Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ending Violence

It was opening devotion time at Synod Assembly.

The folks leading the devotion lifted up a study on violence which had been turned into a musical cantata.

Those of us participating in the congregation listened to the words put forth in that cantata as read by our devotion leaders.

I listened intently.

"You don't want to be hurt by anyone, so why do you hurt someone else?  Stop."

I paused upon hearing those words. 

Yes.  They make sense. 

Given an unspoken assumption.

That I am somehow not hurting already.

I remember years ago sitting in a social psychology class.  We watched a video detailing a study of pain and animals.  Two animals were placed in a cage which had been electrified.  One animal was larger than the other.  When current was applied and the animals felt the pain, the larger animal nearly always attacked the smaller animal.  When there was no pain, there was no violence.  When there was pain, violence ensued.

There was a lesson for each and every one of us in that class.

And it speaks, I think, to one of the reasons we try to avoid pain as a culture.

Keep the pain to a minimum, and you don't have acting out.  Keep the pain to a minimum, and you don't have violence.

And how do we keep the pain to a minimum in our culture:

1. The preferred drug of alcohol.
2. Material wealth and its redistribution.
3. Sex and sexuality.
4. Escapism through entertainment and sports.

There are other ways, of course, but the reality is, none of these things really and truly deal with the pain.  None of these things really and truly dig down deep into the recesses of the heart and deal with the emotional pain someone feels deep within their souls.

The recent shooting in California shows this beyond a doubt.  If you read this story, you will see how none of these things could satisfy Elliot Rogers before he went on his shooting/stabbing rampage.  He drank.  He had wealth.  He had privilege.  He desired sex and felt like he deserved it.  His family was a part of the entertainment industry.  He had it all--everything, and he was in pain; deep, pulsating pain. 

Given that Elliot was a young male (which is one of those "curious" common threads which run through just about every school shooting and mass murder), his brain was not fully developed, he was in emotional turmoil, he had access to firearms which made him feel like an alpha male (feel like, not that he was), it was just a matter of time before things finally erupted.

Everything that would supposedly dull the pain didn't work, and simply saying "You don't want to be hurt by anyone, so why do you hurt someone else?" wasn't going to work.

Because Elliot was already hurting.

A lot of people are already hurting.

Sure, they may put on a good front, but deep down, underneath the surface, nearly everyone has pain, hurt, resentment, agony, sadness, fear, loathing, contempt, frustration, and the list goes on.  Everyone has a piece of darkness within where the light does not shine.  Sometimes that darkness grows and grows and grows until it becomes all consuming. 

And we throw money at it.
And we throw drugs at it.
And we throw sex at it.
And we throw self-help books at it.

And nothing works.


And those of us who wish to offer a faith-based solution are scoffed at by many. 

Perhaps with good reason.  I mean, there are those who become so consumed with their respective faiths that they fly airplanes into buildings, kill abortion doctors, mock, beat and kill homosexuals, act with supreme arrogance, and are generally unpleasant people.  Such folks do not help in the cause of ending violence as they actually perpetuate it.  (I believe it is because they do not have God at the center of their hearts, but instead are pretty self-righteous.  Their fundamentals are out of whack.  I mean, no one has ever seen an Amish terrorist.)

The Gospel is sorely needed.

Whenever we think we deserve something, and we do not get what we think we deserve, we become angry, frustrated, and full of pain.  Whenever we feel like we have been wronged, we become resentful.  Whenever we feel thwarted by someone else, anger begins to build.  It tends to be the other person's fault. 

The Gospel does not allow you to do this.  The Gospel says, "You may have been wronged.  You may have been hurt, but you are not without guile yourself.  You have fallen short as well.  You have no basis to think that you are morally superior over another.  You have no basis to think that you deserve any particular good over and above anyone else.  You are just as corrupt as the person you believe has wronged you."

It's not a popular message amongst some.
Most of us like to think we have the moral high road.
Jesus doesn't allow us to take that.

If we were left at this point, we would all be miserable.  We would all be in pain and agony knowing our imperfections; knowing our fallenness; knowing our brokenness.  We would continue to act out in pain and frustration.

But then Jesus says, "Let me take that away from you.  Let me show you how much you are loved even in your brokenness.  Let me show you how far I am willing to go to forgive you when you continue to act in an unforgivable manner."

And Jesus stretches out His arms to die for you.

And He says, "I am pouring myself out for you, and if you put me at the center of your life, I will pour myself into you.  I will fill the void in your heart.  I will take the pain and frustration.  I will help you know forgiveness so that you may forgive others.  And I will give you hope."

And Jesus was raised from the dead ushering in eternal life for all who trust in Him.

That hope means a state of fulfillment for eternity.  The things you thought you missed will be granted you in their fullness in the healthiest manner possible.  You do not have to try and squeeze in every sight and sound because "you only get this one life."  You have an eternity before you.  An eternity filled with light and goodness and love--with God at the center wiping every tear from your eye.

And that reality--that sense of eternity--is not limited to when you die.  You can have one foot there now.  You can be in this world but not of it.  You can experience what it is like to worship God who is at the center of the throne now.  You can know His peace now.  You can know His love now.  You can have Him wiping your tears now.

People will still hurt you.
People will still mock you.
People will still do you wrong.
And you will still do this to others, but you do not have to experience the fullness of the anger.  You do not have to experience the fullness of the pain.  You can forgive because He forgave you.

And when you forgive, the pain lessens.
And you know peace.
And when you know peace, you seek to spread it instead of violence.
All because of the Gospel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Doing Versus What Has Been Done

This week, I stumbled upon another video lecture by Timothy Keller.

When I attended seminary, it was rare that I took notes in class.  Rarely did I find myself engaged and hanging on the words of my professors to the point that I felt it necessary to jot down the words they spoke.

Well, that was certainly not the case with this lecture.  I watched it three times: two just to listen, and a third to write down notes.  It took me almost two hours to make it through the video as I paused and wrote; paused and wrote.

As Keller spoke about "Gospel Centered Ministry", I reflected upon much of my career as an ordained minister.  I thought about my preaching all those years.  I thought about the state of the church in our American society and its decline.  I thought about all the seminars I have attended in those years of seminary and since becoming ordained.  I thought about all the debates I have gotten into with others concerning how Christianity should address what is happening our culture these days.  And I thought about my focus--and often the focus of many of my colleagues and fellow Christians.

What can we do to stem the tide of decline?

That's been the operative question.  And, of course, the answers usually revolve around a couple of things:

1. Make sure we are adhering to the right doctrine.
2. Make sure we are doing the right things.

We've had some tremendous intramural battles over these things.  Tremendous battles.  And we've continued to decline.

Much of our conversations revolve around what can we do better.  We need to do justice.  We need to do evangelism. We need to do social media.  We need to do different forms of worship.  We need to do.  We need to do.  We need to do.

Action is part of the Christian faith.  Of this, there is no doubt.

But, we must ask the question: Is Christianity MAINLY about what we do or is it about what God has done?

That's the operative question, and it changes the way you think, preach, and act.

I love Keller's illustration of this using the comparison of a king who goes off to battle an invading foe.

