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.

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.

Divine Appointments, Flying Hats and Cheesy Blog Post Titles

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Yesterday, we had one of those worship services where not much went according to plan.  The music team had to redo their set at the last minute.  I lost my lapel microphone.  While presenting a “Distinguished Service Award” to a lady in my congregation, I dropped the certificate and broke the beautiful frame I had bought for her.  Our attendance was low.  You know, one of those Sundays.

But then after church, we had our “Year End Meeting” where we celebrated the end of another fiscal year and all that we accomplished.  That went really well.

Around 1:45, as we were preparing to leave I walked into the middle of a room where children were playing “keep away” with a hat.  The hat randomly landed in my hands and I knew just what to do.  The wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour outside, so I charged into the parking lot with a group of kids in tow and threw the hat like a frisbee into the wind which carried it several meters out into our field.  The kids were yelling and giggling as they raced out after it.

Then I turned around to see a parked car behind me with the engine running.  The car was a generic, gray, four door sedan and I didn’t recognize it as belonging to any of our church people.   Without gazing too awkwardly I tried to get a good look at the driver but could only see that he was wearing a gray suit and was looking at a phone in his lap.

I went inside and peered back out.  The children were running in from the field with the retrieved hat.  The man sat in the car.  He looked lost.  So I walked towards his window.  As I did he turned the engine off and climbed out of his car.  He was younger than I had expected and definitely not one of our regular attenders.

“Do you need help finding anywhere?” I asked because he looked very uncomfortable and very lost.

“No, I think that this is maybe where I want to be.  Are your meetings going on right now?”

“Meetings” is one of those words in Utah that definitely indicates a Mormon.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.  “We meet at 11 but we had a lunch meeting after our regular worship time today so we are all still here.”

“Well, I am LDS” he continued, “but I am curious about other faiths and religions and wanted to come to one of your meetings to see what it is about.”

I invited him into our building and we talked for a half hour as I gave him a tour, of both our facilities and of the Nazarene culture and polity.  He was full of questions about everything from worship and sacraments to pastors and missionaries to even hymns and choruses.  I managed to find out that he is a young, single realtor who still lives with his parents up on the hillside above our church.  He spoke about himself very cautiously, which led me to believe something else was going on.  I couldn’t put my finger on it and didn’t want to be too forward, asking something ridiculous like, “Why are you really here?”  So I stuck to the surface stuff.

In the end we exchanged phone numbers.  He all out guaranteed me that he was going to come to our church next Sunday and then drove away with one of our hymnals and a copy of one the Jesus films that he grabbed off of our bookshelf.

Things like this have happened so many times throughout my ministry that I know not to be too hopeful.  Awhile back I had a very similar experience with a Mormon teenager who was sitting in our front field crying after church one Sunday.  He said he was going to come to our church but we never saw him.  I regularly meet people of all religious affiliations and walks of life who downright promise me they will come to our church “this next Sunday, right at 11 o’clock.”  I never ask them to come but for some reason they always promise to anyway.  Then they never show up.  Even our city’s mayor has made those promises and has yet to fulfill them!

Yet yesterday as I watched him drive away, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope regardless.  As the day went on I found my mind racing with the exciting possibilities.

My hope is not shallow.  New church attenders are nice.  Sometimes they bring friends who stick around and that is nicer.  Sometimes they share awesome testimonies that are fun to brag about at District Assembly.  Sometimes they even buy into your church, heart, soul, mind and strength.  They not only start showing up but they start giving of their money and their time.  That is always really cool.

But none of those things is what I am hoping for.

My hope is that he and I will become friends.  I hope we can regularly meet for lunch or coffee.  I hope we can go see movies together.  I hope that our friendship spans decades and is not one where I lecture him about “true Christianity” while he asks for pastoral advice about love, marriage, family, finances and emotional health.  My hope is that as we meet and talk, that we will both be formed and shaped into the image of Christ.  My hope isn’t that I would “save” him but that as we form a true friendship God would save us both.

I have that hope often whenever these random encounters happen.  It has almost never worked out.  Most times I never see the person again.  Sometimes they become acquaintances whom I occasionally see at the grocery store.  Only two or three times have they turned into true friends.

But those two or three times are more than enough to keep me hoping.

A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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The following is a sermon/talk that I gave this morning on the first Sunday of our church’s fiscal year.  I hesitate to share it and yet at the same time feel called to more than I usually do.

Introduction

This is a hard Sunday for me.  Today is now the fifth time that I have begun a new fiscal year with a new fiscal budget, alongside a new “fiscal” board with a new “fiscal” dream.

