The Narrative

October 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

If there’s something I have learned from watching politicians and various media sources during my adult life it is this: how you tell the story changes how people understand events. The narrative that is presented determines a lot about how people will react and respond. News agencies can tell a story in a way that creates sympathy for one entity and disdain for another…or they can spin it completely the other way! Agencies determine which story they want to tell and they share and highlight the pictures, facts, and anecdotes that tell that particular story. You can flip to another news channel to see a different telling, usually.

For my Spiritual Formation Group this past August, I read a book by Donald Miller called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned To Live A Better Story. It wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it did get me doing some thinking about story and about inviting the people around me to live a better story, even as I try to live the best story too. It has me thinking a lot about how my story will be told and how people will understand my life’s purpose through that telling.

image1The Psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 139 reminds me of this:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.

Psalm 139:13-16

God and I are writing a story together and we have been for 36 years. Oh, I reach out and bat at the pen sometimes because I’d rather something different be written. And sometimes I go off script and make a mess of things. Sometimes a tragedy appears on the page and needs to be navigated. And sometimes other people, even people I love, change the story for the worse.

This world is a broken place and we are all in it making decisions. Some decisions are for the better and create hope and love, and some decisions hurt others and change their stories in a tragic way.

I don’t always have control over my story, but I can always choose how I react to the events that happen and I can often choose how my story is told. My actions and attitudes will determine the narrative.

That narrative could be “Look at the terrible things that happened in her life and what a mess it is. She deserves to be angry and depressed. How is she supposed to deal with that? It’s no wonder she’s having trouble.”


That narrative could be “Look how she overcame when she was faced with terrible circumstances! She dealt with the bad choices of others by trusting God and living her story in the best way. She’s strong and  inspires others!”

(Forgive the slight amount of hyperbole in the above examples.)

If MSNBC and Fox News can do it, so can we. We don’t always get to choose the story we’re telling, but we can always choose the way we tell it and teach others to tell it.

And I have to believe that no matter how the world (or the main character) jostles the author’s pen, God will continue writing until all of those unexpected plot points turn into the very best ending eventually.


October 1, 2014 — Leave a comment

It’s October 1.

Friends, I need to be honest about something, kind of ironically. I have to be vague about the things that are happening in my life for awhile. This is a time of uncertainty and transition.

If you pray, please add me to your list.

Over the weekend, one of our Scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary began to find good soil in my heart and I reflected on some things.

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lords aid to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

What an impossible situation! Moses and the whiny Israelites were in the desert and they were thirsty. Nevermind that God had taken care of all of the other needs they had–they needed water and so what did they do? They complained to Moses about it, rather than seeking God.

But Moses knew where to go. In the middle of what probably felt overwhelming and impossible, he hit his knees and turned to the one who had called him.

And God had a very strange answer for Moses. Water would flow from a rock!

When Moses prayed to God, I know he wasn’t even considering that as a possible answer to his prayer. Who would have ever thought that a rock would be the resolution? It wasn’t even in the peripheral when it came to considering solutions to the thirsty people problem.

God leads us on the strangest paths in times of uncertainty. The answers and good gifts of God may come in ways you would never have imagined.

One other thing I cling to in light of this Scripture. As Moses prayed, God promised, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock…” What an important reminder for Moses! When you get there, I’ll be there already. Walk confidently, Moses, because you’re headed in my direction! I won’t let you down.

I’m in search of the rock that is higher than I am. I’m praying. I’m seeking. I’m looking for God’s resolutions to come in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, in unexpected places. I’m glad to remember that whenever I arrive wherever that place is, God will be there, too.

Here are three additional books I read for my Foundations of Worship class at UDTS.

intro to worship#42

Title “Introduction to Christian Worship”     Author: James F. White

Number of Pages: 326    Total for 2014: 13,661

What It’s About: Surprisingly enough, this book is an introduction to Christian worship! How did the early church worship? How did worship change through the centuries? What about sacred music, baptism, and communion? Why are there so many different traditions? This book is a great primer for understanding Church worship and it was the basic text for our class discussions.




Title: Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With The Church  Author: Laurence Hull Stookey.

