What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Will Willimon’s “How Odd of God”

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Every Sunday morning around 11:30am I do this really odd thing.  I get up in front a group of 40 of my closest friends.  I open up a loose translation of a book whose latest content is 1200 years old and whose oldest content is 5000 years old.  I read a passage and talk about it for about 25 minutes.  My goal is to show the group how that passage informs our understanding of who God is and what God requires of us.

This speech takes a hard week to put together.  By “hard” I mean exhausting.  By “week” I mean hours of historical and theological study, drafting and redrafting, collecting pictures for visual aids, arguing with myself over minute points, and practicing out loud to an empty sanctuary.  Worse than the hours of work, are the emotional highs and lows.  Even worse than those is the very uncomfortable feeling of arrogance I get when I stand up to speak.  The worst of all is the new exhaustion I feel when it all ends right around noon, an exhaustion compounded by the fact I have to do it all over again in the next 7 very short days.

I have been doing this almost every Sunday for about 5 years now and it has not felt any less weird the more I do it.  If anything it feels more odd now than it did 5 years ago.  This may be because lately I have met some non church types, those wonderful saints of the world who have never darkened the doorway of a house of God.  I try to explain to them the process of preparing and delivering a sermon and that there is a group of people willing to pay me money to do this.  Their bewildered expressions confirm one thing, “My vocation is the most curious of all.”

It isn’t the 25 minute monologue that makes it weird.  There are dozens of other professions who do something similar, actors, comedians, newscasters, politicians etcetera.  No, the weirdness of preaching is threefold.

First, there is the curious loyalty to a centuries old book, a loyalty grounded in the belief that this book holds the keys to an eternal and abundant life.

Second, there is the bold, almost audacious claim that the God who rules over all eternity and created all things chose me to give this 25 minute speech to these 40 people every week.

Third, there is the belief, legitimately grounded in the data of my life, that I am the worst person ever chosen for this task.

This awkward 25 minute event repeated once weekly provides the context for Will Willimon’s new book, “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching.”  He begins the work by noting his delight at reading the papers of undergrads in their first ministry class.  He tasked the naive undergrads to write about why they believe the God of all Creation would choose them to preach.  He now laments he should have asked them to write what kind of God would choose them to preach.  I agree the latter is the more interesting paper.  Luckily, “How Odd of God” is just such a paper.

Click to buy!

Arguing from Barth’s works, Willimon describes this God as the God of “yes” who out of love chooses us feeble, sinful humans to join him in the work.  Willimon relies heavily on Barth’s doctrine of election to claim that God elects us not just for salvation but for mission (the hallmark tenet of the missional movement).  According to Willimon, nothing can proclaim the doctrine of election louder than an inadequate preacher standing up behind a lectern every Sunday and claiming, “God chose me despite all my failings to give you this message today.”

If there is anything to critique in Willimon’s excellent text, it is that Willimon rambles more than usual.  In fact, the book is not too different from the late works of other saints who, having aged to a special level of holiness, can now afford to write more poetry than prose.  This isn’t the text of a young man:  articulate, perfectly structured, and easy to skim.  This is half journal, half textbook which means there isn’t always an obvious correlation between one paragraph and the next.  Do not get me wrong, I absolutely do not fault Willimon for this.  I personally love that as the saints age, the mystery of God awakens a poetry in them not seen in the younger selves.  I have read very similar books by aging theologians and though I don’t follow their arguments, their conclusions are still so poignant they bring tears to my eyes.

But to be fair, making me cry this week was not hard.  I stepped out of the pulpit last Sunday to a nightmare of conflict that consumed my week and threatened to make my entire vocation not only curious but frivolous.  I spent the week stuck in the vortex that is my chaotic thoughts, trying to iron out whether or not I could/should even step into another pulpit again and wondering if God knew what God was doing in calling me to proclaim the truths of our faith in clever little 25 minute speeches every Sunday.  Of course I am not worthy of the calling, at least by the current American understanding of “worthiness” (which isn’t biblical by the way).  However, Willimon’s thesis means that just by standing in a pulpit and claiming “God chose me” reveals a wildly loving God.  After all, if he chose a wretch like me, he probably chose you as well.

How odd of God indeed!

2015: The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia

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TIME’s last magazine of the year was released to my tablet this morning.  I have been an avid TIME reader for about 7 years now and always look forward to the year end issue.  It is a fun issue including the “Person of the Year,” best pictures of the year, best moments of the year, best 15 minute celebrities and the like.

The TIME year end issue always gets me thinking about the year I had and what were my best moments.  In fact, for years now I have done this ridiculously cheesy thing where I name every year.  The titles have ranged from the sappy, “2008: The Year All My Dreams Came True” to the tamer, “2013: The Year That Just Was.”

After tapping through TIME and drinking my coffee, I got my two kids dressed, fed my dog, stepped out of my split level suburban house, climbed into my mid level SUV and suddenly realized, “2015 is the year I sold out to the suburbs!”

That realization might not have been difficult for some but for me it is a difficult reality.  There is this version of myself from late college and early seminary who loathed everything about suburbia.  You can chalk that up to a typical Millenial’s rebellion against his childhood but I felt pretty secure in my belief that Satan controlled the suburbs while God dwelt in the small towns and inner cities.

