A Special Surprise Inside

This is a Pastoral Ministry Tuesday post. These posts share insights, ideas and observations from my ongoing journey in my vocation as a pastor. They are true to my experience which may or may not overlap with your own.

As I was graduating from Bible College with my undergrad, two things happened at the same time. The first was that a new faculty member was advocating for an increase in psychology and counseling courses to be added to the school’s catalog. The second was the publication of a popular book about how the heresy of psychology was infecting evangelicalism.

I jumped into pastoral ministry at a time when the need was being felt for trained counselors and suspicion was rampant about the presence of psychology in the church.

Some might even call it paranoia.

Most of what I’ve learned about psychology in pastoral ministry has been on the job training.

What always amazes me today that is that it is incredibly obvious we all have issues. In 35 years of pastoral ministry I’ve never met anyone who didn’t come with issues, who didn’t need their mental health addressed and who couldn’t benefit from therapy.

No one.

We all come with baggage.

Including me.

Especially me.

But in 35 years, it seems like the one thing most people want to avoid is talking about or owning the way these issues change our perception of events, people and even our reading of the biblical text, our worship of God, our view of his relationship with us. It sometimes feels like we believe that faith creates a bubble for us to step into and suddenly all of our baggage is on the outside and we’re snug on the inside, free from the altered perception that our traumas, our troubles, our pain, our false concepts, our broken family systems create in us.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache an about lying awake.’ That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.” We seem more ready to confess our physical pain might be keeping us awake than to own the reality that our mental or emotional pain can be creating a thicker filter through which we try to experience and interpret life and all the input of life.

If I were to write a book on counselling in pastoral ministry, it’s title would be, I’m Not OK, And You’re Not OK.

A hard lesson that came early on in ministry was about how the impact of this plays out in the local church. A couple in crisis had come to see my friend who was the ‘senior pastor.’ He was their “last resort” in a troubled marriage. They were a couple who were very active in the church, two outgoing people who everyone would say “had it all together.” They met with my friend for a little over one hour. Voices were raised. I happened to be walking from my office to another part of the building when they exited his office and headed for the door together. Neither of them would make eye contact with me.

My friend emerged from his office and said, “Well, we won’t be seeing them at church much longer.” I asked him to explain what that meant, and he told me that some people work so hard to cultivate an impression on people that once someone sees behind the curtain they just can’t look at them anymore. Some people work very hard to create the image of a happy, successful, got it all together couple/family and when a crack shows – a child gets suspended from school, or develops an eating disorder, or one of the adult’s addictions finally pops out or they just can’t hold it together anymore, they run from the community before the community sees them as they are.

It’s as old a story as Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden because they were naked.

But it’s hard and made harder because when a couple exits like this, other people notice and they ask questions. If you’ve worked very hard to cultivate a certain image and people ask you why you’ve left, our tendency is to double down on our dysfunction and rather coming clean about our issues, we find a more spiritual reason for our departure.

“We weren’t getting fed.”

“We didn’t agree with the direction the church was going in.”

“We needed a church with a better _________________ (music program, youth ministry, children’s ministry, vision, preaching…etc.)

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. This isn’t why everyone leaves a church. There are some brilliant reasons to leave a local church. What I am saying is that we all often fail to take into account the mental wellness of people in the beloved community. From the pastor to the elder to the admin to the children’s ministry to the greeters – we all have our stuff and it’s a filter we deal with every day.

Every. Day.

So sometimes, when I’m talking to someone who I feel is ignoring what the Bible actually says or how the Bible actually says something, my tendency is to think of 10 reasons they might see it differently than I do and never once realize it has everything to do with their mental health and the conditioning they’ve received in their family system over decades that compels them to ignore certain things in order to maintain their status in their primary group.

Worse, I have to deal with their claim to a greater intellectual understanding when I’ve come to know that it has everything to do with the mess of a family system that has conditioned their response.

I think this is one of the reasons I love recovery and the Steps so much. It never suggests we’ve arrived. You don’t “do” the 12 steps and then you’re done. You enter into a new way of living that acknowledges that but for the grace and love of a Higher Power, you’re a mess and we are engaged in an ongoing process of recovery. The goal isn’t finishing, the goal is to take one day at a time, acknowledge my shortcomings and my need for daily help – from God and from the beloved community. And little by little I receive the promises of what a life lived in Love will provide to me.

People are complex. Gregory the Great realized this back when the Church was still in her hundreds. His book on a pastoral rule intends to give practical answers to common human issues but more importantly paints the very clear picture that working with people in the Church is never a “one size fits all” situation. My normal and your normal are often not the same normal. The glasses through which I view the world are not the same glasses everyone else wears and if I’m going to spend my life walking alongside people as we journey toward Jesus, I have to own my baggage, explore it, be vulnerable enough to share it with trustworthy others and know that we all come with a special surprise inside.

