Transcending Hell

Transcending Hell

“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop,
Within a yard of hell.” 

C.T. Studd

Some think of Hell as a literal place of punishment, awaiting sinners on the other side of death…

  • an eternal destination for the damned…
  • a deep abyss, beneath the earth….
  • a burning lake of eternal fire and brimstone…
  • a state of eternal torment and suffering, where there’s never-ending weeping and gnashing of teeth (what is teeth-gnashing, anyway?)…
  • the underground lair of the Devil and legions of demons…
  • unending, irreversible separation from God.

I’m increasingly doubtful of Hell as a post-life destination.  I just don’t read much evidence in Scripture to support Hell being more than a metaphor for eternal separation from God, which I do believe in.  I could be wrong.  Maybe Hell is a literal place.  I guess we’ll all find out, eventually.

To me, belief in an eternal Hell feels more like a threat, motivated by fear.  God doesn’t need threats to attract us.  God is good, and the offer of eternity with God is very good.  God doesn’t need the fear or threat of an eternal hell to motivate us.  That sounds a bit too mobster for me.

But, that being said, I do still believe in Hell.  Perhaps there is an eternal state of Hell, for those who choose it (for more on this, read C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce).  But, if Hell is separation from God, Hell isn’t necessarily a future destination.  Hell, for some, is a PRESENT reality.  Hell can be anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

Hell is anywhere a person feels cut off from God.  I don’t really believe anyone or anyplace – including Hell – is cut off from God, entirely.  Psalm 139:7 asks, Where can I go from your Spirit?Where can I flee from your presence?”  The answer?  “Nowhere!”  But, undeniably, there are times, places, situations, experiences in this life when a person might FEEL cut off from God…

  • When a victim is abused or assaulted.
  • When a person is trapped in addiction.
  • When trust is betrayed.
  • When a person is sliding deeper and deeper into depression.
  • When someone has lost their way, and keeps wandering farther and farther and farther astray.
  • When a person is belittled or dehumanized for their age, gender, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
  • When fear is greater than love.
  • When a person is a victim of injustice.
  • When lies speak more convincingly than Truth.
  • When a person is caught in endless, grinding cycles of poverty.
  • When EVERYTHING seems hopeless.
  • When a person is haunted by the sins of their past.
  • When it feels like there’s nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.
  • When a deepening darkness blots out the fading, dimming, failing light.
  • When pain – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – overwhelms.
  • When a person cannot escape the consequences of their sins.

I recall a recent conversation about the success of so many conservative, mega-churches, and how many have transitioned from being historically “traditional” to something much more modern and contemporary.  I wondered aloud if their success has anything to do with their belief in Hell?  I wonder if believing “lost” people go to an eternal place of suffering motivates members to “save” people, no matter what it takes, before it’s too late.  I don’t wonder.  I’m sure that’s the case.

But, what if the Hell people need saving from, most, isn’t in their future?  What if the “lost” are already in Hell, in this life?  What if the “saving,” lost people need, isn’t just from a future Hell, but a current and present one?

What if Hell exists in…

  • broken homes and families,
  • poverty-stricken neighborhoods,
  • brothels, strip-clubs, porn-studios, and red-light districts,
  • the bottles or needles of every addict,
  • loneliness – real or perceived,
  • racist/discriminatory attitudes, practices, and policies,
  • where the abuser’s hand touches the victim’s flesh,
  • unsafe school yards,
  • the bully’s threats and verbal assaults,
  • corrupt, unjust governments and leaders,
  • the hearts of many men and women, children and teens, young and old, friends and family, neighbors and coworkers,
  • prisons, homeless shelters, mental hospitals,
  • the minds of the mentally ill,
  • the bodies of the sick and dying,
  • the news of a tragic death or suicide,
  • broken, betrayed hearts…

What if the person/people we live with, work with, ride the bus with, eat lunch with, do business with, is/are currently living in a Hellish state, and we don’t even realize it?  What if they desperately need us to realize it?

