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.

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?

Ignoring the Bible

Ignoring the Bible

I’m always reading fiction, along with whatever else I might be studying.  I’m currently ready Annie Dillard’s, An America Childhood.

Dillard speaks as a girl, growing up in Pittsburgh, in the mid-Twentieth Century.  About midway through the book, she describes the character’s exposure to church, summer church camp, and the Bible.  She writes,

“The adult members of society adverted (referenced) the Bible unreasonably often.  What arcana!   Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes?  If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it.  They didn’t recognize the vivid danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a case of its wild opposition to their world.  Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them.”

Read it again, and let it sink in.

Now, read it again.

“this scandalous document…”

“they would have hid it…”

“vivid danger…”

“its wild opposition to their world…”

“and ignore them…”

According to Dillard’s character, the Bible is a scandalous, dangerous document, that through repeated exposure can awaken us to the fatal flaws of this world, and that we act like we believe, but usually just ignore.

What if Dillard is right?  What if Scripture is dangerous?  What if we didn’t ignore Scripture?  What if we, instead, through repeated exposure, caught “a case of its wild opposition to their world?”  

I think we need a lot more of that!