God “Bless?” America

God “Bless?” America

I led a new Bible study, this morning, on the Sermon on the Mount.  I intended to start last week, but delayed due to the swirl of activity in the immediate aftermath of the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Today’s class focused on the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-16…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean when we say, “God bless America?” Health?  Wealth?  Prosperity?  Protection?  Favor?

The Greek word, used in the New Testament, for “blessed” is “makarios,” which means something akin to, “being in an enviable position,” particularly in our relationship with God.  Being “blessed, spiritually-speaking, is a good, desirable, godly place to be.

Jesus says we’re in an inviable position with God when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning, when we are meek, when we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and when we are persecuted, when we face opposition for our faith.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds VERY different than the way most of us typically use the word “blessed!”

Is it possible we understand the word “blessed” correctly, but expect the wrong outcome? After all, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth.  But, what’s all of our wealth and welfare doing for us?

Being close to God does NOT automatically lead to health, prosperity, protection and favor.  Instead, being close to God may mean the opposite.  Being close to God will break your heart for the sins of the world.  Being close to God will reveal your insufficiencies, and need for God.  Being close to God means working for justice and peace, even when it brings opposition.  Being close to God requires seeing the impurities in our own lives, and our desperate need for refinement.  Being close to God requires personal sacrifice.  Being close to God can be difficult… and blessed.

Being close to God is undeniably an inviable position.  It’s where we want to be, whether we get that or not.  But, God blesses us to bless others, not to bask in the blessing ourselves.  Being close to God is joining in God’s work of healing and redeeming this broken world.  Being blessed is less about the temporal blessings we may or may not receive, and more about the blessing we can be for those less blessed than us.

This world needs a lot of blessing!

Though I’ve read the Beatitudes countless times, I’m hearing them differently this time.  I can’t help but read them through the lens of our recent tragedy.  I hear the call to mourn and show mercy – Christians are good at that.  But, I’m also hearing God’s call to work for justice and peace, even if it means facing painful opposition.

In fact, just a few verses after the Beatitudes, Jesus adds, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  

The “blessed” do.  The “blessed” put blessing into action.  Friends, there’s a lot of blessing for us to do.

Yes, God, please bless America.  Bless us with the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the workers for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted for doing what is right.  Bless us with your Kingdom.  Bless us, please.

Being a “cracked-pot” pastor…

Being a “cracked-pot” pastor…

Crackpot:  “An eccentric, crazy or foolish person.”

I am, undeniably, a cracked-pot pastor.

Not growing up in Church, I didn’t observe pastors performing their duties.  I never had pastoral role models to later imitate.  I never picked up the mannerisms, or the manner of speech.  I never learned the “right things” to say or do in given situations.  I never had expectations of who or what a pastor is supposed to be.  I never learned the nuances.

I didn’t even learn the familiar Bible stories – in Sunday School and sermons – as most pastors do.

By the time I was around pastors, I was becoming one myself.

And, most of my ministry has been just outside the traditional pastoral role.  I was a youth director, then an associate pastor (allowed a lot of “non-traditional” freedoms), a church-planter (of a VERY non-traditional church), and a campus minister.  I didn’t actually become a traditional-“ish” pastor until about four years ago!

I still find myself wondering, almost daily, “Is this what a pastor is supposed to think, say, feel, do?”  I often conclude the answer must be “no.”  After almost twenty-five years of ministry, I’m still figuring out this job every day.  I still call colleagues, asking, “Is this what I’m supposed to?  How would you handle this?  Do your members expect this-or-that, or do such-and-such?”  I feel like I need to apologize frequently for NOT saying or doing something I should have known to say or do.

The role of “pastor,” is still a mystery to me, even as a I try my best to do it.  I must be a crackpot – crazy and/or foolish – to think I can do this job!

If I’m honest – and, I really value honesty – ministry is a struggle for me.  People call me “pastor,” and I wonder who they are talking to.  I mumble and stumble through prayers.  I wonder, sometimes, if my sermons are too off the wall.  I don’t pick up on the non-verbal cues that someone needs something pastoral from me.  I wonder if I’m too introverted.  I think I might be way too comfortable with “grey,” when people seem to want “black and white” answers from me. I don’t have the clothes for the job, the words for the job, or the mannerisms for the job.