What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to rescue people from their current Hell; not to avoid their Hell, or to stand back and judge them for it?   What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to set people free from their current Hell, and to invite them into a new, better, godly reality?  What if our job is to be Heaven on Earth, even in the midst of the Hell people are currently enduring?  What if our job is to enter the Hell of others, while remaining deeply anchored in a higher spiritual reality?  What if our job is to find them in Hell, and lead them out?

What if Hell isn’t an eternal state, but only lasts as long as a suffering person must wait for you or me to crash down the gates, keeping trapped inside.

What if our job, Christians, isn’t to avoid Hell, but to dive into the thick of it, shining our light into the inky darkness, releasing the prisoners and rescuing the captives, transcending Hell together, into God’s glorious light?

Transcend:

transitive verb

1ato rise above or go beyond the limits of

bto triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of 

cto be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)

2to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality, or power

intransitive verb

to rise above or extend notably beyond ordinary limits

Who do you know currently residing in Hell?  What are you going to do about it?

Another question to ponder, Church:  based on my definition of Hell, have we (The Church) done more rescuing FROM Hell, threatening WITH Hell, or treating people LIKE Hell?  Think about it.

 

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

I should confess, from the start, I don’t watch professional sports.  I’m not into it.  I actually have some strong objections to professional sports, for a number of reasons.  But, for now, and for the sake of this particular conversation, let’s just say, professional sports aren’t my thing.

But, I’m aware, especially with the release of the new Nike ad, starring Colin Kaepernick, of the controversy surrounding professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem.  Though the “kneelers” have many supporters, there are many others, including our President, who are deeply offended by their actions.  Everyone, on both sides, seem to have strong feelings, for or against.  Few, are neutral!

While my point is NOT to debate the rightness or wrongness of professional athletes  – or anyone else, for that matter – kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, it only seems fair to begin by attempting to objectively explain both sides of the debate.

At the start of the 2016 season, NFL.com quoted Kaepernick, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  To Kaepernick, and others who have followed his lead, kneeling is an act of protest against the unfair treatment, and killing, of African-Americans by an unjust system of law enforcement and criminal justice, and the expression of their First Amendment right to free speech.

From the opposite perspective, encouraging the NFL to require players to stand for the National Anthem, in May, 2018, Fortune.com quoted President Trump saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.”  I’ve heard other’s, of similar perspective, argue that kneeling during the National Anthem is a direct offense and assault on all who’ve fought for our country, and the freedoms we all enjoy, including professional football players.

My point, here, is not to argue for either side of this debate, or the rightness or wrongness of this particular form of protest.  A brief study of the facts will demonstrate, incontrovertibly, racial discrimination does, in fact, exist, in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, to shocking degrees.  If you don’t believe that is true, study the facts.  Like I said, the facts are undeniable.

But, the facts aren’t really the point, are they?  Something about the act of taking a knee deeply offends some Americans – I mean, REALLY offends!

Some players who kneel have thoughtfully articulated their motives and intent.  Kneeling, thus far, is not a violation of NFL policy.  Kneeling, doesn’t break the law.  In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have significant impact on game attendance, viewership, or profitability.

But, it sure does make people mad!

So, yesterday, after a sermon on discipleship and spiritual transformation, I was asked my position on the kneeling controversy, and if my denomination has an official position for or against it.  I have to imagine this person wasn’t listening to my message, if kneeling was the topic on his mind.  It’s not the first time I, as a pastor, have been asked my opinion on this.  Usually, the person asking is against the players kneeling, and assumes I am too.  And, asking me, as a pastor, implies the “asker” assumes the act must have some theological significance.

In other words, if it offends, it must be a sin.

It’s not.  It’s not a sin.  Kneeling, during the playing of National Anthem, may be offensive to you.  It may even be “wrong.”  But, it’s not a sin.

Whether or not professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is the “right” expression or venue for protesting this particular issue isn’t for me to say.  As a white man, who has never experienced the particular injustices being protested, I have no right to judge or condemn the rightness or wrongness of the particularity of the protest.  Arguably, if the act has offended, it’s achieved it’s purpose.  The question is whether those offended will condemn the act, or willingly listen and learn about the reason for the protest.  And, will the protest lead to real societal change?

