God Speaks: are you listening?

God Speaks: are you listening?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Does God really speak to us?

Is it possible to hear, recognize, and comprehend, the voice of God?

Jesus says we can.  “My sheep listen to my voice.” 

Throughout the Bible, God spoke…

  • God spoke to Adam and Eve, face-to-face.
  • God told Noah to build a big boat.
  • God told Abram and Sarai they would become parents in their old age.
  • God spoke to Joseph in dreams.
  • God spoke to Moses via a burning bush.
  • God spoke to and through the Prophets.
  • God spoke to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”
  • God spoke to Mary and Joseph through an angel.
  • God spoke, and the “Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
  • God spoke, through Jesus, to the multitudes.

“For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”  (John 12:49)

If God speaks, and if it’s possible to recognize God’s voice, inevitably the question is, “how?”  How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?

I suppose the different ways God might speak to a person are innumerable.  Sometimes, God might provide a literal “sign.”  I have a small sign, that sits on a shelf in my office, that says, “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.”  It’s funny – but, probably not the sign most are looking for!

Sometimes God speaks through a person.  Pastors call that “incarnational” ministry: when we become the human vessels through which Divine speaks or acts.

Sometimes God speaks through a painting, a song, a line from a book, a billboard, a dream, a movie, a TV show, a Social Media post, a “coincidence” – you name it.  The possibilities are endless!

But, a word of caution is needed.  Even the most experienced, godly, spiritually-gifted “listeners” hear God incorrectly, sometimes.  Your “signs” might be from God, or they might just be wishful thinking!  Your “signs’ might be from God, but you may not be very good at interpreting the signs.  After all, we’re all biased by our hopes, desires, fears, and limited by what we don’t know or understand.  If we want a sign badly enough, we will likely see one, whether it’s from God or not.

If and when you believe you’ve heard from God, before acting on what you think you’ve heard, I suggest the following…

  • Pray more, and wait on the Lord for further confirmation, clarity, or instruction.
  • Read the Bible.  Is what you heard consistent with Scripture?  God never contradicts his Word!
  • Seek “wise counsel.”  Go to the godliest people you know, share what you think you’ve heard, and be open to their feedback.  Hopefully, they won’t just affirm what they think you want to hear!
  • Consult with a Spiritual Director: someone who has training and the spiritual gifting to help you discern God’s voice.
  • In seminary, a nun taught me to apply the Great Commandment to what I think I’ve heard God say.  Does acting on what I think I’ve heard cause me to love God and my neighbor more, or less.  “If more,” she said, “do it.”  If an action fulfills the Great Commandment, we should act, whether God told us to, or not!  Of course, if it doesn’t, don’t.
  • One of my dearest friends always asks, “Is it the brave thing to do?”  Often, God challenges us to move past our fears, doubts, insecurities, and complacency, requiring bravery to act.
  • Pray and listen some more – it never hurts.

Like I said, God speaks, and may speak to anyone at any given moment.  But, if you want to become more familiar with God’s voice, and to hear God’s voice more frequently, and with greater clarity… well, that takes faith, practice, time, and trial and error.

I begin every day (almost) with God.  Sundays are a bit of an exception, as I’m preparing to preach (I consider this God-time too – it’s just different).  Every other day, my morning routine begins with God-time.

Though my exact routine varies from day-to-day, most days begin with Scripture and devotional reading.  Sometimes, I believe God speaks directly through Scripture, as a particular word or phrase seems to “leap” from the page, drawing my focus and attention.  The same happens in my devotional reading.

I usually spend some time in relaxed silence.  Silence can be hard for some people.  Internal and external noise can be a distraction.  For some, repeating a word like “love” or “peace” can be a helpful aid to focus – sort of like a mantra.

Throughout my silence, my primary focus is on God’s presence.  Because I believe God is both intimate (within me, through the Holy Spirit) and transcendent (greater, higher, mysterious, ineffable), I focus my attention on God’s loving presence in me, and all around me.  Usually, as I do this, I feel a gentle weight in the center of my chest.  I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.

Then, I move into a time of listening.  I simply ask God, “Is there anything you want to say to me?  Please help me hear your voice.”  Sometimes, I ask specific questions, or bring up issues I’m praying about.  Then, I listen.  I find that using a journal helps.    I write down what I bring to God.  Then, as I sense a voice, other than my own, speaking within me, I write down what I “hear” (this is rarely audible – more of an impression).