Dealwell Memos

These digital memos from a senior devil to his stepson devil in training have come into my possession. Ordinarily I wouldn’t pass along thoughts from the Underworld (at least knowingly) but these seem important enough to share. I will publish them once a week beginning today.

Deber jr.,

I’ve heard from your mother that you’ve finally been given your first assignment. And to a pastor of one of the Enemy’s communities. A begrudging congratulations. I always told your mother you had tremendous potential that you would never fulfill. This will be your chance to prove me right. Again.

Unfortunately, your mother has impressed upon me that I should offer you aid in this first assignment since you have the opportunity to fail in such a spectacular fashion that it would bring greater shame on both of us. Mostly her. So I will take it upon myself to offer you my expert advice on making your Patient as dysfunctional as possible in their role in the Enemy’s efforts to undermine our father below.

I will send you a series of memos that will serve you well if you follow my directions to the letter and do exactly as I say to do. You can rely on my infernal experience this once in order to make a name for yourself and to get your mother off my leathery back.

What I am proposing to you is that we imitate the accursed Benedict and help your Patient develop a rule of life, a dysfunctional rule of life, and in following this rule your Patient will not only become successful in all the ways that we measure success but he will also be made to feel secure by the illusory protection and control these dysfunctional rules will provide. Ultimately, if you truly succeed and do as I say, we’ll not only get your Patient but we’ll twist the Enemy’s story so badly the community they pastor will trade their birthright for a bowl of our delicious gruel.

After I have reviewed the file you sent me I will commence sending you the digital memos. I need not remind you to keep these memos in a password protected file. I hope you are using a better password than you did when you still lived with us. Anyone could guess “passwordhell” and you only proved you were not as clever as you think you are. I don’t need to tell you what I will do to you if these memos get forwarded to your friends and my upline supervisor finds out I’ve given you aid.

Between now and then, have your Patient read as many books on business leadership as you can get them to read. I will be sending you my first memo shortly.

Your affectionate stepfather,

Dealwell

Camino Diary, day 14

These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.

Today we walked about 21km from Villafranca Montes de Oca to our stop for tonight in Atapuerca. The day started with a mountain and ended in this small, rural village. We made surprisingly good time. My feet and toes did better but I still have some pain. Bill let me borrow a pair of his socks and I think they help. I’m still not sure at this point if the problem is my feet, my socks, my shoes or some combination.

When we arrive in Burgos I plan to shop for a pair of hiking sandals.

Our breakfast this morning was café con leche and a croissant. Power flickered on and off twice because a storm was coming and that made me very anxious to get on our way. Off we went, up the mountain in the pre-dawn darkness.

Eventually rain fell but it wasn’t bad. I pulled on my pack cover and crawled inside my poncho. The rain became spotty and then it was moving away from us or we moved away from it. As we walked along the Camino we came across two prayer labyrinths that were made of loose stones.

Today was a day of connections.

Met fellow pilgrim, Anna Maria from Brazil along the way. These random connections have led to meaningful conversations. Often the very things I had just been talking silently to God about are the very thing another pilgrim will introduce into our conversation. They share some wisdom and insight with me without intending to.

In Atapuerca, I climbed the hill with Bill to and old church that was locked up tight. Bill walked back down the hill to explore the village and I stayed to look around the property and see if someone would show up so I could get in and pray. While I sat, a young man road up on a bicycle. A peregrino. His name was Alexander and he was from Germany. I told him my last name which is not a only a German name but a German word and that led to more conversation. We talked about how long I had been walking and how long he had been riding and we realized he had covered in 2 days the distance I had walked in 10. His plan was to finish the whole Camino in 9 days.

As Bill and I walked through town, back to the pub where we had lunch, a young woman staying at the same albergue as us ran up with her cell phone and showed Bill a picture of the back of one of her legs. Bill is a nurse practitioner and has “Helper” written all over himself. In her best English she asked for his expert opinion, “Is this bed bug bites?” Bill studied to picture for a moment and gave her the bad news that it did indeed have the characteristics of bed bug bites. She was disappointed and walked away with her head down. No one wanted to find out they had bed bugs.

We never had firsthand experience with bed bugs anywhere we stayed on the Camino. Perhaps because at our age and stage we didn’t always stay at the cheapest bed along the way. Or just God’ grace. But we met people along the way who had bites and some who looked like they’d been almost devoured while they slept somewhere along the way.

Our albergue had co-ed showers by which I mean that I was showering in one stall and a woman could be showering in the stall next to me. This meant doing my best in a very confined amount of space to juggle dry clothes, wet clothes, towel, washcloth and toiletries and using all of them at the right time without falling through the shower curtain and creating an international incident. Privacy on the Camino was becoming less and less a thing.

That night in our room we met Matt who was on his second Camino. He was there from San Francisco and he shared some insights with us about the Camino and getting the most out of our experience.

As I went to sleep that night I was thinking of a lesson from our first days on the Camino: eat before you get hungry, drink before you get thirsty and rest before you get tired. It’s really a recipe for self-care that I can apply to everyday life when we finally get home.

Camino Diary, day 13

Camino Diary, September 14, Villifranca Montes de Oca

A good but painful walk today.

We spent a little time wandering through a town today in search of an ATM. Our goal was to get a little more cash for daily expenses. Someone will eventually figure out that dropping an ATM right on the Camino route will make them a lot of euro. I have realized that prices have increased from what I’ve read advertised. Not dramatically but enough to make my “daily bread” disappear faster than I planned.

Less than 2 weeks in and my feet are a mess. The worst are the blisters on my small toes that are bigger than my little toes. I am struggling to stay in the moment because of the distraction of the pain. Or maybe the pain is keeping me very focused on the moment. I’m honestly not sure which it is. I lanced two blisters and wrapped them in these Compede bandages. Tomorrow I will cover my feet in Vaseline again before we start walking.

I walked looking for a very specific sign today and no such sign was given. It became funny after a while. The Way only a day earlier was abundant with this particular sign and yet today – nothing. In the conspicuous absence, I felt like God was talking to me about a character defect of mine. I want assurances before I begin, I want to know how things are going to turn out before I leave my door. In this case, the sign I was looking for that would assure that God would “bless” this thing I have on my heart, was more miraculous in its absence than if it had appeared.

“Just do the thing.” I felt God was saying. “I will give you no guarantees.”

The scenery today was my consolation. It was beyond nature. It was super nature. It was otherworldly. Except the pain kept reminding me that I was very much still in this world. We stopped for a lunch, a bocadillo, jamon y queso. In this light, in this breeze, looking out at this countryside, it may have been the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

We walked 23.5 kilometers today until we reached our posh accommodations for tonight. It’s a posh mountain hotel that has a wing for pilgrims, a large open room full of single beds. There must be 24 of us in this room and another group of at least the same in another wing. When we walked in to pay for our bed and get a stamp in our pilgrim’s passport we felt a strong temptation to splurge and upgrade our 13 euro beds for a proper room with all the amenities. After we asked the price we decided our 13 euro beds would be just fine.

Between a nap and dinner I took a quick nap. I am learning to embrace the rhythm of the siesta. I hit the shower room after my nap. A long, narrow room with sinks at one end and a row of stalls with showers in each one. Trying to keep everything dry that you don’t mean to get wet is a constant challenge. I entered my shower stall at the same time as two other pilgrims, easily in their early 70s, entered their stalls. The noises my fellow pilgrim was making in response to the hot shower would have made a Baptist blush. He seemed to enjoy it very much.

We ate the pilgrim’s meal that was offered on site. Mine was a pasta salad and pork loin with fries and a lettuce salad. Wine, of course, and water.

Here is a direct quote from my diary, “Today, clarity about the next 10 years. Clarity about writing. A lot of prayer for C*****. More hopeful today. God to see (my granddaughter) today. She is confused about where I am and what I am doing and way.  Me too! Tomorrow is Sunday and I am barely aware of it. What I am aware of is that I see Donna in about 3 weeks and that 3 weeks from tomorrow I am meant to be walking into Santiago de Compostela.”

Seeing people along the way from previous Albergues and pilgrim’s meals and shared segments of the Way is like a joyful reunion, despite language barriers and the actual amount of time spent together. It’s encouraging to see these familiar faces of fellow peregrinos and catch up with their stories. Tonight at supper the conversation at the table reminded me that Jesus’ call is always to those who have ears to hear – some are listening for the music, some are not.

“Would a Pastor by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?”pt 3

Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. PMT posts give some insight or background into my “philosophy of ministry” or my best understanding of the practices that help people become mature followers of Jesus.

Part One, Part Two

ec·cle·si·ol·o·gy /əˌklēzēˈäləjē/
noun
1. the study of churches, especially church building and decoration.
2. theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church.