Maybe I’m too comfortable with saying, “I have no idea…”  Maybe my ideas and dreams are too lofty, when people really need a pastor to be a practical decision-maker.  Maybe I’m too private.  Maybe I’m too political – or not political enough?

Often – lately – I just feel inadequate.  As a pastor, I feel inadequate.  Let’s be honest – I am inadequate.

Especially as my community reels from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy, I can’t help but wonder what I’m NOT doing, that needs to be done.  As I sit at my desk, scratching my head, I wonder, “What, who, am I forgetting?  What does my church, my community need from me?  What is God calling us to do in response?  What’s the right thing to say?”

Other pastors seem to be moving with such confidence; rushing to the school on the day of the shooting, planning and attending prayer vigils, organizing events, planning fundraisers.  I’m in awe of their clarity, focus and energy.

Pastors call or email me, offering to help, asking what we need, and I find I don’t know what to say.  I’m grateful for their offers, of course.  I just don’t know.

I’m not writing any of this to make excuses for my pastoral shortcomings, or to evoke sympathy for my inadequacies.  I’m not looking for a pat on the back or an “attaboy!”  I’m just being honest.

And, I honestly wonder if other pastors might wrestle with the some of the same feelings, even if for different reasons.  Perhaps I’m not the only pastor who feels inadequate.

The truth is, we’re all inadequate, aren’t we?  I’m pretty sure every pastor is inadequate, to some degree.  Even as we offer our very best ideas and efforts, we all fall short.  Even as we shine in one moment, we falter in the next.  Even as we care for one person well, we may miss the person who needed us even more.  Even as we impress some, we inevitably offend others.  No pastor is sufficiently adequate for everything that’s expected and needed from us, 100% of the time.  We are, after all, human.

But, thank God, we serve someone who is more than adequate.  In moments like these, I take considerable assurance from 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.  This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.”  

The very best of us – the smartest, most experienced, most eloquent, wisest, tireless, best dressed – fall short too.  Oddly, I take comfort in that.  But, thus far, in my life and ministry, God hasn’t fallen short.  In spite of being a fragile, “cracked -pot” pastor, God sometimes manages to use me.  Or, at least I hope so.

So, again today, I’ll try as hard as I can to be a pastor, even as I know I’m inadequate for the job.  When (not if) I fall short, please be patient with me.  Please forgive me when I disappoint you – and I will.  And, as much as possible, even as I fail, I hope you’ll look more to the treasure I represent, and less to the cracked, fragile container I obviously am.

 

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

I was prepared for yesterday (Sunday, February 18, 2018) to be a “different” kind of Sunday, given the recent tragedy in our community.  We’d already modified the service to address the myriad questions and emotions, to honor the dead, and to comfort the hurting.  We were prepared for larger crowds, knowing people often turn to the God and the Church following tragedies.  And, they did.

I didn’t, however, expect Governor Rick Scott to show up.  We’d heard it was possible, but didn’t know for sure.  Governor Scott was in town to attend several funerals of the victims, and wanted to attend a worship service in the community.  He chose First Church, and we are honored that he did.

I also didn’t expect the press.  They weren’t there for the Governor – that had been kept a secret.  But, they were all there!

Throughout the morning, different people said comments to me, like, “You must have worked extra hard on that sermon, preaching for the Governor!”

With no disrespect for Governor Scott, at all, and no desire to sound self-righteous, I  honestly replied, “Governor Scott never crossed my mind.  I was preaching for the person whose hurting the most, and needed to find God this morning.”  

Maybe that person was Governor Scott.  I don’t know.  If so, thank God.

I wrote and delivered my sermon, with someone local in mind – not Governor Scott, and not the press.  I was thinking of the grieving, the confused, the traumatized, the hurting.  I was thinking of the men and women, children and youth, who’ve been most personally affected by this terrible tragedy.  I was thinking about the person who needed to be reminded that God exists.  I was thinking of the person who needed to hear that God is with us in our pain and suffering.  I was thinking about the person who needed to hear that it’s ok not to be ok.

