Bravery

Bravery

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt 

More than once, after listening to me wrestle with a decision, a dear friend has wisely asked, “What’s the brave thing to do?”  Not, “What do you want to do?  What’s the easiest thing to do?   What’s the convenient thing to do?  What’s the least controversial thing to do?”  

“What’s the brave thing to do?”

Yesterday, someone told me I’m brave for something I revealed in a recent blog.  It was a compliment, but also acknowledgement of the risk of self-disclosure.

Bravery’s hard.  Bravery requires risk and vulnerability.  Bravery requires facing the likelihood of danger.  Bravery requires stepping out of the shadows, and into the light.  Bravery requires facing the possibility of failure and defeat.  Bravery requires the courage to be real, to be exposed.

Bravery’s hard.  In my High School Psychology class, I learned about the fight-or-flight response to danger.  I’m definitely a “flight” kind of guy!  My natural tendency, when feeling vulnerable or attacked, is to retreat to somewhere safe.  I know I feel threatened, any time I realize I’m avoiding, isolating, or hiding.  I know I’ve forsaken bravery, when I betray my convictions, by remaining silent or feigning agreement or consent.

Some time ago, I noticed, every reference to courage or bravery in the Bible is a choice – “Be brave…take courage…”  Bravery is a choice.

If I choose bravery, you may not like what I say or do; you may not agree with me; you might be angry with me; you might judge and condemn me; you might fight back; you might reject me.  If I’m brave, I might lose.  But, if I’m not brave, what have actually gained?  Anything?  If I’m not brave, I’ve already lost by consent.

On the other hand, if I choose bravery, I might become your friend; I might be your ally; I might be your advocate; I might be your defender; I might be your hero; I might even inspire bravery in you, too.

Bravery’s risky business.  But, everything worthwhile is.

I want to be brave, even when I’m not.  I want to say and do brave things.  I want to take stands for the things I believe.  I want to be brave for those who can’t be.  Even when there’s a personal cost, and always a risk, I want to be true to my convictions.  I want to be brave.

I want to choose bravery.  Don’t you?

Heroes

Heroes

“God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory.” St. Augustine

I’ve been thinking about my heroes.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I heard something, or read something about heroes.  Perhaps it’s the talk of the heroic acts of students, teachers and coaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.  Perhaps it’s just a thought that randomly popped in my head.

Actually, I’ve been pondering what my particular heroes say about me.  Is there something about who they are (or were) or what they do (or did), that speaks to who I strive to be?

As an only child, I spent a lot of time, growing up, alone – as most only children do.  As an introvert, I didn’t mind.  That space, I think, helped me develop a lively imagination.

In third grade, I discovered comic books and super heroes, and I was enthralled.  I quickly discovered a small comic book store, within a bike-ride of my house. In addition to new comics, and boxes and boxes of preserved comics in plastic bags, there was a box of old, used, worn and torn comic books, for only $.25.  Just about every quarter I earned, found, or was given, was spent buying $.25 comics.

By the way, I still have most of them.

My favorites were Superman and Batman, but I loved them all.  At one point, I created and drew my own super heroes.  I loved their courage.  I loved their super-powers.  I loved their cool hideouts, vehicles, and weapons.  I loved how they always saved the day, no matter how terrible the schemes of their evil foes.

Though I haven’t read a comic book in ages, I absolutely love all of the super hero movies of the past decade.  In fact, while some are more critically acclaimed than others, I’ve yet to see a bad one.  A “bad” super hero movie, to me, is still better than just about anything else!

While I still love the heroes of fantasy, I’ve also accumulated a growing list of real-life “super” heroes.  Though most of my heroes are “known,” at least in certain circles, few are/were rich, or powerful, or successful by “worldly” standards.  Though some have risen to honorable positions, and received accolades, few are/were motivated by such things.

