Let it rain

Let it rain

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”  Hebrews 6:7 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And God permitting, we will do so.”  Hebrews 6:1-3

In essence, some spiritual teachings are foundational, even “elementary.”  Repentance, faith, etc. are the basic materials for establishing a foundation of faith.  Good, strong foundations are important.  But, foundations are meant to be built on.  A solid foundation is essential.  But, a foundation is only a foundation.  Therefore, “let us move beyond elementary teaching about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

My particular brand of Christianity is Methodist.  One of my favorite things about Methodism is our belief that, following conversion, God begins a new work in us, growing us toward full maturity in Christ.  We believe, with God’s help and our active participation, we will become like Jesus.  According to Hebrews 6:1-3, the “elementary” teachings about Christ are simply the raw materials for establishing a foundation for a life of faith.

For years, I’ve participated in home construction in a small Mayan village in Guatemala, called Chontala.  Most families in Chontala have traditional homes, made of adobe brick, like ones built by Mayans for millennia.  The main benefit of adobe is it’s free – just made of mud and straw.  The problem with adobe is it becomes brittle and unstable in earthquakes.  The homes we build are concrete block construction, which tend to be more stable in earthquakes and storms.

Before we can build the walls of a concrete block home, land has to be cleared, trenches have to be dug and leveled, and foundations have to be created from rock, sand, re-bar, cement, and concrete blocks.  Those are the elements of a solid foundation.  But, as Hebrews describes, the foundation is just the beginning.  Upon the foundation will be added walls, doors, windows, electrical, and a roof.  Then, families will add furnishings and personal belongings to make a new house a home.  Of course, most important are the beautiful families who will live in these homes.

Surrounding most of these homes are corn fields.  Corn is the primary crop of Guatemala, and a mainstay of a Mayan diet.  Corn seed, saved from last year’s harvest, is planted in fertile volcanic soil, and grows rapidly throughout the rainy summer months.  For countless generations, corn has been annually planted, harvested, and dried.  Some is eaten, and some is saved to be planted the following year.  It’s a simple, reliable, dependable, repeatable process, vital to Mayan life.

Daily, corn is ground and cooked into tortillas, tamales and atole (a corn-based hot drink, I don’t particularly like) – the basics of the Mayan diet.  From infancy to old age, corn nourishes the daily life and work of every Mayan.

This is how I imagine the metaphor Hebrews 6:7 describes,“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”   Our spiritual lives can be like those Mayan corn fields; abundantly fertile, sown with ancient seed, watered with dependable rains, producing fruitful harvests, nourishing the daily lives of many, passing on seed to generations of planting and harvesting yet to come.

Mayan corn is a dependable crop.  It always has been, for countless generations

Likewise, spiritual growth and maturity is a dependable process, with God’s blessing and our participation.

The question is, are we still focused on“elementary teachings?”   Or, are our spiritual lives growing, like “Land that drinks in the rain?” 

As Paul writes,I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

My Mayan friends have no control over the rains.  They simply plant their crops, and trust the rain to come and do its work.  Similarly, we have no control over the “spiritual” rains that fall upon us, or the crops we produce.  Our job is to faithfully plant the seeds of God’s word in the soil of our souls, and to place ourselves under God’s rain as much as we possibly can.

And, where does God’s rain fall?  Worship.  Christian friendship.  Prayer.  Study.  Sacraments.  Contemplation.  Service, mercy, and justice.  Silence and solitude.  Spiritual direction.  Place yourself where the rains of God’s grace flow, with an open heart and mind, and we will grow.

We will become like Christ.  We will become who we were created to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done.” 

What do you desire?  Elementary teaching?  Or, to become like Christ?

 

 

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?

 

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.

 

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?

Ancient-Future

Ancient-Future

I recently listened to a program on NPR called, In Salt Lake City You’ll Find Mormons Who Meditate.  You can read the transcript at In Salt Lake City You’ll Find Mormons Who Meditate

In summary, the story is about a man who grew up Mormon, left the Mormon faith as a young adult, learned about Buddhist Mindfulness (meditation), while visiting Salt Lake City felt a calling to return to Mormonism, and now leads Mindfulness experiences for fellow-Mormons.  This seems to be particularly attractive to young adult and dis-affected Mormons.

I’m not Mormon, and I don’t practice Buddhist Mindfulness.  But, I am part of a Christian denomination (United Methodist) that seems to be less and less attractive/relevant to more and more people.  I am also very familiar with ancient Christian forms of contemplation and meditation, particularly from the mystical side of the monastic traditions, that have some parallels to Buddhist practices.

As I listened to this radio broadcast, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Mormons have discovered something that might also be appealing and appropriate in my context and tradition.

I wonder if mainline Christianity has become too focused on programming, structure, institutional bureaucracy, rules, and doctrine?  I wonder if we’ve neglected something that people are hungry for – ancient practices that help people connect with God in deeper, richer, more personal, and more experiential ways?

Christianity has a rich tradition of…

  • Prayer
  • Journaling
  • Silence
  • Solitude
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation
  • Listening
  • Mysticism
  • Spiritual Direction
  • Spiritual Disciplines

But, if I am honest, most of that tradition has been lacking in the churches and ministries I’ve led, beyond occurring in limited way in small groups or by individual practitioners.

I can’t help but wonder what we’ve lost by ignoring these spiritual treasures.  And, I can’t help but wonder if our Mormon friends might have discovered something really important.  I can’t help but wonder if a future for main-line Christianity is a return to ancient spiritual practices.

I wonder.

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.