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.

A Church Calendar Fanatic Comes to Grip With Mom’s Day

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Mother’s Day was yesterday.  Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about it.  Despite my wife’s claim late Saturday night that I had not mentioned Mother’s Day once in the weeks leading up to it, I had bought some cards and presents for the leading ladies in my life.

My church did a bang up job too, giving every woman (not mom, but woman!) in the sanctuary a potted plant.  I was incredibly proud of our stewardship team because when they discussed Mother’s Day they were very mindful that we have wonderful and holy women in our congregation who are not mothers but who are just as valuable as the moms.  Also on their minds were those who have lost their mothers in the last year as well as those mother’s who have lost children.  These are the types of great questions that a people who worship The Holy Trinity ask.  They are also questions and concerns that I share every second Sunday of May.

But my concerns run a bit deeper.  I am a church calendar nut and have been for some time and Mother’s Day always lands right in the middle of a “trinity” of holy Sundays meant to cap off the first half of the church calendar year.  In fact, the month of May is an awkward month for Christians because most Mays there are three major Church holy-days (Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays), one Hallmark holiday (Mother’s Day) and one national holiday (Memorial Day).  How is a pastor in the Christian tradition supposed to juggle all these things?!

My gut response is to prioritize the church days.  The first two, Ascension and Pentecost, are huge and important events in the life of Jesus and in the church.  In fact if Jesus hadn’t ascended and the Spirit had not descended there wouldn’t even be a church!  Even more telling is that our “family friendly” church spent 1,900 years creating holidays and never once did it occur to them to create one for mom’s or dad’s.  This despite the fact that honoring your parents is one of the top ten commandments!  With that said the first Mother’s Day was held at a church but apparently founded to encourage mom’s to join together to work for peace.  (Source and source)

Be that as it may when Mother’s Day, or even Memorial Day, conflict with the holy-days, I give them lip service at the top of the service and then move on to the more important topics, like Ascension and Pentecost and Trinity.

However, some days there is no conflict.  When Mother’s Day and Pentecost overlap it is fun to talk about the Spirit as our nurturing Mother.  When Memorial Day and Ascension overlap it is really fun to talk about that life which we remember the most, Jesus’s life, which did not end but goes on forever.

Putting those clever pairings aside, I still have always found Mother’s Day just too problematic for a church.  There are dozens of problems whether they be liturgical (isn’t Pentecost more important?), theological (the Bible tells us to give orphans and widows priority) or just plain practical (we have some women who struggle with infertility).

But last week I read something that made all this a bit less complicated for me.  I was reading a fascinating little commentary on the book of Lamentations written by Soong-Chan Rah.  Rah doesn’t pull any punches when he compares the honest heartache of Old Testament Judea with the dishonest and fake triumphalism of modern Christianity.  At times his words are down right insensitive, especially to this white suburban evangelical pastor whose very existence runs contrary to the heart of a book like Lamentations.

Halfway through the book Rah writes a very poetic paragraph about his mother.  Here is what he says:

“My mother has lived through a very difficult set of life circumstances.  She endured a very difficult marriage.  For most of her married life, her husband was not around, resulting in her raising four kids on her own as an immigrant in a foreign land.  Her minimal English skills as a first generation immigrant meant that she took miminum-wage jobs (often two of them at a time) to keep her family together.  During one stretch, she worked two jobs: a day shift at an inner city carry out and the graveyard shift at an inner city nursing home.  She was working twenty hours  a day, six days a week.  Throughout all her trials, she never lost her faith.  To this day, even with her eyesight failing her, she faithfully reads chapter after chapter of Scripture.  She would wake up at dawn to pray for hours every day.  Several years ago, I noticed that her knee caps had split into several pieces from the many hours of prayer she spent kneeling.  When she kneels, her broken caps conform to the flat surface of the floor.  My deep disappointment with American evangelicalism is that stories like hers are deemed less worthy than the stories of the latest greatest, evangelical superstar with his megachurch.” (p. 61 in Prophetic Lament)

I read that paragraph at the end of my sermon yesterday.  I had some clever but ultimately stretched tie in to the sermon, something about how Rah’s mother has something to teach us about a relationship with the one who ascended into heaven.  But in the end I couldn’t not read about that mom on Mother’s Day because, well yes, a mom like that does have a lot to teach us about what the Christian life looks like.

Later in the day I was talking to my church board about holiness.  I asked for concrete examples of the holy life and they all mentioned people they knew who lived it out, but lived it in ways that are hard for words to describe.  But the stories of their lives describe it well.  I believe Rah’s mother is one such example.  And if we want to live out the theology formed on Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, Rah’s mother might help us considerably in that endeavor.

