Deconstruction, not Demolition (Guest post from Zach Hoag & a Giveaway!)

My buddy Zach just published a breathtaking book called The Light is Winning. These are his words, so if you like them, go get a copy of the book, or enter the giveaway below and win your very own copy!

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Over time, I’ve come to believe that the American church cannot be its true self and will never accomplish its gospel mission unless it continually repents of its entanglement with the business of empire and gets back on the kingdom track. Repentance as an ongoing spiritual practice is one of the most beautiful fruits of an apocalypse in our lives, if we are willing to receive it. Will we participate in this necessary suffering leading us to a necessary ending and a new beginning? Or will we keep delaying the inevitable by holding on to that which is passing away?

The New Testament provides a powerful testimony against American consumerist metrics of spiritual achievement. It claims that not only did the Messiah suffer and die, but he did so as a pattern for his people: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). A necessary suffering leading to a necessary ending.

What a contrast to the rhetoric we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing in our American Christian culture. We talk endlessly about being “world changers” who have churches that grow “exponentially.” We are obsessed with triumphalist positivity. We hold conference after conference and workshop after workshop to unlock more material success. Our values are “the bigger, the better.” The shinier, the better. The more media coverage, the more likes and shares, the more sold-out shows and events, the better. We are a mess of consumerist obligations, desperately seeking identity in what the church can acquire. We are drowning in the metrics of spiritual achievement.

Like Don Draper in Mad Men, we are trying to sell happiness.

Even in the realm of church planting, we have bought into these metrics, convincing ourselves that an ever-evolving set of strategies will surely lead us to the promised land of a brand new megachurch/multichurch empire. The church I planted was small, but I still desperately wanted it to succeed, and to make a mark and “leave a legacy.” And I held it so tightly, allowing myself to drift into anxiety and frustration that skewed my perspective. But even when success is achieved, consumerist obligations still lead us off the kingdom course. They are no sign of health, no measure of mission. They are first-half-of-life exercises in idealism that barely scratch the surface of who the church really is, her true self.

In the words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “Church growth strategies are the death gurgle of a church that has lost its way.”

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In one of my final sermons to our dwindling church plant, I talked a little bit about grace:

Grace is surrender.

Grace, really, is giving up.

It’s giving up on self, and it’s giving up on striving. It’s giving up plans and dreams and hopes. It’s giving up your vision. It’s giving up on the purpose and direction that you hold dear and precious, like Paul did when he experienced insults and hardships and persecutions that rudely interrupted his purpose and direction.

Grace is that kind of giving up.

Grace is often the death of what is most dear. Sometimes, grace is the death of your life’s work. The death of the thing that you have poured every waking moment into, for years. The thing that has caused you to stay awake for countless sleepless nights. The thing that you dedicated every ounce of who you are to build, every drop of blood in your heart expended until you have nothing left. Grace is watching that work fall apart, assailed and attacked until it comes crumbling down bit by bit, stone by stone.

Grace is the very soft place of defeat and death.

Our church plant had to die for deeper health to come to everyone involved, including myself and my little family. And while it took some darkness and deconstruction for my heart to accept the words I shared that day, I finally did, and I felt free.

And not a moment too soon. Rob Bell, the author who famously left the pastorate at his midwestern megachurch for a less institutional path, once said, “If the sitcom is funny for five seasons, they make seven. Most people stay too long. And what should be a graduation becomes a divorce.” While I never fully stopped going to church or serving the church in those few years after the church closure, deep down, I was done. My wife was done. Our family was done. And once I accepted that doneness, new perspectives burst wide open. And what had been a dark and churning cynicism, still wrestling with the eruption I’d experienced, at last settled into a calming realism, an acceptance of all that had happened, an openness to all that may lie ahead.

For just as the wilderness was temporary for the Israelites, who, liberated, yet found themselves wandering and waiting for what’s next, so the wilderness that you and I may have to traverse, for however long, is temporary. This deconstruction is not demolition. Not if we exit through the wilderness and to the place of promise.

