Crazy, Stupid, Furious Longing Love: A Sermon on Song of Songs

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Usually I try to rerecord my sermons and post them on Youtube.  However, that is time consuming and I feel most people are adverse to hearing a sermon, preferring rather to skim manuscripts.

So, for the first time ever, I am posting the full manuscript of my sermon that I preached this morning.  I apologize for its length while hoping you still take the time to peruse my thoughts on the Song of Songs as it relates to our relationship with the Almighty.

As Brennan Manning reminded us, “We are God’s beloved and he furiously longs for us!”

Introduction

This past week I discovered a picture of my wife and I.  It was taken 8 years ago, when we were in college.  It got me reminiscing about college days.  Nothing good comes from that.  .  .except good sermon intros.

One of the most fun things about college was that you often had a front seat to people falling in love.  People fell into and out of love like you all change your shoes.  It was quite the chore to keep up with who was dating whom and who was breaking up with whom and why.  At times I daydreamed about creating a college newsletter dedicated only to chronicling the get-togethers and breakups.  Then Facebook was invented which negated the need for that.

Mostly what stuck out this week is a sentiment shared by our chaplain Gene Schandorff.  Quite often Gene had a committee, usually of girls, come into his office.  With tears in their eyes they sat down and explained to him that they were worried about another friend, we will call her Rebekah for coherency’s sake.

“Gene, we are so worried about Rebekah.  She started dating Tim three months ago.  They were really good friends and we loved both of them and thought they were good together.  Now they are dating and they do everything together and Rebekah doesn’t want to hang out with us anymore and we don’t think she is doing her homework or even *gasp* calling her parents!”

Gene would ask, “how do you know her grades are failing and her parents are not in touch.”  And they would not know how they knew.  They just knew!  Ultimately, they were frustrated because Rebekah (and probably Tim) had turned into a different person and the new Rebekah did not hang out with them as much as the old one did.  So their thinking went, “We are delightful and we don’t know why she would not want to hang out with us so it must be a moral failure on her part.”

Their list of complaints went on, “They spend every waking moment together and we think they cuddle too much.  You know what the Bible says about cuddling.  It can lead to dancing and Nazarenes don’t dance.  So we need you, Gene, to sit down and talk to Rebekah and Tim and tell them that they need to start doing their homework again and stop hanging out with each other and hang out with us and maybe call their parents.  You need to do this for their own sake and for God’s sake.”

I love how Gene handled these situations.  He explained to them what love is.  When you love someone oftentimes everything else becomes secondary.  When you love someone you want to be together with them at the expense of other areas.  When you love someone you change.  They change.  That change is half for the better and half for the worse but it happens.  When you love someone you search for them above all things.  Love changes everything but it is not to be badmouthed.  It is to be celebrated because Rebekah and Tim have found each other.

In Scripture we learn that the church is God’s bride.  We are God’s beloved.  We are the object of God’s affections.  God is not so unlike Rebekah and Tim.  To other religions and other people our God might seem crazy because God wants to spend all God’s time with us.  God seeks us out with a desperate longing.  God is willing to sacrifice God’s very self in order to be with us.  God is desperate for us to love God back.

The prophet Hosea talks about this a little bit.  The Apostle Paul talks about this in Ephesians and other places.  Jesus talks about this in some of the parables and stories he tells.  The Psalms bring it up quite a few times.  The prophets do here and there.

However nowhere is this loving God more present than in the most awkward book of the Scriptures, the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon.  I don’t know when the last time you read it was.  The book does not come up in polite Christian conversation all that often.  In fact quite a few theologians throughout history have dismissed it.  They have said things like, “it is in the Holy Book and therefore it is God inspired but that doesn’t mean we have to read it” and they have encouraged others to avoid it.

The main reason for that is because it doesn’t mention God at all.  More than that, it doesn’t refer to big theological words or concepts we come to expect from other parts of Scripture.  It doesn’t talk about faithfulness, the law, sin, holiness, judgment, wrath.  It doesn’t talk about good versus evil at all.  It doesn’t even tell a fun story about God saving people and doing miracles and killing giants.

Instead it is 8 chapters of mushy lovey-dovey stuff.  In fact the only high theology word that appears in the book is “love.”  Before it teaches us about God and holiness and sin and judgment and grace it illustrates love to us.

