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IMG_0182_2I have been asked to contribute a weekly column to our local newspaper, The Nebraska City NewsPress, my goal is that people are reminded that they are loved, they are not alone, and that we can do positive things together as a community. Here is this week’s column, it’s called “Learning Together”.

This past week was parent teacher conferences for those of us with kids in the Nebraska City Public School system. For my child, that means her teacher, Mrs. Letti, came to our house to show us a little of what it looks like to be in class with her and give my wife and me an opportunity to ask questions. I was impressed that she visited the homes of each and every student in her care. As a pastor, I’m still trying to do that and I’ve been here for two years. I appreciate her dedication, it is obvious to me that she loves her job and that she is dedicated to providing the best atmosphere for learning possible.

I try my best, as a parent, to help my kids and their teachers to be in the best position for success. Subsequently that means I have a lot of conversations with different people. I’ve talked with principals, school board members, teachers, and parents. They all seem to be trying to create a positive educational environment for our kids.

Even with that, according to stats found at www.schooldigger.com, provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and the Nebraska City Public School system ranks 188th/223 Nebraska School Districts. That is not good. It doesn’t mean that our kids are bad; it doesn’t mean that teachers are bad; it doesn’t mean that our administrators are bad. It means we have some work to do, together.

A wise friend of mine once said to me, “Education is critical to a healthy society.” I think our numbers show that, right now, we aren’t that healthy. In all my conversations there’s always blamed placed somewhere. Blame the teachers, blame the parents, blame the kids, blame the administration, blame the curriculum, and I think there is plenty of work that could be done in all of those areas. What I don’t hear talked about much is poverty. Yes, poverty, and to quote a recent blog from Dawn Meehan,

“I’m not talking about a family whose dad has been laid off from his job or a family going through divorce or sickness. I’m not talking about a sudden, temporary, or even long-term shortage of money. I’m talking about families who have lived in poverty for generations. Families who don’t know anything but poverty. Generational poverty is very different from families experiencing hard times  — mainly because they often view education as a stressor, and school a place they do not belong, making it extremely difficult to end the cycle.”

For kids that live that reality, school can be a salvation and it can be ruin. For many of those kids the meals they receive at school may be the only meals they receive at all, it also might be the only contact they have with other people. This isn’t necessarily because the parents are inattentive, many of them are working multiple jobs or jobs with odd hours just so they can keep clothes on their back and a roof over their heads.

Some more statistics, there are 1388 students in the four Nebraska City Public Schools, 636 of them are on free and reduced lunches, that’s a little under half of our students (45.8%) of our students come from families in need of food assistance. Currently, the Nebraska City Food Bank housed at the First United Methodist Church provides bags of food on Fridays for kids at Hayward Elementary (3rd-5th Grade) and starting next fall there will be a program that offers a bag of food to any student from the middle school who asks. That means, every Friday, at First Presbyterian Church we would distribute up to 151 (according to the statistics) bags of food that would provide nourishment for students on the weekend, because studies have shown you can’t study if you’re hungry.

Here’s how you can help. Saturday morning April 18th First Presbyterian Church is hosting the Stompin’ Out Hunger 5K Fun Run & Walk. All proceeds from this event will go toward Feeding our Future. This will launch a food grab bag program for the Nebraska City Middle School children. This program would provide a food grab bag at times when other resources are not available, such as during weekends and school breaks. 10934098_884236284932366_7440741227796783531_o

There is a non-refundable entry fee is $30. All participants will be registered for prize drawings. I would invite you to go to the First Presbyterian Church website (www.firstpresnc.org) click on the “Stompin’ Out 5K” picture and register online.

We are hoping to make this an annual event to ensure that our community is in the best possible position to provide challenging and effective education for all and our students have an opportunity to succeed.

At dinner every night, my family goes around the table and shares their high points and low points of the day. We call it “Favorite” and “Not Favorite”. Here are my “Favorites” and “Not Favorites” of the week.

Favorite: I love watching the NCAA Tournament and I love that the grass is turning green and the flowers and trees are starting to bud.

Not Favorite: This was a pretty good week, I don’t have a not favorite.

