Politics

(This is Credo Friday where I try, each week, to post about the things I believe, the things that form me. Not the things I’ve made up but the things that are making me. Today I’m getting around to politics and lean into the very thing that got Jesus crucified. Prayers and thoughts, please.)

What I believe today about politics is a long way from where I was when I first started following Jesus.

Politics was one of the things I was taught not to bring up, from the pulpit or otherwise, as a preacher/pastor. But since my first year in Bible College, it was clear that there was a right party to vote for and right policies to support and a wrong party and wrong policies. To be part of the “faithful” meant you leaned right, pretty hard right, and Jesus and the Christian faith were “clearly” aligned with one of America’s two major parties.

This was caught, not taught.

But I know in some Christian circles it went well beyond something you could catch. It was a mandatory requirement if you wanted to belong.

Liberal was a bad word in politics and in religion. If you wanted a future in ministry in my little world, you avoided using it in both.

And just to be clear, I caught it. I was adamantly conservative in both my politics and my theology. My world was black and white, truth was crystal clear, the Bible clearly taught everything I believed and nothing was more clear than the way the Scriptures supported my political persuasion.

My politics suited my lifestyle as a practicing pharisee. They fed off of each other.

And then one night in 1990, I was born again, again.

Truthfully, it was all of one night and some of the following morning. But by sunrise, the old was gone and new had come.

And little by little, Jesus started scrambling all my eggs. Eventually he got to my politics and little by little, over time, over Bible study, over times of prayer and contemplation, over encounters with the Holy Spirit, and over times of ministry and conversation with people in real life…my politics shifted.

I’ve definitely become a single issue voter. My politics all revolve now around one solitary issue. It’s a core belief for me. It’s a lens or filter through which every other attachment, opinion, preference and hot take has to pass. When I discovered this aspect of following Jesus it’s not an exaggeration to say it turned everything upside down for me.

The moment I came to believe that Jesus really did come to establish his kingdom here on earth and this life wasn’t just a pass/fail test for getting into heaven, my politics changed.

The kingdom of God is now my single issue. And my single party. My only allegiance because we only get one allegiance, we can’t split it or share it or multiply it.

One.

And I’ve chosen for it to belong to the kingdom of God.

And once I oriented my life around this single issue and this one allegiance, I found every human politic to be unworthy of allegiance. I found that every human party was now critiqued by the presence and practice of the kingdom of God. I can’t swear allegiance to a flag. I can’t vote a straight ticket. I can’t ignore the evil, the wrong, the hurtful and the hateful things done by any party. I can’t make America great again or pretend that it ever was because only the kingdom is great and good.

I have one Savior. I also have one King. I don’t have room for allegiance or alignment with any other politic or political figure.

Jesus has taught me that following him means I can’t compartmentalize my life. I don’t give him a part of me, a part of my time, a part of my relationships, a part of my politic. He’s either Lord of it all or he’s not really Lord of any of it.

Now, listen to me sounding all high and mighty.

Yikes.

I fail at this every day. But this I know, my failure isn’t an excuse to move the bar on what I know following Jesus means.

There is no human politic who will try the economic plan of Jesus. That’s why the kingdom has come.

There is no human politic who will try the non-violent way of Jesus. That’s why the kingdom has come.

There is no human politic that will empty itself of power and embrace weakness and humility. That’s why the kingdom has come.

A constant theme of the Old Testament is a simple message from God – don’t try to be like the other nations and pursue a politic like they have. It will always end badly for you.

Somehow we think that magically changed when Jesus brought the kingdom into our here and now. Instead of seeing Jesus establishing this politic that would forever and always be in opposition to every human political institution created by man, we sought to coopt the kingdom, make it work for our politic, to use the kingdom to further our own kingdoms.

And that’s just messed up.

You can’t be silent about the abuses of a human party you endorse and pretend your allegiance is to Jesus. It just doesn’t do.

Usually about now this conversation turns to words like “practical” and “realistic” and some variation on “the best we can do.”

At my age and stage, I am baffled by people who swear allegiance to king Jesus but then suggest any human politic is more practical, more realistic or better than the kingdom Jesus established.

Which is neither a republic or a democracy.

Caesar was called the Son of God. Our word ‘church’ comes from a term contemporary to the first century believers that referred to an ad hoc group formed of the people for a governmental purpose. Lord and king aren’t just quaint old-fashioned words but carefully chosen words to describe the exact nature of our current relationship with God in Christ and with the World.

Being a follower of Jesus has ALWAYS been a political action.

We are colonists of heaven, establishing a subversive and prophetic way of life meant to demonstrate truth to Power, not suck up to it.

So here is where I stand today. I swear one allegiance and that is to the kingdom of God and my king, Jesus. If I’m living this right, my very existence will be an ongoing critique of the Powers and Principalities by the way I live. If I’m living it right, my very existence will be an ongoing critique of the Powers and Principalities who all, by their very nature, set themselves up in opposition to my king and his kingdom.

I will live and die to be the church of Jesus. That’s my politic.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday, a weekly glimpse behind the curtain of pastoral ministry to share what this pastor’s life is really like. Welcome.

Doctors, teachers and pastors all have to make an investment in continuing education.

This current season of “distancing” has made most of the pastors I know dig deep and pick up some new ways to shepherd the flock of God of which we’re a part.

Sadly, the primary offer I’ve been receiving from outside sources has been help in keeping the money coming in. My primary concern (and I’m not alone in this) has been “how do we enable the saints to gather when we’re all supposed to stay home?” My second concern has been, “how do we continue to make groceries accessible for our most vulnerable connections from our food pantry?” And my third has been, “how can we best encourage our single adults living alone in this season?”

But what my email inbox is packed with are mostly offers to help stabilize or even increase our giving in this season for the right price.

The offer in 2nd place are all the companies who want to help us up our social media game and keep us supplied with content we can push out to our church to keep everyone coming back – or tweeting us out – with a view to the day we inevitably gather together. Again, for the right price.

