500 Years Later, We Doth Protest Too Much!

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On October 31st 1517, 500 years ago yesterday, a German Monk named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the Church on the door of his local Cathedral.   For a few centuries before him the church in Western Europe had been in severe moral decline.  There were certainly many who remained faithful to the gospel but there was a general sense across Western Europe that Christianity as a whole had strayed too far from its roots.  Martin Luther’s 95 complaints began the process of reforming those wrongs.  Luther and his followers were very quickly labeled, “Protesters” or “Protestants” by their critics.  It was thought that all they did was protest.  However, they called themselves Reformers because they wanted to reform the church into something resembling its earliest roots.

When I teach classes about this time in history I always end up talking about one thing Luther had that nobody before him had, namely the Printing Press.  Before Luther, someone could write something in England and someone else would write the same things in Austria or Egypt and they never would have known about each other.  It took information a long time to circulate and because it traveled so slowly, it was easy for those in authority to stop the spread of ideas before they could take off.

Then came the printing press and suddenly all it took was a month for information to circle the continent of Europe.

As I explain to my classes, the Reformation did not begin when Luther nailed his 95 complaints to a wall.  It actually started when someone took the complaints down, ran them through a Printing Press and circulated them across Europe.  Luther was one of the very first historical figures to experience the odd sensation of going viral.  In no time at all he was both famous and infamous.  Within months his name was well known but he was also being accused for heresy and treason.

As people joined his cause and started a movement, Luther’s followers gained a popular nickname by their Roman Catholic countrymen.  They called them “Protesters” or “Protestants.”  It was thought that all they did was protest.  They protest so that they can protest so that they can protest some more.  Their critics cast them as ugly, violent protesters who were lazy and uneducated.

Some of them kind of earned it.  The first generation of Protestants were more violent and more vitriolic than we are today.  Some of those who read Martin Luther’s 95 theses responded in obscene ways and the German people ending up staging a brief but violent revolution against the Roman Catholic church.  Some of them went around burning down entire towns and doing all kinds of ugly things in Luther’s name.  Luther, of course, denounced all of it but when you start protesting you give the violent a means of exercising the violence that is within them.  Some people go around looking for any and every reason to do harm and Luther unfortunately gave them one.

Now I reside in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and our piece of this narrative is a little bit more insane.  Twenty years after Luther posted his complaints, a hormonal king named Henry VIII decided he was going to protest his wife and he asked the Pope for permission to divorce her.  The Pope refused so Henry protested the Pope and he left the church to start his own church.  Strangely, though, Henry could never quite figure out if he was Protestant or Catholic and this created an identity crisis in England that resulted in hundreds of years of civil unrest and war.

This century of church-inspired violence led the early American forefathers to stage their own kind of protest.  Along with taxation without representation and divinely endowed monarchies, they also protested having a state sanctioned church.  Tired of the Protestant Vs. Catholic Vs. Quaker wars that had defined England, our founding fathers decided to not establish a national church.  The phrase that one of them chose to describe it is “separation of church and state.”

But after 240 years many have noted that we haven’t separated churches from the state nearly as well as we have separated churches from each other.  By not having a state sanctioned church we have given anybody permission to do what Henry VIII did.  Any dissatisfied soul can start their own Protesting Reformation and start their own church, making up their own doctrine.

I know of at least three or four churches that have had a Protestant Reformation in the last six years.  In these churches a group of people got angry about something trivial.  They didn’t like the songs.  The pastor wasn’t Republican enough or Democrat enough.  The women’s ministry stopped doing the afternoon tea social.  The denomination wasn’t firm enough on “key” convictions.  So they went to their social media and posted 95 theses for all to see and then they took their cronies and like Henry VIII started their own church.

They have staged these coups using their own version of the printing press, the internet.  In fact, historians believe that the internet is the most significant invention since the printing press.  Some of you have perhaps heard the famous quote by Eric Schmidt who said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

After the printing press it took a month for ideas to circulate the globe.  After the internet it takes mere seconds.  The internet has made posting complaints and protests on walls one of the most popular things you can do.  Social media has made us all Martin Luther. Or are we Henry VIII?

The Printing Press started the Protestant movement.  The internet has completed it.  But some of us are wondering if all this has made us Protestants the very thing we have been protesting.  Many of us in fact have begun to ask ourselves, “Doth we protest too much?”

