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.