On the 5 Year Anniversary of Becoming a Lead Pastor

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Five years and 262 Sundays ago I became a senior pastor.  That was a wonderful Sunday.  The sun was shining brightly in the mountains of northeast Oregon.  The small town church was packed with the honest and humble of rural America.  My sermon was on my life verse, which is 2 Corinthians 12:9 about God’s power being perfected in weakness.

I was coming off of a wonderful seminary career that ended with accolades and compliments.  I was holding a newly minted master’s degree with a certificate in biblical languages.  My GPA was near perfect.  I attained only one B and I got that B on purpose because the quest for a 4.0 was becoming my idol.  I was brimming with confidence.

Seminary had ended with two open doors.  I was offered a management position at the Rescue Mission where I worked.  I loved that place.  I had hopes and dreams galore.  Many of the homeless men and coworkers who lived and worked there were and still remain great friends.

The other open door was that church in rural Oregon.  With great fear and trembling I moved to Oregon.

So in a sermon that now seems a bit more arrogant than I intended, I told those lumberjacks, postal carriers and farmers about my charisma, my wisdom, my optimism and my drive.  Then I told them all that was useless, as if they didn’t all ready know, and I claimed that I just wanted my weaknesses to be on full display so that God’s power would be all the greater.

Then we had a good old fashioned northwest barbecue with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and other forms of fat with sugar.  Then the next day I got to work.

That was 262 Sundays ago.

Here I sit today in the suburbs of Utah.  I am a little bit older now.  I am a lot wiser.  I am even quite a bit more well informed.  I have read more books now than I did in college and seminary and more than doubled my library.  I am kind of proud of that.  I am also proud of the fact that I don’t weigh a pound more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  Most pastors gain 30-40 pounds their first years of ministry.  I have lost around ten.  My marriage and family are still intact.  I don’t feel I should have to mention that but I do know a few pastors who, on their 262nd Sunday, can’t say it.

I am little bit less naive and a bit more cynical and a lot angrier.  I’ve been verbally abused more times than I can count.  Some of the times I deserved it.  Most of the time it was just angry people needing an outlet.  For some reason pastors are prime targets for those vents and I have come to appreciate that role even if it is painful.  I wish I could say I handled all those situations well but most of the time I was so surprised by the elevated voice that I responded in shock and made things worse.  In those times, I have learned that this poor world and God’s wretched church are far more wrecked than I suspected.  And the darkness isn’t just outside.  It’s inside me as well.

I have had my theological beliefs challenged both internally and externally.  Some needed to be challenged so as to be done away with.  Others I have let go only to realize I badly needed them and ran back to them.  Those ones were not just biblical but crucial for survival in life and ministry.

God has saved some lives and given me a front row seat to the miracles.  There was a young couple, former addicts with two toddlers.  They landed in a motel room in the middle of winter with little food and no money.  They were about to get evicted into a foot of snow.  Somehow they got my phone number.  I raised a couple thousand dollars to get them into a nice two bedroom apartment that their income could afford.  I sometimes question the money we spent on them, especially since the mom relapsed shortly after.  But a couple years later the father told a friend, “If it wasn’t for Pastor Kevin I would have relapsed with her.  But because of what he did, I knew I had to keep the kids and stay sober.”  I disagree with his theology.  It was God who did it but still, that was worth being a part of.

I think God has saved some souls too, though that one is harder to measure.  In the last year alone I have met so many people whose faith has been ransacked by the world.  Somehow they have found me and unloaded all their questions and doubts.  As I talked to them I realized I am the first Christian pastor they have met who has taken those questions and doubts seriously.   God has been able to use me in those moments to bolster their failing trust.  It is in those conversations that I am the most “pastor.”

On that note, I have come to absolutely love being a pastor to those who have never had pastors before.  To those who have had pastors before, I am lousy.  They bring all these expectations and baggage into the relationship that I haven’t quite figured out how to handle.  But for those who have never had a pastor, I am a balm in their wounds and they are in mine as well.

I have a friend whose first church was a buzz saw.  It chopped him to pieces.  After three years of misery, he left the church and the pastorate.  He almost left the faith all together but miraculously he found a church and a pastor.  A month or so ago his church was praying for young seminarians who were about to take their own churches.  They invited everyone to come up, lay hands on them and pray.  My friend stayed in his seat.  All he could think was, “Don’t do it!  Please don’t be a pastor.  For your own health and sanity, do anything but!”  Then he remembered that if not for his pastor he wouldn’t be a Christian at all.  His pastor was a salve in his wounds.  In the words of our founder, Phineas Bresee, “she didn’t blight the budding hope or break the bruised reed.  She lifted up his fainting heart.  She poured oil and wine into the wounds of the poor pilgrim who had been wrecked by the Devil on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.” (Prince in Israel, p. 394)

I suppose for that reason alone, I probably have at least another five years and 262 Sundays in me.

You know, I am more hopeful too.  I still believe in the church.  I still believe in the optimism of grace.  I still believe in the God who equips the called.  I still believe in my weaknesses, in my insufficiency and my worthlessness.  In fact, I believe in those even more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  But most importantly, I absolutely still believe in the God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Meaning of the Pentateuch

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I know pastors who graduated from seminary in 1974 and never read another book.  To no one’s surprise, they are still ministering as if it is 1974 and sitting around wondering why nobody seems to get them, except for those other parishioners stuck there with them.

When it is 2074 I do not want to still be pastoring as if it is 2015.  To that end, I force myself to keep reading and to read books from a variety of genres and traditions and perspectives.  The problem is that I am an energetic, extrovert with about 10 hobbies and a family.  Sitting down and forcing myself to read more than a half hour a day is like pulling out my front teeth.

