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

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advertisements

The Man in the Arena

Standard

We are now three weeks away from the end of 2016.  And what do I say?  What do we say?  What can anybody say?  I guess we can start with the shared understanding that this year happened.  It did.  I think we all agree there.

Because it happened I suppose it is up to some of us to comment on it whether for better or for worse.  And I certainly do have remarks to make considering both the cultural journey this year and my own personal journey.

For starters, yesterday I read the 96th book that I have read this calendar year!  It was a ridiculous book about Generation Z and how hard it will be to reach them with the gospel, especially considering most of them still wear diapers and throw food across the room.  Be that as it may, I am actually going to achieve my goal of reading 100 books this year!

This was also the year I completely paid off my student loans.  This should have been celebrated with cheers and laughter and champagne (or the Nazarene equivalent, Sparkling Cider).  Instead the student loan provider sent me a letter detailing how much money I had just given them over the last 5 years.  Let’s just say it would not have paid for a house but probably I could’ve afforded half of one with it.  On top of that over the last two months I have realized that I spent the equivalent of 10 years and $120,000 becoming educated for ministry and despite that massive investment I can barely afford health insurance and only contribute mere penny’s to my 401(K) every month. To add insult to serious injury a denominational leader explained to me last week the cruel reality that despite 10 years and $120,000 I am still not old enough to be of much use.  The sparkle disappeared from my cider and has put me in a foul mood ever since.

Reading 100 books in one calendar year didn’t come with sparkling cider either.  For sure it will stand as my single greatest accomplishment of the year and for that I am proud.  However, I am more cynical now than I have ever been about my own ability to have any grasp on truth.  Reading that much from such a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds has awakened me to just how deep the chasms in our world run.  We don’t just disagree about the color of the sky.  We disagree about what constitutes “sky” and just how to define “color.”  Our culture is in a mess.

So this great grand goal of reading 100 books has deprived me of the joy of thinking I actually had something to say or to contribute to this world.  How do I tell people the sky is blue when they disagree about “blue?”  This has made preaching difficult because, as I have all ready written elsewhere, I am not sure of the veracity of anything I say from the pulpit.

But people are still trying to tell you the sky is blue or gray or green or whatever and they are as arrogant as ever in assuming they are right and they alone have the monopoly on truth.  Most of them don’t even have college degrees and haven’t read one book this year.  But here I am having completed 95 books and paid off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and still completely unsure I have anything worthwhile to say.

The thing is, we have become a culture of arm chair quarterbacks who never played football.  We are critics without cause.  I realized we were in a mess when I was listening to cable news pundits critique the US President about what he should have said.  They were not taking issue with what he actually said but instead what they thought he should have said.  It suddenly occurred to me that we have become so violent in our slander that we now think we have the authority to tell people exactly what they should say.  And we claim we are for liberty and freedom.

With that in mind, this year has not been a complete loss for me.  I would never be so pessimistic as to claim that.  In fact if there is anything I have read this year that has given me great help it is this quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech:

I have thought long and often of those words this year and as we look to 2017, I have learned that what we need moving forward are more readers and less writers.  We need more doers and less critics.  We need more governors and less campaigners.  We need more listeners and less talkers.  We need more actual quarterbacks and less arm chair quarterbacks.  We need more men and women actually in the arena, faces marred by dust and sweat and blood but also marked by a more outstanding courage, a courage that courses through their veins and inspires us all to a better, albeit more humble, greatness.

And as the popular Christmas song sings out, “Let it begin with me.”

A Pastor’s Running Baggage

Standard

This morning I awoke at my in law’s house in Western Washington.  I only find myself here once or twice a year and usually feel somewhat claustrophobic.  I was born and raised between the big skies and wide open spaces of southern Idaho.  Here the low hanging clouds and giant, lumbering trees create an unsettling eeriness.  At least it unsettles me.  My wife, who grew up here, calls it “comforting.”

