Created and Still Evolving

My Credo Friday thought for this week is about the evolution of my creation belief.

This one is tricky because it involves several other elements of my credo, the things I say I believe. And some parts of my credo shape my attitude towards the other elements. To tell you about how creation falls in my credo means avoiding the temptation to say too much or too little about other aspects of my credo – I need to stay out of the weeds.

If you’re reading this one and keeping have “yea, but…” moments, hang in there for future posts that will hopefully tie up the obvious loose ends.

My earliest Christian influence from the Church was a Baptist Sunday school program. Somewhere before my memory started being recorded on my permanent hard drive, I was hearing flannel graph stories about God creating the World in 6 days and resting on the 7th. I absorbed the story of Creation and the Fall almost out of the air – I honestly can’t remember a time when I did not know this story. But we did stop going to church.

In my public education and through TV programs I started to learn about a competing narrative called, the Theory of Evolution. My love for the genre of science fiction started posing problems for my naïve and unsubstantiated belief in a magic god who took 6 days to create everything that I experience and call, Creation.

At University, studying to be an anthropologist, I took a deep dive into evolution both in terms of the origins of life and the development of culture…from a professor who let us know he was a man of faith and who saw no conflict between his faith in Jesus/God/the Trinity and the evolution of the species. Deep down my inner Baptist boy started burning his flannelgraph.

Then I made a decision to follow Jesus that was based on a reading of the 4 gospels and the person of Jesus I encountered there. And I went off to Bible college to become a missionary.

And at Bible College I learned terms like inerrancy and infallibility and I took a class called, Creation Science and another called, Old Testament History, that taught Genesis 1 the way an American History professor might teach about the Plymouth colony, Plymouth rock and the Mayflower. I learned all the scientific problems with the Theory of Evolution (it’s a theory, not a fact, get it? They’re tipping their hand right in the name…) and how I had a simple choice – believe the 6 day Creation account in Genesis 1 as the definitive story of origins or call the Bible a lie, not be able to believe any part of it then and eventually wind up in Hell (yes, we capitalized it like it was a place you could drive to…).

So I did what any sensible, good, mid-western boy would do – I ignored all the science facts I’d ever been taught and embraced the only true story about the origin of man in Genesis 1 (…which we preferred over the account in Genesis 2 because it was a little more fuzzy that 1.)

Eventually, my Creation beliefs evolved. How did that happen? I kept studying the Bible. I kept asking questions. I kept seeking. And most of all, I kept studying the Bible.

So here’s where I am today. My Creation credo.

I believe that God is the origin of all that is, and particularly the origin of life.

I believe that the exact process of Creation cannot be determined by the biblical text that was not setting out to give a scientific explanation for life but rather a storied explanation for our existence. I believe that “why” is always a superior question to “how.”

The biblical story of Creation is intended to tell us WHY we are here and was never intended to describe the exact process of creation. And while I still have a lot of questions about the Evolution model, I do not see it as incompatible with the Bible story other than regarding the question of causation…WHY are we here?

I believe the story of Creation clearly tells us that as humans we are not here to be consumers but custodians, cultivators. Our role here is not to reap as much as we can from Creation but rather to nurture Creation and develop the long term health of Creation because ultimately, we’re all going to be on this planet for the rest of ever.

I believe that the Creation story is a temple story and the story tells us that mankind serves in the garden as the icons of God. Men and women are created equal, commissioned as equals and related to by God as equals with one another. You should never take the life of an icon of God.

I believe that human beings, especially those who follow Jesus, are still charged with Creation care and having a healthy relationship with the created world around us. Because of this, I believe Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to conserve, to recycle, to reduce usage and to preserve our natural resources.

Respect for Creation is a Christian act of worship. Our relationship to Creation says more about our relationship to God than does our intellectual acceptance of the story that God took 6 days to create this world.

Every day I walked on the Camino de Santiago was a day I heard Creation singing to me, calling to me, inspiring me, soothing me, feeding me. Creation is not a disposable commodity we will trade in or trade up, it is our primary gift from God.

Here We Go Again…

It’s a new year and a new decade and it’s hard not to think about new things at a time like this.

My experience with church, since I became part of a Pentecostal – charismatic – radical middle church, has been an almost obsessive devotion to “behold, I’m doing a new thing.” And while the stream I swim in might be a little obsessive about it, a visit to the local Christian bookstore (if you can still find one) will confirm that we’re all at least a little hot for the “new thing.”

I don’t think of myself as someone who is stuck in the past or who thinks that if the KJV was good enough for Jesus and Paul it’s good enough for me. But I am a man of a certain age. I’ve seen things. I’ve not only been around the block but I’ve been out on the bypass and made it all the way around the city a time or two.

The other day I was talking to a pastor who is planting a new church. He was excited to tell me about this new, exciting approach to small groups. He felt really good about it and he thought this new approach could get more people involved and growing as followers of Jesus.

