Golden Globes, Football, Fiscal Years and Epiphany: A Tale of Liturgical Seasons

Standard

My church kicked off the season of epiphany in style this morning with a fun Epiphany introductory video I made with some kids.  Then we sang the traditional We Three Kings, followed by a bunch of fun upbeat songs about “light.”   Then we read the lectionary Psalm (#29) together and talked about what it means to be in Jesus’ fan club.

But I have to be honest and admit that now Christmas is over, Epiphany is one of the last things on my mind.  Instead, this first month of a New Year is weighed down by seasons of another sort.

My news feeds are saturated with stories of the Golden Globes, reminding me that for the entertainment industry this is Awards Season, a time filled with what we might call liturgies of human glory and honor.  In fact, if I was a bit more of an arrogant Hebrew Prophet I would call the awards shows worship services to the idols of vanity.

So too my social media feeds remind me that the NFL is providing another season, or rather a post season.  This week we watched the first of the teams falter in their quest for dominance, a liturgy itself of human strength and cunning.  And we watch and wait to see which team will rise to the top.  150 million will watch the last match, which is a bit more than the number of people who voted for a US President just months ago.  The angry Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those games worship services, worship to the idols of violence and competition.

Then there is this other thing weighing on my heart and, mostly, mind.  My church ends its fiscal year on February 28th this year.  With the close of a fiscal year comes a mountain high list of responsibilities.  We have numbers to crunch, vision to share, a new board to elect and goals to set, all of which will be accomplished with no less than 1 dozen business meetings.  We might call these a liturgy of institution.  The arrogant, angry and overwhelmed Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those meetings worship services themselves, worship to the idol of human control and manipulation.

Yet today was not just the first Sunday of Epiphany.  It was also the Baptism of our Lord.  The Gospel text for today was Matthew 3, that famous story where Jesus begins his ministry by entering into the waters of the Jordan River.  John the Baptist didn’t know quite what to do with Jesus in the water and I don’t either.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus had not sinned.  The waters are for the spiritually dead.  Jesus was more spiritually alive than anybody has ever been.  The sacrament is for humans.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Yet here is Jesus, wading into the waters of death, sin and chaos and beginning his ministry right where we are at.

In a way the Baptism of Jesus reenacts the incarnation.  This might be why Mark and John leave out the manger, in favor of the water.  In the baptism waters Jesus is taking on flesh again, taking on the unique position of being a human after Adam, a human represented by all humanity’s shortcomings.  This is a God entering into sin and death as one of us.  Like the manger, this is Immanuel, a God with us, a God among us, a God meeting us in our human liturgies of award shows, violent competition and financial reporting.  Here is God in the flesh, come to redeem us from the life taking, death dealing liturgies of the world and light up the better way which is the only way, the liturgy of the cross and the resurrection.

So my hope this Epiphany season is that God will enter into our awards shows, our sporting matches and our business meetings and bring new Epiphany so that our feet can stay on the path of life!

The Sermon I Should Have Preached: On Holiness and Romans 12-15

Standard

This post is part of an ongoing series where after completing a sermon series I go through the main points I wish I would have had time for.

In mid August I faced a difficult dilemma.  Word had seemingly gotten out to several friends, strangers, congregants and family members that the Church of the Nazarene stands in the holiness tradition.  I want to be very clear that we are not more holy than any other group but we do feel a particular calling to think, talk and preach about holiness.  With that said, our calling has come with a very interesting piece of baggage that we call “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection.”  We believe grace comes with the gift of making us perfect.  And we have now spent 108+ years trying to explain to outsiders and each other just what we mean by that.

Over the summer I was asked by several people about the doctrine.  And I was in a unique place to both defend and describe just what we mean by “perfection.”  I found myself saying, that perfection does not mean faultless but it does mean blameless.  It does not mean inerrant but it does mean mature.  It does not mean perfect at golf but it does perfect at loving.  And, if you will allow me one more, it does not mean perfect at showing our love but it does mean perfect at trying to show our love.

If you are confused, I totally understand.  It was the inadequacy of those descriptions that caused me to launch into a 12 week series about holiness last fall.  As I went to put those 12 sermons together, I realized that underlying the confusion was a misunderstanding of the gospel.  So I decided to split the 12 weeks up into 6 weeks on the gospel and 6 weeks on holiness.