I’ll be honest when I look at our modern day Protestant movement I don’t see much of the gospel.  Instead I think that our protests have made us the very opposite of that which we claim to protest.

By protesting we have rejected Christian charity for secular hatred.

We have also rejected the peace of Christ for the wars of the principalities and powers.

We have rejected the unifying power of the cross for the divisive rhetoric of useless doctrines.

We have rejected the justification that comes from God for the self-righteousness that comes from thinking I am right all the time.

We have rejected Scripture’s repeated and clarion call to “be quiet,” “be still,” (Psalm 46:10) “be quick to listen, slow to speak,” (James 1:18) and to “live quiet lives among the pagans.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

In sum, we have rejected the Spirit’s quiet wisdom and guidance to chart our own noisy path to destruction.

The Protestants doth protest too much and after 500 years I think maybe it’s time to end the protestant part of our movement.  It is time for us to stop protesting and stop complaining.  It’s time for us to shut our big mouths and stop our quick fingers from typing.  After 500 years it’s time to do what Scripture commands, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”  (James 1:19).

As Protestants we doth protest too much.

But We Doth Reform Too Little!

But Martin Luther’s followers called themselves by another name, that is Reformers.  The title “reformer” signified a hope that both drove their protests but was much deeper than protest.  The word “Reformer” hinted at the deep and abiding conviction that the church and the world could be better.  They would tell you that they were not just protesting to protest.  Their goal was not a never ending protest but they protested because they believed that all of us could do better.  More than that, we could be better.  We could work harder and think longer and study the scriptures more diligently.  They believed that we could love the poor and that we didn’t need to tolerate systems in government or church that oppressed them.

They started the Protestant Reformation not because they were self-conceited but because they were hopeful for a better world and a better church.  Not all of them were angry just to be angry.  They were angry because they believed in a better world and in a heavenly kingdom that was and is still coming.

By the way, their hope was rooted in the Scriptures.  They believed in the kind of church that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 12-15.  They believed that we could have a church which is for all people, not just for the rich and powerful.  They believed in a church which welcomed outsiders free of charge instead of making them buy indulgences to be among the in-crowd.  They believed in a church devoid of arrogance and pride but instead built on the humble love of God given to us through the Holy Spirit.  They believed in a church which is not led by hypocrites who tell the everyday people to do something while they do the opposite in private.  They believed there could be a clergy class defined by the fruits of the spirit instead of their opposite.

They were not just hoping to protest those things.  They were hoping to reform them.  And we have now spent 500 years working towards those goals.

In sum, we do protest too much but after 500 years we have not reformed nearly as much.

We need to stop the protests but keep up the reformations.

For us every Sunday is reformation Sunday.  Every Sunday we gather around the Scriptures and the table and ask God to reform us.  Every month our board meets and we do reformation meetings.  We talk about how to continue reforming our local congregation so that it can better resemble the love of Christ to this sinful world.  Every bible study we use the Scriptures to hold each other accountable to the Reformation process.  Every time I meet with someone over coffee or breakfast or dinner, I am hopeful for a Reformation.

In conclusion, over the last summer God gave me a wonderful verse.  I was revisiting Philippians and I was enlivened by Paul’s admission:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

After 500 year, us protesting reformers have not laid hold of that for which we are laid hold of.  We have not attained to the perfection to which we were called.  But for 500 years now we have pressed on and I hope for 500 more years we will continue to press on toward the goal.

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A Sunday Sermon: Thinking and Praying for Houston and SE Asia

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This is roughly what I offered my congregation yesterday in light of the devastation that floods have wrecked across our world this week.  It is a bit long but I hope it helps you as you “think and pray.”

Introduction

I want to begin by sharing about how I was awakened to the fact that this Houston tragedy was “the real deal.”  I have been super busy the last three or so weeks, busier than I have been in a long time.   That is a good thing but in my busyness I haven’t been able to pay attention to national headlines as much as I usually do.  That is also a good thing.

So I heard rumors of hurricane Harvey but what I initially read seemed minor.  It appeared to me that Hurricane Harvey was one of those headlines that was exaggerated by the media in an otherwise low news cycle.  Even the articles I did read said that Harvey only barely reached category 4 status before being downgraded to a tropical storm shortly after going over Houston.  That’s all I read and I figured, “no big deal.”

