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.

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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)

Why I Like Paul More Than Jesus (And Why That Might Not Be Good)

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I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter.  Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books.  If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well.  What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres.  If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts.  If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts.  If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty.  And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.

But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique.  Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul.   The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue.  He becomes the main character in the 12th.  From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.

With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul.  I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times.  I have memorized a few of them.  I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.”  I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul.  I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar.  This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”

Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic  sense.

And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.

And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love.  The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.

Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters.  I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon.  So too is Paul in Athens.  He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.

As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!

But therein lies the problem.  You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus.  At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.”  Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.”  In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true.  None of Scripture is formational except Romans.  It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.

At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us.  Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.

Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies.  We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets.  We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father.  Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.

I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure.  But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”

I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus.  Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount.  This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around.  We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings.  To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives.  A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.

Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Why Lent? Why Fast? Part 1: Coffee

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In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul engages us in a fascinating discussion about marriage and celibacy as they relate to our new standing in Christ.  Towards the end of his remarks on this issue he suddenly expands his horizons from marriage to all of our relationships.  He says in verse 31, Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away.

One of the reasons why we fast, especially during the season of Lent, is because we recognize that the things of this world have a strange way of capturing our preoccupations.  When living in the present world we are seemingly drawn to unhealthy obsessions with otherwise healthy or neutral objects.  This happens with our food consumption, our clothing choices, our television shows, our music and even our sleeping habits.  Lent is that time when we revisit our preoccupations and loosen the ties that bind us to them in order to be more free for the service of God and for the new world that is coming.

Therefore the most powerful moments of Lent always happen right before Ash Wednesday.  In the weeks and months leading up to the imposition of ashes, I find myself revisiting my habits, my routines, my comforts and my choices, praying about what God might have me surrender.  As I do this, I am mindful of the words of a much wiser friend who once told me, “The thing you think you can’t live without is that which you should give up for Lent.”

I didn’t have to pray long to figure out what it was this year.  It came about on Ash Wednesday morning I pulled myself from my bed, dragged myself to my coffee pot and stared longingly at it while I toasted a bagel.  I “freed myself” from my morning cup of joe.  .  .and my second breakfast coffee too.  .  .and my nightly latte.  .  .and my mid afternoon stovetop espresso.  .  .and.  .  .nope that’s about it.

I am joking of course.  I only drink a morning cup every morning, with an afternoon espresso every other day or so.  Still, those cups of coffee and espresso were the highlight of any given day.  My morning routine was centered around eating a bagel, drinking coffee and reading articles and books.  And after a run in the winter cold, coming home to a warm blanket and a cup of espresso was my little slice of heaven, a slice I have sorely missed after some cold runs these last weeks.

You see, we joke around a lot about coffee in Christianity.  I have said before that coffee is a

All my friends are like.  .  .

fruit of the spirit, that there is no virtue outside of coffee, that coffee is God’s way of saying, “I love you” and the like.  Coffee has become a symbol of faith, right up there with the cross
.  In fact, I realized awhile back that pastors used to go to coffee shops to make connections with “non church” people.  Now we go to coffee shops to connect with the pastor down the street.  If you don’t believe me, walk into the nearest coffee shop and yell, “Hey Pastor!”  I bet half the heads will look up expectantly.  And when I told my Christian and pastor friends that I was giving up coffee for Lent, I was greeted with a half hearted skepticism.  As one of my esteemed colleagues noted, “I love my job way too much to give up coffee for Lent.”  He may be right.

However, last January I realized that lying behind my love of everything black, dark and bold, was an unhealthy preoccupation with this present world.  This preoccupation wasn’t just mental.  It manifested itself in physical ways.  It turns out caffeine withdrawal is a real thing, and a painful one at that.  The first three days I had a massive migraine.  The next week my legs were super tight during runs and I experienc
ed low threshold but constant spasms when  I wasn’t running.  My energy level crashed to the point where I took afternoon naps whether I intended to or not.  My diet and hunger were thrown way off.  It turns out that my body was quite preoccupied with the black liquid gold.  As the Apostle might put it, “My whole spirit, mind, body and soul were in love with coffee.”  And when I denied it the caffeine, my whole spirit went crazy.