After all, I worked in an inner city homeless shelter with wonderful, but homeless, saints.  The suburbs of that city had police officers who would see wandering homeless people, pick them up in their squad cars, drive them into the city and tell them, “Don’t ever come back.  This is the place for you.”  I wish I was making that up but I am not.  I believe there was a some racism there as most of the “homeless” they found were hispanic or black.

Beyond that, suburbs are/were the heart of selfish consumerism, that great evil which is the modern day equivalent of what Jesus called, “the pursuit of wealth.”  They waste the most resources, hoarde the most stuff and destroy the most families.  They do all of this while being quite smug.

At least that is what I thought.

Yet here I am in 2015, only 3 and a half years removed from seminary and 6 and a half from college, living in a suburban split level with 2 kids, a dog and an SUV.

It all started before 2015 with a reluctant job interview initiated by me because of a sense of calling.  Soon after I was getting a new Costco membership, stocking up on Starbucks gift cards, shopping in malls, eating at Olive Garden and watching movies once a month at the local megaplex.

I can offer you all kinds of excuses and justifications for this sudden turnabout.  I could mention that I am married to a wonderful woman who never shared my negative feelings about the suburbs and now is quite happy here, happier than she has been in the entirety of our marriage.  And as the old but funny adage goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

I could also mention a report that I can’t name but I know exists that suggests poverty is now moving to the suburbs.  I seem to remember it said that based off of current trends, in 10-20 years the suburbs will have decayed to shanty towns while the inner cities rejuvenate.  I read that report 10 years ago, which means we are that much closer to it.  I could put up pictures of buildings on my suburb that illustrate this trend.  I can even tell you the names of people I know who live in the suburbs and are making far below the poverty line, despite working 40 hours a week in great jobs that do incredible good for society.

More than that I could also argue that I am here to “sanctify the arrogant suburbanites,” that if suburbs are where the sinners live, than that is where the gospel should take root.  I could point to the fact that even though John Wesley and Phineas Bresee, the grandfather and father of my tradition, spent much time among the poor, their real contribution to the church was that they lived among the wealthy and encouraged the wealthy to also embrace the poor.  See, that is what I am doing!  Except that I am not and that attitude is as arrogant and self righteous as the worst of the suburbanites.

Putting that aside I could even satisfy a bit of my guilt by letting you all know that my family took a drastic cut in pay to move here and the church I took over was running less people on a Sunday than the church I left.  However, since moving here my wife has found a great job that she enjoys and we are making slightly more money than we were before.

So maybe I could just tell you the truth.  One day in mid September 2014 (which is “The year I broke my own heart”) I was walking down the street in a wonderful and impoverished small town whose residents were rough around the edges but solid diamonds underneath.  On that street in that town I heard God say, “Time to go” and I was certain it was God so I made plans to leave.

Then in October I was sitting a dinner table with a new friend who has since become a great ministry partner.  In that conversation he shared with me about Utah and about the spiritual needs and I heard the voice of my Lord tell me to come here.

As it turns out, I actually might have a little bit in common with that infamous Old Testament prophet Jonah.  The inner city and small towns are my Tarshish.  The suburbs are my Nineveh.

And after God said, “Hey Kevin, go to Nineveh,” there was no use going anywhere else but Nineveh.  It was far better to go willingly than to buy a ticket aboard a whale’s digestive tract.

So here I sit, typing this out on my brand new laptop, in my split level suburban house, after putting the kids and the dog down for a nap, ready to go to the big city for a date night with my wife, perfectly pleased to let all of you know that 2015 is “The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia.”

 

Assertive, Aggressive and Passive Agressive

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Right before I got married we met a few times with one of my pastors to go through the motions of premarital counseling.  My pastor was in an unenviable position because I had all ready gone through both premarital and marital counseling courses and passed them with flying colors.  More than that, I had recently taken them, which of course means I was an expert on the subject!

I also believe that I had interrupted a very busy time in his life or maybe he just trusted our all ready strong network of mentors.  Either way we only met a few times and didn’t talk about much.

However, there is one thing that stands out 8 years later.  During one session he explained to my wife and I that there is a marked difference between being assertive and being aggressive.  He explained that being assertive is merely explaining your wants and needs clearly, firmly and politely.  Being aggressive is more sinister.  It is attacking the other for perceived failures or sleights.

I have now been in ministry much longer than I have been married and have found that this little lesson doesn’t just apply to marriage but to all human relationships, particularly those in the local church.  Our off line culture right now seems to be inundated with a sort of passive aggressiveness that masks itself as “being polite.”  In turn our online culture (see Facebook and Twitter) seems to be inundated with a sort of over aggressiveness that masks itself as “assertiveness.”  Neither attitude is very Christlike.

So I have compiled some fun examples illustrating the difference between being assertive, being aggressive and being passive aggressive.  Some of these are meant to be humorous.  All of them are meant to be illustrative.  None of them are taken from any of my ministry contexts.

Passive: Pastor, your sermon was fine.  It was just.  .  .great.

Aggressive: That sermon sucked just like all your sermons!  When are you going to say something valuable?!

Assertive: You know I really struggled Sunday to figure out what you were trying to say.

Passive: Oh, your a Mets fan.  .  .well, okay, that’s.  .  .interesting.

Aggressive: Why would anyone cheer for the Mets?  Don’t you know that whole franchise belongs to the dark Lord?!  Repent immediately or perish!