My heroes of history include St. Francis, who abandoned wealth and comfort to serve God and the poor; Mother Teresa, who ventured into the dangerous streets of Calcutta, to serve the sick and dying; John Wesley, whose passion for God and dissatisfaction with the spiritual status-quo sparked a movement; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement to serve the poor; Oscar Romero, who was martyred for standing with the poor of El Salvador;  Martin Luther King, Jr., who was martyred for his fight for justice on behalf of people of color.

My living heroes include Pope Francis, as he leads the Roman Catholic Church (and all of us) from a place of humility and love for ALL people; Barack Obama, who consistently demonstrates leadership with character; Jimmy Carter, who may not be remembered as a great President, but has given his life to Christ-centered service; Bryan Stevenson, an attorney, author and activist, fighting for the lives of death-row inmates unfairly tried and sentenced.   Dona Maria Tomasa, an incredible Mayan woman, and dear friend, who overcame the destruction of the Guatemalan Civil War and the brutal murder of her husband, to lead a weaving cooperative for widows, called “Ruth and Naomi,” that now sells hand-made products internationally; my Bishop, Kenneth Carter, who leads from a place of consistent, grounded, Christ-centered hopefulness; and many, many, many of my former students from the Florida State University Wesley Foundation, who are now leading and serving to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on my heroes, I see themes emerge: leadership, humility, dissatisfaction with the status quo, authenticity, fearlessness in the face of opposition, service and sacrifice, courage, commitment to change, depth of character, belief that a better world is possible, perseverance, overcoming hardship and resistance, and a deep passion for God.

As much as I love the “super” heroes of my childhood fantasies, I’ll never possess a superpower.  But, as I look at my list of real-life heroes, I see much I can strive to imitate.

I wonder if that’s why certain people become our heroes?  Perhaps they represent who we wish we could be.  Or, perhaps, they represent, to some degree, who we can be.

Who are your heroes?

 

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.

 

God meant things to be so much easier…

God meant things to be so much easier…

“We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”  Peter Maurin (Co-founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement)

Long before last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been in turmoil over the brokenness I see, every where I look…

  • Thousands dying from opioid overdoses.
  • Countless women revealing the abuses they’ve suffered from men behaving like animals.
  • The growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
  • The bullying young people endure in our schools, and on social media.
  • The vitriol that dominates our politics.
  • Senseless acts of “road rage,” ending in senseless deaths.
  • The public rise of hate groups.
  • The decline of civility.
  • The alarming negative impact of social media on everything from our politics to our children’s social development.
  • ISIS.  Al-Queda.  Boko Haram.
  • The Pulse night club massacre.  The Las Vegas strip massacre.  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

What is happening?

I know the world’s never been perfect.  There’s always been war, violence, hate, prejudice, addiction, sickness, poverty, disasters, racism, injustices, etc.  Certainly, anyone whose lived through wars, or famines, or the Holocaust, or slavery, or in a refugee camp, or a natural disaster, may not be as shocked or disturbed as I am by our current state.  Perhaps the world is no more broken than it ever has been, and I’ve just been blind or ignorant.

Nevertheless, my eyes are wide-open now, and I don’t like what I see.

Do you?

Dorothy Day wrote, “We are not expecting utopia here on this earth.  But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

Is it possible that we’ve created a way of living that’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and undermining the kind of life we actually long for? Is it possible that our values and lifestyles – the values and lifestyles of normal, church-going, law-abiding citizens – are actually completely out-of-whack?  Is it possible that for the world to change, we’ll have to change ourselves?

In the shadow of recent events, children are on my mind.  I think we’re failing our children.

  • We aren’t providing children with adequate role models, mentors, and guides.
  • We’re pushing our kids to be too busy for their own good, and have placed too much pressure on them to perform.
  • We’re sacrificing family time, for work and activity.
  • We’re sacrificing community and extended-family, for opportunity and mobility.
  • We’re sacrificing religion and spirituality – in the Church and in the home – to competing obligations and recreation.
  • We’re not teaching children the values of respect for authority, hard work and discipline, and basic morality.
  • We’re exposing our children to way too much evil in movies, TV, the internet, and social media, without the supervision or skills to discern good and evil, right and wrong.
  • We’re indulging our kids, instead of investing in them.
  • We’re allowing our kids to grow up with way too much fear, without the foundations of security we all need to thrive.
  • We are creating survivors, not thrivers.

