Tag Archives: personal growth

On Coming Back to the Mother County

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

Nelson Mandela

The Phone Call

My phone rang on a Sunday afternoon after church. It was Sunday April 28, the day it was officially announced that I would be the new Lead Pastor of First Saints Community Church in St. Mary’s County. I looked at my phone and saw that it was John Gatton, a lifelong, born and raised St. Mary’s County resident, about as “County” as anyone can be, a dear man, brother in Christ, and friend.


“Chris! I just saw the news. Welcome home! I can’t wait to have you back down here.”

And on the conversation went, steeped in typically wonderful St. Mary’s County hospitality. “You know we’re all here for you. You let me know if there’s anything you need. You don’t worry about a thing” I thanked John over and over again, a man whom I once fondly dubbed the Unofficial Mayor of Hollywood, MD. John is a semi-retired barber, the son and father of barbers who have all worked in the same little barber shop on Hollywood Road for three generations. John knows countless numbers of people in the County, and with a phone call can immediately connect his neighbors to just about anything you can imagine. That’s St. Mary’s in a nutshell.

Then all my thoughts began to race back 18 years to the first time I was appointed to St. Mary’s County as the Associate Pastor of Hollywood UMC. It was my very first appointment. And yes, during most of that time I could truthfully say that I lived in California and worked in Hollywood! (Go look it up if you don’t believe me.)

Like most people who end up in the County, I did not go willingly. In fact I dreaded it. There’s a common County folk saying that aptly applied to me, “People hate coming down here. But once they get here, we can’t get rid of ’em!” Well, after three years of serving there, I was appointed to my next church up the road in Upper Marlboro. But the County really didn’t leave me.

About “The County”

St. Mary’s College and City

Compared to the rest of Maryland, St. Mary’s County is a peculiar, beautiful place filled with surprises and anomalies, and yet isolated from literally everywhere else. Recently, one resident described it to me as “The Land Time Forgot”. Most Marylanders have never been here and really don’t have any burning desire to visit, let alone live here. That’s because St. Mary’s County, the southernmost tip of the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, is at least two hours away from the hub of Central Maryland. (If we bother to even think about the County, a lot of us Marylanders mistakenly presume it’s on somewhere on the Eastern Shore!)

Situated on an extreme perimeter of the state, it’s a peninsula, not a place you’d ever travel through to get anywhere else. There are no major cities here, no sports teams, no popular vacation destinations, no must-see, must-do things that Marylanders particularly care about. And yet it has its own distinctive culture (stuffed ham and fried oyster dinners, anyone??) and history that is truly the deep heart and soul of Maryland. Most Marylanders have just forgotten that.

And yet, St. Mary’s is the Mother County of Maryland. In 1634, Leonard Calvert, son and brother of the 1st and 2nd Lords of Baltimore, with about 300 other settlers aboard The Ark and The Dove, landed and settled the colony of Maryland and became its first governor. They quickly established St. Mary’s City, which became the first capital of the Province of Maryland. They made their new home the very first place in the Americas established on religious freedom and tolerance. In fact, one of the honorific titles of St. Mary’s is “The Birthplace of Religious Freedom.”

There are 385 years of history in the County, spanning from the beginning of the American colonies, through the founding of our State and Country, key events of the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the critical supportive roles the County has played in every American war since World War II.

St. Mary’s County is also one of the fastest growing places in Maryland with– as I’ve recently discovered!– one of the most hyper-competetive real estate markets in the State. That’s because St. Mary’s County is home to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, simply called “PAX” by local folks, which has become the Naval test flight center on the eastern seaboard, bringing in people from all over the world, military and civilian.

Piney Point Lighthouse

Through the years, however, community, tradition, history, maritime and agricultural life, miliary support, faith and family are all hallmarks of the County.

I have to admit, when I left St. Mary’s County 15 years ago, it went largely out of sight and mind from my day to day life. But it never really left my heart. There was a part of me that never left there.

Coming Back

So here I am again. Never, ever, in my wildest imagination did I think I’d find myself back in the Mother County. I think of all that’s happened to me since I was here last. After a divorce and marriage, two new children, three congregations with a couple of years on Conference staff thrown in, and lots of very necessary, often painful seasons of growing up to do, yes, I’m back in the County.

Still, I don’t feel like the same person whom many folks here are glad has returned. (I’m grateful folks have fond memories of me. I’ll take that, at least.) Since announcing my return, I have been quietly dreading the refrain of “Chris is coming back!” I think, “Yes, I’m coming back, but if you’re counting on the 27-year-old kid you once knew, you might be disappointed.”

