Divine Appointments, Flying Hats and Cheesy Blog Post Titles

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Beyond The Talking Points: Last Tuesday’s Election and America’s Silent Majority

Standard

Like many of you I have spent the last week trying not to read too much about the election while reading everything that flits across my tablet screen.  Trump’s victory has been hailed as a major victory for everyone in America, except of course the Democrats.

In fact, if I had a favorite article from the last week it would have to be this one from CNN which compiled the 24 often conflicting reasons Trump won.  It was social media but it wasn’t social media.  It was the millenials but it also had nothing to do with them.  It was the Democrat’s fault but not really.  I loved the subtle humor and satire there.

If you have read as much as I have you know this election defined the reemergence of uneducated whites or probably not.  And if not them, then certainly rural farmers had their day.  .  .or didn’t.  And if not, then certainly white supremacists are now, well supreme, or really not at all.  If not them then the Evangelicals but not really.  And if not them then definitely the Republican party won.  .  .or maybe just conservatism in general.

None of this has convinced me.

It seems to me that in an election when both candidates had approval ratings below %45 and when the deciding states were all within 50,000 votes and when one candidate won the states and another candidate won the popular vote and when half of eligible votes sat the thing out that this wasn’t an election that was about anything except the huge leadership failure in American culture that has been building up for years.

I want you to hear that last stat again, half of eligible votes did not vote!  And yet I have been unable to find one article in the deluge of information about them.  HALF of Americans said “NO!” to the entire system but nobody is talking about them.  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why are they?  These questions are being entirely ignored by the media.

But these are the questions that defined the election right up until Tuesday.  I found scores of articles about the non voters before Tuesday but after the victory, they seemingly have disappeared from my news feeds.

Yet they are still out there.  And they sent a powerful message to the country, a message far more powerful than the 18,000 or so voters in Wisconsin or wherever.  Their message was, “no confidence.”  They have no confidence in the Republicans or the Democrats or the Libertarians, or the Green Party or even pretty looking Independents like Evan McMullin.

They have no confidence in any type of Republic style government.  They don’t believe in the value of voting, whether it be for a President, a Congressperson, a State governor or down ballot measures like sales taxes.

This should be alarming to us.  It certainly is to me as one who pastors these people.  I should add I am not one of them.  I did vote and I took every ballot measure seriously including the one that changed two words to the city constitution to make it more intelligible.

But the fact I am surrounded by people who don’t have any confidence in this system scares me to death.  It means a far more serious revolution than the victory of a reality TV star President may not be far away.  Donald Trump’s victory probably did nothing to pacify their strong antipathy.

And if I were a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or the Green Party or even a pretty Independent I would use this election as a mandate to start listening to those %50 of people.

Let’s hope the entire media, from the mainstream to the “new” to my friends who insist on posting ridiculous memes, gets their act together and starts listening to them.

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.

The Sermon I Should Have Preacher: The Gospels

Standard

This is an ongoing blog series where upon completing a sermon series, I mention a few things I myself learned that may or may not have made it into the final draft of the series.

Last year when I was planning my sermon series for the 2016 calendar year, I decided to spend the Fall talking about practical holiness.  As I began putting together those sermons, I hit a wall very early on.  The problem was that I could not talk about practical holiness without first helping my congregation develop a fuller understanding of the mystery that is the gospel.  Therefore, a 12 week sermon series on holiness as described in Romans 12-16 became a six week series on “What is the Gospel?” followed by another six weeks in Romans 12-16.

I finished my first six weeks in the gospel last Sunday.  I very roughly structured the series on the five (or six) major atonement theories.  I tried to pick one passage per theory that I thought defended that particular theory well.  So very roughly the six sermons went like this:

2 Cor. 5: The Gospel and Ministry of Reconciliation

Romans 1: The Satisfaction Theory

Ephesians 2: Ransom Theory

Colossians 2: “Christus Victor” And the overthrow of the Rulers and Authorities of our World. (This is the only one online currently and you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbo9DCG4WY)

Romans 8: Recapitulation Theory

1 John 4: Moral Influence Theory

With those in mind, after spending the last couple months doing some deeper thinking about the core of our Christian faith and revisiting both the the events of Jesus’s life and how the epistles interpret them, here are some things I learned.  These are not things I knew all ready but things I genuinely realized.

  1. Yes the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition has major qualms about the “wrath of God” and maybe rightly so.  But unfortunately for us God’s wrath is all over the epistles.  Even Jesus in the gospels does his fair share talking about it.  With that said, I still don’t believe God was so angry that God needed to watch a Quentin Tarantino (or even, *cough* a “Mel Gibson”) movie to suddenly be okay with it all.  But God is angry at the sinfulness of the world and Jesus came as a solution to it.  There is no way to be biblical and not to address the wrath of God.
  2. The epistles don’t concentrate on the cross nearly as much as we do today.  In fact, in most of the epistle passages listed above almost all the events of Jesus’ life are mentioned or alluded to in some way.  The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and Jesus’ second coming all appear together almost all of the time.  In the epistles the gospel is not about the cross but about the entire “Christ event.”  If we want to talk about salvation in a biblical way we must talk and give equal emphasis to all of them.
  3. With that said, I was surprised at how often Pentecost and the Holy Spirit itself comes up in talking about the gospel.  The good news according to the epistles is not just about forgiveness on the cross but about the release of the Holy Spirit into the world to equip and enable us to live holy lives.
  4. The ransom theory is extremely difficult to defend in any biblical way.  Going in I knew that the Old Testament provided very little evidence that Satan somehow controlled the entire cosmos.  But I was sure the New Testament at the very least alluded to it.  I was wrong.  The New Testament does not in any way teach it.  Ephesians 2 comes the closest but it doesn’t even mention Satan by name.  It talks about the “ruler of the prince of the air” which was actually a title for Caesar.