I tried not to say anything. I tried to just be positive and affirming. But eventually I mentioned that we’d done the “new thing” 30 years ago. We called it something different than what it was being called in this new iteration but for me it was a “been there, done that” moment – which tends to make younger people who are excited about the new thing think I’m old, boring, cynical or just too out of touch to understand how amazing this “new” thing is.

A friend of mine tells me that I suffer from disintegrated anticipation.

He warns me that I could become cynical but what is more likely is that I suffer from disintegrated anticipation because I’ve been a pastor for over 3 decades now (that seems a less painful way to say 30 years) and in that time I’ve accumulated a lot in the “been there, done that” pile. These are things, movements, methods and ‘new things’ that have promised to be the thing that finally cracks the code, finally brings revival, finally fills the church, finally brings heaven down, finally renews us for the end times, finally makes sense out of making disciples of Jesus.

In my little slice of time in the pastor world I’ve experienced, read about, tried, attended, and or been caught up in or a part of…

The Restoration Movemented.
Serendipitied.
Thieved in the Night – Late Great Planet Earthed – I wish we’d all been ready.
KJV to NIV (o the wars we had!)
Bondage Breaking and getting Delivered.
Pews to chairs – (you kids have no idea how we’ve bled for you to have your own chair.)
Contemporary Worship (o the wars we had!)
Marching for Jesus.
Spiritual Gift inventoried…why does no one score high on helps but everyone scores high on prophesy and leadership?
Spiritual Warfare.
Liturgical/Worship Dance.
Small groups – kindle groups – G# groups – Cell groups – Life groups (not an exhaustive list just exhausting).
Inner Healing.
Spiritual Mapping.
Taking Our Cities for God – Intercessors became a special group in the church.
Wimberized in The Vineyard.
Propheted by KC and the funky bunch.
House Churched.
Alpha-ed.
Renewaled – TACFd – Roaring, falling, shaking – o my!
24/7 Prayered.
Watchmened for the Nations.
Hillsonged.
APESTiled.
IHOPed – no pancakes but lots of prophecies, prayer and worship.
Restoration of the Apostles-ed. Betheled.
Missionalized.
Church Systemitized.
Enneagramed. and ARC’ed

I’m not saying any of those are bad things (some were) or that nothing good came out of the above (but not much in some cases).

The devotees of each of these things promised with great certainty that THIS new thing will be the LAST new thing and THE thing that sparks the great end-times revival…or at least this thing is the super important thing the church has missed but thank God you’re alive right now so YOU can get it.

On my shelf I have…in no particular order…
Sticky Church
Simple Church
Slow Church Messy Church
Spirit led Church
The Equipping Church
The High Impact Church
The Comeback Church
The Living Church

A pastor could pick up the newest read and take his church in another direction so often that it would be hard to keep track for the average church goers if they were messy, spirit led, living, slow or still sticky.

I’ve bought cassette tape sets, CD sets and now MP3 recordings that will tell me all the secrets about this church thing that will make me the greatest pastor, teacher, church planter, evangelist, dream interpreter, ever.

I was with a small group of pastors and our national director who was leading us through material that was helping us develop a new approach to leadership in the church. (I would have called it an old way or the original way but ‘new’ always sells better…except new Coke, that was wretched.) One of the other pastors in our group, quite a bit older than me, was vulnerable, transparent and honest when he said, “I learned leadership from Wimber, this is how I’ve always done it and I’m too old to change now.” I was encouraged and excited by the material we were discussing – hopeful even – but I could still understand how he felt.

I’m being told it’s time to upgrade my smartphone. My answer is always the same. “Do you know how long it’s taken me to figure out how to use THIS phone?” I’m nursing my current laptop as it keeps threatening to enter hospice primarily because I do not want to learn another new computer.

New is starting to wear me out.

But I still love the new things God is teaching me, doing in me and calling me to do. I’m still growing and changing and going on adventures my little 20 something self would have been too afraid to go on.

I’m not stuck but I’m not impressed by new anymore.

I’ve had so much new attached to too many promises with so much energy and excitement that only lasted long enough to be replaced by the next new (which wasn’t very long). As a pastor, I get weekly emails and snail mail that all promises me a new thing that will revolutionize our church, guarantee our growth, increase our offerings, conversions, close the deal with return attenders, and improve my preaching.

When you’ve been at this pastoring gig for 30+ years, you also discover church world is full of phonies, fakes and charlatans. I’ve heard guys with obvious colds preaching about how Jesus has kept them free from sickness for decades. I’ve heard a guy publicly push a narrative that he raised someone from the dead while the man who was supposedly raised and his family members have tried to clarify the story by saying, “no he didn’t.” I’ve seen celebrity pastors make wild claims that make no reasonable sense but still gather crowds based on their claims and promises that were as empty as their claims. I’ve had to come in behind some of these celebrity Christian preachers and clean up the human carnage they have left behind as deafness returned, marriages still fell apart despite that ‘word from the Lord’, prodigals never came home, the cancer wasn’t gone when the doctor re-checked and the prophet ran away with the piano player.

