2017: The Year I Kept On Running

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There was a moment last May when I stopped a quarter mile short of finishing a marathon.  I am tempted to call it a bad decision but it was not any sort of conscious decision that I made.  It just happened.  The cause was a cobblestone intersection which happened to be raised 6 inches from the road feeding into it.

I would venture a guess that most of you sometime in your lives have climbed 6 inches in elevation and I would also guess you didn’t even notice that you had.  But at the end of 26 miles of running, 6 inches may as well have been 5000 feet.  My calves tightened up, which lit off the pain sensors which shot up my spine to my brain with an urgent message, “We done.” (You read that right.  Pain sensors don’t use proper grammar.)

I did finish the race of course.  I stood there for a few seconds and stared at the finish line, realizing that it was kind of stupid to run 26 miles and not run the .2 to reach a finish line that would simultaneously qualify me for Boston, gain me a 7th place spot in one of our state’s more prestigious races and be a 5 minute personal best.

I sprinted to the finish line.

There were other moments this year when the going got just as tough.  Life’s hardships got too constant and too great.  The littlest of situational elevations stopped me short and made me want to quit.  These were not any large crises or shocking life events.  Those are quite bearable and even understandable.  Instead, there was just the daily drudge of living life in this cold, lonely world with people who just don’t seem to understand themselves or this God of love  who lavishes us with mercy.  Before you assume I am casting blame, know that I count myself as one of those.  So life gets to the point where even one little bump in the road can stop you short of the goal.

The most notable happened a month or so before that marathon.  There was one very dark day in late March when it all came crumbling down upon me.  The circumstances of that day are not too relevant or even appropriate to share.  But there was a day spent crying, screaming and shaking uncontrollably for hours on end.  All of that was followed by a brief moment, right around 6pm when suddenly I realized I was done being a pastor.

That was a great moment.  I stopped crying and started laughing because the whole thing was pretty ironic.  I stopped dwelling on the past and starting dreaming for the future.  In 10 minutes time I had recalled every “Help wanted” sign or ad I had seen and every conversation with very successful friends whose employers were looking for someone with my skill set.  I would make more money.  We could buy a house.  We could refresh our 401(K)’s.  We could actually have health insurance!  I would have colleagues.  I would have friends.  I would have career mentors and advisers but most of all, I would have the utter joy that comes from learning a new skill and a new way of life.  Gray skies were behind me.  Blue skies lay ahead.

As I said above, that lasted a good 10 minutes.  Sometime in minute 11, I remembered that moment on a playground in Coeur D’Alene, ID on July 21st 2004.  I was 19 years old and I had just completed a very fruitful and awesome day of ministry.  The day had closed out through an honest conversation with my pastor who in so many words told me, “You have the gifts and graces to do this for life and we need you.”  So I rode my bike out to that playground, climbed to the very top, saw a shooting star and told God, “Fine, you got me.  I’ll do this ministry thing.”

I also remembered another moment in a shack at a campground in mid October, 2007.  I was telling God that I wasn’t going to do ministry after all.  I didn’t want to do and besides, “I have no idea why you called me when there are so many other fitting people for the job.”

God replied, “Of course there are and I’ve called them too!  Don’t you worry about them.”  So I didn’t and my calling was refreshed.

Then I remembered another cold day in February, 2012 when I got a call from a now close friend and Assistant District Superintendent who said there was a small church in a small town who for some reason or other was impressed by my resume.  That same month I was offered a full time management position at the homeless shelter where I had worked.  I still miss that wonderful rescue mission and leaving it was hard.  But my wife and I reasoned that for many, many years I had planned on pasturing a church.  It was only logical that at one point a church was going to call me and only reasonable that I should say, “yes.”  So we did and left that wonderful homeless shelter behind to this new life of pastoral ministry.

I took me about 60 seconds to recall all that and what followed was a realization that the race wasn’t over and it would be stupid to stop now.

So I kept running.

And the rest of the year is now history.  But God has been good and gracious and all the things we claim this God is.  The outpouring of blessing that followed as I have run is downright amazing.

So into 2018 I run.

 

The More You Read, The Less You Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Honesty in a Non-Confrontational Culture

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It is 60 degrees and cloudy outside with smatterings of rain.  Last week I drank not one but two Pumpkin Spice Lattes.  Yesterday I finished off the last of a jug of Simply Lemonade and sadly don’t plan on buying another one until late April, early May.  And due to the weather, I seriously debated not wearing shorts today.  In the end I put the shorts on because you can’t let go of summer al at once.  Yet still, it must be Autumn.