If the king wins, he sends back heralds who proclaim the good news!   Victory has been achieved for you.  No longer are you under any threat!  Live into the peace that has been brought to you!

If the king loses, he sends back military advisers.   Put up the breastworks here!  Archers here!  Calvary here!  Get ready to fight for your life!

All of the world's religions send military advisers.  They all say, "This is how you live so that you will not endure the wrath of God.  This is how you live to escape the cycle of karma.  This is how you live to escape desire."  They all give advice on life and how to achieve salvation.

Only Christianity sends heralds.  Salvation is achieved without any action on your part.  The battle with the evil one is over.  Reconciliation between God and man is accomplished.  Live into that freedom!

Both of these proclamations receive a response.  Both of these proclamations bring about action, but their motivations are very different.

Military advisers produce fear.
Heralds produce joy.

As people of faith, are we advisers or heralds?
Do we tell people what they should do to live a particular type of life, or do we tell folks what God has done to bring them a fulfilled life?

The gospel is Good News.  Really, it's Greek for Good News.  It is not something people do.  It's a proclamation! 

Live into that freedom!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A New Thought (at Least for Me)

People who are wiser and have deeper understanding have probably articulated it before, but it never sunk in through my skull until a week ago.

On my way back from the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod Assembly (a meeting of church leaders throughout a geographical section of Texas and Louisiana), I reflected upon something I heard during one of the presentations.

"Faith isn't just believing.  Faith is action."

I think I understand this particular statement.  It's a statement born out of the understanding of cheap grace.  Cheap grace basically says, "Jesus died for me.  God forgives my sin, so I can do whatever I want to do.  I don't have to change what I do; how I act; or how I treat others."  Essentially--I believe, but I don't have to act.

Then, of course, there are those who focus on action.  Faith is action.  God demands action.  I have to do something so that my faith is apparent.  We must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  We must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc.

So, which is it?  Belief?  Action?  A combination of the two?

I've written about faith before and its relationship to doubt, and this paragraph talking about Hebrews 11:1 where the author gives the quintessential definition of faith, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.", I think, still stands:

In Hebrews 11, Christians are encouraged to live with the assurance and conviction that God exists, that Christ is risen from the dead even though they have no visible proof or evidence of such matters.  They are to live their lives following Christ with conviction and hopeful assurance that though the surrounding culture acts one particular way, they are called to a different way of life--a way of life that may face ridicule and even persecution.  This is no simple matter of opinion--it is a matter of living with the certainty of belief in Jesus Christ--a belief and faith which has consequences in life.

Perhaps stating this in much simpler terms:

Faith is not believing something in an intellectual manner.
Faith is not doing something--some sort of action.
Both of these things fall far short of the reality of faith.

Faith is, I think, a state of being.  What do I mean by that?

Faith is a state of trust in some thing or some body.  It's not an intellectual assent to something.  It's not an action of some sort.  It is a deep sense that whatever it is that I am trusting will lead me to understanding ultimate reality and ultimate truth.  It's a deep sense that whatever I am trusting will impact me to live my life in a particular fashion.  Because I trust a particular thing, it impacts how I think about the world and how I act in it.

For those of us who are Christian, faith is a deep seated trust in God.  It's more than just intellectually believing that God exists.  It's more than just believing Jesus is Lord and Savior.  It's deeper.

It's more than just what we do.  Christians certainly do not have a monopoly on doing good things.  In fact, there are more than a few organizations which do the exact same things churches do, but they do them a whole lot better.   Christians are not the only ones who feed the hungry, work for justice, seek to bring healing and so on and so forth.  Some atheists put some Christians to shame when it comes to being a moral being.  Faith is not grounded in doing.

Faith lies at the center of one's being--at the core of who a person is.  From that core comes forth belief AND action.  Belief AND action is rooted and grounded in a person's faith.  For the Christian, belief AND action is rooted in the deep faith (see trust) in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That faith--that trust--did not come to us by any action of our own.  It did not arrive because we disciplined ourselves to achieve it.  It did not arrive because we poured over Bible verses and commentaries and the latest in Christian writing.  It did not take root in our hearts because we started doing good things and helping out those in need.

It only came from one place: from the Holy Spirit.

"No one says Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit," wrote St. Paul.

"I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith," wrote Martin Luther the founder of the Lutheran Church.

Faith, this deep seated trust, is a gift from God Himself.  From it flows your actions and your beliefs.  I think it is time we stop trying to talk about faith as something we believe or something we do.  I think it is time to talk about faith as something we are--those who place our trust in the God who lived and who died and who rose again and who now walks with us each and every day.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Exclusive Truth: Sermon on John 14:1-14

    Some people get really uncomfortable with Jesus.  In this day and age, quite a few get uncomfortable when they hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John–the very words of our Gospel lesson today, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

    “How can Jesus be so exclusive?” folks ask.  “How can He say that He is the truth and the only way to the Father?  What about all those other good people who do so many good things?  Don’t they have the truth?  What makes Jesus so special?”  Not only does Jesus’ exclusive truth claim make some people nervous, there are others who scoff from the get go.  “Don’t you know truth is relative?” they say.  “There is no such thing as universal truth, so what Jesus says is irrelevant.”

    These are very good questions, and they deserve much more time than I can give them this morning, but I will attempt to deal with these things as briefly as possible.  “Why?” you might ask.  Well, because in our day and age, if we truly want to be effective in sharing our faith, we’ve got to be able to deal with some of those things floating around our culture that have become “common sense” ideas.  Some of the things I asked above are some of the “common sense” arguments people use to excuse themselves from ever having to deal with questions of truth and questions of faith, and if you try to engage people about faith without dealing with some of these questions, their eyes will glaze over, and they will simply tune you out.  The gospel will never have a chance to sink in unless these things are dealt with.

    So, let’s begin with the issue of truth.  Is truth relative?  Does universal truth even exist?  Notice I am a long way off from Jesus at this point.  Don’t worry, I hope to get to Him before this sermon is done.  Since the philosopher Nietzsche, many claim that universal truth does not exist and that truth is simply relative.  Truth is simply what any given culture says truth is at any given moment of history.  If you want a great example of this, Google Bill Clinton definition of is. 

    But there is a major problem with saying truth is relative.  First off, in order for truth to be relative, the statement truth is relative has to be a universal truth.  Try to unwind that one in your head.  You see, if the statement “truth is relative” is true, then the statement is actually relative, so why should I believe it?  You can’t get very far with that one logically, can you? 

    Second, and probably most importantly, if truth is simply what any given culture says it is during any point in history, then what gives us the slightest notion that we can argue that our version of truth is better than another culture’s version of truth?  I mean, think about this: if there are no universal truths, then what gives us the idea that respecting people of all colors, races, or creeds is the best form of living?  Can we lift up our model of democratic living in the United States above those living in an Islamic regime?  Or a dictatorship?  If truth is relative, what reason do I have to give to a person who steals, kills, or destroys?  That person can simply say, “What’s true for you is true for you, but what’s true for me is true for me.”  We have no basis for declaring something right or wrong.  We only have what society says or what we say ourselves.  Does anyone want to live this way?  No, and we certainly do not live this way.  We live as though there are certain truths which are universal and binding to everyone.

