A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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The following is a sermon/talk that I gave this morning on the first Sunday of our church’s fiscal year.  I hesitate to share it and yet at the same time feel called to more than I usually do.

Introduction

This is a hard Sunday for me.  Today is now the fifth time that I have begun a new fiscal year with a new fiscal budget, alongside a new “fiscal” board with a new “fiscal” dream.

I will go on record and say that I believe this is an important Sunday.  I believe it is a good thing once a year to give a “State of the Church” type speech where I try to sum up the last year and give some hope and direction for the New Year.  That is a healthy thing to do which is why I have done it on this Sunday for the last four years.  It has always gone well and despite what I am about to say, next year I will probably do it again.

But this year I don’t know what to say.  I have hopes and dreams for our congregation.  I have my lists of things we could do and do really well.  I also have lists of things we probably shouldn’t do.  So I have vision.  I have opinions.  I certainly have ideas by the thousands.  You all should know that about me by now.

However, over the last year I’ve discovered that God does not want me to be a visionary pastor.  I don’t know if I ever believed that but part of me pretended to because I knew some of you wanted a visionary pastor.  So this Sunday was my Sunday to pretend to do that so you wouldn’t hang me or drive me out of town.  This was my day to pretend to be a confident, self assured, visionary leader to help calm those of you who thought you wanted that.

Over the last year I have decided I am done with that and I am done even pretending it.  That happened in a few ways.

Paul and the Corinthians

First I reread Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  The Corinthians hated Paul because he wasn’t visionary enough.  He wasn’t tall, dark and handsome enough.  Tradition tells us he wasn’t a great public speaker.  He was short and stocky and maybe couldn’t see well.  He was the last person you would expect to spread the gospel across the Roman empire.  The Corinthians hated him for it.  They thought he wasn’t a “super” enough apostle.

Paul’s response to them was verses like 1 Cor. 1:27, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”  He repeats similar sentiments in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in what is my life verse, “[God] has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

At the same time I also met with several visionary pastors and church planters.  These are people who drip charisma and have built some awesome institutions.  Several of them have seen a great amount of success by worldly standards.  They are chock full of ideas and “inspiration.”  But I always walked away from those conversations feeling empty.  I did not feel the Spirit there.

I have also met with several other pastors who are not successful by worldly standards.  Most of them pastor smaller churches.  One or two pastor large churches but those churches are not doing successful things by our world’s standards.  Those conversations were always seasoned with salt.  Those pastors were dripping with something that I can only call “holiness.”  I walked away wanting more of it.

As I began recognizing those two types of pastors I felt God was laying out two roads for me.  One was wide and easy and filled with success but I knew where it ended.  The other was a bit rockier and narrower and more difficult but it seemed to be the one Paul and Jesus walked.

Eugene Peterson

Then I read Eugene Peterson.  Some of you might remember a sermon from a few months ago where I told Peterson’s story about building a cathedral in Massachusetts.  For two years he cast this great vision for this awesome building out in a farm field.  It was great.  Their attendance went up during that time.  They raised the money and built the building.  The minute it was built the attendance and finances dwindled.  His denominational executive told him, “start building another building ASAP and they will all come back.”  Eugene Peterson declined that gracious offer to go into more debt on a bigger building that they did not need.  He knew that Christian leadership isn’t about vision casting and building buildings.  He repented and decided to just be a pastor.  Then he wrote ten books about it.  .  .

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

I have also been memorizing Mark’s gospel over the last two months.  Mark is only 15 chapters and 8 verses long.  It is about half as long as Matthew and Luke.  3 of Mark’s 15 chapters, 1/5th of the book, is all about “apostolic leadership.”  For three chapters (8,9 and 10) Jesus constantly lectures his disciples about power and authority.  That is where we get some of our classics.

“Whoever wants to be first must be the very last.” (Mark 9:35).

“If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34)

“Any who wants to be great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first must be your slave.” (Mark 10:44)

My favorite is, “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them.  NOT SO WITH YOU!” (Mark 10:42).

I am not sure “leadership” is even a New Testament concept.  To the extent it is, it is only in the form of good following.

Proverbs 29:18

But THEN there is this other verse from Proverbs.  It comes up all the time in leadership classes and seminars.  I have heard it quoted several times this year.  It is Proverbs 29:18, “Without vision the people perish.”