Please don’t hear any of this as false humility.  Yes, I was conscious of the Governor’s presence (as well as his security detail).  I was aware of the cameras and microphones, recording my every word and move.  I was aware that I really need a hair cut; that my shirt was too wrinkled; that I’ve gained way too much weight.  I was aware that I was missing a rare opportunity to address the broader topics of gun violence, mental health, school safety, mental health, etc., etc.   I was painfully aware of every word I stumbled over, and every thought I couldn’t articulate.  I was deeply aware of my many pastoral inadequacies and shortcomings.

But, thankfully, none of that was my primary focus.

Maybe something I said, or something the press recorded, or something they experienced personally, may have touched them or a broader audience.  If so, to God be the glory.  But, that, to me, is secondary.

Isn’t it interesting how our attention is drawn to what, or who, the world says is important – like a governor or the press?  No doubt, they are important, in their own respective ways.  And yet, Jesus’ attention was always drawn to the least “important,” and the ones who suffered the most.  Jesus’ attention is still drawn to suffering.  I hope the same is always true of me.

The Governor has returned to Tallahassee, I suspect.  Soon, the attention of the press will be drawn elsewhere – not to another tragedy, like this one, I pray.  Soon, life in Coral Springs and Parkland will return to “normal” – whatever that means, now.  But, the wounds inflicted upon us on February 14, 2018 will remain for a long, long time.

That’s all that mattered to me yesterday.  That’s what matters to me today.

The Church I long for…

The Church I long for…

My church (First Church Coral Springs) hosted an event today called P.O.V. (Point of View), with the intent of teaching people how to be more empathetic of other’s points of views, especially when their views are different than your own.  Empathy does not mean changing your mind or opinion.  Empathy does mean listening respectfully to another person’s stories and perspectives.  Empathy does mean seeking understanding.  Empathy means caring enough to treat the other person with respect, kindness, and fairness.

Near the end of the day, we were asked, “What type of Church are you longing for?”

Here’s my answer…

“I long to be part of a church that loves well, that helps broken people find healing (all of us are broken), and that claims and restores broken places.”

How would you answer the question?  What type of Church are you longing for?

What broke him?

What broke him?

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL – a school he was expelled from – murdering seventeen innocent victims and injuring at least fourteen others.  The press is already reporting there were “red flags” – expulsion, social media posts, strange behaviors, etc.  He doesn’t seem to have friends.  Apparently Cruz has experienced significant loss and grief.

As yesterday’s events unfolded, I asked, “What broke him?  Who broke him?”  This wasn’t the act of a “normal” person choosing wrong.  This was not the act of a “normal” person suddenly overcome with evil.  Yes, what he did was unspeakably evil!  But, this wasn’t the act of a “normal” person.  Only a “broken” person could do something this horrific.

“What broke him?  Who broke him?

We could ask the same every time one of these tragedies occur.

Perhaps some people are born evil.  Some would make that argument.  I can’t accept that.  I believe God doesn’t make broken people.  I believe God creates us in his good image.  I believe this world breaks people.  And, today, I wonder what broke Nikolas Cruz, and others like him.

Inevitably, many are already debating the need for better gun laws versus better mental health screenings.  Though I firmly believe some kind of law should have prohibited Cruz from purchasing a semi-automatic weapon, my point is not to enter that particular debate.

I’m wondering when Cruz’s brokenness began, who might have recognized it early on, and who failed to intervene?  I’m wondering what might have saved Cruz – and, now, all of his victims – closer to when his brokenness began?  I’m not looking for someone to blame.  I’m wondering about how Cruz, and others like him, might have been helped before doing such unspeakable harm?  I’m wondering who the next Cruz might be?

And, I’m wondering what the Church’s role is?  Obviously, the Church is quick to offer aid following tragedies.  We hold special services.  We offer comfort, counsel, and prayer.  But, I’m wondering, if we are called to be salt and light in world, how we could – must – address the widespread brokenness in our world?  Where was the Church for Nikolas Cruz?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming the world, the Church, or anyone else for Cruz’s sin.  Cruz made that evil choice.  I’m just wondering why, and what might have stopped him.