    Both of these things show, I think rather strongly, that yes, there is such a thing as absolute truth.  There is such a thing as truth which is binding upon each and every one of us.

    Of course, the next logical progression, and the one I’ve been personally hit with before is, “Okay smarty pants.  You say there is universal truth.  So, I take it you know it?  Why don’t you share it with the rest of us so that we can be just as enlightened as you.”

    This statement usually backs anyone into a corner for a couple of reasons.  First, it does take great audacity to say that one knows the absolute truth.  Remember several weeks ago, I preached a sermon where I showed that each and every one of us has a blind spot and that our brains fill in the blanks?  Anyone who has done even a little bit of studying knows, absolutely knows, he or she doesn’t come close to knowing all there is to know–even when it comes to knowing the truth.  That’s the first problem.  The second problem comes with those who actually claim to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  We’ve seen a few of those folks, haven’t we.  We’ve seen them fly planes into towers.  We’ve seen them kill doctors at abortion clinics.  We’ve seen them mutilate women and kidnap young girls to sell into slavery.  We’ve seen them treat people of other ethnic groups as less than human.  We’ve seen them kill homosexuals without regret.  We generally call them fanatics, and fanatics are generally frowned upon these days for good reason.  Very few want to be seen as a fanatic.

    But here is where things tend to get a little interesting.  For aren’t we all a fanatic in some way, shape and form?  I mean, aren’t there those who are fanatical about not being a fanatic?  Think about that one.  Think about those who proclaim the gospel of tolerance.  We must be tolerant of everyone.  We must be tolerant of their beliefs and practices.  We must allow folks to express themselves with freedom.  Sounds good on the surface, but have you ever known one of these folks to be tolerant of those who are intolerant?  Did you see what happened to Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers?  How did the “tolerant” folks treat him?  Well, they actually treated him like fanatics treat someone who doesn’t share their beliefs, didn’t they?  We’re all a little fanatical in some way.  We all think we have a hold on the truth, don’t we?  I mean admit it.  Deep down, somewhere you probably believe that if folks just believed like you do, then the world would work great, right?  Of course, the person sitting right next to you probably believes the exact same thing.  So which of you is right?

    Let’s return to the illustration that I used several weeks ago about the blind men and the elephant.  Briefly, there are several blind men who stumble upon an elephant, and they proceed to touch the elephant to “see” it.  After they examine the elephant, they begin to argue about what the elephant is like.  One says it’s like a rope–he grabbed the tail.  One argues it is like a hose–he grabbed the trunk.  One argues it’s like a spear–he touched the tusk.  One argues it’s like a walk–he touched the torso.  One argues it’s like a tree stump–he touched the leg.  All of them are right.  All of them are wrong because none can see the whole elephant.  None of them can know the whole truth. 

    As I said before, and so I say again, the only way this story can work is if someone actually sees the whole elephant.  We cannot know that each and everyone of us doesn’t have the truth unless someone knows what the truth is.  And who knows what the truth is?  Who has ever seen it?  No human, that’s for sure.  No human has ever grasped the truth, the full truth.

    But what if the truth came down to us?

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through Him.”

    God took on flesh and lived among us. God the Son left eternity to enter into our time and our place to reveal Himself to us–not as an idea or a concept but as a person.  Jesus said, “I am the truth.”

    And this, I think is important.  The truth is a person.  Why is this so important?  Think about the most important relationship you have–second to your relationship with God, I mean.  Think about the person you love and cherish the most either as a spouse or a friend.  You may have spent copious amounts of time with that person.  You may have talked and talked and talked to each other.  Do you believe you know that person fully?  Do you know everything there is to know about that person?  Do you know that person to the very depths of his or her soul?  No, of course you don’t.  There are some things you know and know well, but there is an awful lot of mystery as well.  There is an awful lot of growing you still have to do in that relationship.  And, of course, you don’t own that other person.  You cannot claim that you “have” that other person.  And you can’t give that person to another.  You can only introduce others to him or her.  You can only tell others about his or her qualities.  You cannot arrogantly proclaim your ownership over another person.  As fanatical as you are about your love and care for this person, you don’t shove that person onto another.  Do you see where I am going with this?

    If universal truth is not a concept or an idea but it is a person, then we live in relationship to that person.  We live in relationship to Jesus.  We live in relationship with the truth.  There are some things we know, but there is an awful lot we don’t know.  There is an awful lot of mystery in Jesus.  There is a lot of growing we still have to do.  We can absolutely be fanatical about our love for Him, but when it comes to introducing Him to others, we do so as if we were introducing our best friend or spouse.  And I have yet to see anyone introduce their best friend or spouse by saying, “If you don’t believe in my spouse, you will go to hell.”  Not necessarily appropriate.  And not necessarily honoring the one whose traits we have come to know.  For Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.  And Jesus came into the world to reveal the truth to us–while we were still sinners.  And Jesus went to the cross to die for us–while we were still broken.  And Jesus hung on the cross praying for His enemies and asking God to forgive them. 

    Yes, I believe in exclusive truth.  I believe in Jesus.  For as the truth, He calls me to be fanatical about love, about forgiveness, and honoring and respecting all those who are created in the image of God.  And when I don’t and didn’t measure up to this; He loved me and died for me offering me forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  These are the same things He gives to you and to the whole world.  Amen.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Schitzophrenic Church

Before anyone jumps on my case about making fun of those with this horrid mental illness, please note that I am using the term Schizophrenic in the sense of the second definition found at this online dictionary:

2.a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.

To what now am I referring?

As I sat at our Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod Assembly (ELCA), I was struck by repeated commentary regarding race, ethnicity, and the church.

"We've got to overcome and get rid of this separation that plagues us."

"Sunday morning is the most segregated morning of the week."

"Why is it that I cannot get a call at most of your congregations?  It's because of race." said one African-American pastor.

I don't think anyone at the assembly, including yours truly, disagreed with any of those statements.  In fact, the only contrary thing I could think of was to ask a converse question of the African-American pastor, "Could I get a call in the congregation you currently serve?"  The answer I am sure would be, "No."  Why?  Well, it's race again, but flowing the opposite direction.  Same problem.  Different direction.

There is no doubt in my mind such matters need to be addressed.  There is no doubt that such obstacles exist and need to be handled better.  In matters of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, most mainline denominations fail miserably.

But what has the answer been thus far?  What have mainline denominations done?

Two things:

1. Start ethic congregations.
2. Focus on identity theologies.

Think about those two things.  Think hard about them.  We start congregations specifically geared toward a particular community: African-American, Latino, Asian, and so on and so forth.  What does this do to end segregation?  Be honest!  What does it really do to end separation if we start congregations specifically geared toward particular racial, ethnic groups?  

Nothing.  Not a d@mn thing!  In fact, it actually makes the problem worse.

We say we need to address the problem, but our actions accentuate it.

And then we adhere to particular types of theology: black theology, Latin-American liberation theology, feminist theology, gay/lesbian theology, and so on and so forth.  Again: what does this do?
We talk about the need to overcome such differences, and then we grab and hold onto theologies which accentuate differences.


