I sat at a picnic table in the backyard of my parents’ house last summer on a gorgeous Wisconsin summer morning. It was my birthday (July 26), and I was nearly four weeks into a three month sabbatical that my church had granted me and my family for seven years of ministry here in Denver. The sun was climbing up over the eastern horizon and the birds were singing and there was dew on the grass. It was perfect.
The usual morning accompaniments of course were with me: coffee, Bible, pen and paper. I opened to my Gospel reading for the day and started reading. John 3. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus hit me like a ton of bricks… the wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Over and over I read those words. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
Jesus is claiming that there is something fundamentally “unexpected to be expected” from those who follow him, who are blown along by his life-giving Spirit. We don’t always know–no, even better–we almost never know ahead of time the path we are going to take, for the very excellent reason that we never know exactly what he’s going to do, how he’s going to lead us. Jesus is in charge, and with him in charge, anything can happen. This, Robert Jensen claims, is just what we should expect from a living God, writing:
What are we necessarily affirming when we say that he (Jesus), unexpectedly, lives? What is the basic difference between a living person and dead one? And surely we must say: the decisive difference between a living person and a dead one is that the former can surprise us as the latter cannot…if Jesus lives, he is an agent in my life, and one whom I must expect to act freely, whom I could know perfectly and yet not always anticipate. – ST I, P. 198
Accordingly, following Jesus has turned out to be nothing like I expected. You set out on the journey with an idea of the path you will take with him, and then find it full of twists and turns that you could not have anticipated. Faith is believing that those twists and turns are governed by a supervening Wisdom–the very Providence of God. God knows what he is doing. Surprising us continually, he himself is surprised by nothing; certainly not the unusual way our lives turn out. God is not asleep at the wheel.
I’ve been the pastor of a marvelous church in Denver, Colorado (Bloom) since 2009. Outside of being Mandi’s husband and Ethan, Gabe, Bella, and Liam’s father, pastoring Bloom has been the great delight of my life. When we moved here nearly eight years ago, I thought for sure that if the church didn’t die (which was at that time far more likely than unlikely), I would spend the rest of my life pastoring here. When the community started rounding into shape after those first few very challenging years, I watched my heart attach itself ferociously to the dream of a lifetime of ministry in Denver. I held Bloom close to my heart and fell in love with the work and with the people here. It was a dream come true, being able to be part of a community that lived gospel and kingdom the way this community did. And to be given the gift of leading the charge in that effort as a primary shepherd and voice in the community… I savored that. It felt like grace. Even during some of the hardest and darkest days of our community’s life, I would still lay awake at night or come to prayer in the morning and dream dreams of a vibrant future in this particular community, building and extending this particular work.
All of that is a way of saying… I have loved being Bloom’s pastor. Never had a “Plan B.” Never wanted one.
But God is full of surprises.
When I was in highschool I remember being in a prayer meeting where one of the men in the church, a man whose faith I greatly respected, was praying over me. As long as I live I’ll never forget how at one point he stopped praying and said, “Andrew, look at me.” Startled at the abruptness of his command, I looked up. He was a northeasterner with a thick accent and some of the most intense eyes I’ve ever looked in. He said to me, “This is what the Lord is saying to you: make your plans, and know that I will change them.”
Make your plans, and know that I will change them… those words always stuck with me, not because they are easy or because they resonate with me in some ooey-gooey sentimental way; but because they are hard and I kind of hate them.
In the “for what it’s worth” category, I’m a “1” in the Enneagram and an “INFJ” in the Myers-Briggs. If that means nothing else to you, know that it means this: I live in my dreams of the future. The whole organizing principle of my personality is towards a set of ideals that “one day”, given enough hard work and prayer and maybe a little luck (but not too much, or it would rob the process of its integrity), will be realized in space and time. One of my mentors, himself an expert in Myers-Briggs temperament theory, says that my personality bathes itself, refreshes itself in dreams of the future. To be sure, they are sometimes outrageously utopian and unrealistic, but they power my personality nonetheless. That’s an enormous part of what made pastoring at Bloom fun… the continual effort to pull a community up into the great ideals of the Church and of the Kingdom. Whenever we would begin to live one or another piece of those dreams, my heart would swell with joy. It’s like I was being permitted, if even for a moment, the opportunity to stand in the City that burned in my heart day and night.
As such, I get pretty attached to my ideas of what the future is “supposed” to be. It’s part of the strength of who I am; it is where much of the deep conviction of my preaching and leadership comes from. I can speak compellingly of the future to my church because in my heart I have already walked in the future… I can feel it, taste it, smell it. The writer of Hebrews says that faith itself is the “substance” of what we hope for and the “evidence” of what cannot be seen (Heb 11). Which is to say that when you have faith you have the future. Verses like that resonate with me. They are where I live.