This got me to thinking about what would happen if I “freed myself” from Jesus.  What would that look like?  Would it have that much an effect on my spirit, on my body, on my mind, on my routine?  Would it throw everything in disarray and cause sleepless evenings of twitching muscles?  Is my faith that important to me and that much a part of me?  I think probably so.  I am getting leg twitches just thinking about it.

Be that as it may, another reason we fast for Lent is so that our fasting can turn into feasting on Easter morning.  And trust me, when I yank myself out of bed at 5:30am on Resurrection Sunday and sip that first sip, the coffee will be a reminder for me that a new world is coming, a world full of health and energy and vitality and devoid of death and destruction.

I can only wait and here is one last meme!

 

 

 

My Honest Evaluation of the Culture of “Honest Evaluation”

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My very first college major was “Business Management.”  I had this pipe dream of one day owning and managing my own publishing company and I figured I would need some business savvy to pursue it.  I only took one year of business classes, which I enjoyed very much.  The next year God had different plans and I changed my major to pastoral ministries.

Then, as fate would have it, I married a brilliant and beautiful business management major who now works in economic development.  My repentance from the idolatry of business was quickly undone!  Be that as it may, I have actually read more books from the business world than she has, especially lately.  The reason for that irony is that there is still an expectation that pastors be half-CEO’s who are knowledgeable of modern movements in the corporate world and can employ them in churches.

Several pastors agree that one of the best modern movements is towards a culture of “genuine feedback.”  This culture creates and maintains the expectation that every person in an organization should be evaluated consistently and sometimes constantly.  Every executive is expected to evaluate their employees and be evaluated by them.  In turn, every employee is to be evaluated by their peers and their executive.  The hope of all this critiquing and judging is that meaningful conversation can occur about strengths and weaknesses and relationships in the organization.  But, ironically, one recent book I read claimed the honest conversations never happened.  (see “Leadership Divided” by Robert Carucci).

Churches adopted similar strategies.  We just used higher sounding terminology to justify it.  Instead of “evaluation” we call it “spiritual accountability.” Instead of “suggestions of improvement” we talk about “opportunities for repentance.”  We couch the whole thing in a “God who expects us to change.”  Don’t let the spiritual words fool you.  In practice it looks the same.  Everybody should have feedback conversations with everybody else.  We create forms and surveys that everybody can fill out about each other.  We are expected to “evaluate” our ministries, our pastors, our board, our lay leaders.  Over time everything about the church becomes fair game for human criticism.  We show up to church with our mental scorecards prepared and we check boxes and circle numbers in our heads, waiting for the moment to share the results with others.

Don’t get me wrong, the feedback culture sounds really good on paper.  For example, consider the scores of “isolated” leaders whose moral and executive failures were the result of an absence of “truth tellers” surrounding them.  They are in the church with just as much frequency as in the business world and they all prove to us that un-evaluated leaders become spectacular failures.  I do believe that one of the ways to “help” them is to criticize them.  That means that one of the ways to help me is to criticize me.  Receiving feedback is a means of grace.  It enables humility and forces us to “not consider ourselves more highly than we ought.”  In fact, I love the Apostle Paul’s words that “when we are cursed, we bless.  When we are persecuted we endure it.  When we are slandered, we answer kindly.”  (1 Cor. 4:12-13)  It would seem even receiving harsh or unfair criticism is an opportunity for spiritual growth.

But still I worry for the spiritual health of the critics.  After all with the expectation that I will be evaluated comes the opposite expectation that I have the power and authority to judge others.  Under this expectation, insulting, slandering and persecuting others becomes my “right.”  All ready we are seeing scores of people in the business world and the church world abusing that power.  I hate to say it but I am sometimes one of the chief abusers.