I will go on record and say that I believe this is an important Sunday.  I believe it is a good thing once a year to give a “State of the Church” type speech where I try to sum up the last year and give some hope and direction for the New Year.  That is a healthy thing to do which is why I have done it on this Sunday for the last four years.  It has always gone well and despite what I am about to say, next year I will probably do it again.

But this year I don’t know what to say.  I have hopes and dreams for our congregation.  I have my lists of things we could do and do really well.  I also have lists of things we probably shouldn’t do.  So I have vision.  I have opinions.  I certainly have ideas by the thousands.  You all should know that about me by now.

However, over the last year I’ve discovered that God does not want me to be a visionary pastor.  I don’t know if I ever believed that but part of me pretended to because I knew some of you wanted a visionary pastor.  So this Sunday was my Sunday to pretend to do that so you wouldn’t hang me or drive me out of town.  This was my day to pretend to be a confident, self assured, visionary leader to help calm those of you who thought you wanted that.

Over the last year I have decided I am done with that and I am done even pretending it.  That happened in a few ways.

Paul and the Corinthians

First I reread Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  The Corinthians hated Paul because he wasn’t visionary enough.  He wasn’t tall, dark and handsome enough.  Tradition tells us he wasn’t a great public speaker.  He was short and stocky and maybe couldn’t see well.  He was the last person you would expect to spread the gospel across the Roman empire.  The Corinthians hated him for it.  They thought he wasn’t a “super” enough apostle.

Paul’s response to them was verses like 1 Cor. 1:27, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”  He repeats similar sentiments in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in what is my life verse, “[God] has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

At the same time I also met with several visionary pastors and church planters.  These are people who drip charisma and have built some awesome institutions.  Several of them have seen a great amount of success by worldly standards.  They are chock full of ideas and “inspiration.”  But I always walked away from those conversations feeling empty.  I did not feel the Spirit there.

I have also met with several other pastors who are not successful by worldly standards.  Most of them pastor smaller churches.  One or two pastor large churches but those churches are not doing successful things by our world’s standards.  Those conversations were always seasoned with salt.  Those pastors were dripping with something that I can only call “holiness.”  I walked away wanting more of it.

As I began recognizing those two types of pastors I felt God was laying out two roads for me.  One was wide and easy and filled with success but I knew where it ended.  The other was a bit rockier and narrower and more difficult but it seemed to be the one Paul and Jesus walked.

Eugene Peterson

Then I read Eugene Peterson.  Some of you might remember a sermon from a few months ago where I told Peterson’s story about building a cathedral in Massachusetts.  For two years he cast this great vision for this awesome building out in a farm field.  It was great.  Their attendance went up during that time.  They raised the money and built the building.  The minute it was built the attendance and finances dwindled.  His denominational executive told him, “start building another building ASAP and they will all come back.”  Eugene Peterson declined that gracious offer to go into more debt on a bigger building that they did not need.  He knew that Christian leadership isn’t about vision casting and building buildings.  He repented and decided to just be a pastor.  Then he wrote ten books about it.  .  .

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

I have also been memorizing Mark’s gospel over the last two months.  Mark is only 15 chapters and 8 verses long.  It is about half as long as Matthew and Luke.  3 of Mark’s 15 chapters, 1/5th of the book, is all about “apostolic leadership.”  For three chapters (8,9 and 10) Jesus constantly lectures his disciples about power and authority.  That is where we get some of our classics.

“Whoever wants to be first must be the very last.” (Mark 9:35).

“If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34)

“Any who wants to be great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first must be your slave.” (Mark 10:44)

My favorite is, “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them.  NOT SO WITH YOU!” (Mark 10:42).

I am not sure “leadership” is even a New Testament concept.  To the extent it is, it is only in the form of good following.

Proverbs 29:18

But THEN there is this other verse from Proverbs.  It comes up all the time in leadership classes and seminars.  I have heard it quoted several times this year.  It is Proverbs 29:18, “Without vision the people perish.”

I heard someone quote it awhile back.  It was in the context of “be a visionary 21st century leader.  Come up with a vision statement and hold your people to it.  It’s your job as the leader!”  I was listening to this person and it finally occurred to me that there is no way the Bible says that, at least not in the context of, “without a 21st century vision statement and a leader to be firm and a little bit arrogant in holding the people to it, the people perish.”