What if our life together as the church is supposed to look more like a family and less like a business venture? What if we’ve been leaning our ladders on the wrong wall? What if instead of siblings, we’ve been producing customers? What if there are no short cuts? What if there are no secrets? What if every really big church got there by chance or it was God who gave the increase and not the method they’re selling you? What if we aren’t supposed to become celebrities? What if this whole thing is really about the same thing it started out as: a long obedience in the same direction?

I’d like to talk with you some more about this but I’ve got a conference I need to get ready for…leave a comment for me about the new things that you remember that were going to change church world for good. Or if you’re selling a new thing, tell us all about it in the comments.

We Are Not Saved by Certainty

On Credo Fridays I try to create a post that will give some clarity and definition to what I believe, the beliefs that make me what I am.

When I think of a Credo, I think of a statement of faith. So today I want to tell you what faith looks like in my credo. It’s taken me most of my life to get to where I am now about faith and to be honest, every day I find myself working out what living by faith really means for me.

I started out as a Christian with a basic equivalency of “the things I mentally agree with or acknowledge, ie. believe” = “faith.”

After many years of trying to follow Jesus, that grew into something like “the beliefs and the actions that spring from those beliefs” = “faith.”

In both of the above descriptions there was still an idea or key concept of certainty that “faith” still held for me. I KNOW these things are true, therefore…

After several more years and a whole lot of suffering (it’s all relative), I found myself at an entirely new place…a new definition or practice of faith. It went something like, “the connection between God and me that goes beyond the rational, certainty and all the things I don’t understand” = “faith.”

Push pause for a second.

Can you imagine how hard it is to preach from the cloud of unknowing? Can you empathize with the me that I was ‘becoming’ – which seems so much less certain than ‘being’? Rather than being a caterpillar who became a butterfly through the magic of belief, I found myself still in the midst of a metamorphosis. In the American church we thrive on certainty. We bank on certainty. We want guarantees. We want certain quid pro quos. We depend on a God who is reliable…a God who never lets us down.

But here I was with a child born with a significant birth defect. I was loving godly people who died of horrible cancers. I saw people in conferences healed of a sore knee while my good friends were dying from prostate cancer, addiction, heart trouble…and I walked through the valley of the shadow and all my certainty was evaporating because God kept letting me down.

Unless, of course, God can NEVER let me down because whatever God does is what ought to happen in which case it’s one of the emptiest things in the English language to say – “God never lets me down” because whatever he does or doesn’t do is exactly what he was planning to do or not do anyway and what I really want in any given situation doesn’t factor in to him letting me down or not.

Blah.

And that’s a much tougher lyric to work into the phrasing.

And when folks come to hear you preach on a Sunday in North America, they’re still looking for certain blessed assurances and when you suggest that random stuff happens but God is still good…they often move down the road to a preacher who works out a lot and can guarantee outcomes for them.

I was on staff at a church once, long ago, where the senior pastor voiced his certainty to me that Bono of U2 could not possibly be a Christian because he sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” And my internal response was, “dang, what does that make me?”

Unpause.

After more suffering and a whole lot of reading of people I discovered outside the certainty camp – and can I just tell you, it’s a HUGE crowd out here, way bigger and older than the camp itself – I came to the place I’m in today.

“Faith,” for me, means my pledge of allegiance. It’s a daily choice of where I will put my allegiance and how I live because of who I pledge my allegiance to. I will choose to put my trust in God, even when the circumstances tempt me not to. Even in my desolation, I will trust him.

I have no certainty to offer. I only have a relationship with Jesus through a pledge of allegiance that I have found for almost 40 years to be enough to carry me through the hardest of times and lead me into the most beautiful of places. But God is a free agent and my allegiance does not control him or guarantee me any benefits as a member.

And it turns out you only get one of these allegiance things. One to pledge and only one. I can’t pledge it to God and to anyone or anything else. My allegiance can’t be partitioned. It can’t be shared. It has no tolerance for rivals. I used to sing along with Keith Green, “I pledge my head to heaven for the gospel…” now I try to live it every day.

Faith is the allegiance I have pledged to God alone.
I hold it imperfectly but determinedly. Allegiance has room for doubt, certainty is an illusion.
I try to live my allegiance out in all my choices, in all my thoughts and in all my actions and reactions.
Even when my allegiance falters, he still maintains his allegiance to me.
My allegiance can not be percentaged, I can swear no part of it to any ideology, I can owe no part of it to any man.
My allegiance is not more powerful than God and does not bind him to fulfill any of my wishes, even when I pray them.
Any human or human institution(s) that contend for my allegiance are to be questioned, distrusted and ultimately avoided if they insist.
My allegiance is to a person, not a position, not a religion and not a denomination.
Allegiance is not easy but it is simple and you cannot please God without it.

If you’d like to read more about where I am now about faith, check out the book Salvation by Allegiance Alone by Matthew Bates. He agrees with me, so he must be right. 😉

Things They Did Not Tell Me

Each week I am posting on Tuesdays about a different aspect of a pastor’s life. It’s pretty easy – or so it seems to my German DNA – for this to sound whiny. I imagine this was how Paul came across to the Corinthians. They valued strength and stoicism and Paul offered vulnerability and open emotion. In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, towards the end, we have a Paulish list of the troubles he experienced trying to be a pastor to the church (2 Co 11:16-29). He ends his list of troubles with these intriguing lines…

“Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?”