Number of Pages: 211    Total for 2014: 13,872

What it’s About: The traditions, practices, and understanding behind how the Eucharist is celebrated in the  Church. This book gives the history of practices around The Lord’s Supper and table fellowship.


worsihp wars#44

Title: Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship   Author: Thomas G. Long

Number of Pages:  136   Total for 2014: 14,008

What It’s About: It’s not about traditional vs. contemporary or old vs. new. It’s about worshiping well and strong leadership. In this book, Long looks at 9 characteristics shared by vital and faithful congregations practiced by churches that have moved beyond the debates many of us are still having. He gives practical advice for churches that want to put them into practice. This is a great book for worship leaders and worship planners!


Prayer Based on Psalm 121

August 12, 2014 — 2 Comments
lift my eyes

Photo taken by Jason Durham in the Medicine Bow Mountains

Today felt kind of sad. I can’t really explain why, except that I’m often affected by the sadness others carry and that seemed to be all around me today. It probably also has to do with a general lack of sleep, homesickness, and weariness. I expect tomorrow to feel different and I only mention it to give you context.

I had to write a prayer based on a Psalm for my Foundations of Worship class. I actually wrote two versions of this prayer based on Psalm 121–one the way it came out of my pen originally (featured here), and one more suited for corporate worship (written for “us”).

I didn’t have 17 hours to get the spacing right here, so click for a PDF.

iphone summer 244Thought I’d share another entry from my Spiritual Formation journal!

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the things that I do that make me a “healthy” pastor and the things that make me an “unhealthy” pastor.* This past week, I have walked to and from class, have made choices at meals that were a mix of healthy and unhealthy, have gone to the rec center for work outs, have spent time at my desk working hard, have consumed a lot of coffee, have slept six hours a night, and have taken time for outings with friends in my cohort. Overall, I’m fairly happy with how I’ve handled my health this first week. It’s true, there could have been less sugar and grease in my diet—a constant battle for me, and there are friends who would argue that three or four large cups of coffee daily is detrimental, but I have taken time to rest, play, foster relationships, move and sleep in the midst of this very busy, very intense week.

I feel good. Against all odds, I feel rested. I feel optimistic about the next four years. I know that there will be semesters and intensives when this is much harder and there is less time, but I hope that I can continue to make time for rest, to do things that are fun, to spend time with friends, to exercise, and to sleep each night. I hope to be challenged to take better care of my body by putting better foods into it. The coffee is here to stay, though. Every pastor needs at least one relatable vice, I figure!

*When one is in seminary, the word “pastor” takes on a transcendent quality–an “already, not yet.” Or, we are kind of pastors, but kind of not entirely. Hope that clears it up!

I wrote the title of this post (after several revisions–some of the first attempts were rather dramatic sounding) and sat for about ten minutes trying to determine how to get started.

In some ways, this week has flown by. In others, I can’t believe all of the things that have happened since I arrived here 184 hours ago. My classmates, almost completely strangers to me one week ago, have become trusted, much-loved friends. Lectures and classes that seemed a bit intimidating have become “old hat.” I’m still feeling a little rusty, but slowly I’m adjusting to the demands of being a student of humanities, with all the reading and writing that goes along with that. I finished my Theological Research class and have been dismissed to go in peace and cite in Turabian format for the next four years. I’ve consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 gallons of coffee and read a few hundred pages of words. I’ve been to a nearby convent and spent an evening in silent retreat. I’ve worked hard and played sometimes and have made it to the weekend (where there will be a bit more play time and lots of work to complete).

And even in my occasional sleep-deprived delirium, I’m having so much fun!

Everyone connected with the seminary has been so warm, kind, supportive and accessible. My classes have been filled with practical information, preparing me to either be student or pastor. My Foundations of Worship class has challenged me and given me a good understanding of why we worship how we worship (and next week, we do all the practical stuff about bulletins, sacraments, prayers, etc). My Spiritual Formation Group has given me space to pray and reflect.

blog1I miss Jason, of course, Tomorrow is our twelfth anniversary. I miss him and all the ways he supports me, some of them so quiet and “behind the scenes” they may sometimes go unappreciated in our every day life together. And I miss Jonas and knowing how first three days at school went. And I realize I haven’t even talked to my mother or any other friends or family members, and so I miss knowing how things are going for all of them. The students in my youth group and the children in my church started school this week–some of them achieving milestones like kindergarten, middle school or high school (and I’m grateful for the internet, because it meant I could “see” all of them in their backpacks and first-day outfits). I’m grateful for all the messages of encouragement and love I’ve received from my church family and friends.