Assertive: I assert that anybody who cheers for the New York Mets should repent immediately or perish. (:P)

Passive: Well if you all think we should paint the fellowship hall green then, whatever, do what you want.

Aggressive: Green is a lousy color.  Why would you ever do that!?  We cannot do that.  Nobody will come to our church if our fellowship hall is green!

Assertive: You know the carpet in that room is all ready red and we don’t have the money to replace it quite yet.  The green might make the whole room look like 1970’s Christmas and I am not sure that is the aesthetic we are going for.  Why don’t we consider a more neutral color or not paint until we saved up to do the carpet too?

Passive: Live your life however you want but I think all sinners are going to hell.

Aggressive: You are violating all the laws of God’s sacred scriptures and insulting God and are going to burn in hell if you don’t repent.

Assertive: You say you try to follow Jesus’ teachings and I believe that but how do you reconcile Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” with the things you are saying about and doing to Lisa?

Passive: Well if you want to turn our church into a coffee shop instead of a church go ahead!  I don’t care.

Aggressive: Coffee is black.  Black is the devil’s color.  Coffee is the devil.  You are the devil.  You are turning our church into the devil’s house.

Assertive: This may seem like an easy decision but it is going to cost some money and change the atmosphere and climate of our church.  I’m not sure we want our worship atmosphere to resemble the atmosphere of a coffee house.

I hope at least some of those helped.  I know that being politely assertive is a hard mark to hit but I believe we, including myself, can all do better!

Have a great Thursday!

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

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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.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

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In order for you to understand what follows I will, very regrettably, have to do a bit of recent USA church history with you.

We are now emerging out of a rather short era in US church history that I have dubbed the “relevancy era.”  The now way over used cliche that drove the “relevancy era” went something like this, “The church of the past was too insular and exclusive.  So we should be super inclusive and relevant to the modern times.”

They sought to accomplish that goal by changing everything about the church, from worship styles (from hymns to rock), to pastoral expectations (from a thinking listener to a noisy vision caster), to when and why we gather (from bible studies to bowling nights).  Hence the end product of the “relevancy era” was celebrity pastors (see Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll), diverse and ever changing worship styles and much fewer but much larger congregations.

While many of the changes were good and even necessary, there is now a sense that we threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Some of the “relevancy era’s” breakout stars seem to have woken up and realized that even though they call themselves “church” they have very little to do with the Biblical Jesus or the historical Christian tradition.  In fact, some have admitted that if they succeeded in producing any new Christians at all, those Christians were very shallow, biblically illiterate and quite ignorant of the ancient traditions of our faith. As an example of that last one, it greatly humors me that the “traditional” songs in our hymn book are all less than 150 years old.  It seems to me that if we wanted to sing “traditional” Christian songs we should figure out what Augustine and John Chrysostom were singing!

With that aside, we are now seeing a movement away from mega churches with hip rock bands and celebrity pastors.  This is a movement towards small group discipleship, smaller congregations and liturgical forms of worship (that sometimes do sing what Chrysostom was singing!)

And I could not be happier about all those things.

But in case you are not happy about it or still confused by all that above, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken have written a wonderful narrative about their own transition from a pastor as an entertainer CEO model to a spiritual director model.

Click to buy!

They tell their story beautifully and succinctly in “Renovation of the Church.”  They were seeker sensitive pastors of a large suburban church that boasted over 1700 attendees per Sunday.  Gradually they began reading about spiritual formation and eventually found themselves at a vision casting retreat admitting that though they had 1700 people coming, they did not have many people who showed up on Sundays who cared about Jesus.

They came home from the retreat and over a course of a few years changed everything about their ministry model.  They switched up the worship style, the discipleship structures, the times and places the church met and their expectations of leaders.  .  .and lost 1000 attendees.

As if to offer proof that their 1700 laity were not good disciples, one group of laypeople, angry about the changes, wrote a long, mean and painful letter detailing everything they hated about the new church.  They wanted it “their” way and when they weren’t getting their way any more it made them bitterly angry.  The sad part of the letter was that they had been attending the church for over 5 years and still it had not occurred to them that writing hate mail is against the expectations of Jesus.  The church had catered to their needs so well, they thought they had a religious “right” to have their wants met.  This was the type of attitudes that Carlson and Lueken found they could no longer tolerate as Christian pastors and why they gladly took 700 disciples seeking Christ over 1700 consumers seeking entertainment.

Amidst stories like this, both writers take time to write beautiful chapters that highlight why they had to make the changes they made.  Kent Carlson offers particularly poignant chapters about the harmful effects of pastoral ambition and how we should worship.  Lueken provides great primers on the gospel and spiritual formation as it pertains to a church’s structure.

Together they both tell a great story that gives substance and emotional heft to the current trends in US Christian culture.  And just like the current Christian culture the story is both heartbreaking and full of God’s amazing grace, a grace that will always meet us where we are and insist we return to or stay on God’s straight and narrow path.

Therefore, “Renovation of the Church” is a must read.

A Pastor’s Ode to Running

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In what follows I try to tell my story of being a runner as briefly as possible.  I would welcome you to read it, but as I wrote it I found I was writing more for myself than for you, that  more than anything I just wanted these words down somewhere visible and somewhat permanent.  So I hope you enjoy but will not be offended if you don’t.