Nobody is happier about that than me.  I love the Fall.  I love football games and cross country races and pumpkin flavored everything and brown leaves that crunch beneath your foot.  Everything about this time of year is simply amazing, with one huge exception.

In the Autumn, because I am pastor, I have to spend huge amounts of time recruiting people to do things for me.

Of course us pastors are not really asking people to “help us out” but more to “help the church out.”  Yet it is hard to see it that way.  The church and its pastor get so closely intertwined during this time of year that we feel like we are asking everybody for deeply personal favors.  In fact, what little political capitol we have been storing up all summer is spent quite quickly through carefully worded, overly polite requests to “invest in discipling our children,” to “assist us in making our building more hospitable” to “aid our worship service in making it more vibrant” and to “help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus.”  (See the key below for translations of all that Christianese.)

Not surprisingly most Christians in America don’t want to do any of those things.  After all it is the Fall, which means their personal lives have all become ten times busier than they were just one month ago, which is crazy because they were really busy a month ago.

So throughout the country church goers have specialized in the polite and non confrontational rejection that is barely a rejection.  Most times your poor pastor doesn’t know they have been rejected until they reflect back on it the next day.

“I just don’t feel like that is my calling.”

“I just need to focus on my family right now.”

“I have too much going on and can’t give it the attention it deserves.”

“I’ll pray about it.”

Once again, see the key below to translate all those Christianese cliches.

And I appreciate polite non confrontation as much as the next person.  In fact, I suppose the fact that nobody is willing to just say “no” outright symbolizes that there is just enough positional authority in the title “Pastor” to warrant some degree of nicety.

And yet I have found over the last couple weeks that I deeply appreciate outright “no’s” way more than the overly polite avoidance tactics adopted by most Christians.

In fact, those few times someone has just said, “no, I don’t want to do that,” I have found myself going back to tell them “thank you” because I would rather a blunt and honest truth than an overly polite lie.  I think there is biblical warrant for that.  Politeness is rarely, if ever, extolled in our great book but honesty is a downright basic requirement.  And sadly one that most Christians today sorely lack.

For that reason, when someone lies to me about wanting to help with the children’s ministry, I always wonder what else they are lying about and who else they are lying too.

But when someone just flat out tells me, “No, that isn’t my thing” I at least know I can trust them.

After all, the worse thing that can happen is that someone says yes out of obligation and then ends up hating the church and hating me because they felt coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

So this gorgeous Autumn, as you sip those Pumpkin Spice Lattes and watch those Sunday night football games and feel the cold rain fall across your brow, feel free to be honest with your pastor(s).  Be polite and respectful as can be about it for there is a big difference between being honest and being a jerk.

But trust your pastor enough to tell them the truth about that halloween event or that children’s program or that lawn maintenance project.  Seriously, if your pastor can’t deal with a little bit of honesty they are probably in the wrong profession anyways!  Instead, I hope they reward you richly for it!

Christianese Dictionary

“Invest in discipling our children” means showing up once a week to color pictures with them.

“Assist us in making our building more hospitable” means taking time to fix a broken toilet or mow the lawn.

“Make our worship service more vibrant” means joining our worship team in whatever capacity.

“Help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus” means showing up on Halloween and passing out candy to the trick-or-treaters.

“I don’t feel like it is my calling” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I have too much going on right now and can’t give it the attention it deserves” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I’ll pray about it” means no.

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Vacation Bible School

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This post is the recent in a periodic series on failed outreach ministries.  The intro post is here.

I should warn you from the get go that this blog post is going to consist of a series of educated guesses about your local congregation.

My first guess is that your congregation did a VBS this summer.

If only those lousy pagans loved it as much as we do!

My second guess is that after it was over, everybody hailed it as a crazy success.

My third guess is that some kid probably “gave his heart to Jesus” or maybe you had many.

My fourth guess is that sometime in the next year a family whose first connection with your church was at VBS showed up for one or two Sunday morning worship services.

My fifth guess is that your VBS cost a lot of money, required a lot of human power and consumed a great deal of time, more so for the one “lead” person who planned the whole thing.

