on delighting in each other

One of the things we do for fun around here, now that we are Californians again after eight years in the Midwest, is to go to Disneyland. Scott’s parents, Rick and Vonnie, gave us Annual Passes to the Magic Kingdom as a welcome-home present, and we are using them any chance we get. (This means we are frugal, right? We save more and more money every time we go? It’s good for the budget? Even though we find ourselves spending fifty dollars on ice cream and churros each trip? Right?) But I digress.

During these excursions, it’s easy to get annoyed. There are just so many people! Rick said he heard a rumor that Disneyland will intentionally over-sell tickets, disregarding the expensive fine the park is subject to if an inspector from the city were to show up, because the money they make on the extra sales will far outweigh the cost of the fine. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly feels true when you have to wait forty minutes to ride the Peter Pan ride.

Throughout the day, it is not uncommon for me to get annoyed at bad drivers on the way there, or at people who cut in line, or at people who dart in front of you with their unwieldy double stroller (oh wait, that was probably me), or at people who don’t wear enough clothing, or at grown people who wear clothes with giant Mickey heads embroidered on the front, or at people who make out in public in front of my kids, or at people who curse loudly, or at people who are just innocently ahead of me in a long line, or at a giant horde of teenagers on a field trip with their student government class. If I let myself, I can become a big ball of annoyance.

But.

My favorite memory from the park on Friday happened in the parking lot. We were meeting Rick and Vonnie there, and we saw them walking toward us from a long way off. Evie, my almost-three-year-old, took off running for her Papa at her first glimpse of him. It is so cute how she runs– chubby, shorts-clad legs, the shuffle of someone who is still growing and growing-into herself, her arms crooked at the sides like a PE teacher’s. She ran for a hundred feet, perhaps, and practically sprung into Papa’s outstretched arms.

The scene is familiar. Anyone who has raised a child can resonate with it. Near us that morning was a gentleman who could, and his smile–this total stranger’s–matched Evie’s completely.

There is something quite spiritual about watching other people enjoy each other. After seeing this man’s reaction to my daughter’s run, I did my best to recognize moments of delight that day. And you know what? Despite the culture wars you find on the Internet—mothers and fathers debating everything from breastfeeding to spanking to packing a school lunch– it turns out that most parents really, truly love their children–even the people who are wrong about breastfeeding and spanking and even the people who don’t fashion their children’s bananas into Jedi swords each morning. At Disneyland, their eyes gleam with pride when a child is finally brave enough to try the rollercoaster. They lift up babies on shoulders for a better view of the fireworks. They are more excited than their five-year-old Toy Story fanatics to meet Buzz Lightyear. They can’t stop taking pictures on i-Phones– sometimes stealthily so a teenager won’t object. They lovingly drape arms around each other, they share their water bottles and their jackets, they explain in sweet tones why another bit of cotton candy would be a bad idea. It’s not relegated only to parents, either. Boyfriends and girlfriends, grandparents, best friends, little brothers.

Sometimes, in my petty mind, I wake up and remember how like the final scene of Love, Actually this world really is. When I do, I pray like crazy that this is how God sees us, and I am filled with hope because I believe that God does. I believe it in my bones, and I am challenged, then, to be more like Him, to see more like Him, to love with wild abandon and with a little less of a chip on my shoulder because someone weasled their way ahead of me in line because his son had to use the restroom or something.

To love God and to love neighbor– the two greatest commands, Jesus said. I am startled, sometimes, by how intertwined they always are.

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a text for the little guys

Last week, one sweet parishioner pulled me aside after the Sunday service and whispered in my ear, “Don’t worry—it will happen.” She must have noticed me scanning the crowd (can you call it a crowd when only twenty of the, perhaps, 200 seats are filled?). To be honest, I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the numbers at that moment.  But there are always reminders that, culturally at least, I should be.

“The church is facing a huge problem,” writes author and pastor Tim Suttle. “We have become enamored with size. We have become infatuated with all things bigger, better, stronger, higher and faster.” In his new book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture (Zondervan, 2014), Suttle attempts to change the Christian leadership conversation. Faithfulness, he reiterates again and again, is the name of the game, not success.

This seemingly simple shift is a pretty big leap to make, though, when one considers the hold that success has on our culture. The first section of Shrink is titled “Don’t Try to Be Great.” In it is some of Suttle’s bravest stuff, and though it is written with church leaders in mind, it is valuable for anyone who calls her- or himself a Christ-follower. It is brave in articulating how easy it becomes for us to revere the giants, or to stroke our egos by striving for greatness and fame. Suttle says it this way: “If we honestly and critically assess the basic underlying assumptions on which we operate as Christian leaders, at the heart of the current leadership conversation we will find not the Christian narrative, but the American narrative of growth and expansion.”

The Jesus way, Suttle says, is down. It is humility, vulnerability, brokenness, generosity. Through our weakness, God’s power is made perfect, the Scripture tells us. Counter-cultural to say the least, and probably not how most would describe the culture of today’s church.

Suttle is not one to stop at a critique, though, and the gift of this book is how encouraging I believe it will be to pastors who feel that somehow they’ve failed or fallen short, whether they are pastors of megachurches or tiny congregations who meet in someone’s living room. Perhaps my favorite section is the last one, which is titled “Growing in Virtue.” It is about 100 pages in length– almost half the book– and it describes in very practical terms six virtues that will help pastors focus on faithfulness as they lead. It challenged me to nurture Christlike characteristics in myself and to go out of my way to care for the broken and weak in our neighborhood.

What sets Shrink apart from so many other church leadership books is its heart, which, of course, is the best kind of guts. As I read this book, it was easy to remember back a few months ago, when Tim was my pastor and I was sitting in one of the wooden chairs at his church in Olathe, Kansas. Included in the text are illustrations he’d used before in sermons, real-life examples from the life of our church, and a choked-up quality that Tim’s voice takes on whenever he talks about something he really cares about.

Since my husband took over as lead pastor almost six months ago, lots of things have changed at our church: the preaching, the order of service, the children’s ministry, the look of the building.

The numbers, though, haven’t. We are still the same twenty or so.

What an incredible blessing it is to read words like this from Shrink: “When church leaders focus on faithfulness (read: fidelity, virtue, and an active, living, breathing allegiance to the way of Christ), they have done all they are meant to do– regardless of their ministry’s results. Faithfulness is our part; growth is God’s part.”