Meanwhile, folks had been telling me how much the County has changed. There are more people, more stores, more homes, more traffic, etc., etc. Yes, places and people change. But could St. Mary’s County truly change all that much??

In the many times I had to travel down the nearly 2 hours from Annapolis to meet with the new church and hunt for a home before my July 1 start date, I drove around the County to re-acclimate myself. I could definitely see the new stores, the increased traffic, and more homes built. However, the true character and charm of the County I knew back then really hadn’t changed all that much. It was still good ol’ St. Mary’s County.

Perhaps the same is true for me after all. We all grow and change. Hopefully we mature in wisdom and inner strength, too. I think I can say the same for myself. Even then, when all is said and done, I am who I am, and, well, this place is what it is, too.

Returning to the Mother County after what seems like a lifetime ago, I am reminded of that old cliche that is laden with more ironic reality than I can understand: the more things change, the more they stay the same. For me, and for this County I’m loving again, that could not be more true.


Filed under Cultural Quakes

Trying to Be Good Is Way Overrated

I was talking with a friend a few nights ago who told me something I have heard from many other people: “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” Of course, this is based in the widely-held presumption that the purpose of religion— and my purpose as a pastor— is to help bad people become good.

I have to admit that in years’ past, I would have attempted to push back on statements like those with some version of, “You know, no one can truly be good without God.” Or if I was feeling more gracious, I might have said, “You know, the church at its best takes good people and makes them into better people.” Isn’t that clever?

But I found myself saying something like this to my friend: “I don’t need religion to make me into a good person, either. In fact, that’s not why I am a Christian.” He didn’t respond to that, so I didn’t elaborate. (Lucky for him!)

Later on, our conversation got me to rethink something rather odd that Jesus said. The more I dwell on it, the more relieved I am that he said it.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Luke 18:18-19

Christians tend to do some creative tap-dancing around this problematic response from Jesus. Was Jesus claiming he was not good? (“Of course he wasn’t!” we reply. “He was just pointing the man to God.”) Oh good… Whew! Moving on.

Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler”, 1889

But what if Jesus was trying to say something deeper than that? What if he was trying to edge us out of the moralistic goodness mindset altogether?

This may sound strange, but what if Jesus was really saying, “Stop trying to play the game of being an upright, good, moral, righteous person. Your striving to be good is way overrated.”

Now I know why that may sound strange, even heretical. The church’s predominant approach to human beings has typically been sin management and growth through moral goodness. We’re the moral police… or so we think. So, through Christ, confess your sinfulness, and by grace become less prone to sin, more morally upright using the rules we give you, keeping in mind the whole time that we are nothing but sinners. That tends to be the Christian message.

However, we Christians were not the first ones to take this sin management and growth through moral goodness approach to God and life. The man who approached Jesus, a fellow Jew, asked Jesus what kind of good must be done in order to live eternally. That was his way of asking, “How good do I need to get? What specific good do I have to do to get what I want?” And he presumed that Jesus, being a good teacher, would have known the formula.

Yet the man in the story and most of the rest of us have been unable to grasp this goodness of God that Jesus pointed to and where it is to be found. The rest of the conversation which you can see here was an elaboration on that point.

So what happens when our prime goal of becoming good people is by means of rule following and moralistic perfectionism? Without fail, ego steps in, especially when we believe that goodness is something we don’t have and must acquire from somewhere external— a set of rules, a holy text, a God who is watching and judging us. So we strive for it. We try to change up our behaviors in conformity to the rules and expectations. We throw out and squash what we perceive to be bad. If we’re successful, we feel like we’re better people!

Then the comparisons begin. We reference our goodness against others.

Often, we pride ourselves for being better. Remember Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee praying in the temple? The self-righteous Pharisee thanked God he was not like other people, especially that awful tax collector praying next to him (Luke 9:1-14).

Or, we shame ourselves and others for not being good enough. God knows I’ve spent too much of my life loathing myself for not measuring up to what others or I have claimed I should be. Too often I have felt like Paul who called himself a “wretched man” because no matter how hard he tried to be good, he failed (Romans 7:14-23).

When worthiness in the eyes of God, ourselves, or others becomes a measure of how well we behave and how morally perfectionistic we can be, then we are drawing upon the worst of ourselves, which is our fragile sense of ego. The results are horrific— pride, shame, critical and judgmental attitudes, walking around with squinty eyes estimating the goodness of ourselves and others with a measuring stick that no one can possibly live up to.