This morning, one of the staff (and a new friend) is taking some of us to the Farmer’s Market and the Field of Dreams in nearby Dyersville, IA. This afternoon, I will be reading and studying. Tonight, I hope to eat dinner with classmates. Happy Saturday, friends!

cohort 2014

My brilliant and beautiful classmates!

So, it would be impossible to write stuff separately from all that I’m dong at UDTS during this first August Intensive, but I thought I’d just simply share what I wrote for my spiritual formation class journal today. Peace be with you and yours today!

Today’s first Spiritual Formation Group was unexpectedly meaningful to me. I say unexpectedly because I am exhausted. I was up late last night and by the time 4:15 rolled around this afternoon, it had been a very full day of new classes and Chapel and lots of human interaction, which had drained this introvert dry. So when Susan gave us the prayer walk time, I figured I’d just go wander and breathe and be grateful for ten minutes of non-interaction.

Before she sent us on our way, though, there was Psalm 139, read so beautifully by my individual classmates’ voices, which was particularly moving—to hear this passage read line by line by different voices. Then I sat with the Psalm and noticed all of the ways God is active. God searches me, knows me, and is ever present with me, no matter where I go. Not that I go somewhere and God appears, but that God is already there even when I arrive.

With those thoughts fresh in my head, I wandered off for the ten minute prayer walk. Compelled by the smell of old books, I headed for the Biblical Studies section of the library and wandered among the shelves. At one point, I stopped in a rather secluded row and stood, inhaling the scents and absent-mindedly reading titles. And then, I was nudged by these words: “Even here, I see you.” Amid all of those theologians, Bible scholars, and pages of ancient and modern words God still searches me and knows me. Thank goodness!

51mjYI8M9sL._AA160_Title: Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Author: Mary Roach

Format: Audiobook (on my way to Dubuque)

Date Started: July 29, 2014     Date Finished: August 1, 2014

Number of Pages: n/a (but 336 pages in the print edition, just fyi)

What It’s About: The space program and all of the odd things that astronauts (and astrochimps and astrodogs) have encountered and endured through the years, from initial rocket tests, to first orbits, to moon missions and space station adventures, and as the program continues to prepare for a “manned” mission to Mars. This book is quirky and fun.

Why I Read It: I heard an interview with the author (NPR, probably) and was interested to read this book. It did not disappoint!


51DJREGq67L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Title: The Silver Linings Playbook

Author: Matthew Quick

Date Started: July 10, 2014   Date Finished: July 29, 2014

Number of Pages: 302    Total for 2014: 13,335

What it’s About: Pat Peoples returns home after an extended stay at a neural healthy facility. Upon his return, he wrestles with his demons, works to regain relationships with family and friends and waits for his wife, Nikki, to return to him. He sees his life as a movie and knows that his happy ending is coming. But at home, his family is elusive and they are obviously hiding things from him. He makes new friends–his counselor, a girl named Tiffany, a bunch of fellow Eagles fans…but the missing pieces keep haunting him.

Why I Read It: It’s been on my list for awhile. I’ve seen the movie and I really enjoyed the book!

41uomGAKLPL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Title: For One More Day

Author: Mitch Albom

Date Started: July 28, 2014  Date Finished: July 28, 2014

Number of Pages: 208   Total for 2014: 13,033

What It’s About: The story of Charley, a one time baseball star and child torn between two parents…now a father, a husband and an alcoholic ruining his relationships and life. In the wake of an accident caused by his drunken state, Charley runs into the one person he did not expect to see and the person who can add fresh perspective to his entire life. What if you had just one more day with a person you’ve lost?

Why I Read It: Book Club!!!