Of course, there will be those who will immediately point out to me that I am speaking (typing really) from a perspective of "white privilege."  Because I have a particular advantage because of my race/ethnicity, I have privilege and do not understand--with the corollary that I really have nothing to contribute to the conversation unless I sympathize (read, buy into) with the theology/practice of people of a different color, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or what have you.

Again, divisive--exactly contrary to what the expressed hopes are.

It is not enough just to criticize.  It is not enough just to point out the contrary nature of things.  Providing a possible way forward puts one at risk of criticism, but one must begin somewhere.

Let's start with the Gospel.  Not the social gospel.  Not the liberation gospel.  The Gospel--God's reconciliation of the world  unto Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

You see, within that Gospel, there is no one who has any privilege.  No one.  None stand righteous before God.  None.  None of us "get it" when it comes to living out our relationships appropriately.  We find our worth in all sorts of places instead of in Jesus Christ and what God has done for us.  We find our identity in all sorts of places instead of in Christ and what God has done for us.

And then Jesus says, "Come and die!"

Die to everything that you thought gave you worth.
Die to everything that you thought gave you identity.

Find your worth in Jesus.
Find your identity in Jesus.

Die to your race.
Die to your ethnicity.
Die to your gender.
Die to your sexual orientation.

"For as many of you as were baptized in Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek nor slave or free nor male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."  Galatians 3:27-28

Be reborn as children of God.

This isn't an easy task.  Our ethnicity, our race, our sexuality, our gender help define us.  We have spent a lifetime trying to learn what it means to live such things to the fullest.  We've been proud of who we are; where we came from; what we look like.  Such things do not die easily.  They do not die without grief and pain.  To give them up would be asinine under most circumstances.

"Those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will find it."  --Jesus

The reality of the Gospel--realizing that Jesus died for you while you were still sinful; that your salvation rests totally on Him; that you find your true identity in Him; that you find your true self in Him--offers the promise of a more abundant life when we die to all those things.  No longer do we have to hold onto such things to feel valuable or feel like we have a sense of identity.  

"You are my child, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased." --God the Father

These words spoken to Jesus at His baptism become the words spoken to us, and they give us all the value, worth, and identity we need.  They help us understand that every person is also created in the image of God and worthy of respect and love.  None of the other stuff matters.

As I responded once to a now deceased church member who asked, "I don't understand why you didn't adopt within your own culture.":

"God doesn't care.  Why should I?"

I believe the Gospel is the cure to the church's schizophrenia.   We must be claimed by it and claim it so that we can truly find our identity and our unity.  Only when we are claimed by it and die to our respective ideas of what give us identity--EVERYONE, not just one culture or two cultures, but all of them!!--and are claimed by our identity as children of God will we begin to see that what separates us are the very things already erased by the Gospel--by God's atoning love for each and every one of us.

Dying sucks, but on the other end of the comma, there is abundant life.

Are we, in the mainline, truly willing to die?
That remains to be seen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

10 Things Pastors Hate to Admit Publically

I was exposed to this article by the ELCA Facebook page.

And I won't disagree with Pastor Matt at all.  Not in the least.  In fact, I would add my voice to his comments and say, "Right on, brother!  Preach it!"

It's true--at least for me.

Did I/Do I take it personally when people leave for another congregation?  Yes.
Did I/Do I feel pressure from week to week?  Yes.
Did I/Do I struggle with getting my worth from ministry?  Yes.
Did I/Do I regularly think about quitting?  Yes, with qualification.  I don't think about quitting the ordained ministry.  I am almost as certain as I can be about what God has chosen me to do.
Am I completely transparent?  No.
Did I/Do I measure myself by the numbers?  Yep.
Did I/Do I spend more time discouraged than encouraged?  This is a hard one, but leaning toward yep.
Did I/Do I worry about what you think?  More than I would like to admit, especially when you are paying my salary.
Did I/Do I struggle with competition and jealousy?  Yes.  This one was a killer for me not too long ago.
Did I/Do I feel like I've failed you more than helped you?  Sometimes.  This was actually something I was trained heavily in while in seminary--I know I can't help everyone, but I sure would like to.

I understand these things very, very well.  Much of my sense of worth had been based upon just these things.  And in previous years, I would have done one of two things:

1. Continue to suffer in silence.
2. Blame my congregation for these things and insist they need to change so that I no longer felt these things.

That would have been my tact.

But things have changed in my life.  Because I have been converted to the Gospel.  Take a listen to this video beginning at the 30 minute mark.  This is Timothy Keller talking at a conference on Evangelism and ramming the concept of grace home.  Listen through until the 36 minute mark.  Please give it a listen:

When Keller hit me between the eyes regarding where I was getting my self-worth, I knew I stood condemned.  I knew I stood in the wrong place.  I was getting my justification from the wrong place.

And I knew bearing it in silence wasn't an option.

I knew I couldn't beg my congregation to change.

It wasn't their problem.

It was mine.

I had and still have to an extent a heart condition.

But, things have changed.

Things are different.

Down deep, there is something within my soul which has been transformed, and I can only describe it as grace.  God's worked down deep to lessen the way I feel about those top 10 things.  Do I still have moments?  Yep.  You bet I do.  But they are fewer and far between.

Grace means your self worth comes, not from all the stuff you do; not from your job; not from your accomplishments; not from your bank account; not from your family; not from how your children are doing; but from the Lord.

I don't know if Pastor Matt is going to follow up on his post.  I hope he does, but I want to state the following:  I do not believe pastors need to suffer in silence; I do not believe they have to change their congregation; I do not believe they have to work hard to change their stance (believe me, I think that if you try to change your perception of these things, you will fail and become even more depressed); instead, I do believe pastors need to realize the nature of grace.

"I may not have accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

My grandfather's statement awakened within me the reality of grace for he highlighted the most important thing in the world--the Lord and I are on good terms.  And that didn't come from me.  It came from Him.  As does my salvation; as does my self-worth; as does my sense of whether or not I am accomplishing anything at all.  It's grace.  Pure, unadulterated grace, and it changes you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

If Only We Could be Like That...: Sermon on Acts 2:42-47

    I’ve used the following story as an illustration before, and it still hits home with me.  It’s a story that a respected Christian author and speaker, Tony Campolo tells about a man named Joe.

    Joe was a drunk who was miraculously converted at a Bowery mission.  Prior to his conversion, he had gained the reputation of being a dirty wino for whom there was no hope, only a miserable existence in the ghetto.  But following his conversion to a new life with God, everything changed.  Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known.  Joe spent his days and nights hanging out at the mission, doing whatever needed to be done.  There was never anything that he was asked to do that he considered beneath him.  Whether it was cleaning up the vomit left by some violently sick alcoholic or scrubbing toilets after careless men had left the men’s room filthy, Joe did what was asked with a smile on his face and a seeming gratitude for the chance to help.  He could be counted on to feed feeble men who wandered off the street and into the mission, and to undress and tuck into bed men who were too out of it to take care of themselves.

    One evening, when the director of the mission was delivering his evening evangelistic message to the usual crowd of still and sullen men with drooped heads, there was one man who looked up, came down the aisle to the altar, and knelt to pray, crying out for God to help him change.  The repentant drunk kept shouting, “Make me like Joe!  Make me like Joe!  Make me like Joe!”