Eugene Peterson, the quintessential pastor, puts Paul’s words this way in the Message, “And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.”

There’s no way to get around that saying “Yes” to pastoral ministry, means saying “Yes” to a life of troubles and feels. Sometimes people get called, ‘pastor’ but don’t have this experience – in the same way that sometimes people get called, ‘chef’ but all they do is reheat prepackaged dishes in the microwave.

One aspect of the kind of troubles being a pastor involves means you will say, “Yes” to an acquaintance with death, dying and trauma that very few will share. You will not only be present as people take their last breathe, you will have had meals with them, arguments with them, prayed with them, celebrated with them, cried with them and been asked to tell them why this is happening to them before their last breathe. And often you will continue the journey of loss and grief with their families and loved ones after their passing.

Doctors and nurses will probably witness more but they will rarely have a personal relationship with many of the people they will see die. The closest vocation I can think of that will share a similar experience will be social workers in a hospice setting.

I’m not sure what a ‘normal’ human experience would be in regard to the number of deaths, funerals and traumatic experiences a person would expect to go through, but pastoral ministry exposes you to more.

Years ago, I officiated a funeral at a funeral home I had never been to before. The funeral director approached me afterwards and complimented me on the service I had led for the family. “Would you mind being on call for people who come in but have no one to officiate their funeral service?” he asked. That’s how I became a substitute funeral pastor.

I have a friend who pastors a rural congregation that includes many people beyond retirement age, some in nursing homes, whose families have been a part of that church for generations. He has averaged one funeral service per week for several years because of the generations that are part of his local church.

Part of pastoral ministry is a willingness to share the deepest pain some people will ever experience. And then do it again the following week with someone else. And then walk through the journey of grief with those families even as you begin that passage with another family.

I buried a friend who couldn’t get the monkey off his back and finally passed away from complications resulting from an overdose. I buried another friend who had “routine” surgery and was going out on a day pass when I visited her in the hospital – 3 days later she died from complications from the surgery. I buried a friend who played guitar with my worship team on Sunday morning and died from a massive heart attack and was buried before the next Sunday. I buried a close friend who shared Christmas with our family and suffered a stroke days later and passed away as my wife and I stood around her hospital bed with all her adult children.

I’ve buried teenagers.

I’ve buried babies.

For all of these funeral services and graveside services, visits to ICU and sitting in hospital waiting rooms, the pain of loss doesn’t get easier. I’ve never found a satisfying answer for the family member – husband, daughter, grandchild – who stops me and asks, “Why her? Why this?” To a degree, being engaged in pastoral ministry means you will willingly experience loss after loss, trauma after trauma, grief after grief.

After a few decades of this you begin to develop a mental encyclopedia of probable outcomes for every possible diagnosis…because you’ve been there. And then you have to develop a face that doesn’t give everything you have known away when someone tells you what the doctor said. Not everyone who is a pastor has a high capacity (or even, it seems a low capacity) for empathy. But for those who feel with others, brace yourself.

But also know this…there is no space more holy than the space you’ll occupy beside a person passing from this life to the next. No moments will carry more weight than the moments you sit beside a person ascending into the life that’s coming. These are beautiful and terrible moments, painful and grace-filled moments. Times for tears and wonder, seeing the worst and best in people. But if you do it right, you cannot pass through any of these moments without them leaving a mark on your soul.

And I would want you to know that the collective weight of these moments, as beautiful as they may be, can leave you feeling broken and hollow and traumatized and wide awake in the small hours of the night.

Rest before you get tired.
Have relationships you make time for that will comfort you and help you get through the troubles.
Avoid emotional denial the way you avoid eating rat poison.
Make as much room in your life for healing as will be made by the hurting.
Follow Paul in being honest with the people you pastor about the pain that pastoring creates in your heart.
Practice lament and thanksgiving, there’s plenty of room for both in a pastor’s story.

Before I could get this post uploaded today I received a call that a beautiful woman from our congregation passed away this morning. I am confident she is in the presence of Peace and yet the burden of losing her for now remains. Lament with me until Death is ended, this too is pastoral ministry.

Truth

It’s Credo Friday. Here’s another bit at the core of what I believe.

In I and Thou, Martin Buber invokes the Latin phrase, “Mundus vult decipi” that means “the world wants to be deceived.”

In the 2000s, fictional TV doctor Gregory House’s catchphrase was, “Everybody lies.”

Marketers, media pundits and psychologists discuss the phenomena of confirmation bias – my tendency is to hear (not just listen to but only consciously register) information that agrees with my beliefs and the conclusions to which I have already come.

I believe the world’s fatal flaw is our inclination to be deceived, to deceive others and to deceive ourselves. As the great Italian philosopher Billy Joel has said, “…if you look for truthfulness You might just as well be blind It always seems to be so hard to give…” We hide the truth and the truth is hidden from us.