But Harvey’s problem was what came behind it.  Although Harvey itself was not that bad as far as winds go, it was the wettest hurricane on record in the US.  To make it worse, several rain storms followed in its wake so that Houston got hit again and then again and then again resulting in the catastrophe that it now is.  It took me until about Wednesday of this week to realize that this is the real deal.  This is pretty bad.

Right around that time I came across the pictures from southern Asia.  For those of you who don’t know, there are several countries and areas under water all across the Indian Ocean shores.  This started happening in June and has continued to get worse until now when most of the shoreline is uninhabitable along with several inland areas.  Thousands have died due to the flooding and millions of families have been displaced.  Flooding  is a global concern right now.  We have millions suffering in Texas and tens of millions more in Asia.

“Thoughts and Prayers”

About the time the gravity of all this occurred to me, another feeling came over me.  I think  this feeling is common nowadays.  I am going to call it “overwhelmed apathy.”  This is not apathy that overwhelms.  It is apathy that comes from being overwhelmed.  I was so overwhelmed by the pictures, the stories and the amount of neediness that I had no idea how to respond.  So I didn’t.  I shrugged and went on with life.

There is a phrase which “overwhelmed apathy” loves to utter.  It is, “Thoughts and prayers.”  Those of us who are so overwhelmed say this often as a way of trying to convince people we actually care.  Sometimes I wonder if that phrase is thrown about because we have no idea what else to do or to say so we say, “Thoughts and prayers” as a way of trying to signal that we are still decent people.  Thinking and praying are not bad but some people throw that phrase around as a way of trying to convince others they care when they really don’t.  They are more worried about showing they care than actually doing anything that would actually be caring.

Thursday night, about the time the gravity of Houston was dawning on me, I had a conversation with the daughter of a recently deceased mother.  From the minute she answered her phone, I noticed that she didn’t sound so happy.  She sounded like someone who is grieving.  She sounded like a daughter who doesn’t have a mom any more, at least not on this side of eternity.  She also sounded like someone who was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to close out a person’s estate.  It was a rough conversation.

Guess what I heard myself say to her, “Well, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  I hated myself for it!  It sounded so shallow.  What I hated even more was that I wanted to do something tangible but I seriously could not.  There was almost nothing I could to help other than listen.

In my defense, I have been thinking and praying for this family a lot.  If you were to somehow measure how much time I have spent thinking and praying about the various areas of my life, that family would top the list.  Every time I think about them I offer a prayer for them and that prayer is offered with a tear or two.  I miss their mom and I hurt for their loss.

Yet here is another tragedy which is a lot closer to home than Asia or Houston.  It only involves the fifty or so extended family members but it is no less a devastation.  Death is a tragedy.  I think we are numb to it, especially when people die in their 80’s, but it is no less a violation of God’s original plan for creation.

Actually Thinking and Praying

So that happened Thursday and then Friday morning came.  I was at a worship service and they had an extended prayer time.  Prayer times can be awkward, especially for pastors.  I felt like I had to pray to sound “spiritual” but I didn’t know what to pray for or about.  Somewhere in that, it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to actually think and pray for Houston and for Asia so I started to think and pray.

I immediately had another problem.  I had no idea what to pray.  Everything obvious seemed so cliché, like a million other people had all ready prayed it.  What good would it do to echo popular, overly simple sentiments up to the heavens?  “God be with them.  .  .even though I am sure you are and probably don’t need me to ask so that you can be with them.  God I wish I could do something but they are there and I am here.  God, um this is kind of sad.  .  .Amen.”

I also didn’t know what to think.  These floods are devastating and so senseless.  There is no rhyme or reason to it and the rhymes and reasons others have offered seem so trite and shallow.  When we “think and pray” for such tragedies there is a very real danger we end up as callous as Job’s friends in the ash heap.  “This happened because of sin!”  “You should have moved away from there!”  “Those guys deserved it for not evacuating!”  How cruel can you be?

So I had no idea what to think or what to pray.  I just stood there, overwhelmed and apathetic.

Then another feeling came over.  Even though I had no words to say and no thoughts to think I found that I had an incredible longing, a longing for a world where these things do not happen, a longing for Jesus and his kingdom.  This longing itself was my prayer but it was one those prayers that was too deep for words.  It could only be expressed in sighs and groans.  It is a prayer of lamentation.