Suddenly, being able to Instagram, podcast, Twitch, Tweet and Zoom are all valuable skills that we never covered in Bible College.

I think as pastors we should all be collectively working through what being the church is going to look like in these days and what practices can we invest ourselves into that will not only produce good fruit now but set us up to thrive in the future. The impulse is to curse at the darkness or grumble about persecution or blame someone for the trouble we find ourselves in. An alternative approach is the simple but challenging, look to see what the Father’s doing and join him in doing it.

But that path will require both pastors AND congregations being willing to pivot and do things differently. New ways in new days. And rather than piling more expectations on the pastor, we need to be willing to call for a do-over on their whole job description.

The primary temptation will be, I think, to just do things we’ve always done but just do them harder.

To borrow from Tod Bolsinger – we are apt to insist we canoe these mountains because canoes are what we brought to get the job done. But canoes aren’t made for getting over mountains. And there be mountains, my friends.

This is going to be an especially tough season for our church planting pastors. They are about to find out what kind of support system they are really attached to. Will this be a “thoughts and prayers” season or will they find their denominations and networks have their backs in tangible ways? Many of my church planting pastor friends are paying their bills while they plant by working jobs that are the most vulnerable during this time. Uber, restaurants, coffee shops, places where people gather, various positions in the service industry, those being hit hardest by the “stay in place” order.  

Can they make it for a month without a paycheck? And what if this goes for more than a month? What if the place they were working at closes for good because of the shutdown?

A pastor in Florida was arrested today for keeping services going at his “mega-church.” Maybe it was faith, misguided perhaps, that led him to keep the in person gathering going – but maybe it was financial need. Some of us have set aside a month’s worth of money in case something like this ever happened. But a lot of us are living one Sunday to the next. I’ve been there. And a pastor may feel extra pressure now to gather the saints because, quite frankly, the trend is “no show, no income.”

And if you have the kind of overhead some Megas have the budget need is so great that you’d rather been in jail for “persecution” and get the extra funds that might generate than try to make a go on the third of your regular income that will come in during virtual gatherings. I’m not saying this was that particular pastor’s motivation, it’s just a possible explanation for pastors pushing the saints to gather in a season in which gathering in person could be deadly for some.

And please don’t think this is just a greedy senior pastor – we built this city. They are thinking of staff and a physical plant and a ministry and and and… We built this city. It’s our circus. They’re our monkeys.

So, for my pastor friends I only have solidarity to offer you. I have nothing to sell you, no virus proof strategy for these days. All I am trying to do is all the old things, the true things the Jesusy things we all do but in new ways in these new days. I’m relying on younger, smarter and more clever and creative people than me. And I’m falling back on the one thing I can count on – talking to God, looking to see what the Father is doing and joining him wherever I spot him.

And I offer that strategy free of charge to all of you.

Peace of Christ to you.

If you’re a planter and in trouble and I can help you in some way or pray with you – having lived for 10 years week to week to see if the church would make it to the next – I’m here and I’m available to you…no answers, and no cash, just willing to listen and pray and process with you.

If you’re a network or a denomination and you’re not actively arranging support for your planters – you suck.

Sudden Televangelists

On Tuesdays I like to post a short reflection on this pastor’s story I’m in, on this life in pastoral ministry. Thanks for taking the time to read even a single word.

And suddenly we were all televangelists.

These are strange days we’re in. Some pastors are scrambling to learn new skills related to technology and livestreaming services. Other pastors are trying to figure out how to navigate these days and still have a congregation that wants to meet together when this pandemic is over. A few pastors of small churches are excited that the playing field has suddenly been leveled by a tiny little virus and mega-churches and small churches all have the same opportunities to reach people for a moment. And many of us pastors are a little scared that after a month of Sundays in PJs and slippers on and with fresh coffee in hand and feet up, we may not get people back to “church as usual.”

And I don’t think we will. Not all of us anyway.

That freaks me out a little.

But something else freaks me out more.

I’m reading other pastors comments and posts on-line, pastors of smaller churches, pretty chuffed about the numbers their “Facebook Live” posts reportedly reached.

The comment usually goes something like… “I normally reach 35 people on a Sunday but Facebook tells me our online service/my online sermon reached 650 (or 800 or 1200).”

And I get it.

We all want our voice to be heard. We all want our lives to mean something. We are all in this because we feel we have something to say and something to say that is uniquely brought to the world through us.

Through me.

But here’s the thing. You can never judge your impact by the size of your crowd.

Unless the impact you’re going for is on your own ego.

But seriously, we’ve all seen huge crowds follow despots and cult leaders.

We’ve all seen the cult of personality blossom, bloom, fade and burn out in spectacular fashion in pastoral ministry.

But I get it. I’d like to be called out by Preachers in Sneakers.

I’d like to have my picture taken beside my celebrity parishioner.

What pastor doesn’t want to be called to appear live on a national news show to offer the definitive “Christian” answer to a national situation?

But here’s what I’ve learned in almost 35 years of pastoral ministry – it’s almost always the small things that God uses to change the world.

It’s the George Baileys, the Mary Ann Shadd Carys, and the Bilbo Baggins’ that quietly go about influencing lives that make the difference.

In Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf says, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

Dr. King reminded us that, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Which was him riffing on the words of our great emancipator, Jesus, who re-oriented our values with these words, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus, who in the end couldn’t hold a crowd to save his life, but made it possible for the whole world to change despite his public failure to gather followers and generate ‘likes’.

As pastors we need to remember the beauty of what we do is in the small things, the unseen things, the only things that will get ‘rewarded’ in the coming life – the secret things that don’t draw a crowd.

Things like…

faithfulness

truthfulness

long suffering kindness

patient endurance

gentleness

setting captives free

being an agent of transformation one heart at a time.

There’s no place in Scripture where Jesus promises to hand out special prizes based on crowd size or size of influence. Those are ego metrics, not Kingdom metrics.