So in mid-October we transitioned from gospel to holiness.  At that time a limitation presented itself.  I have chosen to be faithful to Scripture.  Therefore, I don’t just preach what God “lays on my heart.”  I begin every week in one particular passage of Scripture and then let God speak to me through it.  The passage I chose for the holiness sermons was Romans 12-16, which I thought was a very concise, clear picture of what holiness looks like.  And it is.  There is some wonderful stuff in there and I put together some good sermons.

However, Romans 12-16 doesn’t address the unique difficulties of the Nazarene Doctrine of Christian Perfection.  So with that brief background in mind, here are some things I wish I would have had time to go over in more detail but which the constraints of time and Scripture prevented:

1. Individual Holiness vs. Corporate Holiness:  The first thing I realized when I dug deep into Romans 12-15 is that Paul in that passage offers very little help in understanding how individuals are holy.  After much study I realized that Paul is talking about how a community of people are made holy, not one individual.  It got worse when I consulted a myriad of other passages from both Testaments and realized that almost always when God says, “Be holy” or “Be Perfect” God is talking to a community, not to an individual.  Now there are a couple exceptions but not many.  This is problematic because the Church of the Nazarene is almost entirely obsessed with individual holiness and perfection to the neglect of the church.  I will be honest and admit I am not sure how individual perfection and community perfection fit together in every situation.  There are some things we can say, like “holy individuals don’t steal things and murder people” but if you move beyond that to attitudes and hearts, it becomes a bit more difficult.  This is perhaps why I only alluded to the problem in my sermons and then moved on to the bulk of Romans 12-15, which was about the community.  But just to not lose my ordination let me state very clearly I do believe God calls individuals to a life of holiness, it just isn’t emphasized as much in Scripture as God’s call to communities to organize themselves in holy ways.

2. The Process of Holiness:  Once again, the process by which individual people become holy has been a Nazarene infatuation for the last century, if not more so.  And once again Romans 12-16 kind of let me down.  The only real process verse you get is right at the top in Romans 12:1-2 and I did spend an entire sermon on those two verses.  However, Romans 12:1-2 is more about the process by which a church becomes holy.  For those of you who do not know Romans 12:1-2 has some crazy singulars and plurals going on in the Greek text.  Paul writes that we should present our plural bodies as one singular living sacrifice.  This is your (plural) act (singular) of worship.  Then at the beginning of verse 2 Paul does it again.  You (plural) do not conform to the patterns of this world but you (plural) be transformed by the renewing of your mind (singular).  This verse is not about how individuals become holy.  It is about how the church community becomes holy.  That is a great sermon but as a Nazarene pastor it left me up a creek without a paddle concerning how individuals become holy and I was unable to address the doctrine of Christian perfection issues.

This post is all ready entirely way too long and heady.  However, the entire theme of my blog is about grace and about how God works in my life.  So what I hope I have illustrated is that it is hard for a pastor to preach under the authority of the Scriptures.  It is hard to go into a sermon series thinking I am going to talk about one thing and then get sidelined when I realize the Bible passage for the day is not about that at all.  Yet therein lies the grace.  I could preach whatever I want to preach on Sundays mornings and I might get away with it.  However, I have chosen to be a man under authority.  Therefore I must faithfully interpret what God has provided in the living words of the Bible.  Most times that means sidelining my agenda, or even my denomination’s agenda and opening up new pathways into the life and mission of God.

What’s a Sunday Pastor To Do After Election Tuesday

Standard

I am exhausted.

Last Saturday my nose clogged up due to allergies or some minor head cold.  The next day I preached a sermon, then jumped in my car and drove 320 miles at high speeds to make it to a district meeting by 5pm.  I made the mistake of drinking caffeine at that meeting which combined with the clogged nose to give me a very sleepless night.  I spent all day Monday and Tuesday in meetings and then.  .  .

Well, let’s just say I didn’t sleep Tuesday night either.

