A Preacher’s Commitments Part 4: Keep it Short, Stupid

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When I took my first church my Grandma gave me some great advice.  She said, “The mind will only hold what the seat can withstand, so preach until noon and let those poor souls go eat!”  This is the same Grandmother who prays for an hour everyday, reads Scripture quite religiously, never misses a church function and can recite about 300 Scripture verses off the top of her head.  I love my Grandmother.

So when I started preaching, I followed her advice.  I found that on any given Sunday I did not have that much to say.  I wrote manuscripts that were about 5 pages long and when I recorded my sermons, I found they were almost exactly 22 minutes long.

I am not sure what changed or why but somehow my manuscripts began inching up slowly by slowly so one week I was 5 and a half pages leading to a 25 minute long sermon.  Then there was a 30 minute one here and there and suddenly a 40 minute one.  I don’t know if I thought I had more to say or if I just started being lazy or if I ran out of the time needed to do the difficult task of cutting superfluity out.

When I moved I decided to cut back down to five page manuscripts and 22 minute long sermons.  A lot of it had to do with shorter services.  My prior church had an hour and fifteen minute long services.  My current church’s services last only an hour.  Another reason was that I also decided to spend at least five minutes at the end having the congregation do something creative (see my last post).  But the big reason was that as my sermons increased in length, they decreased in quality.  I was rambling more and telling more stories and scattershotting more metaphors.  So the last few months I have been working hard at focusing on one point and one story or one metaphor.

It might surprise you (or it might not) to know that this one commitment has caused the most painstaking labor of any other preaching practice.  In any given week I have read one book, 2 or 3 news or magazine articles and 4 or 5 blogs.  I have had conversations with 10 people.  I have sat for hours in my office, or my car, or on my bed just thinking.  On top of that, at heart I am a communicator who gets all kind of thrills and chills while sharing data and telling stories.

So when I get up for my 22 minutes of glory every Sunday, it is very easy to stretch that into 25 minutes and then to 30 and then to 40.  Pretty soon we are getting out at 1, long after my poor Grandma’s seat has given out.

So now I time my sermons when I practice them and then I delete, delete, delete.  Often times I feel entirely stuck.  I don’t know what there is possibly left to cut out.  Then I go for a run and suddenly realize the whole 6 pages are superfluous.  Then I delete half of the manuscript and rework the rest.  I practice it again and find that now it is 25 minutes and still too long.  Then I go for another run and come back the next day, deleting more stories and data.

This week I deleted an entire church history out of my sermon.  It is stuff I badly want my congregation to know, but not something they needed to know on Trinity Sunday, except that my understanding of the Trinity is deeply influenced by the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Last week I deleted four or five metaphors after I realized the first one did just fine.  I did the same thing a week before that.  After all, you really just need one good story or one good metaphor to sell an idea.

It is a lot of work, but like the other commitments, this one seems to have helped so far.  The sermons are not just shorter, they are more coherent and easier to follow and my grandma’s back side is always left wanting more, not less.

In closing, a university chaplain friend of mine once told me that the chaplain of another university told every guest preacher that they only had 20 minutes to preach.  This was a university that regularly hosted big names like Shane Claiborne, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Leonard Sweet and others.  Some would protest and say, “But I am fill in the blank!”  And the chaplain would say, “but we are the college.”  The chaplain concluded that the greats of our present time preached the best sermons they had ever preached because they were forced to actually say something and to say it succinctly and intelligently and let the students out after 20 minutes.

I only hope my sermons gain the same reward.

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 3: The Need for a Response

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When I consider the standard evangelical worship service, two things bug me more than anything else.  The first is how they begin.  The second is how they end.

I have lately been captivated by the High Church processionals that begin the worship of our more liturgical siblings.  If you have never been to one, find one tomorrow.  Here is what you might experience.

In the stained glass sanctuaries (many of them designed in the shape of a cross) people are milling about, finding places to sit and connecting with friends and neighbors.  Then the pipe organ plays one definitive note and everybody knows to find their seats, open their hymnals and quiet their hearts.  The organ follows up the first note with the lines from some triumphant hymn.  Then all manner of worship leaders (priests, altar boys and girls, scripture readers, incense bearers, servers and the like) parade in while the congregation sings the glorious hymn.

My services begin with a “hi, how y’all doin?” and that just doesn’t cut it.