Don’t get me wrong. I was right there with you this past Sunday when I saw our view numbers going up during the live feed. I was pumped when I saw people sharing our on-line service with friends and my ego was positively thrilled when I saw people who don’t normally attend our service not only watching it but sharing it with others.

It was a rush.

But it wasn’t the good stuff. The real stuff. The important stuff.

A conversation with Jesus on Monday reminded me of the wisdom of Bilbo Baggins, ““It is no bad thing celebrating a simple life.” Because the truth is that the mom who is looking after her two little ones at home during this pandemic is changing the world. The dad working from home, juggling his active 3 year old daughter is making eternal waves. The single person, working from home who is faithfully reaching out to others from their solitary confinement is making a kingdom size impression on lives through their kindness and conversation.

As shepherds I think we always have to guard against creating a notion that the important work of ministry involves crowds of people and thus out of the reach of 99.5% of everyone in the flock of God of which you are a part.

Pastoral ministry is, I think, as it always has been, about doing small things with great love.

And this is still enough to change the world.

Camino Diary, Day 6

In September and October of 2019 I walked the Camino de Santiago with 2 good friends. These are my recollections of that five week journey.

Today we left the city of Pamplona and we made our way out and up to the iconic image of the pilgrim’s silhouettes on the Sierra Del Perdón outlook and then down and further on to the smaller city of Puente La Reina. This will be the day I always remember as the day God was interested in talking about the same things I wanted to talk about.

Pamplona morning

Since learning, as a follower of Jesus, that hearing God speak to my heart was supposed to be normal, a birthright for those who are adopted as sons and daughters of God, my experience of his voice has often been frustrating. I, myself, am the source of that frustration but it comes from discovering that God seldom wants to talk about what I want to talk about and nearly always has his own ideas about what he and I should discuss together.

But on this day, as we ascended to the windmills and pilgrim’s silhouettes, I had on my heart and mind topics that I intended to pester God about over the 500 miles of the Camino until he finally relented and gave me the answers I was looking for. I wasn’t thinking of it as a reward for walking the Camino, just the most likely way for me to wear him down to finally talk about the things on my list.

walking out of Pamplona

As I walked out of Pamplona with my friends Bill and Derrick, I chose one of my questions and started an internal conversation with God – with little expectation he would engage with me on the topic I had chosen. To my surprise, he seemed eager to tackle my list.

On our way up, I not only engaged in this internal dialog but God brought another pilgrim up beside me and without any prompting from me, this pilgrim started to talking to me about the very topic I was having and interior conversation with God. Between the two conversations, I felt at peace with a clear answer. It all happened so fast and it had been something I thought I would labor over the entire Way, I didn’t know what to do.

Pilgrims and Windmills – we are all Don Quixote

I walked on silently for a few minutes, still upward, and then thought, “Why not?” and I proceeded to engage God in big, angsty topic number two.

We talked for quite a while. I was again amazed that he was kindly engaging with my list rather than his own. Suddenly, another pilgrim I had never met before and never saw again, was walking beside me. He and his wife were on the Camino from their home in the U.K. He had heard from one of my friends that I was a pastor and he had a couple questions for me.

I tried to hide from everyone I met on the Camino that I was a pastor. People tend to start acting – well – not like themselves once they find out I’m a pastor. When he said he had a couple questions for me “as a pastor” I sighed – internally – and externally asked, “What are you thinking about?” And he proceeded to bring up two questions about the very thing I had at that moment been talking to God about.

I was, as my U.K. friend might say, gobsmacked.

Before we had even reached first lunch for that day I had engaged with God over 2 of my 3 major questions I had intended to wrestle with God about over the course of the Camino. I felt God had given me clarity, wisdom and confirmation about what I was to do, how I was to think which led to me feeling a sense of peace. At some point on our final ascent to the pilgrims silently pointing the way above us, I am certain I laughed out loud.

Pilgrims

Arriving in Puente La Reina, the experiences continued. That evening we walked into a very old church. It was low light, I was exhausted and in a little pain from the day’s walk but feeling very raw about the experience of the day. Here’s what I wrote that night in my journal…

“Tonight I knelt and prayed in a very old church. I started to pray the Lord’s prayer in the dim light. The presence of God felt rich and thick. Suddenly an organist somewhere in the dark loft above started to play a familiar hymn and my eyes filled up with tears. The presence of God was so rich, so restful.”

Derrick, Bill and I were gifted to a room to ourselves in our albergue that night. We ran into pilgrim friends who, thanks to Derrick’s introduction had become “special friends” along the Way. Bill looked after one of my toes that was turning into a painful problem as the little toe on my right foot grew a huge blister and then, just for fun, another blister on the blister.

That evening we enjoyed our first Camino burger and Sangria which helped sooth my belly and my toe.

Night falls

Along the way, I would record a consolation and desolation from each day. I’m not sure if I told you that before. I would reflect on my day and then write down a consolation, a moment I felt God particularly close, I felt “blessed and highly favored.” Then I would reflect again and write down a desolation for the day, a moment when I felt God was distant, far off, a moment I felt an empty lack inside of myself. That night, as we turned in, my desolation was this, “the speed at which people move on from conversation with me. I must be boring. God loves me still.” I wanted you to know about that because it felt then and still feels now, very important.

I was glad to get a good night of sleep that night because the next morning was going to begin with a bang. A very bad bang. And it would end with me trapped in a bathroom.

Love in the Time of Corona

It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. Every week, or at least most weeks when life doesn’t interfere, I post a reflection on life in pastoral ministry. A little look behind the curtain to see the person pulling the levers and making the big head talk. Thanks for stopping by.

I have a lot of books on my shelves about ministry. How to do it. Why to do it. When to do it. Where to do it. Doing it in modernity. Doing it in postmodernity. Doing it with the patristics. Doing it with addicts. Doing it with the differently abled.

I don’t have a single book that tells me how to do it during a pandemic.

Not one.

But I get emails. And I’ve gotten tons of emails suddenly from people offering me tips, solutions, advice, guidance – even simple steps to help your church increase in size during a pandemic. The number of emails I get promises a simple solution for getting my church to grow are running at about the same amount as the emails that promise simple solutions for getting and maintaining an erection. Not sure if there’s a correlation but I suspect there is.