Oh all those cartoon characters are happy, wearing the same shirt and raising their arms in some weird exercise posture. That is just what is missing in kids’ lives!

My sixth guess is that VBS is so encoded into your DNA, (aka your hidden curriculum), that nobody even bothered to ask “why” you were doing a VBS.  However, if those involved were asked “why?” they would probably give some vague answer like, “to reach people for Jesus” or “to show the church of the future that Jesus loves them.”

I would further imagine, though not guess, that if someone in your church did ask, “why are we doing this?” they were probably laughed at, but not a jovial laugh, the judgmental kind whose hidden threat was, “we banish people who dare call into question VBS.”  I am further assuming, though once again not guessing, you are giving that laugh to me right now and are not reading this any more but typing your judgment in the comments below.

Aren’t these the kids from the last picture? Let’s put them in a boat. That will really convince those heathens to come.

My seventh guess is that most, if not all, of the kids who showed up were kids from Christian families.  I would further assume (though not officially guess) that a great deal of the “new” faces were the kids from other churches who were camp hopping all summer so their parents could take advantage of all the free babysitting.

My eighth guess is that there was almost no follow up with the unchurched and non Christian kids who did show up.  You probably hoped they would get connected but I am guessing they didn’t.  Furthermore, nobody probably even bothered to take them out to coffee or ice cream or whatever people are drinking and eating these days.

What is with the arms? Seriously, picture google vacation bible school and you will see the worst insults to graphic design every designed.

If I am right about all this, and trust me, I mostly am, than your VBS was an epic Wile E. Coyote type failure.  You spent tons of time, money and energy and burned out your poor children’s director to reach all ready reached kids and further alienate the unreached people who dared to show up.

But hey, at least you provided free babysitting.

More than that, you got five extra discipleship times with your church kids, which is dang difficult to do these days.  And you probably did a lot of good team building with your laypeople which will increase your congregation’s “friendly atmosphere.”

So VBS isn’t all bad (which I am going to say to all the people who comment on this).  But its purposes need to be stated.  You are not going to reach un-reached families with a fifty year old ministry model based off of flannel graphs and silly props and costumes.

However, you are probably going to reach them if you follow through on all that contact information in a non-confrontational, friendship evangelism type way, like over ice cream.  Here I do offer a warning:  It won’t take just one follow up ice cream.  Prepare to buy a bigger belt because you are going to have to meet with them once a month for a year or so before they darken your church’s doors.

But if that is going to work you need your follow up strategy figured out before you even buy your curriculum.  You need to encode that strategy into every aspect of VBS.  You need to plan every part of it, right down to, “Who is going to take who out to ice cream after all this is said and done?”

That brings me to my ninth and last guess.  I am guessing some of you have figured out the follow up strategy and seen great results with your VBS.  Please do share those success stories in the comments below.  The rest of us Coyotes need to hear them.

Monday Morning Repentance

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I was reading a magazine article with a group of pastors awhile back.  The article was about Sunday morning critics who used the car ride home to complain about everything they didn’t like about the worship service.

After we read that line, this group of pastors admitted to each other that we were the worst Sunday morning critics.  In fact, chances are, if you used the Sunday lunch to gossip about your pastor, your pastor was at some other restaurant being 10 times more critical of themselves.

You see what happens is that a pastor accomplishes more in 5 hours on a Sunday morning than you accomplish in a 40 hour work week.  Most Sundays, we survive at a level of chaos only known to E.R. surgeons.  It is a wild ride of emotions, little crises and small performances.  It takes a huge amount of adrenaline to get through those 5 hours and the best pastors are always on their guard, painstakingly choosing every word, carefully forcing themselves to convey meaningful body language at all times and trying desperately to connect with people who may need a reminder that their pastor cares for them.

And the more a pastor does on a Sunday, the worse it gets.  For pastors who teach a Sunday School class, preach more than one service, go out to lunch with congregants and lead a Sunday night group, it takes until about Tuesday morning to be even remotely recovered from that adrenaline surge.

Furthermore, if something very drastic goes wrong that morning, like a parishioner decides this is the morning to scream at you (which happens to most pastors about once or twice a year), you can pretty much write off the week.

