Pruning

I struggled to wake up this morning. Coffee in hand, stretching towards some greater level of consciousness, I prowled around the house. Sank into the couch, wrapped in a quilt, to catch a bit of the local, pre-“Today Show” news about traffic jams and incoming rain while I waited for David’s bus to arrive.

I dozed off.

I woke up again, the second time seeming to take a bit better than the first.

In the midst of the morning routine, I sat down and read these words:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

This is Jesus speaking, from the writings of John, chapter 15. Whether or not you believe in Jesus, this is admittedly a powerful visual statement of His relationship with God and the implied health of our connection with God through Christ.

I have read and heard these verses many times, almost always in a rush to get to those that follow: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” These words have always showered down upon my head in the middle of a passionate message about staying close to Jesus, reading the Bible, praying without ceasing, etc.

But so often these days, I’m looking past – or in front of – the obvious, the familiar and the known. I’m looking a little deeper. I hear that often about our church; people complain and even leave because they want something “deeper“, which amuses me on a personal level, because as God continues to shift me on my self-absorbed, narcissistic axis, a new perspective leads me every time to something “deeper”. I’m often stunned at how easily accustomed I am to words that I’ve heard in church for years, to the degree that they slip right by me, devoid of any power, because I’ve heard it all before. It’s the new, fresh, often overlooked stuff that is taking me to a deeper point in my spiritual journey than ever before.

I digress.

The point is, I read the first two sentences of this chapter and stopped. I could go no further.

I have some friends who are in the process of being pruned right now; they are in a season of growth, reevaluation, reexamination, reclamation. God is whispering and they are listening. The Spirit is nudging and they are responding. In all cases – four, to be exact – I have witnessed tears and heart-wrenching sorrow, emotional responses of pain and loss and grieve and fear that are almost paralyzing. I find myself inadequate, inept, with nothing left to offer but my presence, a Kleenex and some Oreos and ice cream.

This is new territory.

In the middle of the pain of this season, I caught hold of this verse, and it occurred to me that the beauty in the pain, the sorrow from the ashes, might well start with the incredible honor of being chosen.



“Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

There is a promise of hope and potential and Presence in that sentence that, today, is as powerful as any other statement of faith. Those pithy statements like, “God will never leave you or forsake you; God never gives you more than you can bear; and lo, I am with you always; God is my strength and my shield” – those are strong, to be sure.

But to know that you are chosen to be “pruned” – reduced, cut back, trimmed – because of what your life has borne thus far, in order to possess a life that is even fuller and more productive?

That’s a holy thing, I think, even in the pain; perhaps even a large part of this sanctification process that we enter into when we start chasing the Goose.

What’s The Difference?

Another long day at PCC yesterday – but SO worth it! I referenced on Facebook the 13-hour workday that most of us had put in yesterday. A friend commented, “Awesome – you only had to work a 1/2-day!”

Ha. He works at a church, too.

We ended the evening with a night of worship, communion and vision-casting. We had a full band, most of whom had been there (along with the full tech team) since 7:00 AM. It was exhausting but great fun for us all.

Here’s something interesting I noted: the audience participation last night was off the charts. The difference between the AM and PM services were like night and day. And for the musicians on the platform, this is a HUGE thing. We feed off the energy in the crowd to a degree that you might not imagine if you’re not watching for it. Last night was so energizing and refreshing for us, to see (and hear) singing and movement and obvious engagement.

And I’m wondering: Why? What’s the difference between the morning and the evening? If you were part of the gathering last night, I’d love your feedback. Is it because of how we design the services? Expectations? Morning versus evening?

As we move forward and contemplate adding a third service to accommodate growth, your input could be quite valuable. Would you mind taking a few minutes to share your thoughts?

We’re Gettin Ready To Chase The Goose!

We’re in the midst of a new season at our church. Lots of changes afoot, mainly centered in the way we function. We’ve always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants sort of organization, which is okay and bearable for a while.

But there is a breaking point, and it seems to have to do with numerical growth – simply balancing resources and energy and people.

We’re there.

So we’ve been doing lots of forward planning, some painful rearranging of work methods and priorities and some serious – and often challenging – introspection. We’re holding one another accountable, in love. We’re acknowledging where folks have been hurt in the past and striving to honor the spirit of fellowship to which we are called.

All that to say this:

We have been leaning into preparation for this next series, which is based on a book about the Holy Spirit by Mark Batterson called Wild Goose Chase. I have heard that there are some misgivings about what is happening here – is Brian simply doing a weekly book report? Are we turning from the Bible and “studying” a book instead?

Because planning services is the bulk of my job at PCC, I can attest to this:  
The Wild Goose Chase series is one of the most God-centered, transformational content we’ve ever explored. At it’s core, the study/series/book is founded on the principle that God’s spirit changes lives – and that in order to live transformed lives, we must be able to see where God’s spirit can and will move in us, through us and with us.

We are prepared and excited. We have been praying. We have been working, hoping our efforts to transform ourselves and our physical surroundings will mirror and inspire the change we pray will come in our spiritual lives.

I hope you’ll be there.