I heard someone quote it awhile back.  It was in the context of “be a visionary 21st century leader.  Come up with a vision statement and hold your people to it.  It’s your job as the leader!”  I was listening to this person and it finally occurred to me that there is no way the Bible says that, at least not in the context of, “without a 21st century vision statement and a leader to be firm and a little bit arrogant in holding the people to it, the people perish.”

So I found it and it turns out the King James Version says “vision” but many of the other translations use other words.  I think one uses, “prophecy” and another uses, “revelation.”  So I looked it up and in both Hebrew and Greek the word refers to the work of a prophet and is more closely associated with “wisdom” than with 21st century “vision.”  “Without prophetic wisdom the people perish.”

The prophets were not doing 21st century executive vision casting.  They were not getting focus groups together and asking a series of questions.  They were not distributing surveys and collating data.  They were not making everybody take personality and spiritual gift inventories and then leading discussions and doing SWOT analyses.

They were praying and they were fasting.  They were studying the Scriptures (which for them was just the first five books of the Bible).  Then they were walking among the people, eating the same food, watching the same plays, listening to the same songs.  They were and laughing with them over meals and crying with them over caskets.  Then they were holding the culture up alongside the Torah and saying, “here is where it matches and here is where it doesn’t and here is what God is thinking and going to do about it.”

They were casting vision but it was God’s vision revealed in the Scriptures and it was a lot more than just five words that comprise a slogan you can paint on your church foyer wall.  The vision of the prophets was an ongoing formational process.

Proverbs tells us, “without that ongoing work of the prophets the people perish.”

The prophets did exactly what I am trying to do week in and week out.  I am just trying to pray.  I am just trying to read the Scriptures humbly and accurately.  I am just trying to meet with you all for dinner or coffee or to play games or to watch movies.  I am just trying to find times to fast.  Then for twenty to thirty (sometimes forty) minutes on a Sunday I tell you about what I think God is doing and saying.  I look at your lives and I look at the world where we live and then I look at a particular Scripture passage and I offer my interpretation of what God might be saying and doing in our midst.  Then I say, “Go live it and we will get back together next week and try again.”

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

About a month ago I was thinking about all this.  I was reading Proverbs, Corinthians, Eugene Peterson and others.  I was memorizing Mark and talking to other pastors.  And I was thinking about this Sunday and realized that I had nothing to say regarding 21st century big vision casting stuff.

Then I remembered a quote from a Methodist bishop named Will Willimon.  I love this quote.  He is talking about churches that complain about their young pastors being too biblical.  Willimon says, “Too biblical? To their credit, bright, young clergy realize that only by being biblical do they have anything significant to say.” (How Odd of God, p. 176)

I don’t have anything significant to say except by being biblical.  So I decided that this vision Sunday I would just turn to the lectionary Psalm, like I’ve done the last several Sundays and will do for several more Sundays.  Then after reading it and studying it, I would just offer it up to you as one more tiny piece of God’s vision for us.  Psalm 32 is a great Psalm for that and I hope you hear God’s vision in it.

Psalm 32:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

The Sermon I Should Have Preacher: The Gospels

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This is an ongoing blog series where upon completing a sermon series, I mention a few things I myself learned that may or may not have made it into the final draft of the series.

Last year when I was planning my sermon series for the 2016 calendar year, I decided to spend the Fall talking about practical holiness.  As I began putting together those sermons, I hit a wall very early on.  The problem was that I could not talk about practical holiness without first helping my congregation develop a fuller understanding of the mystery that is the gospel.  Therefore, a 12 week sermon series on holiness as described in Romans 12-16 became a six week series on “What is the Gospel?” followed by another six weeks in Romans 12-16.

I finished my first six weeks in the gospel last Sunday.  I very roughly structured the series on the five (or six) major atonement theories.  I tried to pick one passage per theory that I thought defended that particular theory well.  So very roughly the six sermons went like this:

2 Cor. 5: The Gospel and Ministry of Reconciliation

Romans 1: The Satisfaction Theory

Ephesians 2: Ransom Theory

Colossians 2: “Christus Victor” And the overthrow of the Rulers and Authorities of our World. (This is the only one online currently and you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbo9DCG4WY)

Romans 8: Recapitulation Theory

1 John 4: Moral Influence Theory

With those in mind, after spending the last couple months doing some deeper thinking about the core of our Christian faith and revisiting both the the events of Jesus’s life and how the epistles interpret them, here are some things I learned.  These are not things I knew all ready but things I genuinely realized.