In my life, I have found that since I have been “on” since 7am, the “off” switch usually takes the form of telling my wife everything I did wrong that morning.  You see, all Sunday morning I have been compiling my list in the back of my head about things I shouldn’t have said, body language I shouldn’t have conveyed, people I forgot to talk too, mis-communications that happened between me and others and the like.  Strangely enough, I am almost never critical of others, except when they scream at me after church.

This all lead to a new ritual in my life that I am calling, “Monday Morning Repentance.”  I did not choose this ritual nor have I even thought it all the way through.  But I do notice that when I manage to drag myself out of bed on Mondays and get to the office I usually have a list of apologies I need to make.

The list has three categories.  The first is apologies to others.  The second is apologies to myself.  The third is apologies to God.  Then my Monday morning is spent in prayer, contemplation and waiting for that proper hour (11am) to make some phone calls of apology.

It is a quite uncomfortable ritual and one that grew out of all the frustration I have with myself.  Why did I say that thing I said?   Why did I add that unnecessary point to my sermon?  Why did I forget that Powerpoint slide was in the presentation and skip over it?  In Sunday School, why did I insinuate that potato chips are as bad as alcohol?  Why can’t I ever start the service on time?   Why wasn’t I more prepared?  And why didn’t I stop and listen when that older woman started to tell me a story about her week while I was on my way to the restroom?

The answer to that last one is fairly obvious.  If I had stopped and listened, her story for next week would be about the wet pants of a young, inexperienced pastor!

These questions are probably well and good.  I pursue the perfect Sunday morning every week and every week I feel like I fall shorter and shorter of the mark.  A lot of times the mistakes are perfectly avoidable and flow out of sheer lack of self control and a lousy work ethic.  And sometimes those mistakes are unavoidable or unforeseeable.

Be that as it may, us pastors must take care that Monday Morning Repentance doesn’t replace Sunday Morning’s Grace.  After all, the church doesn’t rest on our shoulders.  The grace of God is not limited by our full bladders or by our adrenaline addled body language.  Neither is God’s grace undone by our half thought out Sunday School insinuations or our lousy sermon metaphors.

After all, this God we worship is the same God who in Scripture uses things like donkeys, dead bodies, magicians from the East and even a witch from Endor to communicate saving grace.  Even though I feel pretty beat up right now, I am sure I am more capable than three of those four things.  And you are probably more capable than all four!

So I hope that Sunday Morning’s Grace will meet you during your Monday Morning Repentance.  If today your find yourself begging God for forgiveness, making those frantic phone calls to angry congregants and trying to find the strength to forgive yourself, I hope a donkey starts talking and a valley of dry bones grow some flesh to remind you that God is greater than your lousy body language!

Blessings this week.

What if I Stumble

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The Tuesday right after Easter I wrote a blog post that was half a response to the announcement of a friend’s upcoming job termination and half a struggle with current trends in the church, particularly as it relates to my denomination. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here.

My struggle is that there seem to be mobs out there who want to banish from the church those who think differently.  In the post I wondered how I would survive if such a mob ever managed to crucify my career.  In the Spirit of Easter, I claimed the resurrection hope that God would meet me in that painful situation and bring new life out of it.

The post was written with great amounts of passion, apparently a relatable one as that post is still my most successful post to date.

What I am about to write comes from an equal amount of passion, albeit a different kind of passion.  In fact, this post is in many ways an inverse of that last one.

Because as much as I am afraid that a scapegoating mob will crucify my career while I am innocent, I am much more terrified that I will deserve a crucifixion for gross sin or negligence.

Will I fall to the temptation to have an extramarital affair?

Will I stumble into online porn?  (It is unlikely at this point but still possible.)

Will my marriage crumble spectacularly overnight? (Very likely and more likely until we celebrate our 40th anniversary by the odds.)

Will I accidentally lose my temper and strike a parishioner?  (There are days when that temptation is more real than others.)

Will I become lazier and lazier and not do the work to which I am called?  (I might all ready be at that point.)

Or will my epic tumble be less epic?  Will it just be a growing pride and arrogance that refuses to admit when I am wrong and own my bad decisions?  (There are close calls of this nature almost every week.)

I have watched all these things happen to people who were thought to be much more holy than me.  I have seen calm, gentle pastors buckle under the stresses of the job and lash out.  I have seen an otherwise humble pastor suddenly choose the most pitiful and absurd molehill to die on, like paint color in the sanctuary.  And, of course, I have seen my fair share of extramarital affairs and divorces among the clergy.