For that reason several popular Christian thinkers have rediscovered this amazing poem over the last 50 or so years.  Books have been written about it and sermons have been preached and Bible studies have tried to cover it.  Perhaps the reason for this is because we are aware that we are desperately in need of love.  At the same time we are a people who have profoundly misunderstood love.  We have sought to boil love down to things like emotions and physical displays of affection and even rational understanding.  But Song of Songs, in all its complexity, reveals to us a love that is so much greater than how you feel or act or think.

Summary of Song of Songs

The story itself is about two passionate teenagers who are in love with each other but for some reason they can’t find each other.  The story begins with both lovers taking turns singing about how in love they are.  The woman goes first and she begins by talking about how unworthy she is to be loved by the man.  She is a member of the working class and her tanned skin shows it and this makes her unworthy.  Yet she ends her first song by saying, “But tell me where you work and I will come work with and for you.”

The friends watch this whole romance from the sidelines and their first reply to her is, “Follow the path of his sheep.”  That means, “Go find him.”  If you desperately long for him, go seek him out.

Then, probably while she is looking for him, they sing out to each other and their words are ooey-gooey sound effect expressions.

In fact quite a few of the words in the poem are not really words that mean anything.  They are onomatopoeia’s which are sound effect words.  They sound like what they describe.  However, these are not the fun 1960’s Batman sound effects, “Boom, bang, pow, bing.”  They are more like the 1950s Cary Grant movie sound effects, “oooh, mwamwamwa, ohoh” and the like.

Finally, in chapter 2 verse 8 she says, “Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills!  My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag.  Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.  My lover spoke and said to me, arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.  Flowers appear on the earth;  the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.”

They are together again and it is so wonderful, just like Spring!

If you grew up watching 1990s romantic comedies you would expect the story to end right there.  They found each other.  They are in love.  It is happily ever after.  Those movies never showed you a month later when they fight about how to fold towels and do dishes and what movie to watch!  Instead the movie ends when they find each other.

Perhaps because we learned too much from those movies, in the Church of the Nazarene we have been guilty of trying to pause our relationship with God at the mountaintop.  We take our teens up to summer camp and give them emotional high after emotional high and then lead them to believe that if they are ever not giddy for Jesus they are a letdown to the faith.  If we ever stop singing, “Look Spring has come!” or if we dare to sing it with less emotion, than our faith is useless or so we have thought.

But Song of Songs does not end at chapter 2.  Suddenly in chapter 3 verse 1 the woman says,

“All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him.”

We are not told why he left or where he went but sadness overtakes the story for a few verses as she goes looking for him.  This time she finds him quite quickly and we have more ooey goey stuff as they both invite each other to “come into their gardens.”  The friends are still on the sidelines saying “oh, how cute.  They are in love.  Eat and drink and have your fill.”

Then suddenly in chapter 5 they are apart again and this time it is not easy to find each other.  In fact at one point the woman sings about the man showing up at her garden door.  She sees him through the window and she hears the door handle rattle.  Her heart goes all aflutter and she rushes to the door and throws it open to find he is not there.

She goes out looking for him but she does not find him.  Instead she finds the night watchmen, or rather they find her.  These watchmen are not nice men and in the absence of her beloved they take advantage of her.  They beat and bruise and de-robe her.

At this point the friends who have been supportive so far, begin taunting her.  In 5:8 she says to them, “If you find him tell him I am faint with love.”

They reply, “How is he better than others?  What does he have that you would charge us so?”

She defends him, “My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.  His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven.

She goes on for awhile and manages to recruit them to the search.  It is not long until they find him.  He is in his garden.  She rushes into it and they are together again.  Again the friends coo from the sidelines and song ends with the lover saying, “Come away.”

The Church’s Search for God

This poem about these two star crossed lovers who search for each other, find each other, lose each other, search again, find again, lose again, search again, find again is our love story with God.

The Jewish people sing this to each other on the last day of Passover.  After a weeklong party, as they prepare to leave Jerusalem and go back to their regular lives, they sing this to remind themselves that God is always searching for them and to encourage each other to always search for God.

They know what we know.  It is easy to love God on the mountaintop while we have our festival.  But the mountaintop experiences of lovey dovey, eewy gooey sound effects are not the whole of our story.

There are also valleys.  They are times when we wake up and don’t “feel” God.  There are days we go through the humdrum of life without any spirituality or “God moments.”

There are also days when our love for God puts us in horrible danger.  I think of the Christians who are executed for claiming Christ and who are driven out of their homes and rejected by their neighbors.  Love is dangerous.