  1. Yes the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition has major qualms about the “wrath of God” and maybe rightly so.  But unfortunately for us God’s wrath is all over the epistles.  Even Jesus in the gospels does his fair share talking about it.  With that said, I still don’t believe God was so angry that God needed to watch a Quentin Tarantino (or even, *cough* a “Mel Gibson”) movie to suddenly be okay with it all.  But God is angry at the sinfulness of the world and Jesus came as a solution to it.  There is no way to be biblical and not to address the wrath of God.
  2. The epistles don’t concentrate on the cross nearly as much as we do today.  In fact, in most of the epistle passages listed above almost all the events of Jesus’ life are mentioned or alluded to in some way.  The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and Jesus’ second coming all appear together almost all of the time.  In the epistles the gospel is not about the cross but about the entire “Christ event.”  If we want to talk about salvation in a biblical way we must talk and give equal emphasis to all of them.
  3. With that said, I was surprised at how often Pentecost and the Holy Spirit itself comes up in talking about the gospel.  The good news according to the epistles is not just about forgiveness on the cross but about the release of the Holy Spirit into the world to equip and enable us to live holy lives.
  4. The ransom theory is extremely difficult to defend in any biblical way.  Going in I knew that the Old Testament provided very little evidence that Satan somehow controlled the entire cosmos.  But I was sure the New Testament at the very least alluded to it.  I was wrong.  The New Testament does not in any way teach it.  Ephesians 2 comes the closest but it doesn’t even mention Satan by name.  It talks about the “ruler of the prince of the air” which was actually a title for Caesar.

So those are some thoughts about the gospel.  They are things I genuinely learned in the last couple months.  I hope to do this from here on out with all my sermon series.  I also hope to back date one to the minor prophets which I spent the summer preaching through.

In completely unrelated news this here blog post is apparently my 200th!!!  Here is a picture of an anniversary cake to celebrate.

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A Sermon Somewhere: Growing Up Down in Backwards Boise

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This is an ongoing series where I try to find the sermon lurking beneath our everyday existence.  .  .and fail miserably.

Also this story did happen but has been embellished for humor’s sake and the names changed to protect the guilty.

I grew up in Boise, ID and never thought anything of it until one day I left for vacation and found others who thought we lived in a kind of backwards place.

For starters nobody east of the Mississippi had ever heard of Idaho.  Back then, if you ventured out that far and told someone you were from Idaho, they likely would reply, “I have a friend in Des Moines!  His name is Bob.  Have you met Bob?”

The answer was “no” for a variety of reasons.

First Des Moines, Iowa wasn’t so small of a place they only had one Bob.

Two, Idaho is a long way from Iowa.

People west of the Mississippi knew about Idaho but all they ever wanted to talk about was potatoes.  I had never heard of Idaho potatoes nor eaten one.  Apparently that is because we were busy deporting them to all the other states.  Still, to this day I can’t recall ever seeing a potato field in Idaho.

If you ventured west of Idaho you met a lot of folks who knew all about Boizee.  They knew so much about it they corrected you when you pronounced it accurately as Boy-see.  Then you got into an argument nobody could win because in their invincibly ignorant minds, we in Boizee were so backwards we couldn’t pronounce our city correctly.

To be fair, Boise was a bit backwards back then.  This was before anybody knew or had heard about Boise State’s football team, mostly because BSU got beat by the University of Idaho and the University of Idaho got beat by everyone else.

We were surrounded by our fair share of corn fields.  Our buildings didn’t stretch all that high.  We ate steak that was shaped like French fries which we dipped in special sauce, which is really just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together.  And on the weekends we liked sliding down hills on ice blocks.

The most backwards thing about living in Boise was our freeway.  Right before my birth Boise had installed a very convenient offshoot to the interstate that shot the cars right into downtown.  We all called it the connector.  The radio DJ’s who liked to pretend to be cool called it, “The Flyin’ Y!”

Now the Flyin’ Y worked well enough if you were coming into downtown but if you were coming out of downtown the thing was screwy.  If you wanted to turn right and head out west to Nampa, you had to go left.  If you wanted to turn left and head right out to Mountain Home you had to go right.  You heard me correctly, right was left and left was right.  We really were backwards.

I tried to go to Nampa a couple times and ended up in Mountain Home and although Mountain Home is a wonderful place with a cool air force base, I didn’t like spending much time there especially since it made me an hour or so late to whatever was happening in Nampa.

After two times I learned my lesson.  Right was left and left was right.