And I am not guaranteed to avoid any of that.  It is true that I have had an excellent formation and training that at least helps me see temptation when it is coming.  I have wonderful mentors and friends who speak the truth in love.  I regularly practice disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, solitude and exercise that keeps me calm and humble. But none of that makes me immune from the cliff falls from grace.

In fact, most days I think there is a 75% chance that my crucifixion will be a result of my own guilty choices, compared to the 25% that it will just be an angry mob looking for an innocent victim.

On those days I wonder how I will fail.  I wonder what the price for my wife, children and congregation will be.  And I wonder how I will possibly be able to get out of bed the next day if it ever should happen.

And every day I feel like my crucifixion is almost a guarantee.  After all, ministry is truly a dangerous line of work.

But as we approach the Ascension and climb that soon to be empty hilltop with the disciples, I find an incredible amount of hope.  The Ascension is that wonderful day when Jesus not only showed off his super power of flight, but also sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  There he represent us, the church, as both head and priest.

The Apostle Paul uses the word “energeo” in Ephesians 1 to describe the Ascension.  It is the same word we use for “energize.”  The Ascension energized the great power of God, the power that is now fully displayed in us the church, which Paul says is, “the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way.”

I think that means that the charged up power of God is at work whether we are faithful or unfaithful.  If ever I should fail, whether in gross immorality or in spiritual weakness, I still trust my head and my priest who sits at the right hand of God our Father.  After all the church is much bigger than my bad choices and though I may cause pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I know a great healer who can forgive, redeem and reconcile the consequences of my bad decisions.

In closing, the old Christian rock band D.C. Talk has a song on their “Jesus Freak” album called, “What if I Stumble,” that struggles with these same issues through these lyrics,

What if I stumble
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
And I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue
When my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble
And what if I fall?

At the end of the song they claim the love of Christ by saying,

I hear You (God) whispering my name
You say, “My love for You will never change.”

And that whisper is enough to get me out of bed tomorrow.

A Sermon Somewhere: The Grand Canyon Is So Much More Than

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There is an old preacher’s joke that goes, “I don’t know where but there is a sermon in there somewhere.”  This series builds off of that by trying to find the sermons hiding beneath our everyday experiences.  .  .and failing miserably.

This post is a follow up/sequel to my post from last week about Bliss, ID.  In that post I claimed the people who named that patch of sagebrush in southern Idaho, “Bliss” were vastly overstating things.

Well, after dropping the boxes off in Utah, I kept going and went to see the Grand Canyon.  Let’s just say that the people who named that truck stop in the middle of tumbleweed, “Eden,” were not the same people who named the Grand Canyon.

I mean, GRAND?!?!

My piano is grand.

My dad’s mom is grand.

The Budapest Hotel is grand.

Video games about stealing autos are grand.

The Grand Canyon is nothing short of spectacular!

The guy who named it “The Grand Canyon” must have been an accountant or a lawyer.  Even then, I don’t know how even the most stuffy among us manage to keep their wits about them when they stand on that cliff and stare down at Phantom Ranch which is one whole mile below you.

That is not grand.  It is something much, much more.

Because when you stand there, looking at the huge expanse below you, everything else becomes quite pointless.  When you stand there, you suddenly feel like your life has been leading up to that very point.  Everything you have ever seen was just practice for seeing this.  And there is no point to ever look at anything else.  There is no reason to ever go anywhere else or do anything other than hike down to the bottom of the thing and then hike back up just so you can feel like at least you earned this wonderful gift from the heavens.

Heck, if the sun hadn’t set and the place turned all dark I would not have been able to leave.  Although even in the dark you could feel the greatness right below your feet.  You just knew it was there and that wonderful hole in the ground threatened to swallow you whole.  That is not so much a grand thing as it is a wonderful and incredible invitation to give your life to something so breathtaking.

So in the spirit of setting things right and with all offense to whatever moron named it “Grand,” I am suggesting we revisit the name of “The Grand Canyon.”

I have a few suggestions below to get the ball rolling:

The Absurdly Large Canyon

The Awestruck Canyon

The……………………………..Speechless Canyon

The Don’t Fall Off Or You Will Die The Best Way There Is To Die Canyon

The You Will Wet Yourself Canyon

The Jaw Dropping Canyon

The “I Need To Change My Pants” Canyon

The Most Amazing Thing You Will Ever See Canyon

The Canyon That Holds All The Other Canyons

No matter what you call it, there has to be a sermon in there somewhere.  I mean, after all, the thing is a mile deep.