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As mentioned above, I've got a copy of Zach's book to give away, and I can't wait to send it you (yes you!) You can get one entry apiece for doing each of the following things: 

1. Subscribe to Zach's newsletter at zhoag.com/newsletter

2. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zhoag

3. Leave a comment below about ways that you see the light winning in your own life

4. Order a copy of "The Light is Winning"

These are all on the honor system, so nobody is going to check to make sure you actually did them, but who would lie about something like this? Not you? Awesome. Comment below and let me know which of the 4 (or all of the 4) that you did, and please leave your email address. 

The contest will run until 9PM Pacific time on Friday, June 16th. I'll contact the winner via email and get a book sent out on Monday, June 19th. 

Best of luck!

Excerpted with permission from THE LIGHT IS WINNING by Zach Hoag, which is available NOW wherever books are sold.

Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. Planting a church in one of the least churched cities in the U.S. (Burlington, Vermont), and pursuing ministry beyond that in a variety of spaces, Zach has learned a few things about the power of a deeply rooted life in Christ. Zach has found belonging in the Vermont countryside where he lives with his wife, Kalen, and their three girls. Find him writing at zhoag.com and follow him on Twitter @zhoag.

When I Finally Decided to Start Taking Care of Myself

Like a lot of parents, I’m not great at self-care.


I thought I was. If you’d asked me a year ago, “Hey Stephen, are you taking care of yourself? Doing what you need to stay in a good place?” I’d have given you an emphatic yes.

I made time to read books. I took time to write. I went out and got drinks with friends every now and then (after the kids went to sleep.) I even made time to play golf occasionally.

I had self-care figured out.

Or so I thought.

I’ve written before on a dark time in my life, when I was working sixty hours a week at 3 part-time jobs, and still barely keeping my head above water. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was tired, cranky, and with no signs of improvement on the horizon, I turned to the only thing I could control.


Food.

It started innocently enough. I was in a hurry, so dinner was from the drive-thru. I was on my feet all day, so I was hungry, so I needed to eat a little more. This quickly turned into a breakfast in the drive-thru on the way to work, and dinner from the same drive-thru on the way home. I couldn’t control my job or the fact that I was getting shot down for interview after interview,

But I could control food.

I weighed 175 pounds when I got married in 2006. In December of 2012, I hit 250.

Now thankfully, I have a wife who is honest, even when I sometimes don’t want her to be. We had a heart to heart at one point and she said, very plainly, that she’d like me to be alive to see my kids graduate High School and to not eat from a drive-thru every day.

Which seemed like a totally reasonable request.

One which I took to heart, for a few months.


Then went right back to the world of CrunchWraps and McChickens.

Over the course of the next 3 years, I went back and forth, at times slimming down to 220, then getting right back to 250. As soon as I was remotely happy with the progress I’d been making, the dollar menu would suck me right back in.

So what was happening? Was my willpower that awful? Was my self-control that weak?

Turns out, when you don’t feel like you’re worth taking care of, you don’t take care of yourself.


I’m not saying this to get pity. I’ve long dealt with feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. I’m an 2 on the Enneagram, and as such, my basic fear is that of being unwanted, or unworthy of love. As a result of this, I can come on very strong in a social situation because I want to be liked and valued.

Realizing this was like taking off a blindfold.

This was why I hadn’t been taking care of myself. This was why, no matter how hard I seemed to try, the pull of the value menu was too strong to overcome. I didn’t inherently see myself as worth taking care of, so why bother?

That changed this year.

I made a deal with myself in 2017. I would eat better (not perfect, I still love french fries and nuggets) and I would exercise. I would begin the slow work of actually taking care of not just my mind, but my body.

It’s going to be a slow journey. I started running regularly in January and though it is easier now than it was, it is still painful. The miles hurt. I am sore. I do not enjoy running, but I love the way I feel when I’m done running. Like I’ve accomplished something. Like I’m worth taking care of. Like I matter.

I ran a 5k on Saturday. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be willingly getting up to go run on a Sunday morning at 7:45 AM, I’d have laughed in your face. Truth is, I was terrified. I was scared I won’t make it. I was scared I wouldn’t have the stamina to get through it. I’m scared that I will be the last person across the line. I was scared that my family would come to watch me finish and see me walking across the finish line in defeat.

But you know what? I did it.

