A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Paul and the Corinthians

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

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

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

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

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

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

Eugene Peterson

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

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 29:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

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

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

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

Psalm 32:

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

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

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A LOT of Books

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Long time followers of this blog (again, really, just my mother and I think at this point her uncle Paul) know that my huge goal for the 2016 calendar year was to read 100 books.  Well, as of yesterday around 3pm I read the last words of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila and let it slowly dawn on me that I had actually succeeded.

Then I went to my list of books and went to publish them here only to realize I had accidentally listed one book twice which meant I still had another book to read!  So I frantically downloaded a Walter Brueggemann volume on the life of David, read it over the last 36 hours and can now proudly say I read 100 books this year!

This part of 2016 has been brutal but well worth it.  I do not sit still well and I have always found reading boring but several times this year I forced myself to sit for hours at a time and work through a book when I rather would have been doing anything but.  That is the real victory.

I made up some other rules as the year went on to keep myself in check.  At one point it occurred to me I had not reread any books from previous years so I continued that, meaning the list below were all brand new to me this year.  At another point I realized the oldest book I had read was from the 1960s and that bothered me so I began reading older books.  Then I noticed that some books I read were kind of short so I forced myself to read a string of longer, harder books to make up for it.

So after a long year of averaging 2 books a week, I proudly publish my list.  I broke them into categories for you all.  I wanted to do an official ranking but that was taking way too long.  But I do have categories for the top five and for “forgettables.”  I didn’t include those in other categories.  I typed some sarcastic or noteworthy comments on the ones that felt like they deserved it.  This is for your perusal and I hope you spot one or two you would like to read in the next year!

(Oh and if you spot another book I listed twice, just go ahead and keep that to yourself.  Ignorance is bliss!)

Top 5

  1. Prophetic Lament by Soong Chan Rah (Not only the best but also the newest. I think I bought it two days after publication.)
  2. Gilead by Marilyne Robinson (Robinson’s three novels about pastors and their families are on this list but this one, the first one, stands above the others as a triumph in literature.)
  3. A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman
  4. Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson
  5. The Social Animal by David Brooks

“Forgettables”

*I honestly did read these books but I also honestly have no recollection of doing so.

  1. The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen 
  2. Story-Shaped Worship, by Robbie Castleman (Sad story: this book was listed twice on my original list which meant I had to read another book at the last minute to get over the 100 mark.)
  3. Move on By Vicky Courtney
  4. Growing God’s Church by Gary L. McIntosh (I remember this book now! It was stupid in every way.  I hated it.  I wrote a blog about it too!  I am still leaving it here though in the hopes that I forget it again.)
  5. Charles Finney Biography
  6. Essential Beliefs by Mark Maddix and Diane Leclerc
  7. God Dwells Among us by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim
  8. Jesus the Pastor by John Frye

Most Unique

  1. The Sacred Diary of Plass by Plass (A friend lent me his copy. Good luck finding another one.)

Bible Books

  1. Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
  2. Kings and Presidents by Tim and Shawna Gaines
  3. Our Father Abraham, by Marvin Wilson
  4. Carolyn Sharp Old Testament Prophets for Today
  5. Interpreting Prophetic Literature by James Nogalski
  6. Challenging Prophetic Metaphor by Julia M. O Brien
  7. The Theology of the Book of Amos by John Barton
  8. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel by Paul Anderson
  9. Cycle of Victorious Living by Scott Daniels
  10. Paul by Rowan Williams
  11. Who’s Got Your Back by Eddie Estep
  12. The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
  13. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (I am ashamed to admit that I had not read Alter or Brueggemann before this year. But at least I remedied it now.)
  14. The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter
  15. Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann (I feel like Brueggemann’s books are cheating because they are short but every word is packed with incredible meaning. The point to page ratios are outstanding!)
  16. David’s Truth In Israel’s Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

The Cheaters

*With low page numbers, these count as books but barely.  Most were read in a day or even an hour when I was down, unmotivated and desperate to catch back up.