Let me be clear about this.  Just because I sense God speaking, and just because I write it down, doesn’t mean I am 100% confident God has spoken.  But, I do write down what I “hear.”  I simply trust – by faith – that God is speaking.  Time will tell if God actually has, or not.  To me, the important thing is having sufficient faith to believe God DOES speak, and sufficient humility to recognize my limited ability to listen.

There have been a few, rare times I’ve heard an audible voice, that I believe was God’s.  I can’t prove it.  For the most part, I’ve not sought those occasions.  Rather, it’s seemed I needed to hear a particular a word from God, that I didn’t know I needed.  More often than not, what I’ve heard has been quite humbling, and usually uncomfortably challenging.

My personal belief is, God is constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.  As God is essentially relational, and desires a relationship with each of his children, and relationship requires communication, it only makes since God is constantly striving to initiate a conversation with each of us.

The challenge is, God rarely shouts or screams.  God is far more subtle.  In my experience, God mostly whispers.  So, while any of us could hear from God, at any given moment, most of us aren’t paying attention.

One of the questions I wrestled with, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, “If God speaks – which I believe – why didn’t God warn anyone about Nikolas Cruz?  How could family, peers, teachers, administration, DCF, FBI, and law enforcement all miss it?  Wasn’t God speaking to any of them?”   I obviously don’t know the answers to those questions.  But, I’ve come to believe God was speaking – because God is always speaking.  Perhaps no one was listening.  How tragic is that?

I try to listen for God’s voice, every day.  I’m not a prayer expert, or a super-spiritual mystic.  I just believe God speaks, and I don’t want to miss out, if God has something to say to me today.

Are you listening?

 

 

Fruitfulness

Fruitfulness

One of the trees in my bonsai collection is a calliandra – more commonly known as a “pink powder puff.”  “Pink powder puff” doesn’t sound particulalry manly, so let’s stick with more scientifically precise terminology!

My calliandra bonsai ought to look like the one pictured above.  But, it doesn’t.  I’ve owned the tree for almost ten years, and it hasn’t yet produce a single pink powder puff yet.  I’ve watered.  Fertilized.  Pruned.  Re-potted.  I’ve tried more sun and less sun; more shade and less shade.  I’ve begged and pleaded.  I’ve done everything short of singing to it.

Still no puffs.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad looking bonsai – not my best, but not bad.  But, a calliandra is SUPPOSED to produce pink powder puffs… and, dang it, I want my powder puffs!!!

My non-blooming calliandra reminds me of a teaching of Jesus,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”  (Matthew 7:16-18, NIV)

“By their fruit (or pink powder puffs) you will recognize them.”

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree and it’s fruit as a warning against false teachers.  You may recall, Jesus was frequently critical of religious leaders, who appeared outwardly pious, but were inwardly mean, stingy, and ungodly.  Basically, to paraphrase, Jesus said, “Look for the fruit.  If the fruit is good, trust the source.  If the fruit is bad, no matter how religious or pious the person outwardly seems, be wary.  Be very wary.”

This teaching could also be applied in reverse.  Sometimes, a person may not seem particularly pious or religious.  But, “look for the fruit,” and you might discover more in them than immediately meets the eye.

What fruits?

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5, NIV)  He was talking about love.

Galatians 5:22-23 says, “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)

You might think of other “fruits” of the Christian life – tithing, service, study, worship, and varieties of other “Christian” behaviors.  But, at least according to these two passages, the fruit of abiding in Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, is mostly related to our character.  And, character has everything to do with how relate to others; how we treat others.  The bottom-line seems to be, a fruitful Christian has a character something like Jesus’.

As you may recall, the people most condemning of Jesus’ religious behavior (healing on the Sabbath, associating with sinners, touching the sick) were specifically the ones Jesus warned us about.  The religious leaders, who constantly opposed and criticized Jesus, “appeared” perfectly religious – they tithed with exacting precision, they prayed loud eloquent prayers in the public squares, they associated with the “right” people, they avoided sins and sinners like a plague, they washed their hands vigorously, and they dressed impeccably.  But, Jesus compared them to freshly white-washed tombs – fresh and clean on the outside, but filled with death and stinking decay.

In stark contrast, Jesus was open-handed and open-hearted with EVERYONE.  He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.  His followers were commoners.  He embraced the sinful and the sick.  He honored outcasts – like Samaritans, gentiles, and even a Roman Centurion (the commander of the enemy occupiers!).  Jesus was consistently welcoming, kind, and compassionate.  He spoke of love, demonstrated love, and embodied love.  He even loved and forgave the ones who nailed him to a cross.