Christians – particularly white, patriotic, American Christians – offended by players kneeling, ought to keep in mind Jesus’ awkward relationship with the authorities of his day.  Jesus offended, with frequent regularity.  The religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – were constantly offended by Jesus’ actions, by his teachings, by his lack of respect for their religious practices and traditions, and even their positional authority.  You may recall Jesus treating the political rulers, Herod and Pontius Pilate, rather dismissively, saying he was the King of a heavenly kingdom – which happened to be invading the Earth!

Though Paul taught about maintaining peace with political authorities, he also said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12)  In essence, earthly governments and laws can be evil, and evil must be exposed and resisted.

The entire Book of Revelation is a deeply-coded protest against Caesar and the Roman Empire.  I’ve no doubt Caesar and his supporters would have been deeply offended, if they just could have figured out what all those colors, numbers, and beasts represented (them!)!

And, like Jesus, in New Testament times, offending the governing rulers often led to dire consequences!  Offending those in power, and in the majority, often does.  Maybe, that’s the point players are trying to make.

But, we live in a different place and time.  We live in a nation of laws, intended to be just.  We live in a nation that allows, and supports, freedom of speech – even when it offends.  When injustices occur, in our nation, public protests result; like it or not.

So, what is the appropriate Christian response to NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem?  There isn’t one.  But, may I, humbly, suggest the following…

  • Remember, the Bible always sides with those who are victims of injustice.  Whether you agree with this particular form of protest, or not, learn about the injustice it is protesting.  Don’t allow the offense of the protest to blind you to the reality being protested.
  • Remember the Bible’s teachings about not judging, allowing for diversity of opinion, and even loving your enemies.
  • Remember, the Bible affirms the sacred value and worth of every person – even the person who offends you.
  • Remember the biblical teaching on humility.  You might be wrong.
  • Remember, patriotism is not the same as faith in Christ.  While you may deeply love your country, love for the Kingdom of God is something entirely different.  Our primarily allegiance is to a heavenly King and his laws.  What offends you, politically, isn’t necessarily a sin.
  • And, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on how the values of professional athletics align (or don’t) with the values of the kingdom of God.  Maybe, from a Kingdom perspective, there’s a lot more sin to be offended by in professional sports, than whether or not a player stands for the National Anthem!  But, that’s a conversation for another blog.

Perhaps some advice, for Christians, from the Book of James, is a good way to close… My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Have I offended you?

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!

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?

 

 

If I wasn’t a pastor…

If I wasn’t a pastor…

As a United Methodist pastor, I’ve been assigned to the churches I’ve served.  While I’ve been very fortunate to serve very fine churches and ministries, from time to time I wonder, if I wasn’t a pastor, what kind of church I might choose to attend (Some days, this thought is a bit more tempting than others!  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve quit being a pastor.  I’ve just never actually turned in my letter of resignation!).

If I wasn’t a pastor, and could choose any church I wanted…

I’d want to be part of a close-knit, loving, Christ-centered community, where I can truly know and be known.

I’d want worship that’s a genuine, heart-felt, impassioned offering to God.

I’d want to be challenged to grow and expected to become the human God intends me to be.

I’d want to fall deeper, and deeper, and deeper in love with Jesus.

I’d look for a “thin place.”

I’d want to find a church community that’s open and honoring of all kinds of people, embracing and celebrating diversity in every form.

I’d want to find a church that literally drips, oozes, and overflows with God’s love.

I’d hope to find a place I could really be myself, knowing I’ll be loved and accepted, with no reason to fear judgement or rejection.

I’d look for a church that’s a “saint-incubator.”

I’d seek a church that always asks, “What should we try next?”

I’d look for church that was perfectly imperfect – whatever that means!

I’d want to find a church that embraces the unfathomable, ineffable mysteries of the Spirit and rejects sterile, overly-simplistic, formulaic religion.