IMG_0182_2I have been asked to contribute a weekly column to our local newspaper, The Nebraska City NewsPress, my goal is that people are reminded that they are loved, they are not alone, and that we can do positive things together as a community. Here is this week’s column, it’s called “Expectations”.

A couple of weeks ago I was traveling so I loaded my phone up with podcasts I could listen to on the plane and while I drove. One of the podcasts I downloaded was from NPR called Invisiblia. It’s fascinating, here’s the description: “ Invisibilia (Latin for “all the invisible things”) explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”

The episode that caught my attention was on expectations. The episode was entitled, “How to become Batman”, here’s the description,“Alix and Lulu examine the surprising effect our expectations can have on the people around us. Plus, the story of a blind man who says expectations have helped him see. Yes, see.”

The idea of a blind man, without eyes, seeing is simply beyond all measure of rational thought. It told the story of  a man, blind from birth, who can , through the use of echolocation (think what bats do to see), live a perfectly normal life. Live on his own, without a caregiver and without any special accommodations. It was a fascinating story and I encourage you to check it out.

The show reminded me of something I have thought for a long time, “People will live up, or down, to your expectations.” If we expect that a child will need to be coddled and protected from any bump and bruise that might come, they will. If we expect that a child will, with appropriate support and supervision, be able to handle the things that come their way, they probably will. I know that’s a little oversimplified but I’ve found it to be true, throughout with my work with both kids and adults.

Every time I’ve expected a child, or an adult, to be difficult, they have been. Often when I’ve been told they were difficult but I expect them to be different and I tell them of my expectations they end up being no worse than the “good” people.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

Our expectations for our kids, for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our town play a role in how we interact with life and the world around us. If we expect our job to suck, it’s going to suck, if we expect it to be pleasant, it might suck less. If we expect our kids to do the right thing, provided we model it for them, they will probably do the right thing most of the time. If we expect our town will always be the way it is, because it’s always been that way, then it will always be the same with no growth (spiritual, economic, population, or otherwise), no progress, and no vision.

If we expect our town, with proper support and engagement from the community, to do better it will. I know it’s not an overnight shift. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of shifting expectations, not only from the leaders in Nebraska City and Otoe County but also from its citizens to live into those higher expectations. The thing is, I expect that we can accomplish it. In the book of Ephesians it says that we can do more than we could ever ask or imagine through the power of God that is within us. I believe it is within us to use the gifts that God has given us in our community to expect better, to expect more, and to do more than others think is possible.

At dinner every night, my family goes around the table and shares their high points and low points of the day. We call it “Favorite” and “Not Favorite”. Here are my “Favorites” and “Not Favorites” of the week.

Favorite: Getting to lead Ash Wednesday worship with my wife, she is an excellent pastor and I am a better partner, father, and pastor because of her.

Not Favorite: Westboro Baptist Church

IMG_0198I have been asked to contribute a weekly column to our local newspaper, The Nebraska City NewsPress, my goal is that people are reminded that they are loved, they are not alone, and that we can do positive things together as a community. Here is this week’s column, it’s called “Mutual Forbearance”.

This week I wanted to take off my “dad” hat and put on my “pastor” hat. I know that I’m always wearing both but this week I wanted to focus on a foundational principle of the Presbyterian Church. It is a principle called “mutual forbearance”.

The Rev. Dr. Carlos Wilton describes it like this, “It’s a biblical concept — although it’s a little hard to locate in most English translations, because the word “forbearance” is something of an antique.  Scrupulous readers of the Authorized (“King James”) Version will recognize it in Ephesians 4:2. In the face of persistent church conflict, Paul’s prescription for good health in the body of Christ is “forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The New Revised Standard Version renders it “bearing with one another in love.” (http://monmouthstatedclerk.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-marriage-amendment-and-mutual.html)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order helps us to put it in to practice this way, “we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

A lot of that language can be confusing. The Rev. Dr. Wilton does an excellent job of speaking plainly about what mutual forbearance looks like in his recent blog (monmouthstatedclerk.blogspot.com) about issues in the PC (USA) and in an upcoming book about Presbyterian Polity.