So, too, last fall I grew quite discontent with how my services ended.  What usually happened was I preached, then prayed, then gave a benediction.  Some days I forgot the benediction.  On those days the congregation stared at me blankly, waiting for something more that was not there.  So I feebly said, “oh, uh, go in peace.”

I tried to placate my growing frustration by telling my music team that we would always do a closing song.  We sang it between the sermon and the benediction and always tried to choose that song well.  It worked well enough but could only slow the growth of my frustration, not dispense with it entirely.

Because the worship service was never supposed to end with the sermon.  Historically, the sermon was a means to another end, a piece of a growing crescendo that found its fulfillment in the Eucharist.  Thus my sacramental friends would say that the Eucharist should be the congregational response to every sermon and they are right.  I would love to end every service at the table of the Lord.  However, my congregation is not there yet

So when I moved, I realized I would have to double down on my creativity and come up with other unique, symbol based, movement oriented responses to my sermons.

Even if and when we do get to the point where we eat at the Table every Sunday, I think it is still fitting to have some other symbol based, movement oriented response to the sermon because everything I am reading about performance, entertainment, worship and the arts says that we now require all senses to be engaged.  Under this thinking, when we focus so much on the audible, in say a spoken sermon, then we cut out 4/5ths of the worship experience.

With that in mind, my final step in preparing a sermon is to come up with such a response that will allow the congregation to do something to connect with the message.

In a sermon on fear, we sang, “Cast All Your Cares” while the congregation wrote their fears on sticky notes and stuck them to the altars.  (Bonus: I had several things to pray for all week long!)

In a sermon on regret I had the congregation write letters giving their younger selves advice.

In a sermon on God shredding the heavens to be present to us, I had my congregation write down things that were inhibiting their worship of God and then shred those things in shredders lining the altars.

In a sermon about being in the world but not of it, I identified four key tensions and had the congregation divide into four groups where they could pray for wisdom to live into that tension.

Last week in a sermon about loved ones who are living in ignorance of the great treasures God has for us, I had the congregation light candles as they prayed for those loved ones.

And of course, once a month we gather around the Lord’s Table.  On those Sundays the sermons build towards the table so that the table is the necessary response to the message.

The problem, of course, is that it usually takes a bunch of creativity to just write a sermon, let alone come up with some creative response to follow it.  However, I trust that as I work hard at interacting with the text and the congregation than God will reward that work by giving me a response.  And so far God has not let me down, though some weeks the response has come flying into my brain on Sunday morning at 9am.

With all that said, it would very remiss of me to not mention that the ultimate response to the spoken word is not just a creative, tactile response or even just the Eucharist.  The end of worship is ultimately the sending.  When we have gathered to hear the written word and commune with the Living Word, we are sent to be the Body of the Living Word to a world in need of a savior.

So after the response and the song, I always put great emphasis on the sending with the hopes that my congregation will understand that church does not end at noon Sunday but rather the church is sent at noon Sunday to love God and love their neighbors every day of the week.

Recently Recorded Sermons: Lent To Easter and a Bit Beyond!

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In the spirit of my series this week on preaching, here are six live recordings of recent sermons.  The first one is from Job.  The next several are from the gospel of Mark and the one at the end is on the road to Emmaus.

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 2: Using Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layton 1

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

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

Singing The Easter Song All Wrong

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

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

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

Proverbs Slide

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

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

antique roadshow slide

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

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

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

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

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 1: Starting New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination”

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A very strange thing happened indeed this week.  I actually finished a book!  April was a crazy month full of Easter worship and District Assembly gatherings and online debates and very little reading.

So I decided to mark my return to grace by reading an especially wonderful author whom I have always quoted but never read, Walter Brueggemann.  A friend at District Assembly referenced “Prophetic Imagination” several times so I downloaded it and worked my way through it this week.  As is the case with many books, it spoke “prophetically” into several facets of my current experience.  Or did it speak “imaginatively?”

Click to buy on Amazon

As many of you know, I began pastoring a new church two months ago.  The transition forced me to ask myself the hard practical questions about what a church is and how a pastor should lead it.

At the same time my district gathered to elect a new Superintendant.  In the end most everybody agreed we elected the right person.  Still, the process forced me to think long and hard about who I want as a “pastor to pastors.”  Do I want an executive with a plan?  A leader with a vision?  A friend with a shoulder to cry on?  A prophet with an imagination?  Or all of the above?