Recognize the goodness of a tree, by the good fruit in produces.  Recognize a godly person by their character.  Is a person’s character more like Jesus’, or like the Pharisee?

My point isn’t to judge – the Bible is pretty clear about that.  My point is, perhaps we place so much weight on outward morality and behavior, and far too little on character.  Though I strive to live a consistent, faithful, obedient, moral life, I would much rather be known for my kindness, generosity, mercy, and love, than how much I tithe, or how little I cuss, or how many verses of Scripture I’ve memorized.  I do tithe.  I don’t cuss… very much.  And, I do know a fair amount of Scripture by memory.  But, do I love?  Do I love like Jesus?

What kind of fruit am I producing?  What kind of fruit are you producing?

 

Gnoshies, Chachkies, and S.W.A.G.

Gnoshies, Chachkies, and S.W.A.G.

In last week’s staff meeting, we discussed the “S.W.A.G.” (rubberized bracelets and car magnets) we planned to distribute at church on Sunday.  Several staff members weren’t familiar with the term “S.W.A.G.” – an acronym for “something we all get” – referring to the advertising stuff, given away at conferences, grand openings, sporting events, etc.

This led to a conversation about “chachkies” (a yiddish term, also spelled “tchotchke” or “tchatchke”)  – those cheap souvenir/trinkets you pick up on trips, or the stuff your grandkids give you for Christmas.  We concluded the main difference between S.W.A.G. and chachkies is that chachkies are more like to need dusting.

The person, in our office, most likely to say “chachkies,” also talks about getting “gnoshies” for church events.  Gnoshies are otherwise known as snacks, finger foods, treats, or hors devours.  The main difference between a gnoshie vs. S.W.A.G. or chachkies is that you can “gnosh” a gnoshie, but you can’t typically gnosh S.W.A.G. or chachkies.

Get it?

Besides our devotional, and reviewing prayer concerns, the calendar, and miscellaneous church business, this was last week’s staff meeting: gnoshies, chachkies, and S.W.A.G.

Words.  This is just a silly illustration about words.  Words and their meaning vary widely depending upon your age, generation, residence, gender, profession, culture, language, nationality, education, etc.  Some words do little more than convey information.  Other words convey much deeper meaning.

Some words honor.  Some words do not.

I was in another conversation, this weekend, about the meaning of the “q” in the lgbtq acronym.  Though I’m no expert, I tried to explain that some people use “q” to mean “queer” – which I understand to be an umbrella term for individuals who don’t fit neatly into a particular category of gender or sexual orientation –  and others use the “q” to mean “questioning.”  To which, the other person responded, “I thought they were all queer!” – obviously not grasping the nuances of individual sexual identity.

In recent years, I hear some use the term “politically correct” pejoratively, as an attack on liberalism.  I first learned about “politically correct” language during my seminary education, at Duke Divinity School, in the early 1990s.  My understanding of “politically correct” language is the effort to be precise, accurate, and sensitive to the descriptors, labels, and language choices of others.  Put simply, to the best of my ability, I try to be “politically correct” by using language that is correct, respectful, and as inoffensive as possible.  To me, that just seems like common courtesy – not some crazy liberal agenda.

The offense of political correctness, to some, seems to be a feeling of undue burden supposedly caused by the effort required to be more thoughtful about what one says.  But, isn’t that just the “Golden Rule?”  You may not care much about the words someone else uses, but you likely care deeply about something you expect others to honor and respect.

I generally get the feeling that those who are offended by “political correctness,” just don’t want to be bothered.

Obviously, we all say words we don’t intend or know to be offensive.  The same words have different meanings to different people.  Sometimes we aren’t even aware the words we use are hurtful, insulting or wrong.  We may not understand why a particular word has become offensive.  But, when we know, why wouldn’t we make the effort to change our language?

What if we took seriously the biblical notion that the words we speak have the power to bless or curse, and made a greater effort to speak more blessings than curses?  Maybe knowing my words have the power to create or tear down would impact what I say and how I say it.

Maybe all we need some S.W.A.G. to remind us to be more thoughtful regarding the words we say.  (BTW – the S.W.A.G. we gave away, last Sunday, says #welovefirst – that’s not a bad reminder, huh?)