Be that as it may, I generally look forward to running a few miles whenever I am here.  To the west of my in law’s house lies acres and acres of narrow roads that wind through dense forests.  When I was here in November I ran out on a narrow road without a shoulder.  The forest to each side is beautiful.  However, this road has a disturbing amount of traffic and no room for pedestrians.  The gorgeous forests were ideal.  The 40 mile per hour cars trying not to hit me were less than.

Apparently I remembered the beauty and forgot the traffic because this morning I ran out that way again.

As I carefully dodged the cars, most of which were ambivalent to my well being, I found myself imagining what might happen if one of these cars did kill me.

What would happen to my church?  How would my wife handle it?  Would my kids be okay without a dad?  What friends would come to the funeral?  These are eery thoughts, perfect for such an eery place as the Pacific Northwest.

But more than family and friends, I also wondered about secret emotions and feeling I might take with me to my grave.  After all, within these 150 pounds of loosely jointed muscles and bones I have a startling amount of baggage.

Which is unfortunate, given that us runners are a minimalist bunch.  Now I know there is an entire industry of runner related gadgets that you can carry on your miles.  However their cell phone arm straps, runner friendly head phones, heart rate monitors, calorie trackers, absorbent head bands, mp3 players and the billions of marketing that sells them are all superfluous.  The best way to tell a runner from a jogger is to look for these needless accessories.

I am purist and have been since college.  When I leave home I wear running shoes, socks, a watch and the shortest pair of shorts this pastor can get away with wearing.  More than that, I wait until my stomach is empty, not being one who can run comfortably with anything sloshing around in there.

Yet when I head out to the roads and trails I find a surprising amount of baggage weighing me down.  Yesterday I met with two of my dearest friends in Portland.  As has been the case with every good friend I have made since junior high I am desperate to retain their friendship.  I spent a few minutes this morning going over everything I said and did wrong yesterday while with them and worried that they might not like me as much after.

More than that, I am a pastor of a church that seems fairly stable and yet I worry about how precarious the situation is.  Whenever I run I try to assess each congregants discipleship status.  Are they making gains?  Are they giving the enemy ground?  Are they willing to hear me ask them the tough questions and read the tough scriptures to them or do they need something the Apostle Paul would compare to “milk?”  Is my relationship with my associate strong enough, good enough?  What congregants can I build trusting friendships with and what ones are waiting in the weeds to destroy me?

In fact, the problem with evangelical pews is that the more you sit in them the more arrogant you become, thinking you are right about everything.  How do I fight that trend and teach and model a humility through which the other virtues will grow?  And how do I do that knowing that the problem with evangelical pulpits are that the more you stand behind them the more sure of yourself you become?  How do I fight that tendency within myself and model the needed humility?

Then there is the macro vision.  How do I work and live into my calling to make disciples who make disciples and plant churches who plant churches?  What conversations do I need to have?  What partnerships do I need to foster?  What steps do I need to take this next week to work towards the mission?

Then there is that church I left.  We met yesterday with a member of that church.  They do not yet have a pastor and are struggling to find and afford one.  There have been several blows to their congregational life since I left.  A divorce, a death, a few severe illnesses, financial instability and of course, leadership changes.  When I left that church in February, I foretold that I was going to break a lot of hearts, starting with my own.  And my heart is still aching and breaking for them and for me.

I also think of friends.  I spent last weekend with a friend who has pastored what we call a “buzzsaw” church.  He went into it whole.  He came out in pieces.  It was my deep honor to share his pain last weekend and yet it was a taxing time.  We cried together, raged together and even laughed at the absurd world.  I still mourn from him.

Then there is another friend, I have known and respected since high school.  He won all the awards in high school and is now becoming somewhat of a national celebrity for a shoe he invented.  I admire and respect him and yet feel like in the race to save the world, I am far behind him and losing ground daily.  How do I possibly catch up?  Should I even try?  Can my small daily sacrifices even compare to his amazing ability to make roses out of dog poop?