Mark 13

Then I remembered Mark 13.  The chapter opens with Jesus leaving the temple.  One of his disciples marvels at the beauty of the buildings.  Jesus plays the role of the downer.  “You see these great buildings here? Not one of them will remain standing!”

They sit atop the Mount of Olives and his core group asks him, “Well when will this happen?  What are the signs that this is about to take place?”  We now know the answer to that question.  In 70AD the Roman Empire, the “abomination that causes desolation” sacked Jerusalem and tore down the temple and those in Judea who went back from the fields were raped, enslaved and slaughtered.  Jesus was right.  The Roman conquest of Jerusalem was a tragedy unequaled too from the beginning and never equaled again (though the Holocaust came close), at least for God’s chosen people.

We know this now but Jesus didn’t answer their question, at least not directly.  Instead he seems to be more concerned that they not be deceived by false answers to the question.  He tells them to be careful not to listen to false prophets or pay attention to false signs.  He say, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”

There is a very shallow reading of this passage and its companion passages in Matthew and Luke that thinks Jesus is telling people that things like wars, famines, earthquakes, floods and pestilences are signs that Jesus is about to return.  The people who argue this have a very inadequate understanding of history.  They seem to think that right up until 1960 there were never any wars, earthquakes, tornadoes or floods.  They think pestilences are this brand new thing.  But trust me, there have always been wars or rumors of wars.  There have always been murderers.  There have always been floods.  There has always been death.  There have always been terrorists and terrorism.  Pick a year in history and you will find a war or a rumor of war.  Far from being new, these tragedies are a very old part of our dying world.

In Mark 13 Jesus is not saying, “See this paradise you live in without wars or famines or hardship or death?  Well in 2017 that won’t be the case anymore but don’t worry I am coming back in 2018!”

Instead Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be deceived by the false Christs and false prophets who point to wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and the like.  Those things will continue to happen and unfortunately, must happen.  When they do happen, stay faithful and remain smart.  But when the end of the world does happen, you will know it, because you will see the Son of Man coming on clouds!”

So when we have things like wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes, famines and yes, even floods, they are not a sign that Jesus is coming back soon.  Instead they are a sign that Jesus has not come back soon enough!

The hurricanes and rain storms happening all over the world today are signs that this old, broken world continues to be old and broken.  The mom who died on her bathroom floor one night is a sign for us that death still continues.  The victory is not yet won.  Sin continues to be sin.  Death continues to fight.  Creation still groans under futility, waiting for the children of God to be revealed.  Our bodies are still subject to decay.

God has not yet sealed the victory.

We are still between the times.

Proclaiming Our Hope!

So Friday morning there I stood, between the times, thinking, praying, sighing and groaning my longing for Christ, my hope for the final healing and victory!

And as I cry the tears of hope and groan the compassion of Christ I can boldly proclaim that even though death, destruction and decay still seem to reign, one magic day the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to blood.  The heavenly bodies will be shaken and we will see the Son of Man coming with great power and great glory.  He will send his angels and gather us up from the four winds!

Likewise, to those of us who have lost loved ones, I can proclaim the hope of the Apostle Paul who said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

And to those suffering under natural disasters I can proclaim the hope that John the Revelator offers when he tells us,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

If you find yourself “thinking and praying” for the tragedies surrounding us, there might just be three words to offer and they comes from the very end of Revelation, the very end of our Scriptures.  Will you pray it with me, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord.  .  .”

Why, “You’re Too Nice” Is The Best Compliment That Sounds Like An Insult There Is

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On October 5th, 1971 the Rock and Roll star Rick Nelson was invited to play at Madison Square Garden.  He opened his set playing his well known classics.  The audience cheered, applauded and sang along.  However, halfway through the set he switched to a newer sound, including a countrified version of a Rolling Stones hit.  The crowd turned vicious, booing and jeering him until he left the stage.

He wrote a song about the incident called “Garden Party.”  The low key, melodic chorus teaches us the lesson he learned from the fiasco:  “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”

As a Christian pastor I definitely relate but I also disagree.  Anybody who works with people quickly realizes that you can’t really please anybody.  As I have been in ministry I have learned that on an instinctual level most people want control.   They know insulting others is the best way to gain control.  This is true even of myself.  We don’t even realize we are doing it.  We just sense that we are not in control and we begin to criticize others as a way of gaining it back.