Saintly curmudgeon, Stanley Hauerwas, in an address to graduates gave them this advice, ““Do not lie.”

He went on to say:

You have to be thinking: “Is that it?” Is that all he has to say? I have to sit here and listen to someone who tells me what I already know?” I am sure you think you do not need me, in my profession as a moralist or even in the role as a graduation speaker, to tell you never to lie. You may not remember when or where you learned not to lie but long before this day you knew that though in some circumstances you may have to say what is less than true, in general lying should be avoided.
Yet the general agreement that lying should be avoided masks our confusions about what constitutes a lie. Lying may be rightly understood as intentionally saying what we know to be false in order to deceive, but it turns out we often are unsure we know what is true. Thus the Austrian-British philosopher, Wittgenstein, remark in Culture and Value that “the truth can be spoken only by someone who is already at home in it, not by someone who still lives in untruthfulness, & does no more than reach out towards it from within untruthfulness.”

In my almost 4 decades as a follower of Jesus and 3 decades as a pastor of one sort or another, I can’t think of anything I could tell another Christian about living out their pledge of allegiance to Jesus that is more important, more effective and more helpful to doing life together than, “Do not lie.” And, as Hauerwas points out, it seems simple and obvious and like one of the basics that all followers of Jesus learn to do right from the start – but we don’t do it.

And we suffer because of it. And the world suffers. All of our relationships suffer. At the end of the day, your own sense of self suffers because of our unwillingness to give up lies.

We’re big on big truths, truths that make us feel right and we lean into about the ‘wrongness’ of others. But the essential things are always the little and small things, the simple elements that make up real life. All of our big truths only have authority when they can rest comfortably on top of all the little things about which we’ve been honest.

I saw a movie years ago, The Invention of Lying, where the genius of Ricky Gervais fails this once by confusing telling the truth with being mean. The movie suggests that a little bit of lying makes the world a better place because it saves us from going around all the time telling people they’re fat, dumb and ugly. Saying everything that passes through your mind is not the same thing as “do not lie.” Saying things that you feel or believe are true in a cruel, mean or careless way is not the same thing as “do not lie.” “Shooting from the hip” and “calling it like I see it” is not the same thing as “do not lie.”

I say this because some of us, like Ricky, see “do not lie” as license to hurt others or an invitation to live in a world where all of our insecurities will be exposed and used as fodder for someone else’s cruelty. People who use “do not lie” in that way are bullies, plain and simple. Jesus was never, is never and will never be a bully. So we shouldn’t be either.

In Recovery we have one of those bumper sticker sayings, those clichés that we hear so casually that we sometimes miss the importance of it, “we’re only as sick as our secrets.” From the Fall story to our fictious lives on social media where our tendency is to compare our best moments and carefully crop our reality, our desire is still to cover things up. We cover things over, deny, and pretend the Emperor has clothes on and that I can see them – and all this does – this practice of lying, is break down community, hinder my relationship with God and distort my vision of others and myself.

So I encourage myself all the time with “do not lie.” And I tell myself and others, “Question everything.” God is never afraid of the truth. Healthy leaders welcome questions. People who want to grow emotionally, spiritually and relationally will practice not lying. We all grow best in soil that is rich in the truth.

The Anti-Baskin

One of the most important things I’ve ever heard was from my friend, Dr. Charles Montgomery Jr. Dr. Montgomery was addressing a full house at an international conference when he offered this simple truth: “If you want a diverse church, you have to have a diverse life.” The truth inside this statement is worthy of a doctoral dissertation. For people engaging in pastoral formation and working in pastoral ministry, it’s one of the most important elements of this pastor’s life.

Baskin offers us 31 flavors. At least.

That’s not an accident.

When I first started this pastor’s life, we were taught the principle of homogeneity. If we wanted to build a church (ie. get a lot of people in our local franchise) get people from the same basic demographic. Vanilla likes vanilla and doesn’t feel comfortable around all the other flavors. Grow fast and grow big by keeping it vanilla. If other flavors want to join, bonus, but they’ll be joining vanilla and we won’t be mixing flavors.

And the simple truth is that this principle is pretty common to life. Our tendency is to be with people who are like us. We’re attracted to people like us. We enjoy people like us. We relax around people like us. We feel very comfortable about people like us.

Homogeneity is the Anti-Baskin. His number is 666.

I don’t doubt the principle. I’ve seen it work over and over. But I won’t work it. It’s the wrong ladder against the wrong wall. It’s the road that looks great but can’t get me where I want to go. Where I need to go.

I need diversity in my life. I need a church full of people who I would not ordinarily hang out with and who would not ordinarily hang out with me. I need the whole Baskin experience, all 31 flavors. Why have one color of the rainbow when you could have the whole rainbow?