Jesus is right. God alone is good. No one can succeed at being good enough.

Let me suggest something to you that is changing the way I look at myself and others:

Goodness begins with the recognition that there are things inside us all that are perpetually good because they are a gift from God, who alone is good.

Within each of us are two things which are good gifts from God— our soul and God’s Spirit. Please allow me some space to try to define what I mean from a biblical and experiential understanding. And keep in mind that these thoughts are thoughts in process!

My understanding of “soul” from the Hebrew and Greek sense is “our essential self.” We rarely see it. It’s often hidden away within us. The soul is like a blueprint from God that defines our very best self. It’s the divine schematic for who we really are. Our soul hums and resonates with peace and joy when we live into being who we were created to be, which is always wonderfully good. It guides us into our vocational and relational purposes as a child of God, and let me tell you, there is no greater satisfaction than living from within the very soul of who we are.

God’s Spirit is that divine essence which was given to Adam when God breathed into his nostrils, giving him life (Genesis 2:7). Within each of us is God’s presence, infused into our very being, enlivening, prompting, loving, nurturing, healing, speaking, guiding us into all goodness. When we tune our full awareness to God’s Spirit within us, we truly come alive. Soul and Spirit work in tandem to love and live in full communion with God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Thus, our goodness is a gift from God, not a merit badge to be earned. It’s already within us to be treasured and lived into. This goodness is our true self. If we intentionally mine into this essential goodness within ourselves and our neighbors, we take on the humility and compassion of God. We rejoice in goodness wherever we see it, recognizing God’s good presence within all created things. We draw upon and and encourage that goodness from within them.

“What of sin?” you may ask. Isn’t there sin within us, too? Oh yes. Sin is our purposeful disconnection from God’s goodness. For some reason, we simply have a hard time accepting pure goodness and love abiding in us. So we choose what we think is safer and more accessible. We settle for power, pride, and hate, while seeking cheaper, flimsy forms of false goodness apart from the God-given treasure within us. That choice distances us from God, our soul, and others. This self-isolating, lonely distance is the true tragedy of sin.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we could only bring ourselves to accept that the presence of God conjoined with our God-fashioned soul is there all along, we would simply fall and rest into that pure goodness, reclaiming the very likeness of God.

That, friends is real goodness! Goodness is not some exterior virtue apart from us that we must acquire. It’s a treasure within— our truest self— into which we ground our mind and heart.

If you’re still not convinced of all this, look back at the story of Jesus and the ruler for a moment. Jesus’ final invitation to the man seeking after eternal life was a call to step down from his elevated social status, sell off his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus. That was Jesus’ way of challenging the man to strip away his pride, riches, religious accomplishments and social pretentiousness. Abandon the false ego self that struggles to achieve goodness, value, power and distinction, and learn the way of self-giving, self-emptying love. That would have forced the man to part ways from everything false, and to live from within the goodness of God already planted within him— his living soul and the Spirit. If only he had made that choice!

After all, that’s the way Jesus lived. He emptied himself. He became nothing except a lover and servant for the sake of the whole world (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus learned great love through trust and suffering, and from the very depth of his being, he shows us what it means to live in full loving communion with God and all people. For me, Jesus is not just some outer authority to conform myself to; he is a way of life— the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)— to emulate within being.

Again, that is goodness. And it’s a far cry from the morally perfectionistic goodness game that too many of us try to play. It turns out, God had made us good all along. It’s time to claim it and live it.


Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

Three Inner Keys to Growth: A New Ancient Idea

Over my next several posts I am sharing some new ideas about growth with you and I would love your feedback. Every person and every organization can grow. They can grow in their positive impact, effectiveness at what they were created to do, and wellbeing. Anyone and any group can do this. Now that might seem like a naive notion surrounded as we are by people, communities, cultures and institutions in decline. All this decline has turned us quite cynical.

I’m going to focus here on the church’s ability to grow, but if you’re not a church person or don’t even care about the church, please keep reading. With some imagination, these principles can readily apply to your own life and to the groups and communities you belong to now. So you could easily white out the word church (or congregation) and write something else in.

But it all begins with a story. It’s an ancient story and a very short one told by Jesus. Jesus loved to tell stories to teach about very consequential ideas like, say, the kingdom of God. I mean, who can readily wrap their minds around something as mysteriously ubiquitous as that? And yet Jesus could help people understand these in very earthy, rugged ways with a story.
Try this one:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.” Matthew 13:44

three keysIf you notice, there are three parts to this story: 1) someone (most likely a tenant farmer) found a hidden treasure; 2) the finder sold everything to buy the field; 3) the finder bought the field. Within these movements are the three inner keys for your church. Let me lay them out for you.

