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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.

On the 5 Year Anniversary of Becoming a Lead Pastor

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Five years and 262 Sundays ago I became a senior pastor.  That was a wonderful Sunday.  The sun was shining brightly in the mountains of northeast Oregon.  The small town church was packed with the honest and humble of rural America.  My sermon was on my life verse, which is 2 Corinthians 12:9 about God’s power being perfected in weakness.

I was coming off of a wonderful seminary career that ended with accolades and compliments.  I was holding a newly minted master’s degree with a certificate in biblical languages.  My GPA was near perfect.  I attained only one B and I got that B on purpose because the quest for a 4.0 was becoming my idol.  I was brimming with confidence.

Seminary had ended with two open doors.  I was offered a management position at the Rescue Mission where I worked.  I loved that place.  I had hopes and dreams galore.  Many of the homeless men and coworkers who lived and worked there were and still remain great friends.

The other open door was that church in rural Oregon.  With great fear and trembling I moved to Oregon.

So in a sermon that now seems a bit more arrogant than I intended, I told those lumberjacks, postal carriers and farmers about my charisma, my wisdom, my optimism and my drive.  Then I told them all that was useless, as if they didn’t all ready know, and I claimed that I just wanted my weaknesses to be on full display so that God’s power would be all the greater.

Then we had a good old fashioned northwest barbecue with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and other forms of fat with sugar.  Then the next day I got to work.

That was 262 Sundays ago.

Here I sit today in the suburbs of Utah.  I am a little bit older now.  I am a lot wiser.  I am even quite a bit more well informed.  I have read more books now than I did in college and seminary and more than doubled my library.  I am kind of proud of that.  I am also proud of the fact that I don’t weigh a pound more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  Most pastors gain 30-40 pounds their first years of ministry.  I have lost around ten.  My marriage and family are still intact.  I don’t feel I should have to mention that but I do know a few pastors who, on their 262nd Sunday, can’t say it.

I am little bit less naive and a bit more cynical and a lot angrier.  I’ve been verbally abused more times than I can count.  Some of the times I deserved it.  Most of the time it was just angry people needing an outlet.  For some reason pastors are prime targets for those vents and I have come to appreciate that role even if it is painful.  I wish I could say I handled all those situations well but most of the time I was so surprised by the elevated voice that I responded in shock and made things worse.  In those times, I have learned that this poor world and God’s wretched church are far more wrecked than I suspected.  And the darkness isn’t just outside.  It’s inside me as well.

I have had my theological beliefs challenged both internally and externally.  Some needed to be challenged so as to be done away with.  Others I have let go only to realize I badly needed them and ran back to them.  Those ones were not just biblical but crucial for survival in life and ministry.

God has saved some lives and given me a front row seat to the miracles.  There was a young couple, former addicts with two toddlers.  They landed in a motel room in the middle of winter with little food and no money.  They were about to get evicted into a foot of snow.  Somehow they got my phone number.  I raised a couple thousand dollars to get them into a nice two bedroom apartment that their income could afford.  I sometimes question the money we spent on them, especially since the mom relapsed shortly after.  But a couple years later the father told a friend, “If it wasn’t for Pastor Kevin I would have relapsed with her.  But because of what he did, I knew I had to keep the kids and stay sober.”  I disagree with his theology.  It was God who did it but still, that was worth being a part of.

I think God has saved some souls too, though that one is harder to measure.  In the last year alone I have met so many people whose faith has been ransacked by the world.  Somehow they have found me and unloaded all their questions and doubts.  As I talked to them I realized I am the first Christian pastor they have met who has taken those questions and doubts seriously.   God has been able to use me in those moments to bolster their failing trust.  It is in those conversations that I am the most “pastor.”

On that note, I have come to absolutely love being a pastor to those who have never had pastors before.  To those who have had pastors before, I am lousy.  They bring all these expectations and baggage into the relationship that I haven’t quite figured out how to handle.  But for those who have never had a pastor, I am a balm in their wounds and they are in mine as well.

I have a friend whose first church was a buzz saw.  It chopped him to pieces.  After three years of misery, he left the church and the pastorate.  He almost left the faith all together but miraculously he found a church and a pastor.  A month or so ago his church was praying for young seminarians who were about to take their own churches.  They invited everyone to come up, lay hands on them and pray.  My friend stayed in his seat.  All he could think was, “Don’t do it!  Please don’t be a pastor.  For your own health and sanity, do anything but!”  Then he remembered that if not for his pastor he wouldn’t be a Christian at all.  His pastor was a salve in his wounds.  In the words of our founder, Phineas Bresee, “she didn’t blight the budding hope or break the bruised reed.  She lifted up his fainting heart.  She poured oil and wine into the wounds of the poor pilgrim who had been wrecked by the Devil on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.” (Prince in Israel, p. 394)

I suppose for that reason alone, I probably have at least another five years and 262 Sundays in me.