Coworkers have used peer to peer evaluations to settle personal vendettas.  More disturbingly, managers have too.  And that happens in the church world too.  When the District Superintendant comes to town some parishioners use it as their opportunity to “fill them in” on just how great or lousy this pastor is.  Humorously one parishioner once tried to use the DS visit as an opportunity to complain about my wife.  It did not go well for them but the very fact they felt obligated to “express concerns” to the DS about her shows how out of hand the feedback culture can get.

The feedback culture has a very deep problem of god-making.  Because of the feedback culture we now believe that not only can we evaluate but we get to choose the criteria by which you are evaluated.  This produces feedback that is not rooted in any sort of ethic other than the critic’s own selfishness.  It is the complaints of bathroom use or bad hand writing or ridiculous email etiquette producing lines in the comment section like, “didn’t put toilet paper on roll the right way” or “can’t tell if her I’s are actually P’s” or “You should always put your phone number in every email you send” or “doesn’t text me back soon enough.”

In the church these comments take a slightly different form. Parishioners feel very qualified to say that the pastor’s tie was not tied right (too long, even touched the belt buckle, gasp!) or that the lettuce at a potluck wasn’t chopped correctly or that the lighting in the sanctuary was too dark or the paint colors not welcoming.  They do not realize that Scripture says nothing about sanctuary lighting or chopping lettuce and ties weren’t even invented yet.  But they don’t care because the feedback culture has made them the gods and their made up evaluation form are the new sacred scriptures.

In their thinking the pastor or interior decorator or lettuce chopper is entitled to hear their opinion.  This attitude reveals a very disturbing inner life that has been malformed and misshaped by our “expectation” of feedback.

With that in mind the feedback culture also runs counter to one of our deeply held Christian values, “do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matt. 7:1)   By applauding the culture of feedback we are giving into the myth that you are the consumer god who deserves to be appeased and to give “honest feedback” when you are not.  But in the real kingdom of God we are not gods.  We are grateful servants who live lives of gratitude, even foolish gratitude.  This gratitude gives thanks for your pastor even when their tie looks absurd.  It thanks God for the lettuce that was chopped all screwy.  And it enters the sanctuary doors with thanksgiving even if it is “too dark.”

I wonder if rediscovering a culture of gratitude might offer a powerful counter to the god-making culture of feedback.  I wonder if our culture of thank you might be a powerful witness to the poor employees who are stuck under the oppression of constant evaluation.  I wonder if our poorly lit and painted sanctuary with absurd pastors and weird lettuce could be safe places for those who need a rest from constant evaluation.

As an experiment I’ll take the first step into that world by saying thank you for reading this today.  Every click I get is a wonderful gift from God and I do believe that.

And if you want, you can leave your evaluation in the comments below.  Just know that I will be blessed when you do, but that you will be cursed 😛

The Best Way to “Stand Up” For Jesus: Revisiting Romans

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Just in case you are one of those incredibly wonderful people who has been living on a remote island without technology lately or who has the metaphorical equivalent of their head in the sand, there is a pretty massive culture war going on regarding homosexuality and its place in our society.

It all started about 30 years ago but the Gettysburg was just recently won when the Supreme Court finally decided to allow homosexuals to marry.  This means that if you are an evangelical, conservative, Republican, Fox News watching, straight, middle class white American your side lost the battle.

And like most sides who lose major battles, it has made that demographic angry, resentful, bitter but most of all desperate.  Also, like most wars, the two sides have wanted to do anything possible to win.  The so called “bible believing” Christians have shown themselves more than willing to tell lies (a violation of one of the 10 commandments) to gossip and slander (repeatedly forbidden throughout Scripture) to ignore certain parts of Scripture and to sin in their anger.  More than that the sun has now set about 100 times since the Supreme Court’s decision and they are still angry.

They feel justified in all this because, as they put it, “we need to take a stand for the Lord and not let ‘them’ win.”  This apparently justifies violating all of God’s commandments in order to get others to follow one prohibition repeated only about 4 times in the Bible.

Their go to text has been Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul seems to be the most ardent about homosexuality.  Not surprisingly, even my non Christian friends who have never opened a Bible in their lives can give me a rough outline of it.