The simple truth is that most of us have never been here before. But the good news is that God’s not surprised and he prepared us for a time like this by giving us the Holy Spirit to be our guide. (No charge.)

So I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to listen. Trying to stay in a place of peace and calm, the garden where revelation and wisdom grows. Because if everything I ever knew is suddenly changing and I’m being asked to help lead a group of Jesus followers through this change, I need some outside intervention that doesn’t come in an email.

So far, here are the things that are developing as I think about pastoral ministry and love in the time of Corona.

1) God is not surprised or scrambling to come up with a way to keep his Church going. I’m more worried about my paycheck from the church than God is about the ability of the Church to navigate these times by the Spirit. I can dial down. Everything that happens next does NOT depend on me. God is with us.

2) The Church is NOT the building. We’re the church whether we gather en masse or in groups of less than 10 in our homes. We need each other. That is certain. What a life as Jesus followers does NOT require is us all being in the same big room at the same big time risking the same big exposure to a virus that can take out our most vulnerable and precious saints. (they’re most precious precisely because they are the most vulnerable.)

3) We all need to dial down and show each other some mercy, grace and kindness. I have pastor friends calling those of us who have cancelled our services “faithless” and I have friends calling those who have not cancelled their services “heartless.” Jesus calls us to chill. We are misplacing our fear, anger and doubts onto one another in a time when we need each other more than ever. So before we hit the ‘farewell Rob Bell’ tweet, take a breath, use our imagination and put yourself in their shoes, call up some compassion and bear with them in their weakness (which frustrates you most because they think their weakness is really the strong position). Chill.

4) Who has NOT been washing their hands? Seriously? Are there really people who have not been practicing this essential life skill? Jesus wants you to wash your hands. The Father and the Spirit both cringe when you walk out of the bathroom without the 20 second sing-a-long sanitizing scrub. Remember when cleanliness was next to godliness? Well now cleanliness can help keep you from meeting God sooner than expected.

5) If you’re sick, stay home. Period. Don’t play the “how sick is too sick” game. If you have any symptoms of a cold or even athletes foot, stay home. Especially those of you who don’t think any of these guidelines or concerns apply to you, you are our most dangerous friends. Stay home!

6) If you need some help, ask someone for help. If you are not sick, offer your help to people from a safe distance. If you are in good health and fall into the “most likely to survive this” categories, offer to pick up groceries for friends at risk. Drop it off on their doorstep, don’t go in for a visit. If you’re in distress and need something, please let your church family know.

7) Hoarding is evil. Don’t store up for yourself things that others need. Share. Don’t charge more for something than it should actually cost when lives are at stake and a pandemic is raging. It just makes you a jerk and other words my wife does not want me to say on my blog. When the world’s on fire, it’s evil to charge someone for the buckets of water you stock piled in your garage.

8) Don’t be concerned only about your own needs but be concerned about the needs of others around you as well.

9) As a pastor, I want you to know how much we need your grace and support for how we’re doing what we’re doing in these days. We didn’t cover this in Bible college. We’re all doing the best we can do and picking our way along in this unusual season of our lives. We will get it wrong. More than once. Accept this as an advance apology and instead of taking shots from the cheap seats, help out wherever you see water is getting into the boat, air is leaking from the balloon, the fire is spreading to the strange room that always contained all the TNT and gunpowder in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. But please don’t yell at us or suggest we should have known a better way. We’re trying to follow the Spirit. We’re bound to get it wrong sometimes.

10) For my pastoral colleagues. Those of you trying to recruit church going people to your church service because others are closing their service – stop it. You’re being buttheads. Seriously, have you learned NOTHING from Jesus? Tend the flock of God of which you are a part, watch out for the wolves that will rise up from among you and keep your invites out of everyone else’s flock for now. COVID-19 is enough virus for us to worry about for now. So help me, if I see one more of you posting a boast that while others close you will not – I’m going to send you a strongly worded email.

11) For my other pastoral colleagues. Those of you who are hurting, worried, wondering where your paycheck is going to come from, I am praying for you and stand in solidarity with you. These are scary times. Let the church know. Modify what you’re doing with financial resources right now. Re-allocate as needed. My friends with rainy day funds – it’s raining, share with your friends who don’t have roofs.

12) Last of all, God is with us. He will not leave us or forsake us. All this may be shaken, the sky may fall, but this one thing will always be true – Jesus loves you, this we know. This is a time for sharing and not hoarding, building bridges and not walls, being conduits and not dams. Hang together so we don’t find ourselves hanging alone.

Love in the time of Corona is still love. Do what love does. Stay home. Go help. Be mindful. Protect the weak and the vulnerable. Pray. Share. Speak prophetically about the better days ahead and remind people that God is our storyteller and it is his story that matters most. God is our composer and it is his unstoppable song that calls us to move along with his rhythm of grace in a movement that no virus or evil free-will act of man can ever disrupt or abort.

Stay virus free my friends. God is with us.

Where Change Lives

Today is Credo Friday, when I try to post something that describes the state of things that I believe…the things that make me who I am.

This week I posted a reply to a comment on someone else’s Facebook. Here’s what I wrote:

I am amazed at the conviction that exclusion will lead to repentance. Every single apostle, including Judas or especially Judas, demonstrates that Jesus’ way is exactly the opposite of exclusion. It is God’s kindness that has worked repentance in me and the courage to discover the depths of my own sinfulness. Who, in their right minds, would ever long to become part of a group that excluded them without knowing them? I am genuinely mystified by followers of Jesus who still think people are transformed by the silent treatment when we literally worship the Word.

After more than 30 years of following Jesus and trying to help others do the same, I believe that transformation require proximity to the source. I can’t change myself; I need to be close to Jesus and a Jesus shaped-community for transformation to happen in my life. That’s why my impulse is to include and embrace rather than exclude and avoid those who seem in need of the kind of transformation that Jesus promises to do.