Discipleship is not following an abstraction known as “the future.” It is following Jesus. The hard part of discipleship for me has been learning to live in the gifts God has given me (standing in the future and “reporting back” from there chief among those) while at the same time holding my idea of the future loosely enough to realize that “in his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines where he steps” (Pr 16:9). My gifts may glimpse the future in some or another aspect, but it is obedience to the Lord that takes us into the future that he actually is dreaming rather than the one dimly perceived by imaginations clouded as much by ambition and fear as they are faith. This is why faith, even for the writer of Hebrews, is not merely “seeing” or “sensing” the future and then trying to go out and do it. Faith is beholding the Lord and submitting ourselves to the One who himself IS the Future.
Jesus is our future.
And that can be hard to come to grips with.
Two Easters ago at Bloom (spring of 2015), in preparation for Pentecost, we decided to host a weekly prayer meeting in the basement of the church where we meet. We’d come through a fairly difficult season and were getting ready to head into a time of building a good bit of new structure to support the work we felt called to do. So there was a great need to bathe the community in prayer. Those meetings tended to be pretty well attended and were very fun. We had no real agenda other than to wait on the Holy Spirit to see what he would speak and breathe and do. Lots of people were touched in profound ways in those meetings and we prayed well for the church during them.
One of the things I will never forget about them is how week in and week out, a prayer for Bloom burned in me, which I would frequently share with the group. As we were getting ready to head into a fresh season of building and cultural development and all the fun stuff (the future!), my prayer was that “Bloom would rise in her God-given power of self-determination.” That is, that she would rise in her maturity, knowing who she is and what she’s about, taking ownership of her being and destiny, and beginning to take steps towards God’s dreams for her. Not simply looking to one or two leaders to TELL HER the path, but beginning to see herself as a total community waiting on God to discern and give shape to the path. That prayer dogged me that spring, and as spring turned to summer and the group continued to desire to meet for prayer, it continued to dog me… That Bloom would rise in her God-given power of self-determination. We prayed into that quite a bit that summer.
As summer turned to fall, the sense began to build in my heart that Bloom would not be able to do that unless I personally created space for that to happen; that unless I deliberately surrendered direct influence over crucial areas of our community’s life, the community would forever remain locked up in the developmental state she had been in up to that point. I didn’t want that. I wanted maturity. Ownership. I wanted to watch them fight through the things that I had fought through and thus grow up into a genuine possession of the ministry of this community. I wanted them to learn to “ride the bike” the way I had. That meant laying down things I cared about. How exactly we gather for worship. What exactly our liturgy looked like. How we organized this and that. What happened in such and such ministry. You name it. I gave it over, and started stepping back into what felt like more of a supportive or coaching role or something of that nature.
It was thrilling. Thrilling to watch the community round even more into shape. Different gifts and abilities rising up into their full capacity. The community genuinely putting its own “stamp” on our culture, while holding fast to our values and commitments. The maturity and “power of self-determination” we had been praying for started coming into being right before my eyes. Thrilling, thrilling, thrilling…
And also massively disorienting…
Disorienting because I loved this work. I loved talking about it. Loved theorizing about it. Loved failing at it and having to go back to the drawing board and reinventing it. Loved doing it and watching it work and bless people. Loved being at the center of a creative process that touched people’s lives. It brought so much purpose and meaning to my own.
As we went into the spring of last year (2016) my soul would lurch back and forth between the joy of surrender and the fear of losing what had been so meaningful for me. I’m sure I made the team here crazy. Happily relinquished one day. Fearfully gripping my old role another day. I was a mess, and at times thought I was genuinely losing my mind. It wasn’t until the sabbatical that clarity began to come. It started occuring to me that the stress and tension I’d been experiencing were more or less a product of trying desperately to hold onto something–a work I valued, an idea of the future I had fallen in love with, an identity I had defined myself by–that the Lord was asking me to lay down. The Wind was blowing, and rather than setting my sails to it, I was frantically clutching the dock… I began to think, “If you take the fear of the unknown off the table…the fear of losing your picture of how it all is ‘supposed’ to go…the fear of letting go of an identity that has become so familiar to you…the fear of losing your grip on a work that has been so meaningful for you…what are you left with?”
The answer was immediately and self-evidently obvious to me: joy. I kept thinking of the statement of John when he begins to “lose his ministry” to Jesus:
“A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3).