I need friends who aren’t like me so I can see the things I don’t even know I’ve been missing. I need friends who don’t like the things I like so I can seriously consider why I like the things I do. I need people with life experiences that are different from mine so that my view of life can expand to take in more than my narrow slice provides me. I need friends who laugh at things I don’t, who read books I’ve never heard of, come from places I’ve never been and eat things no one I knew before knows how to cook.

In pastoral formation I believe that anyone who wants to be pastor needs to invest time in life among people whose cultures are very different from their own. Develop relationships with people who don’t vote the way you vote, who don’t dance or do dance – whichever is different from you. Live in places, don’t just visit, with customs you don’t understand, politics that aren’t what you’re used to and worship reminds you that you’re not in Kansas any more.

Myopia, near-sightedness, has plagued my life. Never more than when I’ve focused my life on the little circle I’ve drawn around me and mine. One of the most important things I can think of for pastors to do today, after developing the diversity of their own lives, is to create the space and the opportunities where the people they pastor can taste all that Baskin has created and to expand their own understanding of what ‘normal’ is and to learn how what people are really like rather than the caricatures our prejudices and media monsters want us to believe in.

I work at surrounding myself with friends who aren’t like me. I look for experiences and opportunities that are outside what has been my ‘normal.’ I open my life up to include people I’d never find myself with naturally. And the church is the perfect place for that to happen. It’s where God intended for this to happen. And God uses all of the flavors in my life to make me a better me and make me look a lot more like Jesus than I do if I stay in my little vanilla world.

Jesus, pt 1

Which Jesus?

I started Credo Fridays with the center of what I believe. God, part one, was how Jesus is my best understanding of God. The God who looks like Jesus, is the God I worship, the God I tell others about, the God who is the center of my heart, mind, soul and strength.

The obvious question, it seems to me in 2019, with a multitude of people who claim to follow Jesus, in an age where everyone is trying to appropriate Jesus for their own cause, who insist that Jesus is on their side, and to whom politicians attempt to favorably compare themselves or other politicians is…which Jesus?

The Jesus I believe in springs out of the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. Jesus exists within a story and a context from which he cannot be separated and still be called authentic.

The Jesus I believe in is 100% man. Regardless of his parentage, the good news is that Jesus is as human as you are. As I am. There is no good news if Jesus isn’t every bit as human as you and me.

The Jesus I believe is part of a story and I have to know that story to understand the world and all its component parts. I have to know that story in order to hear the music to which I’m contributing. I have to know that story or I won’t be able to understand the myself or what I’m doing here. The Jesus I believe in is the key to understanding the whole book we call the Bible.

The Jesus I believe in unco-optable. He’s the same God who, in response to conquesting Joshua’s question, “Whose side are you on?” Always answers, “My side.” He doesn’t dance for me, cry for me or perform magic tricks on demand. He doesn’t help my team beat the other team. He doesn’t favor my human, political party over the others. He doesn’t make trouble bypass my life to dump it out on someone else. He doesn’t send hurricanes to punish people for misbehaving. Jesus doesn’t favor my church over another. He doesn’t join me but I am invited to join him. He is NEVER aligned with a human political party (did I say that already?).

The Jesus I believe in disarmed the Powers by powerlessness. He came in peace and the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming. He builds a peaceable kingdom and conquers exclusively by love and never by violence or even the threat of violence or any kind of coercion.


The Jesus I believe in chose an embezzler to manage his finances, elevated the status of women by inclusion, embraced outcasts and practiced table fellowship with the sexually immoral (and all the other ‘wrong kinds of people’), who confronted self-righteous leaders and congratulated the astute sinful people for their theological insights, who forgave and forgave, and he would never make it as a mega-church pastor (or even a mini-church pastor) today in North America.

The Jesus I believe in was far too inclusive for our conservative authorities today and far too demanding and confrontational for our liberal gurus.

The Jesus I believe in can be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts and be understood by everyone, from brilliant academics to those with no formal education. Knowing him, however, will require an investment of your entire lifetime.

The Jesus I believe in did not authorize any humans to be God’s final word on a subject and he never will. There’s a window we all can see through but only darkly for now. The Jesus I believe in looks for humility, not commanders; he blesses allegiance (of which we only get to pledge once) and he invites us to share dialog not diatribes.

As Dr. Lockridge famously said, “I wish I could describe Him to you. But He’s indescribable. Yes. He’s incomprehensible. He’s invincible, He’s irresistible. I’m trying to tell you, the Heavens cannot contain Him, let alone a man explain Him.” My description above is provided, not as a comprehensive or exhaustive description but with just enough details to distinguish the Jesus I believe in from the rest of the current cast.

My conviction is this – the Jesus I believe in is the one under whose influence I live…beyond that is just wish making or playing pretend.

“I believe what I believe it’s what makes me what I am / I did not make it no it is making me…” ― Rich Mullins

Entangled

One aspect of a pastor’s life that no one prepared me for was how entangled all my relationships would be because I am a pastor.

The one piece of guidance I was given that I believe was intended to protect me from the natural entanglement of a pastor’s life: never be friends with people from your church.

(I’ll say more about that in a minute.)