So I found it and it turns out the King James Version says “vision” but many of the other translations use other words.  I think one uses, “prophecy” and another uses, “revelation.”  So I looked it up and in both Hebrew and Greek the word refers to the work of a prophet and is more closely associated with “wisdom” than with 21st century “vision.”  “Without prophetic wisdom the people perish.”

The prophets were not doing 21st century executive vision casting.  They were not getting focus groups together and asking a series of questions.  They were not distributing surveys and collating data.  They were not making everybody take personality and spiritual gift inventories and then leading discussions and doing SWOT analyses.

They were praying and they were fasting.  They were studying the Scriptures (which for them was just the first five books of the Bible).  Then they were walking among the people, eating the same food, watching the same plays, listening to the same songs.  They were and laughing with them over meals and crying with them over caskets.  Then they were holding the culture up alongside the Torah and saying, “here is where it matches and here is where it doesn’t and here is what God is thinking and going to do about it.”

They were casting vision but it was God’s vision revealed in the Scriptures and it was a lot more than just five words that comprise a slogan you can paint on your church foyer wall.  The vision of the prophets was an ongoing formational process.

Proverbs tells us, “without that ongoing work of the prophets the people perish.”

The prophets did exactly what I am trying to do week in and week out.  I am just trying to pray.  I am just trying to read the Scriptures humbly and accurately.  I am just trying to meet with you all for dinner or coffee or to play games or to watch movies.  I am just trying to find times to fast.  Then for twenty to thirty (sometimes forty) minutes on a Sunday I tell you about what I think God is doing and saying.  I look at your lives and I look at the world where we live and then I look at a particular Scripture passage and I offer my interpretation of what God might be saying and doing in our midst.  Then I say, “Go live it and we will get back together next week and try again.”

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

About a month ago I was thinking about all this.  I was reading Proverbs, Corinthians, Eugene Peterson and others.  I was memorizing Mark and talking to other pastors.  And I was thinking about this Sunday and realized that I had nothing to say regarding 21st century big vision casting stuff.

Then I remembered a quote from a Methodist bishop named Will Willimon.  I love this quote.  He is talking about churches that complain about their young pastors being too biblical.  Willimon says, “Too biblical? To their credit, bright, young clergy realize that only by being biblical do they have anything significant to say.” (How Odd of God, p. 176)

I don’t have anything significant to say except by being biblical.  So I decided that this vision Sunday I would just turn to the lectionary Psalm, like I’ve done the last several Sundays and will do for several more Sundays.  Then after reading it and studying it, I would just offer it up to you as one more tiny piece of God’s vision for us.  Psalm 32 is a great Psalm for that and I hope you hear God’s vision in it.

Psalm 32:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Why Ministry is About Slavery and Why That is Not That Bad a Thing

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Over the last year I have gone through a very uncomfortable and vexing process of losing my religion and finding it again.

I hope it goes without saying that “my religion” isn’t the Church of the Nazarene and her doctrines, polity and preferred ethic.  I did not lose or even really question any of those in the last year.  I also hope it goes without saying that “my religion” is not a set of doctrines or creeds or religious structures.

My religion is humble love a love that submits to all, (see Ephesians 5:21 and also 1 Corinthians 13 and also 1st John and also the entire Bible).  Not surprisingly, this sinful world has still not come to grips with humble, submissive love.  In fact, there many who still crucify those who dare preach it and I have been crucified more times than I can count.

This world is also filled with a variety of self help leadership books and “self made” leaders.  As I dealt with my crucifixions, I read those books and talked to some of those leaders.  They all give the same basic and well meaning pep talk.

“You are the leader.  You have the title.  You have God given authority!  So just tell them your vision and force them to follow it no matter the cost!”

The problem with the pep talk is that isn’t biblical.  It flies in the face of the humble, sacrificial love prescribed to us in Scripture and modeled to us by Christ.

There are also practicality problems that stem from a total lack of respect for positional authority in the 21st century.  Titles are liabilities, not assets.  If you have one you are immediately suspect.  The Church of the Nazarene is even worse.  In our polity , I am the only person who is actually paid money to be at church.  The church board cannot fire me outright but they can vote to change the locks of the church so I can’t get in and they have no legal binding to continue to pay me to be their pastor.  They can vote to reduce my paycheck to zero and throw my family out of the parsonage.  Furthermore, the members of my board are more liked and respected than me and have more relational authority simply because they have been around longer and don’t have pesky authoritarian titles like, “preacher” or “senior pastor.”