I confess I am struggling today.  These aren’t just theological ponderings.  I’m wrestling deep in my soul.  I’m torn between knowing there is darkness in our world, and feeling an immense responsibility to stop playing “Church”; to actually do something substantial and assertive, to drive back the forces of evil in our communities and our world.  I’m torn between believing in the free-will that allows for evil choices, and believing God’s will ultimately prevails.  I’m torn between feelings of hopelessness in the face of so much despair, and an outrage-driven conviction to do more about it.  I’m torn between utter hopelessness, and knowing we have the power of almighty-God at our disposal.  I’m torn between wondering if the Church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the Church, is the only hope we have.

I watch as society drifts further and further away from God.  I watch as families senselessly decay.  I watch as more and more die of drug overdoses.  I watch as so many “Christian” families are less and less involved in Church, and more and more drawn away to other worldly distractions.  I watch as woman after woman after woman comes forward to bravely confront men who’ve assaulted them.  I watch as our country grows more and more divided.  I watch as age-old-racism seems to be rekindled.  I watch as the constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation looms on the horizon.  I watch as we literally throw away our lives on the smallest, most petty, trivial pursuits.

Friends, what are we doing?  Yes, Cruz is broken.  But, maybe Cruz is broken because we are broken?  Maybe Cruz if broken because the world is so broken.  Maybe the world is so broken because we – the Church – are doing so little about it.

And I’m thinking a lot about Jesus today.  I’m thinking about Jesus coming to heal our brokenness and rescue us from sin.  I’m thinking about the trivial ways we talk about sin, without confronting the sin that leads to yesterday’s massacre.  I’m thinking about the terrible weight Jesus bore on the cross, dying to save us from all of our sin and brokenness.

I’m wondering what Jesus is calling his church to do?

I don’t know who broke Nikolas Cruz.  But, I do know who could – who can – heal his brokenness. I know who can heal the brokenness all around us.

So, here’s my question, to the Church.  Are we going to keep playing Church – with nice worship services, cozy fellowship, shallow religious programs, and petty squabbles over silly, unimportant, irrelevant disagreements?  Or, are we going to get to work, with all of the courage and conviction we can muster, driving back the forces of darkness that lead to death and destruction, in Jesus’ name?

Isn’t the correct answer obvious?

What broke him?  What are we going to do about it?

 

 

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

Possibilities…

It was the last semester of my last year of college.  I was facing the reality of impending adulthood; and, I wasn’t ready.  I was about to graduate, but I had partied my way through college.  My degree was unmarketable.  My grades were pathetic.  I didn’t have any real-world work experience.  I didn’t have any purpose or direction.  I was scared.

But, I had hopes.  I wanted to be a responsible adult.  I wanted to marry.  I wanted to do something meaningful with my life.  I just didn’t know what, or how.

As graduation approached, my anxiety intensified, daily.  One night, alone in my fraternity house bedroom, overcome with anxiety, my Bible caught my eye.  I’d never read it.  Something told me to pick it up, and start reading. I read a few pages.  The next night, I read a few more.  I read a little every night until I worked my way through the four Gospels.  By then, Kelly and I were searching for a church.

A year later, I was the Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando.

The point of this story is that a particular message stirred me as I read the four Gospels.  Over and over, I discovered Jesus saying things like…

  • “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)
  • “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossiblefor you.”  (Matthew 17:20)
  • “If two of you on earth agree about anything they askfor, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 18:19)
  • “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Matthew 21:22)

And, finally, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

Notice the theme?  Over and over, Jesus says anything is possible with faith and prayer.  All things are possible, with God’s help!  In fact, Jesus says, we’ll do even greater things than him!

At that moment in my life, those were powerful promises.  They still are.  I was scared and unequipped for adulthood.  I felt like I was facing insurmountable obstacles.  But, Jesus said anything is possible.  I took him at his word – literally.  Ever since, I’ve believed, with faith, God does impossible things.  Throughout my ministry, I’ve operated out of this core belief and promise.

A small, old, rinky-dink church…

It was February, 2016 – just 18 months ago.  I’d been the Senior Pastor at Ortega United Methodist Church, in Jacksonville, for just 18 months. I’d just rearranged my office, and just hung some things on my walls – settling in, for the long haul.  I’d just preached a series, introducing our new vision.  I’d just led town-hall meetings to discuss how we would implement the new vision. I planned to be there for many years, and to watch that vision come to reality.

Then I got the call.  I was, unexpectedly, being moved to First Church Coral Springs.