I’m taking those voices that tell me I’m not worth it, and I’m shutting them down. They’re still there, but I’m choosing to ignore them. They will never go away. They will always be there, whispering in my ear that I'm unlovable and unworthy, but they will not have power over me anymore.

With this small step, I’m showing myself that I’m worth taking care of.

And so are you.

I Need You

This is a piece that I wrote when my youngest daughter was 6 days old. I can't believe it's been that long. 

There’s this beautiful story in the gospel of Matthew, and though I’ve heard it dozens, probably hundreds of times, it’s never really resonated with me until I had children.

“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said,“why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret.”

For years, I’ve read this story and taken it as a lesson on faith. Peter had little faith, doubted Jesus, and so he started sinking. The metaphor is simple: don’t doubt Jesus, have faith, and life will go well.

Is this what Matthew was intending?

Maybe.

But maybe he was getting at something deeper.

Maybe, rather than highlighting our doubt, which we are all acutely and desperately aware of, what if he were trying to subtly highlight something much more profound?

Something that we all too often forget that would, if we would keep it ever in our minds, would change our lives?

Perhaps the point of the story isn’t “trust me.” Maybe it’s something deeper. Maybe it’s more soul-level.

“I am always here. I’m not going anywhere.”

As I write this, Hattie (my youngest of three daughters) is 6 days old. I’m on a two week break from work, so my life right now is pretty much some combination of getting the oldest ready for school, taking her, picking her up, trying not to ignore my middle child, and sneaking in little naps whenever I can. I’m more tired than I can ever remember being (though I’m not complaining. I’m not the one nursing a baby every two hours. My wife gets a million mom points for that one.)

In the midst of screaming fits, and changing diapers through bleary eyes at 2AM, at some point you give in. Principles be damned, you drag your baby into bed with you, though you swore you’d never be a family who co-sleeps. You place your swaddled burrito of a baby in between you and try not to roll over and crush her, all while drifting in and out of sleep. You’re never really sure if you’re asleep or awake, but at that point, anything is better than not sleeping.

Last night was one of those nights. Rachel would nurse Hattie, put her down, and she’d just cry. Like the inconsolable, “why in the name of God have you left me in this stupid bassinet thing” crying. The “are you ever coming back?” type of crying. So I did what any dad would do who just wanted a few minutes of sleep.

I got up, got her out of her bed, and laid her on my chest.

And something profound happened, that taught me an awful lot about the nearness of our God, and reminded me of that story in the gospel of Matthew.

Hattie calmed down, and started drifting to sleep, but every twenty minutes or so, would roll her head over, and start crying, or more accurately, hyperventilating. It was only when I would lock eyes with her and assure her that I was there, that she her heaving would subside, her breathing would return to normal, and her little body would stop trembling.

All it took was the reassurance that I was there.

It got me thinking about Peter.

The moment that Peter took his eyes off of Jesus, he began to sink. The moment he forgot that Jesus was standing right there with him, that his outstretched hands were beckoning Peter into a deeper faith, one that trusts in the face of the brutality of life, only then did he begin to flounder.

I think that could be what Matthew is getting at here.

I’m not a scholar, or a student of the scriptures by any means. I’ve never been to seminary, or taken any real bible classes. But I know what I read. I know that this story speaks to me on a level that it never did before. I know that for me, that moment in the middle of the night with Hattie heaving on my chest taught me something.

No matter what, He is there.

No matter what I’m going through. No matter how badly life is crumbling. No matter how many things are going wrong, He is there. He has always been there, and He will always be there. But how quickly do we forget this?

How quickly, when life is rough, do we say things like “God where are you?” or “God, you feel far away,” or “Why have you left me?” I know the pain in these cries. I know the urgency of needing him. And I also know that, though he does at times hide himself for a period, he is never gone. He is never far off.

I think that too often we are looking for him in huge things. We are looking for a sign. Something that reassures us that he’s still there. But maybe if we would quiet ourselves long enough to stop and listen, we could hear his quiet voice whispering over us, “Here I am.” We could feel his breath as we heave and lurch and weep, and the rhythm of our sobbing begins to match up with his reassuring words, “Here I am.”