In this third part I’m going to get to my thoughts on what a healthy and functional ecclesiology looks like. An ecclesiology that is an ikon of sorts that communicates the kingdom coming and facilitates and nurtures the TELOS of becoming like Jesus. This calls back to the title of this post. I am trying to suggest by the title that while we can adopt any number of ecclesiologies, and they may be “functional,” they will not all get us to the same TELOS.

So we have to begin with the end in mind. In the end if the TELOS of our ecclesiology is “…all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4) then we have to work backwards from there to develop a way of being and “doing” church that looks like Jesus. A more Jesusy way.

If your TELOS, your end goal, is anything other than becoming more like Jesus – for instance, you want to collect “decisions” for Jesus or you want to gather a large crowd or you want to develop your own branded franchise of the Church – you will need to decide on the ecclesiology that will get you there. It’s not hard to find one, there are a lot on the go.

Enough delay, here are some of my thoughts on what this could look like.

First, pastoring the local church should exist in plurality. It should be led by a team of people in relationship with God, one another and the church. One person may be the public spokesperson or designated to manage certain aspects of day to day situations, but the local church should be led by a team of equals. A preaching/teaching elder(s) might be described as “first among equals” in that they are that most public face but they must hold very loosely to such a designation.

A primary task of this team is that of discernment. Discerning God’s will together and guiding and teaching the local church to learn to practice discernment collectively as a community as well.

If you’ve been in the Church for very long you will already see why what I am describing to you will not be adopted.

Nevertheless, let me continue.

So, we start with a team approach to pastoring – not a leader with a team – but a team of people who are willing or eager to practice pastoring the flock of God of which they are a part.

What are these people like?

Paul gives us lists that we’ve turned into rules (1 Ti 3, Titus 2). The simple version is, people who are community can recognize are living for Jesus and like Jesus and carry a tremendous interest in and care for the local church of which they are a part. These should be men and women who demonstrate things like the fruit of the Spirit (Ga 5) and who have the capacity and willingness to relate to other people in and out of the local church. They should be people who have come to believe that the purpose of the local church is “…to come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Let me pause to emphasize this principle – the local church should operate on a flat structure. The work of the people is not served by a human hierarchy but through an ongoing process of spiritual formation into the likeness of Jesus. Of a commitment to pursue the Center of their life together and for pastors to be the kind of people that exude or demonstrate the life of Christ in themselves in such a way that other member of the community willingly choose to listen to them and emulate them as they imitate Christ.

Again, if you have been around church for very long, you can see why this way isn’t adopted.

When the “leader” gets to tell everyone else what to do, make all the life decisions for the community of consequence and divine on their own the will of God for everyone else, there are always going to be people who aspire for, fight for and connive for that position. When the “leader” wraps a towel around their waste and strips of their ego and honor and takes the place of servant among the community, they will find far fewer people in competition with them for the position.

A great deal of conflict exists between the “leader” and “the lead” because it is inherent and fostered by the system itself. It is a competitive system that highlights that some people are “in” while others are “out.”

I’ve heard people talk about the list of attributes for an elder in 1 Ti 3 as if it was some unattainable criteria or if we would never be able to find people who fit the description. This is nonsense. These are minimums, not maximums and if we are not seeing people grow into people of Jesusy character, we’ve already lost the plot. However, my suspicion is, after 35+ years of following Jesus, the “becoming like Jesus” is an idea we affirm but not a way we have vigorously pursued.

More often I think our focus has been on functionality and what it takes to do church and the roles I need people to play in order to achieve my personal vision for the local church rather than God’s dream for the Church.

So the first piece of this ecclesiology puzzle is a plurality of pastors/elders/shepherds that recognizes the gifts and vocations of one another. That walks in humility with each other and the local church. That aims to become more and more like Jesus and guide everyone to this same end and doesn’t entertain any power over, doesn’t coerce, doesn’t manipulate (even for the “greater good”) and takes the posture of a servant. Their primary task is to discern together the direction of God and to help the local church do the same, collectively and individually.

“Power over” is so antithetical to Jesus and so contrary to the very words Jesus spoke that is should startle us into running away when we hear someone who claims to speak for God attempt to exert such control.

“Would a Pastor by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?”pt 2

PMT posts give some insight or background into my “philosophy of ministry” or my best understanding of the practices that help people become mature followers of Jesus.

part two of “Would a Pastor by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” I would encourage you to read part one before jumping in.

I want to resist using the word “leader” when I’m talking about a pastor. “Leader” is a word that carries so much baggage that I feel like we either have to always qualify it with “not that kind of leader” or we risk misleading people about the nature of a pastor’s role in the Church.