Inner Key #1: An Imagination Captured by the Kingdom

Change begins when a person or a group of people get captivated by a compelling vision. They see something powerful, something that could elevate them from their current circumstances. This vision radically captures their imagination.

In the parable, a person, most likely a tenant farmer, discovers a hidden treasure in a field. In the ancient world, people would often bury their money and treasures when they were threatened by an invading nation. This person discovered one of these massive treasures which sets the finder off to do something about it.

Your church must allow the Holy Spirit to show you a new vision of something great and meaningful to live into. This vision will excite you. It will motivate you and give you renewed energy, passion and joy. Perhaps God is showing you a new place to do ministry or a different people to love and disciple. Whatever it is, it will take you outside of yourselves and into a ministry that expands the kingdom of God into new territory.

Inner Key #2: Letting Go of the Baggage 

Whenever God shows you something that captures you or your church’s imagination, you will come face to face with the things that have constrained you in the past. Count on that happening almost immediately. In order to get deeper into God’s kingdom work, you must name and release your baggage.

The finder of the hidden treasure realized that in order to obtain it, a great sacrifice would have to be made. The finder would have to sell everything. But by selling off everything, the finder gains the freedom and resources to buy the field that contained that wondrous treasure.

Every church who wants to positively change and grow must name and release itself from the things that have held them back in the past. Here are some of those things:

  • defeatist attitudes, cynicism, negativity, and low self-esteem
  • bad institutional memories that cause fear, mistrust, and the attitudes listed above.
  • values and priorities that compete with the new thing God has given you to do
  • the undue, heavy influence of problem people that would keep the church tied to where it is
  • expectations or priorities placed upon the pastor and key lay people that would keep them from leading into the new kingdom vision
  • traditionalism, i.e. the famous Seven Last Words of the Church- “We have always done it that way!”

When the church can honestly name these things and then exercise the courageous faith to be unshackled from them, they will have a freedom and joy to do things they never thought they could do before because… well… they couldn’t!

Inner Key #3: Take Intentional, Positive Steps Forward

It’s one thing for a church to say they want to do something. It’s quite another thing to have courageous faith enough to do get up off their comfy pews and do something about it. A lot of churches are plagued with ATNA- All Talk, No Action.

Back to the parable, once the finder let go and sold everything, the work wasn’t done yet. That person had to approach the land owner with an offer to buy the field. That certainly took a plan, a lot of guts, and sheer determination. But the finder did it! And the rest of the story is history…

When God captures your church’s imagination with a kingdom vision for new ministry, and once you’ve cleared away and sold off the baggage that would get in your way, your church will need a carefully laid out, clearly understood plan for going forward. Kingdom visions are God-sized, yes. And these visions are pursued one intentional step at a time.

Set a vision with accompanying goals. The best goals are SMART (specific, measurable, audacious, realistic, and timely). That way the goals are workable and upon completion, easily evaluated. The absence of goals or broad, vague goals will not move you forward. But good SMART goals provide direction, accountability, and motivation for your church. They’ll also keep you moving forward when you invariably run into challenges and potential pitfalls.

Your Keys to the Kingdom

As you can see, these three inner keys are essential for your church to pick up and use if you want to become more viable. All three are necessary. So with that, I leave you with some practical steps forward:

  • Gather your leaders together every week for a season of prayer and fasting, asking for God’s leading and direction. After each time of prayer, report to each other and write down what you sense God is saying.
  • Take some time to prayer walk your community, asking God to show you where God is already at work. Take notice of the things that inspire you, excite you, or break your hearts.
  • Conduct a healing service, asking for people to name and let go of past congregational wounds and painful history. Invite people to write these things down on slips of paper and then publicly burn them, followed by a celebration of Holy Communion.
  • Hold your Church Council to setting and keeping a small, poignant list of SMART goals which further your church’s mission to make disciples. Bring these goals up at every Church Council meeting and report on their progress. Celebrate every single success, no matter how small. When you see stagnation or roadblocks, don’t moan and groan or play the blame game, but work out a way to either adjust the goal or to find a creative way to fulfill it. No matter what you do, keep this positive and affirming!!

The three internal keys to growth are right in front of you. Have the faith to use them, trusting that Jesus is with you for the whole journey.

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership