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.

Monday, May 19, 2014

TED Talks and Tim's Thoughts

My inspiration for running these days is the TED Radio Hour on NPR. I stream them from Stitcher Radio on my smart phone. The quality, precision, and variety of topics has no rival. I run and learn about love as a chemical reaction at the base of my skull. I jog and consider the kinship of belief and doubt. I race and ponder the power of storytelling, origins of beauty, and abuses of wealth.

In fact, TED Talks have become so addictive that I watch them while folding laundry, doing dishes, driving my car, and preparing sermons. I've learned about sleep deprivation, collaboration, false causes of obesity, and the psychology of shame while checking off chores from my weekly list. TED Talks have made me faster, smarter, and far more productive.

Of course, I don't always know what to do with the information.This is the curse of the Google Era: Knowing outpaces being and doing.  I now know about experiments with monkeys and currency, but that doesn't stop me from frittering money away on milkshakes. I now know about the havoc backlit screens reap on sleep patterns, but it doesn't keep me going to bed with my Kindle Fire.

Information does not result in transformation because information is impersonal.

TED talks to me, but his active listening skills are lackluster. TED gives me information about parallel universes, but he does not comfort me when my reality comes crashing down.  TED is a savant in hard sciences, but an idiot in personal counseling. TED spreads ideas, but he cannot change a heart.
So at the end of all the talks, I am left wanting. I don't know what to do with the new ideas. I'm not sure how they fit into my personal life, home, or profession of pastoral ministry. I can regurgitate interesting factoids at small group gatherings, but so can any Dick, Jane, or Harry with a smart phone. What makes an idea worth spreading is not its novelty or scientific intrigue, but its ability to transform.

Since TED Talks have inspired better running and housekeeping, I will continue to listen. As for my dream of braving the TEDx stage in the near future, I'll defer. The weekly TIM Talks I give at my church more than satisfy. For God's word can change a heart.

Picture submitted for my TED profile.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Healing on Hold

Politics won't heal this place:
Their restricted range of motion
can't change the heart, just stirs emotion.

Religion won't heal this place:
Its restrictive way of living
can't change the soul, just buys forgiving.

Education won't heal this place:
Its standardized mode of operation
can't change the mind, just gives information

Medication won't heal this place:
The prescribed drug of the day
can't change our mortality, just slows decay.

Health and wealth and Hollywood won't heal this place:
Their excessive and endless voices
can't change our suffering, just add choices.

Prophets and poets and pastors won't heal this place:

They create another world with verbs and verses
for God to invigorate with changed hearts and souls and minds.

There God makes mortal man eternal.
There God puts suffering to sleep.
There healing begins.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Third Person - An Interaction with the Holy Spirit

Both my congregation and denomination have struggled to articulate the role of the Holy Spirit. God the Father and Jesus the Son receive our prayers and praise and thanks and holidays. We leave a dash of speculation, ounce of skepticism, and pinch of curiosity for the Third Person of the Trinity. I suspect this grieves Him (Eph. 4:30).

I've wanted to stir up greater awareness of the Holy Spirit. I've looked for a way to celebrate Pentecost without turning in my denominational loyalty card and "going Charismatic." In two words, I've wanted "spiritual unction." And I may be headed in the right direction.

File:Žeimių bažnyčia 3.JPGOn Resurrection Sunday, I started a seven-week independent study on the Holy Spirit called Third Person. The curriculum grew out of several books and biblical reflection on the role of the Third Person. The material broke down neatly into seven, Spirit-focused topics. Each week I explore the Bible, expound the topic, and exercise the relationship. For example, the last week I considered The Great Succession: how the Members of the Trinity line up.

The Holy Spirit descended fifty days after Jesus' death (Acts 2). God's Son sent the Third Person of the Trinity to empower the church in her witness. The Spirit fell on believers, and they spoke in tongues. The Spirit filled believers, and they became bold. The Spirit united believers, and they shared freely and enjoyed peace.

The Trinity provides a beautiful picture of love and submission and shared responsibility. Throughout the New Testament, Father, Son, and Spirit are linked together in name (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14) and redemptive function (Romans 8; Ephesians 1:3-15; 4:4-6; Titus 3:4-8). God is Father, Creator, and Covenant-maker. Jesus is Son and King and Savior, sent by God. And the Spirit is Comforter, Guide, Truth-teller, and Power-giver, sent by God and Son (John 14:26; 15:26).

The Spirit placed third in the line of succession, but this does not make Him third-tier. In fact, He embraces His role of directing our attention to Father and Son, like a move soundtrack would draw us further into a film.
But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, He won't draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you. (John 16:12-15, the Message)