  1. Trinity: The God We Don’t Know by Jason Byassee
  2. 30 Days with Wesley by Mark Harmon (a wonderful Wesleyan devotional meant to take a month. I was behind by four books in late July so I read it in an hour and a half.)
  3. Antagonists in the Local Church by Brian Samsen (This was actually a thesis for a D.Min but it was 120 pages and very good)
  4. Missions Mosaic by Donna Wilson (This is one of the Church of the Nazarene Missions books. I could have read and counted all six but that really would have been cheating)
  5. Church History for Modern Ministry by Dayton Hartman (This is not the worst book but it is the most disappointing. I bought it thinking it would be a long primer in church history and found it was 4 chapters and 80 pages talking about why pastors should study church history)

The Grossly Overblown Discussions of Meaningless Data

  1. Meet Generation Z by James Emery White (Spoiler alert, the next generation is being raised by the current generation so James Emery White is fairly convinced they are going to be bad at everything, mostly God stuff)
  2. Reaching Millenials by David Stark
  3. America at the Crossroads by George Barna

More Theological and Academic

(Three of these are about Martin Luther and one is by Martin Luther.  It is kind of fun to just dig deep into one historical person and their theology.  This category also wins the award for most books written by people I know!)

  1. Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting, by T. A. Noble
  2. The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord
  3. Wholeness in Christ by William Greathouse
  4. Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Altheus
  5. Martin Luther’s Theology by Lohse
  6. Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will by Julian Baggini
  7. Christian Ethics and the Church by Philip Turner
  8. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy
  9. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther (By far the oldest book I read!)
  10. Union with Christ by Braaten and Jensen

Novels

  1. Home by Marilyne Robinson
  2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (This is written like a novel but could easily fit in three or four categories. It is a must read and fascinating in every way.  I still find myself quoting it in my head.)
  5. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  6. Far Side of the World by Patrick O’brien
  7. The Prestige by Christopher Priest (The Christopher Nolan movie based off this book is way better. One of those rare cases where cinema was an improvement.)

Pastor and Church Helps

  1. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  2. How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching by Will Willimon
  3. The Cross Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas
  4. The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen
  5. The New Parish by Dwight Friesen and Paul Sparks
  6. The Power of Loving Your Church by David Hansen (Hansen’s books are now sacred to me because they were given to me by a mentor during a difficult time.)
  7. Time Bomb in the Church by Daniel Spaite
  8. Fellowship of Differents by Scot McNight
  9. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  10. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical by Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson
  11. The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson (see below comment about point to page ratios. This book easily could have been fifty pages long and instead was 350.)
  12. On Leadership by John Gardner

Devotional.  .  .Maybe? or Mostly Just Self Helpers

  1. The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Awesome? By Tripp Fuller
  2. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
  3. Life in the Spirit by A.W. Tozer (It is quite possible Tozer would turn over in his grave to be included on a list between Tripp Fuller and Rachel Held Evans. . .or maybe he would be honored. The jury is still out on this one.)
  4. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
  5. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans
  6. Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves Adam Hamilton
  7. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  8. Love and Respect by Emmerson Ebberichs
  9. A Woman of Strength and Purpose by Cynthia Tobias
  10. Grace Walk by Steve Mcvey
  11. Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Wiener
  12. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  13. In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day by Mark Batterson
  14. Wild Goose Chase by Mark Batterson (I judge books by the point to page ratio, asking “how many legitimate points did this person make per page?” Batterson fails every time.  He makes one point for every two hundred pages, making 90 percent of his words superfluous.)
  15. Grace by Max Lucado
  16. Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker

From or About History, Recent and Long Ago

*Let’s just assume that almost every single one of these books was incredible!  I love history.

  1. Truth and Duty by Mary Mapes
  2. Nazarene Roots by Stan Ingersol
  3. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
  4. Natural History Essays by Henry David Thoreau (This was the oldest book until I read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will”)
  5. The Big Short by Michael Lewis (The movie and the book are must read/must watch to understand just how disgusting the 2008 market crash was.)
  6. America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis
  7. The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303 by Paul Doherty (Have you guys seen Braveheart? Well, true story, it turns out while Edward the Longshanks was defeating William Wallace at Falkirk a bunch of monks and thieves broke into his treasury and scattered the contents across London.)
  8. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  9. A History of Davis County by Glen Leonard (Picked up this 400 page volume at my local library. It is a history of the county where I live and a fascinating one at that)

Memoirs of the Living

  1. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton (A fascinating account of the trials of a suburban, church mom. I wonder how many like her sit in our pews every week?)
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coates
  3. The Blood of Lambs by Kamal Saleem
  4. The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  5. Usain Bolt’s Autobiography

Technology Culture

  1. Alone Together by Sheryl Turkle
  2. Screens and Teens by Kathy Koch
  3. Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle