Reading Ramblings – October 1, 2017

September 24, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-18; Matthew 21:23-32

Context: The distinction between justification and sanctification is crucial. What God the Father does through God the Son to save us sets in motion a process that only finishes in eternity – our being made into the holy and righteous sons and daughters of God the Father that we are made through faith in God the Son. Yet we are always looking for ways around this, either to blame others for our sin or to claim a righteousness based on our works rather than on the work of Christ. Both are futile, and leave us exposed to the wrath of God that demands our faith and trust in what He has done on our behalf.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – We are prone to looking for excuses for our sinfulness. We want others to bear the responsibility for our transgressions. Modern psychology has convinced us that we can’t truly be held responsible for our own problems, yet God says otherwise. Rather than helping us to place blame elsewhere, God holds us responsible for our own sin. Just because we were influenced or affected by others does not remove our moral culpability before a righteous God. Instead, we are called to repentance and to changed lives made possible by the power of God the Holy Spirit who leads us to God the Son, Jesus Christ, as the source of our justification – our being made right – with God the Father. God’s goal is always straightforward – that we would choose life in him rather than death on our own terms.

Psalm 25:1-10 – If this sounds familiar it’s because we recited it on Pentecost Sunday, just a few short months ago. Verses 1-3 are a plea for help in a difficult situation, ending with the acknowledgment that those who trust in God will not be put to shame. Verses 4-5 ask for the Lord to guide and lead the petitioner in the right ways, while verses 6-7 are a plea for mercy and forgiveness. Knowing God’s will and being able to perfectly accomplish it are two separate things. Verses 8-10 are an affirmation that God indeed will lead and guide his people, and that the Lord will act in love and faithfulness to his people. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with seeking the Lord’s leading and guidance out of sin and towards a life that is more in keeping with his ways.

Philippians 2:1-18 – We are prone to think of ourselves first, but as followers of Christ we are to follow his example of humility, even humility to the point of death. Paul exhorts the Philippians towards this goal acknowledging that he himself takes pride in their successes towards this end and would lament their failures. Despite his imprisonment, he can still look to them as a source of encouragement and hope, and they should consider themselves as such for mutual rejoicing.

Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus deals with challenges to his authority by forcing his inquisitors to examine their own consciences. The goal is repentance, not simply avoiding a question. Jesus is not shy in other places (notably John’s Gospel account) of giving his authority as God the Father. But here He gives an opportunity for repentance. Matthew gives us a glimpse of the thought processes involved by the religious leaders. To acknowledge John the Baptist’s authority would condemn themselves because they did not submit to him. But to deny John the Baptist’s authority would expose themselves to the judgment of the crowds, who were convinced that John was a prophet sent by God. Without a convenient answer, they opt to avoid the question and so does Jesus.

Jesus then tells a parable to demonstrate the position which the religious leaders have just placed themselves in. They are like the second son, who claims to be obedient to his father and yet is not. Likewise, the religious leaders claim obedience to the law of God while rejecting the authoritative voices that God sends to them – notably in John the Baptist and Jesus himself. But those who are all too aware of their sinfulness and need for grace – they recognize God’s calling to them in John the Baptist and Jesus. While their lives have previously been in offense to God and a rejection – for whatever reason – of his call on their lives, they have come to repentance, seeking baptism from John and now listening and heeding Jesus. As such they are more obedient and therefore better sons and daughters of their heavenly Father than the religious leaders who promise to be obedient and then are not.

Repentance and the the corresponding forgiveness of God the Father cannot help but create change in our lives. We are not free to dictate to others exactly how this will look, yet Scripture provides plenty of examples of the sorts of things we should expect. What we cannot expect is to repent and be forgiven without any need for change in our lives. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the grace of God. It is not simply an intellectual shortcoming but a matter of unfaithfulness to the one who has set us free to live for Him rather than for ourselves.


If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

September 22, 2017

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this children’s book while after reading this blog post.  Apparently a news reporter interviewed a Nazi who was publicly assaulted, and the writer of the blog post was angry that they did so because it could make Nazism sympathetic and end up leading others to follow that ideology.  The alternative, the author insists, is that you never give a Nazi a platform.  Never allow their message to go out.

At first it makes sense.  I don’t like Nazism.  As a student of history I’m well acquainted with the evils perpetrated by that ideology.  I don’t want there to be more Nazis.

But the more I thought about it, I realized why this approach didn’t sit well with me.  It presumes that the hearers/viewers are helpless, passive, and incapable of understanding either the context of the interview or the ideology that the Nazi might espouse.  It presumes that viewers/hearers need to be protected less they fall under the sway of this virulent ideology.  It reminds of the way some conservative Christians choose to raise their children – by trying to shelter them from the junk in the world and never expose them to anything that hasn’t been thoroughly sanitized.

In both cases the result is the same.  By failing to prepare people for the ideologies they will encounter in our increasingly hyper-connected world, we make possible our worst fears.  The way to protect people against whatever charm Nazi ideology might utilize is to teach them about Nazism.  Teach them about history.  Teach them about the Holocaust.  At the same time teach them about democracy, and in particular teach them about the beauty and value of free speech.  Then, if they view or hear a Nazi who was the victim of a crime talking about their ideology, they will be able to distinguish the value of free speech and protection from assault from Nazism.  They’ll be able to say I disagree completely with what this person espouses, but at the same time they deserve protection under the law and the right to speak, because that is the democracy we live under.

Which is different from the censorship that the Nazis used to control what people thought, and which mirrors, ironically enough, what the blog author espouses.  In a democracy people should be educated so that they can make good decisions.  Not everyone can or will.  But it is better to risk that some should not make good decisions, than to deny everyone the freedom to make a decision.  An educated nation will be able to reject ideas and principles that are incorrect.  Maybe not immediately, but eventually.  Hopefully.  But that requires education.  It also happens to require a strong moral common ground, something that has been decimated by many folks who also argue that some groups shouldn’t be allowed to speak freely or aren’t entitled to the same rights that they themselves are.

Reject Nazism.  But don’t destroy democracy in the process.  Nobody is better off with an insulated, poorly educated population who relies on censorship to keep away things that they would prefer not to deal with.  Nobody is better off under such circumstances.  Other than those who happen to be championing them and insisting that their ideology is the one that should be implemented.

A Sweet New Year

September 21, 2017

We were privileged to attend a Jewish Rosh Hashanah service last night (Shana Tova!) at the invitation of friends of ours.  It was my first such opportunity, and a memorable one.  The synagogue was beautiful, and there were many folks on hand for the first of the High Holy Days.  It is a Reform Judaism synagogue, something I wasn’t aware of initially but became very clear as the service went on.

Similar to Christian worship, there was music and ritual.  There was no direct reading from Scripture, though the ‘ark’ containing their copy of the Torah was opened several times during the night for festive singing – but never to actually read what it had to say.  Fascinating!

Two moments stand out – the sermon and the after service address from the congregational president.

The sermon was delivered by an intern, a 5th year student at a Jewish Seminary in Los Angeles.  The topic was hope.  He opened with a quote, in which he told us he was going to replace the word hope wherever it appeared in that quote with the name God.  He then reread the quote with the original word hope in it.  And then he basically invited people to consider that both the word hope and the name God both made really good sense in the quote.  He then went on to preach a sermon without ever mentioning God again.  I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t mention Jesus, but he never mentioned God.  It was clear that his expectation was that many folks in the room didn’t actually believe in God, but certainly could believe in hope.  He ended his sermon with snippets of current events and the actions of individuals in the midst of tragedy and challenge as the basis for his hope for the coming new year.

It was one of the most hope-less sermons I’ve ever heard, because it grounded our hope in ourselves, despite his mention of equally jarring moments recently where humans demonstrated that they are not people to place hope in or expect hope from.  The upshot I guess is that at least some people are capable of and demonstrative of actions of hopefulness, so let’s just focus on that despite the fact that the news overwhelmingly favors the preponderance of less helpful actions.

The address by the congregational president at the end of the service was also notable.  He was extremely well-spoken and as I understand it is a man of some renown in our area.  He spoke of growing up being ethnically and ritually Jewish.  He didn’t necessarily believe any of it, but he had done the appropriate things that a Jewish person should do.  Until an event 30 years ago in the area jarred him into a sense of urgency to be more involved in Jewish leadership.  Not the faith, per se, but rather acting on behalf of Jews in the community.  He recounted his family’s personal brush with the Holocaust in Germany, and stated strong resolve to help this particular congregation remain strong and secure into the future.

Secure.  There’s a fascinating term both for Judaism and Christianity.  Certainly a review of Jewish history will quickly reveal that security has rarely lasted very long in any given place.  That since their dispersal from the Promised Land by the Romans in 70 AD, the Jews have truly wandered out of necessity.  They have settled, only to be forced to move at some point later.  Until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jews have never enjoyed a very secure anything.  The fact that the state of Israel is only 70 years old only underscores this further.

Christians also have endured a great deal of insecurity.  While enjoying a privileged place in Western culture for many centuries, that security is eroding rapidly.  Elsewhere in the world security for Christians has been far more tenuous and unpredictable.

And in both cases, Scripture, the Word of God to his people, has explicitly stated that this is how things are going to go.  We might expect many things in this world based on the promises of God, but temporal security isn’t high on the list, or on the list at all.  I’ll be the first to come to the aid of someone else – Jewish or otherwise – but I won’t pretend to tell either of them (or myself, or my wife and kids) that safety and security are something we should just take for granted, or something that we can control.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be secure.  That’s human nature both individually and communally.  But for God’s people, that security is tempered with a greater understanding that the best that security can do for us here and now is ensure a somewhat smooth life for 100 years at best.  Even temporal financial and physical security doesn’t save us from Death.  Our greatest hope and goal can’t simply be security.  It has to lie elsewhere.  And for God’s people, that place has always been God.

It must be so difficult to lead a congregation of people rooted in a shared set of past experiences but not a shared interpretation of them.  It must be weird to have a liturgy that repeatedly talks about God, but have to remind people that if that makes them uncomfortable they can just close the book and think about something else.  God isn’t the source of discomfort!

I walked away from the evening grateful for the experience but aching for those people, so close to God historically and even liturgically, but for many very far away from him actually, personally.  I ached that they might hear and know truly good news in a God who has made them specific promises that are not dependent upon the actions of random people around the country or world, and are not dependent on their own contributions.  I ached for these people who have inherited not just a culture and a set of rituals but the revealed Word of God, and yet choose to keep that Word locked away, who consider it something optional at best.  This people through whom God brought the Savior of the world into creation, this people that God remains deeply committed to through his promises to Abraham and Moses and David.

I pray for them a sweet new year (a traditional expression associated with Rosh Hashanah), and as such, a new year rooted in closer experience with the Creator of the Universe and the Son He brought through them to give us real and lasting hope.


Who to Promote

September 20, 2017

I was raised with solid middle-class, middle-America values.  Children should be seen rather than heard.  Or maybe it was heard rather than seen.  Frankly, the preference was probably that we were neither seen nor heard.  In any event, the idea of self-promotion of any kind has always been anathema to me.  It isn’t that I don’t crave recognition.  I do.  But perhaps as a means of controlling that monster inside of me I’ve tried to avoid the spotlight as much as one can do from the front of a classroom or the front of a church.

I dreamed of being a writer but have abandoned that in a post-literate age where anybody can get published inexpensively.  Some of the folks that follow this blog seem to do so out of a concept of mutual self-promotion that eludes me.  I hope for fame, but expect that I won’t have to be the one telling people how awesome I am in order for that to happen.  It will just, someday, but broadly recognized and I won’t have to push for that recognition.

Is that too hard to ask?