Shortly before my 16th birthday I got it in my head I wanted to go out for the Cross Country team at my small high school.  The first practice involved a 3 mile run around a park and I remember being overjoyed that I completed the 3 miles without stopping, so overjoyed I called my dad to brag about it, which is really ironic today.

It didn’t even occur to my parents or me to buy a decent pair of running shoes, so I took my $10 pair from Wal-Mart.  They barely met the minimum P.E. requirements for “exercise” shoes but they were what I had.  After a week of running in them I had a giant blister that stretched from the ball of my foot to the back.  Upon seeing the bright red patch of raw skin, my dad realized his grave error and took me to buy my first pair of legitimate running shoes.

My form was harder to fix.  It was tight and awkward.  At the time I equated “working hard” with moving as much of my body as possible.  During one race I was “working” so hard that my head bent over to my waist at every stride.  But I was passing people!  My coach told my dad, “I have no idea how he is running so fast with that form!”

My dad replied, “That just tells me that when we fix the form he is going to get even faster.”  How right he was.

I did okay in high school, worked hard at it, as hard as high school kids can work.  I had no natural talent, at least none that was visible beneath that awkward form.  I did have a strong desire to run faster and train harder.

Unfortunately I was told by a few teachers and several classmates that I would never run in college.  I was too slow and too annoying and just did not have what it takes.  I believed them because that was the state of my self esteem.  The local university coach at the time didn’t bother recruiting me.  He even told my dad he didn’t think I would make it.  Little did I know he was in a bit of a conflict with the administration for such attitude.

Without my knowing the administration changed the coach and hired a guy from the next university over, a wonderful and compassionate former thrower who brought one of the distance stars from his university to help with the Cross Country side of things.  Being new coaches, they didn’t have a conversation with me until Spring of that year when all of the scholarship decisions had all ready been decided.  I was convinced I wasn’t worthy of scholarship money anyway so I wasn’t put out or anything.  I wanted to just keep running.

A week later they mailed me the summer training program.  At my high school a “long” run was a half hour.  The pamphlet they sent wanted me to run an hour everyday and an hour and a half one day a week!  I remember laughing hysterically at it, certain I could never do that many miles.

I didn’t follow the plan perfectly but when August 1st hit and the season was imminent, I found my inner motivation and began doing the hour a day.  I woke up at 5:30am every morning and jogged until 6:30 so that I be to work by 7:30.  And found  the early morning runs not only doable but enjoyable.

3 weeks later I went to the training camp.  I was very talkative and very annoying, so the fast kids ran me into the ground.  I didn’t care.  It was a mutually enjoyable experience.  They were proud of themselves for dropping me after five minutes.  I was proud of myself that I kept up for a minute longer than yesterday!

Then we started racing and I actually didn’t finish last on the team.  I was able to hang with them and that was thrilling.  All summer I had pictured them running a mile ahead while I trotted behind.  I imagined their finishing times five whole minutes faster than mine.  It never happened that way.  The days they did beat me it was by seconds and most days I finished in front of at least 1 of them.

Then the truly bizarre happened.  The coaches found a little bit of scholarship money left over and one sunny afternoon in late September I  opened one of the most obscure but thrilling letters I have yet received.  It was a financial statement saying that I owed the school $2000 less dollars.  It had something to do with a checked box next to the words, “Athletic Scholarship.”

I literally cried.  This untalented, geeky, nerdy, lanky, weak and very annoying kid had just become a scholar-shipped college athlete.  I would later find out I was the first ever in my entire extended family.

I had been given a great and gracious gift and I did not want to squander it.  I ran even harder.  I added more and more miles to every run.  I pushed myself further and faster.  Eventually I got up early and did morning runs.  I hit the weight room a few times a week.  I logged longer runs and faster runs.  I completed work outs others would quit.  I cannot say I loved every mile but man, I loved every day.

We didn’t fix my form until halfway through my sophomore year.  My coach read up on drill workouts and forced me to do them.  The first one about killed me.  I literally crawled to the cafeteria for dinner.  I healed up by the weekend and knocked 30 seconds off my indoor 3,000 meter race (over 15 seconds a mile!)

I added miles to my long runs and started doing hour and a half to two hour long runs.  One day, after a 2 hour long run I engaged a big, bulky shot putter from the Track team in a pizza eating contest.  I weighed 150 pounds and wore a size 32 waist.  I still put away 25 slices of pizza and a few salads and a plate of pasta.  The thrower beat me by one slice but for that hour I was the hero of the runners.  Seriously, they were chanting my name.

I got injured and took my red shirt year but came back stronger and faster.  I began winning some races here and there.  My name started to appear on the regional rankings.  I won some conference and regional awards for best student athlete and athlete of the week.  The whole experience was a dream.  My scholarship money went up too but I hardly cared.  I wasn’t in this for the money any more.

Then I set some school records and then I beat them again.  Then I started scoring major points for my team.  Then I started taking home medals and plaques.  Then I started getting 2nd and 3rd at conference championships.  Suddenly people all around the region knew who I was and my name was mentioned in running forums and blogs.  Then other coaches began asking my coach where I had come from and how I had turned from a mediocre walk on to a serious conference contender.  Then the administrators and professors of the university started congratulating me around campus, knowing all of my race times from the previous weekend.

Then the dream ended.