Jesus chose a gnarly bunch of disciples. They included some bad hombres. Even a domestic terrorist. One was an embezzler and Jesus put him in charge of the petty cash.

Go figure.

They had anger issues that Jesus said made them murderers. One couldn’t tell the truth, especially when it counted most. Same dude turned did violence on a man Jesus had to heal as a result of his impulse control problem. Doubters. Bigots. Deserters.

Sinners.

But Jesus hung out with them for 3 plus years. Ate with them. Travelled with them. Made them his brand ambassadors. He sent them out on ministry trips and at the end of his life on earth he commissioned them to be Gospelers.

Even though their chief spokesperson was still a racist.

I have this funny idea that Jesus was more likely to let a prostitute get intimate with his person than he was to get comfortable in a “by the Book” priest’s home at dinner time. I have this crazy notion that Jesus was more likely to enjoy table fellowship with a man who would betray and rob his own kin than he would recline at the tables of the rich and religious.

Call me a liberal, call me a progressive, but I think Jesus is constantly with me while I have dirty thoughts, yell at the idiot in front of me in traffic, and lie to a friend about how I’m doing. And if he’s not, I’m screwed. He’s all I’ve got, you see. I can’t heal myself. I can’t make myself more like Jesus. I can alter my behavior for a moment but I can’t change my fundamental wants and desires the way he can from the inside – God knows I’ve tried and God knows he’s done it.

From my time among my beautiful and courageous and perfectly imperfect brothers and sisters in Recovery, I’ve learned that my moral sobriety isn’t maintained by the judgment of the holier than thous but by the fellowship of the “I’ve been there too-s.” I am grateful that in Recovery we never exclude people based on their gender or sexual orientation nor do we make it the criteria for who can lead a meeting, who can work the Steps or who can be a sponsor. In the Rooms you find acceptance, encouragement, help, companionship and an allergy to judgment which we have learned leads both the judge and judged to another slip or rock bottom bender.

I’m too old and too aware of myself to pretend that I’ve got any moral high ground. If I’m going to get better and be more like Jesus, it will come by kindness, embrace, inclusion and the generous hospitality of God who, while I was still in my spiritual drunkenness and moral darkness, gave his life to secure my sobriety and my liberation. If I am a healer, I am, as Nouwen wrote, a wounded healer.

Jesus said that when someone from the Jesus shaped community fell into a sin cycle (like soul cycle only not at all) and they seemed stuck and they wouldn’t listen to love or reason, we supposed to fall back to our greatest offense – we treat them like a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

Hold onto that. Pause there a moment. Remember our story.

Do you think Jesus looked over at Matthew when he said “…a corrupt tax collector…” and do you think Jesus’ disciples thought of the Syrophoenician woman or the Samaritan woman or the Roman Centurion with the paralyzed servant or maybe even back to the horoscope reading Magi when he said that?

Our whole story is about inclusion and the posture of transformation is found in the warm embrace of a hug, in a running prodigal father who protected his law breaking son from the consequences he deserved so that he might wear the ring and the robe before he’d confirmed by a single action that he had left his wandering-heart-ways behind him.

On this Credo Friday, I’m thinking about how good it is to find myself embraced by a God who looks like Jesus, acts like Jesus and talks like Jesus. And my life is being shaped and changed daily by the experience of this love through his presence and the proximity of my Jesus shaped community of kindness.

Here’s some Lectio Dylana to contemplate as you consider this posture of love that transforms…I always imagine the Father sings this over me in Bob’s voice…

Make You Feel My Love
When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love
When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love
I know you haven’t made your mind up yet
But I would never do you wrong
I’ve known it from the moment that we met
No doubt in my mind where you belong
I would go hungry, I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawling down the avenue
No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love
The storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret
Though winds of change are throwing wild and free
You ain’t seen nothing like me yet
I could make you happy make your dreams come true
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
Go to the ends of the Earth for you
To make you feel my love
*

*lyrics by the great Bob Dylan, of course. But you already knew that…unless you thought it was Adele, I hope you didn’t think it was Adele.

Ordination

It’s pastoral ministry Tuesday where I share a little bit of the journey, a little glimpse behind the curtain, and share some observations about this pastor’s life.

I’m part of a denomination/church movement that has a low view of ordination until it’s expedient to have a high view of ordination.

On one hand, we have no liturgy or common practice for ordaining someone to be a pastor or anything else for that matter. I’ve known other pastors in our movement/denom who have literally been “ordained” in a hallway at our national conference by two other pastors who stopped with them in a hallway, said a prayer and “poof!” they were ordained. This is a fairly low view of ordination.

On the other hand, if one of our churches ordains someone who is in a same sex relationship, you get kicked out of our movement – one of the few things that can get you in trouble with the home office (right up there with not sending in your monthly tribute of 3%). I would argue this potential consequence of “doing it wrong” indicates a fairly high view of ordination.

Ordination is what’s on my mind on this pastoral ministry Tuesday because a friend of mine is getting ordained today in an Anglican church in Canada.

In the movement/denomination I was formerly a part of, ordination was a somewhat serious business. It walked that fine line between “biblical pattern” which was of high importance in the group I was a part of – in which I was ordained – and one of the high church/denominational practices we largely shunned (along with Lent, the church calendar in general and titles like ‘pastor’). We could find some biblical precedence for it with the elders laying on hands and setting people apart for things, so we kept it.

Ordination was a useful way of determining who was in and who was out, who was ‘official’ and ‘legit’ and who were just wannabees. The majors versus the minors. In both movements/denominations we are adamant that there is no clergy/laity divide and yet…well…there is. And ordination proves it.

For some, ordination is a sacramental act that sets a person apart for their vocation in church leadership and/or ministry. For some, it is the moment in which authority is conferred on an individual by the Holy Spirit (and sometimes the church of God) to fulfill their vocation as a pastor or one of the other many titles and roles in church leadership. For some, it is a mere formality that means very little to them or (in their opinion) to God. It functions to indicate those who can now legally perform weddings, funerals, burials and baptisms. In North America the “legal” part of that is largely gone as nearly everyone can marry people or perform any of the other rites previously associated with a clergy class.