The New Testament keeps us jumping by using a collection of words for the role that we call “pastor.” All these different words give us insight into the expectation we are supposed to have for this roll, and they all come from within the context of the writers’ own experiences and cultures. Using a multitude of names as reference points paints a helpful picture of what a being a pastor is without creating something so narrow we can’t apply it outside of the first century.

At the same time, we are so far removed from the New Testament world that it is hard for us to read the text without reading our present experience back into it. It is difficult to read a passage about elders and pastors and leader without all our contemporary baggage coming along to shape how we read the text.

Shepherd, elder, and overseer are words the New Testament writers use to name the role we call “pastor” today. This naming is important because it gives us a more meaningful idea of what the early church had in mind. These are people who feed, guide and guard the flock of God under the eye of the Chief Shepherd. These aren’t our personal flocks but temporary assignments that will be one day, hopefully, handed off to another.

And they function as part of a collective, a chorus – not as soloists.

What Jesus makes most clear for us is the character and relationship pastors have with the church versus “leadership” as practiced in culture. “When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. But Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.’” (Matthew 20:24-27 NLT)

So whether you’re out to be an apostle or a pastor, you approach this with the same attitude: as a servant or slave. Philippians chapter two might come to mind.

More than once I’ve heard a pastor explain how this works by saying, “I serve the church by being their pastor.” But Jesus didn’t say that. If Jesus used the same language he would say, “You pastor by serving the church.” Overtime we’ve adopted so many models from the culture around us that it all becomes murky and as difficult to navigate for the person who feels called to pastoral ministry as it is for the church trying to understand what a pastor does and what they are supposed to be like.

Currently, I’m in the United States version of the Vineyard Church, a network of churches that developed under the leadership of John Wimber. I think the dominant pastoral model for Vineyard USA (VUSA) is the Entrepreneurial model. Local churches are like a personal business, a franchise opportunity, the senior pastor is the franchisee and they contribute a percentage of their weekly “profits” to the Franchise holder for the rights to the “brand.” We typically have boards like a corporation might but the senior pastor functions as the CEO. Sometimes these are small mom and pop type establishments and sometimes they grow to Big Box size and even into multiple locations in a particular city. They might be a family business as father’s turn over the business to their son or daughter (nearly always a son) who takes over the business. In the end, the Senior Pastor/CEO calls the shots and expects loyalty and productivity.

The Vineyard isn’t alone in using this Entrepreneurial model. Independent churches will often function this way. This can leave you with a Steve Jobs or a Steve Wozniak, a Sam Walton or an Elon Musk but usually you have a Bob and very rarely an Emily, folks that never write a “how to” book on pastoring or get asked to speak at a conference but make up 75% of the church in North America.

In The Pastor, a memoir by Eugene Peterson, he writes “The vocation of pastor(s) has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” Peterson describing his own vocational journey writes, “I didn’t want to be a religious professional whose identity was institutionalized. I didn’t want to be a pastor whose sense of worth derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn’t want to be a pastor in the ways that were most in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture.”

Entrepreneurs make sense in a consumer culture, they will resonate deeply with a consumer culture. But what we need are pastors, not entrepreneurs, we need shepherds, not celebrities and we need elders who have lived long enough to know what it’s not about rather than Movers who can drive a church to numeric growth.

I had a professor in Bible College who used to tell us, “what you win them with is what you win them to.” Which is just another way of saying that the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming. Which is just another way of saying that all of this really does matter because the way in which we pastor is the kingdom that is coming – the fruit will reveal the root. (my Pentecostal friends know that’ll preach.)

In VUSA, I think this approach, in part causes us to have a low (or non-existent) view of ordination. I’m not sharing this to gripe about VUSA, just to illustrate how the models we choose have their effect on what we become. This is true about more networks or affiliated groups of churches than just the Vineyard. I’ve known men, concerned about their lack of ordination share their concern with another pastor at a national conference only to have that pastor call another over to lay hands on the first man and proclaim him ordained there in the church lobby. Ordination then becomes a formality rather than an affirmation of the community of faith about the will of God for an individual.

I’m not asked by my denomination about a discernment process that leads to recognizing people called to vocational ministry, I’m asked to end in names of really great couples and individuals who have the right stuff for church planting. This leads to pastoral malpractice on a self-destructive scale. This is how you build a franchise network, it is not how you follow the Holy Spirit.

But here’s the thing, I once sat in a living room with my wife and 5 other pastoral couples and another pastor about 15 years older than me said, “This is how I pastor, it’s what I learned from Wimber and it’s the only way I know to pastor and I’m too old to change now.” We were spending a week together discussing shifts in culture and revisiting what “leadership” looks like. Before the weekend we were given a list of books to read and all of them invited us to take a fresh look at pastoring the church. Not a “new” look. Not “you’ve never heard this before” ideas. The weeklong conversation was really about a more Jesusy way of doing leadership that the Church once practiced until we came up with something “better.”