When Gene Shandorff sat down with the committee of friends who were worried about Tim and Rebekah, Gene knew what all married people know.  If Tim and Rebekah made it and were married, there would come a time when their love got dark, much darker than a missed homework assignment.  There would be a time when they would wake up next to each other and feel nothing.  There were would be a time when the disagreements were fierce and bitter.  They would storm out of the room thinking, “I don’t know why I married him” and “I don’t know how I will stay married to her.”

Of course there would also be times when they would be madly in love and other times when they would “need some space.”

So Gene’s opinion was let Tim and Rebekah have the eewy gooey, giddy time because, as everybody who is in love knows, the light of love requires the darkness of love.

Everybody who is married can say “amen.”  The giddiness and the happiness and the lovey dovey comes and goes and you can’t always predict its comings and goings.

When Allie and I were in our Rebekah and Tim stage we were desperately in love.  We went to register for wedding gifts at Macy’s.  We stood before this giant and long wall of China plates, over 100 patterns.  We both stared at it without saying anything.  I saw one I liked and thought, “I like that one but we will see what she says.”  Then she pointed to that exact pattern and said, “I like that one.”  That was a sign.  It meant our love was true.  We were meant to be together.  All heaven and earth and china plates had revolved into our love affair.  Eeverything was so perfect and so wonderful.  We just knew we were meant to be.

Well, we’ve been married 6 and a half years now and we have 2 kids so I guarantee you if we were looking at the same wall of China patterns we would pick the exact opposites just to spite each other.  That does not mean that we are not in love any more.  It just means that love consists of more than liking the same China pattern.  In turn our love for God is way more than eewy gooey lovey dovey worship songs at mountain retreat centers.

There are moments of light and moments of Spring and moments of giddy love.  There are mountaintops where we sing giddy praise songs and yell “amens” and cry at the altar of our joy.  But there are also times of darkness and clouds and there is the every day journey with God that requires no emotion, just a consistent and faithful search for the presence of the one who loves us.

Gregory of Nyssa in reflecting in his own walk with God came across a story about Moses in Exodus.  In the story the people have been saved from Egypt.  They have crossed the Red sea and arrived at God’s mountain.  Suddenly a pitch black cloud covers that mountain and Moses is called to climb up into it to meet with God.  Gregory of Nyssa concluded that “those who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.”

It is when our story gets dark and our friends desert us and the watchmen on the walls find us and beat and bruise us, that God just might be right around the corner.

Our tradition has great problems with this type of thinking.  We like our faith giddy.  The more emotional you can be about Jesus, the more you love Jesus.  By emotional we mean energetic and we have typically had a low tolerance for low energy faith.  Actually we have really been mean to introverts, who express little energy.

Therefore pastor’s offices flood with people.  They come in and say, “Pastor I just don’t feel like I love God any more.  Is there any book I read, any song I can listen too, any prayer I can pray, bible study I can attend, Bible verse I can memorize that will bring the ooey-gooey spirituality back.

My answer to them is not a magical formula or verse or book to make them feel giddy.  Instead I remind them of what Song of Songs shows us about love.

When we are in love with God sometimes it is like Spring.  But sometimes love requires work.  It requires us to get out of our bed, open the door and venture out to search for God.

There are also are times to hunker down in darkness and claim the logic of love, a logic that says, “I committed to this person, or to this God and though I don’t feel anything or though I feel angry and bitter, I will remain committed because that is what love does!”

There are also times when love is dangerous, when our search for the loved one costs us our health and safety.

We should not expect to constantly feel a high energy devotion to God.  Instead we should remain committed to the search for God, knowing it might cost us dearly but also knowing that when we do come to that garden with God, the good giddy emotions will return and we will be able to do life again in the joy of our faith.

God’s Search for the Church

I should probably close now but it would be wrong because there is another way to read Song of Songs.  The interpretation I just gave put us in the position of the woman and God in the position of the ruddy and handsome man.  However, the song leaves it open and God could very well be the woman who is searching for us the man who can’t stay faithful or stay put.

In this reading, the friends would be the heavenly beings who would look at God and say, “Why are you still waiting for them?  Why do you still love?  They have slapped you in the face!  They have abandoned you!  They say they love you and then they pledge their allegiances to other nations and kings and TV shows and sports teams!  How are those humans, your beloved, better than others?  Why would you even search for those lousy sinners and horrible wanderers?  How dare you ask us to join you!”