I’d want to be part of a church membership that tithes generously, and gives more to missions than it keeps for itself.

I’d look for a pastor who knows and love Jesus.

I’d look for a church where the Spirit moves equally freely in worship, and business meetings, and shared meals, and acts of service.

I’d want to be part of a church that feels less like a business, and more like a spiritually organic network of friends.

I’d seek a church that boldly dreams God-sized dreams.

I’d love to be part of a creative church, that embraces the arts as expressions of worship and service.

I’d seek a church where each and every person is treated with utmost honor and respect.

I’d want to be part of a church where my friends are hearing and responding to God’s call to attempt outrageous kingdom experiments.

I’d look for a church that actively cares for and cultivates God’s good creation.

I’d want a church that never, ever settles for status quo, or the way things have always been done.

I’d look for a church that reads the Bible as a grand story to be part of, not just as a rule book to obey.

I’d join a church led by deeply-spiritual, God-seeking, wise, inspired, godly men and women.

I’d want to be part of church that is deeply committed to a particular people and place – loving it, serving it, healing it, shining a light on it, embracing it, nurturing it, caring for it, changing it.

I’d want to be part of a church family that equally embraces seekers and skeptics, long-timers and short-timers, saints and sinners, masters and novices.

I’d seek a church that believes ANYTHING is possible, if it honors Christ.

I’d hope to find Christ-followers who could easily say, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

I’d look for a church that prayed and taught people how to pray.

I’d seek a church relentlessly committed to justice and mercy.

I’d look for a church that graciously expects people to act like Jesus.

I’d seek brothers and sisters in Christ who are equally comfortable singing passionately, laughing uproariously, shouting riotously, applauding wildly, lamenting defiantly, and crying unashamedly.

I’d want to find a church equally committed to excellence and exceedingly gracious with short-comings.

I’d seek a church that primarily exists beyond it’s walls.

I would look for a church where EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is about Jesus.  EVERYTHING!

I know, I know.  I’d never find such a church.  Such churches don’t exist.  There’s no such thing as a “perfect church,” whatever that means, according to anyone’s hopes, standards, or expectations.  Every church has its gifts and graces, it’s strengths and weaknesses.

But…

If the Church is the Bride of Christ…

If the Church is the Body of Christ…

If the Church is the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven, on the earth…

If the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”…

If the Church is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led…

If the Church exists for God, and God’s mission…

If the Church is God’s family…

If the Church is where saints become saints…

If the Church is where heaven touches earth…

If the Church is where the Holy Sacraments are blessed and served…

If the Church is where believers worship the most high God…

If the Church is salt and light…

If the Church is where God’s story is remembered, retold, and relived, over and over and over…

If the Church is where saints are baptized, confirmed, confessed, communed, married, ordained, consecrated, annointed, commissioned, healed, and memorialized…

If… then, perhaps, someone could explain to me why we would ever settle for a church that is less?

Maybe the point isn’t to find the perfect church.  Maybe the point is to BE the Church we know we’re supposed to be.  Why do we settle for so much less?

 

Hosanna Hats

Hosanna Hats

In many churches, today is known as “Palm Sunday.”  It marks the Sunday prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

According to Matthew 21:8-10, as Jesus was entering Jerusalem…

 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

“Hosanna” is one of those words that most people don’t use every day.  In fact, outside of Palm Sunday, I can’t think of any other time Christians say it.  I can’t think of any time, ever, a non-Christian would use it.  Hosanna means something like, “save us!”  On Palm Sunday, the crowds recognized Jesus has the one who had come to save Israel (and the world).

I offer this explanation simply as a prelude to a funny story…

As I said, very few people outside of the Church have ever heard or used the word, “hosanna.”  When I was a campus minister at Florida State University, many of the students attending our ministry hadn’t grown up attending church.  One in particular, a gullible young man, asked some of his churched-friends what “hosanna” means.  Seeing an opportunity to have some fun at their friend’s expense, they told him a “hosanna” was a special kind of hat worn in worship, just for special occasions, and that he needed to get one.  If you knew this particular student, you’d understand this better.