I drove home Wednesday and have done my best to get through this very interesting week without losing my mind.  Judging by national headlines and my Twitter and Facebook feeds I have been more successful at staying sane than many Americans.  But I have been on the verge of going crazy all week long.

In fact, as I sit here listening to my worship team practice this morning and running through my Sunday morning checklist, I find I am compiling a list of “I have never’s” in my head.

I have never wanted to drink or drug myself silly so much in my entire life.

I have never wanted to listen to the demons of “anger, rage, malice and slander” in my entire life.  After all, everybody else is doing it!

I have never wanted to take off for the hills and live a technology free, social media free, people free, Amish, Monastic type lifestyle in my entire life.

I have never wanted to run for political office so much in my entire life.

I have never felt more compelled by my call to be a missionary in the United States in my entire life.

I have never been so confused about what that call looks like in my entire life.

I have never felt so completely unsure of myself and yet so completely sure of God in my entire life.

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Tom Hanks on SNL

Standard

The last few months I have heard over and over again the lament about how difficult it is in the current cultural climate to get along with people who disagree with you.  The minute you express an opinion you are labeled as an us or a them and the conversation is over.  That drives me nuts.  I just want to be friends and talk about movies and football and occasionally Jesus.

Even those things are controversial any more.  We seem to live in an age when the lines that divide us are being drawn in ever bolder ways and nobody seems to have a way to begin erasing some of them.  This makes me sad and crazy worried for our future.

Then came Tom Hanks to Saturday Night Live this weekend.  I never watch SNL or take it very seriously.  It isn’t just because of the crass nature of the show but lately the skits have just been sloppy with dumb punchlines and lousy writing.  But SNL is still a fairly solid institution that digs deep once in awhile to deliver something true and beautiful.  They did so during 2008’s presidential election.  They delivered again in 2012 when a children’s choir began their Christmas episode by singing “Silent Night” in honor of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary.  Last night they did so again, albeit with a great assist for Tom Hanks.

The opening debate spoof was humorous enough but after the beginning credits Tom Hanks donned an overcoat and sat down to give Americans some great “Dad” advice for moving forward.  “Your complexion is getting darker but don’t let it bother you.”  “Do you really need so many guns?”  and the like.

But the epic brilliance came when Tom Hanks crashed a “Black Jeopardy” skit as a back woods cowboy sporting a patriotic T-shirt and a Trump hat.  The host, played brilliantly by Keenan Thompson asked three contestants a variety of questions that poked fun at inner city black culture.  Surprisingly, Hanks’ Trump supporter answered every question perfectly but he was speaking about his own rural culture.  Thompson’s host and the two other contestants were shocked as they began to bond with him.  At one point Thompson and Hanks exchanged an extremely awkward hand shake.  The moral was that despite the idiotic labels and stereotypes, inner city blacks have much in common with rural whites.

For thee years I lived and ministered in Kansas City’s inner city and then moved and spent 3 years in rural Oregon.  So I could relate to the skit in profound ways.  The cultures of rural Oregon and inner Kansas City were almost identical, even if the skin colors were different.  I felt completely at home in both places and it wasn’t until I moved to suburban Salt Lake City that I now feel completely out of place.

More than that, I loved the awkwardness of the Keenan Thompson’s host.  He acted the character with a complete unease and visible cautiousness as he tried to tip toe around the white guy.  There was this uncertainty about just how this Trump supporter was going to mix with the others.  When the white guy answered the questions perfectly, Keenan was noticeably shocked and thrilled each time.

Something in Thompson’s performance resonated with me on a deep level.  As a pastor, I cannot find a better image for my vocation in this awkward, divisive world.  Every Sunday morning I am the awkward and cautious host.  I get up to face a group of people from drastically different backgrounds.  I have liberals and conservatives and hispanics and whites and wealthy and homeless in my congregation and when they all get together I am visibly terrified about how this is all going to go.  Like Thompson’s host, I tiptoe around things while trying to urge them into deeper conversation.

Most of the time it goes extremely well.  Like Thompson’s host I find myself smiling and nodding and saying, “yeah, yeah, that’s right man!  Yeah, good job!  I’m proud of you!” and then attempting the awkward handshake.