Humor On the Platform: Laughter is the Best Response

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This is my third post on using humor in ministry.  In these posts I have been trying to find and articulate the boundaries and effectiveness of humor in my many roles as pastor.  This has been difficult because “humor” is a nebulous concept and an often changing target.  Still, it is a wonderful reality in which to live because, as I have been arguing, laughing at the absurdity in the world is the best way keep it from consuming us.

This is important because I have been told that there was a day when humor wasn’t allowed within thirty feet of a Christian worship service.  But I did not grow up in that day.  Instead,I grew up in a shifting scenery of modern (or post modern, or maybe emergent and definitely missional) worship.  Many preachers tried way too hard to be funny all the time and failed miserably.  Others genuinely succeeded, having that right personality.  Others didn’t try to be funny but ended up making humorous gaffes anyway and added to the humor by being horribly embarrassed.

So when I filled my first pulpit, it was with careful measures of self condescension, humorous asides and perfectly timed (or not so perfectly timed) punchlines.  Not surprisingly, the humor in my sermons have brought me consistent praise.

Still, I struggle with how to be funny and when to be funny during my twenty minutes of fame every Sunday.  The danger is not that the joke might bomb or that your jokes might be offensive.   The danger is that the humor will be misplaced or misdirected and, in turn, misdirect the congregation.

The greatest example of misdirected humor is self condescension.  Certainly, insulting myself is the easiest way to get a few laughs and to get people to lower their guards.  So I use it a lot.  But I really struggle with why I use it.  Am I being manipulative or even honest?

Beyond that, I have found that insulting yourself for laughs is that you also insult the people who like you.  And there are those in my congregation who take it offensively because I am insulting their judgment in having me as a pastor.

To give an example, two years ago at our annual assembly gathering with the other churches, I had to give a three minute report on the state of my church.  So I got up and said, “Everything is going great” and gave examples of things that were going well.  After the examples I concluded, “So you see everything is going splendidly, except for their new Senior Pastor.  He is a young kid, right out of seminary, first pastorate, has no clue what he is doing.  He has spent the last year bumbling around town getting himself into trouble and then calling the district office at all times of day and night asking for advice and help.  Seriously, I don’t know what they were thinking hiring him!”

Everybody laughed hysterically but afterward my church’s delegates pulled me aside and said, “That was funny but you are not a lousy pastor and we are really mad you said that.  If you do it next year we will stand up right then and there and let everybody know how full of it you are!”  And though they were being slightly facetious, I still could sense the disappointment behind their voices.

So I try hard not to run myself down, especially when doing so is just a manipulative move to get people to think I am more humble than I really am.

Another dangerous area is using humor as a way of making people like you.  The truth is people enjoy being around funny people and if you make people laugh, they are probably less likely to kill you, or fire you, which would be the same thing.  However, in the pulpit, humor that scores cheap political points is misguided.  Typically these sermons are not technically sermons but stand up routines fit for comedy clubs.  They flit from joke to joke with no real point or direction.  People leave them thinking, “That was funny.  We sure like Pastor,” but their lives are not helped or changed for the better and the only reason the pastor was funny was to keep people from firing him or to give the church more money.

A third area of danger is forcing Scripture to be funny when it just isn’t.  I addressed this in part yesterday but usually these sermons rely on heavy embellishments from the biblical text in a way that violates the historical reality and the actual meaning.  They aim to make the text funnier than it is and in so doing create huge exegetical problems.

With those three danger zones in mind, there are a few incredibly useful ways to use humor in sermons.

The first is to point to the absurdity lying beneath our lives.  A common sermon structure (and one I fall back on a lot) is to describe a problem in the world, describe the problem in the Biblical text, tell the solution in the text and use that to form a solution to the problem in the world.  Humor is a great way to begin these sermons because nothing like humor helps us come to grips with the absurdity of our lives.

For example, last Sunday I preached about joy in light of the third advent candle.  I began the sermon by pointing out that I love joy because it is the only virtue you get to say you have.  But after laughing about how humble people can’t say they are humble and loving people can’t claim to be loving, I turned the joke on its head and said, “But here is the thing:  I don’t think we should let people get away with claiming they are joyful when they are not.”  It worked quite well both for capturing attention and helping people come to grips with the despair hiding beneath their fake smiles.