A few photos from last night’s work follow. And, by the way, if you’re interested in being involved in efforts like this, let me know. We’d love to offer others the opportunity to be part of this exciting, creative and life-changing process!

Debbie and Betty cutting letters…
Tony and Keith on the lift…taking a little bit of a risk, I’d say…

The view from the back as we struggled to get the right height and angles…

Side panels, with paintings by Angie DiNardi…

Close up of one of the cages, designed and built by Debbie and Keith Williams

A better view

My number one helper.

Just so you know what it took to make this happen….

Bringing Peace

Wrapping up a long day of meetings, listening, reading, thinking, painting prep, feeling the minutes tick away until Sunday’s launch of a new series and a new paradigm for our music teams. It’s 7:25 and I’m still at the office.

I need peace this evening, as I sit alone in a building designed to be full of life and spirit and bodies. Sometimes it feels incredibly empty and lonely when there’s no one else here.

But tonight, I just feel the resonance of a lyric that has lived in my soul for many, many years, from the pen of a man who now sees Jesus face to face.

Can you just fathom that for a moment? That Rich Mullins, who taught us to sing

“Oh God, you are my God
And I will ever praise you”

now looks at the One who offered him salvation and can say – to his face – “Oh God, you are my God, and I will ever praise you…”

Face to face with the creator of the universe.

There are some parts to this life of following Christ that I cannot comprehend. It is a mystery to me.

Which is as it should be.

Grateful for this peace tonight. Hope it might bring the same to you.

Remembering Shawn Brown

Today I dropped my kids off at the high school early. Some students and a few parents, including a local school board representative, were already gathering around the tall flagpole that stands in the center of the circular drive.

And I remembered.

September 15, 1999. The “See You At The Pole” movement had begun in Burleson, Texas, a few years earlier. As the school year began, the call went out for Christian students to meet at the flagpole on a certain Wednesday morning, taking a stand, praying for their school, their friends and teachers. “Standing up for Jesus”. It had become a strong, well-attended event for Christian kids, especially in and around Fort Worth, where we lived. In the shadow of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where my kids’ dad was working on his Master’s Degree, events like this one received strong support from the community, the parents and the kids.

As SYATP gained momentum, pre- and post-pole gatherings became popular. In 1999, local churches planned to gather on that Wednesday evening to celebrate at Wedgwood Baptist Church with a rally, a cool Christian band and some typical Texas youth ministry fun.

Sarah was eight years old that year. Her kindergarten teacher from a previous year, Kathy Brown, was active at Wedgwood Baptist and excited to come by early to pick up Sarah and Shannon so that they could participate in SYATP at our neighborhood elementary school. This was a bit unusual, as this was an older youth event, but Kathy’s husband Shawn was a Southwestern student, a youth ministry leader at Wedgwood and crazy about his wife and her students. They babysat Sarah and Shannon for us on a few occasions (David was born in June of that year, and we had a full house, with five kids aged eight and under. We needed help!)

Shawn and Kathy took the girls to pray at the flagpole that morning. I was so proud of my kids, and they were excited to be part of something that the “big kids” did.

That night, we went to church as usual. For some reason, Lonnie had elected not to participate in the regional rally at Wedgwood. He led youth ministry at Southcliff Baptist church, and he decided to keep our students there rather than take them – and his wife and kids – to Wedgwood. I dropped off the older kids and ran a quick errand, since I had no Wednesday evening responsibilities at that time.

I heard the sirens, saw the fire trucks. Saw the mass confusion on the streets all around the neighborhood. I returned to our church and quickly began to hear news reports of a shooting.

In a church.

At Wedgwood.

Shawn Brown died that night, along with six other people. Our neighbors.  Larry Gene Ashbrook went to Wedgwood with a hatred for Baptist churches and a desire to do harm, and he did so. He walked into the church and began shooting. Shawn was the first one he hit.

I remember staying up late, watching the chaos of the news reports, repeatedly calling Shawn and Kathy, trying to figure out if they were safe. Realizing, with numbing horror, that they were not.

To this day, Sarah keeps a snapshot of Shawn beside her bed. That event marked her in ways that she couldn’t understand then. I’m not sure any of us understand today. It was my first brush with the pain wrought by evil and the shocking realization that church was not necessarily safe.

I was naive.

My “See You At The Pole” commemoration is not in front of a school. Today, I remember Shawn and six others who stood at their flagpoles eleven years ago, and then died at the hands of someone who hated everything they stood for.

Tending My Soul

Sometime between Sunday afternoon and Monday lunch, the PCC staff sends around email notices to one another to share our schedules. Some of us include lots of details – including things like what we’re having for lunch (last week one of Lindsay’s days included leftover pizza. That’s good to know.) Seriously, we keep one another informed, help to hold one another accountable and feel more like a team when we do this.

One thing that is challenging for every person on staff is the need to have a sabbath day; a day of rest. Yesterday at baptism, my friend Cheryl Tomandl asked how I was doing with making sure I had a day of rest each week. I shrugged it off, smiled and said something about it being a really busy season. New series, new thematic goal, new small groups, major reorganization of music teams, jump in attendance, on and on and on.