To get to my sense of what a healthy ecclesiology looks like, we need to start with “what does the kingdom of God look like?” and work backwards from there. Rather than “brand ambassadors” or CEOs or Coaches or Ranchers, we should stick with pastors (and apostles, prophets and evangelists while we’re there).

But this boring post has gone well past anyone’s ability to stick with it and I still haven’t gotten to my thoughts on healthy ecclesiology, so we’ll pause here and come back next week. I do see this as groundwork for what I think is the kind of ecclesiology that will get us to the kind church that is clearly identifiable as a fruit of the kingdom Jesus.

Would a Pastor by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Pastoral Ministry Tuesday (PMT) posts give some insight or background into my “philosophy of ministry” or my best understanding of the practices that help people become mature followers of Jesus.

One of my favorite quotes from Anne of Green Gables is about the power of naming. Anne observes “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” We’ve all met people we didn’t feel fit their names or their names didn’t fit them.

I think what we call things really does matter, especially when we’re talking about the church and following Jesus. It’s easy to feel like you’re talking about the same thing when you’re using the same words as someone else but then discovering that you were meaning very different things. That happens when we talk about the Church and (fancy word warning) ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology is a shorthand way of saying the nature and structure of the Church Jesus builds.

I once believed that the New Testament, particularly Acts and the epistles, gave us a pattern to follow in regard to ecclesiology and we were meant to follow that pattern very precisely. The reason I don’t believe that any more is a story for another time but I think it’s important to note that this was my view at one time.

Today I believe that our ecclesiology is less a pattern and more an ethos or culture that develops as we follow Jesus. I don’t think we recreate it over and over and over but I do think that it is necessarily adaptable (to a degree) to our time, our place and our people. But I also believe that a first century believer wandering into a 21st century community of Jesus followers should be able to recognize that they are with their people.

Back to the power of naming.

I agree with some observations by people like N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson that the trouble we get into after 2000 years of church history, most of which happened before we were born, is that old and very good words have become infused with new and sometimes very bad meaning.

Take for example the word, “leader.” We talk about “church leadership” as if we all know what that means or that we all mean the same thing by using it. But we don’t. Even Jesus had to differentiate with his 12 disciples the difference between how he was asking them to lead versus the typical leaders of their day. A quick survey of the church will prove that we use the world “leader” for a multitude of roles and expectations. Working on my master’s thesis project it was impossible to come up with a definition for “pastor” that everyone would agree with from the first to the present century. It’s not that it has some subtle nuance over time but that it has developed wildly different meanings and expectations over a couple millennia.

In my life, I’ve been a part of an ecclesiology that was based on the American democratic republic. It took root during the early days of the United States and its westward expansion. The minister of the church was voted on and hired by the church. The board was made up of elders and deacons, basically the senate and the house and Trustees functioned as the Supreme Court. Each year (or regularly) the minister or ministerial staff would be voted on again by the congregation and if they won a majority or two thirds of the votes, they stayed another year.

So much dysfunction.

When I left that group I experienced two other forms of church leadership. One was the King = the Senior Pastor model and the other was the Entrepreneurial model (the Entrepreneurial model often gives way to the CEO model once the planted church is established and financially independent). Very little voting takes place in these two models though the CEO model will often have congregational meetings for voting on things much like a shareholders meeting in corporate America. In fact, you may even hear church members referred to as “share holders” or “stake holders.”

The King = the Senior Pastor model is usually in charismatic or Pentecostal churches and it follows the model of Israel. The irony is almost always lost on the people who utilize this system. In this system you might sometimes hear individuals referred to as “shield bearers.” Even if they don’t use this title (which is an Old Testament reference), you can still recognize the role. Loyalty is the key quality and they may function as body guards, filters, goons, gophers or groundskeepers.

Eugene Peterson writes, “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” And then he goes on to say to his fellow pastors, “I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as in ours.”

I was once visiting with the leader of a very large para-church ministry (yes, you would recognize his name). He had a couple young guys carrying in boxes of his books to a new office while we sat and talked. “I’m serving these guys,” he told me, “by letting them serve me.” A real inspiring “Jesus washing his disciples feet” kind of moment.

In the book of Judges there’s this potent refrain, “In those days, there was no king in Israel so every man did what was right in his own eyes.” When it comes to ecclesiology there is a danger that we form on one hand, non-flexible structures and rigid expectations or on the other, something so flexible as to be easily manipulated and gamed to our own advantage. In my next post I want to describe what I think healthy ecclesiology looks like and how “none of the above” is it.