If you were to ask me what my view was on ordination, after a lot of reading and conversations and about 35 years of experience in pastoral ministry, I would tell you that it’s complicated. Despite the “non-traditional” movement that I am a part of and the extremely anti-denominational movement I was a part of, I see ordination as a sacramental act that involves a trinitarian formula: the Spirit, the candidate and the Church. I do not, however, believe this is a point in time or the means by which God confers a particular authority upon an individual, even if the Church does.*

I would go on to describe my view of ordination as “narrative.” It comes from asking these questions of a candidate, “What story does your life tell? In what way does your life tell the story of pastoral formation? Over the story of your life, how do you see God forming you, in big and/or small ways, into your vocation? What stories from your life make you think that pastoral formation is the story you are in?”

I would ask the Church of which the candidate is a part these questions, “What story do you see and experience God telling with the candidates life? In what ways do you see the gift evident in their life, tell stories or give instances? What are the gifts of the Spirit you see in the candidates life that make them suited for pastoral ministry? Tell stories about the times you’ve seen through the moment you were in with the candidate and you observed God forming them and working through them in pastoral vocation? How has their life with you indicated they were on a trajectory towards a pastoral vocation?”

I would gather the candidate and the Church to discern together the Holy Spirit’s voice together and listen for answers to questions like, “What is the clear evidence of God’s spiritual formation in the life of this candidate? Collectively, where do we see the Holy Spirit, in big and small ways, forming this person into a pastor? What is the evidence of the Holy Spirit that is obvious in this candidates life? How has God confirmed this narrative formation for pastoral ministry through signs, wonders and effective ministry up until this moment? How do we collectively experience Jesus through this person in love, words and way of living?”

These are important questions. And it’s important for the individual and the Church to have confidence in the answers because there are few things tested the way a call to pastoral vocation will be tested. Most pastors I have known, myself included, have been tested a lot longer than just 40 days in the desert. A lot of pastors fire themselves every Monday. And it’s usually well meaning people who want to “help” who create the biggest doubts in us about our vocation by the little things they say and “constructive criticisms” they offer.

A person in pastoral ministry needs some external confirmation that this is indeed the story that God has called them to at least 364 days a year. “Did God really say…” is a tape that runs through our hearts and heads every time attendance is down, the offering is down, someone we’ve pastored makes a terrible “let me return to my own vomit” choice. When we get the anonymous note, the passive aggressive comment about church growth, the backhanded compliment, the comparison to “other church” and how they’re really thriving over there. We need ordination as part of our memory to remind ourselves and the devil and maybe even the current flock of God of which we are a part – yes, God has called me to this, prepared me for this, told my story to form me into this pastor’s life.

In the denomination/movement I was originally a part, we would not ordain women. It was a sin for a woman to be ordained. We didn’t call it a “sin” usually but it was prohibited and non-biblical – which meant “sin.” We didn’t ask any of these questions about their story to them, the Church or to God because we had the Bible and we knew the Bible was clear that this was something women were not made to do. I’ve disavowed that way of thinking, even though I have friends still there – even some who may be reading this. I see it as the entirely wrong approach to this story we are in.

When the Spirit fell on the Gentiles, the only question that mattered was whether or not they possessed (or were possessed by) the same Holy Spirit that fell on Pentecost. What gifts can we see? What fruit is evident? Story questions. Not gender questions. Not questions pertaining to the Jews original ideas about what constituted clean and unclean.

What story is God telling right now with these people in front of me? What is the evidence that makes me believe that story is true and truly Jesus?

So on this pastoral ministry Tuesday, I’m thinking of my friend Rob, in whose story I am sure I can see God forming a pastor. He will be tested and tried and gutted and he will need the ordination service tonight on some ratty Thursday afternoon when he’s just finished plunging a toilet in one of the children’s ministry bathrooms for the fifth time after getting off the phone with a church member who offered an in depth critique of his last homily and he wonders if this is really what he’s meant to be. He needs this punctuation point that will be an anchor to be reminded once again, yes, Rob, God has called you to this, embrace the journey, all is well.

*for those interested, I believe that authority in the Church rests solely on the presence of loving relationship.

Camino Diary 5

On Camino Wednesdays I’m sharing day to day recollections from the journal i kept as my friends and I walked the Camino de Santiago, September/October 2019, from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. Part ONE. Part TWO. Part THREE. And part FOUR.

On September 6, 2019, I walked from Zubiri to Pamplona, Spain with my friends Bill and Derrick.

Walk this way…

The night before had been a restless sleep. Our room was hot and every time I moved on my top bunk it creaked and squeaked. Negotiating room temperature would become a skill to develop as we shared large and small rooms with fellow peregrinos across Spain on our way to Santiago.

On our way.

The entry in my journal says, “We were only about 15 minutes late getting out. I had been promised an easy day with little hills. But there were some hills and I did not take it well.” The Camino Bible” tricked me like this more than a few times. We started a day’s walk with a commentary that assured us that it was “mostly flat” only to find that meant it was “sometimes up hill and up hill again and one more hill after that.” At that point in the journey, despite all the walking I had done in preparation, alone and with my friends, I was realizing how desperately out of shape I was.

Early in the morning walk we came to a village with a small, ruined church that was being excavated and restored by volunteers. We stopped and listened to one of the volunteers describe the work. It was interesting. It was sad. It was impossible not to see the contrast between the amazing vistas, the natural views across valleys and along mountainsides with the small mission churches that were often neglected and in poor condition.

The city cathedrals ahead of us would tell another story.

As we walked into Pamplona we chose a more scenic route than the traditional Camino road. We followed Bill’s MapMe app to our accommodations for the night and it took us down along a scenic river route. Locals, recognizing us as pilgrims, kept stopping us and trying to re-direct us to the Camino path. We tried to communicate that we knew what we were doing and they would switch over to English for us but when we persisted they would smile, and walk away, shaking their heads over these three confused peregrinos.