There is a beautiful story in the book of 1 Kings that I keep coming back to. In it, the prophet Elijah is told by God to go stand on a mountain before the Lord. As he’s standing there, the Lord is passing by, and a violent wind was blowing, breaking pieces off of the mountain, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after that, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

…And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

May we quiet ourselves enough to hear the gentle whisper.

 

Gratitude as Resistance

I am currently sitting on the sofa at my mother-in-law’s beach house. It is a modest, two-level townhouse style home, attached to one other house via the living room wall. It sits about 500 yards from the pacific ocean, protected from the harsh winds of Cape Kiwanda by a large sand dune. It is quiet now. My wife is hanging out with our two oldest girls, the youngest is asleep, and my mother-in-law is out for a jog on the beach. 

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about gratitude. As I sat on the beach yesterday with a cold beer, watching my two oldest girls build sand castles, I got to thinking about the culture we live in, and how we are taught from the womb to want more. Don’t believe me? Watch television for longer than 5 minutes and you’ll see professional marketing teams doing their best to convince you that you can’t live without their new car, their new burger, or their new beer. 

As we are raising three girls, we do our best to convey and instill in them a thankful heart. When they start grumbling about how dinner isn’t exactly what they want, we remind them that some kids don’t get dinner. As they complain about how they’ve read this book already, or played this game, we remind them that a lot of kids around not only the world, but right in our city, aren’t fortunate enough to have toys of their own. 

As a millennial, I’m naturally drawn to the idea of resistance. What does it look like when someone, or a group of people, decide to resist the system? It looks like Martin Luther King. It looks like the Arab Spring. It looks like a group of protesters begging for the world to realize that Black Lives Matter. 

Resistance is controversial. It disrupts the status quo. It throws a wrench into the well-oiled machine of “this is how we’ve always done it.” It empowers a the powerless, and gives voice to the silenced. 

As I sat on that beach yesterday, sipping that ale, I started to think about gratitude as resistance. It’s not flashy. It’s not public. I’m not going on television, or using a hashtag. But what if it were just as meaningful? 

I’m grateful for my family. I have a beautiful wife who loves me, and three incredible daughters who are turning into the funniest, kindest little girls. My parents are still happily married after 38 years, they live 10 minutes from me, and we actually get along. My sister and her husband live nearby with three more gorgeous daughters. Family isn’t always easy. We fight, we bicker, we get angry, but we stick with it. In a culture that says, “you deserve to be happy, have the affair,” I’ve chosen gratitude for my family.

I’m grateful for my job. I have a wonderful job, at a company that I love, doing something interesting. I draw a modest salary. Nothing to write home about, but enough that we can pay our bills, buy everything we need, and a few things that we want. It pays enough that my wife can stay home and raise our girls, something she’s always dreamed of doing. That is all made possible by my job. It’s not perfect, but it provides what we need. 

I’m grateful for my country. Hear me out. I’m not a patriotic guy. I choose not to say the pledge of allegiance. It’s not that I hate America. Far from it. I am incredibly grateful for the privileges that I have simply by being born in this country. I can walk into any hospital in the country and they have to treat me, regardless of whether or not I’m insured. I can walk into any grocery store and unless there’s some sort of natural disaster, the shelves will be stocked with food. 

I’m grateful for my safety. So many of my brothers and sisters can’t say this. I can tell my children, without any hesitation, that if they feel unsafe, they can go find a police officer, because the police are there to help them. I can tell them this because they are white skinned kids. So many of my black friends can’t say this. They can’t tell their kids with a straight face that the system will protect them, or look out for them, because all it takes is 5 minutes of CNN or Twitter to see that this is simply not the case. 

There are untold other things that I can be thankful for. My cars (multiple), my food, my home, my 401k, or the beach house that I’m currently sitting in that I didn’t have to pay for. Every time I choose to be grateful for all of this, in a culture that tells me I should always be striving for more, I practice resistance. I take part in opposing the system. The system that tells me that I deserve the affair, or that cheating my way to a promotion is the right thing, or that if I just vote for the right candidate, all my needs will be taken care of. The system that tells me that my happiness is the most important thing in the world, and that whatever I have to do to make myself happy is not only okay, but in my best interest. 