God’s answer to them is in the New Testament.  It is the image we have of Jesus who is not unlike the woman in the song.  Jesus takes on flesh and ventures to where we work.  Jesus follows the tracks of our sheep and upon finding us, dwells with us.

However, this search made Jesus vulnerable.  While Jesus is searching for us, the watchmen find him.  They arrest him, beat him, insult him, bruise him and derobe him.

By taking up the cross Jesus reminds us, “My church is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.  Her head is purest gold, her hair is wavy and black as a raven.  Her eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels.”

God is looking for us, suffering for us and God longs for us with a desperate and dangerous longing.  God is paying the price to win us back to the garden because as unfaithful and wandering though we are, God thinks the church is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.

Will you also furiously long for God?

Let’s pray.

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.  .  .

A Hermeneutic of Humor: Laughter’s The Best Word

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Yesterday I wrote about the absurdity hiding beneath the fragile fabric of our lives  I argued that the best way to keep it from overcoming us is to laugh.  Today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about how we read the Scriptures.

Scripture is filled with a different kind of absurdity, a quite Holy type that encourages us to laugh at ourselves as we try to get along with the God who created us.

So over the last year or so I have begun to realize that my own hermeneutical lens lands in the middle of irony, sarcasm and humor.  This does not mean I ignore every passage that does not make me laugh.  It just means I keep my eye open to the unexpected, looking for the hidden humor to show itself.

If I have learned anything from good comedians, it is that the unexpected makes us laugh.  And as Jerry Seinfield taught us, we laugh even harder when the unexpected is hiding behind the everyday events of our lives.  But we miss that humor because we are so accustomed to our lives that we don’t stop to reflect.

In the same way we are so familiar with some narratives and passages of Scripture that we don’t stop to look for what might be hiding in plain sight for us to see.  A Hermeneutic of Humor fights that tendency by keeping one’s eye out for what you do not expect.

For example, I read the Sermon on the Mount for years without realizing that in chapter 7 verse 11 Jesus calls his entire audience “evil.”  I grew up reading that passage but had enver stopped to think about how funny and interesting it is that Jesus just insults his whole audience right there in the middle of the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.

The story of Samson is filled with all kinds of humor and irony that one would not expect.  Nowhere is this more evident than after Samson kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone.  After the slaughter, Samson tells a joke.  The Hebrew is just a bunch of forms of the word donkey.  A literal English translation might be, “With a donkey, I made donkeys out of a donkey full of donkeys.”  However, the real punchline comes right after when suddenly Samson gets all emotional and collapses, begging God to kill him.  From anger to sarcasm to depression.  .  .that is a full day.

In 1st Corinthians 6 Paul is practically screaming at the Corinthians but in chapter 7 verse 1 he suddenly stops and says, “Now for the matters you asked about.”  The transition is so awkward it makes you laugh awkwardly.

The Prophet Daniel compares Babylon to a prostitute.  Most people are so accustomed to this that they miss the force of the metaphor.  The Babylonians were doing all kinds of nice things for the Jewish captives but their military was out torturing people and sacking cities and raping women.  So the force of the prostitute metaphor is that Babylon looks pretty and inviting on the street corner but I wouldn’t go taking her home or throwing good money and hormones after her.

In case you still are not sold read the Psalms and consider they sang these songs together in worship.  Some Psalms have lines like, “Appoint an evil man to replace him!” and “It is like precious oil running down Aaron’s Beard.”  Now that is quite mental image!

All of this is missed when we read Scripture in the comfort of our low expectations.  In contrast, a Hermeneutic of Humor keeps us on our toes.  It forces us to roll our eyes at Samson, laugh at Babylon and gasp in shock at Jesus.   It makes us rather uncomfortable around Paul and questions the Psalms we sing.   Most importantly, it keeps us from getting comfortable in our own jagged relationships with the Almighty.

But, like yesterday, I must offer a word of warning.  Not all of Scripture is ironic, sarcastic or humorous.  Some of it is quite sobering and when we read with an eye to the unexpected sometimes we are surprised not by humor, but by sorrow and anger and frustration.  When we open ourselves up to laughter, we might also open ourselves up to being offended or angered.

Still, there is much humor lying behind our relationships with the Almighty and sometimes I wonder if Scripture isn’t a testimony to the fact that God spends most of the time laughing at us and with us.