What that piece of advice was meant to protect me from is the built in dysfunction of the interconnected, overlapping, enmeshed and complicated relationships that make up a pastor’s life.

When I first went to work as a pastor it was in a tradition that would vote every year to affirm elders and ministers for the coming year. Potentially, my employment was on the line every single year according to the will of a simple majority. Imagine what it would be like to lead a large group of volunteers and participants with whom you…

celebrate births, weddings, pledges of allegiance to Jesus and worship;
share moments in Bible study, baptisms and burials;
try to care for during divorce, remarriage, grief, unemployment and family conflict, chronic illness;
receive confessions, encourage fidelity, preach the hard passages and the comforting passages, break bread, and argue about the style of music/color of carpet/proposed changes…

all the while knowing that whatever you do in any and all of these circumstances could be the difference between thumbs up or thumbs down at annual meeting time…could mean the end of your current job.

Most of my adult life, a group of the people I pastor and share life with – or all the people I pastor and share life with – have determined my salary, know my salary, know my house payment and utility expenses, know my healthcare costs and determine what plan I can afford. For the whole of my adult life, if I ever felt I needed a raise to make ends meet – I would have to approach the people I pastor, the people I share life with, and ask a small group of them, or all of them (depending on the church system I was in) if I could have a salary increase.

The first summer after I started Bible college, preparing for full-time ministry, I sat in on a church board meeting where the elders discussed the height of the grass on their pastor’s lawn.

I probably should have run away and joined the circus at that point.

A pastor friend once asked me if any of the elders from my church walked into my home unannounced just to make sure I was keeping an orderly home. His did. Thankfully mine never have.

At least not that I know of.

Another pastor friend had several of his own family members part of the church he pastored. Family issues became church issues and church issues became family issues and ultimately my friend “felt led” to move to another church, far away, to escape the conflict.

“Don’t become friends with the people you pastor.” Is, for me, terrible guidance. It seems so unlike Jesus as to even be sinful for me. But I understand the complications and pain that led people to teach this to people in pastoral formation.

Imagine if every time you had a conflict at work it affected all of your closest relationships, overlapped with your relationship with God, potentially interfered with your income and struck at the heart of who you are as a person and follower of Jesus.

Every. Time.

Imagine if every important relationship in your life was all in one place and all those relationships were in relationship with each other.

Imagine being invited out to dinner with friends and you don’t know until the meal is over and you are home again if this will be a work night or a fun night.

Imagine being out with a couple you and your wife have been friends with for 4 years. You have walked with them through marriage troubles, business troubles and poured your life into them to see them grow healthier and deeper in their faith. And just before dessert arrives they tell you there’s something they need to talk to you about. They lower their eyes, look back and forth to each other, hem and haw and finally tell you that their kids, who are early teens, have been going to the youth group at the McChurch down the road, the really big one, and they are really loving the youth group there and all the cool stuff they get to do and all the other kids from their schools who go there and, well, they’ve decided, “for the sake of their children’s faith” to leave your church and go to McChurch starting this Sunday.

But they hope you can still be friends.

But they have just joined a power group from McChurch and all those new relationships are taking a lot of their time.

When this happens I have felt…
Judged as inadequate as a friend, a pastor and a human being.
Betrayed as someone I felt was close lets me know we weren’t as close as I thought we were.
Embarrassed because I thought we were better friends than to have this conversation in this way.
Exposed as a terrible pastor because you’re leaving for McChurch. McChurch!
Fearful because you will inevitably invite some of our mutual friends to join you and your family – not intending for me to find out you were recruiting but I’m not stupid and why would you think I was that stupid when we were friends for so long? – over at McChurch.

Complicated.

And God help the church whose pastor starts from a place of insecurity. (that’s another post.)

It’s a strange thing to be your spouse’s pastor. To be your children’s pastor…especially when they want to talk with you about attending another church.
It’s hard when the place you worship is the place you work and the place you work is full of the people whose giving pays your bills and attendance indicates some kind of validity to your vocation. It can be almost impossible as a church planter to not see new people as “potential givers” or reduce the Faithful to “giving units” (yes, I have heard ministries talk about the Imago Dei using exactly those terms). The multi-layered complexities of relationship for people involved in pastoral ministry can be mentally staggering.

And emotionally painful.

The pastor’s life is an entangled life. You can get around that by creating a system that allows you or facilitates you keeping your distance. But I would argue that it’s impossible to be a good pastor and keep your distance. I would argue that the pastor’s life is, if you’re doing it right, a life of heart break that can make you bitter or better.

Entanglement is part of the deal and that’s why a pastor’s own well-being, mental health, spiritual formation and ethical practice is so important. This entanglement is why working the 12 steps should be part of every pastor’s rule of life. I recommend to every pastor that they find a coach, formal or informal, find a spiritual director, take your vacation times in blocks, take a sabbatical every seven years, listen to your spouse’s evaluation of how things are, make your listening prayer time a priority. The interconnectedness of relationships, identity, vocation, spirituality and recreation is why we all need to be mindful about our interactions with each other and commit ourselves to being as emotionally healthy as we possibly can.