He actually believed their explanation of “hosanna,” for some time, and was frequently asked whether or not he had acquired a hosanna hat yet, or not.

I still chuckle every Palm Sunday when I hear “hosanna” in worship.  And, I did, again, today.

I’m not sure what a “hosanna hat” might look like.  A turbin?  A yarmulke?  A beanie?  A miter?  A skull cap?  A fedora?  A bonnet?  A baseball cap?  A bandana?  A top hat?  A sombrero?  A bowler?  A helmet?  A chapeau?

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of “hosanna hats.”  This world is such a mess – I’m generally such a mess! – a hat that somehow communicates “save us!” doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, after all.  Maybe they should be massed produced and distributed, ASAP!

What would your “hosanna hat” look like?

Have a blessed Palm Sunday.  “Hosanna in the highest!”

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

In my half-century of life, a lot has changed (and is constantly changing) in our world.  That’s, of course, a ridiculous understatement.  The world is changing more rapidly and more radically with every passing day.

Though many of those changes involve science and technology, let’s consider something a bit more basic – a birthday cake.

A century ago, or more, if you wanted a birthday cake, you ground the grain you grew and harvested, collected eggs from your own hen-house, milked the cow, and hoped you still had the ingredients you couldn’t produce, purchased on your last trip to the general store.  After mixing the ingredients, yourself, you might have needed to chop some wood to heat the stove to bake the cake.

A half-century ago, to celebrate a birthday, you went to the neighborhood grocer to buy the ingredients you needed – flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking powder, etc.  You took those ingredients home, mixed the batter with an electric mixer, and baked a cake in your electric or gas oven.  I can still remember a particularly delicious chocolate cake my mom made, with thick, rich frosting.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was sooooooooo good!

Then came a simpler way.  Rather than buying individual ingredients, cake mixes and canned frosting could be purchased.  You still baked the cake yourself, but the process was so much simpler, less time-consuming, and required less knowledge or skill – just dump the mix in a bowl and follow the directions on the package.

Then came the grocery store bakery.  There have always been bakeries, of course.  But, grocery store bakeries were cheaper and move convenient.  Now, instead of baking, you could buy a ready-made, beautifully decorated cake, in the color and flavor of your choice, and even have a custom birthday greeting added for no additional charge.  No time, effort, or skill required.

But, the problem is, everyone doesn’t like the same flavor of cake.  Some people are on diets.  Some are vegan.  Some are lactose intolerant.  Some are avoiding gluten.  Some have food allergies.  Some prefer more basic flavors, while others desire something  more exotic.  And, aesthetics matter.  We don’t want to eat something that looks mass-produced.  We want a nice presentation.  So, we order designer cupcakes, on-line, catering to multiple wants and needs, packaged in special boxes, and have them delivered to our office or home.

We’ve shifted from creators, contributors and cultivators, to consumers (and, sometimes, critics and complainers).

This scenario is replayed over, and over, and over.  We used to make coffee, at home, in a percolator.  Now, we order ahead for a grande soy latte with whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso, hot and ready for pick-up in minutes.  We used to wait in line at movie theaters, hoping tickets were available when you got to the window, knowing you might not get great seats.  Now we order our movie tickets ahead, selecting from a variety of viewing and listening options, choosing our specific reclining, leather seats, with no waiting at the theater door, and with plenty of time to purchase a much wider variety of beverages and snacks than just basic popcorn and soda.

The list could go on and on and on.

Notice how we’ve moved from basic commodities – cake ingredients, coffee beans, general seating – to being served by others, with little-to-no personal effort, and much higher levels of expectation for personalization, specialization and convenience.

I suspect, when we made our own cakes and coffee, we accepted certain imperfections.  I remember sitting on the front rows of movie theaters, just glad to have a ticket, or settling for a different movie because the show I wanted was sold out.  I think, we used to be generally more accepting, and assumed the burden was on us to make things better if we weren’t satisfied.

