Lizards

(Every Tuesday I try to post an observation on pastoral ministry. These are the thoughts and reflections of someone who has been involved in pastoral ministry for about 35 years. I get it wrong a lot which is how I learn to do it better.)

It’s impossible to overestimate the amount of dysfunction in most people’s lives.

I’m not talking about people being “bad,” I’m talking about the struggles that most people have, seen and unseen, recognized and unrecognized that make life challenging.

That make life messy.

Someone once said, “Everyone is normal until you get to know them.” One of the challenges of pastoral ministry is that reaching an agreement on what “normal” looks like is difficult. Most people, myself included, generally live with the view that they are normal.

Their way is the normal way.

Their feelings are the normal feelings.

Their family system is how normal families handle things.

Their beliefs, world view, politic and faith are all normal.

If you differ on any of the above, you are the one living in dysfunction.

Thomas Oden, who wrote a book on pastoral ministry, said that the particularity of the individual means their issues are unique to them: their suffering, grief and joy.  Therefore, what is helpful to one may be harmful to another and vice versa.  Pastoral care is not a “one size fits all” system but one that must be customized.

Oden riffs a little on what Gregory the Great said about the challenge of pastoral ministry back in the Sixth Century. Here’s a sample of Gregory’s insights: “No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely.” And “those who do not speak the words of God with humility must be advised that when they apply medicine to the sick, they must first inspect the poison of their own infection, or else by attempting to heal others, they kill themselves.” He also wrote, “For who does not realise that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body?” and “Hence, too, every teacher, in order to edify all in the one virtue of charity, must touch the hearts of his hearers by using one and the same doctrine, but not by giving to all one and the same exhortation.” In other words, not every “patient” with the same “illness” should be given the same “remedy.”

So the challenge of pastoral ministry and the dysfunction of people’s lives isn’t something new.

But it is hard and it makes the work of pastoral ministry especially difficult if you like things to be black and white.

Or you like your answers simple.

Or if you’d like a scientific approach to this pastoral life.

If you have read the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, you will remember the scene where the Ghost is in a love/hate relationship with the red lizard that perches on the Ghost’s shoulder, whispering in his ear words that torment and soothe. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to. An Angel offers to set the man free from the influence of the lizard and the man is torn – desperate to be free, desperate to hold on to the familiar spirit that torments and soothes.

We’ve all got our little red lizards.

All of us.

I’ve never met a person yet who doesn’t have one. I’ve met many who seem to be keeping a nest of them. And some of us – us people – we know the lizard and some of us are under the influence but we won’t recognize the source until we’re the Ghost and the Angel is making us the offer to be set free. Pastors will sometimes find themselves in the very difficult position of noticing a lizard on the shoulder of someone following Jesus and having to walk through the very dangerous minefield of offering to help someone get free.

Let me say one more time, just because I know how lizards work in a moment like this, I know I have my own lizard(s). But at a time like this, a lizard, if you have one, will whisper in your ear, “He thinks YOU have a lizard? Nonsense! He’s infested with them! Shall I point them all out to you? Shall we name them together?” And you will get so busy listing my lizards and soothed by how many more I have than you, that you’ll never be able to keep it in your mind that you have your own.

The nature of relationship in Christ is that we bear with each other’s stuff and out of the safety of our relationships we are able to talk to each other openly about our dysfunctions. We are meant to speak truthfully to each other. But often, as pastors, we discover that people who most need to hear the truth about the lizard on their shoulder are brittle, fragile and easily broken. They are terrified if you start focusing on their lizard. The weight of the truth will crush them even if it can heal them.

So our lizard laden tendency is to strike back. To lash out. To gather a company of others with whom we can diminish the pastor by magnifying the list of things he or she is doing wrong or not doing right. We focus on their shortcomings, the errors they have made, because we all do, and we bring attention to the lizard on their shoulder, because we all have them.

We do.

In pastoral ministry I have found the people most eager to fix me are generally living in the most profound dysfunctions. Of course, when I say, “dysfunction” a picture comes to your mind, perhaps of a life completely out of control. The reality is that most dysfunction is very quiet, subtle and nicely veneered. In the church, however, there are so many dysfunctions that we tend to reward, that it’s a very tough knot to untangle. If pastors are honest, we rely on the dysfunction of certain members in order to get things done, to get our way, to accomplish our agenda.

It’s messy.

And if I’m perfectly honest with you, we’ve created a system to maintain our dysfunction. Which, coincidentally, is a characteristic of dysfunctional systems.