So as a pastor I have learned that criticism is unavoidable.  In fact the measure of my faithfulness is not if people are booing and jeering me off the stage but rather what they are booing and jeering me for.  If I can’t avoid criticism, I would rather be criticized for the things that matter.

On that note I have been accused several times of being too “nice.”  The people offering that criticism have good intentions.  They truly believe that if I were just a tad bit more confrontational, a tad bit meaner, a tad bit more firm than the church would grow, the kingdom would come and everybody would get saved and sanctified.

Sometimes this criticism has appeared amidst personal conflicts.  Someone is mad at someone else and they want me on their team.  So they argue I am being too nice to “them” and if I would just grow some pastoral cahones I would be mean and confront that person with their “sin” and all heaven would break loose.  At times I have quietly reminded that person that the minute I start being mean and judgmental I am probably going to start first with myself and second with them.

At other times I have broken down and actually decided to be mean and judgmental and not surprisingly the people who criticized me for being too nice were the first to cry foul when I was “too mean.”

Then there are the more academic critics who have said the reason I am too nice is because I am too afraid.  If I would just be less afraid I would be more confrontational.  They read that in some psycho therapy book and assume it applies to me.

I am not going to say that there isn’t some truth there.  To deny I am afraid would be to deny my very humanity.  There is a type of person that does scare me and I do avoid them in order to protect myself from severe harm.  I am still not entirely sure I should but in this fallen world it is the only option.

But beyond that my “niceness” does not come from fear.  It comes from a life devoted to the Scriptures, particularly Paul’s epistles.  My “niceness” comes from passages like 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4 and Philippians 4.  I could also include the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus in Mark 8-10.  These passages teach me that God is patient, therefore I must be patient.  God is kind, therefore I must be kind.  Jesus was silent before his critics and accusers.  Therefore I must also be.

I am not passive, patient and kind because I am afraid.  Quite the opposite my passive, patient kindness is borne out of hope.  Yet it is not the hope that patient kindness might be the most effective manipulation tool.  I am not that naive.  I know that passivity and patient kindness get you crucified and that quite often.  People take advantage of me constantly.  Even my closest friends and family members take full advantage of my kindness.  They take me quite for granted.  People in my churches have and continue to get away with things they wouldn’t under a more manipulative leader.  So my hope is not that I will somehow control people more if I am passive.  This is not a political strategy like “non violent resistance” or what we blandly call, “pacifism.”

Instead my hope is in a coming Kingdom, a coming glory, a coming King.  My hope is that some glad morning when this life is over the trump will resound and the Lord will descend and when it gets to be my turn to face him, he will smile at me and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  Forget mansions in glory.  That’s all I want, a smile from the King and a nod that says, “You tried your best, even if you did fall short.”

Maybe that means I would edit Nelson’s song to, “You can’t please everyone, so you better please the Lord.”  But maybe that sounds too hokey.

Not that I have attained all this.  I am not saying I am the perfect specimen of passive, patient kindness.  In fact, several times over the last several years I have spent days angry at the world and angry at the people who have taken advantage of me, who have gossiped and lied and yelled and scream and booed and jeered.  I have sat with my back against a wall and shaken my fist at the air and thought about all the mean emails I want to send and all the angry things I want to publicly say.  Then I calm down, cry a little and ask God for the strength not to do that.  In those moments I remind myself that crucifixions are what I said “yes” to so many years ago.  And I have begged God for the strength to get up again, go out into the world smiling, answer the cursing with blessing, the insults with compliments, the abuse with love and the anger with patience.  I’m not sure I am doing very well and sometimes God hasn’t answered that prayer and I have let a harsh and careless word slip but I have always been quick to apologize and that too has taken a toll.

But surely the fact that people are still telling me, “You’re too nice” means I am getting closer to my reward.

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.

Random Thoughts On The Church of the Nazarene’s 29th General Assembly

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Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook know I spent the last couple weeks participating with my denomination in our quadrennial legislative gathering known as “General Assembly and Conventions.”  My plane landed back in Utah a mere 42 hours ago. I am not sure when my brain will land back in Utah but I am hopeful!

