Worship: Where is everybody?

Worship:  Where is everybody?

Last Sunday, I played guitar and sang at our contemporary worship service.  I don’t play in church very often, and I don’t claim to be very good.  In fact, I play and sing so rarely, my meager abilities are always on the far-to-rusty side.  But, in spite of my rust and musical limitations, I love the rare opportunities I lead people in worshiping God in song.  At one point, Sunday, as I sang, I was overcome with emotion and nearly cried.  Crying and singing is really, really hard!

While I don’t play and sing in worship, often, I do preach on an almost-weekly basis.  Preaching is my true passion.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon preparation.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon writing.  I hear some preachers struggle with nerves, delivering sermons.  I hear some preachers are worn down by preaching EVERY week.  I don’t struggle with any of that.  I love it, from beginning to end!  I’m not claiming to be a great preacher – I just love doing it!  If I could give 100% of my time to preaching prep and delivery, I gladly would!

In fact, I enjoy all facets of worship – traditional/liturgical and modern/contemporary.  I love planning worship.  I love spontaneous worship.  I love singing hymns and contemporary worship songs.  I love traditional liturgy and technology.  I love the “smells and bells” of “high” church worship, and hands lifted in praise, in contemporary services.

I love planning worship.  I love leading worship.  I love worshipping from the pew.  I love all of it.

But, in spite of my passion for worship, I have growing sense something about worship isn’t “working.”

Throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, Sunday morning worship – regardless of form or style – has been the primary function of every local church I’ve known and served.  Yes, churches have meetings, Bible studies, missions, fellowship, etc. throughout the week.  But, worship draws the crowd.  Worship requires most of the church’s collective time, energy, focus, talent, facility, and funding.

What’s the largest (and least used) building on a church campus?  The sanctuary.  What’s the largest portion of the budget?  When you add up everything – from salaries, to utilities, to property maintenance and insurance, to the cost of music – I suspect Sunday morning worship represents the largest chunk of a church’s expenditures.  Why do churches require so much parking?  Only one reason: Sunday mornings.

Likewise, throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, worship attendance – across the nation and across denominations – has been, and is, statistically in decline.  Sanctuaries and church parking lots are less and less full on Sunday mornings.  Even the super-successful, fastest-growing mega-churches are noting a decline in weekly worship attendance.

Why?

One reason is, younger people aren’t attending worship services like the older generations.  We’ve all heard about the growing numbers “nones” and “dones.”

Another reason is the growing affluence in our country.  In spite of many claiming to have financial struggles, overall, more and more people can afford to travel, participate in sports, buy a boat, go to a concert or movie, renovate their home, pay to run a marathon, own a boat, or go to the beach for the weekend.  When you can’t afford to do those things, you might be more likely to stay home and attend worship.  But, when you can, you do.

Another reason is technology.  Now, thanks to the internet, you can watch or listen to the very best preachers and worship bands, often “live,” from the comfort of your own home and Laz-i-boy recliner, in your boxers and bathrobe, rather than getting dressed, dragging the kids, dealing with the traffic, sitting in a hard pew, and being hounded about giving your tithes and offerings.  Oh yeah, you can avoid human contact too!

Which leads to another reason: consumerism.  Rather than viewing worship as something we do, together, in service and duty to God, we’ve turned worship into a spectator sport – a form of spiritual entertainment.  If worship is just entertainment, we’ll never compete with what the world has to offer.  Whether it’s a 3-D surround-sound movie theater, a sporting complex, or Walt Disney World, church-as-entertainment can’t compete.  Nor should we.  We aren’t in the entertainment business.  But, as long as we approach worship as consumers, rather than contributors, worship will be little else.

And, another reason is the current climate of divisiveness in our country.  We are as divided and polarized as ever.  I find everything I say “from the pulpit” is scrutinized more than ever before, for signs of hidden biases and agendas.  I do have biases and agendas.  But, they aren’t hidden.  You don’t have to search for them.  I’m usually pretty open and honest!  If people don’t agree with the pastor’s preaching, rather than being challenged to think and reconsider their beliefs, they just leave.

I’m sure there are as many reasons for NOT regularly attending a worship service, as there are people who regularly do not attended worship services.

So, I’m beginning to wonder, what if it’s time to reevaluate the Sunday worship gathering as the PRIMARY function of a local church?  I’m NOT suggesting we should stop worshipping together.  Rather, I wonder if, in the not-too-distant future, corporate worship will be in smaller, less formal settings, and not necessarily in church sanctuaries, on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps worship will happen more organically, and even more frequently, when Christians gather to share a meal, or for a small group Bible study, or to serve together.  I wonder if worship, in the future, will be more relational, more face-to-face, more conversational.  If wonder if worship will be less professionally driven – by paid preachers and musicians – and more lay-led.  I wonder if worship will happen less in sanctuaries, and more in homes, parks, coffee shops, yoga studios, gardens, around dinner tables.