The premise drawn from Romans 1 (and I would encourage you to actually go read it here) is that if we allow homosexual behavior to become “normalized” then God will destroy us, and probably enjoy doing it.

The desired result is that us good, Bible believing (or ignoring) Christians should boycott the goods of any company who disagrees with us.  We should gossip and slander anybody who is not on our side.  We should excommunicate those Christians who believe differently than us and, of course, we should not vote for politicians who seem to be even wavering on the issue.

Interestingly, none of these are biblical practices.  Actually, I have done some research lately and found the idea of boycott is not even mentioned in Scripture.  Never in Scripture are we commanded not to make cakes, process paperwork, bank with or buy goods from people who sin differently than us.  In fact Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 addresses those who are refusing to buy meat from idolaters.  He tells them to go ahead and purchase and eat freely, even if the owner of the shop sacrificed the meat to idols.  Some Christians today would have burned all copies of 1st Corinthians for that one suggestion.

Those Christians, of course, have never read Romans 2 or 3 or 4 or all the way until chapter 12.  I don’t even think they have read to the end of chapter 1 where Paul describes “them” as, “Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters,[f] insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”  There are 17 adjectives there and to my count 13 of them describe conservative Christianity”

More than that, this list ends a long tyrant against “them.”  In the NRSV translation there are over 20 instances of “them” and “their” between Romans 1:18 and Romans 1:32.  Clearly this passage is not about “us.”  That is, until we reach Romans 2:1 where Paul suddenly swaps the pronoun on the poor Roman Christians by declaring, “Therefore YOU are without excuse.”

It is one the most shocking turns in all of Scripture.  Anybody reading this for the first time would be completely caught off guard by Paul suddenly turning on us after decrying all the “thems.”

Paul goes onto explain that we are actually the hateful, insolent, slandering gossips who are under the wrath of God and then concludes in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of giving God the glory that God is due” (my translation).

But don’t worry because in Romans the answers to God’s wrath is not destruction or punishment or even discipline.  It is love.  While we were yet weak, unable to save ourselves, completely cut off from God and experiencing the consequences of our idolatry, Jesus died for us. (see Romans 5:6-8).

Then we hit Romans 12 where the letter comes full circle.  Just as all of our minds were darkened when we worshiped the creation over the creator, Paul now explains that our minds can be enlightened, renewed, restored.  So Paul pleads with the Romans and with us to offer ourselves (not “them” selves but “our” selves) as living sacrifices so that God can renew our hearts and minds.  Then Paul spends 3 chapters talking about what a mind renewed by the grace of God looks like.

A mind renewed looks like love without hypocrisy.  It looks like owing nothing to anybody except love to everybody.  It looks like showing hospitality to strangers (i.e. those who are not “us”, i.e. those who sin differently than “us).

It looks like blessing those who persecute us, blessing them without cursing.  It looks like feeding our enemies (maybe even making cakes for their weddings) and clothing the naked.  It looks like submitting ourselves to everybody, especially authorities and even those who misuse their authority.

If you want to “stand up” for Jesus in these bizarre and changing times, the best way to do that is not boycotting, slandering, gossiping or returning evil for evil but to live your life by the precepts of Romans 12-15.  When we bake cakes for those who sin differently than us we are showering the love of God down upon the heads of those who have not yet received and accepted grace.  When we enter into polite conversation with them at grocery stores we are showing them an engaging God who is seeking the lost.  Heck, we might even try letting them use our buildings.  What better way to start a conversation with them!  We don’t do any of this in the hopes that “they” will become “us” but that all of us may become more like Christ.

So please stand up for Jesus.  Do not be ashamed.  Do not back down from loving everybody.  Do not shy away from embracing those different than you.  Do not stop trying to love without hypocrisy, (which is a Greek word meaning hyper judgmental).  Do not stop showing honor and service to everybody you meet.

Or at the very least please stop re-posting all those ridiculous and hurtful articles, memes and posts.  You have to start somewhere after all.