What I loved the most about Thompson’s performance was though he was terrified he kept the game going.  There was a quiet courageousness in his character that I loved.  He kept stepping up to the plate and ended the skit with an excellent punch line, “After commercial break we are going to play the national anthem and just see what happens!”

That is me every Sunday morning.  After our opening song I stand up and face that room of highly diverse people and say, “Good morning.  Let’s sing some songs and pray a bit and talk about the Bible and see what happens!”  And then I pray hell doesn’t open up and swallow us whole.

It hasn’t happened yet as we continue to dig deeper into God and into each other and realize that we have much in common and our dumb labels are just that, DUMB.

A Sermon Somewhere: Growing Up Down in Backwards Boise

Standard

This is an ongoing series where I try to find the sermon lurking beneath our everyday existence.  .  .and fail miserably.

Also this story did happen but has been embellished for humor’s sake and the names changed to protect the guilty.

I grew up in Boise, ID and never thought anything of it until one day I left for vacation and found others who thought we lived in a kind of backwards place.

For starters nobody east of the Mississippi had ever heard of Idaho.  Back then, if you ventured out that far and told someone you were from Idaho, they likely would reply, “I have a friend in Des Moines!  His name is Bob.  Have you met Bob?”

The answer was “no” for a variety of reasons.

First Des Moines, Iowa wasn’t so small of a place they only had one Bob.

Two, Idaho is a long way from Iowa.

People west of the Mississippi knew about Idaho but all they ever wanted to talk about was potatoes.  I had never heard of Idaho potatoes nor eaten one.  Apparently that is because we were busy deporting them to all the other states.  Still, to this day I can’t recall ever seeing a potato field in Idaho.

If you ventured west of Idaho you met a lot of folks who knew all about Boizee.  They knew so much about it they corrected you when you pronounced it accurately as Boy-see.  Then you got into an argument nobody could win because in their invincibly ignorant minds, we in Boizee were so backwards we couldn’t pronounce our city correctly.

To be fair, Boise was a bit backwards back then.  This was before anybody knew or had heard about Boise State’s football team, mostly because BSU got beat by the University of Idaho and the University of Idaho got beat by everyone else.

We were surrounded by our fair share of corn fields.  Our buildings didn’t stretch all that high.  We ate steak that was shaped like French fries which we dipped in special sauce, which is really just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together.  And on the weekends we liked sliding down hills on ice blocks.

The most backwards thing about living in Boise was our freeway.  Right before my birth Boise had installed a very convenient offshoot to the interstate that shot the cars right into downtown.  We all called it the connector.  The radio DJ’s who liked to pretend to be cool called it, “The Flyin’ Y!”

Now the Flyin’ Y worked well enough if you were coming into downtown but if you were coming out of downtown the thing was screwy.  If you wanted to turn right and head out west to Nampa, you had to go left.  If you wanted to turn left and head right out to Mountain Home you had to go right.  You heard me correctly, right was left and left was right.  We really were backwards.

I tried to go to Nampa a couple times and ended up in Mountain Home and although Mountain Home is a wonderful place with a cool air force base, I didn’t like spending much time there especially since it made me an hour or so late to whatever was happening in Nampa.

After two times I learned my lesson.  Right was left and left was right.

I was in college one day and hanging out with a good friend in downtown Boise.  Her name was Linda and I remember liking her well enough but not enough to ever formally date.  We both lived in Nampa at the time and had commuted into the big city for coffee.

We had a good time and were coming home, approaching the Flying Y when I changed into the left lane.

Linda said, “We are going back to Nampa right?”

Being a gentlemen’s gentleman I was a little offended.  I’d like to think of myself as the type of guy who would never take a lady the opposite direction from where she wanted to be.  “Of course, Linda.”

Linda carefully replied, “Then you want to be in the right lane.  Nampa is to the right.”

I said, “No.  I’ve been fooled here before.  This is backwards Boise.  Right is left and left is right.  I know it sounds logical to go right so that we can go right but really we want to go left and that will take us right out to Nampa.”

Linda said, “That isn’t true.  If you go left, we’ll be left out in Mountain Home.”

“No, Linda, that isn’t true.  I’ve been left out in Mountain Home and it’s because I went right.”