 

Sermon Preparation

Sermon Preparation

Prayerfully planning, researching, writing and rehearsing a substantive, relevant, Truth-filled sermon requires a significant amount of time – MUCH more time than the average person-in-the-pew assumes.  Somewhere along the way, I learned a good sermon requires one hour of preparation for each minute of preaching.  In other words, a twenty-minute sermon should require twenty hours of prayer, study, reflection, writing, and rehearsal.  Though I’ve never actually timed my weekly preparation time, I suspect that’s about right.

This makes sense to me.  The sermon is the one time, each week, the pastor can have the most impactful contact with the most people.  That twenty minutes (or twenty-five, or thirty…) is an opportunity to teach, speak Truth, cast vision, offer hope, and draw a large number of people closer to God – all at the same time.  Though a pastor may be in contact with large numbers of people throughout the week – via meetings and visitation – nothing can compare to the potential impact of the sermon.

And, my personal conviction is, I owe my very best to my congregation.  If anyone – much less hundreds of “anyones” – is willing to sit quietly for twenty minutes, or so, listening to me preach, they deserve the best sermon I can give them.  My congregation deserves that respect.

The Word deserves that respect!  God deserves that respect!  My sermon, every week, ought to be the very best I can possibly offer!

The problem is, most pastors don’t have twenty hours, every week, to devote to a sermon.  A pastor’s week is filled with myriad other responsibilities:  supervising staff, hospital visitation, denominational responsibilities, committee meetings, reports, leading classes and Bible studies, responding to crises, pastoral care and counseling, funerals, weddings, Baptism meetings, letter writing, event planning, follow-up with visitors, etc., etc.  And, in any given week, unexpected needs, opportunities, and tragedies pop up, consuming time that might have otherwise been used for sermon preparation.  And, don’t forget, pastors need Sabbath and family time, too.

Often, the result is ill-prepared, shallow, half-baked sermons.  Some gifted preachers have sufficient oratory and/or storytelling skills to pull off a sermon, high on emotional impact and entertainment value, yet fairly low on substance. I hope we all agree that’s less than ideal.

It’s not the preacher’s fault.  It’s just reality.  Ministry is hard.  Adequate sermon prep is often more time consuming than the preacher has to commit.

I’m not ok with that reality.  Like every preacher, I’ve preached my share of half-baked sermons.  I strive for that to be the rare exception, and certainly not the norm.  But, it happens.

A number of years ago, I discovered the value of long-range sermon planning.  When I say “long-range,” I mean, more or less, a year of sermons in advance.  For those preachers, tired of struggling week-to-week, I offer you my method…

Every year, I take a full week to do nothing but sermon planning and research.  Taking a full week away from the church isn’t easy – but it’s important!  And, this isn’t vacation!  In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important work week you will have all year long!

I usually do this sometime between Easter and Labor Day.  Before that week, I prayerfully develop a list of topics and themes that could possibly become series and sermons.  Before my week arrives, I gather a stack of books relative to the ideas I am considering.  This process alone takes several months.

When my planning week arrives, I go to some isolated place, away from distractions.  More often than not, I’ve spent those weeks in monasteries, in silence.  But, cabins, condos, and beach houses work just as well.  Last week, I was blessed to use a beautiful house in Eleuthera, Bahamas!  There have also been times I’ve locked myself away in my own house – but, that’s less than ideal.

Then I read, and read, and read – Scripture, books, blogs, articles, commentaries.  Over a week, I can read five or six books.  And, as I read, I take notes, writing down ideas for specific sermons.  As I read, I highlight passages that speak to me, so they will be easy to find later.  At some point, the list I previously prepared, my scribbled notes, and all of those highlights begin to form actual ideas for future series and sermons.

I’ve developed this chart, for each Sunday of the coming year…

Date:
Series Name:
Scriptures:
Sermon Title:
Sermon Purpose Statement:
Sermon Resources:
Hymn/Songs:
Prayers/Liturgy:
Audio Visual:
Other:

Once I have a basic idea for every Sunday of the coming year, I create a Word Document, and start filling in a chart for each and every Sunday.  I don’t always fill in every box during my planning week.  But, I fill in as much as I can.  I do write a purpose statement for every sermon, even if I’m not sure about the title.  I choose a primary Scripture text, and several supporting texts.  Then, as I finish each book I read, I fill in the “resource” block with page numbers of every underline or highlighted sentence that might be relevant to that particular message.  By the end of the week, most of the charts have far more info than I can possibly use in a given sermon, which means I get to pick and choose the material that seems most relevant and insightful.

