Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Gay Old Time - My Sabbath Week

I had a gay old time traversing the country with my pal Micah - the two of us tucked away neatly in a blue Prius. We drove with smiles plastered to our faces, giddy for the gas mileage, unfettered from the worries of daily life.

However, there was one worry that continued to crop up at many a fuel stop, camp site, and scenic detour: I feared people took us for a gay couple. Two guys grinning in a Prius is all the evidence our world needs to presume homosexuality. It didn't help our case that I packed my sleeping bag in a pink, Disney princess sack.
The modern age has trained us to think gay. Television series and episodes cannot seem to air without a gay character, couple, or plot line. Celebrities and athletes boost their endorsements by confessing their homosexual orientation. Gay marriage has gained traction nationally. The marketing strategy of the LGBT has been so effective, many teenagers today wrestle with their own sexual identity. While decades ago teens simply struggled to understand their raging hormones, they now must filter their sexual impulses through what appears to be three possibilities: straight, gay, bisexual.

It's no secret that sex sells in our culture. We are sexual beings. But the menu for sexuality has changed dramatically in recent decades. Homosexuality used to show up as a seasonal dish; now it's a main course.

Micah and I joked about how people might perceive us. I made an effort when talking to strangers to mention our wives and kids. Micah restrained himself from holding my hand. We only posed together for two pictures. We only shared a bed once and not in the Honeymoon Sweet at the Overlook Bed and Breakfast. There were ordered separate mattresses and ignored the sign telling us to bathe with a friend.

Ironically, one of the richest parts of our gay old time was a visit with my aunt and her partner in Big Fork, Montana. We stayed with Aunt Ann and Melissa the night before our meeting with Eugene Peterson. I informed Micah of their living arrangements. While their lesbian lifestyle was never mentioned aloud during my upbringing, it was no secret that Aunt Ann and Melissa were a couple. In my conservative family, they were described as "special friends."

The town of Big Fork is situated on the north eastern corner of Flathead Lake. The area is flamboyantly conservative: Tea Party representatives, Ten Commandments signs, and independent evangelical churches abound.  My gay aunt and her partner routinely drive past religious billboards and icons, confronted on every street corner by pop evangelicalism. They've grown convinced that Christians in their area are insecure, but they only know them from a distance.

Micah and I talked with my Aunt Ann and Melissa over dinner. They asked about Eugene Peterson. They had Googled him, but were more interested in my intrigue with the man. I praised his writing, his ability to draw connections from the biblical world to ours, and his opus: The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language.

"Eugene did not want people to view the Bible as if God spoke in exalted, spiritual language," I explained. "The Message shows God speaks to the common person in a common tongue."

We continued to discuss spiritual matters with my aunts (as I came to call them, my love for them as people outgrowing my dislike for homosexuality as a practice). We defined what a Christian is, and Ten Commandment billboards did not make the essentials list. Rather, Jesus is central: His forgiveness, sacrifice, resurrection, and invitation to follow Him. "I mess up all the time," Micah said, admitting his orientation toward sin and failure. "But I know God forgives me and accepts me because of Jesus."

We discussed the true meaning of "born again," pointing to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). I stressed the need for God's intervention in our lives; self-help projects do not merit eternal life. Nor do certain labels for certain types of Christians. 
And we listened to criticisms about hypocrisy in the church. My aunt told us her departure from the Methodism came after realizing the people attended for social purposes, not spiritual ones.

The conversation ensued the following day. My aunt asked if I thought there were any gay people in my church. "I've only known of one in seven years," I said. "But I would not be surprised if others struggled with homosexual tendencies."

"Would we be accepted in your church?" she asked.

"Probably not," I replied. "As a church we do not believe homosexuality is God's design or desire. We don't bring it up all the time, but you would probably feel that belief at our church."

It grieved me to tell my aunt the truth, but I had no choice. She asked me to speak for my church, and I did. Sadly, the line between loving people and endorsing a practice gets fuzzier at the institutional level. I would invite my aunts to a family dinner without reservation. However, I could not reserve them a seat at my church's Love Feast. Some aspects of life remain exclusive.

I made sure to tell my aunt that when issues like this become personal, folks tend to show love. Individuals are better at showing love than institutions. Churches are institutions. Christians are people.

