3 of a Pastor’s Great Fears. . .Ranked!

Standard

Okay, before we begin, I know you know all the Bible verses about things like anxiety and worry and fear.  I know them too and I have most of them memorized and remind myself of them daily.  But knowing them and feeling them are two very different things.  So here I sit as a Christian pastor who is seminary trained, holiness sanctified, and a Bible loving preacher and I am telling you that memorizing Bible verse about anxiety doesn’t get rid of anxiety.  It turns out quoting those verses to anxious people doesn’t help that much either but I’ll save that blog post for another day!

The whole anxiety thing is really bad when you are a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this but the statistics are in and most churches are in a very precarious spot.  They are one bad conflict or one untimely rich person’s death away from closing.  Anxiety and fear seem to just come with that.

But acknowledging your fears for what they are does help.  And as I have prayed through my fears and tried to cope with them I have realized there are three great fears I have, at least when it comes to my relationship with my congregation.  I have listed them below in descending order of how much anxiety they cause me.

3.  Everybody in my church will one day come to hate me.  I live every day in fear that I am going to do something incredibly dumb that will cause everybody to turn on me.  I have family members and friends who have lived through this scenario and I still cry for them.  It is such a nightmare, especially for their families.  It is so hard for a spouse to have to terminate close friendships because their loved one was fired.  I worry greatly about what such a day would do to my wife and my children.    With that said, I don’t lose much sleep over this possibility because if my whole church comes to hate me, the solution will be brilliantly simple.  .  .painful.  .  .but simple.  I will just resign.  Then the church will be able to go on and I will have given a great gift to another pastor who gets to be the white knight on a handsome stead who gallops into that situation to clean up the mess.

2.  Everybody in my church will love me.  I like being liked.  I freely admit that.  I probably like being liked more than most people.  I have the personality of a suitor, desperate to woo people to my good graces.  But I know all too well the liabilities of that personality.  They are not that you will fail to woo everybody.  The liabilities come when you succeed in wooing everybody.  I live everyday in constant fear of having too much political power.  I worry about what might happen on the day I blindly lead my blind fan club into a death trap.  I have never been universally liked (thank God!) but I have come close and it was close enough to know what massive harm I really could do with a group of, well, groupies.  It was scary enough that I actually did resign.  The fallout of that resignation was really rough.  I had abandoned my fan club and caused separation anxiety both in them and me.  I never want to have to do that again.  But I look at myself in the mirror quite often and remind myself that I will if I must.

But now for the true nightmare scenario, the one that makes me tremble and keeps me up at night.  .  .

1.  Half of my church will hate me and the other half will adore me.  I know of pastors who have been in these situations and their churches barely survived.  The worst thing a pastor can become is a divisive figure, one who unwittingly pits one group against another just by being themselves.  These situations are so tragic and so hard to fix that I hope I never find myself in one.  I hope my leadership is never so horrible that a church splits because of me.  As Jesus once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)  And I could not stand to walk away from the shredded remains of a divided church.   And yet it happens all the time.  At those moments only a very, very wise and prayerful District Superintendant, or denominational leader, can bring about any good.

Well, what do you know, a blog post about fear had a sentiment about hope up there.  And maybe that is how we conquer our fears, by recognizing the hope therein.

So during my anxious days and sleepless nights, I do hope that my leadership is just adequate enough to not shut down a church.  To hope for any more than that would be pride.  To hope for anything less would be disaster.

 

Advertisements

Do Not Judge Lest Ye Be Judged

Standard

About 2/3rds of the way through the best sermon ever preached (the Sermon on the Mount) right after a wonderfully poetic and tiny bit judgmental section about not worrying, Jesus drops this bombshell on us, “Do not judge or you too will be judged!”

That verse peaked in popularity about a decade ago after a crazy 30 year run built off of the Jesus movement.  As the newly baptized hippies were inducted into the membership of the church they reacted strongly against the crazy legalism of their parents and grandparents and held up high the “do not judge” banner.

As evidence of this verse’s crazy popularity, note that it is one of few bible verses where people still quote the King James English (see title above).  I also offer as evidence a remark my awesome adult Sunday School teacher made a few weeks back, “Oh, that verse hasn’t come up in a month or two.  Before that it came up at least once a week for years.”