By the end of my planning week, I have a solid plan for the coming year, and pages and pages of materials.  Of course, when the week of a particular sermon arrives, the sermon manuscript still has to be written, and practiced.  But, I find that task is, though still time consuming, SO much easier, since I already have abundant materials gathered.

The two greatest benefits to me, as the preacher, are…

  1. Planning allows me to relax.  If my schedule in a particular week becomes overly squeezed, I don’t have to panic about what I will preach, or when I I’ll pull a sermon together.  It might still be a challenge to get it finished.  But, that’s WAY better than starting from scratch!
  2. Because I read five or six books during my planning week, I generally have a sufficient “chunk” of materials to work with for the entire year. Then, as I read more throughout the year, I can just read for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment.  When I, inevitably, find something in my ongoing reading related to an upcoming sermon or series, I just open my Word Doc and make a reference.  I do the same when I get a new idea, or see something in Social Media, etc.  Throughout the year, my Word Doc gets fuller and fuller, richer and richer, both with info I’ve gathered from research AND materials that have spoken to me personally.

PLEASE HEAR THIS:  reading for pleasure and personal edification is MUCH richer sermon fodder than scrambling week by week to find another sermon topic, idea or illustration!

When I tell people about my process, many find it hard to believe a sermon planned a year in advance could still be relevant, pertinent, or Spirit-filled, a year later.

First of all, let’s never forget that God is omniscient.  If I approach this process prayerfully, and I do, then the Holy Spirit is fully capable of helping plan a year in advance.

Second, since I’m not actually writing the sermon until the week of, there’s still opportunity to make tweaks and adjustments to make certain the sermon is relevant to the moment.

Thirdly, just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I can’t toss it in the garbage if the Spirit leads me to preach something else.  This happens.  It happened on the Sunday following the Parkland shooting, last February.  But, thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.

My personal conviction is, planning does NOT inhibit the Spirit.  Instead, planning allows more room for the Spirit to lead and guide me to explore, process, and deepen my understanding of a particular topic or text, long before a particular sermon needs to be written.

So, preachers, raise the standard of your preaching!  How?  My advice is planning and preparation.  You may not like MY process.  But, you do need a process.  Plan as far ahead as you possibly can.  Take time – big chunks of time – to study and prepare.  Yes, your spiritual life if enormously important as well – there’s no substituting for that!  But, while I DON’T believe you can preach effectively, for long, with a shallow soul, I DO believe you can be deeply spiritual and still preach lousy sermons, due to lack of time, attention, and effort.  So yes, take care of your soul!  AND, take the time you need to prepare your sermons!

If you would like more details about my process, don’t hesitate to ask!

You will see me…

You will see me…

I’m spending this week, away from the office, reading and researching for upcoming sermons and series (hopefully for the entire coming year!).  Among the books I am reading is Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s, Made for Goodness: and Why This Makes All the Difference.  Each chapter ends with a brief, moving meditation.  Though there’s much I could share from Made for Goodness, and will in upcoming sermons, I feel particularly moved to share a portion of a meditation I just read….

When you stop running from the pain

And turn to face it,

When you step into the agony and let it be,

When you can turn to your own suffering and know it by name, 

Then you will see me.

You will see me in the heart of it with you.

It doesn’t matter if your body is wracked by pain

Or your mind is spiraling through the aches and anguish.

When you stop running you will see me.

Though I certainly don’t wish you suffering or pain, both are realities we all face and endure at some point in our lives.  If that day is today, if this is your season of suffering, may you find some comfort and direction in these words.  More – may you find God in your suffering.  May you see God in your suffering.

God is with you.  You’re not alone.

Recalibrating Your Soul

Recalibrating Your Soul

Among my favorite memories are early morning walks on the beach, alone, with my Panasonic RX4920 Stereo Boombox resting on my shoulder, playing my favorite reggae music.  Those were High School and college years, in the 1980s, on random Florida beaches, playing mixed tapes of my favorites songs by Bob Marley, UB40, and a lesser-known band, Steel Pulse.  Something about those early morning, walking alone, the sound of waves lapping the shore, and those reggae rhythms, recalibrated my heart and soul to their proper and preferred tempo.

It was good for my soul.