I am sure there are thousands more mom’s just like her.  Maybe it isn’t so bad to take a Sunday out of the year to commemorate them.

Good News Gone Bad in the 21st Century

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It is now the 31st day of the Easter Season!

Not all 31 days have been a party for me but on the bad days the Easter hope rang out all the clearer.

As I have been celebrating the resurrection this last month I have been leading my congregation through some of the Easter sermons from the book of Acts.  As I have been celebrating the Resurrection and praying my way through Acts I cannot get away from this idea of evangelism.  We are obligated so preach the good news at all times to all creation
and to do so at great personal expense.  Therefore, I have had to revisit my lifelong internal debate about how we proclaim the good news.  Do we use logical arguments?  Do we use catchy but cheesy props?  Do we take the 66 books of Scripture and reduce them to 3 point gospel tracts?  Or do we just love and hope everything works out okay.

I don’t have any easy answers to this but such renewed questions has piqued my mental sensors to pick up on other evangelisms, other proclamations of “good news” that happen in our society.

Here are three that I have noticed and am thinking about:

1. Cell phone commercials: I now have Hulu, which means I have to watch commercials again.  And Hulu shows the same 5 commercials thirty-eight times.  (Pro tip: when my wife gets tired of them she clicks that they are offensive in the upper right corner and then she gets new ones.)  One of the commercials Hulu shows is Verizon insulting all the other cell phone networks.  They now have Ricky Gervais doing it!  The good news of Verizon is that you can trade in your old phone from your old network and take advantage of their incredibly broad and strong network that covers all the country in lightning fast internet speeds.  The problem, of course, is that the cell phone market is now saturated.  That means the only way you grow your business is by insulting someone else’s business.  You aren’t going to sign new people up to cell phones.  Everyone all ready has one.  So they have to insult themselves to more customers.  The thing about church, though, is that our market is not saturated.  Is the best way to grow our congregation to steal Christians away from other congregations?  Is that really good news?

2.  Mormon Game Nights: I live in Utah.  My city is 60% Mormon and every neighborhood has a Mormon ward or two.  You probably are aware that Mormons are incredibly good at “evangelizing.”  It is not so much that they are effective, but they are incredibly persistent and that pays off.  So when someone put a flier in my door jam that advertised a “neighborhood game night” I definitely assumed the Mormons were putting it on.  However, I was naive enough to think it was happening at a

Trust us, we’re not a church or anything.  We just meet at a church, you know, for Jesus’ sake.

neighbor’s house.  After all, the flier said nothing about church or religion or anything.  It just gave a generic address for the location.  So I typed the address into Google Maps (which is what anybody in the internet age would do) and was a bit dismayed when the little icon landed on top of the Mormon ward.  They had lied to me.  But don’t get me wrong, I am not pointing any fingers at the Mormons because Christians do this all the time.  We plan these great church events in our church buildings and invite people to them but are so ashamed of our religion that we lie in our advertising, refusing to admit it is a Christian event.  I wonder how many people type our vague addresses into Google Maps, find out it is a church, feel betrayed and dismayed and hate us all that much more.

3. Pyramid Schemes: A few times in my life I have been duped into sitting in business presentations for pyramid schemes.  It always happens in similar ways.  You find a job posted on an internet job board that promises a starting salary of $50,000/yr and up.  Or you see a flier around town.  Or you meet a new friend who is absolutely in love with this new business model he recently discovered.  He wants you to invest or be a partner or be an employee and so you agree to go out to dinner.  Then he proclaims the good news.  He pulls out flip charts and fliers and gives an hour long presentation about “market strategies” and “business models” and “what everyone else is doing wrong.”  Then at the very end he explains that if you buy a product and convince three other people to buy it who in turn convince three people each to buy it, you can make a lot of money and not have to do any work, just make three of your poor friends sit through the agonizing presentation you just sat through.  The last time I sat through one of these, I suddenly realized that the church was advocating a similar model for discipleship.  “If you will just convince three people to become Christians and teach them to convince three who in turn convince three we can plant churches everywhere!”  No wonder we are accused of being no more than gospel peddlers.

As I said above, I don’t have any easy answers to the questions posed by the mandate to preach the good news.  I do know that we live in a world of cutthroat commercials, lies and scams and I don’t want to be associated with any of it.  If all I am doing is ripping apart the other Christians, or lying about where our event is taking place or inviting you to participate in a pyramid scheme, well then my news isn’t all that good to begin with.

