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!

Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

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Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending.  He and his wife work in law enforcement.  He grew up religious but she did not.  Neither one of them had attended a church in years.  But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed.  So he decided to give us a try.  I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.

Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town.  I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.”  I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck.  Their faith was brand new.  They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident.  As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge.  I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.

Shortly after I got an email out of the blue.  It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building.  They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers.  They grew up religious but had since walked away.  Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism.  Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene.  She had read everything on Nazarene.org!  I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.

Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town.  She was young and had been an addict for the last decade.  She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life.  She needed a church.  She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.

So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers.  Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!

But I don’t feel like an evangelist.  Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry.  There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in.  Instead I did something far more profound.  I answered my phone and replied to emails.

So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians.  Instead I have tried to listen.  That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times.  They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener.  They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives.  In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”

I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices.  I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith.  There are bible studies we could plug them into.  There is money we could give.  There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.

And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad.  There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares.  After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith.  In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had.  Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.

But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs.  They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project.  In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence.  They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.

When I do that I think I am evangelizing.  I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!”  By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners.  I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.

And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”

God is with us in our hospital beds.

God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.

God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.

God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.

God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.

The Widow’s Mite, The Poor Woman’s Dollar Bill

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I want to open today’s post as all good Christians should, with a confession.  I am, once again, breaking one of my rules.  When I started this blog the idea was to keep it separate from my local church.  I wanted this blog to be more about my own thoughts and experiences than about those of my church.  After all, no church needs it’s pastor interpreting their community’s ups and downs in a public setting.  Therefore, simply put, this is not a church blog but a Pastor’s blog.  However, something happened on Sunday so kingdom shattering and profound I couldn’t help but share it with the broader world wide web.

One of our neighbor churches is trying to purchase a property adjacent to their building. They have been in negotiations with the property’s under water owner for the last year.  Last week they were informed the city had foreclosed on the property due to back taxes and are auctioning it off this very week.  We are scrambling to get the funds together to buy it, which is a magnificent chore considering we have no idea how much money we need.

At the end of my Trinity Sunday sermon I closed by sharing with my congregation that the unity of God implies the unity of the church.  I then explained the situation of our sister church and led our congregation in prayer over the property.  I ended the prayer with a brief note that, “If anybody wants to financially contribute let me know.”

We have a wonderful saint of a woman who attends our church periodically.  I only know snippets of her story but I know life has dealt her some severe blows, financial and otherwise.  But they are the kinds of blows that sanctified her and she worships the kind of God who walks with us through all seasons.

After church, while people were milling about, she came up and told me she had left a $1 bill on the altar, noting, “It’s all I have on me right now but you make sure they get that property.”

Somehow the dollar got to my treasurer who later asked me, “What do I do with this?”

I totally understood the question.  We could create an account line for $1 but that seems like a lot of hassle.  Being just one dollar, I could have also pocketed it and taken it to the Pastor of their church.  That still seemed risky, even for a dollar.  So I muttered, “I don’t know what to do with it, but I tell you what, I love this dollar bill.”

At that moment the magnanimity of it dawned.  Nobody else had yet given me anything.  Our board would later start a conversation about how to help.  I myself hadn’t considered giving any of my person funds, not for any selfish reason but because the amount I could give wouldn’t sway the auction in any way.  We needed tens of thousands of dollars, not the measly $200 I could come up out of my checkbook.

None of that logic had occurred to the wonderful widow.  She had just caught a vision beyond herself and knew she wanted to be a part of it.  Her life with Jesus had not taught her to think practically but spiritually.  She knew the value of a dollar because she had never had too many of them throughout her life.

Me, on the other hand, well as I type I am picking crumbs out of my teeth from my $8 breakfast this morning.  I swiped my debit card without thinking twice and because it was a church meeting, my congregation will reimburse me for it.  Yesterday I threw a dollar in a machine at the mall to give my kids a fun ride.  Last week I bought a $20 video game and an $8 book.  I regularly spend money on anything from entertainment to food.  Have I forgotten the value of a dollar?

This was all she had and our Bible, nay our Jesus, tells us that it is worth many thousands of dollars, worth so much more than the coffee and breakfast and video games that I purchase regularly.

I said to my treasurer, “You know, we should just treat it like we would any larger donation.  Go ahead and make the Quick books account and when we write the check for however much we are going to give we will make sure it is +1.”  My treasurer had all ready reached the same conclusion, having been dealt similar blows in the last year.

“It is a big gift,” he said.  “We should definitely treat it like one.”

That’s what we did.  We treated it like any other gift because she, out of her poverty, gave all she had.

Still, I wish I had the dollar.  I would carry it with me wherever I go and take it out as a prop for sermons on giving.  Another part of me wanted to frame it and put it in the sanctuary.  If I had had a dollar bill on me, I would have traded it out and done so.