    The director of the mission leaned over and said to the man, “Son, I think it would be better if you prayed, ‘Make me like Jesus.’”

    The man looked up at the director with a quizzical expression on his face and asked, “Is he like Joe?”

    I believe every time I’ve told this story, I’ve held up Joe as an example of what it means to live the Christian life.  I believe I have encouraged each and every one of us to “be like Joe.”  I believe I have focused all my efforts in telling you how you should live your life–because if you live your life like this, then others will notice how you live and become a Christian and become a part of our church.  We will grow and become important, and we will shine like a beacon of light in a dark world.

    This sounds great on the surface.  It really does.  I mean, for fourteen years, I’ve preached it.  It’s difficult to admit that I was a bit wrongheaded in how I approached such matters. 

    Now, don’t get me wrong.  I believe there is a standard of Christian living into which we are called to live.  I believe that doing good things and living a life of service is a worthy task, but sometimes, our motivations get all out of whack.  What do I mean by that?

    Think about this question for just a moment: why do you do many of the things that you do?  What drives you to act in a particular fashion?  Work at a particular job?  Buy a particular item?  Travel to a particular destination?  Why do we do the things that we do?

    Usually, and I am painting with a large brush stroke, we do the things we do because of what we get in return.  I volunteer at a local charity because it makes me feel good to help other people.  I buy a particular car because I enjoy driving it.  I work at a particular job either because I love doing it or because I get paid a lot of money and feel happy chasing down a particular social status in living.  I travel to a particular destination because I feel relaxed and happy when I am there.  I hang out with a group of people because I like those people, how they make me feel about myself.  These are usually our motivations.  Of course, that does change from time to time.  I mean, there are times when we engage in activities that we don’t really like to do.  There are times when we go to various functions, not because we want to be there, but because we feel a sense of obligation in being there.  I may not want to make an appearance at the local fundraiser, but I know there will be a lot of important people there, and if I am not there, then I risk being seen as uncaring; unappreciative; or anti-social.  That’s just one example, but there are others that could be listed which are similar.  So, let’s look at this again, we do the things we do because we either get something out of it–some sort of satisfaction, or we feel obligated to do them because of some sort of external pressure.  We either feel good about it or get some sort of recognition by those outside of ourselves. 

    You might ask, “Well, what’s the problem with such matters?  Why is this such a big deal.  I’m finding things that make me happy.  I’m working to influence others.  Is this such a bad thing?”

    Well, maybe not at first.  I mean, there are times when we feel greatly satisfied by such things.  There are times when we are truly happy and excited.  There are times when we feel appreciated and recognized.  But the real question is: what happens when that happiness fades?  What happens when that recognition fades or begins to be put on something or someone else?   What do you do then?

    You see, when we try to find satisfaction in the things that make us feel good or in how others see us, we are bound to eventually become unsatisfied.  We will eventually become jealous.  We will become hungrier and hungrier for more good things and more recognition.  Sooner or later, we will begin saying things like, “If I only had a better paying job.  If only I could be as popular as that guy.  If only I were as good looking as that woman.  If only I could travel more.  If only I could find more time to get away.  If only I could find a moment of peace and rest.  If only I could be like Joe.  If only...If only...If only...”

    Let’s break from this train of thought just a moment so that I can show you how oftentimes even in the church, we get caught up in this kind of idea.  In our first lesson from the book of Acts, the writer, Luke, shows us some of what the earliest disciples did.  He shows us how they gathered together to study, listen to the apostles’ teaching, to hang out and talk about life, to break bread–eat together, worship together, and pray.  The new life they had in Christ also manifested itself in how they treated possessions.  They sold everything they had and distributed the proceeds to anyone who had need.  Their lives revolved around God, and they had generous hearts, generous lives, and they helped out anyone who had a need.  We are told that people were in awe of this.

    Folks in the church today look at this passage and have a tendency to say, “If only we were like that.  If only we were like that early church which gave away everything, took care of those in need, worshiped, prayed, ate together, engaged in fellowship; and devoted ourselves to Bible study, then our church buildings would be full.  We would truly make an impact in society.  We would see tons of visitors, and they would be impressed with what we were doing.  They would be in awe, and they would join us.  They would see our works and want to be like us.  If only...If only...If only...If only I could be like Joe.  If only we could all be like Joe.

    That last sentence of our lesson this morning is rather intriguing, I think.  Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  Who was adding to their number?  Who was bringing people to salvation?  Was it because of the works of the disciples that people were being saved?  Or was it the work of the Lord?  Who brought people to faith: the disciples, or the Lord?  Of course, it was the Lord.  Folks might have been in awe of what the disciples were doing, but it was the Lord who brought about salvation.  It was the Lord who added numbers to the growing church.  And it is the Lord who brings such salvation to you and I as well.  It wasn’t about the “if onlys.”   It’s never about the “if onlys.” 

    Look, whenever we get caught up in those if onlys, we are simply trying to justify ourselves.  We are trying to find our worth, our happiness, our satisfaction, our joy in the things that we do.  And we can never do enough.  We can never buy enough things to fully satisfy our desires.  We can never make enough money to fully satisfy our desires.  We can never travel enough or have a good enough job.  We can never impress others enough because sooner or later someone else will show up who will gain their attention and draw them away from us.  No matter how hard you work at it; no matter how much time, energy and effort you put toward it, you will never find yourself being fully satisfied by your efforts to justify your worth or your existence.  It won’t happen.  Some of you may know this already.  Some of you may be sensing it deep down.  Some of you know that no matter how hard you try, someone else always seems to be better than you; wealthier than you; prettier or more handsome than you; have a better house; a seeming perfect life; happier than you.  And the more you compare yourself to them, the more miserable you become.

    And the solution isn’t to try harder.  That’s the one many of us fall into. I certainly did.  Try harder.  Try to be nicer.  Try to be more enthusiastic in what you are doing.  Surely I will make a difference.  Surely others will notice!  Surely I can be like Joe and others will want to be like me–they will notice me! 

    What if I told you you no longer had to worry about justifying yourself?  What if I told you you no longer had to try to get your self-worth from anyone else?  What if I told you you didn’t have to do anything to find satisfaction or happiness or joy?  What if I told you that such things are beyond your reach, but instead have already been provided for you? 

    You might think I am nuts, but then again, after you work and work and work and find no peace, perhaps you might consider what I am about to say.  You see, you can’t be like Joe and you can’t be like those early disciples through your own efforts.  You can’t make anyone be like Joe or those early disciples through any sort of coercion or argumentation.  You can’t change your ways and make yourself more peaceful and content.  It’s too hard.  It’s darn near impossible.

    But there is one who can.  There is one who can enter into the recesses of your very heart to give you a sense of well being and worth.  There is one who can give you a sense of justification and joy–not because of what you have done but because of what He has done.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    Christ died for you and loves you despite the fact that you are broken–that you can’t be perfect–that you can’t be like Joe–or those early disciples–or anyone else for that matter.  Christ died for you and loves you so that you don’t have to worry about the if onlys.  Christ died for you and loves you beyond compare.  Hear that message and let it sink in.  Really, let it sink in and contemplate it.  It will change you.  It might even make you like Joe.  Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A "Waste" of $30,000+

Someone might say such a thing.  Someone might actually believe it.  I don't.