Humor in the Pulpit: Laughter’s the Best Weapon

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It will come as no surprise to many of you (especially those who have read my last few posts) that I rather enjoy good humor.  I enjoy writing it, watching it and reading it.  This is why Jon Acuff’s book, which I reviewed earlier, has stuck with me more than any book I have read in the last year.

It is also why a month later I am still laughing at how much effort it took to convince myself to run 10 extra minutes on a treadmill, only to get back on and immediately abort because my son woke up from a nap.  And I am still laughing at the absurdity of naming your hymnal “Hymns for the Living Church” as if there could ever be a hymn for a dead church.

I am laughing at these things because humor is the most valuable tool for surviving this world.  Underneath the fragile fabric of our everyday lives there is a deep absurdity threatening to rise up and overwhelm us and if we don’t laugh it, it will probably win.

For example, we park on driveways and drive on parkways.

We now watch reality TV shows centered around fishing.

Even more humorous is that those “reality” shows are scripted with lines the fishermen have to say upon catching a fish.

Our Country Time Lemonade has no lemons in it.  Our furniture polish does.

Speaking of which, our Green Tea is not made with tea leaves, but with chemically flavored corn syrup.  This means we are artificially making the most unhealthy substance taste like the most disgusting beverage.  I would rather drink soda pop.  At least it tastes good.

However, the “Diet Green Tea” is made from real tea leaves.  Someone explain that to me.

In the USA we have one political party that claims to love small government, but is crusading to make everything illegal.  The other party campaigns on the effectiveness of big government but wants to legalize everything.

In addition the divorced people are the angriest at the homosexuals for “ruining marriage.”

Our Christmas presents are the best thing that ever happened to us until January 10th, when we can’t remember what it was we got for Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas presents, there is a whole realm of silliness that happens there.  I have a friend whose grandparents went to the mall every year.  They split up and each bought themselves a present for Christmas.  Then they met back at the car, exchanged bags, went home and gift wrapped the other’s presents.  Then on Christmas morning they went out of their way to act surprised when they got “exactly what I wanted!”

We have nondenominational churches who claim to be about transcending the disunity of denominations.  Then these churches name themselves, “Real Life” in a way of giving the middle finger to all those “Dead Life Denominational” Churches out there.

In addition, the most religious people claim to “spiritual, not religious” so that people will like them.

At times I want to scream at it all.  Other times I want to cry tears of overwhelming desperation.  Other times I go to write incredibly cruel blog posts that will certainly be the final word on the topic.  Then I remember that writing a blog post to end the absurdity in the world is a lot like buying a wild bear to protect me from wild bears.

In the end, I have found that the most effective way to conquer the absurdity is to laugh at it.  In such thinking, there is a lot of truth behind the saying, “I laugh so I will not cry.”

Speaking of “laughing so as to avoid crying,” I was working at a Rescue Mission a few years back.  One night, one of our regulars found several large cases of alcohol in an alleyway behind a nightclub.  He quickly piled them into his van and drove over to our street where he passed them out to the clients who had not come in for the night.  Then he left, leaving the alcohol in the hands of a trusted friend.  After getting a little tipsy, the trusted friend drunkenly bumped into the stacked crates and knocked the whole thing over, causing our street to become a land flowing with beer and wine.  Not one minute later, the client who had found the free alcohol showed back up and was furious that they had spilled “his liquor.”

The story ended with them throwing empty bottles at each other and us calling the police.

This story is sad and deeply troubling.  Yet it also crazy funny.  It reads like an episode of a sitcom with all kinds of punchlines and irony.  I remember shrugging my shoulders and laughing at the whole event because it was the only weapon I had against the heartbreaking absurdity of drunks destroying themselves and others and stealing that which was not theirs.

In such a way when we talk about struggling against the powers and forces of this present world, laughter becomes an invaluable weapon.  I have found the right amount of humor at the right time can disarm even the most defended strongholds of sin.

Yet I must give a warning that the wrong humor at the wrong time directed at the wrong people can only increase the defensiveness of those we are trying to reach.  After, all at the heart of humor is the risk that others won’t find the joke funny but offensive.

There is certainly a tightrope to walk here but it is one that must be braved.  This week I will describe the ways I have used humor to minister to the hurt and broken.  I will cover the bases of ministry, from reading Scripture, to preaching to meetings to counseling.  In each of these areas there is a deep absurdity threatening to swallow our churches whole.  But there are also valuable opportunities to lighten people’s loads.

