Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Simplicity


          For most churches the unofficial start of the year has begun with Fall ministries in full gear.  After a few weeks of programming it is a good thing to evaluate and reflect on how it all is going.  It seems to me that we must always come back to what is important to God and not make ministry such a complex beast that overwhelms us.

          Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God, and when we pray to ask that God's kingdom would come and be manifested on this earth. That is, since the fall of humanity, this world has been under the realm of Satan. God, however, is in the business of restoring his rule and reign. So, all church ministries must have this controlling agenda.

          The kingdom of God is established and expanded through proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. In other words, the means of God's grace to us is through communication of the Bible and its central message of the redeeming work of Christ. There is now reconciliation between God and humans through the death of Jesus. God has united us to himself in order that we would enjoy him, and he us. As Teresa of Avila has said, "the soul is God's paradise, being made by God and for God." Intimacy with the divine is the purpose of our existence. Prayer, then, is the primary means by which to commune with God and is not optional equipment for the Christian.  Prayer is vital to seeing the kingdom grow and expand not only in our own hearts but in others, as well.

          We must come back to the simplicity of this ministry. It is easy to become sidetracked and be content with erecting massive ministry structures, programs, and events that may please other people and feed our egos, but do little toward accomplishing what was important to Jesus and is necessary to seeing the kingdom of God realized in our communities.

So, then, maybe we need to ask ourselves such questions as these:
1. Is the kingdom of God a controlling goal for my ministry, and do I even understand what it is and how it works?
2. Do our ministries truly develop intimacy with God?
3. Is prayer necessary and central to everything we do?
4. Are our ministry structures simple and contribute toward the kingdom of God, or cumbersome and divert congregants away from this focus?

          Just as football teams must never forget the fundamentals of the game in order to win, so we need to come back to what is important as defined by Jesus, and let this be the evaluative grid through which we look at all of ministry. Ministry may require hard work and sacrifice, but it need not be complex. Simplicity toward doing what is essential is required. May you experience joy in ministry as you see the kingdom of God come in all its power and grace.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dealing With Depression


          

          Depression is real.  It isn’t limited to a certain personality trait, and it isn’t in itself sin.  It just is.  More than half of people in the United States with serious depression do not receive or will not get adequate help.  So, if you are reading this as a depressed person, or are wondering how to help someone you care for who is depressed, it is imperative that you get help immediately.  A blog post on such an important subject can really do nothing more than encourage you and somehow inspire you to take the brave and bold step of seeking the assistance you need.  Severe depression is profoundly crippling and is as important to deal with as prostate cancer, because both can kill you on the inside even though no one knows on the outside.

          I myself have experienced debilitating depression.  I’ve also had a kidney stone.  I’m told the pain of a kidney stone is like child-birth.  I don’t know about the child-birth thing, but I do know that I would rather experience a dozen kidney stones at once than go through another severe depression.  I got help, and it changed my life. 

          Depression is exactly what the name implies:  it is a depressing or a stuffing of feelings.  I had been so good at stuffing my feelings that one night many years ago when our neighbor had a blow-out of a party at 2 in the morning, I actually felt no anger.  Just so you know:  that’s not healthy.  I had an anger problem.  Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every negative feeling in the book.

          Recovery for me meant first recognizing that I had a lot to be angry about.  Next, I began to let myself feel the past situations of my life, and I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty.  Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell.  But I couldn’t heal without it.  I couldn’t go around it, or avoid it; I had to go through it.  Finally, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but to take charge of them.  I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself.  The Bible calls it speaking the truth in love.

          Waiting for the perfect time to deal with depression will only result in deeper despondency.  You are not responsible for what others may say or do, and you cannot control other people’s decisions and responses to you – trying to do so is manipulative and only creates more problems. 

          Depressed people are not alone.  Depression is as ancient as creation itself.  Even some of the big dogs of Holy Scripture got depressed:  Elijah, David, and Jeremiah.  But they didn’t stay there, and their experiences of facing depression changed not only themselves but readers of God’s Word throughout history.  It only makes sense to tell a trusted pastor or church leader how you are really feeling.  One does not crawl out of the abyss of darkness that is depression without some sage people surrounding the person who offer wise counsel, prayer, and carefully apply Scripture.  This is one reason why church ministry exists, so let the church do its redemptive work.  And may the clouds roll away into the hope of a new tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Heart of Ministry


          

          Church ministry is not for the faint of heart.  It is both challenging and rewarding, frustrating and a joyful privilege.  In a typical day I can experience the heights of rejoicing with new parents, and grieve with one who has lost an aging parent.  Emotions can run the gamut simply by being available for people, people who can be encouraging one day, and another day become downright ornery.  The thing about ministry is that, unlike any other vocation or work that people do, there is something supernatural about it.  That is, we cannot do it on our own; we need God.  Furthermore, ministry neither occurs in a vacuum, nor in a distant objective sort of way, as if our very personhood were not needed.  Rather, God works both in and through people to accomplish his purposes on earth.  Therefore, we must minister out of the overflow of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Loving others results from the fact that God has first loved us. Since this is true, it is vital that we meet with Lord often and allow him to care for our souls. Plans, strategies, schedules, evaluations, and the demands of life and ministry are the reality for the Christian servant. To neglect the soul is to fall into the demonic trap of believing in grandiose thinking instead of trusting in God for the ability to engage in ministry to others. The snakes of self-reliance and pride slither about our feet looking to strike at any time.

