Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Good Enough Pastor

            I got into this gig of pastoral ministry because I love the church, wanted to teach and preach God’s Word, desired to make a difference, and to help people move along in their path of discipleship with Jesus.  Sounds noble; yet, if I am honest, behind those words is not just some genuine altruism, but a significant dose of hubris that thinks I can, even ought, to change people’s lives.  Eee gads!  Even as I write that statement I hear the pride that believes church ministry success is up to me.  I have come a long way, but still have a winding and stretching journey ahead.



            I think many of us need to confess that our dreams for the church are this strange gooey mix of godliness and selfishness.  I’ve always thought it weird that many pastors, para-church ministry leaders, and church elders’ aspirations for the Body of Christ line-up so well with God’s will for their lives.  I just want us to entertain the notion that our dreams of lots people in attendance, big budgets, slick programs, and hungry disciples eating up the crumbs that come from our well-dished teaching may not exactly be what is in the mind of God for our ministries.

            Allow me, instead, to introduce an alternative thought for us:  being a good enough pastor.  Yep, I said it.  Just be good enough for the people in your charge.  And if you are a parishioner, allow your pastor to be good enough without having to be the next Tim Keller or Billy Graham (or whomever your favorite celebrity preacher is).  If we dwell with this fantasy of attaining some sort of great and impactful ministry long enough, we will inevitably be disappointed.  And when that happens, the next prideful step is the belief that if I just do things perfectly, everything will turn out the way I, uh-hem, I mean God, planned all along.  Oh, I certainly believe in the God of miracles and that Jesus is Lord over all.  But I don’t always believe that God is into the dramatic.  He seems more likely to show up, like with Moses in the cleft of the rock, in a still small voice in the quite ordinary and mundane quiet of the daily grind.

            Not every sermon has to be a home run.  Every conversation does not need to be a powerful encounter.  Not every meeting and decision really has to be researched and prepared to death so that there is some sort of wow factor that impresses everyone with my superior skills… that is, God’s mighty power.  You and I can do a good enough job in order to be faithful stewards of the gifts God has given, and obedient followers in the way of Jesus.  Give everyone a break and let the Holy Spirit show up and do his job; we don’t have to do it for him – he is competent to accomplish what he wants to do whether we are awesome or not.

            If this makes you worry, then you are not alone.  But we all do have a choice.  We can lay aside the anxiety and perfectionism and simply ask God for help to change what needs changing, especially in our own hearts.  God cares a whole lot more about our humility; he can work with that.  But if we hold onto our stubborn pride, God might end up breaking our wills, maybe even destroying our “godly” dreams before he will finally use us.


            Can you be a good enough church worker?  Can you live your life without everything having to be at the highest level of performance?  Will you invite the work of God into your life so that he can bring the deep change he wants to bring?  For this next year, let’s agree to drop the resolutions and sheer willpower, and allow God to make us into the leaders he wants us to be.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Praise the Lord!



The time between December 25 and January 5 are the 12 days of Christmas, and they are to be a great celebration because King Jesus has come and he is the rightful Sovereign over all creation.  We are to intentionally enter into the meaning of Christ’s incarnation.  We affirm the identity of Jesus as both full human and fully divine.  Beginning with Christ’s birth, we reflect on the meaning of Christ’s life and prepare for the Lenten journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.

            Christmas means that we praise the Lord.  Not just us, but we praise God with all creation.  Everything outside our earth is to give God glory.  Everything in the universe points to a God who is worthy to be praised.  New York Pastor Tim Keller once said that when he was a child a Sunday school teacher changed his life with a simple illustration.  The teacher said, "Let's assume the distance between the earth and the sun (92 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of this sheet of paper. If that is the case, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high. And the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high."  Then Keller's teacher added, "The galaxy is just a speck of dust in the universe, yet Jesus holds the universe together by the word of his power."  Finally, the teacher asked her students, "Now, is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your assistant?"

            We serve a big God who is worthy to be praised, not only out there in the universe but here on earth.  The entire earth is to echo the adoration of God.  That means everything and everyone on earth – fish, animals, birds, and people.  Research in the field of bioacoustics has revealed that every day we are surrounded by millions of ultrasonic songs. For example, the electron shell of the carbon atom produces the same harmonic scale as the Gregorian chant.  Whale songs can travel thousands of miles underwater.  Meadowlarks have a range of three hundred notes. Supersensitive sound instruments have discovered that even earthworms make faint staccato sounds! Arnold Summerfield, a German physicist and pianist, observed that a single hydrogen atom (which emits one hundred frequencies) is more musical than a grand piano, which only emits eighty-eight frequencies.  Science writer Lewis Thomas summed it up it this way: "If we had better hearing, and could discern the [singing] of sea birds, the rhythmic [drumming] of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of [flies] hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet."