And, I wonder if Church will become more dispersed; perhaps, fewer large-group gatherings, and many more smaller gatherings for study, service, worship, prayer, fellowship, accountability, etc.

Think of worship in the Bible.  Yes, we can all think of some large gatherings – the Sermon on the Mount, the day of Pentecost, the annual Jewish festivals in Jerusalem.  But, I get the impression that most corporate worship, in biblical times, wasn’t very much like what it’s become.

Please hear me.  I’m not trying to be prophetic, predictive, or prescriptive.  I’m not implying any “shoulds.”  I love the ministry of corporate worship, and am saddened to watch it decline.  It’s what I know and what I love, and I hate the idea of losing it.

But, I’m just wondering.  I’m wondering.

I do think there’ll continue to be a place for the Sunday worship gathering, at least in the foreseeable future.  I do think corporate worship continues to be worthy of our best efforts.  I still think there’s a role, thankfully, for professional preachers, worship leaders, organists, etc.  I still think there are opportunities to offer both traditional (and contemporary) worship services, as well as new and innovative worship experiences.  There are still churches with growing worship attendances, and we should pay attention to how and why that’s happening.

But, perhaps its time to expand our minds.  Perhaps its time to expand our understanding of what worship is and who it’s for.  Perhaps its time to expand our vision for what Church can be.  Perhaps – brace yourself – it’s time for change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are reminded – over and over and over – about all God did for them in the past, and as an encouragement to trust God in the present and future.  For instance, when time came for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they feared the Anakites, who were already living there.  Deuteronomy 1:29-33 says,

Don’t be terrified! Don’t be afraid of them!  The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.  But you had no faith in the Lord your God about this matter, even though he went ahead of you, scouting places where you should camp, in fire by night, so you could see the road you were taking, and in cloud during the daytime. (CEB)

In spite of considerable evidence of God’s past faithfulness, the Israelites lacked sufficient faith to face the challenges before them.  And, if I’m honest, I’m exactly the same.

In a general sense, I believe all of the blessings I’ve received in life are gifts from God.  Marriage and family.  Friendship.  Ministry.  Life experiences.  Health.  Security.  Education.

And, in many, more specific ways, I’m keenly aware of the countless ways God has been faithful – more than I can possibly name.  Without a moments hesitation, I can share story after story of God’s particular faithfulness to me.  A quick glance in the rearview mirror of my life reveals God faithfully, consistently, generously present and working, time and again.  In the words of the great hymn…

“Great is thy faithfulness.  Great is thy faithfulness.  Morning by morning, new mercies I see.  All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of my life, my faith is strong.  God HAS been faithful.  Even reflecting on past pains and struggles, I can see how God was working.

But, in any given moment – or looking ahead – fear, doubt, and uncertainty often take over.  Hebrews 11:1 says…

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

But, SEEING makes it SO much easier than hoping for what we don’t see!

So, I doubt.  I worry and fret.  I get scared.  The “what if?” scenarios consume my thoughts, far more than my prayers.  My prayers, themselves, lack the confidence of a man whom God has blessed as much and as often as me.  I possess too little faith, and far too much fear and trembling.

The answer, of course, is surrendering our fears, and to possess more faith.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just that easy!?!  In reality, the best most of us can do is NOT act on our fears and doubts; acting instead on the flimsy faith we wish was stronger.  Perhaps, one day, faith will come more automatically.   But, it until it does, “fake it until you make it!”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once confessed to a Moravian pastor, Peter Bohler, thoughts of quitting the ministry.  Wesley felt he lacked sufficient faith to preach, thinking, How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?”   Bohler’s advice to Wesley was,“By no means.  Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

The truth is, I preach more faith than I actually possess sometimes.  I don’t mean to imply I don’t believe what I teach and preach – I do!  I’m confessing I may lack sufficient faith and courage to act on what I say I believe.  And, frankly, the acting on faith is far more important than the preaching of it!

The good news is, I’m not the first, only, or last to struggle with a meager or wavering faith.  Neither are you.  The Bible is full of weak-faithed servants of God, doing the best they can.  The good news is, we too have faith-filled rearview mirrors to remind us of God’s history of faithfulness, in each of our lives, if we’ll only remember to look back and notice.