Riding my motorcycle is a similar experience.  When I find a long stretch of empty road – especially ones with some gentle wind and curve – cruising around 70 mph (give or take), my feet resting on my highway pegs, I relax, take a few deep breaths, and find my inner RPMs returning to their ideal operating speed.  I don’t have a stereo on my bike, and I don’t want one.  The mixed-tape I need has been permanently stored in my head.

I remember an opening scene of the Sons of Anarchy series: its night, and the Sons are riding a California highway, and, in the background, Jax says, “Something happens at around 92 miles an hour – thunder-headers drown out all sound, engine vibrations travels at a heart’s rate, field of vision funnels into the immediate and suddenly you’re not on the road, you’re in it. A part of it.  That’s why I love these long runs. All your problems, all the noise, gone. Nothing else to worry about except what’s right in front of you. Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold on to these simple moments.” 

I rarely go 92 mph.  But, I get his point.

I’ve experienced the same in a rocking chair, on my porch, on a cool Spring morning.

For some, it’s running or yoga.  For others, it’s fishing or canoeing.  For others, it’s horseback riding.  For some, it’s swinging a hammer.  For many, it’s keeping a Sabbath day.

Whether or not you’ve found a time, place or activity that uniquely settles your heart and soul, I think we all need it.  I know we do.  It’s just so easy to get out of whack.  Just like a motorcycle engine operates at an ideal speed and RPMs, but may need an occasional recalibration, I think the same is true for the human soul.

The stressful demands of life and work; the competing demands on our focus and attention; the countless distractions and interruptions; the flood of meaningless data; the barrage of incessant noise; the push and pull of wants, desires, and needs; the pressure to perform and measure-up to some ridiculous standard; countless worries and sources of anxiety; the external and internal critical voices; all muddling your brain, driving your heart-rate, and clouding your soul.  We all need moments – regular moments, frequent moments – and practices, to let it all go, to find your centered-place, to breath deeply, and to return to your best God-intended rhythm.

My soul needs it – demands it.  I bet yours does too.

 

Blogging silence, hard questions, passive aggression, and the Jesus-litmus test

Blogging silence, hard questions, passive aggression, and the Jesus-litmus test

If you follow my blogging, you may have noticed my recent absence from the blogosphere.  Following daily blogging through Lent 2018, I intended to continue blogging weekly.  But, a couple months back, I hit the proverbial “writer’s block,” and simply couldn’t think of anything worth blogging.  Or, perhaps, if I’m honest, I haven’t been in the right mental/emotional/spiritual “state” to write much worthy of public consumption.  Though I’ve opened my blog-site, attempting to write numerous times, words I was comfortable expressing just wouldn’t come.

Why?

As I’ve shared in previous blogs, the February 14th tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deeply affected me.  Though I’ve worked through most of my theological angst, I think, I’m still wrestling with thoughts, ideas, and questions I haven’t before.  I’ve never believed in easy answers.  But, my previous questions – ABOUT EVERYTHING – haven’t usually been this complicated.

Then there’s the daily news coming out of Washington D.C.  Though I’ve never been a fan of our current President, and doubted his competency for office from the start, I’m increasingly shocked and outraged by his words and actions, on a daily basis.  I don’t understand how he gets away with saying the things he says, and doing the things he does.  I’m especially shocked by how so many “Christians” are so quick to defend him, his words and his policies, and so quick to condemn those who question him.  In recent weeks, my shock has turned to anger.  Some days, my shock and anger gives way to doubt and despair.

Then there’s the state of the United Methodist Church – the denomination I serve.  For decades the UMC has been divided over issues related to human sexuality and how we relatedly understand, interpret, respect, and enforce Scripture.  Since 2016, a group called the “Commission on a Way Forward,” has sought to discern a way to keep the UMC united, and to find a “way” for us to avoid schism.  While I deeply respect many who served on the Commission, and appreciate their efforts, I’m deeply disappointed by the blunders and suspicion following their report to the Council of Bishops.  Though I’ve long believed in the biblical value of unity, as clearly espoused by Jesus, I’ve become increasingly doubtful – and sometimes despondent – that we’ll a find way to remain united.

I’m also wrestling with finding my prophetic voice.  As a pastor, I’ve mostly focused on “spiritual” things – church programming,  preaching, prayer, Bible study, “doing” missions – leaving prophetic speech to others.  Frankly, sometimes, I was just cowardly.  I’ve always respected prophets, but haven’t wanted to be one!  But, increasingly, I feel called to speak – for women, for immigrants, for people of color, for the LGBTQ community, for justice and fairness, for decency.  But, speaking out has consequences.  Learning how to deal with those consequences, without retaliation, is a test of patience and love.