You should know that I said, “no.”  I thought moving was a mistake, for Kelly and me, and for Ortega.  It was too soon.  We weren’t ready for a change.  Ortega wasn’t ready.  But, the decision wasn’t up to me – that’s how it works in the United Methodist Church.  We go when and where we are sent.

The reason for the move was that First Church needed a specific kind of pastor.  For some reason, I was discerned to be that pastor.

I was told that First Church is large, growing, and preparing for future growth.  I was told that First Church is culturally diverse, with the opportunity to become more diverse.  I was told that First Church is committed to missions and impacting the world.  I was told that First Church is a warm, welcoming church.  I was told that there are vision and dreams and plans for the future.

And, I was told, from the perspective of the United Methodist Church, First Church has the kind of ministry potential that could impact the entire south east region of Florida.  We are seen, by our denomination, as one of the strongest, healthiest, most vital churches in Florida, and in the denomination.

Even though I didn’t want to move, I admit that I was excited by the potential.

First Church is, in so many ways, the great church that was described to me.  This is a large, dynamic church.  This church is committed to mission and service.  This church is warm and welcoming.  This church has tremendous possibility and potential.  And, we are blessed with more diversity than any church I’ve ever served before.

But, more often than not, that’s not the way I hear “us” describe our church.

This year, our average worship attendance is about 800 people, per week. The average church attendance in America is only about 184.  Half of all churches in America only worship 75 people, or less.  90% of the churches in America worship less than 350 people, per week.  We are, at least, twice as large as 90% of the churches in America!

We are a large church!  We aren’t a mega–large church, like Church by the Glades or Calvary Chapel.  But, by all comparisons, we are a LARGE church – much larger than most, including most of the other churches in Coral Springs and Southeast Florida!  And, a church as large as ours, is capable of doing remarkable things!  In fact, we have a responsibility to!

And, yet, I’ve heard our leaders describe us as “small,” “rinky-dink,” and “declining.”

My point?  There’s a significant difference between how we are seen by others, and how we see ourselves.

This church already does great things; Bethlehem Revisited, Food Share, Vacation Bible School, and great Children and Youth Ministries.  But, when I bring up new ideas, I’m told – over and over – “We can’t do that,” “We can’t afford it,” “We don’t have enough volunteers,” “We don’t have enough leaders,” “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.”

When I ask about our hopes and dreams for the future, the best I’ve heard is that we like what we currently do, now, or that we like what we used to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know we love First Church, and love what we currently do.  But, when it comes to the future, I don’t hear much dreaming.

My point is not to be critical.  My point is, there is a problem with self-perception.  There’s a gap between how we perceive ourselves, and how we are perceived by others.

The Johari Window…

johari-model

            During college, I learned about the Johari Window.  The Johari Window is a box, divided into four windows.  The top left, window #1, represents things I know about myself, and others also know about me.  Window #2, on the top right, represents things about me that I don’t know, but others do know – they call this the bad breath window.  Window #2 could also be the potential others see in us, that we don’t see in ourselves.  The bottom left window represents the things I know about myself, but others do not know about me – my secrets.  And, finally, the bottom right window represents what is unknown to both of us.

In the case of First Church, there are things that we know about First Church, that are also public knowledge.  That’s window #1.  Window #2, I think, represents the potential others see in First Church, that we don’t see in ourselves.  Window #3 represents what we know about ourselves, that others don’t know: things we’ve tried and failed, challenges we face.  And, window #4 represents, I think, what only God knows about our future.

My point, today, is to challenge us to see First Church, as others see us; to challenge our ideas about who we are, and what we can do; to move us into the second window – to see what other’s see; and even the fourth window – to begin to believe that there is potential and possibility that only God can see.

 We can’t, but God can…

            I want you to imagine being me, sitting in my fraternity house bedroom, anxious about the future, reading my Bible for the first time, desperately looking for hope and direction.  Instead of reading that anything is possible with God, and that God answers prayers, and that God opens doors, imagine if I read passages that said, “Ask, but don’t expect much.  Seek, and maybe you’ll find something – but, maybe you won’t.  Knock, but you better have the key to open the door yourself.”

Not very inspiring, huh?  I can tell you, if that’s what Scripture said, I would NOT be here today.