Because things are so entangled, I want to add this postscript, I feel I ought to add this postscript – I’m posting this as part of Pastoral Ministry Tuesday (PMT). This is not a cry for help. This is not a complaint about the church I pastor. This is not my laundry list of complaints. This is not a lack of gratitude on my part for this beautiful life God has given me. But this is an attempt to pull back the curtain a little on this PMT on just how tangled up and challenging life might be for a pastor you know.

SELAH.

God pt 1

Like everything else in my life, my perception of God – who God is, what God’s like – was something that developed over time, through experiences, intentional and unplanned teaching and the magic of cultural osmosis.

Early on, I had a concept of the Trinity that was close to the Shack long before the book was written. 3 distinct persons, none of whom bore a resemblance to the other but still managed a cohesive arrangement as “God.” All 3 had their chores, all 3 worked towards the same end but all 3 had their own way of getting things done and fans who lined up to cheer for them.

Over time, experience, Bible study, intentional classroom learning, unplanned life learning and generous doses of suffering that fueled my passion to “know” God better, a clearer and more specific image of God emerged in my heart and my head. The God I knew I knew gave way to the God I am coming to know. This God I am coming to know still exists in the Trinity but I have come to know all 3 by the singular face of Jesus.

And this is where I want to start my Credo Friday posts.

My very best understanding of God is Jesus.

God acts like Jesus, talks like Jesus and relates to Man like Jesus.
God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is always like Jesus in character, relationship to self and TELOS – sharing the same ultimate aim or goal.

Jesus has become the lens through which I view all the rest of my Credo.

The ultimate test for every other element of my Credo is simple – is this Jesus? Can I see this in Jesus? Is this compatible with Jesus? Did Jesus demonstrate this or talk about this? Does this line up with the character of Jesus?

As a Christian, a Christ-follower, you’d think this would have been obvious for me from the very start of my journey. It was not. You’d think this would be, as a Christian, a Christ-follower, an easy transition to make. It has not been.

What it has done for me though is to completely revolutionize my faith. That’s not hyperbole. My faith has been turned upside down by this simple change in perspective that seems obvious but took me decades to come to. It changed everything from my approach to leadership to the way I read my Bible to my perspective on politics, ethics, worship, relationships…all things have to pass through this lens, this filter, this understanding now.

Jesus is my starting place and my final answer. Jesus is the face of God. And that has changed everything for me.

Which Jesus? That will be a post for another Credo Friday.

The Pool

The Pool is a metaphor for one of the most challenging aspects of pastoral ministry for me.

You might choose the metaphor of a group hiking trip, a group skiing trip, a group rafting trip – anything that involves a group of people at a variety of stages of experience and knowledge where consequences are involved, and you have the picture.

I love the pool – I even like the pool.

Some of the people in the pool are great swimmers, been doing it their whole lives.
Some of the people in the pool can’t swim yet but they enter the pool hoping to become swimmers.
Some people have been in the pool a long, long time, but they have never moved out of the shallow end.
Some people are decent swimmers and they move back and forth between the deep end and the shallow end, coaxing people to go deeper.
Some people are out in the deep end and they have neither time nor respect for the people in the shallows.
Some people are in the deep end and they inspire others to want to jump in and those that have already jumped in to move out a little deeper.
Some people have been so traumatized by a previous experience in the pool they’re just doing well to show up and stick their feet in.
Some people…well…you get the idea.

The challenge, for me, has been creating a pool experience that everyone gets the most out of and wherein everyone has the chance to become the best swimmer they can be, all while being totally immersed in the pool.

While some feel the water is too cold.
And some are bored and want a water slide like the pool their cousin attends.
While some feel the water is too hot.
And some are frustrated by how crowded it is in the pool.
While some seem to check out for weeks at a time.
And some are upset that the pool will close down if we don’t find more people to get in.
While some are so into the pool that they don’t know anyone still on dry land.
And some would prefer a segregated pool.

For some, messages are too basic. For some, too deep.

For some, we need more Bible. For some, we need more Spirit.

For some, we need more sizzle. For some, we need more quiet contemplation.

And for some…well…you get the idea.

Tuesdays are going to be Pastoral Ministry Tuesdays here at A Pastor’s Story. I’m going to share some of the day to day challenges of pastoral ministry – life at the Pool – and some honest reflections on this life that I feel I chose but I also feel chose me. One of my greatest challenges is being one of the leaders of a community that wants to follow Jesus that is made up of people coming from all kinds of different backgrounds and life experiences, expectations and hurts, perspectives and education. Attached to this challenge is another – a challenge to not give in to our consumer culture and turn to marketing, branding and franchising based on homogeneity, but to honor God’s beautiful mosaic rather than the cultural blender. Growing a diverse but harmonious family of Jesus followers is an altogether different proposition than developing a client base around brand recognition that increases our market share.

Tuesdays I’ll share with you the joys, the trials, the temptations and the amazing dreams that come true in a pastor’s story.