Likewise, as most of you know, I have been closely following three scandals in the Church of the Nazarene.  One concerns our Publishing House.  The other two concern our universities.  There seems to be a failure in the upper realms of our leadership to really follow the dictates of love, justice and honesty especially when money is on the line.  Where did this failure come from and why have we been so hesitant to be honest about it?

A key topic in all those discussions was the comparisons and contrasts between churches, businesses and universities.  A friend of mine summed up those differences well in the chart below.

At the intersection of all this stands Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination.”  His brief but in depth discussion of the biblical prophets and holy communities illuminates several disparities between the church’s current state and our divine calling.

I could waste a lot of words fleshing out those discrepancies, but I will stick with a list Brueggemann gives in the preface to the 2nd edition.  He mentions the key characteristics of a Prophetic Community:

1) The community must have a long and available memory that sinks the present generation into an identifiable past made available in songs and stories.

2) There is a sense of pain that is cited as a real social fact.

3) Hope (not optimism) is actively practiced.

4) There is an effective mode of discourse that is distinctive and richly coded in ways only insiders know.  (i.e. a shared language).

The church I now pastor has quite a few families who now serve or once served in the US military.  As I have gotten to know them, I feel a sense of humiliation for the Christian church because the US military does those 4 things way better than most congregations.  They have songs and stories that root their identity in the great conflicts of the last 200 years.  They have a coded language with scores of acronyms that I can barely keep up with.  They have a real sense of pain and loss from living in a world where armies are necessary and they have a profound sense of hope that the US military can be the solution (or at least an integral part of it) to all the world’s problems.  All of this encourages scores of otherwise helpless young men (and some women) to join up.

I am frustrated that the church struggles to garner the same enthusiasm.  As Brueggemann argued convincingly, our insistence on catering to the powers and adopting their vocabulary has completely numbed us to our God given calling.  Now we get together to figure out how to co opt the powers and as we do, we ourselves are being coopted.

But all hope is not lost.  Brueggemann insists that the prophets in Scripture (from Moses to Jesus) did two things to awaken the holy community.  First they led the people in mourning.  Second they sang songs and told stories that energized faithfulness.  To put it more simply, they called the people back to worship and led them in the same.

And this is where the prophetic imagination informs my questions about the church, its leadership and our current scandals.  After all, it is no secret that the evangelical tradition has not done worship well.  We have filled it with the words of our culture, not the words of our ancient faith.  We have sung the narratives of the empire and not the songs of the redeemed.  And we have shared in the anger of the people, not in the compassion of our God.

If that is the case, then it might be possible that after attending those numbing services for decades, certain denominational leaders found themselves closed off to the hope of the gospel.  Instead of being emptied of all but God, they became filled with the edicts, deadlines and demands of the dominant culture.  If that is true, when they became leaders of institutions (like businesses, universities and churches), they had no Christian hope to add meaning or depth to their work and so made the controversial decisions that landed them in the hot seats.

If that is what happened, it means that who we choose to lead us in worship is so incredibly important.  Instead of vision casters, we need creative story tellers.  Instead of institution growers we need professional mourners.  Instead of money makers we need selfless givers.  And instead of relevant hipsters spewing the modern lingo, we need Biblical scholars who can make accessible the rich language of our tradition.

That all sounds poetic up above, but I am reminded by Brueggemann that this all has to start with me in my own setting and context.  After all, it is quite possible that I am currently leading a congregation that will include future CEO’s, University Presidents, Pastors and Superintendants.  It is a high and necessary calling to sing the songs and tell the stories of our ancient faith every week so that they can be grounded in compassion and justice, not in power and money.  Needless to say, the risk of failure is great.

Therefore, pray for me and pray for my church and I shall endeavor to do the same for you and your church.  And I pray the God of all history continues to call up prophets in this time and place who will sing the right songs, cry the proper tears and energize the needed love.

The Nazarenes and Strengthsfinders: The Gospel According to Gallup

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Hello Everyone.

As are so many Nazarene leaders these days I want to begin with an apology that is in no way an apology at all.  I am sorry I have not been able to post anything for the last few days.  I have actually had a life and a local ministry context that needed my attention and so have not had time.

When I do have a spare moment, I have been piecing together a post about our big tent in the church.  I want it to be a really well written piece about getting along despite our differences and a call back to charity.  But it has not yet come together.

