Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Adult Church

And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 18:3

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." - Matthew 19:14

Why do we have "Children's Church?"

Why do so many churches today place their children in special classes and never take them to the main worship service?

It seems to me, based on Scripture, that we should have "Adult's Church," not "Children's Church."

My church, until recently, had a special time, called the "Children's Sermon," when all the kids could come forward for a special message for them. Of course, the adults in the room usually enjoyed it more and got more out of it than the kids. Why do we not have a time of "Adult's Sermon," when all the adults come forward for special instruction?

We have this idea that we need to give kids a special space so that they can learn the Gospel stories and so that the adults can have adult messages in the "big service." Jesus, and later Paul, regularly tells us that we are backwards and inverted in our thinking. We think it is best to lead and Jesus says it is best to serve.

We're like the rich young ruler who wants to know what sensible thing we need to do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus says we need to do the insensible thing of selling all our possessions and following him. We say it is time to grow up, get a job and make a living, and Jesus says that God takes care of birds and grass, so of course He'll take care of us as well. You can't preach the literal teaching of Jesus without some "mature" believer explaining all the mystery and simplicity away - and it is often the preacher who does this.

I know my kids are growing up because they are questioning me more and more. It is good for them to question me. I am not God. They need to break out of the mold I am trying to form on them and be their own. It is not the same with God. Instead, we need to stop questioning Him. No, I don't mean that we can't ask God why. What I do mean is that we trust Him and take Him at His word. This is what my children did, and still do for the most part. We need to get back to trusting and obeying.

To get back to the main idea I started with, though: I can't help but think that we may be missing the mark if we aren't talking in such a way that the children can participate. We may be missing the mark if we aren't worshiping in such a way that the children can participate.

Instead of sending kids off to a special place for them so that we can keep a special place for ourselves, I think we need to start making the main space a space for all; and we do that by making it a space for children more than a space for adults.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Cheap Seats in the Church

I earned a Bachelors degree in Emergency Administration and Planning. Think FEMA. Most graduates from the EADP program go on to be Emergency Managers for cities or companies. I didn't. I found a job in an insurance company, then became a pastor. Emergency Administration and Planning was probably good training for being a small church pastor.

It's pretty interesting work, emergency planning and administering; pastoral work is too, for that matter. In the emergency stuff, you spend most of your time and energy thinking about what might go wrong, how to mitigate the damage if it does go wrong, and then praying it never does go wrong because you weren't given the budget to bring all of your solutions to life.

One of the big reasons why I never really got into emergency management, apart from the fact that I would have needed to leave the metroplex and with it the young lady I eventually married, was the fact that it seemed like a losing scenario.

You spend all your time getting ready for something that no one wants to happen, and then spend all your time dealing with the fall out when it does happen. Everyone on earth has retrospective ideas how you should have prepared. Who wants the stress of a city or company full of Monday morning quarterbacks?

Yes, becoming a pastor was a much better decision.

Oh, who am I kidding. Being a pastor is probably worse. An Emergency Manager only has to deal with Monday morning quarterbacks after a disaster; a pastor has to deal with them constantly. For all the hours you put into preparing a sermon, there's always ready criticism. For all the struggle of making decisions, trying to get help in the decision-making, and then following through, it's amazing how quickly the criticisms come.

If person A is happy with you today, person B thinks you should have done it differently. When person B thinks you were brilliant, person A has a few choice words for you.

It seems, sometimes, that the church is full of cheap seats. Not the ones getting dirty next to you in the dugout, not even very many behind the dugout supporting you, but plenty that like to jeer at you from afar.

Why do we rip each other apart? Why do we only criticize and not assist?

One of the things I continue to try and instill in our congregation, and also work hard to live out myself, is a spirit of grace. By this, I mean that we nurture an environment where a person's failures, limitations, and even sin may be confessed and forgiven in hope and love.

I know that my personality affects how I preach and the decisions I make. I expect people to accept me along with my preaching. Because of this, I try to extend a similar grace to other people. As we ask different people to be involved in our worship services, we aren't just asking them to fill a hole, but to do a task as they would do it. So, their personality is part of how they do that task.

I know I mess up my sermons regularly and goof up my announcements quite a bit - I say too much or I don't say enough. In those situations, I look to the church to forgive me and to extend me grace for these failures and limitations. In turn, when someone in the church shares too much or blabbers on when we really need to be moving on, I figure we better extend them some grace and forgive them for who they are.

One of the benefits of sitting in the cheap seats in sports is that the players usually can't hear you and what you have to say doesn't really have any bearing on the game. Sadly, the cheap seats are right near the action in churches and families, so we might want to watch what we say from them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Proper Christian Posture

If I were to describe the posture most evangelical Christians take toward their sin, I would say it is defiant. Or, at least, that is the stance they feel they should have: braced, ready with sword, shield, breastplate, and helm to ward off all attacks.
We are taught to fight the sin that acts as a nefarious insurgent in our flesh. I have employed this posture - it was the only way early in my life of faith, when I had been redeemed and therefore needed to purge all of the vestiges of the old life.