            Praise the Lord!  All creation is called to praise God as one great huge choir.  Praise is to occur with both words and actions.  With words, praise is an expression of gratitude to God for who he is and what he has done.  With actions, praise is a posture of submission and an acknowledgement of dependence.

            Therefore, testimony is important to the gathered church because through testimony we declare what God has done in our lives and how he is worthy to be praised and obeyed. Yet, praise is not just for the joyful; it is to happen no matter the circumstances because our happiness is not dependent upon positive situations but rather upon the person and work of Jesus.  It may not be easy to find our voice of praise along with everyone else, but we are not alone.  We can choose to join with all creation to praise the name of the Lord. 

My wife, who recently had two spine surgeries, said this:  “I am thankful for a chance to get out of the house. Of course my walker was with me.  I am amazed how quickly folks move over, slow down, and give me space when I am out with that thing….  At church it feels like I'm parting the Red Sea! The reason I hate the walker is because it says to the whole world, ‘Hey, I'm broken!’  I realize we all have areas that we are broken, most of them we can hide or cover up. Why are we so ashamed to confess the truth? Who really has it all together? I know we love our privacy and shun pity. However, I have been shown so much grace, kindness, and compassion as I push this piece of aluminum around that I hope this experience continues to change me for the better. I hope in the future I will be sensitive to those who are broken on the inside as well as the outside. May the love of Christ give me eyes to see people as he does, precious and accepted, just as they are.”

That word of testimony is the reasonable and logical end for the church of praising the Lord – to connect what God has done and is doing with what he can do through us as we glorify his name.  By simply being who we are created to be, we praise the Lord along with all creation.  When we as people created in God’s image, reflect that image in how we talk and how we live, we participate with the universe in declaring that God is good.  Praise is to be the comprehensive glue that binds every person, family, and ministry of the church together.


Whether you feel like it, or struggle to say it and live it, we are all to praise the Lord along with everything in the universe because we serve a God who keeps us close to his heart.  Praise the Lord!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mary



Most of life is lived in the mundane.  For the most part our everyday lives are the same, going about our business and dealing with the daily grind.  Occasionally the monotony is broken up with holidays, seeing old friends, vacations, or the rare surprise.  We are common ordinary people.  So, we can especially relate to Mary, at the conception of Jesus, because she is quite plain.  Mary is in junior high. She wears consignment store clothing. She can’t read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We don’t know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people can’t point to on a map. 

            One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty” (Luke 1:26-38). Mary stands there in her flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to extraordinary.  The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; holy angelic light in a simple candlelit bedroom; awesome power and complete vulnerability.

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed.  She is in over her head.  That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She’s like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be greatly troubled.  She was disturbed and shaking in her ratty old slippers.  The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God.  In other words Mary was quite literally “graced” by God.  The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was not what she was looking for.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not an answer to prayer for Mary.  This was not on her agenda. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was.  After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and she was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up.  Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl.  Maybe his Google map popped up the wrong town to visit.  Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  None of this made any sense.

But the angel lets Mary know that God specializes in the impossible.  We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer:  she really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power.  If the story were to end here it would be a great story.  But to me the most astonishing part of this narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message, and having believed submitted herself completely to God’s will for her life.  I think we would totally understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this.  We would completely get it if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her.  We could relate if Mary just dismissed it all, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, with the angel and his message being all humbug as if it were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

But Mary not only believes, she humbly submits herself to what is happening.  And this is what we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village, but stepping up to the calling she received.  We, too, have received a calling in our lives.  We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing.  “I am the Lord’s servant” is to be our confession, as well.  “May it be to me as you have said” is to be our cry, along with Mary.  The message we proclaim is that Jesus saves – he delivers from sin and Satan and will restore all things.


            None of us needs to be extraordinary in order to be used of God.  We just need a simple faith that God will do exactly what he said he will do.  The church has a beautiful message of grace not only for this season, but all through the year.  Let us embrace it, embody it, and share it.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Renewal



In this time of year, there are many who do not have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas.  We have blessings, both material and spiritual.  And we can always identify those persons who are in much more need than we are.  We may even believe that those in need are in that position because of their own unwise individual choices.  But we must recognize that the maladies of our hearts are very real. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

            Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs.  We must not suppress those realities and those needs, but name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us:  the love of things and money; severed relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; and, hatred. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide ourselves from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

            The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs.  The gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom so that we can pass on that very real good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick.  There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help.  But we will not have eyes to see them or have hearts to help if we are ourselves stuffing burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

            Far too many church-going Christians have become expert emotion and need stuffers.  We might think that other people, “those people,” need ministries of justice and help.  But the truth is that many of us are either one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want living next door to us.