This past week, I was privileged to have a conversation with the president of the Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic (LCCAR).

One of the initial posts on this blog concerned a fundraising effort spearheaded by my congregation to raise money to purchase motorcycles for the LCCAR.  Many people participated.  Many congregations added their support.  We raised over $30,000.  That was enough to purchase 12 motorcycles.  We were overjoyed with how we were able to help.

I told President Golike that our congregation helped him get the motorcycles for his church.

He replied, "The rebels stole all our motorcycles."

For those who do not know the political situation in the Central African Republic, sucks.  It's bad.  There's been a lot of fighting.  Lots of people have been killed.  Many of the leaders and intellectuals in the country have found themselves as targets.  President Golike has been shot at numerous times.  He escaped certain death when rebels tried to burn down his house but couldn't find gasoline.  We raised many, many prayers for peace for this nation.

But all the motorcycles are gone.  Now perhaps being used for nefarious purposes. 

Some might say it was a waste of $30,000.

I don't.

During the four years the LCCAR had these motorcycles, they were the ambulances for many sections of the country.  They carried people to hospitals.  They saved many, many lives.  Their use accomplished much good.

And now, they are gone. 

I am convinced that this is one of the reasons Jesus doesn't want us to get hung up on possessions.  One day, all is well and good, but the next, they could be gone.  If your life revolves around possessions, and suddenly they are taken away from you, you are devastated, broken, destroyed. 

But if Jesus is at the center of your life, possessions are simply things to be used for a time.  They are not the be all and end all of existence.  They are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  They are tools to be used until they fulfill their purpose. 

If something breaks...who cares?
If something is stolen...who cares?
If something is destroyed...who cares?

Things do not bring life.
Things do not bring happiness.
Things do not add value to our lives.

They just don't.

Christ accomplishes all of the above as He transforms your heart and lives at the center of your being.

That means more than anything--anything at all.

It's why President Golike and I didn't mourn the loss of the motorcycles, and it is why he was filled with hope that one day peace and reconciliation will return to the CAR.

And I loved what a congregation member told me this morning as he left church, "Let's not let it stop."

"What do you mean?"

"Let's not let it stop.  If those motorcycles brought healing, let's make sure they get them again."

Sounds like a good use for another $30,000. 

Or more.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Of Course. He's My Son.

Last Monday, my son had to go to the doctor.

He was diagnosed with strep throat.

These days, with this diagnosis, the treatment is a shot of antibiotics--for those who are not allergic to it.  Within hours, the treatment becomes effective, and within 12 hours or so, one is good to go.  But that doesn't stop a kid from being terrified at receiving  a shot.

As my son was waiting for his shot, my wife sent me a text, "He's being very brave."

I responded without hesitation, "Of course he is.  He's my son."

A few moments later, my wife said, "That made him smile."

Of course it did--at least for now.  Give the guy 10 years or so, and he may not claim his father for a while.  Most kids go through that phase, but give him another six or seven years after that, and then I will once more be full of wisdom instead of other things--at least in his eyes.

As I thought about this little episode, I had another picture run through my head--the picture of a Heavenly Father who looks at us when we are facing times of fear and tribulation...

When we are facing difficult decisions...

When we are facing moments of truth in how we are called to act...

When we are facing moments of overwhelming grief...

When we are called upon to weather the storm...

And He whispers, "Do not be afraid.  Have courage, for I am with you."

And lo and behold, a well of courage springs forth that we never knew we had.  A well of strength swells up inside and stiffens our spine; makes us stand up a little straighter; and helps us walk with a lighter step.

Sure, we may not handle the situation perfectly.  We still may shed tears.  We may become a little distraught, but that strength guides us through.  We make it to the other side.

Others take note.  "She sure is brave!  He sure is courageous!  I wish I could endure like that!"

God simply smiles and says, "Of course she could; she is my daughter.  Of course he is; he is my son.  Of course you can; you are my child."

And for our part, we pray a prayer of thanksgiving, "Thank you, Father, for giving me what I needed to get through.  I never would have been able to make it without You.  On my own, I am nothing.  With you, I have everything.  Amen." 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Jesus is not Done with You Yet: The Road to Emmaus Sermon

    Why did it take Jesus so long to identify Himself to those two disciples who were walking along the road to Emmaus?  That was the question that popped into my head this week as I was preparing for my sermon.  I mean, stop and think about this story for just a moment and ask yourself the same thing.  Couldn’t Jesus have simply appeared and said, “Look at my hands.  Feel my side.  I am alive!  Tell my brothers that I will see them soon.”  Jesus could have done this.  Why didn’t He?

    Let’s look at the text.  First off, we have a couple of guys who are walking along the road to Emmaus, and Jesus pops in.  The guys are talking about “the things that have happened,” and Jesus wants to join in on the conversation.  “What are you discussing?” Jesus asks.

    We get an interesting clue to our puzzle right off the bat when Luke tells us, “They stood still looking sad...”  These guys are sad.  Which leads us to ask, “Why are they sad?”  What has got them upset?  Clopas, one of the two guys gives us the answer.  First, I’m going to read everything that Clopas says, then I’m going to work our way through it step by step.

    ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’

    Why are these two guys sad?  Look at how Clopas begins, “Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all people, and He was killed.  We hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  Stop right there.  “We hoped He was the one to redeem Israel.”  You know what this meant, right?  You know what kind of hopes these men had pinned upon Jesus, right? They hoped, they desperately wanted Jesus to be a king who would lead the Jewish people in an uprising to free them from the control of the Roman empire.  They desperately wanted Jesus to use His power and authority from God to free Israel and establish them as a world power once again.  They wanted him to be like Sampson who slew the Philistines; Gideon who drove away the Midianites, Elijah who overthrew the prophets of Baal.  They wanted Jesus to be the guy who would deliver to them their hopes and their dreams, and they were sad because Jesus didn’t deliver that.  Their hearts, like the hearts of so many who followed Jesus, weren’t right.  They were not attuned to what Jesus was really about.

    I find quite a few parallels in how many people treat Jesus today.  I mean, I see it a lot.  Heck, I also fell into the trap myself, so I don’t just see it, I’ve done it!  Many folks, yours included, try to use Jesus as a means to an end.  The two disciples were trying to use Jesus as a means to the end of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.  More than a few folks try to use Jesus as a means to the ends of health, wealth, prosperity, and status.  If you just believe in Jesus and have enough faith, then all of these things will come to you because God wants to bless you.  God wants to give you everything He possibly can.  He doesn’t want you to be trapped by fear of finances–He wants you to have in abundance.  He wants to give you the victory!  Now, just believe in Him enough and give us 10% of your gross income as a sign of your faithfulness, and then all these things will be given to you as well.  O.K.  Sorry about that little bit of parody, but it’s true!  There are more than a few folks out there who announce such things.  But it gets worse, because folks aren’t only trying to use Jesus as a means to an end of health, wealth, status and prosperity.  No.  They also use Jesus as a means to feel better about themselves and give themselves meaning and purpose in what they do.  You can spot these folks when they say, “You really ought to help others because it makes you feel good about yourself.”  “You ought to work for justice because it makes you feel better to address the world’s problems.”  “We have to work for justice because Jesus worked for justice, and just like He took on the problems of the world, we have to take on the problems of the world.”