The bulls do run.

As we walked through downtown Pamplona we met up once again with the lady who purred. She invited us to stop and eat with her and share a bottle of wine with us. When a lady who purrs in her sleep invites you to join her for a bottle of the local wine on the Camino de Santiago, you stop. Derrick translated, she shared some of her story and we all laughed and drank at a sidewalk table in Pamplona and watched other pilgrims walk by as we enjoyed the beautiful Spanish day.

After our wine, we stopped in a Pamplona church building. I wrote, “It was beautiful. People faithfully worshiping Jesus, day in and day out. Loving, having babies, getting married or not, living, dying…it made me realize how small and silly all our ‘church growth’ stuff really is.”

We splurged that night and stayed in a more hotelish accommodation. It was 15€ each and my wife wouldn’t have stayed there to save her life. We shared a common bathroom with the rest of the floor (and maybe the one above us) but we had our own bedroom and our own beds. We rested, showered and then went out to explore Pamplona. We walked through the streets full of people, beautiful buildings, a cathedral and bocadillo shops.

New friends.
The fair.

I stopped in one shop for a bocadillo y jamon and just outside we ran into another new friend, Antony. In a city jam-packed with tourists and pilgrims and locals it was a moment that would become common on the Camino, you suddenly and unexpectedly and joyfully run into another pilgrim you’ve met on the way. A medieval fair was underway and we were treated to costumes, music and local culture.

It was amazing. It felt like a gift.

That night we went to bed but didn’t stay asleep for very long. Outside the city came alive as we tried to sleep. The volume went up. And then went up some more. At one point, around two or three a.m., it sounded like a fight broke out on the street below our window. An angry mob. Maybe a riot. While I lay in bed listening I thought through the ways to bar the door, make our escape out the window turning sheets into a rope, I thought about sending my wife one last text message – and then – silence. It didn’t die out slowly, it just seemed like it was turned off. And finally, we went to sleep with the strong smell of cigarette smoke oozing through our adjoining wall.

My back ached. My butt had a cramp in it. My feet hurt. I was afraid of the mob on the street. But on that night my greatest pain was in my heart, I missed my wife and my family and I felt so very far away from them.

O the people that we’ll meet…

How long is too long for you to be away from those you love? How far is too far to go from them? What happens when absence makes the heart grow sick instead of fonder?

Scoreboard

On Pastoral Ministry Tuesdays I like to share a reflection on life as a pastor, a little glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain.

How do you measure success?

We’re obsessed with it. And in our part of the world we’re determined, it seems to me, not only to figure out if we’re “living it right” but to also figure out if we’re “living it right” as measured against how others are living it.

I’m getting it “more right” than you are. Therefore, I’m winning.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a believer in metrics. I just don’t believe we’re supposed to be keeping score.

Earnestness isn’t enough in pastoral ministry. I don’t think “doing my best” is even enough to know that I’m fulfilling my vocation. But after more than 35 years of this life, I’m very sure that the status of my vocation is not dependent on how it measures up to how you fulfill your vocation (whatever that vocation might be).

Gene Getz wrote a book in 1975 called, The Measure of a Church. He proposed 3 metrics for determining the health of a church and a ministry: Faith, Hope and Love. From here in 2020 I think we’d call his idea…quaint…or…out of touch. Today my shelves are full of books offering a number of metrics but none of them are faith, hope or love.

For the pragmatists, the metric is simple: butts in seats and bills in the offering basket. What are your attendance numbers? What’s your weekly offering? What’s your annual budget? And we roll ours out and measure them against each other. If my numbers are bigger, I’m a winner. For Jesus, of course.

Sometimes it revolves around things like staves and sometimes it’s about a simple vision that leads your church to do one thing really well. I have some friends who want to create brand loyalty. For my fundie friends it’s even more simple – is the Word of God preached? There’s an expectation when this is the metric that you might be very small and it even justifies our smallness because, after all, if you’re really preaching the Word of God people won’t be able to stand it. But no matter what metric a group uses – here in America – it seems like it always comes back to the scoreboard.

Who’s winning and who’s losing?

A lot of pastors struggle with this question. A lot of pastors are worried they’re not “living it right” because we have come to believe a simple equation: do the right thing, get the intended results. After 35 years at this I can tell you that doing the right thing never guarantees you will get the desired result. Turning the other cheek often just leads to another punch. Doing to others as you’d have them do unto you often just leads to misunderstanding and people doing to you what they damn well feel like doing out of their fear, pain or brokenness.

Pastor friends, there is no certainty. There are no guarantees. You can do everything “right” and still find people get angry, disappointed, going elsewhere for church, lying about you to others or just going back to their own vomit. That’s because we’re all humans. It’s what we do. People’s choices and reactions tell you more about themselves than they do you.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the first three chapters. The Corinthians may have invented the scoreboard. And Paul was losing. And in the midst of Paul’s defense of his ministry and trying to set things right…PAUSE.

…Can we just note that Paul spends time in several of his letters defending himself and his ministry? Where in the hell (literally) did we get the idea that we’re supposed to be silent when people are trash talking us and our ministries? Where did the idea come from that that’s the way for pastors to respond? Paul did not apply the Gospel that way. I don’t think there’s anything noble about you and me doing it either…UNPAUSE

Paul drops this little metric destabilizer in to the Corinthian’s way of measuring: “only God gives the increase.” God makes faith grow. Paul hadn’t even kept a clear count on how many people he’d baptized but he was estimating for lower and not higher.

As a pastor, with Easter approaching, I get a growing number of emails and messages that invite me to invest some money in another pastor’s program that guarantees results – theoretically, not money back. Send in some money, use the success plan they send you and your numbers for Easter service could double and your retention of those first time visitors could be over 75 – no! – 80%!!!