I was in college one day and hanging out with a good friend in downtown Boise.  Her name was Linda and I remember liking her well enough but not enough to ever formally date.  We both lived in Nampa at the time and had commuted into the big city for coffee.

We had a good time and were coming home, approaching the Flying Y when I changed into the left lane.

Linda said, “We are going back to Nampa right?”

Being a gentlemen’s gentleman I was a little offended.  I’d like to think of myself as the type of guy who would never take a lady the opposite direction from where she wanted to be.  “Of course, Linda.”

Linda carefully replied, “Then you want to be in the right lane.  Nampa is to the right.”

I said, “No.  I’ve been fooled here before.  This is backwards Boise.  Right is left and left is right.  I know it sounds logical to go right so that we can go right but really we want to go left and that will take us right out to Nampa.”

Linda said, “That isn’t true.  If you go left, we’ll be left out in Mountain Home.”

“No, Linda, that isn’t true.  I’ve been left out in Mountain Home and it’s because I went right.”

This exasperated Linda and not just because we only had one mile and sixty seconds to figure this whole right-left business out.

She spoke frankly, “Kevin, get in the right lane.  It will take us out to Nampa.”

“Linda, I grew up in Boise.  We are backwards here.  I know it’s hard to believe but here we ride ice blocks and eat steak fingers and mix our ketchup and our mayonnaise together and root for a football team who probably couldn’t beat their own mothers.  So right is left and left is right and we will be in Nampa in no time.”

Fifteen seconds had passed and Linda’s heart rate was beating faster and faster.  “Kevin, BSU actually had a winning season last year.  They are nationally ranked and haven’t lost a game since last year.  They put up fences on the hills so you can’t ride ice blocks any more and everybody who ate steak fingers just died of heart attacks and their kids all now like kale.  Plus, that special sauce thing is more a Utah commodity.  Boise isn’t what it used to be.  We aren’t backwards anymore and last month they completed work on the brand new connector.  They fixed it and now left is left and right is right.

The signs up ahead were of little consolation.  They were as confusing as Boise signs could be.  The far left one said, “Nampa.”  The middle one said, “Mountain Home.”  The far right one said, “Nampa.”  That was typical backwards Boise.  We’d come a long ways but those signs were all the proof I needed that right was still left and left was still right.

Calmly I told my panicked passenger, “Linda, I was just here six weeks ago and left was still right and right was still left.”

We had five seconds before the missed exit and I was cruising along confidently in the left lane when Linda dropped the truth bomb.

“Kevin, I work in downtown Boise.  I drive this route every single day to get home from work and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that as of six weeks ago right is now right and left is now left.  Get in the right lane!”

You couldn’t argue with that.  We went right out to Nampa.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is or even if there is one.  I just know that Linda saved me from being left out in Mountain Home again.  Though really Mountain Home’s not all that bad of a place. There even might be a sermon right out there somewhere.  .  .but only if you go left.

A Sermon About God and the Corrupt Powers and Authorities

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Hello everybody.  Long time no read.

There is much to write about but little time to write about it.  I did however record one of my recent sermons and upload it to YouTube.

Unfortunately this is a rerecording of the original sermon since the original was destroyed or not copied or some disaster or other.  As a rerecording I hate most things about it.  But it is here for you all.

It was recorded before the political revelations of the prior weekend and, needless to say, this last weekend pushed this sermon to its limits and maybe even beyond.  In short there was a lot that happened among the “rulers and authorities” this last weekend that made me want to give into anger, rage, malice and slander.  Still, we are children of the King and he has humiliated them on the cross and continues to do so and therefore we should be kind and compassionate and humble and loving and all that.

Also I should note that this was the third in a sermon series that is roughly based on the Atonement Theories.  The first sermon was about the wrath of God and the forgiveness that comes through the cross (Satisfaction Theory).  The second was about being slaves to Satan and the cross as a Ransom (Ransom Theory).  This is the third.

Hope you enjoy it.  Or at the very least don’t hate it as much as I now do.

https://youtu.be/xJbo9DCG4WY

A Sermon Somewhere: Doing Drugs

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This post is the latest in an ongoing series where I try to find the hidden sermons lurking beneath everyday experiences.  .  .and fail miserably.

I am an Evangelical Christian pastor.  This means I don’t like drugs.  Actually I despise them.  True, I like coffee but I always feel guilty for liking coffee, like I am betraying some sort of hidden Bible verse, probably in Proverbs, about caffeine being associated with short life and rebellious children.  When it comes to the other drugs, though, I avoid them all like the plagues they pretend to cure.