After years of fighting sin, can I just say how much I failed? I know too well what the Apostle Paul was saying; for the things I wanted to do, I didn't do, but the things I didn't want to do, these things were the very things that I did do.

How many times did I go to the Lord, apologizing for my failures, knowing that it was my weakness, that I needed the power of His Holy Spirit, and I must not be employing the Holy Spirit properly.

Maybe, maybe I really enjoyed my sin and wasn't willing to let it go. Oh, but I am dead to sin, it no longer reigns in my life! Yet, the evidence was overwhelming, it was still alive and seemed to control me often.

There were times of success as well, but they didn't hold out. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter if you stay sober for five years. Just one drop and you are back to day one. Granted, at least you had those years of sobriety, but the count of how long you've been good starts over. Be good and not cuss for five years, but let one word slip out, it's all over.

What is needed in the Christian's life is constant vigilance!

Or, maybe, a different posture?

Instead of facing our sin, why don't we just turn our backs on it? Instead of a fighting posture of defiance, why not an ignoring posture of indifference?

Ooh, that doesn't sound good, does it? Indifferent about sin? How dare you!

Not indifferent about, but indifferent toward.

Our struggle with sin often comes across as Hercules fighting the Hydra. But, why do we struggle for that which Jesus already conquered? Why do we fight a battle He already won?

I believe we should acknowledge that Jesus already defeated our sin. In our faith, we are alive to Christ but dead to sin.

If we are dead to sin, why do we spend so much time thinking about it and fighting it? I'm not suggesting we sin with impunity - oh, wait, yes I am.

Well, no, not exactly. I'm not saying we sin (actively) with impunity; but I am saying that we should sin (reflexively) with impunity. What I mean is that we stop fighting and start living.

Paul suggests this very thing in Romans 8 when he says that "those who are according to the Spirit (set their minds) on the things of the Spirit." (Romans 8:5)

The general evangelical posture, the one that is ready to fight, is closer in description to the "mind set on the flesh." (Romans 8:6)

When we struggle with sin, when we try to fight it in our own abilities, we are working in the flesh, and our minds are set on the flesh. It is not about what God has done or is doing, it is about what I am doing or have not done.

Rightly do we need to "let go and let God." The victorious life we find in Jesus is not victory in our own abilities, but security in His victory. Go in your own power at the main gate if you want to, but I'll take the grace at the lepers' gate.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How Fluffy a Foundation

What is the foundation of the Christian life? Jesus, right? Or, at least, our confession of faith in Him and His sacrifice on the cross.

Yes, all and good. But I am thinking about something different. I am talking about how the Christian life is pulled off, how it is lived. Upon what is it founded - what principle? I would like to suggest that forgiveness is that principle that serves as the foundation of the Christian life.

Forgiveness is a major theme throughout Scripture, beginning from about Genesis 3, but I’ll begin at the cross. Luke 23:43 records Jesus’ plea: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He spoke about the people crucifying Him at that moment, but it applies to all of us who put Christ on that cross. Father forgive us.

How does one begin the walk with Jesus without first being forgiven? We confess Jesus as Christ with our mouth and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, but for what purpose? We seek Him because we need forgiveness, we confess Him because we have experienced forgiveness.

I have performed a few baptisms. Those who confess Jesus as Lord in the baptismal waters speak the words with a lilt of joy in their voice. That joy comes from the knowledge and experience of forgiveness. We are not sure about this life of faith. Will we have what it takes to continue for the rest of our lives? What will this mean? We don’t know. But we know where we were, we know how awful it was to be without Jesus, and we are so glad to have been forgiven and to be His now. That is the joy.

Forgiveness is not just the foundation in the sense of being the starting point, but also in the sense that it is how the Christian life is lived.

Have you ever noticed how a person can come to Jesus, proclaim their need for forgiveness, receive forgiveness, and then live the rest of their life as if there is a way to navigate it without forgiveness? Another way this manifests itself is in how we treat one another. We expect the other person to do the right thing at the right time - to behave without sin. And why not? After all, we have the Holy Spirit living in us. Shouldn’t we have the ability to do the right things?

Except, it’s not that way. In Romans 7, Paul confesses that he has “the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  Try as he might, even indwelt with the Holy Spirit, Paul failed to live perfectly. He needed forgiveness in his life.

We don’t just see this in Paul. Did you ever notice how many times Jesus spoke about forgiveness? What is His answer for dealing with a brother who sins against us? Forgive him. How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times before I can finally get fed up with him and his lack of Christian behavior? No. Seventy times seven times.

How about the parable of the servant who was forgiven an insurmountable debt, only to withhold forgiveness of a manageable debt? From this parable, we are instructed to forgive our brothers from our hearts because of the great forgiveness we have received.

