Today Was My Last Day: Reflections on Leading a Congregation for Over a Decade

Me, leading worship at Tabernacle of David, my spiritual home of over 15 years
Today was my last day at my congregation of over 15 years, and my last day in Minnesota. My job has moved me out of state, leaving our friends, family and home congregation. I'm on the flight out of Minnesota right now -- writing these thoughts while they're still fresh. Thanks for reading.

Tabernacle of David has been my spiritual home since I was a teenager. (For reference, I turn 36 next week, ha!)

My parents started this Messianic congregation years ago. After I got married -- our 15 year anniversary was last week -- I learned guitar and started singing Messianic worship songs at home. The first song I learned was Baruch Hashem by Lamb, a golden oldie from the '70s. 🙂

I can remember the week my parents first asked me to lead music at our congregation. Holy cow, I wasn't ready. (I'm finding this to be generally true in life: you're never ready. Being placed in responsibility makes you ready.) I crammed practice that week. Come Erev Shabbat, I sat in a chair in front of maybe 20 people. I was nervous; I stared at the song sheets in front of me, and I couldn't for the life of me remember how any of the songs were supposed to sound like.

I got through that music set eventually and even had a few moments of genuine praise amidst all the nerves and guitar stumbling.

Over the next decade, I grew a great deal. With worship, I came to understand good worship -- worship that's pleasing to God -- is above all sincere. There's a great deal of emotionalism, performances, whip-up-the-crowd music sets. It's easy to get into that mode, because our modern worship services are modeled after stage performances: a big personality, feel-good emotion, stage, lights; theater. (That might be an area for reform in our movement in the years ahead.)

Sincerity is hard to fake, and people can usually see through it. If our worship isn't sincere, it's better to not worship at all. (I'm reminded of  the Jewish principle that if prayer is not directed to God, and instead is performative, it's better not to pray at all.

If our worship is sincere, genuine, it produces gratefulness, as we sing thanksgiving psalms. It produces joy, as we sing about what God's done for His people, what He's doing now, and rejoice with joyful songs. It produces contriteness, humility as we consider how vast and deep His love for us, and consider His forgiveness of all our sins. And, as the Psalmist said, "A broken and contrite heart You will not despise, oh God."

I grew as a person at Tabernacle of David. As a leader, I learned to listen to people. People are broken. There are a great deal of hurting people. Sometimes, people need someone to talk to; no solution proposals needed. Other times, people need help. I can remember one instance several years ago where a woman slipped on icy stairs near her home and badly broke her leg. She was in the hospital for awhile, then in a nursing home while she rehabilitated the leg. It meant so much to her that we visited with her, brought her hot meals, sat and visited with her. (She was at the congregation today, my last day, and told me through tears how it meant the world to her.)

I grew theologically at Tabernacle of David. When I was young, I used to think that Shabbat, the Feasts, and eating kosher was of prime importance! (It sounds silly even now as I write it.)

Those things are good and from the Lord, but God is bigger than that. He calls us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, have compassion on the poor, visit the imprisoned. Repairers of the broken. Servants who care for people, prioritizing human relationships over religious ritual. Considering other people as more important than ourselves. A high, demanding calling, this discipleship!

But this is the holy Torah of King Messiah.

As I reflect on my congregation's accomplishments in the Lord -- our volunteering at women's shelters, homeless shelters, food shelves, Feed My Starving Children food packs, Loaves and Fishes food cooking and serving to people in need -- we fed and ministered to, in my best estimation, several thousand people. (All the glory to God, and in Messiah's name!)

I first began to preach at Tabernacle of David. I can remember when I was young people prophesying over me saying I was to preach. It was difficult growth for me, because I was not a public speaker. (And, I'm an introvert at heart. Public speaking and human interaction is exhausting for me. After a full day at the congregation, I often go home and collapse in bed.)

Preaching became a joy; still is! Prep was always difficult, though. My wife will attest I always worked hard to prepare notes, Scripture and supporting arguments. I put a great deal of effort into something heartfelt, Scriptural, and cohesive. I'd engage with modern Jewish and Christian scholarship and with great Messianic minds and mentors: J.K. McKee, Daniel Lancaster, Tim Hegg, David Stern. I would spend 4 hours each night, several nights a week, preparing a teaching for Shabbat service that would minister to the people at my small congregation. It did subtract from my family life.

I grew in life skills at Tabernacle of David. I learned how to deal with conflict. Over the years, I've dealt with troubled people -- conspiracy nuts, flat earthers, transgendered people, trouble makers of a variety of sorts, interpersonal conflicts, and more! In each circumstance, I learned how to handle it better: when to put your foot down, when to show compassion, when to listen, when to say no. When to reconcile. When to ask people to leave. (Thank God, it was required only once, to my best recollection.)