I am also a marathon runner and athlete.  This means I respect the character forming nature of proper pain.  Pain is gain and that which dulls pain dulls character.  Anybody who takes anything other than water and sleep is a wimp and probably a Pharisee.

I really don’t like drugs whether they be the big bads (cocaine, heroin, meth) or the regular over the counter meds (ibuprofen, Advil, etc).  I will suffer with a headache or muscle pain for days before it even occurs to me that Tylenol exists.

My wife is always the one that reminds me.

She is a bit more of a wimp.  If she feels the very slightest form of nausea, she is hitting up our medicine cabinet like it holds the gifts of eternal life.  She has the pharmacy section of the grocery store memorized and is familiar with drugs that I have never heard of.  When I get near that section, I pray protection over the demons lurking within and then rush in, find what I need, and rush out before any of them get on me.

In the 8 years of our marriage one of our ongoing “debates” has been over the use of drugs.  I will say something like, “I have a slight headache today.”  She will reply, “Take Advil.”  I will reply, “That’s what the heathens do, dear.”  She will say, “If you feel that strongly about it, then stop complaining.”  I let her win there but in my head I note, “I am not complaining.  I was just making conversation about how the changing weather pattern is affecting the pressure in my head and causing unpleasantness.”  So in the end I win.

That is until this last month.

We moved to Utah a year ago and, as I have noted before, everything is different in Utah.  That apparently applies to the allergens in the air.  Those who have moved to Utah in the last few years quickly remind us that it takes three Aprils for your sinuses to adjust to the unique climate.  They may as well be suggesting you just save up all your sick leave for April.

Sure enough around the second week of April my whole family started to feel miserable.  Stuffy noses, coughs and fevers swept over all four of us, causing an incredible amount of misery.  As always I vowed to muscle through it.  Surely the pollen would eventually settle and I could go back to normal.  In my defense, my wife binged on all of her medicines and still felt miserable.

Three weeks later I was not better but much, much worse.  One Monday morning, my will and strength finally gave out and I reluctantly drove to a clinic.  I was in and out in fifteen minutes.  After listing off my symptoms they told me I had bronchitis because the pollen in my chest had sat for so long that it had become infected.  If I would have just taken over the counter meds it would not have happened.  The doctor prescribed something called “Mucinex” twice a day.  My wife had heard of it but up to that point I thought “Mucinex” was the name of a 1990s rapper.

I followed my orders like a good little obedient heathen and took the Mucinex and felt better within 48 hours.

Then this week my son developed a fever and went lethargic on us.  We chose to let him sleep it off.  Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the peace and quiet from his 4 hour long naps that he took twice daily.  Even better, when he was awake he wasn’t that energetic either, just sat in our arms staring blankly into the abyss.  He drank little and ate less.  We gave him a small dose of Tylenol once a day but it didn’t seem to help and Tuesday, after watching him moan on the couch for an hour, my dad hormones won out and I dragged him to the clinic.

They spent four hours poking and prodding and running tests only to send me home on the fool’s errand of trying to get a urine sample from a not quite potty trained two year old.

We waited all day Wednesday and I reluctantly dragged him back Thursday morning without the urine sample, knowing that now they had to extract the UA in very ungodly ways.  Luckily he had developed a skin rash and an ear ache at that point which were the final two symptoms needed for a diagnosis.

The doctor who saw him was gruff and opinionated.  I could tell he fought himself greatly to not just rage about what his coworkers had done Tuesday as he said through baited breath, “They did what!?”

Not long after, he brought out doses of both Ibuprofen and Advil and fed them to my son, who perked up within the hour.  An hour later he came back and said, “You are free to go but I am just going to have to be mean right now.”  He took a deep breath and sighed before saying through the same baited breath, “You guys have to be totally on top of this, more than you are being.  Medicine every four hours!  Force feed him liquids!  If he won’t drink hold him down and force a syringe down his throat with water or juice.  Is that clear?”

I was just happy to be talking to someone who knew what he was doing though I find the insinuation that I am a bad parent for not giving my kids drugs a bit insulting.

Maybe in the end it turns out drugs might have their purpose, not just for blunting pain but for not dying.  Or they might not.  I am not sure I am willing to let my wife truly win this round quite yet.  After all, who knows about how much integrity my son picked up from suffering so miserably?  I basically just secured him a high school award for “Best Character and Conduct.”  That is an award I never won, by the way.  Probably because my lousy parents gave me too much medicine.