Another way to use humor is to highlight the awkwardness in confronting a Biblical passage that is hard to connect with.   This is not an attempt to make a Bible passage funny that isn’t.  Instead it is pointing out, in a humorous way, how detached we are from the original audience of the text.  It is laughing at the absurdity of trying to honestly read a passage written 2,000 years ago in a language we don’t understand and that nobody speaks any more.

One of my funnier moments happened awhile back when I described in short detail one of Paul’s more lengthy and complex arguments.  At the end of my description I said, “It all gets quite complicated if you ask me but the conclusion he arrives at is.  .  .”  The congregation burst into laughter because I acknowledged what they were thinking and let them know I was thinking it too.  We are far removed from this type of thinking and logic.

A third way to use humor is to move beyond jokes to actions and pictures.  Humorous pictures of the text on a screen really help people relate to the story.  The Brick Testament is a great site that recreates Biblical stories using Lego’s.  Sometimes having those funny pictures behind me while I seriously address the text helps people laugh at and understand some of the weirdness in the Bible stories.

Other times I use hand motions or even invite others up to the stage to help me address the text in a humorous way.  It lightens the mood and helps people connect and relate.  An added bonus is that those invited to help won’t soon forget the Bible story.

Regardless of how you use humor in your sermons, I would invite all my preaching peers to continue to experiment with it.  I hope this post (and all my posts) are not the last word on the issue but just helpful notes that guide conversation.

I hope to write soon about humor in pastoral counseling.  Until then a farmer and a welder walk into a bar.  .  .or a church.  .  .

Pulling the Bitter Weeds: Anger Addictions Pt. 3

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Monday and Tuesday I wrote about anger in the lives of Christians, particularly among clergy.  I mentioned that I have found the temptation towards anger has worked in me much the same way the temptation for sexual immorality seems to work in others.  In fact if I read books like C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” or “Every Man’s Battle” and substitute “sex” for “anger,” I relate a lot more.

Yet nobody seems to be talking about anger or the addictions that can form around our wrath.  More than that we seem to reward anger, with the stipulation that the anger is directed towards that which our anger is directed.

Today I want to begin a conversation towards a solution to the prevalent anger addictions.  As with all my posts, I do not presume to have the final word but just hope to kick off a conversation.

I also do not endeavor to begin a new area where we can be overly suspicious of each other.  One of the worst things that has happened in our struggle against sex addiction is that now every adult male who is younger than 40 is automatically suspected of being a pervert.  I do not want to add to that absurdity by now claiming every adult male over 40 is now angry and bitter.

With that qualification I do think we need to be better at identifying and helping those who are struggling with anger.  Here are a few areas where such intervention might work the best.

1) Pastors Retreats and Conferences:  Over the last few decades retreats and conferences for clergy have become a multi-million dollar market.  As a pastor I get invited once a month to someone’s next great conference.  While these conferences and retreats tend to be ridiculously expensive (which leads to the exclusion of pastors of smaller churches), they are still a valuable venue for discussing vital aspects of ministry.  Therefore I think these conferences should provide space in their plenaries and workshops for talking about anger.

2) The Ordination Process:  I just now counted how many times I was asked about sex during my nine year process of ordination.  I am sure I missed several instances that are buried in my subconscious but I can still count 30 particular instances where a governing board asked me about how I control my “hormones.”  I cannot remember once being asked about anger.  I was asked a few times about how I resolve conflict but never once about anger itself.  Seminary classes, ordination interviews, interviews with D.S.’s and the like are all great places to discuss anger and its harm and it should be a topic of scrutiny in the ordination process.

3) District Superintendent Oversight and Mentors:  When a Pastor is caught in a sexual sin the district is usually the first call, as it well should be.  In those situations the D.S. is meeting with the pastor the very next day, if not by nightfall.  A D.S. should take reports of hostile rage just as seriously.  The goal of the reaction shouldn’t necessarily be immediate removal but the D.S. should intervene quickly and provide the necessary support and remediation so that one outburst does not become a habit or one bitter and angry sermon doesn’t bring down the whole church.