If the cake didn’t turn out right, bake another one.  If you don’t know how to decorate a cake, ask your neighbor for help.  If you don’t like chocolate cake, hopefully you’ll get vanilla next year.  If you made the coffee too strong, add some milk.  If you want to get a ticket to the show, get in line earlier next time.

We don’t think that way any more.  We want it customized.  We want it perfect.  We want it pretty.  We want it easy.  We want it special.  We want it NOW!

We’ve become spoiled, critical, demanding, and impatient.

We’ve become consumers.

As a pastor, I see numerous ways this shift has negatively impacted the Church.

If you follow the same general timeline I shared about birthday cakes, there was once a time church consisted of the many and varied contributions of the members.  Repairs to the facilities were performed by member craftsmen.  Sanctuaries were cleaned and decorated with home-grown flowers collected and arranged, paraments sewn and embroidered, washed and starched, pews polished, holiday decorations made and displayed, all by the members.  The music was generally the best efforts of the church’s best musicians.  Some member typed the bulletin on a typewriter, usually including a few typos.  Somebody arrived early to turn on the furnace or open the windows.  An usher swept the front steps.  Somebody baked the communion bread.  Parents and grandparents took turns teaching Sunday School, leading and planning Vacation Bible School, and working in the nursery.  Members taught Sunday School classes, and took food to the sick and homebound.  Members gathered regularly for home-cooked, church-wide dinners.  “Elder” members made the decisions, prayed, and dreamed of starting new ministries and building new buildings.

EVERYONE gave what they could, as the Lord provided.  EVERYONE took turns, doing what needed to be done.  EVERYONE did their part.  And, when it was necessary, if a need or problem or deficiency became obvious, someone stepped up to do it.

Church was the gathered service, gifted-ness, creativity, and contributions of the members; sometimes as good as the delicious home-baked bread served at communion, and sometimes as terrible as grandma’s arthritic attempt to play the piano.  Every gift was given and appreciated with love, for what it was – an offering of service to the Lord.

Now, church has become a place to be served.  Though we still depend on volunteers, the message from many is, “Don’t ask or expect to much.”  The even-greater message is, “I come to church to be served.”  I want to sit where I want to sit.  I want to sing songs I know and like.  I want the volume set according to my tastes.  I want to hear messages relevant to my life, that fit neatly into what I already believe.  I want to attend when it’s convenient.  I want the temperature adjusted to my comfort.  I want to drop my children off at the nursery, or Sunday School, or VBS, or the youth group, and have others entertain them.  I want someone to make sure I am safe.  I want lots of programs offered for me and my family, so that I can pick and chose what fits into my schedule.  I want a good parking space.

Even serving often seems self-serving.

Rather than expecting church to be the place to serve and contribute, many expect church to serve them and contribute to their own needs, wants and desires.  If I don’t like something, I’ll complain, or at least grumble.  If I don’t like the current sermon series, I’ll just stay home.  If I don’t like the music, I’ll come late.  If I don’t want to give or volunteer, I’ll let others take up the slack for me.  If I’m not interested, I won’t show up.  If I hear another church has more to offer my family, without asking so much, I’ll just go there instead.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy cupcakes and lattes.  I appreciate convenience.  I like to be served.  I, too, have high standards and expectations.  Even as the pastor, I want things at church to be done well.

I’m not questioning our appetite for excellence.  I’m challenging our consumeristic expectations and demands.  If you want something to be excellent, then YOU make it excellent.  And, just because the world is willing to cater to your demands for convenience and customization, don’t bring that expectation to church.

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Church is like a birthday cake, baked from scratch, from pure, fresh ingredients.  We are the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the milk, the eggs – lovingly mixed together and baked by our heavenly maker.  The final product might not be everyone’s favorite flavor.  It might be a little lopsided.  The icing might be a little un-even.  “Hapy Birtday” written in frosting, might not be spelled exactly right. But all in all, the ingredients can potentially combine to create a delicious offering for the world.  An offering for the world – not us!

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Maybe we need to learn how to bake cakes, from scratch, again.