As a Christian, I hope I showed my aunt love. Both of them. I think I did.

I believe Micah did, too.

Even Eugene Peterson, the consummate pastor, reached out to my aunts. He inscribed two copies of The Message, one for each of them. He handed me the books and said, "Tell them I wrote The Message for people like them." The cast of "common people" comprises gay and straight, male and female, Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint.

My Aunt Ann and Melissa received Eugene's gift with gratitude. I they will receive God's gift of grace in time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leaving Traces on the Long Road Ahead - My Sabbath Week

My friend Micah had never been out West. His family traveled often when he was a kid, but Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park never made it on their itinerary. When Micah agreed to drive across the country to meet Eugene Peterson with me, he hoped to see these points of interest on the Long Road Ahead.

We had sights to see. We had selfies to take.

The trip commenced after our Sunday morning service ended. Our wives and children were the last to clear out of the church building. We exchanged hugs, kisses, and farewell prayers. Then we rode.

The line from Leesburg, Indiana to Mt. Rushmore comprises nearly sixteen hours of driving. We stopped overnight in the town of Mitchell, South Dakota, made famous by the notorious Thunderbird Inn. It was the only hotel in the area shouting Vacancy in neon lights. There was a reason. The beds were concave, likely hollowed out by bugs. The air reeked of disinfectant, suppressing the trace of urine coming from the carpet.

The next day, Micah and I arrived at Mt. Rushmore close to lunch time. We posed for a few shots, trying to align our faces with George and Company. Micah's image became an instant success on Facebook. He made it his new profile picture, soliciting likes and comments from his virtual friends and biological family.
Micah Nightingale

My picture featured a Grace in the Burg tee-shirt: I wanted to leave traces of my church at a second major landmark in less than sixty days. In July I attended the FellowShift Conference in Washington D.C. and stood in front of the White House for a candid moment. Having my church represented at the White House inspired me to take my church to other notable places. (In fact, I challenged people from our body to take pictures wearing their Grace in the Burg shirts all across America. I think I recently saw an image from a congregant at Wal-Mart in Warsaw (IN), which is not exactly what I had in mind.)

After we finished capturing the moment, Micah and I sat on a bench and made lunch.  We ate turkey sandwiches beneath the watchful eyes of dead presidents and constant clicks of cell phone cameras.
And I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the human impulse to freeze time. We enlarge our history in stone monuments. We compress our past in digital photographs. We all long to leave a trace.

Throughout the remainder of the Long Road Ahead, Micah and I stuffed our phones with video footage and still images. We recorded bison ambling through Yellowstone, waterfalls rushing to the river below, high mountains peaking through stratus clouds, campfires blazing at twilight, and friends enjoying God's expansive creation, even if it made their joints ache and muscles sore.

There was only one part of the trip I did not exploit with my camera. There is no photographic trace of my conversation with Eugene Peterson. Some moments should not be interrupted for a pose.

Part Two of Five in My Sabbath Week

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eugene Peterson or Bust - My Sabbath Week

My wife gave me the perfect birthday gift. Earlier in the year, she noticed my vital signs were languishing. A few families had left our church. I had stopped delegating and began to organize, execute, and run too many programs by myself. And a sermon series in the book of Hebrews dragged me into a world of rich, canonical observations that did not translate into rich, transformative applications.

Meanwhile, every ministerial meeting I attended with fellow pastors centered on big church programs made bigger by making passive men into godly leaders. All the churches around me were getting more spiritually lean by means of push-ups, Proverbs, and pornography purges. The slow and humble task of shepherding people seemed lost in the ruckus of chest bumps and self-help rallies.

My wife noticed my struggle to keep pace with the losses in our church and gains in other bodies. So she wrote a letter. Her addressee was Euguene Peterson, author of The Message and numerous books on spiritual formation and pastoral ministry. She asked if I could visit him. But if a face-to-face coversation were impossible, she requested a handwritten birthday greeting.

Eugene Peterson sent me a card. He wished me a birthday blessing a month in advance of the actual date. He spoiled the surprise, but redeemed himself by inviting me to Montana. "We should have a conversation about our shared vocation in pastoral ministry." 