That was ironic because although that verse saturated my youth I hadn’t thought of it in years.  I had kind of forgot it existed.  But one of the joys of being a pastor is that no matter how deep your intellect takes you into the faith, there will always be that baby Christian ready to pull you back up to the surface with kindergarten questions about who we really should judge and under what circumstances.

That last sentence was not as sarcastic as it probably sounded.  In fact, after my Sunday School teacher reminded me of that verse’s existence, I realized that I did not have an easy answer to the questions and concerns about the tension between judging and tolerating.  It is true that Jesus’ command leaves little room for interpretation.  Studying the grammar of the sentence and the meaning of the words leads one to conclude that Jesus really meant we should not judge each other.  Looking at the context of the passage and the history of 1st century Palestine eliminates even more nuance to the verse.  It literally reads and literally means, “Do not judge or you will be judged!”

However, Jesus said some pretty judgmental things here and there and not just to the religious elite but his own disciples.  After all, it was Peter that he called Satan and 9 of his disciples that he accused of having little faith.  In the actual Sermon on the Mount and only sentences after the “do not judge” command, he calls his entire audience evil (see Matthew 7:11).

Then the apostle Paul, addressing a serious issue in the Corinthian church, offers, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12).

And don’t get me started about the cranky prophets of the Old Testament who were extremely judgmental, as was the Old Testament God they spoke for.  Though Jesus’ actual sentence and context gives little room for nuance, the rest of Scripture does.

Therefore, while comparing Jesus’ simple statement to the nuances in all of Scripture and the complications in our own contexts, I confess that I really don’t know when it is appropriate to tell someone that they are doing Christianity wrong or when I should just keep my mouth shut and “tolerate” their sinfulness.  In practice, I don’t do it well at all.

However, I do know this, judging people is messy.  It gets really sloppy really fast.  Take for example the church gossip who accuses a young couple of being lousy parents.  Or consider the politician who neglects their children for months on the campaign trail while promoting “family values” and accusing the opponents of being “against family!”  Or look at the Christian celebrity who uses Facebook, which is run by a very liberal executive team, to denounce Starbucks for being “liberal.” If you really were going to boycott the liberals, shouldn’t you start with Facebook?  Or take for one last example the pastor who accuses his church leadership of not praying enough while struggling to carve out adequate prayer time in any given day.  Yes, that pastor has been me.

And yes it is true that Starbucks donates money to causes that make some Christians feel very uncomfortable.  It is also true that the church leaders need to be spending hours a week in prayer and, yes, most young parents I know need all the help they can get and our country needs to relearn some old family values anew.

Yet the people pointing these things out have huge planks in their own eyes.  By opening their mouths they are opening up a very messy can of worms because immediately their life gets the spotlight and that spotlight reveals all kinds of nasty viruses and germs lying under their focus group polished exteriors.  Then the argument becomes, “if they can’t live up to the standards they are promoting, that obviously means I can’t!”  So we all continue our destructive lifestyles, but feeling a little more arrogant about it.

In turns out that Jesus is right.  Judging others is the quickest way to get judged, and not just by God but by every one else.  And when we judge others for being judgmental, like all the hippies did, it makes the mess worse.  Now we are all going around pointing out planks in each other’s eyes and playing a game of “Whose speck is it anyway?”

I have played that game and it is really messy and not all that much fun.

But there is an alternative that isn’t messy.   It is neither judging or tolerating.  Instead it is personal repentance.  Personal repentance is the act of judging yourself.  It is the step of faith that says, “I am the lousy one.  I am the bad parent, the neglectful politician, the lazy pastor, the judgmental gossip.  I am the one in need of a savior who can clean all this junk out of my life.  I am the one who has some things to learn about family values and personal holiness and private piety.  I am the one working on these things because I wish they weren’t there in my life.  And only through the strength of God, I am overcoming them.  My life is the mess and I need the great cleaner.”

The goal of personal repentance is not to somehow keep the judgmental people from judging you or even to judge them back or worse, preemptively judge them.  The goal is to turn your own judging spotlight on yourself before they can.  To go back to the Sermon on the Mount, the goal is to get the plank out of your eye before anybody notices it.  Or at least to acknowledge it before they do, saying, “I have all ready confessed the planks exist in my life and am working on them.”

Whether or not they follow your example is really up to them but at least you found a way through it all.  And that is a lot easier and cleaner than the mess of judging.

 

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

Standard

There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.