Ephesians 4:32 puts a cap on it, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

We enter the Christian life through forgiveness, acknowledging that we are sinners in need of salvation through Jesus. Once entered into, we live it out through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the answer for the troubles between us; forgiveness is the answer for when we don’t measure up.

Forgiveness is the foundation of this way of life.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Autobiographically Annoying

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, … When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
John 20:20-22

Perusing my posts, from this year and years past, I see that they are more self-focused than I’d like them to be. They become a bit whiny at times; or, at least, I feel they might come across that way. I judge this to be negative because most of the blogs I read are more instructional. I compare myself to these other blogs, say to myself, “do this,” and then find myself missing a deadline.

It is just not in me. Some would say, "Get better at it!" Ok, fair point. Except that I am not sure this is actually a shortcoming. It is a personality; a style of mine. I can continue to try and be a person I am not; or, I can accept that I am who I am, that I work the way I work, and that God would rather I stop focusing on what that other fellow is doing and FOLLOW HIM as ME.

What does it mean to follow Jesus as me? Well, for starters, it means to live by the autobiographical account and to die by the autobiographical account. It means to live by extemporaneous speaking/writing and to die by it! Yes, it will get old, and there are those who don’t like it. On the other hand, I’d be really bad without it, and it is the method of communicating I have naturally fostered ever since I became a believer. Probably even before that. I tell my story. I hope others will tell theirs.

The focus of my writing and my preaching is on what I might call the human condition. I’m not so interested in giving instructional “how to” messages as I am in considering who God is, who we are, and what God has done and is willing to do in our lives. I want to examine why there is a problem more than I want to tell you how to solve the problem.

Beyond this focus, I find that I gravitate to stories. I like to tell stories and I like to hear them, but I also think in the context of stories. When someone tells me an experience or struggle they are facing, I often have different stories pop into my head that seem similar or that might shed some light on things. I can’t help but think people must tire of me relating a movie plot or scene to their lives because of some lesson or connection that I feel can be drawn out of it for them. Well, so be it! To me, stories are a great way to convey instruction, to get at the heart of the matter in our hearts.

Maybe the best way to understand both my focus and my mode is that I am thinking more about why than how. Sure, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but why are we skinning it? An instruction manual will tell you how to use the knife and how to pull the hide down; but a story about the cat and the person with the knife will tell you why.

Stories are all about motivation. Even a story that is focused on the how of a situation is driven by the why. Take “Remember the Titans” for example. Here you have the story of a football team that had a perfect season in the 70s. The how of the story is so anticlimactic that the moviemakers had to create false storylines for drama and rearrange the season to make the final game actually suspenseful.

In the best scene, the assistant coach is watching the refs call the game so that the Titans will lose, thereby getting rid of the head coach and putting him back in charge. He tells the refs to stop, and then goes into action when they rebuff him. In a rousing speech, he tells his defense to not give up one more yard.

The rest of the game is a montage of hits. How the Titans defeated their opponent and the refs doesn’t matter; why they did has already been settled. His decision, his change, his attitude makes every one of those hits mean something. Especially by the end, when the Titans have won but he is informed that he won’t be voted into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame (something that didn’t even exist back then).

We all need instruction manuals and we need someone to tell us the best way to do a task from time to time. I’ve got nothing against instruction manuals, and even own a few on the shelves of my home and office. But they don’t do the same job as a story. Even the ones written as if to be stories, like Who Moved My Cheese, come off as awful because they are really instruction manuals at heart. But, I’ve also got some good stories that happen to have a lot of instruction for life. Good stories can do that.

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” -  C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy.

When it comes to stories, there is a question about which stories we can share. Personally, I don’t feel that I have a right to tell another person’s story. I suppose I can tell a public story, like sharing about “Remember the Titans,” but it still comes through my lense or filter. Most of my sermons are God’s word filtered through the lens of my heart, mind, and gut. It is filtered through my personality, my day, my current attitude. The same is true for every pastor or writer, I believe. By filtering it through me, it becomes my story to a certain degree. I can tell my story.

I don’t have anyone else’s filter, and it wouldn’t be honest to use their filter anyway. Now, I do know parts of other people’s stories, and I’m free to share some of them because the owner has given me that freedom. Most, though, are not mine to share. They are great stories, stories that could benefit other people, but they are not mine. I don’t have a right to tell them. The only stories I have a right to tell are my own.

So, I go on giving autobiographical stories. It is fitting; it is the way I work best. There are many times I wish I was different, but the truth is that I don’t. Not really. I don’t want to tell a group of people to do A, B, C. I want to share my story and to let the story have its effect in each person as is appropriate for them. That is what I desire to achieve.