And, when I say “we,” I’m not just blaming parents.  Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly.  “We” is me.  “We” is you.  “We” is society, culture, government, the Church, the media, the press, school systems, sports leagues, etc., etc.  “We” are the problem.

I’m also not suggesting there aren’t countless parents, grand-parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, Scout leaders, police officers, politicians, etc. trying to make a difference in kids lives.  There are, thank God.

But, something has to change, doesn’t it?  What we’re doing isn’t working, is it?

I don’t have the answers, and it’s certainly much easier to identify problems than to develop solutions.  But, increasingly, I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to “be good.”

What if we lived simpler lives, with less stress, and more time for family, friends, and faith?

What if we knew our neighbors, and built stronger community with them?

What if we developed habits of helping each other, relying on each other, supporting each other?

What if we all gave more time to service, helping the most fragile members of our society?

What if we spent more time looking into each other’s faces, and less time at screens?

What if we planted deeper roots in one place, forsaking the next promotion or opportunity, for the sake of long-term stability?

What if we valued character-development – our children’s and our own – over academic, athletic, or professional achievement?  Not instead of, just more than.

What if church, worship, service, and faith development was a priority for the whole family?

What if we were more generous with our resources, our time, and our hearts?

What if we collectively committed to fixing what is broken in our society, instead of turning our backs and hiding from it?

What if we collectively believed we could make the world better than it is, and did something about it?

I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to be good – really good.  Do you?

Children’s Ministry Sermon – preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 12, 2017

Children’s Ministry Sermon – preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 12, 2017

I suspect we would all agree that children need Jesus.  Adults need Jesus.  Everyone needs Jesus.  But, the earlier we can introduce a child to Jesus, the earlier we can begin to develop solid spiritual foundations for the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities they will face as adults.

There is an old book called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum.  Her writes,  “These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

He later adds, “Think what a better world it would be if we all-the whole world-had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.” 

We would add to Fulghum’s list, “meeting and knowing Jesus at an early age.”  Research shows that about 85% of all Christians make a 1st time commitment to Christ during their childhood or teens.

            Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist, wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 


            Once of the most familiar stories about Jesus is the time that parents brought their children to Jesus to bless.  But, the disciples thought Jesus had more important things to do, so they pushed the families away.  But, when Jesus saw what was happening, he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

            That’s a pretty meaty statement – “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what it means.  But, if we simply take it at face-value, Jesus is elevating the importance of Children’s Ministry to an entirely different level.  He is saying that his Kingdom belongs to the children!

He didn’t say, “Let the children come to me – I just love kids!” 

  • or, “I’ve got a few spare minutes.”
  • or, “I’d really like to get their parents into church.”
  • or, “somebody post a picture of this on Instagram!”
  • or, “they’re a lot more fun than you guys!”

He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

According to Jesus, Children’s Ministry is more than…

  • a tool to attract young families.
  • baby-sitting.
  • A place to put the kids during “big” church.

According to Jesus, Children’s Ministry is where the real action is, because it’s where the Kingdom is!

There is an old evangelical expression, “God doesn’t have any grandchildren.”  It basically means that you don’t automatically know Jesus, just by being born into a Christian family.  Every person has to meet Jesus for themselves, and make a personal decision to accept him as Lord and Savior.  It has to happen in every generation.

Psalm 78:1-7 says,

My people, hear my teaching;   listen to the words of my mouth.  I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.  We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,  his power, and the wonders he has done.  He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God  and would not forget his deeds  but would keep his commands.

            Notice the intentionality about passing the stories and God’s laws on to the next generation.  Two key phrases…

  • “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the ”
  • “Then they would put their trust in God.”