And when we move to reform those dysfunctional systems, we tend to choose members of that dysfunctional system who the current system trusts to become the evaluators of the old and architects of the new system, guaranteeing we perpetuate that which was from the beginning and now ever shall be, world without end, amen and amen.

How do we break the cycle? How do we in the church and in pastoral ministry get free from this way of living?

I will tell you. I will tell you right here and now.

But before I do, please hear me, you will not like my answer.

You already know what to do. But it’s too hard. So when I tell you, you will nod or shake your head or ponder a moment. And then your lizard will get you busy or distracted or soothed or all the above.

But for this second, while it’s not so loud, I will say it because I promised to and then I let you go.

Ready?

Stop lying. Tell everyone the truth.

Ordination as Sacrament

(Welcome to Credo Friday where I continue to build up posts that offer an explanation for the things I do because they spring out of the things that I have come to believe. Today’s post comes out of a PMT post from earlier this week that you can read HERE.)

On Pastoral Ministry Tuesday this week, I wrote about the many motivations for people to go into pastoral ministry. Some healthy and some unhealthy. Previously, on another PMT, I wrote about ordination as I reflected on a friend’s ordination service in Vancouver. For my Credo post this week (that’s what this is) I’d like to expand on what I’ve written in both posts regarding the purpose of and the process of ordination for pastoral ministry.

In the New Testament, we read about a cultural practice of the early church – a signifier – a rite – that was performed when people were being set apart for a specific mission, duty or calling. Since this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I’ll let you Google all the references and just assume you’ve read the Bible enough to be familiar with the idea.

Here’s one reference to serve as an anchor for the idea that laying on of hands was an action that was full of meaning, was practiced by the elders of the church and was often invoked in a commissioning moment.

Do not neglect the spiritual gift you received through the prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you.” (1 Ti 4)

Some see this as the moment in which authority is conveyed upon an individual by God through the hands of the elders to shepherd the flock of God. Authority conferred by virtue of an office and the establishment of an individual as part of an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

I’m not one of those people.

In fact, I think this view has done a tremendous amount of damage within the Church and the world that no amount of good can offset or even make tolerable.

I believe the purpose of ordination is to create an anchor for the soul for the candidate and to fulfill a function of the beloved community. I believe ordination is the culmination of individual and corporate discernment about a candidate’s vocation for pastoral ministry. I believe the purpose of ordination is to create a fixed point in time where the candidate and the beloved community agree that the story God is telling with the candidate’s life is a story of vocation and in particular, the vocation of guiding, guarding, leading and feeding the flock of God of which they are a part.

I believe this is an essential service of the beloved community because every pastor who ought to be a pastor will one day, someday, and maybe often, doubt they were called to do the very thing they’ve given their life to.

Right after someone they’ve poured their life into ODs on heroin and dies after a year of being clean & sober.

Right after they get that helpful note, email, phone call or visit by the well meaning member of the church who tells them all the things they are doing wrong.

Right after their children tell them they don’t want to go to their church.

Right after the church splits.

Right after they turn to their denomination for help and all they hear back is the sound of crickets.

Right after they receive a bill they can’t possibly hope to repay on their salary.

Ordination, like our baptism, serves as a permanent reminder that we’ve become part of a story. And I believe it is essential that the ordination doesn’t just reflect a choice we made for something to do with our lives but it represents the agreement of our community, the beloved community, who witnesses that our lives have been telling this story, they see our vocation, they affirm that it is there and they commit themselves to the well being of the candidate and the fruit of their story.

I believe the purpose of ordination is to help people discover that pastoral ministry is not their vocation. That this is not the story that God is telling with their lives. That the beloved community is not a door to keep people out or let people in but a channel that assists individuals discern what their calling and vocation is if it’s not pastoral ministry.

I believe this is an essential service because pastors who aren’t pastors have hurt so many people. And they have hurt themselves. And they’ve cast doubt on what God is really like. And they’ve obscured the image of God for people genuinely seeking Jesus. This is essential because the Church, the beloved community is not meant to be spectators but partners in ministry – not as people who serve a pastor’s vision but as the beloved community who discern together the gifts and callings among them and support, encourage and get behind those who demonstrate the character and gifting fitting to their vocation to fulfill a common vision.

We, the Church, have allowed a vocation to become a career opportunity.

We’ve confused business practices with kingdom practices. We’ve called entrepreneurs, “planters” and we’ve obscured the story of pastoral ministry and vocational goals with metrics consistent with industry and commerce and the marketplace but that fall far outside of the story that you and I say we follow. This has happened because we’ve forgotten our story or adopted a version of it or we came to believe we are the people whose story is that we have no story. This has led to churches becoming corporations and pastors CEOs and ministry leaders getting employees to sign non-disclosure agreements.