However, in the interests of biding time and frantically trying to keep your interest, Monday night’s NNU Alumni Q&A (that was more Q than A) with David Alexander introduced a fascinating wrinkle into the ongoing discussion about Nazarene identity.  As a sort of defense, he listed off his top 5 strengths according to Gallup’s Strengthsfinder’s Inventory.

This wrinkle, like most wrinkles in sheets or blankets, is caused by something much more concrete and sinister lying underneath and something that has bugged me for many years.  We in the Church of the Nazarene seem to be cultivating an unhealthy relationship with the Gallup organization, particularly through their Strengthsfinders Inventory.

Now, it would be inappropriate to leave out that I was on staff at a church that did not exercise caution when it came to Gallup’s Strengthsfinders.  The church let Gallup’s message replace the cross as its main proclamation to the world.

Perhaps most disappointing was regularly my senior pastor, whom I otherwise love and respect, would climb into the pulpit, hold up one of Gallup’s books, open it and read a passage.  This was in a worship service where no Scripture was otherwise read. Then he would exegete the Strengthfinders book for the congregation.  Whenever any book other than Scripture is exegeted from the pulpit, I get super nervous.

This is the word of Gallup. Thanks be to Gallup most high!

So I readily acknowledge that my beginning with Gallup left a really bad taste in my mouth, one I have not yet washed down (as evidenced by my snarky caption above).  In humility, I admit that isn’t how others are using Strengthsfinders and some have found a great and healthy way to refer to it.  Yet my weary journey with it has led me to deep and critical thinking which in turn has led to some questions and concerns.

The doctrine (or as I call it “gospel”) of Strengthsfinders rests on a few key principles:

The 1st and most foundational principle is that people should play to their strengths as much as possible while only managing their weaknesses.  A subset of this is that you manage your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with those who have different strengths.

2nd: There are only 34 strengths.

3rd: Those strengths are grouped into four categories that further help define your personality.

4th: You cannot change your strengths no matter how hard you try.  Your personality is set in stone.

5th: The best way to help yourself is to pay a tithe (er, um, donation, er, um, purchase) to Gallup so that you can take a test that tells you your top 5 of 34 strengths.  For those reaching super Gallup-saintdom you can even hire a Gallup clergy person, er, Strengths coach to help you help yourself even more.

With that basic framework in mind (and I admit I am summarizing the loads of Gallup books I have read and heard sermons about) I have great concerns about Strengthsfinders as it relates to our doctrine and polity.

First, I think it is quite naive to assume all of humanity can be summarized in 34 categories.  Humans are way more complex than that.  After all, when I fell in love with my wife I did not fall in love with an order of strengths but a complicated and complex human being who has shades of moods and layers of depth.  I am the same way.  You are too.  I am not a jumble of 34 categories roughly ordered.  I am a full, complete and complex human being and the only way to get to know me is to do life with me over the course of years.  I am not a woo, ideator, inputter, communicative and positive ENFP.

More than that, our church, particularly us Wesleyans, have always argued that the best way to know ourselves is to find ourselves in Christ using the means of grace.  If you want to know yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses, an inventory will not do it.  Instead it is much better to pray, fast, worship, give and serve.

Second, I really struggle with any narrative that says you cannot change.  I know Gallup insists they are talking about personality, not sinfulness, but still the Nazarene doctrine is built on the concept that God can change you and the real sciences have shown over and over again that you are changing whether you like it or not.  I think we need to be cautious and critical of doctrines and gospels that claim we can’t and won’t change.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for me, is that the church’s main proclamation is about the weakness of a cross.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 12 that the power of God is made perfect in weakness and that when we are weak, then we are strong.  I believe Paul arrives at that conclusion because Paul understands the cross.  He is arguing from a logic he articulates in Philippians 2, that though Christ was in very nature God, he emptied himself and became nothing and humbled himself to death.  Biblically, postures of weakness glorify Christ, not postures of playing to your strengths.

This leads to a rabbit trail about the nature of American corporate greed with its gospel that only those who produce get the glory.  In that world Gallup really is good news because if you just pay your tithe and buy their book and take their test you can produce more for your church.  But the church is not a community of production.  We are a community of worship and of service.  In our church only those who take postures of weakness are guaranteed glory.