Until then if the absurdity to the Holiday season is overwhelming you, I recommend watching “Christmas Family Vacation,” “Home Alone,” “The Grinch” and “Muppet’s Christmas Carol.”  Each of those movies comes at Christmas from incredibly unique perspectives.  They laugh at everything from family dysfunction to Holiday killjoys to crazy light displays to Dicken’s overly dramatic prose.

So enjoy them and see you tomorrow!

U

A Sermon Somewhere: Treadmills, Super Heroes and Baby Monitors

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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.

Last Spring my church had a yard sale.  Someone donated an old, narrow, beat up treadmill from the ’70s.  It shakes when you run on it.  It’s top speed is only 8 miles per hour.  The incline is controlled by a crank and the display is battery operated.  Surprisingly, nobody bought it.  So it is now in my garage.

The worst thing about running on a treadmills is that you can never forget that you are running on a treadmill.  For the 1 minute or 5 or 30 or 60 minutes, you are constantly aware that you are running on a treadmill.

So I hate treadmills, but I hate feeling out of shape more.  And with two toddlers, an inch of ice on the ground and a town without sidewalks, running outside is out of the question, even with our $300 jogging stroller.  So lately I have been reluctantly facing the wicked treadmill on the afternoons when I get my kids to nap at the same time.

It isn’t really so bad, as long as I commit to running only thirty minutes.  I take the baby monitor with me so I can hear if one of the kids wake up.  I didn’t replace the batteries in the treadmill display so there is no read out to taunt me with how long I haven’t been running.  I also don’t start a stopwatch.  Instead I set a timer for ten minutes and thirty seconds.  Then I hide the timer.

After it goes off the first time, I tell myself “awesome, it has been ten minutes all ready!”  The statement is incredibly untrue as the ten minutes have been neither “awesome” nor “all ready.”  Still I lie to myself in the hopes that saying it makes it true.  It hasn’t worked yet.

On the second beep I take a short break.  I drink some water, check on the kids and with great mental fortitude, start running again.  Meanwhile I watch CW’s “Arrow” on my tablet and try to get intrigued by the plot.

It is remarkable that 42 minutes of television is no time at all when I sit on the couch.  But when I run on a treadmill, every scene break feels like the show should be over all ready and, in turn, my run.  For the record, on “Arrow,” scene breaks happen every thirty seconds.

On Monday I was running on the treadmill and hating every second, every scene break and every timer beep.  I had decided before the run began that I was going to go 4 timer beeps that day, which would give me a time of 42 minutes, which is how long Arrow lasts.

My internet was running slow and after every thirty seconds of Arrow, the show buffered for an indeterminate amount of time.  I grew to appreciate the buffering because it broke up the time.  I picked up halfway through an episode I hadn’t finished yet.  So after 20 minutes, only 5-10 minutes had passed on the show.

I ran the third ten minute increment by watching the climax ten seconds at a time.  This climax was like all the other.  The Green Arrow was in a warehouse, getting his butt kicked by a villain.  In this episode, the villain was a super powered soldier.

The show would buffer, then the soldier would kick Arrow.  It would buffer again and return to the Arrow being thrown into a bunch of crates.  For the record, those crates and that warehouse appear in every Arrow fight scene, just like the nightclub from “Alias.”

The show would buffer again and when it came back, Arrow would be punched in the face.  It would buffer for two minutes and Arrow would dodge a left hook only to be hit by a right jab.  It would buffer.

My timer went off for the third time and I was done with the whole thing.  Thirty minutes was it for the day.  I was breathing heavy.  My hands were cold but my chest was warm.  Sweat was pouring off of me into my eyes.  And I was sick and tired of running on a treadmill while watching the black screen say, “Buffering” in that Netflix font.

I turned the treadmill off and stepped away.  I took some deep breaths and glared at my own super powered nemesis, the treadmill.  I felt guilty and wimpy for chickening out 10 and a half minutes early but there was no part of me that wanted to run again.

Arrow was still buffering.

I leaned down to touch my toes and as I did the show came back on.  Arrow was lying on the ground, giving up his battle with the soldier who was about to deal the finishing blow.  As the bad guy’s foot came down in slow motion, a hallucination beckoned Arrow to get up and try again.

Triumphant music filled my garage.  Arrow rolled out from under the villain’s foot.  The foot landed on the hard concrete and Arrow jumped to his feet.  His face tightened in fierce resolve.  The orchestra music played faster and louder.  The bad guy lunged and Arrow dodged.

