Thoughts on life, leadership and the movement called the church by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Laying Down One's Life for Another

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13, TNIV)
I imagine the conversation went something like this:

"Hey, you want to go see the movie?" he asked.

"Sure. Can't wait!" she replied.

They anticipated the opening for weeks. The third installment in the latest Batman trilogy. Young and full of energy, they plan to attend the opening day showing. He buys the tickets on Fandango. They go early and wait in line. Maybe they see some others they know there. Stubs torn in half, popcorn and junior mints and a diet coke in hand, they go in and find their seats. Not too high up, not too close. And in the middle of the row, too.

I don't know what they were thinking about. Maybe school or work or what will happen after the movie. Maybe he's thinking about their future together. Maybe she's thinking about it, too.

But I can assure you that neither of them were thinking about dying.
This guy walks into the front of the theater, through an emergency exit, dressed in black. He throws down some kind of smoke and starts shooting.

At first, the couple is confused, wondering if it's a part of the movie somehow. But it only takes a few seconds for the fog to clear - they know this is no show and they realize they are in real danger.

So, this young man, with a long life and a promising future ahead of him, asks his date to dance, and he dances one last time for the woman he loves. This dance is the most intimate kind - even more than sexual intimacy - and one that reflects the greatest kind of love possible. It's a simple two-step where he holds her tightly and positions his body in between his partner and the approaching shrapnel.

Three times. Three times that night, three different 20-something young men embraced three different 20-something young women in this heroic act of bravery. They weren't married to these girls. Did they love them? Every. Single. One. The Bible makes it clear: No one can display a greater act of love than to lay down their lives for someone else.

As I travel with my family, I find that the days we're on the move are the high anxiety days for me. Do I have everyone? Are they all safe? I'm constantly looking around, looking for the suspicious person, looking for acceptable escape routes, looking for ways to protect us. Too much crime-tv, I guess.

I've found a love of snorkeling, and Joshua and I have spent hours in the last few weeks swimming with huge turtles and massive, countless colorful fish. But the whole time we're in the water, I'm also slightly nervous. I constantly scan the underwater horizon. Too many years of 'Shark Week', I guess.

We also spent time in the wilderness - in grizzly bear country - with 800 pound monsters just a few hundred yards away from our unprotected position. We saw them and took pictures. At 35 mph, he could have been on us in seconds. Too many National Geographic specials, I guess.

In a very tragic way, these three young men have given me pause and cause to reflect on myself. Would I put myself in harms way for my family - in between an attacking human or an attacking wild predator? No question about it. I'd do it without hesitation. It would be a natural reflex, and I'd have it no other way.

But the real question is this: Will I lay down my life for them even if the attacks are more...subtle. More disguised.

Will I protect them from my own busyness, from my own ambition, from my own need or selfishness? Even as I write this, Joshua lurks behind me. Twice, he has asked me to play a game. Twice, I've responded, "When I'm finished with what I'm writing." There is a greater danger that I won't protect them from myself, rather than some outside threat.

It is possible to lay down my life for the ones I love and not die a physical death. I am willing to die for them. The more relevant question is: Am I willing to live for them?

Becoming Still

"Be still and know that I am God." Psalm 46:10

I bet the psalmist needed to hear God command him to be still. He probably wouldn't be still on his own. He wouldn't do it until he knew it was necessary for his soul. I think I understand.

My friend, Sammy Williams, who is a pastor a little older, wiser, and more experienced than I am called me a few weeks ago, soon after my Sabbatical began. "It will take three weeks," he said. He continued with something like this: 'For three weeks, you'll think about the church most days. You'll wonder what they're doing, what the service was like, how's attendance, giving and other metrics. Who's upset. What decisions are being made. Who needs care. But if you commit to your Sabbatical and focus on what God wants you to do, it will stop. After three weeks, you'll start to be still.'

Truth be told, it took me a little more than a month. I doubted Sammy a little. For the first few weeks, most days I still found a lot of anxiety in my soul. There is the constant drumbeat of 'what's next' and 'how can you out-do last weekend' and 'how are we going to solve this problem' and 'what is the next hill we're going to climb' and 'how are we going to climb it.'

But I followed Sammy's advice. For the most part, I didn't give into the voice that had, for so long, ruled my waking thoughts. I knew God had something new and really good for me if I would wait and be patient. And then, I heard it. Not some new calling or a new direction to take the church. I didn't hear God tell me to move to the jungle and become a missionary. I didn't hear him tell me anything new to accomplish. But I did hear God speak. It was new to me, because mostly I've felt God telling me what to do. This was more like God reminding me of who I am, and, more importantly, who He is.