Needless to say in this 150 pound body striding effortlessly through the forests of Washington, is a surprising amount of stress, grief, frustration and fear.  No wonder I didn’t even bother with a shirt.  The extra weight would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

I would take all this to my grave if one of these haphazard drivers ends my life.  In fact, if that had happened, all you would have is a half written sermon for next Sunday and last week’s blog post about Monday Morning’s Repentance.  Hardly a legacy, but a legacy I am not sure I want to leave anyway.

As I dodge three or four more cars, an asphalt sidewalk suddenly appears in front of me.  It starts at the road and then weaves away through some trees, curving in and out.  When I see it I seem to hear a different voice in the back of my head, a comforting and familiar presence that says, “Follow the path and I will keep you safe.”

A minute or two later I stop to catch my breath.  As sweat forms and pours off me I offer up prayers for my church, my denomination, my last church, my friends and for myself.

For the one who called me is faithful.  .  .

Pulling the Bitter Weeds: Anger Addictions Pt. 3

Standard

Monday and Tuesday I wrote about anger in the lives of Christians, particularly among clergy.  I mentioned that I have found the temptation towards anger has worked in me much the same way the temptation for sexual immorality seems to work in others.  In fact if I read books like C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” or “Every Man’s Battle” and substitute “sex” for “anger,” I relate a lot more.

Yet nobody seems to be talking about anger or the addictions that can form around our wrath.  More than that we seem to reward anger, with the stipulation that the anger is directed towards that which our anger is directed.

Today I want to begin a conversation towards a solution to the prevalent anger addictions.  As with all my posts, I do not presume to have the final word but just hope to kick off a conversation.

I also do not endeavor to begin a new area where we can be overly suspicious of each other.  One of the worst things that has happened in our struggle against sex addiction is that now every adult male who is younger than 40 is automatically suspected of being a pervert.  I do not want to add to that absurdity by now claiming every adult male over 40 is now angry and bitter.

With that qualification I do think we need to be better at identifying and helping those who are struggling with anger.  Here are a few areas where such intervention might work the best.

1) Pastors Retreats and Conferences:  Over the last few decades retreats and conferences for clergy have become a multi-million dollar market.  As a pastor I get invited once a month to someone’s next great conference.  While these conferences and retreats tend to be ridiculously expensive (which leads to the exclusion of pastors of smaller churches), they are still a valuable venue for discussing vital aspects of ministry.  Therefore I think these conferences should provide space in their plenaries and workshops for talking about anger.

2) The Ordination Process:  I just now counted how many times I was asked about sex during my nine year process of ordination.  I am sure I missed several instances that are buried in my subconscious but I can still count 30 particular instances where a governing board asked me about how I control my “hormones.”  I cannot remember once being asked about anger.  I was asked a few times about how I resolve conflict but never once about anger itself.  Seminary classes, ordination interviews, interviews with D.S.’s and the like are all great places to discuss anger and its harm and it should be a topic of scrutiny in the ordination process.

3) District Superintendent Oversight and Mentors:  When a Pastor is caught in a sexual sin the district is usually the first call, as it well should be.  In those situations the D.S. is meeting with the pastor the very next day, if not by nightfall.  A D.S. should take reports of hostile rage just as seriously.  The goal of the reaction shouldn’t necessarily be immediate removal but the D.S. should intervene quickly and provide the necessary support and remediation so that one outburst does not become a habit or one bitter and angry sermon doesn’t bring down the whole church.

With that said, I do not seek to add more work to our all ready overworked church leaders which is why every pastor should have a mentor.  There should be some form of direct oversight of the clergy from outside the congregation for issues like these.  I have personally benefited from a few mentors as I have battled with the demons of anger, hostility, rage and bitterness.  Those mentors have been invaluable, not just to me but also to my D.S. who doesn’t need me calling him every week.

I want to close this series by giving the same encouragement I was often given about sexual temptation:  If you find the seeds of anger sprouting in your soul, please seek help before the weeds overcome your Spirit and destroy the harvest of righteousness in your local congregation.

Be kind and compassionate and patient, bearing with one another in love.