            We just may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation and so we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty.  What should we do?  We should turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and delight greatly in the LORD by focusing on his grace, mercy, and justice (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11).  Our souls ought to rejoice in our God because he will make a sprout come up.  God will cause us to grow. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls.  God will restore the places of our lives that have been devastated.  God will even renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

But it must begin with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us.  God cannot bring comfort to those who do not mourn; he cannot turn grief into joy if there is no acknowledgment of a dire situation.  If we want to be an oak of righteousness there must be in existence a confession of despair and an allowance of the justice of God through Jesus Christ to work its way completely through us.

            What is your true situation?  What are the realities of your life that need to be named?  Where will you go to address those needs and truths?  Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs?  Will you be vulnerable enough to allow the church to minister grace to your needy soul?


            Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty.  Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling.  Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God.  Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Monday, December 8, 2014

God's Patience



The Christian Year begins with the season of Advent.  Advent literally means “anticipation.”  It is an awareness of God’s actions in the past, in the present, and in the future.  While we wait for Christmas and the birth of Jesus, we also anticipate Christ’s second coming at the end of time.  Our Lord’s coming again always stands in the background of our yearly Advent anticipation.

We are often impatient people. It is important to understand that God’s timing is different than ours.  There are two words for time in the New Testament:  Chronos and Kairos.  Chronos is where we get our English word “chronological.”  This is time measured by the clock.  This is the way in which much of our lives are governed.  The other term for time, Kairos, is seasonal time.  It is not determined by the clock, but is event-oriented. 

God is not time-oriented in the sense that we are; that is, God is not ruled and controlled by the clock.  God is actually event-oriented which is why God’s understanding of time is that a thousand years are like a day and a day like a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8-15).  In others words, God does not measure time like we do.  When the Bible says that Christ is coming soon, that means there are no redemptive events left in the course of history except the Day of the Lord, the return of Jesus to judge the entire world.

I admit that I am a clock-oriented guy.  I also admit that my wife and girls are not.  Since this is our reality as a family, I end up waiting on them – a lot!  I have spent countless chronological hours of my life anticipating their readiness to go somewhere.  I used to get frustrated and impatient because I thought they should be clock-oriented like me.  But, over the years, I have learned to accept this reality.  Now I take the time of waiting and read.  I have actually read a lot of books over the years through my waiting.

What we need to get a hold of is that God has all the time in the world, and he is not frustrated about it.  It is us that get antsy and impatient because we think that God has to operate on our time schedule.  But what looks like tardiness to us is really something else.  God seems slow in keeping his promises because of his mercy. 

In the face of so much that is not right with the world we might wonder why God is not just stepping in and taking care of all the evil and unjust situations on this earth.  The truth is:  God is patiently waiting for all kinds of people to come to the point of repentance.  God is waiting for that lost soul to make his/her way to himself.

But the repentance that God is looking for is not just for other people outside the church; it is for Christians, as well.  God is waiting for us, too.  What should we be doing in the meantime while we wait for Christ’s Advent?  We ought to be living holy and godly lives as we look forward to Christ’s coming and speed its coming.

When I worked a factory assembly line, the reality of the situation was that the assembly line is only as effective as its slowest worker.  One person could determine the outcome of getting the product out the door in a timely fashion, or not.  God is not a factory manager, but the principle is still the same:  the church is often only as effective as its most mediocre member.  In other words, God has chosen to use us to accomplish his purposes.  If we do not participate in those purposes or procrastinate, the next event on God’s agenda (the Lord’s return) may well be slowed.  God has all the time in the world, and he is waiting. 

God is gracious.  He is not going to kick and prod you like an earthly boss.  He is not going to bully us or strike us with lightning when we disobey by failing to do his will.  God does not operate like us.  If we sin or disobey, he is patient, wanting us to come to him to receive mercy.  He is waiting for us to avail ourselves of his help to live holy and godly lives.  Our Lord’s patience means deliverance from all that disconnects us from Jesus so that we might rightly attach ourselves to Christ.


There is no better season to mend fences and deal with all that divides and angers.  The Lord is coming.  Let us be ready by living grace-filled lives reflecting our status as God’s people.