When you think of church leader, what picture comes to your mind?

Tune in next week for part two of “Would a pastor by any other name smell as sweet?”

The Reverse Advent

In the morning I stood beside the bed of a friend in a hospice facility who is preparing to make her ascent. I prayed for her and read scripture to her and tried to say something that felt like love and hope and faith.

That afternoon I read a health update from a friend. The experimental treatments have come to an end and the cancer that has invaded her body has not responded. She is going home with her family to wait and weep and love and prepare.

Sitting in my office, reflecting on these two lives, these two beautiful people, it occurs to me that they are walking out a reverse Advent journey.

One friend has lived out a few more than the 70 years the psalmist says we get and the other has experienced a mere fraction, much closer to the age Jesus was when, as Isaiah describes it, “his life was cut short in midstream.” Soon, both will take off their mortal robes and put on immortality.  They will walk from knowing and into the Mystery.

Jesus left splendor to enter a stable of sorts and my friends will leave a messy world to discover the glory we can’t even imagine.

But I’m achingly aware of the difference.

Jesus enters the story with a substantial awareness of how things really are – he was, after all, the Word who was with God from the beginning. My friends will have to make their ascent having only known this life – fully cognizant of what they leave behind: a cup of good coffee, the feel of a warm spring breeze across their skin and sun on their face, the smell of old books in the library, the grip of a tiny hand in their own, the sound of a three year old’s giggle.

We may call this world fallen, but in our hearts we know there is far too much of heaven about it to simply walk out the door and leave it all behind.

There is a story that isn’t in the Gospels that fascinates me. We have to engage our imaginations to reconstruct what we’re not told. But there was a day when Jesus helped his mother prepare father Joseph’s body for burial. And I wonder, was he tempted to whisper into an ear, “Poppa, I say to you, arise!” As he washed Joseph’s body, did he feel the power in his hands that could end his mother’s grief and turn her tears into shouts of joy? As he walked away from the burial place with his family, did his heart break for them over their loss while he felt the internal tension of knowing he would one day make the dead rise from their graves but not Joseph, not that day? Did he go to bed crying for his family’s loss and for not acting to bring Joseph back and heal all their hearts?  

I’m thinking of another friend whose church told him he could not mourn the dead because that’s what pagans do. I make my confession to his church then that I must be a pagan because I mourn the loss of those who have gone ahead, whose hands I cannot hold, whose voices become harder and harder to remember, whose thoughts I can no longer share, whose accomplishments I can no longer celebrate.

The apostle Paul asks death a question, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” And I would be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that my soul feels stung and swollen right now. It may be the absence of faith, perhaps, but I’m very certain it is the presence of love. Jesus stood outside of Lazarus’ tomb and wept and he knew what happened next.

I don’t believe their lights are extinguished, I believe with all my heart that both of these women will continue to shine like stars in a dark universe, but I am aware that they will ascend to another room so it will seem to me as if there light has gone. And this makes me sad and angry and depressed and resentful.

Because of my vocation I have been with many friends and even some strangers at their moment of death. Some of those moments have been frightening as people seemed terrified to lose their grip on this life. Some of those moments have been peaceful as it seemed like what ever the person had been waiting for had finally arrived and they just left the room. Some have been hard as it felt like friends were being ripped away from us – Jim, Faye, Elinore, Rob.

Sometimes death feels like liberation but most times, for me, it’s felt like a curse.

Here on this night before Christmas these are the thoughts that are dominating my contemplation. We’re all on a reverse Advent journey, heading to something we’ve never experienced but into the love of God. Away from the familiar and into the Mystery. Out of this present darkness and into the Light.

I am not eager to see my friends leave.

I hate the future in this life that is being taken from them.

I hate the future in this life without them.

I hate death.

The Psalmist assures us that “The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die.” I find more comfort in this than in the promises of heaven when I die because I can relate to a God who empathizes more than I can the abstract idea of something impossible to even imagine. Someplace I’ve never been before. And I’m embarrassed by the dime store prophets who offer specific descriptions of a heaven they assure us they’ve visited but comforted by the words of Jesus who offers very little specifics and offers himself instead, “today, you’ll be with me.”

O empathizing God

Be with my friends in this season of Ascent

Draw near to them and theirs

Give them peace, give them a taste of glory coming,

Make gentle their transition from this life into the life that’s coming

And have mercy on us who are left behind

Do not heal the wound and cheapen our loss but bear with us

The wounds of love their ascent will leave behind.