One day in early May in a small town in Central Washington I ran my last college race.  It was a 5K.  I had won the 10K the night before and didn’t drink as much water that day as I should have.  So I finished 6th and as I stumbled across the finish line, it occurred to me that the game was over.

The big question became, “would I keep running.”  Some of my younger friends joked that I was going to be fat within 5 years.  I laughed with them but was slightly offended.

Of course I would keep running.  It is not that I loved running.  Most days I didn’t and still don’t.  But running is so central to who I was that giving it up would be sacrificing part of my soul.

The next year I ran a half marathon and the year after a marathon.  I finally ran 100 miles in one week, something I had been trying to do for a few years.

After the marathon I fell back on half hour easy runs a few times a week.  I did way too many of them but at least I was still moving 3-4 times a week.  I gained a few pounds, though not many, and slowed way down.  I did a couple more half marathons to try to stay motivated.

Then I moved to a small town and became a Cross Country and Track coach.  I learned quite quickly that you can either train or coach but you shouldn’t do both.

It took me another year or so to realize that was completely wrong.  Leading by example is about the only way to get through to teens in today’s world.  Less and less they don’t need a drill sergeant, they need an inspiration.

So I trained with them and lost 15 pounds and gained more muscle than I even had in college.  More than that, I was having fun again.  I did drill and core exercises with them and got my six pack back.  My average mile pace dropped back down to 6 minute miles.

And here I am today, having just completed a 15 mile long run in preparation for a marathon.  I was on the fence about whether to do the 15 mile plus run today or tomorrow.  I decided to do it tomorrow and went out hoping to do somewhere between 5-10 miles today.  After a mile and a half I wanted to turn around and go home but I kept going, promising to turn around at 15 minutes.  15 minutes came and went without me realizing it because in that 5 minutes I had switched into the mode.

It is that wonderful zone that surpasses “should run” and “want to run.”  When I am in the mode, my spirit is carried to a new plane of reality, a plane where I just exist for the sake of existence, a place where I run for the sake of running.

There is a beautiful harmony in those moments, a harmony that doesn’t override pain but welcomes it as a necessary melody.  In those moments I am caught up into nature.  The trees became more tangible, more noticeable.  The birds and flies and spiders and deer become my companions.

There is a rhythm and a beat to the strides and the clops.  Together they sing a song of inner peace and outpouring joy.  It is nothing less than spiritual.

Surely there are other ways to arrive at that plane of existence but running is my chosen road to the eternal, my glorious path to the divine.

At times I am scared that my inner runner is gone for good but on days like today, there he is again, roaring back to life, emerging from the shadows of my beat up psyche, insisting I do another mile and another after that and even more after that.  I keep running until I can’t run any more.

Perhaps that is why so many of us love the quote from Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Introduction

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A few months ago I was meeting with my new District Superintendent, talking about church planting, missional movements and ministry in the 21st century in general.

As our hearts and minds met on the drastic need for the church, particularly the Church of the Nazarene, to become more innovative he repeated to me what he had heard from someone else who had heard it from someone else who had read it in a book somewhere,

“The church is Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner world.”

For those of you younger types (like me) who might be tempted to think Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner were names for obscure characters in that Mad Max movie that came out this summer, let me explain the reference.  There is this old, actually ancient, Warner Bros. cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings.  It just had two characters.  One was a hungry coyote, cleverly named “Wile E.”  The other was a rather simple but crazy fast bird named the “Road Runner.”

Fatal Flaw #1: Sets tail on fire instead of rocket.

Every episode involved the coyote coming up with some elaborate, cleverly detailed scheme to catch the Road Runner.  And every episode the Road Runner, without so much as a plan or a strategy, just ran right through the scheme.  The humor in the show almost always centered around each plan’s fatal flaw.  Even though the plan was brilliant and well thought through and cleverly executed, there was always one chink in its armor, one thing Wile E. did wrong, one humorous oversight that let the road runner slip away.  In well over half the episodes, the flaw wasn’t a flaw.  It was just the world not working like it is supposed to.

For example, there is the now classic scene where the coyote paints a mural of a tunnel on a cliff side, hoping the Road Runner will smash into the cliff.  Instead, the Road Runner runs right through the mural into an actual tunnel.  The lesson is simple: The world doesn’t work like the coyote wants it too.

Its sad how the church is remembered for our foolishness, not for how well we can execute a potluck that only feeds “us.”

And we are the coyote.  Our programs, or to put it more religiously, our “ministries,” are elaborate.  They are schemed up by outreach committees in 3 hour long meetings.  They are emailed to pastors with subjects that read, “the brilliant plan that will save our church.”  While we pass the offering plates on Sunday morning, a passionate and dedicated layperson explains them to the congregations.  We claim it worked out just great for that mega church in Seattle or that mushrooming church down the street.  Our congregants get all excited and we all jump on board.

But they all have one fatal flaw and that flaw makes all the time, money and energy we just spent worthless.  Most of the time that flaw is we just failed to understand the world we are living in.

Fatal Flaw #2: We don’t know when to stop.

When that flaw manifests itself and our brilliant feat of outreach falls flat on its face, we at least have a number of cliches we use to comfort ourselves.

We say things like:

“Well God doesn’t care about results.  God just cares about faithfulness.”

“That’s just the way the world is.  God has hardened their hearts so that nothing we say will get through.”

“Well at least we tried.  Church of the Baptist Jesus down the street isn’t even trying.”