I just hope I don’t do it in a whiny voice.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


We buried a very dear lady last week. The Sunday prior, I was talking to a gentleman from our church who lost his wife, suddenly, many years ago. As he spoke, he shared that he often chided his co-workers that it was better to be a widower than a divorcee, seeing as how he knew where his wife was and that there was no hope of getting together again on this side of eternity. He said that, when you are divorced, it's never really over. You might see your ex on the street somewhere, and you might think to yourself, "maybe I can get her back." Then he said the thing that has got me thinking; he said, "cause people can't handle rejection, and that's what divorce is."

He's right.

Even if it is amicable, and even if you are the one who sought a divorce, it is still rejection. It may be you that is rejecting, not being rejected, but it is still rejection, and the one who is rejected will feel it. Generally, when a spouse dies, it is not rejection but loss. They aren't saying they don't want to be with you, they aren't saying anything. Oftentimes, they don't have a say in it. The few times they do have a say in it, it generally isn't rejection either. There are easier ways to get away from someone you don't like anymore. In those few times when a person has a say in their death, they are generally making a decision, right or wrong, that either has nothing to do with their spouse or everything to do with their spouse in a sacrificial, though misguided, way, even it is doesn't feel like it. But this post isn't about those kind of situations, it isn't really even about divorce, or death. It's about rejection.

Now, there are rejections that don't hurt any. You don't like the look of a person and so you have nothing to do with them; you reject them, but you never really accepted them in the first place, and they probably don't even know or care that you've rejected them. Divorce-style rejection is different. This is a rejection after an acceptance. Two people decided that they wanted to walk along together, they did walk along together for a spell, and now one or both of them is rejecting that arrangement and making dust. That is a painful type of rejection that can leave you wondering what you did wrong and how you might be able to fix it. It might not actually be your fault, and most often it isn't. Maybe they thought they were something they're not, maybe they were hiding something or not being honest about something about their own self, and now it has become too much and they make a break for it. Maybe they thought they liked you, but didn't really know you, and now they decide they can't live with you because you won't stop being you.

(Personally, I think life's more about being yourself and getting along with one another as is than it is changing yourself for one another.)

These thoughts became even more poignant to me that evening, as we gathered at the local funeral home for the visitation. When a person has lived in the same house for 58 years, as this lady has, they make quite the mark in the church and the community. The room was so full, I waited a good 40 minutes in the foyer, greeting with one person or another, before I dared go in - lest we over stuff the room and cause someone to pass out! So many dear people were there: friends, neighbors, family, and church family. The church family group was huge, although I must admit that I couldn't help but view them as two distinct groups: current members and prior members, and the prior members were the greater number.

Each one of those people I met - some of who stopped going to Eagle Mountain years before I came here but many who had left in the last seven years - represented for me a rejection. Each one, at some point, had decided that the church I love and am sacrificing myself for was no longer worth their time and presence. Well, that's not fair. Some of them moved, I suppose, and some experienced God strongly moving them to a new place. But the truth is that most of them can not claim that. Most of those who left did not leave on good terms, but with bills of divorce, and we all know why God permits divorce.

Now, of those who left because of the frailty of humanity and the hardness of our hearts, there were two groups. Several had left before I got there, and I couldn't really feel it was a divorce for me, per se, seeing as how I had not known them. They still represented a rejection to me because they had, at some time, rejected the church I was now a part of, but the divorce was from another. I had not walked with them, so their rejection did not quite sting so much. The others, though, how they hurt.

I don't think they, themselves, hurt, necessarily. The one who does the walking rarely feels the sting. They're on to better things, whether they are or not. No, when I say they hurt, I mean they hurt me. Some of them were on the pastor search team that called my family to visit EMBC in view of a call: they selected me out of so many eligible candidates and made me feel so special, only to rip my heart right out of my chest. Not all at once, now; but each one did it, individually, in their own time, over the course of about five years. Others weren't on that team, but they had either stayed around and started walking with me or had shown up after me and decided to walk along. That last group is probably the one that means the most to a person, because they don't have a ton of friends or a long history to keep them at the church when they aren't happy with you, and so you feel a bit closer to them for those first few years.

The hardest thing about getting together in the community, whether it is funerals, weddings, or some other event, is seeing those people who walked with you at one time but then filed divorce papers against you. Every single ex-member of Eagle Mountain Baptist Church who left in the past seven years feels like a personal divorce. Sure, there are some that, from time to time, I'm probably thankful to be free from, but I'd rather still be bound. I'd rather we figured out how to walk together, and I was willing to keep trying when they decided to leave me flat. (And yes, they left me. Most still have friends in the church and express their undying love for the church and community. I think that maybe makes it worse. They basically said, "We love you and we love this church, but not enough to put up with this guy!") There isn't one person I've told to scram, although there is a person or two I've considered rejecting outright. I don't get that prerogative, not unless I reject the whole group, and I don't.