O empathizing One, thank you for being a God who weeps

Receive our tears, our grief, our pain

And make of them what you will.

What If…?

What if…? is a new series about great moments in the history of God’s people when things could have taken a decidedly twisted turn if… Today we’re going through the looking glass into a world that asks, “What if the majority of evangelicals of today influenced the actions of characters in the biblical story as we know it?” Today’s “what if” story takes place between 2 Samuel 11 and 12.

God: “Nathan.”
Nathan: “Yes, Lord? Your servant is listening.”
God: “David has sinned against Bathsheba, her husband Uriah, the people of Israel and against me. Go and confront him with a parable.”
Nathan: “Woah. That seems judgy. David is a king, not a priest. What he did is in the past.”
God: “It was a month ago.”
Nathan: “People change.”
God: “Nathan, I want you to confront David about his sin.”
Nathan: “What, you’d rather have Saul, he was a terrible king? Or are you a communist maybe and just want end the monarchy?”
God: “Well, I’ve never been a monarchist but that’s not the point. To confront David and be honest about his sin doesn’t make me a communist.”
Nathan: “…”
God: “Did you just give me the side-eye?”
Nathan: “Look, the people love David and nobody has done more for the people of God than David has. He’s very pro-YHWH.”
God: “Sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah and Israel is the very definition of being anti-God.”
Nathan: “He who is without sin…”
God: “Ahem.”
Nathan: “Right, right, but still, have you seen the economy. Clearly you’re blessing is on David, the Tel Aviv stock exchange numbers are through the roof. And my prophetic ministry got a forgiveable loan of a million shekels – this king is really good for us right now…”
God: “Nathan, my patience is great and my love is everlasting but you’re starting to piss me off.”
Nathan: “Well, think about your own reputation. A lot of YHWH worshippers might fall away if we make a big fuss about this. If David can mess up so badly what can we believe about anything? What’s the point of even following YHWH? Really, it’s in your own best interest to keep this on the DL. Think of how many lives David’s songs have touched – do you want to undo all that good?”
God: “But he’s abused a woman, killed her husband and brought a curse on the nation by his wrong doing.”
Nathan: “Let me be honest, we need the revenue from his Psalm sales. The 23rd still gets covered so much that we’ll soon be able to build a wing onto the Temple for the new King and Me gift shop from the royalties. A scandal right now could jeopardize that. Don’t you want people to buy YHWH branded sweatshirts and King David branded slingshots? It spreads your fame. We’ve even sourced them from that country to the east for pennies so you’re name is even being spoken of out there.”
God: “Nathan, enough. Go and confront David. Now. This will be the ruin of a nation.”
Nathan: “Look, let’s do this, let’s let the people decide. What could go wrong? If they vote to have him removed, I’ll confront him, if they vote for him, he will stay.”
God: “I can tell you now that he will lose.”
Nathan: “I think so too, I’m positive you will give him the victory. Look at all the good he’s done. Ask any of his wives.”
God: “No, Nathan, I said he will lose.”
Nathan: “Whew, so glad we’re on the same page on this, you’ve already given him the victory. Nice. Just have to watch those pesky Levites – they keep trying to give the tithe away to the poor and keep pushing us to declare a year of jubilee and cancel everyone’s debts and return people’s family property to them. I’m pretty sure they’re socialists and they obviously hate you. We can always sue them if the vote goes the wrong way.”
God: “What? Why do you think the Levites hate me?”
Nathan: “Last year at Passover I was wearing my “Make Israel Great Again” hat to Temple and one of the Levite priests said to me, and you won’t believe this, “when has Israel ever been great?” Can you believe that? Clearly they hate you.”
God: “But I would have asked the same question…I HAVE asked the same question.”
Nathan: “Really? Doesn’t sound like you. We may need to talk about branding and getting you on brand if you’re going to keep inspiring Scripture.”
God: “Nathan, I am going to deal severely with David for what he has done in sinning against Bathsheba, her husband Uriah, the people of Israel and Me. You must confront him that his heart may be broken and he turns back to me.”
Nathan: “Look, it’s not that I’m exactly against doing what you want, obviously, but I think you may not have your eye on the big picture and you may have been influenced by fake news and the Never-Daviders. Let’s do this, you go visit with Rush Limbowitz and Sean Hannerberg, watch some Little Foxes News; they know what’s really going on here. I mean, according to them Uriah was a jerk who had it coming and David didn’t really know anything about the reassignment anyway. And who can trust the word of a woman who baths on the roof in broad daylight? Am I right?”
God: “Nathan. Do you remember the plagues I sent on Egypt? You’re about to be hit by all of them at once.”