“The essential feature of the biblical concept of mutual forbearance is the presence of a third party in the relationship: God. Whether the opposing parties are facing off across a kitchen table or a Session conference table, two individuals in conflict have little chance of permanently resolving their differences unless they first acknowledge their mutual reliance on a higher authority. Such is the message of the Ephesians passage as it recommends, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Note that unity in the relationship does not come from the parties themselves. It is unity of the Spirit. Further, the peace that reigns over the two opponents is not something that appears automatically, requiring little effort. The scripture speaks of the “bond” of peace: literally, a chain or fetter. A lifelong commitment to living and working with one another, despite our differences, means sacrificing something of the freedom we would otherwise have, were we not accountable to another.

It’s not unlike living through change as a family. Change does not typically happen, in families, in slow and incremental ways. It happens by leaps and bounds, often driven by the passions of the younger generations, to which the older members eventually learn to accommodate. The younger generations, for their part, come to accept the likelihood that they will never fully convince their elders.

What happens, then? Does the family splinter, its unity destroyed?

Sadly, in some cases this is what happens. Most observers, though, would describe that as a failed family. Its members have failed to do the one thing they were expected to do: to stick together through thick and thin.

What keeps any family healthy and strong is mutual forbearance. It must be intentional, and it must happen on both sides. We bear with each other because we love one another in Christ. That’s the bottom line.”

It seems as if in our town, our state, and our country we have forgotten the concept of mutual forbearance. We have forgotten how to be in relationship with one another. That doesn’t mean that we all have to be best friends or even like each other, but it does mean that we owe it to our neighbors to bear with one another in love. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing is.

At dinner every night, my family goes around the table and shares their high points and low points of the day. We call it “Favorite” and “Not Favorite”. Here are my “Favorites” and “Not Favorites” of the week.

Favorite: The sunshine and the ability to go play a round of golf with my two kids.

Not Favorite: My house has been sick for the last week and a half. Hopefully, we will finally get better as the nice weather approaches.

IMG_0182_2I have been asked to contribute a weekly column to our local newspaper, The Nebraska City NewsPress, my goal is that people are reminded that they are loved, they are not alone, and that we can do positive things together as a community. Here is this week’s column, it’s called “Tough Conversations”.

Communication is the key to relationships. Talking about the things we’d rather not talk about is one of the most important things we do. When we disagree and talk about it, it allows for a space to allow God to do the work of reconciliation. When we stay silent we often harbor resentment and hold grudges, it ultimately destroys the relationship that we were trying to protect by not talking about the elephant in the room.

There are good and bad ways to have those difficult conversations, but not having the conversation is worse than having a bad conversation. Sometimes having the conversations reveals something that we would rather keep secret, a failure, a regret, a struggle we are having. Our culture says that we are to be self-reliant, to be independent, to “take care of our business”, that asking for help is a sign of weakness. We’ve also been told that there are subjects that are off limits, religion, politics, money, etc. All of this creates a environment of mistrust and anger, we’re angry that we feel alone in our struggle and yet, we don’t trust even those closest to us to share our struggles. Most importantly, we don’t communicate our feelings to the person who caused them. We’d rather complain to our friends about our neighbor’s dog than walk next door and have a conversation about the dog with its owner.

Franciscan author and priest, Father Richard Rohr says, “Anger that is not transformed is transferred.” It’s transferred on to our families, our jobs, our spouses, our friends, our dog, our kids. We must be willing and able to talk about the hard things, about the things that make us angry, fearful, or resentful and we must be able to talk to those people closest to you or who with whom you are angry, scared, or resenting.

There seems to be a lot of mistrust going on in City Hall right now. There’s a lot of mistrust of City Hall by the citizens of Nebraska City and if you listen you’ll hear a lot of stories about corruption and back dealing and whose fault it is. What we don’t hear is any reason why (other than vague personal jabs) suddenly there is all of this controversy. The Council went on a retreat to, presumably have these conversations and air out their grievances; it doesn’t seem to have worked. There are legal issues at play and there are, obviously, things that do not need to be public knowledge. However, as a citizen who reads the paper ands listens the radio, there is a lot of anger in the air and it’s playing out through sound bites and press conferences.  This isn’t helpful if the Council itself wants to have a healthy relationship, even if the members of council don’t agree, this isn’t helpful for the council if it wants to have a relationship with the people who elected them. This isn’t helpful for us as a city moving forward.