With that said, I do not seek to add more work to our all ready overworked church leaders which is why every pastor should have a mentor.  There should be some form of direct oversight of the clergy from outside the congregation for issues like these.  I have personally benefited from a few mentors as I have battled with the demons of anger, hostility, rage and bitterness.  Those mentors have been invaluable, not just to me but also to my D.S. who doesn’t need me calling him every week.

I want to close this series by giving the same encouragement I was often given about sexual temptation:  If you find the seeds of anger sprouting in your soul, please seek help before the weeds overcome your Spirit and destroy the harvest of righteousness in your local congregation.

Be kind and compassionate and patient, bearing with one another in love.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Tale of 2 Cancers

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This is a post in the ongoing series “What’s Pastor Kevin Reading” where I briefly summarize recent books I have read and explain why they are important for Christians (particularly pastors) to read.

I make it a practice to read one book a week.  And while I often fall into the trap of reading 150-200 page tomes on pastoral self help I have tried recently to branch out into popular novels and heftier theological and academic materials.

Over the last two weeks I have read two stories about cancer.  The two have much in common but they come from entirely different perspectives.  The first was John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.”  It is fiction (though I use that word hesitantly) and written from a secular, atheistic perspective.  The second was a memoir called “Same Kind of Different As Me” written by Ron Hall and Denver Moore.  It was non fiction and deeply spiritual, bordering on bizarre.

It was not my intention to read 2 books about cancer back to back.  I ran across “The Fault in Our Stars” in a bookstore and flew through it in a day.  A friend of mine recommended I read “Same Kind of Different As Me” the following week.  He was the kind of friend that you feel obligated to read books he recommends so I downloaded it and read it in a week.

John Green’s book is every bit deserving of the hype it has received.  I personally think it is the best thing to happen to Young Adult fiction in years.  Instead of specializing in the stuff of vampires and wizards and dystopian heroins, Joel grounds his narrative in the very real world where death comes without prejudice and there is no victory against it, just the frustrating endurance in suffering by all involved.

As I read the novel a line from another popular TV show echoed in my mind.  In that TV show a decidedly anti-religious person argues to a Fundamentalist Christian, “I will never believe that God gives us cancer to teach us self help lessons.”  That may as well have been the thesis for Green’s novel.  And I could not agree more.

The push in Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity, has been to treat death as something painless and shallow.  A glance at my Facebook wall testifies to a sub culture that believes death can be easy dismissed by pithy cliches and shallow puns.  If you slap a picture of a cat or a flower on them it makes it all the more disgusting.  Green dismisses all of these cliches with his haunting descriptions of two teenagers aging rapidly and dying before their time.

In doing so Green calls Christianity back to our biblical roots where death is not a tool of God, teaching us self help lessons.  Neither is it a nuisance that can be easily ignored.  Death is the enemy.  It is an enemy so severe, destructive and all encompassing that it would only take the death of God on a cross to overcome it.  When we belittle death, we belittle the cross.

Green does not end at the cross but where he left off Ron Hall and Denver Moore picked me up.  I did not realize that “Same Kind of Different As Me” was about cancer until I had read half the book.  I thought it was about a white, upper class, art collector befriending a black, homeless, plantation worker.  But right at the halfway point the art collector’s wife was diagnosed with cancer.  So  I was once again subjected to the raw details of cancer, slow killing the body and the soul.  And I had just stopped crying over “Fault in Our Stars!”

Ron Hall is an evangelical Christian so I was worried that he would fall into the trap of narrating his wife’s death using those pithy cliches we slap over pictures of flowers.  However, he avoided them, choosing to be as honest as could be about how the cancer process exhausted him to the point of depression.

Interestingly the answer to his depression came not in the form of those lousy sentimentalism’s but in the friendship of Denver Moore, the homeless, drug addict.  Their friendship was a true representation of Christlike love.  As they worked together to both build a new homeless mission and create a garden space around Ron’s wife’s tomb, the two men gradually realized the conquering power of the cross.  They chose not to give each other easy advice but endured the suffering together, often times in silence.  It was only through that bond that they were able to continue with some semblance of faith and hope.

It would seem that the answer to death’s destructive ways are found in the cross and the community of true friendship that the cross creates.

Next I am reading a book titled, “Reading for Preaching” which exhorts all of us preachers to read and read often.  I barely need to finish that book because these last two books have convinced me that I must dig deep in the narratives surrounding us, both secular and religious to find the voice of God at work.