“We planted a ton of seeds. Go us!”

Some of that may be true and I am all about comfort in the midst of epic failure.  After all, comfort is what gives us the means to get up and try again.

But what if our problem isn’t that we aren’t dedicated enough, passionate enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.  What if our problem is that we just don’t take the time and energy to understand the world we are living in.

Over the next week I want to write a bit about what I perceive are “Wile E. Coyote” ministries being run by many churches.  My hope in this is not to be overly mean or critical but to think deeply about how we spend our time, money and energy in the hopes that we will become better stewards of our callings.

Even more than that, I hope that our mourned failures would turn into seasons of rejoicing as we truly reach the world for Christ.

Until the next post, here are some great articles elaborating on this concept:

http://pres-outlook.org/2000/10/wile-e-coyote-or-the-roadrunner/

http://time.com/3735089/wile-e-coyote-road-runner/

http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2013/march/3031813.html

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/04/desire-and-causality-in-road-runner.html

A Pastor’s Running Baggage

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This morning I awoke at my in law’s house in Western Washington.  I only find myself here once or twice a year and usually feel somewhat claustrophobic.  I was born and raised between the big skies and wide open spaces of southern Idaho.  Here the low hanging clouds and giant, lumbering trees create an unsettling eeriness.  At least it unsettles me.  My wife, who grew up here, calls it “comforting.”

Be that as it may, I generally look forward to running a few miles whenever I am here.  To the west of my in law’s house lies acres and acres of narrow roads that wind through dense forests.  When I was here in November I ran out on a narrow road without a shoulder.  The forest to each side is beautiful.  However, this road has a disturbing amount of traffic and no room for pedestrians.  The gorgeous forests were ideal.  The 40 mile per hour cars trying not to hit me were less than.

Apparently I remembered the beauty and forgot the traffic because this morning I ran out that way again.

As I carefully dodged the cars, most of which were ambivalent to my well being, I found myself imagining what might happen if one of these cars did kill me.

What would happen to my church?  How would my wife handle it?  Would my kids be okay without a dad?  What friends would come to the funeral?  These are eery thoughts, perfect for such an eery place as the Pacific Northwest.

But more than family and friends, I also wondered about secret emotions and feeling I might take with me to my grave.  After all, within these 150 pounds of loosely jointed muscles and bones I have a startling amount of baggage.

Which is unfortunate, given that us runners are a minimalist bunch.  Now I know there is an entire industry of runner related gadgets that you can carry on your miles.  However their cell phone arm straps, runner friendly head phones, heart rate monitors, calorie trackers, absorbent head bands, mp3 players and the billions of marketing that sells them are all superfluous.  The best way to tell a runner from a jogger is to look for these needless accessories.

I am purist and have been since college.  When I leave home I wear running shoes, socks, a watch and the shortest pair of shorts this pastor can get away with wearing.  More than that, I wait until my stomach is empty, not being one who can run comfortably with anything sloshing around in there.

Yet when I head out to the roads and trails I find a surprising amount of baggage weighing me down.  Yesterday I met with two of my dearest friends in Portland.  As has been the case with every good friend I have made since junior high I am desperate to retain their friendship.  I spent a few minutes this morning going over everything I said and did wrong yesterday while with them and worried that they might not like me as much after.

More than that, I am a pastor of a church that seems fairly stable and yet I worry about how precarious the situation is.  Whenever I run I try to assess each congregants discipleship status.  Are they making gains?  Are they giving the enemy ground?  Are they willing to hear me ask them the tough questions and read the tough scriptures to them or do they need something the Apostle Paul would compare to “milk?”  Is my relationship with my associate strong enough, good enough?  What congregants can I build trusting friendships with and what ones are waiting in the weeds to destroy me?

In fact, the problem with evangelical pews is that the more you sit in them the more arrogant you become, thinking you are right about everything.  How do I fight that trend and teach and model a humility through which the other virtues will grow?  And how do I do that knowing that the problem with evangelical pulpits are that the more you stand behind them the more sure of yourself you become?  How do I fight that tendency within myself and model the needed humility?

Then there is the macro vision.  How do I work and live into my calling to make disciples who make disciples and plant churches who plant churches?  What conversations do I need to have?  What partnerships do I need to foster?  What steps do I need to take this next week to work towards the mission?

Then there is that church I left.  We met yesterday with a member of that church.  They do not yet have a pastor and are struggling to find and afford one.  There have been several blows to their congregational life since I left.  A divorce, a death, a few severe illnesses, financial instability and of course, leadership changes.  When I left that church in February, I foretold that I was going to break a lot of hearts, starting with my own.  And my heart is still aching and breaking for them and for me.

I also think of friends.  I spent last weekend with a friend who has pastored what we call a “buzzsaw” church.  He went into it whole.  He came out in pieces.  It was my deep honor to share his pain last weekend and yet it was a taxing time.  We cried together, raged together and even laughed at the absurd world.  I still mourn from him.

Then there is another friend, I have known and respected since high school.  He won all the awards in high school and is now becoming somewhat of a national celebrity for a shoe he invented.  I admire and respect him and yet feel like in the race to save the world, I am far behind him and losing ground daily.  How do I possibly catch up?  Should I even try?  Can my small daily sacrifices even compare to his amazing ability to make roses out of dog poop?