“Hey, Paul, could you get Barnabas to sign this NDA before he takes off with John Mark? We just need to get out ahead of this thing…before he talks to Luke or someone.”

I believe that ordination is one step closer to recovering our purpose as the beloved community.

One practice.

Not the answer to all of our problems. But I do believe it would help us spot some wolves. It would help us redirect people to their heart’s true vocation. It could help us orient churches and candidates to the real purpose and meaning of pastoral ministry and help establish metrics that sound more like the metaphors of Jesus and Paul and less like the latest and greatest book on management or business.

It should be obvious I’m not talking about the rite of ordination as it is often practiced now. But sometimes still is. This ordination is not a brief service as the result of a successful win at a Bible trivia competition or graduation with a Masters in Theology from the right school or taking over your Daddy’s pulpit. This requires relationship, time, discernment, time, relationship, prayer, hanging out, doing the stuff in front of and with people, transparency and vulnerability, disclosing all your stuff to one and most of your stuff to a trusted few.

Doing life together.

Since this is supposed to be a blog post and not an article or essay, I’ll stop here and call this, part one.

In anticipation of a few responses…

This isn’t practical. No, no it’s not. Welcome to the kingdom of God.

So you could invest yourself in an expensive education and then a group of people you hardly know…Nope. This is a discernment process with people you know well or will come to know very well. People who will be your people for all the rest of your life.

But that’s not practical… (see above).

But what if I KNOW I’m supposed to be in pastoral ministry but I can’t find anyone to share life with who agrees with me after we spent a couple years together? …that’s exactly why this is so important…

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your what-a-bouts and your better ideas. Please comment and help me find a more perfect way.

NEXT WEEK I will go into the PROCESS – or the PRAWCESS — the doing of the thing.

Camino Diary, Day 7

(On Wednesdays I try to post another day from my Camino journey that took place September – October, 2019. It doesn’t always happen. These are crazy days. Today, Bill, Derrick and I are on the road from Puente La Reina to Estella.)

Almost every day on the Camino started in the dark.

Normally we shared sleeping quarters with several people and the goal was to get up as quietly as possible and allow those sleeping in to get their rest. Pilgrims started their day as early as 5 a.m. to make good distance for the day and beat the rush for beds that night. Others started at 6 or 7 and occasionally you met a pilgrim on the “how late can I sleep in before I get kicked out of the Albergue” plan.

When we woke up in Puente La Reina, it was dark and we packed, prepped and headed out for the Camino still in the dark. At the bottom of a stone tread staircase, my friend Bill’s foot slid on the step and slammed into the stone wall.

Hard.

Being a health care professional, Bill immediately knew he had done worse than stubbed his toe.

He tried to inspect it in the dark but ultimately decided to put a sock on it and carry on. Despite the pain.

My first thought was that that was that. Bill would be going home with broken toes and Derrick would be headed back home soon after and I would be on the Camino alone.

Yes, I was thinking mostly of myself.

But I was also concerned about Bill and how he was doing. I was amazed at his tenacity and determination to just keep walking.

On the Camino

We walked up another hill to leave Puente. The day would be a lot of uphills. This early on in our journey I was still excited to be walking a long downhill section. Later, experience would make me wary of downhills because they always were promising us another steep uphill was ahead.

We stopped for second breakfast or first lunch and stumbled on our new friend, Antony. It was a gift on the Camino to keep running into people you were getting to know at just the right time. Bill’s foot was still in pain from the morning, despite the multiple doses of vitamin I.  My feet were aching from blisters and my right knee had started to complain for the first time on our walk across Spain.

And all along the way, the beauty of Spain, the vistas on the Camino, were energizing me, inspiring me and provoking me to wonder and awe.

This was the day we walked on part of the ancient Roman Road. This was always a part of the Camino experience. Every day felt like we were walking in history and on history. Our feet stepped on a path that connected us to a human experience and a human journey that was full of meaning and the mundane. This particular stretch of this ancient road was mostly taken over by blackberry brambles and besides being the Camino path was mostly a footpath between farmer’s fields for the locals.

As we made our way into Estella for the night, we passed a woman, a fellow peregrino, sitting and looking exhausted on a park bench. She was worn out, over heated and I think she would have just slept there on the bench if it was a real option. We gave her a “Buen Camino!” and tried to be encouraging as we walked by – she just looked done. It ended up being much further from that point than I thought it was and when we finally walked into the heart of Estella, I found myself praying she had found the energy to carry on.

There were some days on the Camino where it seemed like someone kept moving your day’s destination just a little further away every time you paused to figure out how much further you had to go.