Suddenly it occurred to me.  If Arrow, a completely fictional character following all the stereotypes of his genre, could fight off the doubt and pain to find the resolve to roll to his feet and conquer the super soldier, then certainly I, standing in the middle of my cold garage with a racing heart and an overtaxed mind, could step back on that treadmill, crank the speed lever to full and run 10 and a half more minutes.

My shoulders rose.  My face tightened to match the Arrow’s resolve.  I shook my fist at the treadmill.  I grabbed my timer and reset it to 10:30.  I stepped onto the treadmill and turned it on.  I started the timer and hid it.  As the treadmill picked up speed, my strides grew longer and my arms swung with confidence.

10 seconds later, as Arrow began pummeling the bad guy, the triumphant music stopped.  The screen went blank and was replaced with the “Buffering” sign.

I tried not to care and ran for 10 more seconds until the baby monitor filled the garage with the hungry screams of my recently woken son.

That was that.  I turned the treadmill off and went to get him before he woke his sister up.

And I don’t know where but there has to be a sermon in there somewhere.

Frustrations of a 30YR Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay At Home/Work Dad

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This is part 2 of a post about being a bivocational pastor in a small rural town.  To catch part one click here.

Right at the end of the Track season a lady in our church had her leg amputated at a hospital 2 hours away.  It would have been a 6 hour round trip to get to her and the family was adamant I be there.  Every fiber in my being wanted to go.  However, I couldn’t find 6 hours of free time.  It killed me.  I felt horrible.  In the end some dear saints from our church made the drive to be with her and all was well.  But this story perfectly sums up the frustrations and challenges of my current life.

Most pastors struggle with feelings of inadequacy but us bi-vocational pastors feel super inadequate.  There are frustrations and limitations all around and jobs left half done.  But as I have sought to be as faithful as possible to my calling, I have found each frustration is also an opportunity.  That is the case in the following 5 areas.

Frustration 1: The absolute absence of an 8-5 workday.  Most pastors didn’t do 8-5 when the professional clergy model was popular but there were days when they could pull it off.  There are never days that I could do it.  Track practice starts at 3 everyday.  Fridays are reserved for Track Meets.  The church regularly schedules events on Saturdays and Sundays are, well, Sundays.  During the afternoons my kids need naps and I badly need them to take those naps so I have to be at home for 2 hours while they sleep.  Weeknights are filled with events at the school, in the community or meetings at the church.  I desperately want an 8-5 workday.  I would love it but it is impossible.

The Opportunity: The absence of a “workday” or “workweek” has forced me to rethink a clergy’s job description.  I think one of the weaknesses of the professional clergy model was that it segmented the vocation of the clergy into work time and off time.  I still guard my Sabbath days and I take vacations but they are not “off the clock” times.  The Sabbath days and vacations are every bit a part of my job description as is preaching on Sunday morning.  I am still every bit as much a pastor when I am home reading a book or while I am coaching Cross Country or attending a city council meeting.

Put more practically, the absence of a “workday” means I spend less time worrying about how many hours I “ministered” and focus more on making every moment count for my calling.  The upside of this is I don’t feel guilty (or I shouldn’t) when I don’t “work” 40 hours in one week.  The downside is that I have to think about how I spend even my free time and I definitely have to constantly be asking myself how I am fulfilling my calling at any given moment.

Frustration 2: Pastoral calling suffers.  I think pastoral calling is important but I can’t find time to do it. especially when I am coaching and definitely now that I have 2 kids.  Carting one kid around is difficult enough but taking 2 is near impossible.  My daughter goes to daycare at least once a week and I try to cram as many homes in as possible during that day but more often than not something else comes up and I have to put that person’s house on the list for next week.

The Opportunity:  I think as creatively as possible when it comes to connecting with people.  I send emails, write cards, make phone calls and attend evening community events that I know church people are going too.  I have had meetings in my living room while the kids were sleeping.  And I keep regular office hours every morning so my kids can play in the next room or on the floor of my office while I meet with people.  And usually when someone is the hospital I can find a way to get there if I work hard enough at it.

Frustration #3:  I have no real social life.  Let’s face it, there are not many social events in a small town for a young person.  Everything closes by 8pm and the nearest movie theater, Starbucks and upscale restaurants are a half hour away.  Also, having a master’s degree makes me different from most people my age in town.  In fact my closest friend is 60 miles away and the next ones after that are 170 miles away.