It is also possible that we would have gotten better without the meds.  But now we will never know.

Invincible ignorance truly is bliss.

Either way, there has got to be a sermon in there somewhere.

A Sermon Somewhere: A Pastor and His Taxes

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There is an old saying that pairs death and taxes together as the two things that are the most certain.  But for whatever reason seminary prepared me ten times better for death than for taxes.  During school, taxes came up briefly and sporadically, enough to convince me that a pastor’s tax situation is more complex than the doctrinal fine points under consideration at the Third Council of Constantinople.  Still here is what I have gathered so far:

As a pastor I am considered self employed at points and employed at others.  I get a housing allowance that affects one part of the tax code but is totally null and void on the other.  If I work from home I might get some deductions or I might not.  I don’t pay in monthly and my church doesn’t deduct taxes on my paycheck.  Instead, under particular and very vague circumstances, I am required to pay in quarterly.  If my church doesn’t reimburse me for all my mileage and expenses I can deduct the remaining, but only if I kept certain records all throughout the year, except in other cases where there are “standard” deductions.  Oh and if you live in a parsonage it just throw the whole thing caddywhompus.  To make things worse last year my wife and I lived in two states and had 4 different incomes.

To make a long story short, we should have just hired an accountant but our beloved accountant lives a couple state lines away and we were unable to find a new one that didn’t charge us less than $250.  Since we didn’t do the quarterly payments, we figured we owed something and didn’t want to pay more than that to have an accountant tell us we owed something.

So we bought Turbo Tax.

For those of you unfamiliar with Turbo Tax, the program keeps a very enlightening running tally of your “refund” at the top of the screen that changes with each data you input.  It started by having me list my dependents.  After doing so the “refund” tally drove up into the tens of thousands.  Then it had me put in the W-2s, after which the “refund” very quickly decreased down to 0 and kept going into the red for several more thousands of dollars, passing “the shirt off your back” until it eventually bottomed out at “One arm and one leg.”

I made a snap judgment that we would give Uncle Sam my wife’s leg and my son’s arm.  I worked some more on trying to find other deductions without much luck until my wife entered the room and I explained to her that she would have to give her leg to Uncle Sam.  She was notably taken aback and asked, “Why MY leg?”

“Well I need mine,” I scoffed because it was obviously true.  She didn’t find it either obvious or true or funny.  So we settled on my daughter’s leg and my son’s arm.  After all, I heard somewhere that if you lose a limb before a certain age it grows back.  They would be fine.

But be that as it may our “refund” eventually came to $6500 that we owed.  We went over that number two or three times and found no solace.  So we stewed about it for a couple days as I came to peace with it all and went to pay the amount.

Very reluctantly and with tears in my eyes I hit the “file” button on Turbo Tax thinking that would settle it.  It didn’t.

After getting my banking information, my online pin and signature, and having me save a PDF of all forms, I went to hit the “file” button again, only to have it list three errors that were needed before I could file.  The first had to do with the EIN number of my daughter’s preschool.  The second had to do with a misunderstanding of a state rebate last year.  The last had to do with some obscure worksheet whose very existence confounded me.  I studied it and entered the number I thought most accurate and miraculously saw our payment halve.

This threw me into a panic because I had little to no idea what had happened.  So we started over from scratch, did the whole thing again, got to that form again and entered the number we thought most accurate only to see it give us roughly the same amount.

To do this day I have no idea what happened with that form or even if what I did was technically legal.  So I googled “odds of getting audited by IRS” and found scores of articles claiming that the IRS’s budget has been cut so drastically that they could no longer afford auditors!  This was a welcome relief.  To add to it, Turbo Tax claimed my “risk of audit” was incredibly low, presumably because a few thousand dollars isn’t worth the audit when you don’t have many auditors lying around.

Still, because I am one of those Evangelical Millenials with a perpetually guilty conscious, I am almost certain I am going to get audited.  I can just picture it now.  My wife and I sitting in the IRS office as a very skinny and short man in a gray suit with small rimmed glasses pours through our financial documents looking for the justification to remove our limbs for King and Country.  My wife and I will sit there nervously babbling about why we did what we did, trying to make light of the whole thing with nervous laughter.

He won’t be amused but I am not scared.  After all, while he digs through those documents, I am sure he will find a sermon in there somewhere!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to buy!

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

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

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

How odd of God indeed!