I feel like maybe one of the reasons our leaders are failing us so badly right now is because they have gotten caught up in the gospels according to Wall Street and Gallup.  They are trying to manipulate their personalities to produce things for God instead of falling on their knees in weakness and crying out, “I need you.  I need you.  Every hour I need you.”

But I digress.  .  .

With those things in mind, I am in no way saying we need to throw everything out that Gallup tries to offer us.  In fact the one thing personality inventories do is create a common vocabulary for people to understand each other and themselves.  Doing so aids understanding, creates unity, contributes to cooperation and leads to love.

But hopefully I have at least convinced you to keep Gallup in the boardroom and out of the pulpit.  After all, no doctrine or book or decree or gospel should share space with the Holy Scriptures of our Living God. 😛

Stay tuned for more as I have time!

When We Confess Our Sins. . .

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When I was in junior high people began throwing around the word, “hypocrite” like it was free candy.  It was an especially popular concept in Christian circles as we used it to judge anybody who held any sort of ethical standard for us.  All being sinners ourselves, we knew that any legalist who gave us a “thou shalt” could not live up to any ethical standard themselves.  So we dismissed any ethicist with the word, “hypocrite.”

It was at that time that I realized it was almost impossible for a true Christian to actually be a hypocrite.  My thinking went that if the central confession of our faith was that we are all sinners in need of a savior, then sinning did not make us hypocrites.  It made our message truer.

That is a fairly dangerous thought process from an uneducated middle schooler.  It runs us really close to antinomianism, the idea that we should go on sinning so that grace may increase.

But I still think there is a shred of truth there.  After all, we are not the sinning community but we are the confessional community.  One of our pillars has always been confessing our sins, airing our dirty laundry for all to see.  This does not mean we are the most church when we go on sinning.  But we are the most church when we confess our sins, hanging them out for all to see while we pray for the God of forgiveness to deliver us.

There have been those this week who have suggested that having honest discussions about our church’s shortcomings are hurting our witness to the world.  They seem to be caught up in the 1950s mindset that the church can only be effective in mission if we are sinless and conflict free.

They want us to hide behind vague cliches like, “You are hurting the church” and “You are making our witness less effective.”

I disagree.  First the church is all ready hurting.  We are hurting not because of the actions of any one person or the existence of any one crisis but because we are the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus.  Our scars and bruises and pain only magnify Christ that much more.

Second, our witness does not rest on our own power or might.  If you read Acts 1:8 Jesus does not say, “Go and try to witness.”  Jesus issues a promise, “You WILL be witnesses” whether you like it or not.

I write all this to give us hope.  If our faith rested in our own deeds and sinlessness than this would be a time of despair.  But as our denomination confesses some of our dirty laundry, I am buoyed by hope, hope in a God who will make us witnesses, a God who will reveal God’s nature and self through these trying and hurting times, a God who uses situations like these to draw us all closer to the cruciform lamb, standing as though slain.

I am reminded of the closing words of Charles Dickens, “Tale of Two Cities” and they are my sentiments and prayer today:

“I see a beautiful [church] and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives.  .  .peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.”

Keep on fighting for transparency and justice and know your toil in the Lord is not in vain!

How to Give a Good Gift

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Last fall my wife and I found ourselves in the best financial situation we have yet seen.  We both had steady jobs.  We were on top of our bills.  Our needs were more than provided for and our “want” list was at an all time low.

Then I got paid a $3000 paycheck for coaching Cross Country.  As we mulled over how to split it between gifts, savings, paying off debt, Christmas and other things, I got a card in the mail from NNU asking me to help contribute to a scholarship for Track and Field.

We gladly gave an amount to the scholarship and doing so was a point of pride.  It was the first time I was able to give back to the school and since graduating I have longed to help the school as much as it helped me.  When I gave a meager amount to that scholarship, I promised it would be the first of many meager amounts, and one day hopefully some not so meager amounts.

I bring all this up to go on the record and state that nothing that has happened at NNU the last couple weeks and few years will change my support for the campus.  I still plan on giving my time, money and compliments to the school.  I still plan on encouraging my parishioners to give their time, money and compliments to the University.  I will still support my children if they choose to attend there.  Whether Tom Oord goes or stays and whether Alexander goes or stays, no matter who goes or who stays I will continue to give good gifts to NNU.