But her question stuck with me. I thought back to last week, when I sat in the office on Friday morning (a day that MOST of the staff takes as a Sabbath day) and watched as, one by one, my coworkers came into the office. Some were there to offer counseling, have meetings, pick up work that hadn’t gotten finished on Thursday, take work home to complete over the weekend…almost everybody cruised by at some point.

We work hard. There’s so much to do – it seems, at times, as if we have no choice. But after Cheryl’s question yesterday, I thought a bit more about the idea of sabbath. It seems so optional – I’m confessing here – as in the idea that I’ll take a sabbath if I can spare the time. And yet there’s no presumption of choice when it comes to whether or not it is right to steal, kill, lie or commit adultery. Those thing are wrong.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the list of God’s ten commandments to his people include one that we conveniently ignore? And, like the others, it’s obvious that doing so is to our own detriment.

Somewhere, I have read that refusing to rest from your work – especially in ministry – is the ultimate in arrogance. As if we believe that God cannot accomplish his purposes without our help or influence.

I decided last night to take today as a Sabbath day when it comes to my job responsibilities. For the most part, it has been a successful attempt. I have not answered the emails, even as I see them piling up in my inbox (thanks to my smart phone). I have not spent mental energy thinking about church.

Here’s what I did do:

  • I refrained from arguing when Tony turned off my alarm and got up with the kids for school. I kept sleeping. I will confess that I slept until 10:55 AM – serious sleep, not the “wake up and decide to stay in bed for a while longer” thing. I did not wake up until almost 11:00 AM. And I went to bed at 11:00 PM. What does that tell me about my physical condition? I have to assume that I slept that late because I needed rest. So I’m not going to feel ashamed or embarrassed about that, even though I know my mom is reading this (insert sheepish grin. Sorry, Mom!)
  • I sat on the deck with a cup of coffee and watched three or four leaves float lazily through the air. I think they’re bailing out early, but fall is upon us. I thought about life and death and how short the span is if you’re a leaf.
  • I washed, folded and put away clothes. Four loads at this point.
  • I cleaned the kitchen.
  • I sorted a pile of school papers and mail; clipped some coupons.
  • I continued to check on Syd, who is home sick with that head cold/crud that’s going around.
  • I listened to two episodes of This American Life. I love stories. And I am an NPR geek.

I am headed to the gym. I will work out. I will make a quick stop at the grocery store and come home to whip us some homemade chicken soup for all of us, in the hopes that we can stave off this illness that Syd’s battling.

I’m not sure why this is so difficult for me, to stop doing, even for a 24 hour period. It is. But I’m determined to rethink my lack of attention to this – not simply to “take a day off”, but to tend to my soul and my family with more intentional actions.

And to stop doing.

The photo above is from a lighthouse at the Outer Banks, shot on our honeymoon in December. That was the last, best time away I can recall – true Sabbath time. My soul was filled.

Shelter In The Eye Of The Storm

The past two Sundays have been incredibly long – 12-14 hours non-stop. It’s a busy season, and it’s temporary – hopefully soon I’ll reclaim the occasional Sunday afternoon nap while I listen to the Redskins lose.

But today was a GREAT day. The gathering at the Powhatan Campus was electric and fun. Our band had three people who had never been part of leading on a Sunday morning – for one of them (David Herring, our drummer), it was not only his PCC debut but also his birthday! Nathan Wheeler did an outstanding job demonstrating his guitar skills and Pat Driscoll proved to be an excellent stage hand turned guitarist (I love these humble guys who shrug and say, “Oh, I play a little…” – that’s Pat. And by the way, “a little” turned out to be “Oh, I shred some pretty wild metal licks and can do whatever you need…”)

We followed morning services with lots of afternoon activities, culminating with a baptism in the James River in Cartersville. I had the incredible privilege of baptizing my friend Mel, blown away by her bold statement that “Jesus is Lord – and MY LEADER.” I stayed in the water and was honored to help with a few more baptisms. I never get over this act of obedience; I looked at this long line of people on the boat ramp today, stepping into the water in faith and expecting transformation, and I’m staggered by the “huge-ness” of this thing we call “church”.

Making disciples. Leading people. Reaching people.

It is staggering, indeed.

One of my favorite parts of the day was the second song we did, “Rock In A Weary Land” by Ashley Cleveland. We did this at Element 3 Church with my brother in Tallahassee earlier this summer, and though I remember Eric doing a bang-up job on the vocal and guitar solos, what I really remember is that I FORGOT the counting part. I jumped from number four to number six and back to three or something ridiculous. Well, today, I led the whole thing and I worked my tail off to get those numbers right! It was a ton of fun, especially since the band was made complete by Andy Vaughn (great friend), Sarah Brawley (wonderful daughter) and Tony Stoddard (pretty awesome husband). We had some inherent chemistry, folks.

I loved “Rock In A Weary Land”, but I’m no fool. Nobody can top Ashley Cleveland.

So, for your Monday morning pleasure, please enjoy Ms. Cleveland and Kenny Greenburg tearing up this tune.