I learned to set boundaries at Tabernacle of David. (Though my wife would probably say I didn't do this enough.) Being a leader means everyone wants to talk to you, pitch their theology to you, ask you questions, ask for help. Some people just like to talk (and often, not listen!) Some people want the good feeling that comes from a leader listening to you. I always did what I could. Sometimes it's returned with gratefulness. Other times, people would resent you for not giving enough.

[I wrote here a recent, painful example of this in this paragraph, but decided to delete it. Suffice to say, there are believers-eating-believers in our movement, and it's discouraging.]

It's easy to become jaded ("all people suck" was my first thought) after those things. Also, it's easy to be discouraged when people leave your small congregation. But I came to understand we help people without expectation of repayment.

Many folks were huge blessings to me and my family. We became close with several families over the years. Friends we could open up with. Share everything with. Parting with these folks is the hardest part of leaving our congregation.

Today as we closed worship, several folks stood up and blessed me and thanked me for my service. The other leaders at the congregation laid hands on me and blessed me. One couple gave me a beautiful hard cover siddur as a parting gift. Several dozen hugs and goodbyes. And a lot of teary eyes, from them and from me. One of our leaders brought to oneg a giant bon voyage cake, with a Microsoft logo on it. (We are leaving because I am taking a new job with Microsoft.)

I feel blessed in a way that's difficult to say. I've grown closer to God and grown as a human being through serving at my congregation for over a decade. In retrospect, I'm certain that growth would not have happened without serving at Tabernacle of David. I'm beyond grateful for these years!

What's in store next? God knows! I have two inklings.

First, I have a calling to be a minister to my own family. I have been serving my congregation, often times at the expense of neglecting my own family. (It's strange; I know how to be a pastor, preacher, and worship leader. But I'm unsure how to minister to my own wife and kids. What does that even look like? God will have to help me with this.)

Second, our location in Washington state is home to Torah Resource, a ministry I greatly admire. I want my whole family to plug in with them and grow with them, if it's the Lord's will.

(Oh, and third, REST! A Shabbat where I can rest and not prep music, presentations, song lyrics, bring food, prepare teachings, setup sound equipment, lead services, talk to people for hours, pack up, empty garbages and sweep, vacuum and clean up? Oh man, Shabbat of REST here I come!)

Today was my last day at Tabernacle of David, and my service there to God and to God's people is now complete. Thanking God for these years of growth and maturity. And thank you, fine Kineti reader, for reading.

Israel’s Shas Party: “Eternal life for everyone who votes for us”

Israel's Shas party, the 3rd largest party in the Knesset, held a political rally last night, in which party leaders promised eternal life to all who vote for Shas in the upcoming elections. ಠ_ಠ

“[am] borei olam oh neged borei olam” – you’re either with the Creator of the universe, or against the Creator of the universe. A vote for Shas is a vote for the Creator! Who knew!

Why vote for Shas? “To show [God] that we love him”

יכול לזכות נחיי העולם הבה…

The one who votes Shas and recruits others to do so can “gain [their] life in the olam haba / the world to come.”

While the reporter lamented these messages as not aligning with liberal democracy, I’m more concerned that the message doesn’t align with authentic Jewish values; authentic Bible values.

This is another example of Torah-observant people behaving badly. They are abusing God’s goodness and the good character of the Bible for political gain. They are making a promise – eternal life in the world to come – which they cannot make good on; the ultra-Orthodox aren’t the ones who determine your eternal status. (Thank God!)

The Jewish luminary Paul the Apostle wrote that God’s reputation is desecrated when religious people do evil things. I am seeing examples where the ultra-Orthodox continue to do precisely this. This group desperately need revival and reform. (I suppose we all do! But these cases seem egregious to me.)

This is really sad. It’s reminiscent of Christianity’s own abuse of the Bible for political reasons: whether the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages offering forgiveness of sins in return for donations. Or even modern religious Christians in the US whose theological premises assume Jesus aligned almost perfectly with the Republican or Democratic parties.

I notice among Messianics and Hebrew Roots folks here in the nations that there is a kind of…idealization of Israel. To be sure, Israel is a beautiful country! It’s a miraculous nation. God’s placed His name and presence there unlike any other place on earth. My heart’s home is Israel.

But Israel has its problems. And abusive religious parties is increasingly one of them. Next week’s elections will tell the current state of affairs; more concerning still is the increasing power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. See it for yourself in the Twitter thread, where secular and religious Israelis are arguing their positions: secularists say, “Don’t force your religion on me!”, and the religious arguing, “But Israel will be majority ultra-Orthodox within 1 generation – let us have our way in our land.”