This is the voice of God that can only come when you are finally, completely still. Not simply sitting still, but still on the inside. I couldn't get still on the inside - deep in my soul - without stepping away for an extended time. Now I can feel my spirit really rest. I've physically been resting. But now I'm resting through and through.

I think about my computer. I leave the thing on all the time. I run programs, pull up files, open and close windows. This goes on hundreds of times in a week. After a while, the thing get's slower and slower and starts to hang up more and more frequently. All the clutter of the constant execution and review causes the processor to need a shut down and a fresh re-start.

I think that's what 'being still' is like. In the past, I'd try to 'reboot' by closing most of the windows. I'd go away for 3 days, try not to think about most things. That helps. But a true re-boot means that I have to shut down entirely. Then I have to wait - let the screen go dark and the processor cool off. Then, after I'm sure it's all quiet, I can hit the power button and boot up again.

I'm finally in that spot where I'm still. The processor is off. The screen is blank. I'm still. I feel like God has led me beside still and peaceful waters.

The picture above is the sunset we saw tonight right off the beach. It captures a lot of what I feel is happening inside of me. It's pure, still, powerful, and not 'of me' in any way. It doesn't depend on me at all. Frankly, it feels good. It feels confident and reassured and alive. And the sun rises and sets every day without any input or work on my part at all. Tomorrow, it will happen again - with or without me. I'm an afterthought. I'm nothing compared to who God is and my work is nothing compared to what God can do.

I needed to come to this place, be put in my place, in order to find my place.

Now I'm still. And I know anew that He is God.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reconnecting with Family

Lilly Endowment literature indicates the purpose of their grant program as, “to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection.”

When I wrote my proposal for the grant, I indicated four purposes: Rest, Reflection, Reconnection and Re-envisioning.

Reconnecting involved several aspects: reconnecting with significant people who helped shape my ministry and some old friends who I don't have time to see anymore.

But a major reconnection for me was to reconnect with my family. The Lilly Foundation grant allowed us to get away, just the five of us, and create an environment where we could have focused conversation without the distractions of normal life.

That's what I've been doing for a little more than 2 weeks now, and it's part of why I've been so silent on this blog. I've been intensly focused on giving my family some time and attention that they desperately needed. I simply cannot emphasize how critical this time has been for my family. It has been many, many years since we were in as good a place relationally as we are right now.

Most people don't realize the toll ministry takes on families. I have a good friend who trades barbs with me on our work. He says, "I'm going to seminary so I can have the easy life." I say, "I'm going into real estate so I can sleep in every day." But we both know that the other works hard, even if we don't know exactly what that looks like.

The truth is, the life of any minister (Senior Pastor and other pastors and church staff) is incredibly demanding. And the one's who usually pay the biggest price are the families of those pastors.

Here's my confession: I have neglected my family. For most of the twelve years I've been a pastor, I chose the church over my kids. They paid a price. This gift - of time from PCC and of funding from the Lilly Foundation - has allowed for some healing conversations that would have not otherwise happened.

One exercise I asked my kids to do was a series of questions:

1) Name a few of your best family memories. Why was this a good memory for you.

2) Ten or twenty years from now, your kid is doing a project for school. To complete it, they ask you the following question: "Mom/Dad, What was the best part of growing up for you?" What will you say?

3) A good friend calls one day and asks you to lunch, saying they have something imortant to ask you. At lunch, after some small talk, they say, "I'm strongly considering entering ministry. I feel like God is calilng me to pastor a church. I'm sure it will be great, but I also want to consider the changes this role will bring to my spouse and kids. I know your Dad is a pastor, and thought you could give me some insight. So, I wonder if you would honestly answer the following questions:

What are some of the blessings or benefits of being a pastor's family?

What are some fo the costs or curses of being a pastor's family?


We laughed...and we cried as we remembered some of our great moments together. We had long conversations over the course of many days about the blessings and costs of being a pastor's family. There have been many blessings, and we celebrated them and thanked God for them. But there have also been many costs. Our conversations weren't just gripe sessions, but rather productive ways to talk about how we can make healthy changes that will allow us to be a stronger family, honoring God in the church and in our home.

The benefit of being a long way from home when talking about this stuff is that you can take a 'time out' and come back to difficult converstions a few hours later or the next morning. You can pick it up again over dinner, breakfast the next day, lunch, swimming and sightseeing, in the car, on the plane. It's intense family togetherness, through shared experiences, and something happens that would not otherwise take place. Normally, we'd come to an impass or a place where we needed to take a time-out to process and think, but never get back to the conversation, because of work and schedules. This Sabbatical experience allows for that conversation to go the whole distance, and great things happened because of that.

Our Big Trip has one week left. Then it's onto another phase of my Sabbatical. There is a lot more to say, but this post is long enough for today. Here are a few more pictures.