There are good and bad ways to have those conversations. Right now it seems as if there are only bad choices being made. Those bad choices are going to lead to bad consequences not for the council members but for the town, there will be a ripple effect that could last decades. It is unacceptable for this town to be held hostage by people not willing to talk honestly and openly about their anger, mistrust, and fear. Those are conversations that need to happen.

My wife and I are very open with our kids, we tell them their actions have consequences. We explain those consequences. We also let them talk about their feelings, they have a right to be mad, sad, angry, scared, they have a right to have emotions. We also after the storm has passed talk to them about why they had that reaction. Sometimes it’s because one of us made a mistake. We own up to those mistakes and try to move forward together.

We do that for our kids, and I think we owe that to our city.

At dinner every night, my family goes around the table and shares their high points and low points of the day. We call it “Favorite” and “Not Favorite”. Here are my “Favorites” and “Not Favorites” of the week.

Favorite: Watching my kids learn and grow, the ways they develop language, and get excited about learning.

Not Favorite: I had a stomach bug this week that laid me low.

IMG_0182_2I have been asked to contribute a weekly column to our local newspaper, The Nebraska City NewsPress, my goal is that people are reminded that they are loved, they are not alone, and that we can do positive things together as a community. Here is this week’s column, it’s called “Called Together”.dad tells a story about when I as a little kid and he knew he was in trouble.

I was about 5 and I pointed to a piece of wood that was hanging between two rooms, it had three hinges and a knob. The conversation went like this:

Me: “What’s that?”

My dad: “It’s a door.”

Me: “Why?”

My dad: “Because that’s what it’s called.”

Me: “Why?”

My dad: “What do you mean why? Because it is.”

Me: Why?”

My dad: [deep exasperated sigh]

Unfortunately, for some, I never grew out of that desire to know more. I know there were those times in high school and college where I thought I knew everything, but I think we all go through those periods. I like to know stuff about stuff. It’s part of the reason I attended formal schooling for 21 years. I have a high school diploma, a college degree, and two masters degree. All that means is that I know for sure that I don’t know a lot.

It also means that I rarely listen to an answer of “because that’s the way it is” or “because I said so” or “because he/she said so”. I have strong opinions but I try to come to those opinions through gathering of information and, if I come up to or am shown some new information that causes me to change my opinion, I change my opinion. I like to think that I use the intellect that God gave me to critically think about my ideas, assumptions, and perceptions. The trouble is…I don’t think we value that critical thinking piece much anymore. We are told what to think not how to think. Our students are taught the answers to test questions not necessarily how to find the answers. I think most of that has to do with politicians and bureaucrats telling educators what’s best, but that’s for another column.

I know, as a parent, it’s much easier on my psyche for my children to just do as I say, when I say it, but I’m handcuffing them when they get out in the world and they run up against information that I don’t have. I want for my children to learn how to think and process information, so if they learn something that I don’t know, which is a lot, they will be able to judge whether or not it’s useful for them or whether it causes them to change their ideas, assumptions, and perceptions. As I have gotten older, as I have traveled the world, as I have lived all over the country, as I have met lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds I’ve always learned something and it helps to shape who I am and the way I interact with the world. Author C.S. Lewis once said, “There seems to be hardly any one among my acquaintance from whom I have not learned.” I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, even if I don’t always agree with those who I meet.

That openness and ability to think for yourself, to adjust to new information, and to move forward is vital to our health as a city, a nation, and a world. If we only rely on information because our pastor, our parent, our favorite newscaster, athlete, or musician said it we run the risk of being stuck in old ways of thinking while an ever-changing world passes us by.

One of my main goals, as a parent, is to help my children become independent thinkers with the ability to judge for themselves (through experience, study, prayer, and conversation) what is good and right for them. I want them to be open to being wrong and willing to admit it when they are. I hope that we all can learn to think, not learn what to think.

At dinner every night, my family goes around the table and shares their high points and low points of the day. We call it “Favorite” and “Not Favorite”. Here are my “Favorites” and “Not Favorites” of the week.