Standing there, visiting with people who, at one time or another, decided I was not the pastor for them, made me remember those words from that morning. "People can not handle rejection." I know I can't. Rejection of this very sort is what threw me into a spiraling depression four years ago, and I'm not sure I'm over it yet. Others have added to what a few began. It has just about destroyed me. I don't know how pastors deal with it, other than the cliché Sunday school answers I refuse to give right now. My predecessor pastored EMBC for 17 years. He saw people leave and return, but he saw a whole lot more decide to walk with him for awhile and then leave. He seems a more friendly guy than I am; how did he handle it? Maybe it is easier when enough people are joining you to make up for those who are leaving you, but I doubt it. (I'm willing to test this hypothesis, though, God!)

Well, okay, I guess I'll give you a Sunday school answer. Jesus experienced everything that we do and more. He experienced rejection. He experienced the rejection of the people, the rejection of the leaders, and the rejection of his own followers. One of his followers betrayed him, another denied him, and all ran from him. No matter how bad we mess up, or how many people tell us we aren't worth their time and effort, Jesus doesn't reject us. So, we hold on to him and keep going. Sometimes, we go just enough for that day, trusting that he'll be there for us again tomorrow.

For my part, I try to focus on those who haven't rejected me, yet, and who I hope never will. I am thankful for the voices that are speaking to me today, and for the people who have filled those spaces others vacated. I find it interesting that some voices, who have said hello to me every week for seven years, are all of a sudden speaking more words to me, and words of wisdom, no less. Why weren't they speaking earlier? Was it because I wasn't listening? Maybe there were others in the way.

This is the Lepers' Gate. Like my church, it is a place for those who are rejected, who are unclean, who aren't good enough for the front door. We're here on the side, huddled in the cold, looking for a scrap of the body to be handed through the door. Just a scrap of Jesus is enough, he is grace enough for all of us. If you're tired of being rejected, I know a place where you won't be - Eagle Mountain Baptist Church. The church, like this blog, isn't cool or cutting edge, as you can see by our website, but it is good and honest and full of Jesus. I hope the Lepers' Gate is, too.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

To See the World Inverted

When I was a child, my family watched the miniseries Anno Domini on television. I don’t recall actually watching it myself, but I must have been around it at times because I remember a few things from it, flashes really – different scenes and situations. There is one particular scene that I do not remember seeing, but the dialogue has always been with me. It is from the scene when Peter is being sentenced to death, and he requests to die “seeing the world the way the rest of sinning humanity sees it: wrong, twisted, … inverted.” It is Christian tradition that Peter was crucified upside down, and several versions on the story have it that Peter felt himself unworthy to die as Jesus did, but my understanding of his reasoning comes from this television drama from 1985. (Strange, isn’t it? That such a thing would lodge in my memory and have some profound effect on my understanding. Anyway…)

I have often thought of that phrasing: to see the world as the rest of humanity sees it, inverted. We spend so much time trying to explain God’s ways, whys and hows. We labor to justify his value system, like when He chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; or when He declares that the poor are actually blessed, that the rich are the ones who are in trouble. As we attempt to explain it to ourselves and others, we generally begin with our own perspective and describe God’s ways as putting it on its head. Is this true, is God the one who inverts, or are we?

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” 1 Corinthians 1:21

When we say, “He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,” we do not necessarily mean that He is retroactively undoing the wisdom of the world, as it sounds in 1 Corinthians. God undoes our wisdom about as much as the Sun revolves around the Earth. From our perspective, we say the Sun rises and the Sun sets. Similarly, we say that God turns things on their head or “makes them foolish.” The truth is the Sun is stationary, and the world revolves around its axis as it revolves around the Sun. In the same way, our wisdom is never truly wisdom, but a rejection of God’s wisdom. His wisdom is first, and we rejected it; having rejected it, we created our own wisdom. As we are sitting around congratulating ourselves on our wisdom, God now comes in and demonstrates His wisdom that has been since the beginning, showing us just how foolish our wisdom actually is.

Think of all our value systems: we value the strong, the quick, the smart, the brave, the beautiful, the young, the well, the whole, the successful, etc., etc., etc. In short, we generally value anyone or anything that appears to be self-reliant. Beautiful people are sufficient in their beauty, the young are indestructible, the smart are full of answers, the strong can handle any challenge. How dare anyone suggest that we need something or someone else? Are we not sufficient in ourselves, are we not the source for any answers we might need? How dare someone try to lay their values on us, their judgments against our wishes? It is a crime against humanity, I tell you.

It is not much different in the church. We honor the successful, the beautiful, the good speakers, the cool spaces; then we struggle to explain the failures of our celebrity pastors as they misuse their positions or as their families fall apart. We say it is the meek who inherit the earth, but our actions say it is the bold! Our actions say that the popular are blessed, those who are on the cutting edge! In the Marine Corps, on our forced marches, we would shout out chanties:

“Let the weak”
“Fall by the wayside!”
“Only the strong”

And we would, too. We let those who could not keep up slide to the back, where they would straggle along, left behind by the main body.