With that said, here are some stray thoughts about the last two weeks:

 1. It is so possible to be lonely in a crowd.  

Somewhere between 20 to 30 thousand Nazarenes gathered in Indianapolis.  While this was wonderful, it did not lend itself to community or intimacy.  Instead it led to thousands of awkward conversations.  Hundreds of them were cut abruptly short just so the participants could go have another one.  Nobody seemed to have time to really sit still.  Denominational leaders were the chief offenders.  They were politicking, which means they wanted to give everybody equal attention and time but also wanted to cut every conversation short so they could give someone else attention and time.  I desperately didn’t want to monopolize anybody’s time, especially that of the high profile names, so I walked away from every conversation feeling guilty.  This isn’t anyone’s fault, but it is a sad byproduct of gatherings of 20,000 people.  We have short, curt conversations and leave each other feeling guilty.  It was not uncommon to hear people say, “This is what heaven’s going to be like!”  I can’t help but think, “I hope not.”  In heaven we might finally have time for each other.

2. I am still a young clergy but I will not be much longer.  Five years ago I became a senior pastor and a father.  Since then, I have often quipped that I am getting lamer by the day.  I feel like I am all ready 50.  But last week I stayed in the “young clergy house.”  I hung out almost exclusively with people in their 20s and early 30s.  I went to young clergy gatherings and was called “young” by several older people.  I am still young!  But I won’t be much longer.  Four years from now, at our next gathering, I will be in my late 30s.  I will be almost a decade into ministry and well on my way to glory.  This became painfully obvious in the awkward conversations I had with those in their teens and early twenties.  One conversation was with a recent college graduate, who is a full decade younger than me.  He is starting a leadership training network with a podcast on preaching.  His goal is to teach us older pastors how to be good leaders and how to preach.  This without any experience himself in such things.  I know calling out that hypocrisy sounds crotchety but really I just wish I could be that young and arrogant again!  I tell you, kids these day!

3. There are 3 things you don’t want to see made.  .  .  The old quote from politics goes, “Two things you don’t want to see made are laws and sausages!”  I would add a third to that, “the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene.”  The purpose of General Assembly is to amend and tweak our manual.  It is a very messy and complicated process and I walked away with severe doubts about it all.  But I don’t know of any better way to do it.  This seems to be who we are and what works best for us.  On that note, I found I was not just frustrated by what should have passed and didn’t or vice versa.  My primary frustration was with what should not have been codified and was.  There are some things that are good and true but that don’t need to be institutionalized.  We went ahead and codified almost 200 of them!  If I ever become a GS I might declare a “quadrennial of jubilee” where we delete half the manual as unnecessary!  (Don’t quote me on that.)

4. The most powerful moments celebrated our international identity.  There were multiple times I was moved to tears of joy last week.  The first was when several thousand of us gathered around the altars to pray with brothers and sisters from other countries.  That was powerful.  The next came during the incredible rendition of “The Revelation Song” which was sung in over 13 languages.  (You can watch the video below.)  The next two were the elections of Dr. Filimao Chambo from Africa and Dr. Carla Sunberg who grew up in Europe.  These were powerful times!  In the age of increasing polarity, nationalism and xenophobia, we did something profound.  We not only celebrated our diversity but we became more diverse.  I walked away delighted that we got that part right!

5. I didn’t want to come home until the last day.  I had so much fun that coming home was downright undesirable.  I wanted it to last forever and dreaded the return flights home.  The night before those cursed airplanes carried me to Utah, Deirdre Brower-Latz, the Principal of one of our schools in England, spoke to the young clergy.  Among other things, she advised us to pastor small churches.  She spoke poetically as she suggested we settle down in those churches, learn to love the people there and stick with them over the course of decades.  I was profoundly grateful for those words because after an incredible experience with 20-30,000 people, she reminded me that small churches are even more incredible.  She released me back to the 40 or so crazy people who gather on Rosewood Lane in Layton, UT so that we could further work out with fear and trembling what God is all ready working in us.

In closing, retiring General Superintendant J.K. Warrick quipped, “I love our church.  We are a mess.  .  .but I love us!”  I could not agree more but after this wonderful time together, I think we are little bit less of a mess.

And for that, I rejoice.

On the 5 Year Anniversary of Becoming a Lead Pastor

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Five years and 262 Sundays ago I became a senior pastor.  That was a wonderful Sunday.  The sun was shining brightly in the mountains of northeast Oregon.  The small town church was packed with the honest and humble of rural America.  My sermon was on my life verse, which is 2 Corinthians 12:9 about God’s power being perfected in weakness.