Weeks later, I contacted him to make traveling plans. The first week of September, I was invited to his residence. My friend Micah would join me for the journey, a Sabbath week to drive across the country, hike across some mountains, and hold counsel with a seasoned Christian pilgrim whose writings had shaped my pastoral imagination.

Eugene Peterson or Bust. I was ecstatic.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fine Woodworking and the Fragility of Small Churches

Scott was hauling lumber. I spied him from down the street. He wore a lime green collared shirt with the name Jordan Fine Woodworking embroidered on the front. Scott was the newest man in the crew. He told me about the job less than a week ago at our regular pastors' lunch.

Scott is a laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night. He estimated that about a third of the fine bunch of Fine Woodworkers comprised clergy (former and current). Like me, they are (and were) leaders of smaller churches that suffer great strains from losing but a few families.

In smaller churches, the budget can turn blood red with the departure of one or two key "giving units." In smaller churches, ministry programs can burn out when a committed leader moves on. In smaller churches, morale can nosedive with shrinking attendance. In smaller churches, pastors may have to learn new skills (carpentry and coffee making) to keep their families fed and mortgage paid.

I guided my bike toward Scott when I spotted him. I called his name as he slid a ten-foot board into the back of his company van. He stopped, turned, and nodded at me. Sweat covered his brow and stained his shirt. His work day began well before mine. His work responsibilities threatened splinters, a sore back, and calloused hands. And when he came home at night, church business awaited him.

I felt a bit guilty. I made a comment or two and left him to hauling wood. Then I rode on toward the bookstore to start my pastoral work of reading and writing emails. It's not my fault Scott has become laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night; regardless, my pastoral vocation suddenly seemed lite.

But then I remembered what brought Scott to his current situation: Leading small churches is fragile work. The solo pastor is shepherd, teacher, volunteer coordinator, project manager, custodial worker, nursery aid, jack-of-all-trades (and master of none), court jester, marketer, and punching bag. The job description evolves with every business trend and change of season.

Moreover, pastoral ministry cannot claim the satisfaction of a daily progress report or finished product, unlike the construction site. Only Sunday marks our progress--that we held a service, that we preached a sermon--and many Sundays tell us more about the passing of time than the transforming power of life with Jesus.

These thoughts captivated me as I finished my commute to the bookstore. Instead of feeling guilty about Scott's situation, I began to feel jealous for his new job that guaranteed perspiration and productivity. I wanted something more concrete to mark my output for the day than my Inbox. I began to scheme how I might pick up work as a third-shift doughnut maker or early morning landscaper. Bi-vocational dreams began to accelerate my heartbeat.

Then I stepped into the air-conditioned bookstore and the guilt and jealousy melted away. My appreciation for full-time, pastoral ministry--unproductive and precarious as it is--was born again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Authority Issues

"Are you saying I have authority issues?" I asked.

Six other pastors huddled around me in my office. This was our second of several meetings to provide fresh insight and counsel to one another. We agreed to put different pastors on the hot seat for the summer. My seat was heating up. After two hours of discussing my strengths, weaknesses, strategies, and dreams, the diagnosis became clear. My distaste for leadership gurus, vision-casting, and church literature was more than a preference.

When I asked the question, they nodded. And smirked. I had authority issues. Sadly, it is not uncommon for spiritual leaders.

The symptoms include:
  • aversion to best practices, meetings, strategic planning sessions, and accountability
  • inability to ask for help, follow through, or celebrate others' successes
  • constant re-invention of the wheel (and other already tried-and-true inventions or activities)
  • distaste for canned curriculum, catchy sermon titles, and ecclesiastical creeds (alliteration and assonance are acceptable)
  • demand for originality
  • preference for small gatherings where I am the dominate personality
  • various schemes to take over the world
Not all the symptoms applied to me. To date I have made only one attempt at world domination. It failed. (Or has it?) Nevertheless, the conversation with my colleagues left me wondering how much my distrust for authorities and institutions affects my pastoral ministry. (Answer: More than I can imagine.)

Indeed, every leadership book I have forced myself to read stresses the importance of leaders being "under authority." I can flippantly claim to live under the lordship of Jesus. But even Jesus taught to give Caesar his due. And Paul, a bond-servant of Christ, encouraged members of the church to submit to one another in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5:21).