Brotheren and Sisteren, relax. You’re doing fine. If you got up today, managed to smile at someone, remembered to pray at least once and were kind to someone else, you’re winning. I’m not saying don’t work hard – that’s not the problem most pastors I know have – what I’m saying is, stop competing. Quit looking at the scoreboard. When others point to the scoreboard ask them to pray with you for God to get to growing this garden.

Honestly, you’re amazing and what you do matters. Don’t quit just because someone else tells you you’re behind and you can’t possibly win. You and I are just migrant workers in the fields of God. We do what we do but if God doesn’t give the increase it’s not God’s building that’s going up.

Hang in there, seriously, I’m rooting for you.

TELOS pt 2

Credo Friday resumes with the second part of my post about our TELOS. I used to believe in “all this and heaven when we’re done.” I don’t think that’s what all this is about anymore… (pare ONE is HERE.)

There comes a point in our lives when we realize the clock is ticking and we don’t know how much longer it’s going to run. We start to ask the angsty questions John Mayer sang about in Why Georgia? “Am I living it right?”. What am I here for? What am I supposed to be doing? What is the purpose of my life? Questions about what all this is about.

My wife, Donna and I were in a church conference meeting with several hundred Christians and a couple big name pastor/speaker types. During one afternoon session the big name pastor speaker was talking about finding your purpose, living out the dream God gave you. He went around the crowd and asked people what they dreamt of being when they were kids: Firemen, Astronaut, Doctor, Pop singer…

It was all going along nicely until he came to the next woman who stood up and said that her dream was to become a secretary.

“A secretary? You must have had a bigger dream than that?” Uncomfortable silence. Suddenly we were in the awkward moment the big name guest speaker was arguing with the nice lady about the quality and importance of her dream.

There’s a want inside of us to feel like our time in this life has had meaning, purpose, and significance. We can do a lot of stuff and try a lot of things and still find that itch inside of us…that fear we’ve missed something…that nagging anxiety that we never really discovered our purpose on the planet.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” He described our experience of being hungry for something we can’t quite name as an example of this inner longing for something we can’t quite put our proverbial fingers on. There are so many ultimate meaning things we can turn to, do turn to, and pursue to our ultimate dissatisfaction. At each new age and stage we find ourselves once again back to the same question – what are we here for? What is all – this – about?

I’m about to tell you the answer to that question. Having the answer will NOT satisfy that itch. The only way you can discover if what I am about to tell you is true or not, fact or fiction, is to actually do it. The only meaning the answer has is whether or not you give it a try. Here it is – ready? To become like Jesus in your way and in your day and live like him for as long or as little as you have.

There are a couple versions of this story. One version has us making the world a better and better place until it finally becomes heaven on earth. We “take the 7 hills” (or at least one of them) for Jesus and we bring his rule into the world by “being the head and not the tail.” Or something like that. The second version, and I’ll tip my hand and let you know I think this is the right version, is that we live as a community of kindness, an outpost of heaven on hostile soil, demonstrating the rule of God to an unruly world. Those who have ears to hear, groove to the music we’re playing and decide to join the band and play along. But a bunch of people will just shake their head because they don’t get it. Eventually, in this version, God keeps turning up the volume until his song of love is all we can hear.

Or something like that.

But our part in the story, what we’re about, where we are headed – is to look like Jesus in our way and in our day.

Let me take you back to the beginning of our story…let’s start at the Beginning beginning…back to Genesis and our story of Creation.

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

 So God created human beings in his own image.

    In the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

The image of God – all of us together, not just each person. It’s not so much a cookie cutter or duplicator, it’s about the collective us being a mosaic manifestation – a window and a reflection – of what God is really like. God’s visible representatives on the earth. Agents acting on God’s behalf to do the works of God in the way of God with the words of God.

We’re here to be a billion imitations of Jesus so people can look at us and say, “O, that’s what God is like.”

And what is God like?

“Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command…” Heb 1:1-3 

God says: “Let me take the guess work out of this for you…JESUS…JESUS is what God looks like. Done. Period. The quest is over.” Jesus is the perfect image of God AND Man. And you and I are here to be a billion little imitations of Jesus. Not KNOCK-OFFS- not variations or “inspired bys” but injected with the Spirit DNA of the original at our new birth, and shaped by the Spirit of God working in our lives from the inside out.

This was a huge turning point in my own story – reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John one after the other one summer after I graduated from high school – I came face to face with this – If THAT’S what God is like, I have not been following him. If THAT’S what God is like, I have not known him. If THAT’S who Jesus is, I have been worshiping a version of Jesus, but not the one the Gospel reveals. And we tend to become like that which we worship.

Here is what our common Story tells us about the TELOS

“So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as .we are changed into his glorious image.” 2 Co 3:18

“And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.” 1 Co 11:1

“For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Ro 8:29

“Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.” Eph 4:15

It’s all right there in the text. Become more like Jesus, not “get to heaven,” not “build a mega-anything,” not “behave yourself.”

Are you more like Jesus today than you were a year ago?  Ask your spouse, best friend, kids – better yet, ask someone who can’t stand you. This is what God’s perfect plan for your life looks like – to form you and me to be more and more like Jesus so that when people experience us they will say, “That’s what God looks like.”

People, looking at the Church (us): “That’s what God looks like?”

God (to the Church): “You don’t look like me and the world thinks I look like you.”

The Old Testament prophets – the major leaguers and the minor leaguers: “this is – why God’s judgement is coming on you people of God – I have chosen you to reveal to people what I am like and you are misleading people. I have to put a stop to that because I want everyone to know what I am really like.”

Currently we’re experiencing this in our day as conservative politics and the Church have become tied together…and we’re once again in danger of a whole generation saying, “THAT’S what God is like? I’m out…”

I’ve come to believe that – my credo has become – the purpose of all this, our raison d’etre, our TELOS, is to be transformed by the Spirit to bear the image of God, which always looks like Jesus, in our way and in our day. This is the orientation to our “purpose compass.” Anything else we pursue, anything else we seek to build or do as the Church will end up hopelessly off course if we ignore or neglect this critical understanding of our Story.