I was coming off of a wonderful seminary career that ended with accolades and compliments.  I was holding a newly minted master’s degree with a certificate in biblical languages.  My GPA was near perfect.  I attained only one B and I got that B on purpose because the quest for a 4.0 was becoming my idol.  I was brimming with confidence.

Seminary had ended with two open doors.  I was offered a management position at the Rescue Mission where I worked.  I loved that place.  I had hopes and dreams galore.  Many of the homeless men and coworkers who lived and worked there were and still remain great friends.

The other open door was that church in rural Oregon.  With great fear and trembling I moved to Oregon.

So in a sermon that now seems a bit more arrogant than I intended, I told those lumberjacks, postal carriers and farmers about my charisma, my wisdom, my optimism and my drive.  Then I told them all that was useless, as if they didn’t all ready know, and I claimed that I just wanted my weaknesses to be on full display so that God’s power would be all the greater.

Then we had a good old fashioned northwest barbecue with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and other forms of fat with sugar.  Then the next day I got to work.

That was 262 Sundays ago.

Here I sit today in the suburbs of Utah.  I am a little bit older now.  I am a lot wiser.  I am even quite a bit more well informed.  I have read more books now than I did in college and seminary and more than doubled my library.  I am kind of proud of that.  I am also proud of the fact that I don’t weigh a pound more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  Most pastors gain 30-40 pounds their first years of ministry.  I have lost around ten.  My marriage and family are still intact.  I don’t feel I should have to mention that but I do know a few pastors who, on their 262nd Sunday, can’t say it.

I am little bit less naive and a bit more cynical and a lot angrier.  I’ve been verbally abused more times than I can count.  Some of the times I deserved it.  Most of the time it was just angry people needing an outlet.  For some reason pastors are prime targets for those vents and I have come to appreciate that role even if it is painful.  I wish I could say I handled all those situations well but most of the time I was so surprised by the elevated voice that I responded in shock and made things worse.  In those times, I have learned that this poor world and God’s wretched church are far more wrecked than I suspected.  And the darkness isn’t just outside.  It’s inside me as well.

I have had my theological beliefs challenged both internally and externally.  Some needed to be challenged so as to be done away with.  Others I have let go only to realize I badly needed them and ran back to them.  Those ones were not just biblical but crucial for survival in life and ministry.

God has saved some lives and given me a front row seat to the miracles.  There was a young couple, former addicts with two toddlers.  They landed in a motel room in the middle of winter with little food and no money.  They were about to get evicted into a foot of snow.  Somehow they got my phone number.  I raised a couple thousand dollars to get them into a nice two bedroom apartment that their income could afford.  I sometimes question the money we spent on them, especially since the mom relapsed shortly after.  But a couple years later the father told a friend, “If it wasn’t for Pastor Kevin I would have relapsed with her.  But because of what he did, I knew I had to keep the kids and stay sober.”  I disagree with his theology.  It was God who did it but still, that was worth being a part of.

I think God has saved some souls too, though that one is harder to measure.  In the last year alone I have met so many people whose faith has been ransacked by the world.  Somehow they have found me and unloaded all their questions and doubts.  As I talked to them I realized I am the first Christian pastor they have met who has taken those questions and doubts seriously.   God has been able to use me in those moments to bolster their failing trust.  It is in those conversations that I am the most “pastor.”

On that note, I have come to absolutely love being a pastor to those who have never had pastors before.  To those who have had pastors before, I am lousy.  They bring all these expectations and baggage into the relationship that I haven’t quite figured out how to handle.  But for those who have never had a pastor, I am a balm in their wounds and they are in mine as well.

I have a friend whose first church was a buzz saw.  It chopped him to pieces.  After three years of misery, he left the church and the pastorate.  He almost left the faith all together but miraculously he found a church and a pastor.  A month or so ago his church was praying for young seminarians who were about to take their own churches.  They invited everyone to come up, lay hands on them and pray.  My friend stayed in his seat.  All he could think was, “Don’t do it!  Please don’t be a pastor.  For your own health and sanity, do anything but!”  Then he remembered that if not for his pastor he wouldn’t be a Christian at all.  His pastor was a salve in his wounds.  In the words of our founder, Phineas Bresee, “she didn’t blight the budding hope or break the bruised reed.  She lifted up his fainting heart.  She poured oil and wine into the wounds of the poor pilgrim who had been wrecked by the Devil on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.” (Prince in Israel, p. 394)

I suppose for that reason alone, I probably have at least another five years and 262 Sundays in me.