If you read the Old Testament carefully, you will notice that God seems paranoid about the dangers of his people forgetting to teach the children, to tell them the stories of God, to remind them of what God has done in the past.  And, over and over, there are stories – in Judges, and in the Prophets – of one generation that knows and worships God, and a following generation that forgets God, and falls into disaster.

I believe we are living out that same biblical story now.  More-or-less 100% of the Baby Boomer generation, and the prior generations, were religious.  Everyone had a place of worship.  Everyone was either Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.  And, Sundays, for the most part, were days set aside culturally, as a day for family and for worship.

But, in my generation – Generation X – only about 50% of us were raised going to church.  My children’s generation – the Millennial Generation –  dropped to under 30%.   The youngest generation -Generation Z – is the largest generation ever born in the United States.  The question is whether they will be the generation that abandons the church entirely, or if they will be the generation that returns to the Lord.

I can’t help but wonder how many of the problems we see in our nation – in our own county – today are directly because there’s so little influence of Christ?  Will that change with the next generation, or will it just keeping getting worse?

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” 

Let me be very clear about this.  We all know the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Children’s Ministry is one important part of that village.  But, spiritually, the church can only do so much.  Think about this.  If you add up all of the time a child can potentially spend in church Children’s Ministry activities, that only totals to about 3 days out of 365 days in a year!  Where does a child spend the rest of their time?  School, sports, screen time, parents?  Children’s Ministry, at best reinforces and supplements what children must learn primarily at home.  Church cannot be a substitute!

Carey Nieuwhof writes, “The average parent has 75 times the influence of a church leader.”

             Kids, for the most part, don’t discover Jesus at church.  They might make a decision to follow Jesus at a church event.  Children’s Ministry can strengthen, develop, and deepen a child’s faith.  But, a child needs to learn about Jesus from his/her family.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote,  I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians of England.”

Let me ask you, do your children and grandchildren…

  • hear you talking about Jesus?
  • see you reading your Bibles?
  • Hear you pray?

Do you have clear, practiced Christian traditions and values in your home?  Are your kids learning to give to the church?  Are they learning how to serve Jesus? Do they know your testimony?

Several years ago, I noticed a new trend.  I was a campus minister for 11 years – from 2003 to 2014.  We had grown a large successful ministry.  But, around 2011/2012, our attendance dropped off significantly.  At first, I wondered what we were doing wrong.  But, after further investigation, we realized that we had more students involved than ever before.  They just weren’t coming as often.  After even more investigation, we realized that this was the first generation of Christian college students who had grown up playing sports on Sundays.  Previously, Sunday’s were reserved for church and family.  But, by this particular class of students, skipping church had become normal.  They had learned that church was something you do, when you have time.  We’ve shaped a generation of young people who believe it is normal to be a part-time Christian.

            Faith in Christ is foundational and eternal.  Faith in Christ is core to character development.  Faith in Christ is about learning the Truth about the world, and themselves.

 “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  I’m sure we can all think of exceptions – people who did grow up in Church, but turned away.  There are no guarantees.  But, if raise up a child to believe Church is low priority, when they are older, they will not depart from that.  If we teach a child to go to Church only when it’s convenient, when he/she is older, they will not depart from it.  If we teach a child that Church is an occasional thing, when he/she is older, they will not depart from it.

We have to be intentional teaching a child that faith in Christ is the highest priority!

My wife and I were far from perfect parents.  But, one of things I believe we did right was teaching our children that their faith in Christ, and their activity in church, is the first priority.  My kids were active in sports, and dance, and music, and took AP classes.  But, they very rarely missed church or Youth Group – for anything.  Those were priorities.  When they complained, we simply reminded them about our family’s priorities and values.

Church, we’ve got to do all we can to immerse our kids in the love of Jesus.  At church, we must offer the most dynamic Children’s Ministry we possibly can.  And, parents, your kids need you to make faith a priority in your home.  The spiritual investments we make in kid’s lives now, will directly impact the adults they become later, and for eternity.

 

 

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.