But, remember: you can only stare into the rearview mirror for so long.  While it’s helpful to look back from time to time, life consistently moves forward, into the unknown.  The past reveals God’s PAST faithfulness.  The present and future is where we discover God’s continued faithfulness.  NOW and THEN are where we act on faith, whether we have it sufficiently, or not.

So, move forward with faith, even if its scary.  Move forward with faith, even if you don’t have enough.  Act on faith, even when it’s weak.  Then, maybe, we’ll discover what faith really is – confidence in what we hope for, and confidence in God.  We have every reason to believe, and every reason to act, and plenty of evidence to believe God will be faithful.

He was then.  He will be now.

What do you see in your rearview mirror?

 

 

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!

I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

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 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Taming Leviathan: in search of God, and an elusively acceptable explanation for suffering and evil

Among the ancient cultures referenced in the Christian Old Testament, a mythical sea monster, called “leviathan,” was believed to exist.

Leviathan were believed to be great sea serpents, living in the depths of the oceans, having fearsome teeth, impenetrable skin, and fiery breath.  Nothing conceivable could defeat the Leviathan; neither harpoons, spears, hooks, swords, arrows, or clubs.

“Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear.”  (Job 41:33)

Leviathan falls in the same category of dragons, kraken, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, and Big Foot; powerful, frightful creatures that never existed, but people have sincerely believed in at different times and places throughout human history.  I can imagine Hagrid, from the Harry Potter novels, keeping a pet leviathan in the lake outside of Hogwarts!  I can imagine a special leviathan episode of the old TV show, “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

In biblical times, the leviathan represented the most fearsome creature imaginable on the earth, and a good reason to keep your feet on dry land!  Whether or not leviathan literally existed is irrelevant to Scripture.  In biblical times, leviathan were believed to be real, and thus had significance.

The longest description of leviathan in Scripture is found in Job 41.  The book of Job describes the life of a man named Job, who experienced terrible tragedy, and questioned God’s fairness.  Most believe the book of Job was written to wrestle with the theological question of theodicy – why evil things happen to innocent people.

The Book of Job does NOT tell us why bad things happen to good people.  Instead, Job reveals the error and weaknesses of many of our pathetic theological explanations and rationalizations for why tragedies occur.  In the end, the book of Job simply describes a God that is beyond our ability to define, explain, predict, or control.

Today, I discovered a line in Job I’ve never noticed before.  God asks Job, “Will (a leviathan) make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?  Can you make a pet of (a leviathan) like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?” (Job 41:4-5)

In essence, God asks, Who can make the most fearsome creature known to man a house pet?  Who can train a leviathan to walk on a leash?  Who can teach it to sit on your shoulder, like a pet parrot?”  God’s implied answer, “I can.  Only, I can.”

Since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been wrestling, a lot, with the question of why God allows evil and suffering the in the world.  Frankly, the comfortable theological explanations I’ve believed and preached in the past, have felt a bit thin, as of late.  Though I haven’t discovered any new explanations I like any better than the old ones, somehow the image of a tamed leviathan sitting on God’s shoulder provides some perspective.

Though leviathan are mythical – especially tamed ones – and the real-life tragedies of this world are definitely not, this image – literal or not – reminds me that God is not defined by my simplistic definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair.  Though I still want to believe God is good, right, just and fair, who am I to call “foul” when God doesn’t act on my terms or schedule?

Thomas G. Long, in his book, What Shall We Say?:  Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, asks, “Do we ultimately want to offer our own scheme of moral order, the very one we employ to determine that some human suffering is unjust, as a replacement for God?  Do we want in other words, to be God, or are we willing to move toward being the kind of human being who, even in the midst of inexplicable pain, trusts the One who is God?”

I love the contrast of Job 41:8, If you lay a hand on (a leviathan), you will remember the struggle and never do it again!” versus the image of God taming a leviathan to be a house pet.  Though it doesn’t explain “unfair” human suffering to my satisfaction, and though I can’t comprehend why a leviathan-training-God can’t or won’t intervene in human tragedies, and though leviathan aren’t even real, I sense that God is saying, “I’ve got this.  Even when evil things happen, even when the darkness seems to rule the day, even when you doubt me, I’ve got this.  You can trust me.”

Perhaps we aren’t suppose to trust God AFTER we understand why bad things happen, which we likely never will.  Perhaps, we have to trust God first, to find peace in our inability to understand.  Of course, that doesn’t make tragedy “ok.”  Perhaps it helps me to be more “ok” with God, even when I’m devastated, and can’t begin to understand.

If God can tame the one who, makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment…” (Job 41:31), perhaps he is greater than the sum of our real world tragedies too.

 

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.