Needless to say in this 150 pound body striding effortlessly through the forests of Washington, is a surprising amount of stress, grief, frustration and fear.  No wonder I didn’t even bother with a shirt.  The extra weight would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

I would take all this to my grave if one of these haphazard drivers ends my life.  In fact, if that had happened, all you would have is a half written sermon for next Sunday and last week’s blog post about Monday Morning’s Repentance.  Hardly a legacy, but a legacy I am not sure I want to leave anyway.

As I dodge three or four more cars, an asphalt sidewalk suddenly appears in front of me.  It starts at the road and then weaves away through some trees, curving in and out.  When I see it I seem to hear a different voice in the back of my head, a comforting and familiar presence that says, “Follow the path and I will keep you safe.”

A minute or two later I stop to catch my breath.  As sweat forms and pours off me I offer up prayers for my church, my denomination, my last church, my friends and for myself.

For the one who called me is faithful.  .  .

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 2: Using Images

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When I was in college I took a class that was all about preaching creative sermons.  The foundation of the class was the narrative preaching technique, with a bit of inductive approach sprinkled in.  But the heart of the class was the use of images.

The teacher spent hours teaching us how to use Photoshop to spruce up our sermons.  He talked us through all the copyright laws (which were not many at that point) and gave us examples of greatly illustrated sermons and lectures.

However, the one big takeaway from the class was that using media in your sermons is not something you should do halfway.  If you couldn’t do it well, don’t do it at all.  Just get up in the pulpit and use hand gestures and facial expressions.

For the first years of preaching regularly, I tried to follow that advice.  I used images sparingly with my sermons, probably about a third of the time.  I usually did it only if two qualifications were both met.  First, I had to have the time to put the slideshow together.  Second, I had to know where I was going with the pictures.  I didn’t want to do them for the sake of doing them.

But last year I read Leonard Sweet some more.  Then I considered the younger people in my congregation and how image fueled they are.  Then I found that pictures were a much better way to keep track of my sermon’s logic than notes were.  Then I thought about how image oriented and symbol fused our culture is.  After all that I consciously affirmed what I had all ready subconsciously decided, that using pictures (and using them well) was a must for every single sermon.

And that commitment has certainly paid off.  The sermons run smoother.  The audience is more engaged.  There are more avenues available for expressing humor and emotion (than just my wild arm movements and facial expression :P).  And I can keep better track of where I am in the message.

But in the spirit of using images well I to let you in on some of guidelines that govern how I use them.  I do so in the hopes that they can help illustrate (no pun intended) how useful that 8 foot tall screen in my sanctuary can be.

Layton 1

I admit, I really like ancient icons from the faith and rely heavily on them, like this slide from a sermon on Jesus’ baptism.

1) Use text very sparingly.  So far in this post I have avoided using the word PowerPoint, even though that is the program I use to put the pictures into a slideshow.  PowerPoint implies bullet points and I do not use bullet points very much, though there are exceptions.  Instead I focus heavily on pictures and memes.  I do put Bible verses on the screen once or twice a sermon but other than that I rely mostly on pictures.  The point isn’t to give people things to write down.  It is to give them a visual example of something my words are illustrating.

Singing The Easter Song All Wrong

During Easter this year this was my standard “transition” slide, minus the title of course.

2) For a 20 minute sermon 8-10 pictures will do.  When I first started using pictures, I thought I needed a new picture for every thought or a new image every 30 seconds.  This was manic.  Now, I only use pictures I think help keep the message afloat.  This might mean a picture of an empty tomb is on the screen for five minutes while I exegete the Resurrection passage.  It also might mean I have a standard “background” slide that I alternate back to during transitions.  Whatever the strategy, you don’t need 40 pictures for a 20 minute message.

3) Practice, practice, practice.  The biggest nuisance about putting pictures with your sermons is that you have to practice your sermons 10x more.  And you cannot practice them sitting at your desk.  You have to actually practice in the sanctuary, behind the pulpit, with the projector on.  (Though most times I cheat and just put my laptop in the front pew.)  Practice is invaluable for so many reasons.  It helps you feel out the flow of your sermon and the pictures.  It helps you find out which pictures were superfluous.  But most importantly it creates subconscious connections in your brain so that when you see the picture, you instinctively what to say.

Proverbs Slide

From a sermon on Proverbs. I shudder at the horror!

4) The pictures need to look professional.  Probably the biggest mistake I have consistently made is that I slap together lousy slides using Microsoft’s crude image cropping and color altering.  The result is a chaotic, disgusting slide like the one to your right.  The real failure was the times I used bullet points and couldn’t find a background for them so I just used black on white.  Ironically switching that to white text with a black background was all I needed for a professional spin.  I have repented of that recently when I realized I would rather search through pages and pages of Google images, using multiple search terms to find the one picture that says what I want it too than work just as hard to put together a dumb looking slide.

antique roadshow slide

I put this joke up last Sunday but barely referred to it. I let it speak for itself while I was explaining the idea of finding antiques you didn’t know where valuable.

5) The pictures are one piece of the whole, not the centerpiece.  I get it, we all like pictures.  We are crazy addicted to them because since the first time mom and dad let us watch the television, we have seen literally tens of thousands of them a day.  Still, throwing a bunch of clever pictures together is not an excuse for shallow Biblical study and incoherent content.  This is why I always do the slideshow last in my prep, well last before I go to the practice stage.  First comes exegesis.  Second comes content.  Third comes a clever metaphor or story that helps package the content.  Then come the pictures to add depth to the metaphor, content and exegesis.