Interesting times ahead.

Trusting God When Things Look Bad

I went to Israel last week to visit my younger brother Aaron in the hospital.

The first night we were there, things looked pretty bad.

Aaron was laying there in the bed, in a coma, convulsing due to seizure tremors. Due to pneumonia (or a blood infection? The doctors and nurses gave us conflicting answers), his breathing was labored. He was on a ventilator because he couldn’t breathe on his own. He had a large stream of reddish mucus flowing from his nose. His hands and arms were terribly swollen. He was hot to the touch, sweaty and clammy due to a fever brought on by the infection.

That first night I did OK. We prayed with Aaron and headed to our Airbnb, exhausted from travel.

The first day was OK – Aaron was slowly improving and his fever was a bit reduced.

But the 2nd day was hard for me. The doctors, ever-pessimistic and skeptical as undoubtedly any person in their profession must be, were full of bad news.

“He may never wake up.”

“We don’t think there is any higher brain function.”

“He cannot hear you.”

“The seizure medication isn’t working.”

That day I cried a lot. I might lose my brother forever.

My sister was with me for the trip. She did better than me. I’m amazed how strong a woman she is. When the doctors came with pessimism, she would always respond with hope instead of despair or sadness. The doctors would bring negative outlooks, and my sister would respond to them with trusting in God and rejoicing in the hopeful signs of improvement we saw in Aaron.

But I cried like a baby, afraid to lose my brother.

That week was a rollercoaster. Overall, Aaron’s health seemed to improve. His fever reduced, his swelling reduced, some days he would squeeze our hand. He would occasionally breathe on his own, and the ventilator would beep to let us know. Various antibiotics were given to treat the pneumonia. His breathing normalized and his temperature subsided.

The last day I was there was Aaron’s best day yet. His seizures reduced, and his tremors nearly disappeared. He was in a coma, but totally at rest. All signs pointing in the right direction, we saw Aaron move his foot. We asked him to do it again. He did it. And again. And again. Several times he responded to verbal commands. There were no seizures or tremors going on; this was no fluke. It appeared Aaron really could hear us and respond to us in that moment.

The night before, my sister had a lucid dream where a spirit of death held her captive, prevented her from moving and breathing. In the dream, as my sister was suffocating and unable to move, God issued a command, and when He spoke the word, she was released. She took a gasp of air, jumped up in her bed and was freed. My sister woke me immediately after the dream, crying and desperate for Aaron’s deliverance and healing. We prayed right then and called our parents to do the same.

Every day, for some 8 hours a day, we prayed over Aaron. We laid our hands on him and asked God, in Messiah’s name, to do what’s right with Aaron’s life. We read psalms over him. We read the Torah over him. We read the Gospels, and accounts of Messiah’s healing people, over him.

On Wednesday, we noticed our Airbnb host had a dusty old guitar; we took it to the hospital and sang psalms over Aaron.

So many of the psalms are fitting for a person in the hospital. It’s crying out to God for deliverance, healing, rectifying an injustice. For Aaron, all these things rang true in my mind.

I learned to trust God that week.

When you hear negative news, it’s easy to despair. “I might lose my brother!” But when you read the psalms, there’s joy and peace, even in the midst of trouble. My favorite psalm, Psalm 23, is exactly that:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.”

In the midst of trouble – the valley of the shadow of death – there is peace: “For You are with me, Your rod and staff comfort me.” And the psalmist ends in joy: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will live in God’s house forever.”

Despite the negative news about Aaron, I chose to believe that God is ultimately in control, even of small things like the life of a single person. (I’m reminded of Psalm 8: “When I consider the vastness of the universe, what is man, that You care about him?”)

I believe God orchestrated all of this, even the tragedy of Aaron’s drowning. Even if I don’t understand it. Aaron’s life or death is up to God. And I know God will do what’s right – He always does.

While the doctors piled on bad news and pessimism, and there remains a possibility that my brother may die or never wake up from the coma, my sister and I were there joyfully praising God.

If the time comes that Aaron wakes from the coma, then God’s done what is right, and we’ll be joyfully praising God. Times 10. :-) (It’ll be a giant party in Jerusalem, just sayin’.)

If the time comes that Aaron passes away, then God has also done what is right. I’ll praise God for the years I’ve known Aaron and been blessed by his life.

Abraham said in Genesis, as he argued with God: “Won’t the Judge of all the Earth do what’s right?”

I know the Judge will do what’s right, yes, even with Aaron life.

Please keep Aaron in your prayers, friends. Please read a psalm on his behalf.