Opportunity:  I am not sure if there is an opportunity here other than taking advantage of clergy conferences, making the 60 mile drive to see my friend at least once a month (some months he comes here) and using Facebook, Twitter, email etc. to stay in touch with as many friends as possible.  I also invite friends to come visit me in my town but few take me up on that offer.

Frustration #4: Student loans.  You read it right yesterday, I pay $500/mo in student loans.  Yes that is overpaying by a few hundred dollars but that over-payment is so worth it, it is almost necessary.

Opportunity: Live by faith and hope.  The reality is I am lucky to be able to overpay them and though I hate sending that money off, I do it knowing that the debt was worthwhile because without it, I wouldn’t have the life I have.  My education was invaluable and it has helped me more than I ever could have known.  Still, I hate those dumb payments.

Frustration #5: Exhausted Sunday mornings.  I know every pastor deals with those Sundays out of the year where they have zero energy but I have more of them.  They increase during the sports’ seasons where many meets happen on Saturdays.  The next day it is everything I can do to get out of bed, go to church, smile at people and give an energized sermon.

Opportunity: God is never exhausted.  I am incredibly inadequate and very limited.  But the one who called me is not.  Even on the Sundays when I have no energy, God is still fully present.  Even on those Sundays when the congregation is half asleep and I have a pillow under the pulpit for when that last person nods off, God is still fully active in our lives and in the world.  My low energy Sundays remind me of that truth.

Therefore, I would actually count these frustrations as blessings because they remind me that the fate of the world (and the church) do not rest on my shoulders.  Instead, I am called to be as faithful as I can be with the details of my situation.  I seek to use every moment to plant tiny, little Kingdom seeds, resting in the hope that God will make them grow.  And certainly God has and does and will continue too.

An Evangelistic Confession

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I have a very dear, older saint in my church who continually reminds me that every sermon must present the Romans Road Gospel.  She wants every sermon to end with new Christians confessing, “I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but I confess with my mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead so that I can live eternally in heaven.”  This prayer is sometimes called “The Sinner’s Prayer” and in her thinking, such sermons should always end with an altar call where people pray the prayer in front of the entire congregation.

I politely disagree with her but putting aside my theological convictions I do try to preach a more evangelistic sermon when the biblical text lends itself that direction.

Such is certainly the case with my text for next week, Acts 9, which narrates Saul Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus.  It is a rich text that I have worked with for a few weeks (you can look at my early exegetical notes here) and certainly Saul meeting Jesus should lead to the congregation meeting Jesus.  Furthermore I have several new attendees for whom a “Damascus Road” moment would do a lot of good.

However, my shy congregation does not respond to altar calls, at least in the “going down to the altar” kind of way.  Furthermore, as I read other articles, books and blogs, I sense a growing conclusion that the altar has had its day and is on the way out.  After all the altar call is only 150 years old, which is pretty young when you consider Christianity is 2,000 years old.

So I have had to rethink the response time and do so in light of resurgence of the Lord’s Table, which was the universal Christian response to the sermon until the altar call replaced it in evangelical congregations.

So today as I put the finishing touch on my sermon I rather painfully rejected the typical altar call.  Instead I wrote a congregational call and response to follow the sermon and precede the Eucharist.  The confession is below.  It is intended to encourage the congregation to join Saul on the road to Damascus and to confess their wickedness in the light of God’s new-found grace.  It is also based off of a sermon of John Wesley’s where Wesley states, “For the Christian only 2 truths remain: I am a wretch but Christ has died.”

Feel free to add or subtract or use this in your own evangelistic sermons or private prayer and devotional times.

The regular type is the congregational confession.  The bold is the priest’s blessing.

I am a wretch.  I have sinned against God, my neighbor, myself and creation.

But Christ has died so receive forgiving grace.

I am a wretch.  I am walking death that causes death wherever I go.

But Christ has died so receive life giving grace.

I am a wretch.  I have hurt others and myself and continue to do so.

But Christ has died so receive healing grace.

I am a wretch.  I am helpless to save myself and all my self improvement projects end in disaster.  And all my them-improvement projects destroy the them’s I am trying to improve.

But Christ has died so receive transforming grace.

Church will you rise out of death?

We will.

Church do you receive the resurrecting power of God?

We do.

Do you hear the call of Christ to come and die and find you may truly live?

We come, we die.  Christ give us life.

Amen.