Our respect for other believers demonstrates our fear of God. We should heed their advice, consider their perspective, and listen to their diagnoses. If I didn't have such glaring authority issues, I would probably do these very things.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Our Kids Prefer Heaven over Hell and Jesus over All

My daughters were asking their mother about Hell last night. They remember the name of Heaven (and Jesus, Heaven's King) so well. Hell is less familiar territory.

We speak of outer darkness, eternal fire, and total separation from God infrequently. We prefer the happier topics of Jesus, resurrection, forgiveness of sins, new creation, and the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, we are probably guilty of preaching a partial gospel focused on restoration to compensate for the partial gospel we heard growing up of judgment, depravity, and penal substitution. But you can't have the good news without the bad. As Fredrick Buechner notes in Telling the Truth, "The Gospel is bad news before its good news."

So my wife relayed the images Jesus and others have provided for Hell: fire where the worm does not die; wrath where sin earns its wages; separation where the soul has no access to God; darkness where no light (or joy or hope) can penetrate. Predictably, my girls found Heaven more inviting.

What pleases me most about my daughters' innocent embrace of Heaven over Hell is their preference for Jesus. We speak with them often about the riches we have when we follow the Son of God. We enter His family; we share in His glory; we experience His grace. Their affection for Jesus may be for His atoning work, His healing power, and His invitation to everlasting life. It could be His divine nature or His human form. It could be a blend of these factors and something more.

Regardless, last night's conversation with their mother underscored an important matter in my daughters' faith. They do not express belief in Jesus because they are afraid of Hell. He is not their escape. He is their reward. So they look forward to His return. And it's helping me long for His restoration of all things, too.

Rev 21:5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”

Rev 22:12 “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Rev. 22:20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Preaching to Sleepy Faces

Sleepiness has increased in our congregation recently. I want to blame the stuffy weather and Daylight Savings Time, but another force may be at work. The downward drag of information and familiarity wreaks havoc from the pulpit. When the pastor's sermons sound like commentaries, his stories replay like syndicate sitcoms, his illustrations shrink down to sporting analogies and Lord of the Rings allusions, and his applications are merely variations of "Read your Bible, pray every day," he might as well sing a lullaby.

Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep little Christian...

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Hebrews 12 Relay Race
I fight hard against Heavy-Eye Syndrome on Sundays (HESS for short, though in no way connected to my former colleague and current Young Adults Pastor at Polaris Grace Zac Hess) by creative variation in my preaching. In the past month I've integrated live art, relay races, a skit, and a craft time. The change of scenery and integration of the whole body (both the physical human frame and spiritual congregation) aim to arouse and engage the people of my church. Google and I can both give information about the Bible, but Google has yet to solicit prayer requests during one of our services. (Certainly someone in at Google X is working on this.)

The adage of preaching goes like this: We don't preach to inform, we preach to transform. Of course, transformation is not accidental or incidental. Transformation comes at the heels of information, like a well-executed pass of the baton.

Sheldon for Moses Skit
Case and point: In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes great pains to inform his readers about the righteousness of God, sinfulness of man, saving grace of Jesus, and redeeming work of the Spirit before he ever exhorts his readers to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (ch. 12:1-2).

Information precedes transformation, but not all information is transformational. Truth that is trusted and applied is transformative. The rest is mental storage--counted sheep and dinner party fun facts. Transformational truth disrupts and constructs. It puts myths and lies on the chopping block and lets the axe fall (disruption). It opens doors and sets us free (construction). It calls people to action (application).

The preacher must not confined himself to a lectern and alliterated outline when telling the truth. He may wander past the pulpit and place his hand on a sleepy shoulder. He may pace the room, take a seat, flicker the lights, ad lib, erupt in song, or quit early (rarely an option). To guard the sermon from becoming passive and passe, the preacher must incite participation. He must excite souls.

Sadly, my recent snapshot of the room shows more HESS than Excess of Excitement on Sundays (EES). My captive audience seems comatose. It might be the weather. It might be long work weeks and short weekends. It might be heavy burdens and oppressive sin.

Or it might be the preacher. I default to information-overload. My baton transfer needs work.