So those are some thoughts about the gospel.  They are things I genuinely learned in the last couple months.  I hope to do this from here on out with all my sermon series.  I also hope to back date one to the minor prophets which I spent the summer preaching through.

In completely unrelated news this here blog post is apparently my 200th!!!  Here is a picture of an anniversary cake to celebrate.

Image result for anniversary cake

The Answer to Clergy Burnout (Hint: It is not babying your pastor)

Standard

I first felt the call to ministry when I was 13 years old.  I took a giant leap of faith and told my mom what had been going on in my heart.  She stared blankly at me and then stuttered, “Don’t tell your dad.”

I have no idea why she said that because she told my dad within the week. My dad was so concerned about it, he decided we needed to have a heart to heart conversation about this crazy idea.  It was almost like I had announced I was getting into crystal meth.

It wasn’t that my parents were atheists.  It wasn’t that they were even anti-religion or anti-church.  They were and up to that point always had been good church people.  It was precisely because they were good church people that they knew what “good church people” do to good church pastors.  They eat them for dinner.

Regardless, or maybe because of my parents’ concerns, I went ahead and pursued formal ministerial education to figure out this calling thing.  In my very first class my wonderful professors were as equally honest as my father.  They too were good church people who knew what happened to good church pastors.  One professor very honestly put it, “If you can picture yourself doing anything but full time ministry, you are not called to ministry.”

The problem at that point was that I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.  This calling was in my heart and blood and bones and no discouraging words from those who had lived decades in the trenches could simmer my passion.  I think that was probably the point.

After that I endured 8 years of formal education for this job

First person to save and sanctify the Sasquatch gets a free swimming pool in their mansion of glory!

and clergy burnout came up constantly.  At times it felt like a group of crazy people who had seen the Sasquatch were trying to convince me that this was real.  “Trust us guys, Burnout is out there!  I saw it eat my grandma!  I heard it destroyed my neighbor’s fence!  My best friend claimed that he saw Burnout and it bellowed at him with 9 inch teeth!”

But along with those apocalyptic warnings came good advice.  Pray more.  Sleep more.  Have good mentors.  Take your day off.  Take your vacation.  Exercise.

And of course academia is not the only village to see the Burnout.  Everybody else has seen it too.  Most major Christian magazines and blogs run “Clergy Burnout” articles constantly.  Some of are written for the clergy, some for the laity and they all recycle the same old advice.  Be easy on your poor pastor.  Support your poor pastor.  Give them more stuff.  Let their children get away with more stuff.  And BY NO MEANS call them on their day off.

All that is good and helpful.  We are just human, but some of those articles tow the very fine line of treating pastors like we are the poor handicapped kid in the second grade who needs “special treatment.”  And I don’t think that is the case for the handicapped kid or for your pastor.  The handicapped kid doesn’t need “special treatment” or attention.  They need what you need, to feel like they are a valuable part of the group and a healthy, loving community.  Your pastor needs that too.

Click to buy.

On that note, a couple months ago I read a now old book called “Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Friedman.  I meant to write a review here but never got around to it.  Friedman wrote the book on his death bed and it was a compilation of several years worth of research and lectures.  It was his magnum opus and unfortunately he died before finishing it.

Friedman worked among national leaders in Washington D.C. for 40 years.  He was a Jewish Rabbi and marriage counselor, as well as an adviser to several Presidents, congressmen and women and other politicians.

He eventually came to disbelieve several myths about how leadership works and he spent his life trying to dispel them.  “Failure of Nerve” was his last great shot and it worked to some extent because 20 years after he died, here I am revisiting all my assumptions about leadership because of him.

One of those “myths” that he vehemently expels is that stress comes from working too hard.  After working with several teams of people, particularly in politics, who worked 16 hour days for months at a time and never burned out, he knew that not to be the case.  Instead he found that stress comes from bad relationships.  He argued that if you are part of a good team and doing work you believe in, 16 hour days are your joy, not your angst.  But if you are working 5 hours a day with a dysfunctional team, the Burnout monster just might rear its ugly head.

So follow with me here and consider that clergy burnout might have nothing to do with long hours and little pay.  It might have nothing to do with difficult and hard work.  That should be our joy.  Instead, if Friedman is correct, it might have everything to do with dysfunctional teams.

If I am right about this it means that the best way to support your pastor has nothing to do with supporting your pastor.  It has everything to do with supporting the person sitting in the pew next to you.  It has everything to do with creating a climate in your church of love and respect, a respect that doesn’t start or stop with your pastor but finds it end goal in the least of the church members among you.

It seems like Jesus also had something to say about that:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” Matthew 25:40 NIV

And probably for your pastor too.