The solution so far has not been a good one.  Almost by default I just pick the quickest, easiest reads that fall into my lap.  I race through them, only taking a few mental notes as I go and all so that I can say, “I read a book this week!”

So last month I set out to remedy this situation and decided to tackle a monstrosity.  This morning I actually finished it.  It was not just any book.  It was a 574 page theological and exegetical treatise on the Pentateuch, adequately titled, “The Meaning of the Pentateuch.”

If you dare, click on this link to buy the epic tale of a warrior scholar who engages and dispatches over 50 academic foes with 574 pages of sure fire rhetoric!

Being 574 pages long, you would expect over 20 chapters but the author, a cool dude by the name of John Sailhamer, was too awesome to divide his books into things like chapters.  I am guessing the publisher overrode his desire and found 11 places to break up the text.  The tradeoff, at least in the E-version, was periods.  There is not one period in the book, which makes figuring out where one sentence ends and another begins a true delight!  This makes every chapter over 70 pages long, which makes things like “easy reading” impossible.  One chapter is an afternoon commitment.  And in the words of a popular lady, “Ain’t nobody got time for dat!”

But I made the time and the length of the book was not its only unique aspect.  This is also an academic book which means that between the 574 pages of this monstrosity you will not find any guides to preaching the Pentateuch, any helpful hints on how to live out the commands therein or any clever sermon metaphors.

I take that last one back.  Early on there was a great comparison of the historical critical method to a hypothetical vandal who, upon seeing Rembrandt’s painting of Venice, became angry that Rembrandt had shadowed over various storefronts and therefore, chose to paint in what the storefronts must have looked like.  That’ll preach!  (No, it won’t, but I still liked it!)

The other factor that made this book unique among my usual reading fare is that Sailhamer writes from the Calvinist/Reformed tradition.  Most of what I read is from the Wesleyan/Arminianism tradition.  This means that Sailhamer quotes or engages well over 100 scholars and almost all of them are from the Evangelical/Calvinist camp.  Therefore, by reading Sailhamer’s take on the Pentateuch, I was really being introduced to a deep and centuries old conversation about the meaning of the first five books in our Bibles by a tradition other than my own.

While engaging with those important voices, Sailhamer offers his own unique perspective on the meaning of the Pentateuch.  He argues that the meaning of the Pentateuch lies in using the 5 major poems in the book, all of which randomly interrupt the flow of the narrative.  Through studying these poems, you can find the central themes of the entire work.  In all seriousness, I did find this fascinating because in my studies of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy (I haven’t gotten around to Numbers or Leviticus yet) I had completely ignored and neglected those poems.

And this is why, even though I am now far behind on my reading list, the grueling work it took to complete Sailhamer’s work was very valuable.  It helped me think through things I haven’t thought through before.  It forced me to engage parts of Scripture I had previously glossed over and it helped me understand the conversation the Christians on the other side of evangelicalism are having.

As it so happens, right after I read the short conclusion this morning, I took off for a run.  I was 24 minutes into my jaunt up to the mountains when I ran past an older gentleman hobbling down the street.  He saw me fly past him and remarked, “Good job, sir.  You must really be a runner.”

I laughed and said, “Why thank you” and continued running before he called after me, “What are you training for?”

Suddenly I realized this was a God moment.  I stopped and turned around and ran back to him.  “A marathon in October,” I answered and then we began comparing life stories.  He was a runner in his 30s, fought in Vietnam, organized troops for the Air Force in the Gulf and retired here.  His wife passed away 10 years ago and he has lived alone on the rim of the mountains ever since.

Eventually I revealed that I was a pastor.  He immediately claimed he was “non-denominational” which I thought meant he went to one of these hip, non denom church plants that are all the rage these days.  As the conversation continued I instead found out that it actually means that he refuses to go to a church.  That doesn’t stop him from claiming, “Really Romans 7:8 and 9 are all you need to know.  You don’t need to bother with the rest of it.”

In a weak moment I decided to push gently against that.  “So why do you think we have the rest of Scripture?” I asked.

He stared blankly at me and stuttered before saying, “That is a good question.  I don’t know why God would bother giving us the rest of it.”  I let the matter lie.  After all it isn’t polite to lecture total strangers on theology.

Yet, his story is becoming more and more usual these days.  After choosing not to go to church, he became disconnected from the conversation about Scripture and suddenly found himself concluding %99.9 of it was useless.

I know a lot of pastors who are there.  By refusing to engage with texts like Sailhamer’s, they become disconnected from the broader conversation about Scripture.  Without Sailhamer, I never would have read or studied the five poems of the Pentateuch, or thought to link them together for their common themes.  I never would have known about the ways covenant theologians, dispensationalists and traditional orthodox types read the book.  I wouldn’t know about the textual clues in the Sinai narrative and I wouldn’t be sitting here struggling in the back of my mind to figure out where the laws fit into the God’s covenant of grace.  Instead, I would be walking up in the mountains, feeling secure in my own biases and prejudices and concluding that most of God’s book is useless.

And though I didn’t get any clever sermon metaphors out of the book, I certainly found 10 sermons just waiting to be preached, all of them rooted in 10 ways that God spoke personally to me through the sacred first five books of our wonderful Scriptures.

As I turned to run away from the man he exclaimed, “God bless you and keep up the good work.”  Though I wondered at his hermeneutic (or lack thereof), I found I treasured his blessing the whole way home.