I don’t know your situation. I don’t know what battles you have to fight on a daily basis. Maybe you lost the job, or the house, or the baby, or the husband, or the 401k dried up. Maybe it feels like there’s nothing to be thankful for. Like the whole world is hell bent on your destruction. At the risk of sounding like a self-help preacher, find something. Find the smallest thing in your life to be thankful for. Did you wake up in a bed this morning? Did you have a cup of coffee? Is there enough money in your bank account to pay your bills? Regardless of whatever else is going on, the light is winning, and hope is here. 

All you have to do is reach out and grab it. 

The Art of Rest, or How I Learned to Take Back My Life

Are you as bad at resting as I am? 

I don’t mean rest how people usually mean it. Like when I tell my kids to lay down and rest. I’ve got that down. Given the chance, I can lay down and nap with the best of them. 

I’m talking about rest as a discipline. As a practice. As something that goes beyond merely what I’m doing. Something that is part of who I am. A way of life. 

The unfortunate part is that the more and more I live, the older I get, the more I’m convinced that this way of life is antithetical to the life we live in America in 2016. Rest is not a virtue for us. It’s a weakness. It’s what we choose to do when we could be doing something that matters. Closing the deal, or making the sale, or whatever we could be doing that is more important. 

If you’re anything like me, your typical day looks like some form of this: wake up, check email, answer the ones that have to be done before you leave for work, shower, get ready, eat breakfast in the car on the way to work, spend all day in meetings, come home, eat dinner with the family, get the kids in bed, and finally collapse onto the couch and get ready to do it all again in the morning. 

Now please hear me, I’m not complaining. I have a great job, a great family, and am blessed enough to live in a gorgeous part of the country and make enough money for my wife to stay home with our girls, so you’ll hear no bellyaching from me. 

But what if there was a better way? What if I could wake up in the morning feeling rested? I don’t mean “I got enough sleep” rested. I mean the “I’m okay with not laying my family on the altar as a sacrifice to the God of doing more” type of rest. 

I don’t do it on purpose, but I do it every day. Every time I tell my kids “just a second” while I fire off an email that could wait until they go to bed, I am telling them that work is more important. Every time I’m out to dinner with my wife and compulsively have to check my work email on a weekend, while my beautiful wife is sitting across the table from me, I am telling her that doing more is more important than she is. 

A few months ago, I made a resolution. It wasn’t a huge one for most people, but for me, it was monumental, and continues to be a challenge, but one that is paying off. 

I deleted all social media apps from my phone. 

As someone who has wasted countless hours on Twitter & Facebook, this was tough for me. Watching that app icon trembling in fear as I clicked on the little x, I hesitated. It felt like I was deleting a part of me. I had talked about it with my wife and resolved to only be on social media after the kids went to sleep at night, or occasionally checking it at work (my employer is awesome.) At first, I felt like I was missing everything. What was happening on Twitter? What news was I missing? What latest spat was I not a part of? 

But something happened as the weeks progressed. I stopped caring. I would sit down at my laptop at night, open it to Twitter, scroll for five minutes, and close my computer, bored out of my mind. It just didn’t hold the same appeal. It was like I had rewired the way my brain worked. 

For the first time in months, maybe even years, I felt truly present with my family. I felt like I was seeing them. I felt like I was slowly becoming the dad and husband I knew I could be. It was, and is, a slow process, but for me, it was working. 

Maybe you have the self discipline that I so obviously lack. Maybe for you, the push notification doesn’t draw you in like it does me. I’m jealous of you, but happy for you. But we all have something. Something that begs for our attention. Something that whispers in our ear, “your family will understand, it’s not that big of a deal.” 

Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s shopping, maybe it’s television, maybe it’s staying busy with house projects. I have no idea what your thing is, but I know that it’s there. I know it feels impossible to beat, but I know that you can beat it. I know that you can stand up and proclaim that your life is far too important to be ruled by something that ultimately offers so little. 

Will you stand with me? Will you look busy in the face and give it the finger? Will you pledge to turn the work email off when you get home? Or put the phone away? Or delete the app, or block the website, or whatever it is that you need to do? 

My life was being lived without me, and I wasn’t okay with it. I had enough. So I took it back, and I’m still taking it back. Will you take your life back? You’ll be glad that you did.