The journey of the last 18-24 months for me at Bloom has been watching this community embrace wholeheartedly the person and presence of the Lord Jesus, falling in love with him, and rising into their God-given capacities. The way our leadership teams function… the way our staff functions… the way our house churches and section leaders function and how wonderfully they lead their communities… faithfully and full of love and openness to the Spirit and humbly with each other and I COULD JUST KEEP GUSHING… Bloom is amazing. In so many ways, the church I always dreamed of belonging to.
And best of all, it all more or less happens without me. It has been for awhile. That music that is the song of the kingdom… they’ve caught it and are singing it with gusto. And the “knowing” that started to creep into our bones during the sabbatical was that the best, the right next step, for both the sake of Bloom’s ongoing development in maturity and for our own sakes as people trying to stay submitted to the Father in all things, was to surrender our role in the community entirely, giving her completely over to Jesus. The Bride belongs to the Bridegroom…the friend who attends waits and listens…and is full of joy when he hears the Bridegroom’s voice…that joy is mine, and it is now complete…he must become greater…
I realize that this is not really the next play on the imaginary “call sheet” for pastors in my position. Bloom is finally where I always hoped it would be. Robust ministry. Clear culture. Layer upon layer of great leaders. Financially sound. The next play is withdrawing more and more from the daily realities of ministry here to write and travel and speak and all of that… that’s what you do. It’s what I wanted.
And yet… when Mandi and I held that before the Lord, it just didn’t resonate. That sense of “yes” that has guided our lives and our ministry here was absent when we would sit before him with that path. I know it’s what a lot of pastors do. I don’t fault anyone for doing it. There’s nothing wrong with it. I would have done it myself if I had sensed a “yes” on it. But we don’t. We didn’t during the sabbatical. And we didn’t when we came back to the community in the fall. In fact, coming back only confirmed the feeling. We kept saying to each other “This is theirs now. It’s time to give it to them all the way.”
So we’re turning it over. The whole kit and kaboodle.
That of course left some big questions about what was next for us. And there again the Lord provided confirmation. Late last year the leadership at New Life Church (Colorado Springs), with whom we’ve had a really lovely relationship over the last five years or so, approached me asking me to join their team as a teaching pastor, preaching across their various campuses and expressions as well as working behind the scenes on some strategic issues. As we prayed on it, the pieces seemed to click into place. We don’t have to uproot our Colorado existence. We get to stay in as much relationship with Bloom as Bloom desires. And we get to join an incredible team in a work that we’ve enjoyed watching from afar for several years now. It’s thrilling to think about working alongside Brady and Daniel and Glenn and the rest of the crew… we’re incredibly excited to see what the Lord does there.
And sad. My goodness I am sad. Sad because of how much we love this place and these people and this culture… sad because letting go is hard… sad because of the memories we made here… sad because we met the Lord here. We grew here. I grew here. In ways I’m not sure I could have elsewhere. I remember leaving our church in Tulsa years ago and saying to the congregation, “I used to think that good pastors make good churches; being with you has made me realize that it is at least as if not more true that good churches make good pastors. You’ve helped make me who I am.”
Nearly eight years in Denver laboring alongside these wonderful people (too many to name) has confirmed that truth that in ways I could never adequately express. What we experienced here we will cherish forever. Who we became here will stay with us forever. We are so unbelievably grateful.
I hope that if you’ve read this far, you’ll pray over us. And over Bloom. Being off of social media last year, I haven’t been able to chirp as much about this community as I once did. But my goodness… it’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen. Takes my breath away. When we came here, Bloom was 50-80 or so people. She’s up near the 500’s now. Worshiping in two locations with house churches spread all across the Denver area… a liturgy and a communal rule of life and engagement with the world and the poor and the wayward and the lost and a way of being that just REEK of the kingdom. To step into this community is to taste the life of the age to come. I don’t say that lightly, and I don’t exaggerate. It’s incredible. I hope you’ll keep Bloom on your radar. She’s got more in front of her than behind her. I really believe that.
And for us… pray that the move will go smoothly. That we’ll find a new equilibrium in the Springs. That New Life would be blessed and strengthened by our presence as we find our place there. And that more of the kingdom would come into the world through it all.
All the love in the world, friends. Thanks for your interest and encouragement and prayers. They mean more than you know.
And also, in the “for what it’s worth” category, sorry for my silence and aloofness over the last 18 months or so… in my gut I knew I needed to pull as far back as I possibly could to encounter the Lord again and hear his voice.
I did. And it made all the difference. Thanks for permitting me that. Can’t wait to get back into the swing of sharing the journey with you all…
Grace and peace,