My job is not to promote myself –  my job is to promote Christ, to make him known to as many people in as many different facets as He gives me time and opportunity.  But in order to put his name out there, it can be easy to be put mine out as well.  Given time and a bit of temptation, the desire for my name to be glorified can quickly eclipse the desire that his name be glorified.  On the flip side, excessive self-deprecation and equally result in his name not being shared as broadly as possible.  I’m wondering how to put out his Word without necessitating the inclination most people have (not entirely incorrectly) to want to know more about the messenger.

I’m being asked more and more to share my preaching and teaching with expanding audiences, particularly via the Internet as well as more localized outlets such as pre-recorded and live radio options.  It’s something I’ve been hesitant to do  because crafting a message for an audience unfamiliar with me, my congregation, my theology, etc. is a lot more complicated than just videoing a sermon and putting it online.  In a day where it’s customary to take things out of context, I want to think carefully about what I say before facing criticism either from those who don’t share my belief, or those who think they share my belief to a greater/stronger/more accurate extent than I do.

It’s also a lot of work, and being basically lazy, the idea of taking on additional work is unattractive.

But more and more I’m being led to see that this bears investigating further.  I went to lunch today with a gentleman who had the main intent of convincing me to think more seriously about radio and podcasting and other means of speaking to a larger audience.  Of course my ego loves this, and I have to try and put that down while still hearing what is being said and considering it as objectively as possible.  We have such Good News to share with a world that is so incredibly hungry for good news.  If we need to be reconsidering and reevaluating how we do Church in a rapidly changing culture, I can’t simply say that I’m not willing to consider other avenues for sharing the Gospel and helping people to understand it better.  Prayers are appreciated!

Rosh Hashana

September 20, 2017

I’m so excited, as I’ve been invited (along with my family) to attend Rosh Hashanah service tonight at the local synagogue.  I’ve been fascinated with Judaism ever since reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and going on to read most of his other works, including his beautiful Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews).  Obviously the strong historical and theological linkins of Christianity and Judaism lend themselves well to this fascination!

But I’ve never been able to attend a service before, and I look forward to this opportunity!  Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and occurs 10 days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.


September 19, 2017

Part of the challenge and risk and reward of having a public presence online is that you never know who is going to stumble across your stuff or how they’re going to react to it.  So it was only a mild surprise when someone posted to a Facebook page I have for campus ministry.  The actual flow of events seems to be that this person found the page, liked the page, and then came across one of my posts there and freaked out.  The post was an open invitation to our Sunday evening happy hour.  I don’t think that anyone locally is likely to find the page and the invitation and request info, but I posted it more in terms of letting whomever know the kinds of things we were doing.

I have no idea who this person is beyond the little Facebook tells about her.  She isn’t apparently local, but has taken it upon herself to call me to repentance for offering a weekly happy hour.  Based on the destructive role of alcohol in the life of her family, she clearly sees it as a sin that should never be encouraged.

She could just be a bored troll hoping to start angst.  But I presume she’s sincere and so I take the time to respond to her and engage her concerns.  It’s not the kind of interaction I created the page for, but it is interaction, a chance to share the Gospel or apply the Gospel to our daily lives.  And I don’t know who else might see the interaction so I want to do so in love along with a good application of Scripture.  Her concerns are valid, based on her experiences.  The difficulty is balancing that something might be harmful and therefore sinful to one person, but not be harmful or sinful to someone else.

Maybe others will be drawn into the conversation.  What I hope this woman realizes is that her concerns are real, but not necessarily the best basis for condemning something as sinful in someone else’s life.  Especially someone she’s never met.


When Things Click

September 18, 2017

Last night we had a dozen people (in addition to our family of five) for happy hour.  And for what felt like the first time, I was able to have a series of meaningful discussions one on one with people in the midst of the overall hullabaloo.  We had people around until almost midnight, and there was a lot of time for good interactions.

There was the guy who wanted to know how I could say in my sermon that morning that I had no doubt that the events in Genesis – specifically the Joseph story – were historically accurate.  We were able to talk about history and documents and whether it’s more reasonable to assume an attitude that none of it can be true because we can’t prove it’s true, or whether we trust what it says because we don’t have good reason not to.