That made sense in the Marine Corps; it does not make sense in the church. Yet, that is what I see and hear on a regular basis. When people leave one church to go somewhere that “feeds them,” in essence they are making an argument for abandoning a weaker vessel for what is perceived to be a stronger vessel. When a church feels that they need to establish a satellite of themselves in another community, or they desire to “reproduce” themselves in another community, they are basically saying that only they possess the “right stuff.” Look at the “leaders” of America’s evangelical church today. Do they say, “I am weak” or do they say, “I am strong?” The leading ethos within the church is one of strength, of confidence, of ego. There is nothing meek about the attitudes of the “winning” churches these days.

Now, it’s true that not all churches do this. There are some who serve under bridges and in slums; many who labor quietly in obscurity. And while they may be admired, they are rarely honored as being the standard by which we judge our own efforts. That is retained by the large, “successful” churches. Yet, in Scripture, it is the meek who inherit the earth; it is the sick who are well. Those who need no physician are in trouble, those who say they see are actually blind.

I think our inverted reality goes much further. For centuries, God provided the sun to light the day, the moon and stars to light the night; and they largely dictated the times of rising and sleeping for humanity. Then we created gaslight, followed by electricity, and you never have to sleep again. Have you ever been around a person who has not bathed in a while? Isn’t it revolting how smelly they are? But, God created us this way. What He did not create is clean-shaven men – clean-shaven women for that matter, nor hair that smells of strawberries or all these soaps and perfumes we use to mask our stench. I wonder, does the natural odor of our bodies make God gag, or does all the work we do to make ourselves better?

By following Jesus in faith, His disciples proclaim that they make God gag and need His forgiveness, not their own perfume. By repenting of our sins, we proclaim that we are the ones who are upside down, and we want to start living right side up. It is hard, though, isn’t it? Even as we declare we want to live by Christ, we still struggle to let go of our worldly perspective. So many things He calls us to do seem wrong or ill-conceived, almost backwards or upside down in its ways. When confronted with such a situation, maybe we should consider: “who is upside down, us or God?”

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Starting Point

By the end of this week, Donald Trump will be the President of the United States of America. What a surreal moment that will be. I actually had a dream about his inauguration last night, which tells me something about how much I am thinking about political things.

I haven’t really thought much about Mr. Trump prior to recent years. I remember watching one or two episodes of The Apprentice, and realizing that it wasn’t my thing. I don’t really care for “reality tv” at all, but I mean that the attitudes and behaviors of the show weren’t my thing. The episode I remember watching included two tasked with getting more people to call a phone number than the other team. The team that won used the only megaphones available in New York City, which the other team had reserved – they simply showed up at the store and claimed to be the other team. This was praised! As I watched, I recognized that I didn’t have what it took to be successful in that world; I don’t have that willingness to do anything to win. It seems that is what it takes to be successful, not only in “The Donald’s” world, but in the church world as well.

Since the election, I have actually been pretty excited about a Trump presidency. Not so much for him, but for the people he is assembling for his cabinet. For the most part, they are very successful people. To be sure, there are a few ideological bones thrown in for Conservatives, but his focus has primarily been on who he thinks has 1) a proven track record of success, 2) great likely-hood to be successful in the future, and 3) the greatest ability to help him be successful as well. I am really excited about some of his choices (blown away that he has made those choices, in fact), but I am also quite aware of how different I am to those people. Just as with The Apprentice, thinking about these cabinet picks reminds me that I am not the type of person who would be selected for such a thing in 20 years or so.

I don’t have a successful track record. I have pastored two churches and seen them both reduced in population, energy, outreach, and budget through my time as pastor. Maybe we will turn things around, maybe we won’t; but I can’t claim to be successful in ways that people outside looking in would acknowledge. Just as was the case when I went to boot camp, I am not the person making Honor Recruit, which I would have very much liked to have been. That position went to our guidon. Instead, I became a platoon clown, of sorts. In Seminary, I would have very much liked to have been one of the six students picked to preach in chapel at the end of the year, felt myself competitive in that sense, and saw myself not even be considered. Not quite the All Star I want to be.

The one time I was an All Star, and this is going back to when I was 10, I played on an All Star soccer team that won first place in a tournament! I was our star goalie and played a pivotal role in helping us beat the B Travelling Team for our area; a mean feat, I assure you. But when the tournament came, I played one game. While warming up for the second game, I jammed a finger trying to catch a ball and basically wussed out of the rest of the tournament because I was afraid of letting the team down. I didn’t know if I had what it would take to play hurt. I was equally good in the field, and could have helped in any other position, but the coach kept me on the bench for the rest of the weekend. That was a failure that stays with me.