Flush Away Your Wrath: Anger Addictions Pt. 2

Standard

Yesterday I wrote about the similarities between sexual temptation and anger temptation and noted that both are seemingly prevalent and destructive.

I had a few friends respond to yesterday’s post and they raised some great questions concerning anger.  The first had to do with definitions.  The second had to do with reading Ephesians 4 where Paul seems to take a mild stance towards anger by saying, “In your anger do not sin” but then comes back a few verses later and says, “Get rid of it all together.”  Today I hope to address both of these in turn.

As far as definitions go, I do not assume any passion that is directed toward or against something is “anger.”  Instead I think anger is best understood as relational.  It is hostile passion that is directed towards somebody or a group of somebodies.

In this case being mad that the Chiefs lost their playoff game last winter (and boy was I mad!) does not fall under the category of an anger addiction.  However, seven months later if I am still angry about the game and demanding Andy Reid’s resignation, using various curse words to describe the coaching staff and insisting Alex Smith be traded to a 1A High School football team, then I would need help with my anger problem.

As far as the context of Ephesians and James go, I think Paul and James would agree with that definition.  Anger seems to be understood as directed against somebody and is summarily dismissed for those reasons.

With that said, Ephesians 4 is fascinating.  Yesterday I planned to write about James 4, where I will end today, but a friend brought up Ephesians and I found it to be more formative.

The chapter begins with the wonderful exhortations to no longer be infants but to grow up into Christ who is the head.  This involves no longer being Gentiles whose thinking is futile but instead putting on a new self which consists of righteousness and holiness.

Then Paul digs into the particulars of righteousness.  First, Paul says to put off falsehood.  Next Paul says to not sin in your anger and not to let the sun go down on your anger.  Then Paul moves on quite abruptly with no further qualifiers.  This is quite unfortunate because we have no idea from Paul what letting the sun go down on your anger means or what sinning in anger would look like.  We have to make educated guesses, like the NIV did by translating it, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

If that was all the New Testament said about anger we would be left  with our own assumptions and say things like, “Anger is just fine if you resolve it quickly.”  Or, “I can be angry all I want just as long as I don’t “sin” in it.”  And many have said those things to justify their acts of rage though few have taken any effort to define what “sinning in anger” even means.

But those two verses are not all we have.  In fact, Paul comes back in verse 31 and suddenly makes a sweeping statement to “get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”  The Greek for “getting rid of” might translate into modern English as, “throw away” or “flush down the toilet.”

The words cover the gamut of all forms of anger and their expression.  Bitterness is the slow burn anger that festers over time.  Rage is the quick burn anger that blows up in a second.  Brawling is the physical blows caused by anger.  Slander is the verbal blows.  And malice is the manipulative scheming that one who is angry (or bitter) engages in.

With that in mind, I repeat what I said yesterday, “There is no room for anger in the Kingdom of God.”

I think when Paul said, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” he meant the minute you find out you have any bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander throw it away and never take it up again.  Put another way, I don’t think Paul was talking about “going to bed mad” or daily anger but he was talking to the very present day.

In sum it might paraphrase to, “deal with your anger today before it destroys your tomorrows.”  Then, tomorrow (and every day after) live the new life of 4:32 which reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Now if we turn to James’ witness in the first chapter of his epistle we find the same idea at work.  James says in verses 19 and 20, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

With all this said, one of the greatest temptations for me has been anger.  It has been a thought and heart battle to stay gentle and kind and compassionate towards those who disagree with me.  As I have spoken to other pastors, I find many have admitted the same thing and most of us deal with it daily, despite attempting to put it away for good.

More bothersome than that are the clergy (and their spouses) who have given into anger long ago.  They pastor and preach with angry hearts and do severe damage to their congregations and no one seems to notice or care.  So tomorrow I will close this short series by suggesting a few interventions church boards and denominational committees can take to keep their pastors kind and compassionate and help them throw away the anger that manifests itself in all its forms.

You can read part 3 here.