I got to speak with a young woman who desperately wants her younger brother to move out West, in no small part so he can come on Sunday nights and begin connecting to people in various ways.

I was able to facilitate another young man who is preparing for bartending school by letting him make a variety of drinks for people instead of me doing it all.

I got to speak to someone who helps out with music at our church about increasing and diversifying the types of music and the number of people we get involved.

My wife was able to have a side discussion with a newly married young woman on the sensitive issue of birth control and the risk considerations of utilizing pharmaceutical methods.  I was able to talk with this same young woman about coming to church instead of pretending that Sunday happy hour is church.

Part of what was different last night was that I deliberately made myself sit down in the fray for an extended period of time, which allowed for different people to gravitate in and out and engage in conversation, instead of me focusing solely on making drinks and washing dishes and doing all the things that a host does.  Part of the draw for Sunday nights I think is that they are intergenerational.  People get to interact with our kids as well as my wife and myself, and they want those opportunities.

And of course, one of the best parts of every Sunday night is the post-event debriefing, when my wife and I sit or collapse with a cup of tea and recount our various observations and interactions, comparing notes, encouraging one another, tucking bits away mentally for future reference if needed.  It’s the best part of the evening to sit with my best friend in the world and my partner in life and talk about how good God is!

Reading Ramblings – September 24, 2017

September 17, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Context: The readings today focus on two aspects of God that go necessarily together – his wholly other nature as expressed in his unrelenting grace and forgiveness. This is something we never fully wrap our heads around, but experience in shocking and awe-inspiring fleeting glimpses and realizations.

Isaiah 55:6-9 – This passage beautifully expresses the twin aspects of God’s otherness expressed through his grace. The hearer is called to throw themselves into the presence of God. Rather than hide in our sin and guilt we are invited into the very presence of holy and righteous God. There we find now what we expect and what we all too easily deliver to ourselves and others – judgment and condemnation. Rather we find the unexpected. Abundant pardon. Compassion. It makes no sense to us and yet this is our hope and our joy. It is the wholly other nature of God that forgives and has compassion on the repentant heart. We learn that coming into God’s presence isn’t something to dread but rather something to look forward to, a practice and way of living that continually transforms us and sets us free.

Psalm 27:1-9 – God is not our enemy! We will surely face adversaries in our life, but God is not one of them. Rather, He is our strength and refuge. He is who we flee to in times of distress, not who we flee from. And for this reason we are always steadfast. We rest in the reality of a God who transcends and transforms each moment of our lives in the promise and hope of perfect life in him. We cannot be defeated! The best our enemies can do is kill us, but we rest in the hand of the God of Life who has conquered death! Our hope is not guarded by the fickle and transient things of this world – money, power, influence. These things fade. They can disappear in a moment. Those who one minute praised us the next minute can demand our death (something Jesus is well-acquainted with!). Rather our hope is anchored in the constancy of God, which no power in all of creation can shake. We may suffer, we may endure loss, we may experience injustice and neglect and abuse. But none of these things shake us loose from the hand of God who holds us and promises us deliverance and victory in him!

Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30 – We leave behind Romans in order to move on in the lectio continua tradition to Philippians. Paul writes to the church in Philippi that he founded on his second missionary journey (Acts 16). While disagreement is ongoing about where and when Paul wrote this letter, it is possible that he wrote it towards the end of his ministry, perhaps during his imprisonment in Rome in the early 60’s, immediately preceding his execution by Nero. Paul writes to thank the Philippians for a gift that they have sent to him (4:10-20; 2:25), and his tone throughout the letter is one of joy and gratitude – a striking combination for a man in chains!