So, I know I’m not the kind of person that Trump, and most people today (whether believers or not, for that matter) respect and want around them. We want success. We want to know that we will be considered to be cool if we sit at your table. Oh sure, there are friends who are glad to be with you and to know you, but they are few and far between. As I write, I am thinking about the church culture; it is hard to draw a crowd if you’re not cool, and I’m not cool.

What I am, however, is sincere. I am also romantic, not in a lovey-dovey way, but in an ideological way. I guess you could say that I am sincerely romantic. I want the good guy to get the girl at the end. I want love to triumph. I want the scrappy losers to win!

True story: I was never the “coolest” kid at school, but I was in the top five. At recess, if we were choosing teams, I was either one of the first kids chosen or one of the kids choosing. My teams stood a good chance of winning, just so long as we played kickball, football, dodgeball, soccer, tag, or anything other than basketball. When basketball came into the picture, I could help, but I couldn’t deliver victory. Still, this one time, I was one of the first two kids to make a free throw (fluke event, less common than a stopped watch being right) and be a team captain by my right of conquest. As we went to choosing teams, the other captain went with the strong players. I started with my best friend then went absolutely nuts and started selecting guys that I liked but who were usually relegated to the end of the selection process. I fielded the weakest team ever assembled in recess history. Having been promised by Hollywood that this was a surefire way to succeed, I expected great things from this ragtag team of misfits. We were slaughtered. But, at least I felt good about myself that day; those guys never got chosen so early. As I think back on it, I realize that was part of my motivation. Maybe I had an ulterior motive, maybe I knew we would lose, so I might as well go out in style. One thing is sure; I know how to go down in flames!

That is where I am today, going down in flames. I recognize that I have mostly failed throughout my life. I haven’t meant to; in fact, I’ve tried really hard to succeed, but I’ve failed. Yet, this failure is exactly where I do succeed. I succeeded the day I chose the “lasts” to be first. Maybe all that King James Only Fundamentalist Baptist schooling did me some good. Similarly, I succeed when I counsel a person who has failed, because I’m able to offer understanding (even if I don’t understand their exact situation) due to my personal experience with failure. I suppose the posh way of saying it is that it gives me empathy. Yeah, I think it does; and I find that other people see it as well. I think that is why a pastor who is struggling might find me a more welcome counselor than the more successful pastors around us, because I actually understand, not just the struggle, but the failure at the end. My failure has made me more understanding of other’s struggles, and it is what I have to offer.

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at communicating this with other people. When I came to EMBC, I set out to see if you could lead a community of believers to live out the Christian walk without guilt, pressure, or other coercions usually employed by religious leaders. I wanted to see if you could be a church where God mattered, not just our programs; to be a church body, not a minister and his minions. Sadly, many people walked out on this, either because I didn't give enough structure, didn't move the way they were moving, or flat out because they were too comfortable with guilt and coercion that they didn't recognize God without it. What is also sad, is how often I have doubted God along the way, because it looks like absolute failure! Well, it’s time to turn that around. Just like that day when I went crazy on the basketball court, I’m going for broke today for the romantic ending. No, not the “guy and girl walk off into the sunset” ending; the romantic ending where the last are first, where God does build His church, and where losers get crowns.

Now’s the time to pick myself off the ground, again, for the umpteenth time, just so I can see how long it takes me to go down in flames.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The High Water Low Point

Well, okay, maybe God hasn’t done it; but I definitely feel done.

I feel what God has done is allowed me to get to a low place where I am out of options and finally willing to do those things that I didn’t want to do. I am generally honest and willing to get to the nitty-gritty, but I have put that on hold as a pastor because there isn’t usually much left once you’ve burned the bridges, which my conversations usually tend to do. Feeling that my natural tendencies are not what “most pastors” do, I have practiced the art of holding my tongue (my family members just spewed coffee on their keyboards). No, it’s true, at least as it sits with church stuff.

It’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to write here. It has also made it very hard to write my Pastor’s Ponderings for the church e-letter, because I want to talk about the real problems we face but know that it will upset many of the members. Where I’m at now, I’m willing to speak openly about what I see going on because I’ve got nothing left.

I went through a really rough time this past fall; shoot, I’m still going through it. The church’s health is headed down, it needs leadership in areas where I am a failure, and I increasingly feel as if I am a drag instead of a boost. To put it succinctly, not only do I think there are several people in the church that don’t want me as their pastor, but those who do are unwilling to follow my leadership. On top of that, I haven’t got a very good track record of convincing new people to join us, either. What can you do in that situation?

Lots of things, I suppose; but I started looking at the possibility of getting a job. That way, I could stop being a drag on the church. This is actually a two-fold idea. On the one hand, it frees up funds to bring in some of the help we need in areas I am failing. The other hand is that it takes a big pressure off of me and allows me to keep the church being a church instead of a corporation. You see, the big struggle for me in the church is that my family’s livelihood is wrapped up in it. I’m trusting God, through these fine people, to keep a roof over my head and food on my table. I can’t sell more widgets to make ends meet, I have to rely on people wanting to be a part of this fellowship and then being willing to support the operation of the church, of which I am quite a large portion (and becoming a larger share of the budget over the years). Someone recently derided me as “living the dream.” I would say it is a dream’s evil twin.