Not all Albergues are the same.

Our Albergue that night was fantastic and we felt very welcomed and living large as the three of us, Bill, Derrick and myself, got a room to ourselves. At the pilgrim’s meal that night, another happy surprise as we found Gema, the lady who purrs when she sleeps, at our table. As Derrick translated we learned more about her and the many Caminos she had walked.

As we retired for the night, it became clear how to tell who the pilgrims were when we all had our packs off and had cleaned up into fresh clothes. The pilgrims were the ones who were continually limping. That night we rested well, despite aches and pains but 3 of Bill’s toes were black and I worried he wouldn’t be able to continue.

Motivation

Pastoral Ministry Tuesday 4.14.20 (On Tuesdays I try to post something that gives you a little glimpse behind the curtain of pastoral ministry. Hopefully it’s meaningful in some way and does more good than harm.)

There are a lot of reasons that people get into pastoral ministry.

I’m in a couple different Facebook groups for pastors and one meme that I see regularly is some variation on, “We didn’t get into ministry for the money…” and then something clever about our real motives.

Only, some people do get into ministry for the money.

And some people didn’t go into ministry for the money but as their faith diminished over their years as a pastor, they kept the job because it was the only thing they knew how to do to make a living.

I was attending a youth leader’s conference when I heard a professional psychologist break down some of the reasons people go into pastoral ministry:

To become popular.
To be the boss.
To become someone’s personal Jesus.
To prove their importance to someone who isn’t even in the room.

Having done this for a while, there are a few I can add from experience.

They pursued pastoral ministry because their daddy was a pastor and, well, it’s like taking over the family business.

They pursued pastoral ministry because they so admired their pastor/youth pastor they wanted to be like them by going into pastoral ministry.

They were entrepreneurial and saw a potentially lucrative career with very little accountability and very flexible hours.

They loved Jesus and someone told them at a conference that if they loved Jesus that had to become a missionary or a minister. So here they are.
The list goes on and on.

This is one of the reasons why I think a high view of ordination is important for pastoral ministry.

And it’s why I believe the ordination process should be a rigorous one that doesn’t only explore theological convictions but mental health, family systems, emotional quotient and spiritual formation.

And somewhere in there needs to be a straightforward “are you a dick?” examen. Too many people, for various reasons, are dicks (people-users, abusers, jerks, self-centered, self-protective, self-focused) and unfortunately, pastoral ministry can actually reward that behavior when it shouldn’t. Dicks can get things done, and as Americans, we admire, appreciate and highly value the “get-er-doners.” And we’ll ignore the pile of bodies behind them or under the bus, as long as their getting’ it done.

Dear brothers and sisters in ministry – don’t be a dick. It’s not a spiritual gift. It’s not a calling. It’s malpractice.

For my non-pastoral ministry readers, I promise you, all my pastor friends and colleagues who are reading this all know at least one colleague in ministry who is a dick.

At least.

Because motivation matters.

I was a camp director of a senior high week of camp many years ago. Near the end of the week, one of the young women at our camp came to me and my wife to tell us she was uncomfortable about something that was going on. We stepped aside with her and she explained that one of my adult, male, small group leaders was offering his insights to the girls at camp about who was hot or not at our week.

So he and I had a quick meeting. This senior pastor from a local church and little youth pastor Brian had a side bar.
People find themselves in pastoral ministry for all kinds of reasons.

Paul warned the elders at Ephesus, in a very sobering going away speech, that they should be on guard against the wolves who would raise up FROM AMONG THEMSELVES to attack and devour the flock of God of which they were a part. And if you’ve been in church for very long, you’ve met a Wil.E.Coyote or two. Sadly, there are some very predatory characters who have found the church to be a place where they can hide, thrive, even be protected. That’s not all of us, but it’s a lot more of us than any of us are comfortable with.

But to our shame, we often protect the wolves and shame the abused.

The survivors.

And that’s just evil. And we need to repent. All of us. We’re complicit when we are silent.

Eugene Peterson, truly the pastor’s pastor, wrote, “I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as in ours.” (Working the Angles) It’s not always wolves. Often – mostly – it’s just good hearted men and women who had a desire to be a pastor even though they may have been vocationally suited for law, theater, teaching, landscaping, insurance sales, forestry, the culinary arts, or plumbing. And then we fake it til we make it.

Or not.

That’s where a robust ordination process can help us as we sort out or motivation with a safe group of discerning friends and pastors, right from the start. It can save us pain, and it can save us hurting the church – the flock of God of which we’re a part.