I bring all this up to say that a wrinkle in the recent situation has to do with monetary gifts.  I know that we have not confirmed the names of anybody who has threatened the university with decreased giving because of Tom but we have confirmed the existence of them.  Moreover, several professors and administrators have said that regularly in NNU’s 100 year history someone will only offer to give a gift if certain professors are terminated.

I do not think those people understand what a good gift looks like, at least from Scripture.  When Scripture calls us to give, we are called to give in the way of the cross, a free, unrestrained, non manipulative gift.  If the gift is misused, we are still blessed.  If the gift is squandered, we are still blessed.  If the gift is rejected, we are still blessed.  Scripture is quite clear in that regard.

In fact, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians that “God loves a cheerful giver.”

That word “cheerful” makes me curious.  That adjective is out of place when you think about it.  It should be “God loves a grateful giver” or “God loves a gracious giver.”  Instead, Paul chose “cheerful.”  That is quite weird.

But then I think of two people in my life, my friend Dustin and my grandmother.  Dustin grew up in a very bad household.  There was verbal and physical abuse, manipulation and even spiritual degradation.  Then he moved across the country to live with his grandparents and that is when I got to know him.  I fell in love with the kid immediately.  He was the most incredible friend I had ever made.  My friends in high school and youth group rallied around him and showered love on him in the form of full access to our social gatherings.  We even elected him Prom King!

At the end of the school year, Dustin showed up to school with a bag stuffed full of very expensive presents for all of us.  He danced a little jig down the hallway, grinning from ear to ear as he handed out these gift wrapped gold watches, jewelry, expensive video games and the like.

The scene shocked us.  His younger brother surprised us further by saying that Dustin had never spent more than $1 on a present before.  He had spent hundreds on us.  Dustin was not giving these gifts to manipulate us or to coerce us.  I don’t think he even knew why he was giving us the gifts.  I think he was just so happy (maybe, cheerful) to have such an amazing group of friends that his right hand did not know what his left hand was doing as he threw those watches and necklaces out.

We should learn how to give like Dustin gave, not because we want control or manipulation or power but because we are cheerful and we want to join God by giving rain to both the just and the unjust (see the Sermon on the Mount).

Awhile back my grandma started going to a church in town whose presence in our community was less than stellar.  They were a mean and hostile community but they took care of older people better than anybody else.  So it happened that while my grandma was attending that church, she sold my grandpa’s cabin for $250,000.  She paid the tithe to the mean, hostile church.  I complained and she told me quite sternly, “I did not give that money to that church.  I gave it to God and if they use God’s money for sinful aims, God will probably hold them accountable.”

I repented quite quickly because my grandma knows how to give a good gift, better than even me.

With all this said, I really struggle at the thought that any NNU alumni or supporter would even want to give money manipulatively or with ulterior motives.  I think the reality these types exist illustrates a spiritual failure in our congregations.  As a pastor, I note that we have not taught or modeled the giving of good, cheerful gifts so we create situations that put unbelievable pressure on the administrations of our universities.

May we all do better, including myself.

Why The Church Scares Me Half To Death

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Have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met?  They said the right thing at the right time.  They told the funniest jokes but with appropriate tact.  They dressed in the most fashionable ways and liked all the right hobbies.  Compliments poured out of their mouth at every turn and they even volunteered at orphanages and animal shelters.

Then you met their spouse.  .  .who was all right but less than awesome.  But you figured, I will hang out with the spouse if it means getting to know this incredible person all the more.

That is kind of like how it is with Christ and the Church.

But then again, have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met and then you met their spouse and their spouse was the meanest, most cruel, vindictive person ever?  They regularly drove away well meaning people.  They hated everybody who wasn’t them?  They held extremely controversial political views that they were willing to share, more like yell, at everybody they met?  And then as you got to know them you discovered they moonlighted as a hooker on the weekend, selling their body and soul to the highest bidder?

That is actually how it is with Christ and the Church.

I love Jesus.  I just spent a couple of months getting to know Jesus more in the Gospel of Mark and I am planning on spending the next couple months getting to know the Risen Jesus in the last chapters of all four gospels.  I want to hang out with Jesus.  I want to love Jesus more and be more like this awesome God who has found me in empty tombs and on roads to Emmaus and hilltops in Galilee.

But Jesus’ bride, the church, scares me half to death.