It is this pressure that causes pastors to start hawking the goods and crafting the programs to get more people to buy into our brand, to be a part of what we are doing. Does any of that sound like Jesus? Oh, how wonderful it would be if I wasn’t dependent on the church for my livelihood! Then, we could live like believers together, not the pyramid scheme that masquerades as modern-day evangelism.

So, I went looking. Know what I discovered? I’ve got nothing to offer. Well, what I mean is this: what I do have to offer is not wanted. I don’t see it advertised out there, at least. That led me to some introspection, to asking what it was that I did have to offer. In the end, I am left with two things: an ability to talk and a track record of failure. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized that my failure is actually the source of what success I have experienced lately, and the best thing of myself that I have to offer. Of course, I didn’t get to that uplifting idea without getting pretty low first, which is the broken part of this whole thing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Breaking Point

I remember my pastor in college, Tommy Nelson of Denton Bible Church, saying something along the lines of “before God can use a man, He must first break him.” I suppose it might have been original, or he might have been paraphrasing AW Tozer, or I might have misrepresented what he really said. It doesn’t matter. I remember the sensation I received when he said whatever he said, and I remember the thoughts I have continued to have since he said it. My basic sensation was of dread; I was afraid of this statement because I was a man who wanted to be used by God, but I didn’t know if I really wanted to be broken by God.

This statement, of being broken by God, comes across piously. We sing about being broken, we talk about being broken – about bring our brokenness to God, and we generally do it with all the warmth and emotion of a Sunday school discussion. But being broken is not just an emotional change or a slight humbling of our spirit, it is destruction. Most people don’t know what it is to be broken, but I do. I was broken in 1995.

1995 was the year I joined the Marine Corps. I had such great dreams about who I would be as a Marine. I dreamed about being one of the take charge guys – a squad leader or the guidon. Then, it got real. The guidon and squad leaders got thrashed for the things other guys did. I was having enough trouble with myself; I didn’t really want to get that kind of notoriety.

On top of that, I had these ideas about esprit de corps and helping the other recruits – encouraging them and driving them on. We had a fat guy that was miserable, and I stayed with him and encouraged him to run during our first Physical Fitness Test. We crossed the finish line of the run and he wrapped his arms around me in gratitude. Awhile later, we were both in the duty hut being chewed out by our DI who wanted to know if we were queer - it was still illegal back then. I don’t remember much about the interchange; other than he asked us what our fathers would have thought and was actually flummoxed when I suggested my dad wouldn’t have a problem with what transpired. I do remember that I gave that recruit a wide birth from then on, and that I put my romanticized ideas of esprit de corps on hold until we actually were Marines – don’t perform low on account of these guys just yet!

The physical break happened at Camp Pendleton during the down time - on a Sunday, I believe. We were being thrashed and our DI had us doing modified push-ups with our butts about a foot higher in the air. This caused intense pain in my back, especially when we would remain still in the up position. I kept shifting and shifting until a DI kicked me out of the formation for not doing the push-ups properly (I was practically doing toe-touches I had scooted my hands so close to my feet). Even now, writing this, my back is hurting from the tension I am feeling. I wasn’t alone in being called out of formation, and so joined the other guys who were already moving a pile of sandbags. It was simple: we relocated this massive pile of sandbags, one at a time, at a run. Back and forth, back and forth. Then, when the pile was moved, we had to bring it back. The rest of the platoon was relieved from the push-ups in about five minutes and back in the squad bay in about ten. We didn’t get back till much later. Funny thing - I preferred that tiresome work of running those sandbags back and forth to even five seconds more of those push-ups.

By the time I graduated boot camp, I really didn’t feel like much of a Marine. We had been broken down, as promised, but I never really felt like I was put back together. I was still scared of doing the wrong thing, popping up when I should duck, and speaking when I shouldn’t or not speaking when I should. There were a lot more failures during that training, many times that I was chewed out, whether I earned it or not. There were times when my true colors shined through, like the time a DI was telling us what was going to happen and I jokingly breathed, “Oh, sh*t.” and he heard it! “That’s right! Just one ‘Oh Sh*t’ ruins the whole bushel.” I don’t think he knew who said it, but I don’t think it matters; it didn’t say anything about him, only about me. I guess my 8th grade Home Room teacher was right, I was a class clown.

So, getting back to God and me, I feel like I know something about being broken, and I had enough fun doing it with DI’s and would rather not discover what games God had in store. This is especially true because I had a hunch that I was stubborn enough to need a lot of breaking. I think I was right. I also think He’s finally done it.