This exasperated Linda and not just because we only had one mile and sixty seconds to figure this whole right-left business out.

She spoke frankly, “Kevin, get in the right lane.  It will take us out to Nampa.”

“Linda, I grew up in Boise.  We are backwards here.  I know it’s hard to believe but here we ride ice blocks and eat steak fingers and mix our ketchup and our mayonnaise together and root for a football team who probably couldn’t beat their own mothers.  So right is left and left is right and we will be in Nampa in no time.”

Fifteen seconds had passed and Linda’s heart rate was beating faster and faster.  “Kevin, BSU actually had a winning season last year.  They are nationally ranked and haven’t lost a game since last year.  They put up fences on the hills so you can’t ride ice blocks any more and everybody who ate steak fingers just died of heart attacks and their kids all now like kale.  Plus, that special sauce thing is more a Utah commodity.  Boise isn’t what it used to be.  We aren’t backwards anymore and last month they completed work on the brand new connector.  They fixed it and now left is left and right is right.

The signs up ahead were of little consolation.  They were as confusing as Boise signs could be.  The far left one said, “Nampa.”  The middle one said, “Mountain Home.”  The far right one said, “Nampa.”  That was typical backwards Boise.  We’d come a long ways but those signs were all the proof I needed that right was still left and left was still right.

Calmly I told my panicked passenger, “Linda, I was just here six weeks ago and left was still right and right was still left.”

We had five seconds before the missed exit and I was cruising along confidently in the left lane when Linda dropped the truth bomb.

“Kevin, I work in downtown Boise.  I drive this route every single day to get home from work and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that as of six weeks ago right is now right and left is now left.  Get in the right lane!”

You couldn’t argue with that.  We went right out to Nampa.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is or even if there is one.  I just know that Linda saved me from being left out in Mountain Home again.  Though really Mountain Home’s not all that bad of a place. There even might be a sermon right out there somewhere.  .  .but only if you go left.

The More You Read, The Less You Know

Standard

A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year.  It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue.  Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again.  On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.

The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters.  Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages.  In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.

Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this.  Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice.  Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues.  This is the year I catch up!

The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that.  Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives.  On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters.  Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word.  I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.

With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading.  In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply.  Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones.  In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible.  He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.

I am quickly agreeing with Tozer.  It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to.  And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”

What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know.  It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility.  One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund.  Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund.  But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.

There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota.  The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed.  The more I read, the more I know that I know not.  Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.

Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either.  They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality.  Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length.  Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading.  On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature.  Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate.  Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that.  He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time.  Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out.  One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism.  He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.

Aren’t we all?  I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years.  Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!

Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday?  We might be wrong about everything?  There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer?  Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong?  Martin Luther was a heretic?  John Wesley probably was too?  But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!

All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true.  However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer.  The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered.  The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced.  I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.

For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.”  But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely.  See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.”  Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.”  “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!”  They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!

After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!

See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!

The True Problem With “Legalism”

Standard

I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.

Why I Am Not Writing About Which Lives Matter or Who Should Be President or The Weather

Standard

When I was a kid there was an old proverb going around that I think had been going around for a good century.  It went something like this, “Do not talk about politics and religion in polite company.  Better to stick to sports and the weather.”

I’ll never forget the moment I realized the last sentence in that tidbit wasn’t true any more.  I had moved to a small town in Eastern Oregon from the Midwest.  I was sitting in the local sandwich shop that sat a block from my church.  I was trying to get to know the owner, a bright woman with an entrepreneurial spirit and fun personality.  Somehow we got to talking about the weather, probably because we were polite people.

I made some statement about the fact that I was glad that I wasn’t in tornado alley any more.

She stopped and stared at me and said, “Oh, we get tornadoes here” as if she was genuinely concerned that I had been misled.

I almost laughed out loud.  Northeast Oregon is surrounded by 9,000 foot tall mountains.  They do not get tornadoes.

“Well I suppose you get little dust funnels out on the farm fields but not like Missouri where people’s homes get destroyed.”

The tone of the conversation changed drastically.  Her concerned expression turned to a glare.