We skip Paul’s opening salutations and thanksgiving to begin with the real start of his letter. He is imprisoned but his imprisonment cannot contain the Gospel. His guards know why he is imprisoned – or more accurately, for whom he is imprisoned. It seems that there might be other Christians likewise imprisoned who are inspired by Paul’s boldness to be more bold themselves in their Christian testimony, however these might also be Christians who are not imprisoned but rather are ministering to Paul during his imprisonment. Because of the grace of God to Paul, he is confident and looks forward to the resolution of his case, confident that regardless of the outcome Christ will be glorified and Paul himself will be granted whatever courage necessary. Paul knows he might not prevail in his case, but even this does not discourage Paul, since if he is executed he goes to be with his Lord! And if he prevails and lives, then God will continue to use him to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Thus Paul exhorts the Philippians to continued steadfast faithfulness both in how they live as well as what they preach and believe. Whatever suffering they might endure comes as a gift from God uniting them to Paul and to their brothers and sisters everywhere in the faith who also suffer. What an encouragement to us to see in our own sufferings for the faith, whatever they might be, that we stand in a long, long line of faithful men and women who remained steadfast even to death if necessary, so that Christ might continue to be proclaimed even to their persecutors!

Matthew 20:1-16 – If there is a passage that better conveys the wholly other nature of God in terms of his compassion and mercy, I don’t know what it is. Anyone who gives this passage more than a cursory reading will be struck by the complete bizarrity of it all. Anyone who ponders it long enough is likely to detect within themselves at least a faint hint of disagreement. This isn’t how it should work. And yet it is, in terms of how the kingdom of God operates. This links the reading to last week’s reading which focused on forgiveness and also was intended to convey something about the nature of the kingdom of God.

Our sense that this is unfair stems from the idea that what we do and contribute is of some value and merit on it’s own to God, which therefore God must recognize as more valuable than the contributions of those who come later to the faith. In every other aspect of our lives we presume that our labors and contributions determine our reward – or at least should. We get paid for the hours we work. If we work longer hours we expect overtime or more pay or more time off. If we put in a lot of effort into an essay or school project we expect a better grade than the person who throws something together at the last minute. In this kingdom, our labors have value and merit in and of themselves and necessitate or deserve differing levels of recognition or compensation.

Not so in the kingdom of heaven. You and I contribute nothing to this kingdom. The only contribution that matters is the one that Christ makes on our behalf through his perfectly obedient life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. Here in this parable we see the totality of what it means to put on Christ. We must fully cast off ourselves, at least in terms of what we do and contribute. None of that matters. None of that means anything because it is wholly and completely inadequate in the kingdom of God, even when compared to the lackluster lives of others who profess faith in Christ. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) We think this falling short means different things for different people. The ax-murderer falls a lot shorter from the glory of God than dear sweet Grandma Perkins who spent her life ministering to the neighborhood children. By our measurements this is true, but not by God’s. Both fell short. Both sinned. And those sins were equally condemning to both of them if they hoped to win God’s grace by their good deeds.

We must fully put on Christ, so that what matters is not us by Christ in us and over us. And for this reason God can give lavishly to all that respond to the Holy Spirit’s call, whether they arrive early or late, baptized and raised in the Church or raising hell outside the Church until a late repentance. It is only the grace of God that brings us to him, and therefore it shouldn’t matter whether that grace is received early in life or late. Of course, we would say that it is a blessing to come to it earlier rather than later – as most late converts will readily assert. Yet there is the sinful temptation of some who came early to the grace of God to lament that they somehow missed out by doing so, and therefore deserve more compensation. Those who came early have already received that compensation in terms of a lifetime of knowing God and his love and grace!

Leveling Up II

September 14, 2017

Today was my first meeting with our District’s Board of Directors.  As a regional vice-president I hold a spot on this Board which helps to advise and guide the District as a whole.  It is comprised of a mix of lay people (a lay person is in contrast to a trained church worker or employee of some sort), commissioned church workers (trained professional church worker but not a pastor) and clergy from the four regions that make up our District.

I was naturally a bit in the spotlight being the new guy on the Board – stepping in to fill the shoes of our regional vice-president who retired this summer.  Lots of new names and faces to learn, but all in all a good group of people.