You know, I am more hopeful too.  I still believe in the church.  I still believe in the optimism of grace.  I still believe in the God who equips the called.  I still believe in my weaknesses, in my insufficiency and my worthlessness.  In fact, I believe in those even more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  But most importantly, I absolutely still believe in the God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

A Sermon Somewhere: Parents at the Swimming Pool

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For whatever reason my daughter’s preschool decided to take the three to six year old’s to the local swimming pool this morning.  As ridiculous as this sounds, they weren’t entirely foolish.  They also decreed that every child had to have a parent tag along.  So I spent the morning waddling around water that was a foot deep with fifty parents and fifty preschoolers, reassuring my screaming 3 year old that if he just stood up he wouldn’t be drowning.

As much fun as that was, it was even more fun to watch the parents. Many of them weren’t even dressed in swimming suits.  They wore business casual and stood in a line off to the side, frowning every time they got splashed and otherwise looking at their smart phones.  I just hope they weren’t texting each other.  The most prominent of this group was wearing a tight fitting dress that came down to her knees, boots with six inch heels and she had her hair done up with a good, thick layer of makeup.  She apparently misread the invitation, though I don’t know how.  “Swim Day” is pretty self explanatory.  The only time she looked up from her phone was when her daughter did something cute that she soon captured on the camera on her smartphone.

Then there was the hot tub crowd.  They camped out there as if it was the steam room at a local 5 star resort.  Their faces were furrowed as they dialogued with each other about politics, theology and the meaning of life, the universe and everything in it.  Their children may as well have been hundreds of miles away, out of sight and out of mind.  If I had cigars and vodka I could have made a killing selling them poolside to this crowd.

Then there were the lounge chair parents.  Unlike the business casual crowd, they were at least dressed in bathing suits but they sprawled out on the long chairs as if they were not actually inside an overly chlorinated facility but outside on some beach somewhere getting a tan.  Much like the business casual crew, they were looking at their smartphones and trying to ignore the background noise.  Once again, I could have made a killing selling them poolsides daiquiris.

Then, of course, you had the helicopter parents.  They were actually in the water, seemingly enjoying themselves with their children.  Imagine all the stuff they missed on their smart phones!

Don’t get me wrong, this group had some standout characters.  First, there was the poor father who ended up manning the short tunnel slide that led down to the water.  He stood there all morning arguing with five year olds about who and who couldn’t go first.  At times I couldn’t tell who the five year old was.

One of my closer friends, and heroes, spent the morning arguing with the lifeguards about the ridiculous pool policies.  The pool had a piping network that shot water everywhere which they had strangely refused to turn on.  There was also a giant water slide that they weren’t letting anybody use.  My friend thought all this was an absurd injustice and I totally agree.  He entered into strict negotiations on behalf of the rest of us and, not surprisingly, gained some ground.

Then there was that other parent who mistakenly thought he was one of the life guards.  He stood at the water’s edge, off to the side of the business casual crowd, fully ready to yell at anybody who broke even the tiniest rule, even if the rule only existed in his head.  I think at one point the lifeguards told him to tone it down and that splashing in the water is actually not against the rules.  He blew his whistle at the lifeguards and gave them a penalty flag for not having adequate rules.

As for me, well, I won’t tell you which one of these people I was.  I will tell you that at one point my daughter’s teacher passed by me and said, “Oh I always love it when the dads actually get in the water and play with the children.”  I beamed with pride, assuming that meant I got an A for the day, which is one of my life goals.

But I didn’t get the highest grade in the class.  That prize goes to my 5 year old friend Bridger’s mom.  She went through several rounds of chemo therapy over the winter to try to fight off a dangerous and life threatening cancer.  She is a veterinarian who had to close down her prominent practice to fight the disease.  I am not sure if the cancer is officially in remission or not but she was there today.  The scars of the surgeries were evident all over her body, made more obvious by the fact she was wearing a bathing suit.  Her face looked taut and worn.  Her scarred, wrinkled body looked frail.  But she was right down there in the water with her son, laughing and splashing and enjoying every moment of being alive.

And as I watched her and her son, that got me thinking that well, perhaps there is a sermon in that water somewhere.

 

Divine Appointments, Flying Hats and Cheesy Blog Post Titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Paul and the Corinthians

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

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

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

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

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

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

Eugene Peterson

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

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 29:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

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

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

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

Psalm 32:

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

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