“No, you need to know here that the wind blows pretty hard.  In 1967 a tornado knocked a single wide trailer right off its cinder block foundation!”

I suddenly realized I was in an argument I didn’t even want to win and so back tracked and said, “Oh really?  Thanks for letting me know!” and changed the subject to sports which she gratefully knew nothing about.

I could list thirty more conversations I have had that are very similar to this.  When I started my current assignment I made the horrible mistake of asking my worship team to pray right before our worship service.  I thought, “Everybody loves prayer!”  I am still paying for that horrible request.  Right after that I suggested to the wrong person that we look into painting our fellowship hall.  He let me know in no small way that I was not to touch that fellowship hall and still, a year later, won’t meet with me outside of Sunday morning.  I can’t open my mouth about anything any more without some unexpected backlash.

This illustrates that keeping polite company any more is a brutal chore.  People don’t value civility any more.  Instead they value their own opinions and how right they think they are.

Some of my friends have given up entirely.  They seem to adore the national and theological arguments that are destroying politeness.  Every time something goes down regarding guns, the LGBTQ community, women’s rights, or national elections their Facebook profile is instantly water marked and their statuses hashtagged with activism.  Whether conservative or liberal, they seem to love the chance to post divisive cartoons, tired talking points, angry blogs and partisan articles.  They seem sincere in this, like they genuinely believe they are doing society some good.

You older, anti technology types should not be fooled.  This did not start with the invention of Facebook.  I know a lot of people I meet with face to face who are just as boisterous.  They yell and share their opinions with anyone who will listen and they want to bait you into the argument so they can drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.  They have succeeded to do that to me more times than I can count.

But don’t get me wrong, I am envious of their freedom.  I wish I felt like I had the freedom to just post whatever opinion I wanted to.  In fact sometimes I feel guilty for not chiming in and joining my “side” with my carefully informed and well formed opinions.  I bet I could even articulate them better than half the internet and that alone might do some good.

Or it definitely won’t.

Because every time I do chime in, whether online or in real life, I instantly feel guilty.  I cried for days that I had let the color of our fellowship hall come between me and a beloved parishioner.  I am still in mourning over insisting my worship team pray during a time that just would not work for them.  I should have reversed harder and quicker.  I definitely did learn my lessons though.

When I do chime in on my opinions, it is almost like I had just smoked my first cigarette.  There is a rush of rebellious satisfaction followed by nothing but guilt and a hacking cough as I wonder:

What will my church people think?

Will I lose my job over this?

Does that person still love me?

What will my liberal best friend or my conservative uncle think?

What if this new couple who has just started attending our church disagrees and decides our church isn’t right for them because of it?

Then I delete, delete, delete.  Or if it is in person, apologize, apologize, apologize.

In today’s world having and sharing opinions is just too costly.  The price is too high, especially for pastors.  In ages past you were allowed to think differently than someone without losing your salary, your position, even your ordination and definitely your friends.  This is not true any more.  People care more about the weather and what color their fellowship hall should be than they do about each other.  I don’t want to be one of them.

My friendship with you is far too important to me.  If you are going to terminate it because I think Oregon doesn’t get tornadoes than by all means, “watch out for those funnel clouds!”  If you want me to liberal, I will be liberal for you.  If you want me to be conservative,  I will be conservative for you.  If you love our fellowship hall just the way it is, than it is the most beautiful fellowship hall I have ever seen!

You can call me wishy-washy but know that I am not.  I know what I believe and I do act on it.   My best friends and wife will certainly attest to that!  I just try really hard not to let you know what I believe because I would rather keep being your friend.

Rather, you can say I am a coward because I am.  You can say I care too much about what people think because I do.  You can say I like having money to feed my family more than I like “the gospel.”  That is fair, though I would argue my opinions and your opinions about national affairs are NOT the gospel.

Ultimately we now live in a world where pride is alienating us from each other and I desperately crave true, civil, Christian friendship.  And if the price of my friendship with you is letting you have your opinions while thinking (most times wrongly) that I agree with you, than so be it.  I want to be your friend and that is worth the price of constantly biting my tongue and not clicking the “share” button.

Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

Standard

Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is with us in our hospital beds.

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

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20160522_125857