You know, I am more hopeful too.  I still believe in the church.  I still believe in the optimism of grace.  I still believe in the God who equips the called.  I still believe in my weaknesses, in my insufficiency and my worthlessness.  In fact, I believe in those even more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  But most importantly, I absolutely still believe in the God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

Celebrating Easter in Hyrule and Eden (UT)

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We are now counting down the days the end of the most wonderful season of the liturgical calendar year.  Now, I know, you all think Advent is the most wonderful season of the liturgical calendar year.  But we all love Advent for all the wrong reasons.  Advent is meant to be somber.  We force it to be festive, prolonging the 12 days of Christmas into 30+.

But the fifty days of Easter is and always was meant to be all festivity.  This is why as I have fasted the 40 days of Lent I have come to realize the Lenten cycle isn’t over until you have feasted the 50 days of Easter.

And I have certainly been feasting over the last 48 days!  It has been Easter in my life this past month and a half.  I have tried to enjoy and celebrate the Resurrection, Restoration and Redemption every moment.

Image result for hyruleThe first way I have done this is by playing Zelda.  Many of you know that I fast video games during Lent so on day 2 of the Easter season I began my feasting by dusting off my old copy of “Twilight Princess” and putting it in my aging Wii so that I could waste time riding across Hyrule, collecting gadgets and solving puzzles.

It goes without saying to you who have played them that the Zelda games are unlike any other video games.  The aesthetic and gameplay are incredible.  Even the darkest of Zelda games are still pretty lighthearted and cartoonish.   The graphics are incredibly beautiful, as is the music.

 

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Despite her awkward appearance the true “Twilight Princess” has one of the best stories in all Zelda.

But more than all that, the characters are diverse.  They come in all shapes and sizes and styles of clothing.  Most of them are downright weird.  This is probably because of Zelda’s Japanese origins but I love the characters nonetheless.  They resemble some of the weird people I know, many of whom have attended churches I pastor.  If you add to all that the over arching theme of driving darkness away with light, you might realize that Zelda is certainly a wonderful and beautiful gift.

This Easter season I taught my youth group that the secret to finding joy is Philippians 4:8 which teaches us to think and dwell upon whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely excellent and praiseworthy.  The Zelda games have so much of those wonderful attributes.  Enjoying these artistic pieces is one great way to celebrate the light of the world and the light that is in the world.

I also spent this Easter season training for a marathon in and around Eden, UT.  The road to Eden goes through, “Mountain Green” whiImage result for eden, utch is aptly named because green abounds on those mountains, especially this time of year.  To accent the green, the mountains were still snow capped.  The lake was smooth as ice, partly because some of it was still ice.  I spent hours running up there marveling at the beauty of it all and celebrating Easter by praying, reciting Scripture and smiling at the various wildlife.  The marathon was a couple weeks ago and we began running right as the sun was rising to illuminate a gorgeous, green day.

I can’t help but draw parallels between the fabricated world of Hyrule and the actual creation of our God.  Eden, UT resembles Hyrule in its beauty.  Actually, Hyrule resembles Eden but it doesn’t match it.  Real life is somehow always better than fabrication.

It also reminds me that, like Hyrule, darkness still threatens this world.  It makes itself known every time I catch myself striding over a dead deer on the highway.  Those carcasses remind me our world is indeed still broken.  Death is still the enemy and he has not yet been vanquished.  As the hymn, “My Hope is Built” reminds us, “Darkness does sometimes veil [God’s] lovely face.”

But so too, the light shines out all the clearer during Easter season.  After all, Jesus didn’t just save me.  He saved and is saving all creation.  Creation was and still is groaning under the oppression of futility.  Unfortunately the ground is still cursed because of Adam.  But Paul teaches in Romans 8 that all creation too “shall be liberated from its bondage to decay.” (Rom. 8:21)

And now as this wonderful Easter season winds down and we march into common time or Kingdomtide, the season for work, we are reminded that God has done God’s part against the darkness and the death.  Now we too must work out our own salvation (see Phil. 2:12-13).

Come oh Jesus, we long for, we work for, you.