Instead I took the picture posted below.  My lousy phone has a really lousy camera so the picture is blurry.  But I love how blurry it is.  It isn’t fitting that a picture of that dollar bill should be like any other picture.  After all that dollar isn’t like any other dollar.

And of course by the end of the day I was reviewing my own financials to figure out how much I wanted to contribute.  Generosity is contagious like that.

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The Answer to Clergy Burnout (Hint: It is not babying your pastor)

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I first felt the call to ministry when I was 13 years old.  I took a giant leap of faith and told my mom what had been going on in my heart.  She stared blankly at me and then stuttered, “Don’t tell your dad.”

I have no idea why she said that because she told my dad within the week. My dad was so concerned about it, he decided we needed to have a heart to heart conversation about this crazy idea.  It was almost like I had announced I was getting into crystal meth.

It wasn’t that my parents were atheists.  It wasn’t that they were even anti-religion or anti-church.  They were and up to that point always had been good church people.  It was precisely because they were good church people that they knew what “good church people” do to good church pastors.  They eat them for dinner.

Regardless, or maybe because of my parents’ concerns, I went ahead and pursued formal ministerial education to figure out this calling thing.  In my very first class my wonderful professors were as equally honest as my father.  They too were good church people who knew what happened to good church pastors.  One professor very honestly put it, “If you can picture yourself doing anything but full time ministry, you are not called to ministry.”

The problem at that point was that I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.  This calling was in my heart and blood and bones and no discouraging words from those who had lived decades in the trenches could simmer my passion.  I think that was probably the point.

After that I endured 8 years of formal education for this job

First person to save and sanctify the Sasquatch gets a free swimming pool in their mansion of glory!

and clergy burnout came up constantly.  At times it felt like a group of crazy people who had seen the Sasquatch were trying to convince me that this was real.  “Trust us guys, Burnout is out there!  I saw it eat my grandma!  I heard it destroyed my neighbor’s fence!  My best friend claimed that he saw Burnout and it bellowed at him with 9 inch teeth!”

But along with those apocalyptic warnings came good advice.  Pray more.  Sleep more.  Have good mentors.  Take your day off.  Take your vacation.  Exercise.

And of course academia is not the only village to see the Burnout.  Everybody else has seen it too.  Most major Christian magazines and blogs run “Clergy Burnout” articles constantly.  Some of are written for the clergy, some for the laity and they all recycle the same old advice.  Be easy on your poor pastor.  Support your poor pastor.  Give them more stuff.  Let their children get away with more stuff.  And BY NO MEANS call them on their day off.

All that is good and helpful.  We are just human, but some of those articles tow the very fine line of treating pastors like we are the poor handicapped kid in the second grade who needs “special treatment.”  And I don’t think that is the case for the handicapped kid or for your pastor.  The handicapped kid doesn’t need “special treatment” or attention.  They need what you need, to feel like they are a valuable part of the group and a healthy, loving community.  Your pastor needs that too.

Click to buy.

On that note, a couple months ago I read a now old book called “Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Friedman.  I meant to write a review here but never got around to it.  Friedman wrote the book on his death bed and it was a compilation of several years worth of research and lectures.  It was his magnum opus and unfortunately he died before finishing it.

Friedman worked among national leaders in Washington D.C. for 40 years.  He was a Jewish Rabbi and marriage counselor, as well as an adviser to several Presidents, congressmen and women and other politicians.

He eventually came to disbelieve several myths about how leadership works and he spent his life trying to dispel them.  “Failure of Nerve” was his last great shot and it worked to some extent because 20 years after he died, here I am revisiting all my assumptions about leadership because of him.

One of those “myths” that he vehemently expels is that stress comes from working too hard.  After working with several teams of people, particularly in politics, who worked 16 hour days for months at a time and never burned out, he knew that not to be the case.  Instead he found that stress comes from bad relationships.  He argued that if you are part of a good team and doing work you believe in, 16 hour days are your joy, not your angst.  But if you are working 5 hours a day with a dysfunctional team, the Burnout monster just might rear its ugly head.

So follow with me here and consider that clergy burnout might have nothing to do with long hours and little pay.  It might have nothing to do with difficult and hard work.  That should be our joy.  Instead, if Friedman is correct, it might have everything to do with dysfunctional teams.

If I am right about this it means that the best way to support your pastor has nothing to do with supporting your pastor.  It has everything to do with supporting the person sitting in the pew next to you.  It has everything to do with creating a climate in your church of love and respect, a respect that doesn’t start or stop with your pastor but finds it end goal in the least of the church members among you.

It seems like Jesus also had something to say about that:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” Matthew 25:40 NIV

And probably for your pastor too.