Still, the pep talkers sounded wise enough and what they advised was being reinforced in well marketed leadership books that are given to me for free.  So I gave in.  I cast my vision and tried to force people to follow it, not backing down from the brutal fights that ensued.  Things got bad, really bad.  There were four hour long conversations that went nowhere and ended with all parties offended.  There were accusations and gossip.  There were long sleepless nights, not so much caused by the conflict but by the reality that I had just taken everything I believed in and flushed it down the toilet for a model of leadership that is not biblical and does not work in the 21st century.

Don’t listen to the pep talkers or even read the books.  If you are in ministry, you are a slave.

But that is a great thing because that is exactly what Jesus became.

Paul spells it out poetically in Philippians 2.  “Though Jesus was in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be added, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

A chapter later Paul infers that because of Jesus’ slavery, he is also a slave.

The role of ministry, dating clear back to Jesus, is not about having authoritarian titles and using them to cast vision and force people to follow them.  It is about slavery.

To be a pastor means absolutely no freedom except the freedom of knowing the suffering of Christ through enslaving myself to the following:

First I am a slave to God.  This means that even if I did have the luxury of positional authority (and some pastors still do) I absolutely cannot use it without violating the ethics of the Bible.  To “lord it over” others is contrary to the heart of God.

I am a slave to my family.  This is one of the most frustrating and debilitating, but also one of the most life giving.  I am certain that I would be 30 times more effective in ministry if I were single.  I do not say that lightly.  I really believe it.  Over the last month I have tried to be pastorally present to no less than 6 people or groups of people.  These were people who were going through very tough situations, situations that needed attentiveness.  In every case my children were screaming in the background or running up to me begging me to fulfill their latest desire.  I constantly have to cancel important things because my kids can’t thrive in those settings and we can’t afford child care or baby sitters.  I am not complaining though because there is this horrible day not too far on the horizon when my children will move across state lines and forget to call me on my birthday.  When that happens I at least want to know that I cancelled important things to play with them at the park and that their relationship with God is strong enough to see them through the situations life will throw at them.

Finally, I am a slave to my congregation.  As I detailed above they have all the power.  I am a slave to their political and theological views, having to be constantly worried about offending them.  I am also a slave to their calendars.  If they don’t want to show up or don’t have time to show up to very important meetings, they will not come.  I am a slave to their expectations for a pastor.  I am contractually and morally obligated to analyze how I am measuring up to them.

All this means that when they schedule an event right over the top of my birthday, an event I believe will provide long term benefits for my congregation, I humbly submitted myself to it, knowing I wouldn’t get any birthday present, birthday cake or even anybody singing “Happy Birthday” to me but also knowing that the church would benefit from it..  What did happen was an angry congregant stormed into the church first thing on my birthday, in the middle of the event, and told me, “I thought God would kill you for what you said in your sermon a couple Sundays ago.”

I was frustrated about that for a couple days.  How could a pastor have their birthday on a Sunday and not have it acknowledged, not have the church make a cake or give cards and presents and have a leader chew him out over one stray line from a sermon, all while several people looked on and not one came to my defense?  In the moment I apologized and changed the subject, defusing the situation.

Then I spent time in prayer and self reflection and remembered that God didn’t call me into this gig to invent new ways of “lording it over” or find new means of being offended, but to be sacrificial and humble.

God has used situations like that to slowly restore my religion.  I have recommitted myself to letting God work humble love in me and reject the constant calls to “lord it over.”  In so doing I have re-found the freedom I once had, the freedom that the Apostle Paul calls, “participation in his sufferings,” so that we might obtain “the resurrection from the dead.”

The Psalms sing it better, “those who sow with tears with reap with joy.” (Ps. 126:5)

The More You Read, The Less You Know

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A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year.  It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue.  Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again.  On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.

The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters.  Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages.  In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.

Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this.  Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice.  Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues.  This is the year I catch up!

The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that.  Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives.  On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters.  Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word.  I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.

With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading.  In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply.  Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones.  In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible.  He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.

I am quickly agreeing with Tozer.  It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to.  And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”

What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know.  It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility.  One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund.  Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund.  But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.

There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota.  The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed.  The more I read, the more I know that I know not.  Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.

Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either.  They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality.  Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length.  Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading.  On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature.  Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate.  Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that.  He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time.  Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out.  One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism.  He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.

Aren’t we all?  I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years.  Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!

Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday?  We might be wrong about everything?  There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer?  Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong?  Martin Luther was a heretic?  John Wesley probably was too?  But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!

All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true.  However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer.  The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered.  The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced.  I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.

For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.”  But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely.  See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.”  Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.”  “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!”  They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!

After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!

See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!