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with helping others, or working for justice, or obtaining wealth and status, and health for that matter.  These things aren’t bad in and of themselves, and working for justice and helping others are very, very good things, but there are more than a few folks who do all of these things and find absolutely no peace, no satisfaction, no joy or fulfillment.  They may be trying to do the right things, but personally, they are still sad, angry, and overwhelmed.  Why?  If they are people of faith, they are trying to use Jesus as a means to an end and not an end Himself.  As I told you in my Easter sermon, I’ve been there and done that.  I tried to use Jesus as a means to an end of becoming a famous and well respected pastor.  I tried to use Jesus as a means to an end to grow a congregation.  I didn’t have peace.  I didn’t have satisfaction.  I didn’t have joy.  I was miserable, fearful, anxious, and sad.  My heart wasn’t in the right place.

    Back to those two disciples now.  Clopas not only lays out where his heart was, he also lays out that the tomb was empty and that angels had appeared to the women disciples telling them that Jesus was risen.  This news wasn’t enough to gladden the men’s hearts.  They still were down in the dumps.  So much for knowing that something is different changing you.  So much for having it in your head that Jesus is raised from the dead making a tremendous impact. 

    Again, many parallels.  Many of us have heard that Jesus is risen from the dead.  Many of us have heard that Jesus is savior of the world.  Many of us have heard that Jesus changes our hearts and our lives.  But it hasn’t made the impact in our hearts.  The head knowledge is there, but it hasn’t dropped into our hearts to change us.  We are still fearful; we are still sad; we are still anxious; we are still depressed.  Doesn’t sound too hopeful at this point, does it.  Well, let’s continue on.

    Jesus, after hearing Clopas’ explanation reacts in a very intriguing fashion, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

    What congregation member is going to stand around if his pastor said something like this to him?  How foolish you are and how slow of heart you are to believe...”  Most folks would get offended and say, “See you later.  I’m going down the street to the next church that doesn’t insult me.”  But Jesus doesn’t hold back any punches.  He doesn’t try to sugar coat anything.  He’s confrontational, and He’s willing to push these two disciples’ buttons.  “You just don’t get it, do you?” Jesus basically says.  “You are pretty thick headed.  You’ve got your priorities all wrong.  You don’t understand what has been foretold by the prophets.  Your assumptions are completely misguided.”

    And then, Jesus continues to walk with them.  Jesus continues with them on their journey, and He cuts them to the heart.  We are told that Jesus then proceeds to open up the scriptures to them and tell them all about how He fulfilled the Scriptures beginning with Moses and working through to the prophets. 

    The group finally arrives at its destination, and Jesus is going to walk on; however, the disciples beg Him to stay.  They beg Him to eat with them.  Mind you, they still do not recognize Jesus.  They still don’t know who He was.  Until, they sit down to eat.  Jesus breaks the bread, and then their eyes are opened.  They realize, they’ve been in Jesus’ presence the entire time.

    And then, I think a key statement is uttered, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

    Were not our hearts burning?  Since John Wesley came along–the founder of the Methodist church--,
most folks have interpreted this particular saying to mean a burning sensation of warmth that spreads over a person and makes them know they are coming to faith and belief.

    I’d like to challenge that a little bit this morning.  What if, just what if the burning in our text was a little different?  What if that burning is closer to the understanding of the Greek which connotes burned up or consumed by fire?  What if their hearts were burning because Jesus was burning up their old ways of thinking?  What if Jesus was burning up and consuming their thoughts about how they thought Jesus should have operated?  What if Jesus was burning up all of their thoughts about how they believed they would achieve salvation; and wholeness; and joy; and peace; and fulfillment?  What if Jesus was burning up all of their desires to use Him as a means to an end and changing their hearts so that He would be the end Himself?

    What if Jesus is doing that to each and every one of us all throughout our lives?  What if Jesus is working, even though we do not recognize Him, burning up all that stuff that is preventing us from placing Him at the center of our lives?  What if He is operating, silently, diligently in the backgrounds of our lives piece by piece arranging our hearts so that at the right moment, at the right time, when we are finally ready to see, He will appear to us in such a way that we will know Him.  He will be revealed to us in our lives as the one who came into the world to save us–to redeem us–to be the center of our hearts and the center of our lives. 

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    Let that news sink in.  Let that news inform your life so that you may know that Jesus is walking along with you.  Let that news offer you encouragement that Jesus is burning away all the stuff that is preventing you from knowing Him and seeing His work in your life.  And let that news give you patience–patience to know that Jesus isn’t done with you yet.  Just as it took Him a while to reveal Himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it may take Him a while to reveal Himself to you.  But He will.  He always does.  He loves you too much not to.  Amen.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Conversion of a Pastor

A reader asked something very pertinent and poignant:

I've read with great curiosity about your "conversion" and was wondering if there is/are post(s) from that time that I may read.  I struggle with the same issues that your congregant Mark dealt with and I read your sermon from his funeral and it was great.  I was just hoping to read what you were writing at the time he gave you that book that lead to your "conversion"...really a fuller understanding of the Gospel, I'd say.

I think one would have to read through the entirety of this blog in order to grasp what I was writing at the time this conversion process started, but one would also have to know the underlying processes which was at work as well.  In this post, I hope to lay some of that out so that you can see just what was going on inside my heart at the time.  Be forewarned, I personally don't think it was pretty.  In fact, it was rather petty.  At the time, I never saw what I was doing and what my motivations were.  I know now, and I have a sense of shame regarding them.  But none-the-less, I will put the chips out there and let them fall where they may.

As I stated in my Easter Sermon to my congregation, I was filled with dreams as a pastor--big dreams.  I wanted to be the pastor of a congregation that grew and grew and grew.  I wanted the place to worship thousands on a Sunday and have thousands of members.  I wanted that congregation to buck the trend of decline experienced by denominations in the U.S., and then I wanted folks to beat down my door asking, "How did you do it?"  I wanted to be able to share my expertise and be important in the eyes of the church.  I wanted fame and notoriety.  To an extent, these things still reside within me as a shadow.  I am not sure I will ever get rid of them.

Of course, in order to have these dreams come to fruition, I needed a congregation to cooperate.  I needed others to cooperate with me and make this stuff happen.  I would work like the dickens to see it accomplished, but I needed others to work like the dickens as well.  I never realized how self-centered this approach was because, as I see it now, I was using Jesus as a means to an end and I was using a congregation and its people as a means to an end.  The only humility I had within me was a false humility to make people think I wasn't using them.  (Again, I never saw it this way at the time.  I never thought I was using anyone.  I thought I was doing God's work and simply preaching the Gospel.)

I considered my first congregation a learning experience as I served as an associate pastor, but coming to my current congregation was a chance to really do things my way.  I jumped in with both feet and hit the ground running.