 

 

 

2015: The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia

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TIME’s last magazine of the year was released to my tablet this morning.  I have been an avid TIME reader for about 7 years now and always look forward to the year end issue.  It is a fun issue including the “Person of the Year,” best pictures of the year, best moments of the year, best 15 minute celebrities and the like.

The TIME year end issue always gets me thinking about the year I had and what were my best moments.  In fact, for years now I have done this ridiculously cheesy thing where I name every year.  The titles have ranged from the sappy, “2008: The Year All My Dreams Came True” to the tamer, “2013: The Year That Just Was.”

After tapping through TIME and drinking my coffee, I got my two kids dressed, fed my dog, stepped out of my split level suburban house, climbed into my mid level SUV and suddenly realized, “2015 is the year I sold out to the suburbs!”

That realization might not have been difficult for some but for me it is a difficult reality.  There is this version of myself from late college and early seminary who loathed everything about suburbia.  You can chalk that up to a typical Millenial’s rebellion against his childhood but I felt pretty secure in my belief that Satan controlled the suburbs while God dwelt in the small towns and inner cities.

After all, I worked in an inner city homeless shelter with wonderful, but homeless, saints.  The suburbs of that city had police officers who would see wandering homeless people, pick them up in their squad cars, drive them into the city and tell them, “Don’t ever come back.  This is the place for you.”  I wish I was making that up but I am not.  I believe there was a some racism there as most of the “homeless” they found were hispanic or black.

Beyond that, suburbs are/were the heart of selfish consumerism, that great evil which is the modern day equivalent of what Jesus called, “the pursuit of wealth.”  They waste the most resources, hoarde the most stuff and destroy the most families.  They do all of this while being quite smug.

At least that is what I thought.

Yet here I am in 2015, only 3 and a half years removed from seminary and 6 and a half from college, living in a suburban split level with 2 kids, a dog and an SUV.

It all started before 2015 with a reluctant job interview initiated by me because of a sense of calling.  Soon after I was getting a new Costco membership, stocking up on Starbucks gift cards, shopping in malls, eating at Olive Garden and watching movies once a month at the local megaplex.

I can offer you all kinds of excuses and justifications for this sudden turnabout.  I could mention that I am married to a wonderful woman who never shared my negative feelings about the suburbs and now is quite happy here, happier than she has been in the entirety of our marriage.  And as the old but funny adage goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

I could also mention a report that I can’t name but I know exists that suggests poverty is now moving to the suburbs.  I seem to remember it said that based off of current trends, in 10-20 years the suburbs will have decayed to shanty towns while the inner cities rejuvenate.  I read that report 10 years ago, which means we are that much closer to it.  I could put up pictures of buildings on my suburb that illustrate this trend.  I can even tell you the names of people I know who live in the suburbs and are making far below the poverty line, despite working 40 hours a week in great jobs that do incredible good for society.

More than that I could also argue that I am here to “sanctify the arrogant suburbanites,” that if suburbs are where the sinners live, than that is where the gospel should take root.  I could point to the fact that even though John Wesley and Phineas Bresee, the grandfather and father of my tradition, spent much time among the poor, their real contribution to the church was that they lived among the wealthy and encouraged the wealthy to also embrace the poor.  See, that is what I am doing!  Except that I am not and that attitude is as arrogant and self righteous as the worst of the suburbanites.

Putting that aside I could even satisfy a bit of my guilt by letting you all know that my family took a drastic cut in pay to move here and the church I took over was running less people on a Sunday than the church I left.  However, since moving here my wife has found a great job that she enjoys and we are making slightly more money than we were before.

So maybe I could just tell you the truth.  One day in mid September 2014 (which is “The year I broke my own heart”) I was walking down the street in a wonderful and impoverished small town whose residents were rough around the edges but solid diamonds underneath.  On that street in that town I heard God say, “Time to go” and I was certain it was God so I made plans to leave.

Then in October I was sitting a dinner table with a new friend who has since become a great ministry partner.  In that conversation he shared with me about Utah and about the spiritual needs and I heard the voice of my Lord tell me to come here.

As it turns out, I actually might have a little bit in common with that infamous Old Testament prophet Jonah.  The inner city and small towns are my Tarshish.  The suburbs are my Nineveh.

And after God said, “Hey Kevin, go to Nineveh,” there was no use going anywhere else but Nineveh.  It was far better to go willingly than to buy a ticket aboard a whale’s digestive tract.

So here I sit, typing this out on my brand new laptop, in my split level suburban house, after putting the kids and the dog down for a nap, ready to go to the big city for a date night with my wife, perfectly pleased to let all of you know that 2015 is “The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia.”