Wednesday, September 18, 2013

News Items

A couple news updates from the past couple weeks:
  • At New Hope, we have begun Deep Roots (a Sunday School class designed for adults and youth). Currently, this consists of a guided discussion time on the sermon topic as we begin a series entitled “A Contagious Apprenticeship”. We are studying the themes of discipleship and mission in Matthew, focusing on how Jesus calls people to follow Him and then sends them out to participate in the work God is doing.  
  • I’ve continued to meet with leadership and other congregants as we are able, and it’s a privilege to get to know these members better—whether over coffee, a meal, or just at church. New Hope is very diverse in terms of the backgrounds and stories of those who are here, but has together sought to pursue the vision of being a church for the de-churched and un-churched. There are so many people in and around Bangor who need to hear the gospel, and we trust that New Hope is a place where they can truly hear and experience God’s grace.
  • I have been coaching a girls’ JV soccer team at a nearby high school for the past month now, and I love working with the players. It is a great opportunity to work with students from different backgrounds and with different abilities, and to be able to get to know them and their families--hopefully building some bridges within the community. And of course, it’s a refreshing time to get outside and enjoy one of the best sports there is!

Culture, Complexity, and Chucking Seed

In coming to Maine, I quickly realized that it has its own cultural distinctives. Since arriving, I’ve focused on listening and asking questions—trying to learn the culture in and around Bangor. What is the church scene like? What are family dynamics in the area? What drives people? How do people express a thirst for meaning and purpose in life? Do those who are not believers mostly feel burned by the Church and are now militantly atheist, or do they simply see faith as passé and irrelevant? 

These are important questions. I was hoping to learn the culture, so that I would best know how to communicate the gospel in relevant terms. And I have learned…Many people are relatively independent, private, and self-sufficient. Building relational trust takes time. There are very few evangelical Christians in Maine (for one article on religious affiliation in Maine, look here), and many nominal Catholics and others who seem to have had negative experiences in churches. 

Recognizing the cultural patterns and values is helpful. For instance, even something as simple as greeting a stranger on the street (which in many places would be considered friendly) here may be considered a breach of privacy. It is important to not assume that others have the same values as I do, lest I bulldoze those differences acting only within my sense of propriety. 

But at the same time as I begin to learn the culture in Maine, I am finding it harder to refer to “people in Maine”. This is far too simplistic. I’ve met people who fit characteristics mentioned above, but I’ve also met people who are very different. And every single person is more than a simple set of characteristics. Not everyone holds their cards close to their chest: over the past couple weeks, I’ve met several strangers in my “regular” coffeeshop, and ended up having significant conversations about faith, family, and background. A man at an estate sale last weekend shared the struggle he and his wife were having after his father-in-law’s death. Parents of players on my soccer team begin to talk about about their own values and backgrounds. 

So although there is certainly truth to the general cultural characteristics, there are always exceptions—and every individual is more than any one set of characteristics. I ought never assume that all “Mainers” will be the same. 

If I simply assume that someone will be stand-offish, I may never initiate a conversation or give them the time of day. And similarly, here in Maine—a place often resistant to the gospel—I must remember that not everyone who appears resistant to God is a lost cause. We are called to share the good news about Jesus with everyone. 

One of my friends mentioned how, in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, the farmer throws the seed everywhere. He doesn’t only seed the good soil; he just “keeps chucking seed”. And although we should seek to discern God’s leading, maybe we also need to just “keep chucking seed” without too quickly assuming about those around us and pre-judging the soils.

Thank you for reading!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


In the month before moving to Maine, I was considering what to focus on during my time in New York, between moving back from Michigan and heading up north. Since this was a time of preparation for serving this congregation, I began to imagine an intense schedule of study and preparation, so that I would be ready when I arrived at New Hope. At one point when I was talking with a friend, I mentioned this idea of intense study and preparation. In response, He wisely observed that, if I were to jump straight into this intense schedule, I might find that I hadn’t actually been studying the things God actually wanted me to. Instead of running ahead with my ambitious schedule of preparation on my agenda, I needed to slow down and create space and time to listen to God in this in-between month. I could have taken off running with a plan of preparation, but might find too late that my running had taken me in a very different direction than God was leading. Instead of jumping straight into a schedule of frenetic activity, I needed to slow down to the point where God could actually point me in a new direction.

The command to listen to (and obey) God is woven through Scripture. And as we listen and obey, I believe we begin to be able to hear God’s voice more clearly. There are times of apparent silence when it seems God isn’t speaking at all—but if we listen to and obey what God clearly commands, then our ears become more and more tuned to hearing His will. Activity itself is not always the answer; our activity should be in service of and response to God’s Word and will. 

And as a final note, listening is a way of caring for others as well. Truly hearing what someone is saying, actually giving them the time of day. This quote captures something of how easy it is not to listen:

“People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another's conversations constantly. It's like being a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street. For instance, if we met at a party and I wanted to tell you a story about the time I needed to get a soccer ball in my neighbor's yard but his dog chased me and I had to jump into a swimming pool to escape, and I began telling the story, you, hearing the words "soccer" and "neighbor" in the same sentence, might interrupt and mention that your childhood neighbor was Pele, the famous soccer player, and I might be courteous and say, Didn't he play for the Cosmos of New York? Did you grow up in New York? And you might reply that, no, you grew up in Brazil on the streets of Tres Coracoes with Pele, and I might say, I thought you were from Tennessee, and you might say not originally, and then go on to outline your genealogy at length. So my initial conversational gambit - that I had a funny story about being chased by my neighbor's dog - would be totally lost, and only because you had to tell me all about Pele. Learn to listen! I beg of you.” (Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain)

Instead of waiting just long enough to find a segue into something we want to say, truly hear what another is saying—especially when they are trusting enough to share something significant. But even what appears as small-talk may be significant; we learn a lot about each other in everyday, “insignificant” conversations—and these are times when trust is built little by little.

Listening is central to leadership, and really to our lives in general. We must first of all be followers and listeners—first of God, and then of others—before we can lead. Otherwise we might just find too late that we’ve been leading people in the wrong direction. After five weeks at New Hope, I must not forget this. Even as we plan fall programs and the next sermons series, I cannot stop listening to God or to members of this congregation. If activity and programs are to be in service of God and for the benefit of His people, I must come to know the voice of both.  

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27, NIV)