          In order to be an effective minister, one must take the journey into the self and discover the union that exists with God through Christ. Intimacy with the divine is the whole purpose of the Christian life. The practicality of reaching this is through the ongoing process of detachment from worldly allurements and a growing attachment to the things of God. Prayer is the vehicle by which we wean ourselves from trust in our intellects, abilities, personalities, and pet theologians and learn to become an intimate friend of God.

          Prayer, then, is not primarily the means of getting what we want and promoting our ministry agenda as if we were making some sales pitch to a skeptical buyer. It is the place of meeting with God and experiencing the union for which Jesus Christ died to procure for us. God himself takes delight in dwelling within the innermost sanctum of the heart, as if we were his temple.

          If this is God’s goal for us, then it is also the aim for the persons for whom we seek to minister. To lead them in the path of intimacy with God, with knowing Christ better, is our highest and most joyous call. What do we model to the people around us? Ask yourself:  Is my agenda really God's plan for my church? Does the journey of spiritual formation I lay out lead straight to the heart of God in a vital union with Jesus? How do I engage in the role of spiritual director with others? What do they need to be delivered from?

          If this world is to be turned upside down for God, it must begin with me and you. There must be a healthy rhythm in life of detachment from the world, attachment with Jesus, and then an engagement with others. To have engagement without detachment and attachment is to do nothing but perpetuate the brokenness that already exists in this fallen and decaying world. Instead, may you find the garden of paradise in the soul where God meets with you, that you might minister out of the overflow of the heart in a union with Christ.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why Not Women?

          Women are the greatest and largest untapped resource in the church today.  You might wonder why I would say such a thing, being that more women attend church than men.  But I stick to the statement because  the reality for many churches is that only men can hold positions of authority as elders and deacons.  The reasoning goes something like this:  "the Bible says women can't serve over men, so women can't hold those positions."  Really?  So, a woman can serve as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, can be elected as governor of a state, and can manage men on a factory floor, but that same woman cannot serve as an elder in many evangelical churches?  I once asked a pastor that very question, and he answered with "yes, because the Bible says so."

          If you are of the belief that a church office is to based on gender instead of just good ol' calling and gifting of the Spirit, then, methinks, it behooves us to ask these questions of the biblical text:

  • If women are not to exercise authority over men in the church, how do we account for actual women leaders in the Bible, such as Deborah, Huldah, Philip's daughters, Priscilla's role in Apollos' life, not to mention the list of women leaders in Romans 16?  If our impulse is to say that these are exceptions because there were no men to "step up", what does that say about our theology, that God isn't big enough to find a man to put into a position of leadership?
  • If we insist that women ought not to teach and be silent based on Paul in the book of 1 Timothy, why do we ignore Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians that women are to publicly prophecy and pray?
  • Doesn't the prominence of women in the ministry of Jesus and Paul suggest something different than just having women tag along to teach children?
  • Just when does a boy become too old for a woman to legitimately teach him?  If women can't teach men, why in the world would we ever think that they are the best teachers for boys?
  • How can we apply Galatians 3:26-28 as everyone else besides women as free to serve?
  • Does the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers only apply to men?  Doesn't the absence of women in church leadership go against this?
  • Isn't it weird and confusing that women have an equal vote in congregational decisions, even when a male leader is being elected and/or disciplined when they aren't supposed to exercise authority?
          I could go on, but I think you get the picture; the absence of women in leadership is problematic at best.  Its a problem because there are actually women leaders in the Bible.  So, here is my unabashed, dogmatic, and biblical belief:  All individuals are equally created in God's image, and, therefore, have equal worth, privilege, and opportunity in Christ's Church without any limitation, including gender.  There, I said it, and I'm sticking to it.  

          In today's evangelical church there are far too many wonderful Christian women who are exhausted and depressed because they are trying to live up to a certain expectation of being someone they are not.  They suppress their gifts and calling because they think it is delusional, and that they have to prop-up the fragile male egos around them.  They aren't free to serve in leadership positions and it is eating them from the inside-out.  These women think there is something wrong with them, but the reality is that there is something wrong with the whole system of male-only authority.  What is more, if I'm right, we are missing out on the blessing of God.  It is high time we value all women, even those with gifts of leadership, by allowing them to serve without limitation.

          This is a passionate subject for me because I have a wife and three daughters.  And all of them are more intelligent, more gifted, and better leaders than me, the lone family male.  To have them using their superior talents in the church by leading and serving is the least threatening thing to me on this earth.  I love it that they can outdo me; it is my joy!  Even more than that, I believe it is Jesus' joy, as well.  We must be proactive in cultivating and nurturing the gifts and calling we see in women.  They do not need to be put in their place; the good ol' boy system of the church needs to be put in its place so that men are practicing a leadership that sacrifices on behalf of making women's leadership a priority.