And, I’m wrestling with the institutional Church.  There’s no secret the institutional Church in America is increasingly irrelevant and rapidly in decline.  I’m increasingly wondering how much the modern institutional Church has to do with the Church Jesus intended.  When I read the New Testament, I read about a family-like community, gathered around a living, risen Lord.  As diverse communities of mutual love, sharing, and service, they experienced the presence of the living Christ amongst them, and in each other.  Focused on the Lordship of Jesus, the early Church sought to be an alternative, radically-inclusive, counter-cultural society, equally welcoming and honoring men and women, rich and poor, young and old, saints and sinners, Jews and pagans, leaders and followers, converts and seekers.  In the early Church, lives were radically changed by the Holy Spirit.  The Church of the New Testament, as I read it, strived to love, in word and deed.  I don’t read about denominations, or institutional preservation, or building debt, or annual budgets, or advertising campaigns, or growth strategies, or music styles, or calendars, or church-management software, etc.  In the New Testament, I read far more about “being” the Church as a reflection of Jesus, and not so much about “doing” Church business.

In other words, during this blogging hiatus, I’ve been wrestling.  I’m still wrestling.

“How do we speak honestly, confidently, truthfully about who God is and what God does in this world of ugliness and violence?”

“What does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus?  What do we stand for?  Who do we stand for?  How?  What do we speak for, or against?”

“What does it mean to be the Church?  Who is the Church?

“What does it mean to hope, and what can we hope for?  Who, or what, do we entrust that hope?”

“What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be ‘in’ the world, but not ‘of’ the world?”

About the time I wrote my last blog, I realized how many of my posts have a negative, critical tone.  Over the last year, as I’ve learned about being an Enneagram 9, I’ve become painfully aware of my passive aggressive tendencies (a common trait of 9s, who tend to avoid face-to-face conflict like a plague!) – an ugly trait I was previously blind to.  Blogging became a forum for saying those things I’ve struggled to say, and allowed to internally fester.  Blogging became a place to express frustration and anger I’ve suppressed.  While I stand by everything I’ve written, I don’t want to be passive aggressive in any aspect of my life.  My blogging ought to be a healthy and accurate reflection of who I am in the pulpit, standing in line at the grocery home, at home in my boxer shorts, or chatting over coffee at Starbucks.

Though I’m wrestling with loads of hard questions (for me) these days, I don’t claim to have many answers.  Though I don’t claim to be absolutely “right” about much of anything, I’m increasingly convinced that we are wrong about MANY things.  The litmus test for me is Jesus…

“What did he say?  How did he say it?”

“What did he do?  Why did he do it?”

“Why did he come?  Who did he come for?”

“How did he love?  Who did he love?”

“Who did he welcome and who did he turn away?”

“What does he expect of me?”

“Where is he now?  How do I find him?  How do I see him, and hear him?”

“What does he feel about the current state of the Church and the world?  How do I find out, and what do I do about it?”

What does he think about our current political and cultural divides?”

“If he returned today, what would he affirm and what would be condemn?”

I’m fully aware that you might have a different litmus test for right and wrong.  I’m fully aware that you may conclude different answers to my questions than I have or will.  But, here’s my challenge.  If you claim to believe in Jesus – and claim to follow him as Lord – make sure you actually do.  It may be a lot harder than you think.  Study what he said in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount.  Rather than drawing your own conclusions about what is right and wrong, find out what Jesus said is right and wrong.  Before you take a stand, study what Jesus stood for.  Before you condemn or criticize, find out what Jesus condemned and criticized.  Imitate him, as authentically as you possibly can.  Until you’ve thoroughly read, studied, prayed, and meditated on the words, teachings, and actions of Jesus, assume you might be wrong.  There are no easy, simplistic answers with Jesus!  And, after fully submitting everything to Jesus and concluding you might be right, be humble enough to know you might still be wrong.

So, perhaps that explains my blogging silence.

Am I back?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Only time will tell.  If and when I do write – as with every other aspect of my life and ministry – I intend to do so as faithfully as I can to who I believe Jesus to be, and who I believe he is calling me to to be, and to say and do.  One thing I can guarantee – I won’t do it perfectly.  It’s hard to keep my flawed humanity out of Jesus’ way.  May I suggest the same is true for you?