And things went wonderfully!  The congregation grew by leaps and bounds!  People were excited about doing things!  People were filling the pews!  And I was thrilled!  My dreams seemed like they were well on their way to coming true.  We were drawing all sorts of people to the church--some who were disgruntled with other congregations; others who had stopped worshiping long ago but were returning; young families with children.   I was happy, happy, happy.

But then things began to stop.  Perhaps there were many factors, including making the transition from a "pastoral" sized congregation to a "program" sized congregation, but there was one in particular that I can point to that filled me with fear.

The national church in 2009 made the decision to ordain practicing homosexuals.  There were a few members who were absolutely against this decision.  There were others who favored it.  There were many who were not happy but wouldn't cause a fuss--they would just stop giving.  There were others who really didn't care at all.  It was a no win situation as far as I was concerned.  The national church assembly had just thrown a monkey wrench into my plans.

And so I tried to fix it.

I did.  I tried to come up with a solution that wouldn't necessarily satisfy everyone, but it would be enough to keep the congregation on the right track to growth.  My dreams wouldn't be derailed!  Or so I thought.

The "fix" didn't work.  We still lost members.  A different sort of "spirit" seemed to surround the congregation.

And so I went to work.  I tried to get the church focused on other things.  You know what all the pundits say, right?  Keep an organization focused on a project.  Keep them focused on doing good things!  That will bring folks around and keep them coming to your organization.  Yep, I bought it.  Onto trying such events.  The first of which was the Kan You Kover 100K?--one of the reasons I actually kicked off this blog.  These things will work, right?  No luck.

Little did I know that burnout was fast creeping upon me.  I had thrown myself into trying to save my dream, and it was taking its toll.

It was around this time that I was given the book A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Tackle Life's Biggest Questions.  Looking back now, it was a blessing and a curse at the time.  Ultimately, it was a blessing, but to begin with it fed another part of my ego.

You see, I suffered from, and still to an extent suffer from, a tremendous desire to be right.  I want to have the right thoughts, subscribe to the right doctrine, do the right things, and so on and so forth.  I wanted to think that I was intellectually superior to others, and I wanted to think I was morally superior to others as well.  I would have never, ever admitted this before.  False humility.

The authors presented in this book offered me a train of Christian apologetics that I had not been exposed to in my days of college and seminary.  After having been exposed to "Christian fundamentalism" in my youth, college and seminary presented me with the exact opposite end of the spectrum.  Neither of these two paths seemed intellectually satisfying in my estimation.  Both seemed to have severe inconsistencies.  The train of thought presented by the book seemed to have fewer inconsistencies and have a better progression of logic.  Therefore, I became hooked.

I read and read and read.  I ordered other books by those who had chapters in the book.  I absorbed their thoughts thinking I had found the "right" path.  I now had the answers!  I knew what would save my dream!

Discipleship!  I had to be a better disciple.  I had to make my congregation be better disciples!

I embraced another form of legalism, and burnout loomed large.

Yeah.  Long story short, I failed at that discipleship thing.  I just couldn't be a great disciple, and I couldn't make others be disciples either.  Looking back at many of my sermons from those days, I was so concerned about what we were supposed to be doing!  Do this.  Do that.  Give here.  Be loving.  Be kind.  Produce the fruits of the Spirit.  I was also consumed with believing the right things.  This is the proper belief.  This is the proper doctrine to grasp.  If we all just believed this, things would turn, and we would stop this plateau and grow once again. 

What I failed to realize is that these sort of things don't happen unless a heart has been transformed by the Gospel--the realization that our salvation is from the Lord; that our self-worth is from the Lord; that we do not strive for worldly status and praise--"I haven't accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

I've written a couple of times about that statement of my grandfather's.  I wrote about it this past Easter along with Timothy Keller's speech about doing evangelism in a postmodern world.  Both of these events were instrumental in bringing me through that final lap of conversion.  Honestly, I had to fail before this could happen.   I had to burn out.  I had to realize my failing and frailty.  I had to realize my own brokenness and inability to grow a church.  I had to realize that I was using Jesus as a means to an end and not as an end in and of Himself.  I had to die to all of that.  I had to be humbled.

It wasn't pleasant, but there is now something different within me.  There is peace.  There is joy.  I'm not trying to treat my congregation as a means to an end.  I don't get angry or frustrated with others when they make decisions which are not in line with having Jesus at the center of their lives.  Hey, I spend a long time doing the same thing, and if I am honest with myself, there are times when I still do such things.  I know Jesus is still working on me.  I know Jesus will work on them.  I simply need to proclaim the gospel.

And that gospel is rather mucked up these days by the church.  I mean, most of the time we spend talking about what we should do.  We consume ourselves with the transformation of society or hammer folks with ideology.  We focus on a lot of shoulds.  Shoulds are important, no doubt, but you cannot talk should in the church until you talk redemption.  You cannot talk about living the Christian life until hearts have been turned toward God.  Only after folks become converted to the Christian faith can we begin trying to wrestle with how we are supposed to live it out.

Too often, in the church, we make the assumption that folks hearts are already tuned in. We make the assumption that they have already been changed by the gospel.  I think making that assumption is deadly.

I think making that assumption has caused many of our congregations to either become "liberal" or "conservative".  We embrace a particular ethic or social stance or ideology to become acceptable to those outside; then, those folks will want to become a part of us because our ideology matches as well as the things we do.  In my estimation, this has transformed many churches into clubs.

I once asked members of one particular congregation what made their church different from any other social organization.

It was quite awkward for a few moments.

What distinguishes the Church of Christ from any other organization is its focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ--God's reconciling the world unto Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is the power of the Gospel to change lives--to bring a sense of lasting peace, joy, and fulfillment which makes us different.

Our salvation; the world's salvation is of the Lord!  It's of the Lord!  Our self-worth; our status; our identity comes from the Lord!  It's of the Lord!  I don't have to go around proving myself.  I don't have to be important in the eyes of anyone or any institution.  I don't have to have a congregation grow in order to be happy or fulfilled.  I simply need Jesus.

I somewhat understood that with my head, but it hadn't sunk deep within.  It didn't  govern my heart.  I think it does now.  I still struggle.  I still find myself becoming a little disappointed when worship attendance isn't where I think it should be.  I still get a little upset when people tell me they are coming to worship and then don't.  I still find myself wanting to be right about all kinds of things; but these things no longer dominate.  These things are no longer my ultimate pursuits.

I've changed.

Maybe you seek that kind of change too.
Maybe you are tired of getting your worth from all sorts of things.
Maybe you are stressed out; burned out; unhappy; unfulfilled.
Take a deep breath and examine whether or not Christ is at the center of your life.
Examine whether or not you are pursuing Him or other things.  (This may be extremely difficult; as I noted earlier, I wasn't aware of what I was doing.)
Perhaps you will have a moment of clarity.
Perhaps not.  Be patient.  Wait.  Seek.  Ask God for it.  (Read my next sermon for some insight into how this process may look as it plays out.)

But don't go around thinking you can continue to do all the same things.
Don't think that you can continue to pursue the things you are pursuing now.
Change will have to happen.
It will be painful.  I am sorry to say that as we tend to avoid painful things, but it is necessary.
But once broken through, when Christ orients your heart toward Him, things change

And for the better.

The Truth--Jesus--sets you free.