Last week as I journeyed with Jesus to the cross, a professor was terminated at one of our institutions.  This professor was often called Dr. Love as he has written some of the best works out there on theologies and philosophies of love.  He also holds controversial philosophical views, views that I value but ultimately disagree with.  Since the university hired him, there has been a growing group of reformed fundamentalists who have issued all kinds of threats to the university for having him on faculty.

According to official announcements the threats to the university had nothing to do with the termination.  Instead the university needed more money for capitol improvements and marketing.  If I take that announcement at face value, which many are not, it is still quite troubling.  Our university cares more about buildings and raising money than we do about quality professors.

This flows out of a trend in all universities (public and private) to turn higher education into a glorified pyramid scheme.  Over the last 30 years higher education tuition has skyrocketed, fundraising has never been easier and professional sports have poured millions into the coffers.  All this time, faculty wages have remained flat while administrative costs (buildings and executive positions) have skyrocketed.  It seems like higher ed is now a market that raises money so that it can raise money so that it can hire people to raise more money.  As a whole the market has forgotten it is there to educate students, not to raise money and build bigger buildings and win football games.

Our private Christian universities have learned that the best fundraising strategy is to claim that we are not as heartless as the secular universities.  We care about our students.  We focus on giving them quality education.  We like our low student to faculty ratios.  And yet here we are, eliminating faculty to increase our pyramid scheme.

To make it worse, the professor was notified while on vacation in Hawaii.  My father works for a failing technology company who has had scores and scores of layoffs in the last ten years.  In my father’s very dark, somber work place, everybody is afraid to take vacations because they are afraid that the minute they leave town, they will be axed.  I used to take great comfort that at least we respected each other, even our enemies, enough that the church would never do that.  Now I am afraid to take a vacation.

And this latest flare up in the church is only one in a long line.  At another institution, a chaplain was demoted one week, suspended the next.** The spark that lit that fire was a very humble sermon asking people to think about their love for a very violent movie in light of Jesus’ call to peace.  What scares me is that it was a sermon I very well could have preached.

Right before that a friend of mine was forced to resign his pastorate because he asked hard questions about the role patriotism plays in our worship.

Before that a friend of mine was forced to leave our denomination in Wyoming due to ideological differences concerning women in ministry.

Before that another friend was driven out not for any particular ideological “flaw” but just because he was a student of our university and seminary so it was assumed there must be an ideological flaw.

Before that another friend was forced out due to ideological differences with district leadership.

I do not know the full stories in any of these situations, but I do know my friends.  Even if they did make one or two lousy judgment calls (which I am sure some of them did) grace means we should not banish them from our communities.

And all of this makes me wonder, am I next?  It seems like in the Church of the Nazarene, my kind is being killed off quite vehemently.  When will the church’s violent and vindictive sword find me?  What honest mistake or ideological view will it be?  And what will be the price for my family, for my friends, for my soul?

The Church of the Nazarene started as a big tent church.  Every line in our early Manuals was a testament to our willingness to debate, dialog and compromise when needed.  We have always loved and welcomed conservative fundamentalists and progressive liberals.  We have been proud that both could worship under the same tent and engage in fierce but loving dialog with those who think differently.  This means, I have several friends who are very conservative and slightly fundamentalist and I love them and rejoice they are a part of this denomination.  I value their input and opinions and want them to stick around because I love them.

But when members of the conservative fundamentalist group suddenly turn violent and vindictive and start waging ideological wars against those who think differently from them and when they score huge victories through sacrificing the careers and livelihoods of my dear friends I fear for my life.

This isn’t new.  In fact, I remember that one day I was awake in church history class and learned that in the early 17th century, the Calvinists, threatened by Arminian views, banished and executed any followers of Jacob Arminius.  I find hope that it didn’t work because there are still faithful Arminians around today.  Moreover, this event was one skirmish in the middle of centuries of Christians actually killing each other over silly ideological differences.  And I even guess that the fact that today we are just terminating positions and not people is a sign of progress.

Or maybe I am just looking for a bit of that Resurrection hope that says if ever the church should decide it needs my blood displayed on a cross for all to see, at least my Savior hung there first and at least there is the glory of an empty tomb waiting for those whom the mob lynches.

**(I previously wrote that the chaplain above had been terminated, i.e. relieved of all positions, but have since learned he retained his chaplaincy.  I apologize for the mixup.  I thought I had that on good authority.)