Let’s go back to what the Christian psychologist was telling the youth pastor’s at the conference I attended. Many people go into pastoral ministry…

To become popular.
This is the Michael Scott from season 3 of the Office and onward. They are looking for love and acceptance and if they have their own church, people will love them. They’ll listen to them. They will admire them. They will finally have a group of people who HAS to like them.

To be the boss.
This is Dwight Schrute from the Office, seasons 1-3. It’s about power, control, having subordinates, being large and in charge. It finally gives them a feeling of purpose and control they have lacked growing up.

To become someone’s personal Jesus.
This is Pam Beesly from the Office, seasons 1-4 and sometimes later. Walk over her, neglect her, she is her to serve and save. It’s about the need to be needed. Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty great feeling. And some of us are addicted to it.
I know.

To prove their importance to someone who isn’t even in the room.
This is Andy Bernard from the Office, Seasons 3 to pretty much the last episode. A dad or mom for whom they could never measure up so they are finding their identity in accomplishment and recognition. Look at the pastor on the stage! Look at the pastor baptizing people! Look at the people waiting to talk to the pastor after the service! Look at all the people going to THAT pastor’s church… And none of this gets measured by the only one that matters, but a lot of us are using these metrics
Every
Single
Day.

I know it sounds like I’m being down on pastors and people in pastoral ministry and I’m truly sorry for that. My purpose in writing all this is simply to say that we – and by ‘we’ I mean the Vineyard church but it’s applicable to any church – need a robust system of ordination, a sacramental approach, a meaningful liminal approach to someone becoming a pastor of the church and not just sending our “hottest up and comers” to a church planters conference. God have mercy on a Holy Spirit movement that uses “best and brightest” criteria on candidates for pastoral ministry.

I’m really writing this to say, especially in this season of pandemic, go easy on us pastors. We’re all dealing with our own baggage – even if – or especially if – we don’t know it. Pray for us. Speak up when we’ve messed up. Cheers us on when we get it right. Don’t be co-dependent. We’ll get through this together.

Busy

(This is a Pastoral Ministry Tuesday post. It’s a day late. Every week I try to post a “behind the scenes look” at this pastor’s life. It’s an attempt to be more transparent than whiny – i hope I’m finding the balance.)

This is the busiest I’ve ever been in 35 years of pastoral ministry.

And I’m not complaining.

I feel like I’m going madly off in all directions and at the same time I feel like we (my staff and church) are rising to the challenge of this season. This unusual time is forcing us to be more thoughtful and intentional about everything we are doing.  It’s like a giant invitation from God to start from the bare lot and build something sustainable and meaningful that requires us to gather more on purpose and less on routine.

Don’t get me wrong. I love liturgy. I love and thrive on rhythm. Those aren’t the same as doing the same thing you’ve always done because that’s how you’ve always done it. We are being invited to find new ways to share life together and I’m finding it as exciting as I am finding it scary.

Right now I feel like my creative fruit is being squeezed hard and there’s hardly anything left over for blogging. I’m producing, by choice, more written word and video content than ever but experiencing God’s grace in the middle of it all.

But please don’t hear me saying I’ve got this down or I’m doing a great job. I’m reminded every day of cracks people are slipping through and follow up that hasn’t happened and items that have been on my to-do list for so long they are applying for permanent resident status. The learning curve is still pretty steep but I feel like we’re throwing ourselves, I’m throwing myself, into this with all I have and finding God waiting for us in this, ready to lead us into something that looks like thriving.

I’m choosing a posture of desire – I want to thrive in this season. Not over-achieve. I just want to get the most out of this season that I can possibly squeeze. I don’t want to miss a single drop of what God has for me and for our church in this unusual time. I’m not trying to over complicate my life or everyone else’s daily routine – a lot of people are working very hard to keep their heads above water right now. But I know God has good things for us and I don’t want to miss a thing.

I heard someone say last night that our tendency is to look back at our past and get stuck there or to look ahead to our future and get stuck there meanwhile we miss the moment we are in. This is a real temptation for me right now and I’m asking God to deliver me from it. I want to want to stay in this moment and some days that takes every ounce of God’s empowering presence to be able to do that. My internal introvert is already going around the house wearing a “People Need People” t-shirt and my internal extrovert keeps waving at anyone and everyone from the upstairs windows.

I’m ready for this to be over so I can take a vacation.

I’m hungry for this to continue until I feel like God’s pulled everything out of me that he wants to grow in this strange season of too much time in which I can hardly keep up with all there is to do.

O.K. I’ve gotta go, I still have 3 new skills to learn today so we can get our online service ready for Resurrection Sunday…

Peace of Christ to you.

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.