Favorite: Watching my beloved West Virginia Mountaineers beat the Kansas Jayhawks in basketball.

Not Favorite: I’m a home brewer, I spent six weeks brewing a beer, it did not turn out well. I will now have to dump about 30 12 ounce bottles, $30 of materials, and 6 weeks of work down the drain.

A little while ago my friend and blogger, Adam Walker Cleaveland, asked me to be a part of a blog series on pastoral identity. Here is my postYou can see the whole series here. I am grateful for the opportunity to share part of my pastoral identity with his readers and now with you. Below is the blog entitled “Pastor as Community Leader“.

When I was in seminary I attended a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and one of the biggest concerns I heard was that we were no longer relevant. That no one listens to us, that we were no longer part of the public discourse. We were no longer a voice or leader in the community. To be honest, I had never seen a Presbyterian pastor be a voice or leader in the community, at least they didn’t get on the news and talk about issues related to the community. Those honors were reserved for the louder, more extreme voices on the right and left.

My first call was to a resort town in Oregon, we used to joke that it was the most unchurched county in the most unchurched state. No one cared what the church had to say about anything. What happened next changed my ideas about the role of pastor as community leader.

I was searching around twitter, using some advice from a well-known Christian blogger, when I ran across a tweet about “Ignite Bend”. Because I was new to the community and interested in getting to know people I followed the URL to an event page. I thought it was some Christian youth thing, but found out it was a free community event that was requesting people to give 5 minute presentations about something they were passionate about. Liking microphones and sharing my passion it was a perfect fit. I submitted a talk entitled, “You May Have Heard It Said, But…” It was accepted and I was one of the ten speakers at Ignite Bend 1. That night, in a community space surrounded by people I didn’t know, most of whom didn’t go to church, many of whom didn’t want anything to do with church, I gave a five minute presentation about changing the perceptions of Christians in the public square, suggesting that we weren’t all like Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson, and that some of us were open to having conversations, not to convert people but to learn from people. That event sparked several relationships that expanded my role as pastor to a part of the community that I would never have had access to in the church.

I then moved to a small, rural, Midwestern community. I started doing the same things I did in Oregon. I sought out opportunities to meet people in the community, I attended community meetings, community events, I asked questions, I followed up, I took people to lunch, had coffee with people. I started doing the things that other parents do. I realized that with unlimited information at our fingertips the community is not going to come to my office to include me, but when I go out into the community I am another welcome voice in the conversation.

In both my calls I have found that people seek out information from different perspectives from people with different expertise and I am increasingly being asked about my thoughts on issues from “the church’s” point of view. I generally say I can only speak for myself and try to focus on the ideas of loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths and loving our neighbor as ourselves. I was asked to provide a weekly column for the local newspaper, a column I intentionally write from the perspective of a dad, not a pastor. The increasing presence of a pastor at the table continues to help me shape my identity as pastor and models the idea that our faith should impact all that we do.

I have been blessed with a congregation that allows me to spend my time out in the community, a congregation that still gets much needed visits and leadership as another part of my pastoral identity. I have found the role of community leader to be a vital aspect to my own identity as pastor as well as helping to understand more fully the context to which I have been called.

Being a community leader helps us as pastors to be relevant, maybe not on a national level, but on a person-to-person level, which is where true transformation begins.

Originally posted on YoRocko!:

My colleague and I visited The Generous Table on Sunday afternoon, “a multi-generational gathering of people living out the Christian faith in South Orange County.” It’s an hour-long worship service in a living room followed by a meal, and it’s designed for people who don’t go to church.

Here’s what I learned.

This isn’t hard. 

Invite your neighbors. Open your door. Arrange some couches. Pick a Bible passage.

Seriously, what else is there to do?

Minda’s husband Aaron led an Bible story activity for the seven or so children who were there, and I’m confident that takes more planning than what the adults do.

This is really difficult.

There’s a huge mental barrier to be overcome in granting yourself the permission to do something like this, to invite neighbors into your house to say prayers, sing worship songs, and talk about the Bible. Over dinner, Minda got a bit emotional talking…

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