been destroyed by their youth group in a competition (no offense guys).

Before the quiz bowl game ended I had to leave in order to make it on time to the evening service being held at the Pentecostal church across town. In many respects, the Pentecostal service was not unlike the Baptist service: multiple speakers, special music, and corporate prayer. The big difference was that in the Baptist church people prayed one at a time and in the Pentecostal church everyone prayed, out-loud, together. I did have some point of reference for this since it was the common practice of the Pentecostal church my wife and I attended briefly when we were in college. If people were speaking in tongues, I had no idea, since I didn’t understand what they were saying anyway. Andrada translated for me what the themes of the prayers were supposed to be (i.e., praising God, praying for lost friends, praying for the sick, etc.) so I took the opportunity to join in the prayer time.

This experience reminded me of the passage in Revelation where all the saints are gathered around the throne, multitudes from every nation, tribe, and tongue. God’s kingdom and church extend beyond national and linguistic boarders. It was a blessing to praise God with one voice, even though we were speaking different languages.

Once again, I had an opportunity to preach so I preached again on the call of Abraham. God had been using this passage to speak to me and I believe he used it to encourage the church in Romania.

The service wrapped up around 8 and we all headed back to Dorin’s home. We ate a delicious dinner. Dorin’s two grown children, Alin and Andrada, plus Andrada’s fiancé Anescu drove back to Sibiu and I, after a Skype chat with my wife, went promptly to sleep, exhausted from the busy day.

My host family. Dorin's children are Alin and Andrada and with Andrada is her fiance Anescu.

My host family. Dorin’s children are Alin and Andrada and with Andrada is her fiance Anescu.

Romania Travel Journal – Saturday

Life update: We are now officially moved into our new home in Wyoming, MI. Last week was hectic with the move and the next few weeks will continue to be busy as we try to finish unpacking. The Romania update posts will probably continue to be few and far between but, Lord willing, I will still be able to complete the journal of my trip. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

On Saturday the team met at Hope Baptist church in R.V. to participate in the children’s program. “Participate” is probably too strong a word. We attempted to lead the motions of “My God is so big” which was sung in Romanian. Jeremy succeeded. I’m not so sure I did. I also got to play some people in the church in ping pong. I was beaten in two close matches. This was a hard-core ministry day, I know.

After lunch (a BIG lunch, they all were) the American team was paired up with a Romanian team to hand out flyers promoting the Sunday morning service, which was being promoted as a special Thanksgiving celebration. We were instructed by Pastor Dorin to try to engage in conversation, not just hand out the flyers. I was partnered with a college student (studying Computer Science, no less) name Tina. I approached the recipient of the flyer and invited them in English and Tina translated for me. We met with limited success. Jeremy and his translator, Evelyn, did get to have a very good conversation with an Orthodox priest.

The other benefit of handing out the flyers was that it gave us Americans to get a feel for the city. It was not terribly unlike an American city. The architecture and roads were different but there were plenty of shops, shoppers, and teenagers on their cell phones. The biggest difference that I noticed was the large communist style gray concrete apartment complexes. I spent some time asking Tina about Romanian politics. There was a presidential election coming up from the older generation I had already learned that former communist leader Ceaușescu plays a prominent role in their consciousness. It wasn’t quite the same for Tina who was born after Ceaușescu. I learned later from the Principle of the school it Vitomireste that this generational gap is not uncommon.

I also learned that there aren’t many jobs for the young and college educated people of R.V. Most young people I talked to who went to college either went to Bucharest, Sibiu, or study abroad. And, after college, few return to R.V. This is a challenge for churches in the area who pour a lot of effort into young people only to see them leave for another city, or perhaps even another country within the European Union. On the bright side, these young, strong Christians go on to become “missionaries” in the cities they move to.

On Saturday evening we each returned to our hosts for dinner, except for Jeremy, who found the McDonalds. I also had the pleasure of meeting two Swiss women who were friends of Dorin’s family. They had been partners in the gospel in Valcea and had come for a visit and for some medical treatment. They spoke four different languages and I think all four of them were spoken at dinner that night. One didn’t speak very good Romanian so sometimes I would say something in English, which would be translated into Romanian (for the non-English speakers at the table), which would then be translated into another language (Swiss, I presume). It was a very multi-cultural experience.

Saturday was a good day. As I reflect back on it I don’t think we did much real work. But as a team we needed a day to adjust. Walking around the city, spending time in fellowship over a meal, and talking about history, politics, ministry, and culture was just the way to do it.