Instead, I am here today because I deeply believe that Jesus was telling the truth when he said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

I’m here, at First Church, because I believe, with all of my heart, that God has big plans for First Church.  I’m here, because I believe that First Church’s greatest days are not in the past, but are in our future.

The missionary, C.T. Studd, said, “Christ wants not nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible.” 

            The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility.”

Who does this church belong to?  Who does this church exist for?

            Let me ask you two questions…

  1. Who does this church belong to?
  2. Who does this church exist for?

My hunch is, while we might know the correct theological answers, the honest answers are: This is our church, and this church exists for us.”  But, that’s not biblical.  In fact, it’s heretical.  First Church is not ours!  First Church belongs to Christ – he’s the head of the Church, and we’re his body!  And, Scripture says the Church exists for the needs of the world.  Our two primary functions are to honor God, and to serve the world.

Honor God and serve the world.  The church doesn’t exist to serve us – the members.  We are the church, and we exist to serve the world!

Earlier this week, I heard a pastor friend said, “The Church does not exist to feed its membership.  The Church, and her members, exist to offer a plate of life-giving food to a hungry world!”

So, if the Church belongs to God, and the Church exists for the world, then there’s NOTHING we can’t do, NOTHING’s too big to try, and NOTHING’s impossible, because God will provide the inspiration, the motivation, and the resources to do it.  It isn’t up to us.  It’s up to God!

Maybe we don’t have enough money – now.  Maybe we don’t have enough leaders and volunteers – yet.  Maybe we don’t know exactly what to do or how to do it – at this moment.  Maybe it will stretch us out of our comfort zones – that’s fine.

But, the issue, I think, isn’t lack of resources.  The issue, I think, is lack of faith.

Jesus did NOT say that anything is possible for US.  He said ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE for HIM!  We don’t need more faith in ourselves.    We need faith in what God wants, and can do through us, if we’re willing, prayerful, and faithful.

That’s my question: “Are we willing to be prayerful and faithful, to be the church God is calling First Church to become?”

Listen – if we prayerfully discern together that something is unbiblical, unwise, or that God simply doesn’t want it, that’s one thing.  But, until we’ve dared to dream God-sized dreams, and set God-sized goals, given generously, and prayed audacious, impossible prayers, how dare we say what we will or won’t, can or can’t do?!?

Let me tell you something.  First Church is not small, and not rinky-dink!  First Church is not declining!  First Church’s best years are not in the past – they’re in front of us, not behind us!  And, we haven’t even begun to dream of all God can and will do here, if we believe and if we will act.  God wants to do more at First Church, than we’ve ever dared to dream!

I believe that with all of my heart.  Do you?

I love what Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”  (Ephesians 3:20-21)

 

 

Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

I’m a United Methodist Pastor.  At ordination, I submitted to the authority of a bishop, to go where I am sent to serve.  In some denominations, pastors decide for themselves whether or not to accept a “call” to serve a particular church or to live in a particular locale.  Not so with United Methodist pastors.  We go where we are sent.

Once upon a time, the basic assumption was that all United Methodist pastors were more-or-less the same, as were most United Methodist churches.  UM pastors were trained in UM seminaries to perform uniform ministerial practices – always men wearing black suits, black ties, and black robes.  Every UM church sung the same hymns, followed the same liturgy, observed the same traditions, heard sermons from the same texts on the same days, etc., etc.  Every church and every pastor was assumed to be, more or less, the same.

We operated under the assumption that pastors were like cogs and that churches were machines.  Every few years, bishops could remove the cogs, re-sort them, and insert each cog into a new machine, press the “on” switch, and the machine would continue to operate, just like it did before.

We don’t live in that world any more.

Each church is wildly different.  Some are traditional.  Some are contemporary.  Some are both – though I’m finding the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” are highly debatable.  We have churches that are primarily white, primarily black, primarily hispanic, primarily Islander, etc., etc.  Some churches lean liberal, and some conservative.  We have city churches and rural churches.  Some churches are more socially conscious and some are more evangelical.  We have churches that are growing and healthy and others that are declining and dying.  We have churches within churches, especially in our larger congregations.