As with the vice-presidents yesterday, I was impressed with the deep level of care and  concern expressed for the many congregations in our District who are struggling, just as congregations across denominational lines and around our country are struggling.  Just as yesterday, there was also the conundrum of what to do and how to do it.  We’re good at picking things to do, but the solution to the struggles of small congregations doesn’t lie within a specific event or goal per se.  Yet such events and goals can be a means by which relationships are built to and between those congregations.  The key is not losing the forest for the tree and to ensure that the particular trees you focus on in the short term help to constitute the actual forest you’re trying to define.

Good hearts struggling with big questions and issues.  I’m grateful to learn from those with more experience at this level than I have, while contributing what perspectives my unique background both personally and in the ministry may offer.

Leveling Up

September 13, 2017

Today I sat in on my first executive level meeting for the regional governing polity for our denomination.

Translation:  When one of the regional vice-presidents for our denomination’s geographical district retired this summer,  I was asked by our District President to step into his shoes, becoming one of four regional vice-presidents that advise and assist the District President in the oversight of 300+ congregations spread out between central/southern California, all of Arizona, and the Las Vegas area of Nevada.  It was an unexpected request.  I hate meetings.  And I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid politics, whether office or ecclesiastical.  However I also believe that I should serve as I am able, when I am asked.  Today was my first meeting as part of the presidium or President’s council.  This group meets roughly quarterly to provide insight and advice to the President, as well as to receive directions from him for work to be done in the region which they represent.

The three other pastors all serve in large, multi-staff congregations.  They worship multiple hundreds of people every week and oversee the operations of large campuses, some with schools, and a diverse network of staff.  They’re good administrators as well as good pastors.  I serve a much, much smaller and simpler congregation – for which I am eternally grateful!  But it also means that my perspectives and experiences are rather different from what these guys deal with on a typical week.

This group also focuses on bigger picture stuff, and this was my first involvement in a discussion about the political situation for our denomination on the national level.  There are disagreements within our denomination about the best way forward, about how to interpret our past and therefore plot our future.  Is a strong, centralized national organization better than a decentralized and localized structure?  It’s the Church equivalent of the old American political disagreement over a strong Federal government or stronger state governments.  How tightly do we want to enforce conformity and uniformity amongst our member congregations?  Is it better to allow for a greater deal of diversity and flexibility than we have traditionally known, or should we try to enforce a baseline of worship or liturgical or musical practice amongst congregations?

And as in any group of people you have a spectrum of voices that runs the gamut from extremes on both ends to moderates in the middle.   As with national politics, I generally want to not get too involved personally, trusting that I won’t be affected by decisions that are made far away by people I’ve barely met.  But as history shows both in politics as well as church politics, this isn’t always the case.  But I felt very much the neophyte today.  I don’t know most of the names and players in our denominational political scene.  Heck, I don’t know most of the names just in our local area!   But I’m willing to learn and find out if my perspectives are of value compared to the more seasoned and experienced voices of the others in the meeting.

I appreciated the personal as well as business oriented nature of the meeting.  Because sensitive issues are discussed, there is an understanding and desire to actually know each other.  The meeting began with a time of personal sharing so that we could care for and pray for one another and what we are personally dealing with before moving on to business.  That was a beautiful touch.

And despite what many in our denomination suspect, there is a great deal of pastoral concern for the congregations and people in our denomination and particularly in our District and within our regions.  There is a desire and a willingness to help, combined with a genuine uncertainty in how best to do this, coupled with the recognition that any top-down initiative or invitation will be viewed with suspicion and even disinterest by some of the very congregations and leaders we hope to help.  It’s a difficult situation to say the least.

God has worked so many changes in my life over the years.  It’s difficult to imagine who I once was in some respects.  Hopefully the majority of the changes are for the better.  But at the very least He has equipped me to operate in a variety of contexts, to shift gears or to blend in to my surroundings to some degree.  I pray for the strength and wisdom to know what to say and when to say it, to God’s glory rather than my own, and the benefit of his people both here and now as well as for eternity.