In closing, I am not entirely sure using pictures badly is worse than not using them at all.  I am trying to rethink that as I continue to experiment with how to visually support my content.  For one, I think failure to try is not the same as trying and failing.

So try to use pictures and see where they get you and what you might learn!

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 1: Starting New

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Three months ago I moved from a tiny town in Eastern Oregon to the sprawling metropolis of the Salt Lake City metro area.  This is the first week since moving that I am not looking at any huge events that I need to plan, coordinate and run.  It gives me a chance to catch my breath and wake up to the reality that I do actually live in Utah.

During the transition I have revisited my theology and practice of preaching.  Over the past couple of years I have been preaching quite regularly and discovering a lot about the weekly grind of semron prep.

This transition offered me a chance to step back from that weekly grind and take stock of what I have discovered over the last few years, while making a few new commitments to the practice.  Yesterday I preached my 12th sermon at my new church.  I would never presume to claim a medal when there is no award, but these simple but firm commitments have made me feel like a more competent preacher.

One of those commitments is to refrain from repeating sermons.  A year ago I was toying with this idea but not committed to it.  But now I am quite firm in my belief that each sermon is a one time event, given in a unique time to a unique people.  With that said, the temptation to repeat a sermon is still very present.

I know most pastors do it.  And they do it for understandable reasons.  Every pastor has that list of “glory sermons” that seemed to just pour out the Holy Spirit.  Whenever they change congregations, they cannot wait for the opportunity to pull the manuscript off, rework a few of the details and then relive the glory days.

I have those sermons too and it is with deep sadness I made my commitment to not re-preach them because I love them.  What I wouldn’t give to have those Sundays back!  But I am not sure the glory came from the manuscript, especially if I wrote it.

However, I do have another list of sermons.  These were the sermons that should have been great but fell completely flat.  Either I didn’t get the time to revisit the conceit one more time or I woke up on the wrong side of bed or I did not have the energy needed to give the passage its due or the metaphor was poorly formed or the congregation just wasn’t awake.  Either way, what should have been awesomeness was more like disaster-ness.  I usually walk out of the pulpit concluding, “I just preached half of a half formed sermon.”  And because I am a guy of second chances, I would love to give those another try.  Maybe another congregation would love it.  Maybe another day I would have more energy for it.  Maybe if I just tweaked that one transition.  I don’t know but I would love to try.

But I think it is necessary to refrain from that temptation.  I think that because I believe what a preacher offers the church is not a nice 20 minute booster speech every Sunday but a life lived in prayerful contemplation of the divine.  If all I had to offer every Sunday was data, then I should only be preaching like 10 sermons.  But I have so much more than that.  I have a life of reading, contemplation, struggle, hard decisions and prayer.

Simply put, what happens in the pastor’s study is so much more important than what is said from the pulpit.  If I have done the hard work of putting together something new every week, than when I get to the pulpit I will not offer my congregation the explanation of a Scripture passage through a clever metaphor or story.  Instead, I will offer them meditations gained from doing life with God.

When I pull out a dusty manuscript and pretty it up, I am short shrifting my own spiritual journey and my congregation’s desperate need for a contemplative.  Repeat sermons means I have not done the brutally difficult work of struggling with the God who is revealed through the Scriptures.  I have not read books and commentaries that have made uncomfortable.  I have not asked myself and God the hard questions and not been forced to choose between one attractive interpretation of a text and one more accurate.  Not doing those things leads to a shallowness that betrays the complexity of our faith.

One final, albeit more distant, reason is that study builds passion and passion sells sermons.  When I really struggle with a passage, I bring that struggle and that passion into the pulpit.  When I just dust off an old manuscript, that passion is missing as I go through the old motions.

This commitment to not repeat was especially hard last week as I have preached on the Ascension 8 or 9 times.  If you have read the beginning of Acts and ending of Luke, you know that those verses are not exactly begging for 8 sermons of completely new information.  They just say that Jesus ascended and that the apostle’s were promised a return.  The ascension is the one Sunday where a repeat Sermon makes sense.

And I have come close to repeating the same sermon 8 times but last week I decided I would have to break new ground if I didn’t want to get up and give my old, “The story isn’t over yet.” sermon.  So I consulted the lectionary and read Ephesians 1, a chapter that is not readily about the ascension.  Then I struggled with it, fought with it, interpreted it, argued with friends on Facebook about it and by Sunday I had a completely new sermon not about the story’s un-ending but about Jesus who sits down at the right hand of God and takes the church with him.

It would have been a lot easier to update a few jokes and stories and give the same message.  In fact, last week, that was all I thought I had the energy for.  However, beginning anew with a different passage from a book I had not yet dug into yet, made the trip worth it.  In the end, I invited my congregation to pray with the apostle Paul that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened.  We lit candles for those whose hearts have not yet been enlightened and asked Go to reveal God’s self to them and for them to know the power that worked out the resurrection and the ascension, seating Jesus at the right hand of the Father of Glory.  It was not a result I would have predicted last Monday afternoon when I opened Ephesians 1 while asking, “why would the lectionary ever have this passage for Ascension Sunday?”