Likewise, pastors are wildly different.  We attend different seminaries, with different theological emphases.  Some of us are stronger leaders, stronger administrators, stronger preachers, stronger teachers, stronger evangelists – but none are strong at everything.  Some are traditional.  Some are entrepreneurial.  Some are more pastoral.  Some are more visionary.  Some are more political.  Some are more passionate about missions.  Some are more focused on the needs of the congregation.  Some are more focused on the needs of the world.

No two pastors are alike.  That’s always been true, of course.  But, I think UM pastors were once expected to perform their duties in a fairly homogenous manner, that was more similar than dissimilar.  Those days are long gone.

Pastors aren’t cogs.

So, the question is asked, “Is such-and-such pastor a ‘good fit’ for such-and-such church?”  But, the problem with that question is, that while it acknowledges that pastors and churches are different, it betrays an assumption that we are still just cogs that need to fit into the “right” church/machine.

Pastors aren’t cogs.  And, churches are not machines.

While some pastors and some churches might be more easily compatible than others, ultimately we’re talking about people and relationships.  Churches can’t expect pastors to fit like cogs into their established machinery.  Neither, can pastors expect churches to be machines that adapt to the particular shape of their particular cog.  A successful pastor/church relationship is far more organically relational than that.

While there are dating websites that profess to “match” people, based on compatibility, I suspect that many of those matches don’t actually work out, and that those that do require time to get to know each other, a lot of learning and discovery, and ultimately negotiation, patience, and understanding as each learns to appreciate the uniqueness of the other.

“Compatibility” is not a word I use to describe my relationship with my wife.  We are so different – opposites, in fact – in so many ways, that we might even be considered incompatible.  And, yet, we’re good together – really good.  We were and are attracted to each other, despite our differences.  We respect and appreciate each other.  We’ve found ways to share life that is mutually beneficial.  We love each other for who we actually are.

Here’s a metaphor:

My wife’s family always has a “relish tray” for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; offering various pickles and olives.  My family never did that.  To this day, the “relish tray” does not “fit” on “my” holiday table. It’s weird.  Similarly, my family always had chocolate desserts for the holidays.  My wife’s father is allergic to chocolate, so she never considered chocolate a holiday dessert.  They had fruit pie.  Fruit pie!?!  At Christmas!?!  That’s weird.

As you might guess, at the holidays, in our house, we now have olives, pickles, fruit pies, and chocolate.  We’ve also added a few new dishes, which I’m sure my own children will have to negotiate with their future spouses.

That’s how relationships work.  It’s not about “fit.”  It’s about learning how to make a life together that is mutually beneficial.

This Sunday, in some United Methodist churches, announcements will be made that some pastors are being moved and that some churches will be receiving new pastors.  The first thought, in many minds, will be, “Will our new pastor be a good fit?”  The answer is “no.”  They won’t be.  Don’t expect them to be.

Rather, churches should expect that the new pastor will be very different than the last, and pastors should expect that their new church will also be very different than those they’ve previously served.  What should be expected – by the pastor and the church – is everything that goes into forming any successful new relationship…

  • painfully-slow relationship building.
  • awkward, sweaty hand-holding.
  • uncomfortable conversations that lead to misunderstandings.
  • possibly a honeymoon period – that inevitably ends.
  • discovering really annoying habits in each other.
  • unsuccessful attempts to change each other.
  • working through – on both sides – unrealistic and unfair expectations, and the disappointments that come with unrealized expectations.
  • lots and lots and lots of negotiation.
  • maybe, a few arguments.
  • together, forming new ways of being together.
  • mutually learning how to honor and appreciate the other.
  • shared experiences, that create intimacy.
  • eventually, hopefully, the blossoming of mutual respect, love, affection, and harmony.
  • and – if we want to extend the metaphor even further –  possibly the “birth” of something shared, new, and beloved!

Last July, I was unexpectedly sent to a new congregation.  I was told it was going to be a better ‘fit.”  How silly.  There’s no such thing.  Now, in my ninth month of “dating” my new church, I would say that we are very much in the midst of the process I described.  AND WE SHOULD BE!  Why would we expect anything else?  Forming a relationship takes time.  And, that is what a pastor and a congregation creates together – a relationship.

Pastors are not cogs.  Churches are not machines.  One does not “fit” into the other, or vice-a-versa.  That’s not how it works.