Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Safe Space?

October 6, 2017

This morning I attended the mandatory initial training for folks hoping to get a program for the next ten weeks on the local state university public access AM radio station.  Not surprisingly, I was the oldest person there, which is kind of weird after nearly 15 years away from active campus ministry!

I was struck by a poster stuck in the window of the station office, declaring that this office and radio station was a safe space.  That really struck with me.

We hear a lot about safe spaces these days, whether you side with the concept or ridicule it to the secondary issue which is that we have always as human beings sought safe spaces.  But for a long, long time, those safe spaces were connected in one way or the other with the spiritual and religious.  The hunchback crying Sanctuary! in Victor Hugo’s famous novel is but one beautiful example of countless others spanning thousands of years.  God himself designated sanctuary cities for his people in the Old Testament.  Rather than being places of exception to the law, they were places where those accused of major crimes might flee in the hope of being announced innocent by the law and spared the retributive justice otherwise in force.   Even science fiction has availed itself of this concept.  In the questionable cult-classic movie Highlander and the myriad offshoots and sequels, the age-old process of might makes right is hindered only on sacred ground.  Only in a church could an immortal be safe from the predations of other immortals intent on becoming the only one left.

Is a church a safe space?  It isn’t to those who reject God and his mercy, who either embrace only his Law as a means for justification, or reject his Law in rebellion against him.  To the unrepentant the Church is not a safe space because there they will be confronted with their sin and their need for a Savior.  They will not be coddled or swaddled in false affirmations for the sake of niceness.  The Word of God is never safe to those who think they satisfy the demands of God’s Word or to those who reject or ignore repentance.

But the Church is the ultimate and only safe space for those who recognize their shortcomings, who are willing to deal as honestly as possible with the reality that they are broken and ugly inside, and that no matter how hard they try, they can never become the person that even their own moral standards – let alone God’s! – say they should be.  For the broken, the penitent, the hopeless, the Church is the only safe space this side of eternity.  Here they will hear about the love of God manifest in history and geography and culture in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  Here they will hear about how the innocent sacrifice of the God-Man makes forgiveness and grace available to them here and now.  Here they will hear that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven, cannot be washed clean if they are repentant and receive the death and resurrection of Jesus as their own.  Only in the Church is the means and assurance of salvation objective and changeless.  Only in the Church will God’s Word stand consistent and clear, not shifting with the tides of culture and preference.  Only the Church can announce and deliver the only true safety in this world – safety in the love and forgiveness and the hope and life promised to us in the Word of God and made palpable in his Sacraments.

Can a radio station be a safe space?  I can applaud the goal.  But I don’t think it can.  This particular station prides itself on being alternative.  But the very definition of alternative shifts and changes over time.  Sign on to a major record label after sweating blood in small venues for years?  Sorry, you’re no longer alternative enough (the station’s definition, not mine).  I can only imagine the number of groups over the past few decades that started out sufficient alternative and anti-establishment, but with the passage of time have been judged outdated or even mainstream.

We’ve already seen in other arenas how those that start out as part of a unified front can be cast off for not being alternative enough.  It’s all well and good to support women’s rights, for instance, but if you happen to also support Trump, you might no longer be welcomed, as Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama both stated in the past few weeks.   What is considered alternative or edgy or counter-cultural is prone to shift as culture itself shifts and changes.  Someone who might be championed today might be left in the dust tomorrow if it’s discovered that they somehow disagreed with others in the alternative realm about something or other.  Like any clique, loyalty and membership can be fickle, and the line between being edgy enough and too edgy can be difficult to discern.

The safety that the radio station office can offer is pretty limited.  Walk out the doors and you’re once again confronted by a big, bad world that doesn’t necessarily care about your feelings or your ideas or your aspirations.  It doesn’t care that you’re hip and edgy and cool, and will be happy to squash you or not.  The variables are myriad and uncontrollable.  You might be safe in the confines of the radio station office, but that safety disappears at the doorway, and even the safety offered within is transitory and solely at the discretion of the university administration or other Powers-That-Be.

The safety the Church offers doesn’t end at the door.  It’s not dependent on being surrounded by other people who think and act the same way you do.  It doesn’t require everyone else to set aside their perspectives in order for yours to be heard and respected.  The safety offered by the Church is the only real safety to be had in this world.  Nestled in the arms of the God who created us and loves us and is committed to making us holy and perfect.  A safety that isn’t dependent on being successful on the world’s terms or raging successfully (or unsuccessfully) against the machine.  A safety that acknowledges the inherent danger in every moment of our lives, from the unpredictable and uncontrollable world around us to the hatred of our immortal enemy, Satan.

It’s a safety not couched in the acceptance of the world but rather a looking forward to a world that is yet to be but is already starting to break into reality here and now by the grace of God.  A safety that is based not in ourselves but rather in the promises of the God who made us and died for us and works towards our perfection here and now and in eternity.

A radio station can be a lot of things to a lot of people.  But there can only ever be one truly safe space in this world, the space that the Son of God created through his disciples, and against which He promised the gates of hell would never prevail.  I’ll keep broadcasting that message as long as I can, whether I get a slot in the university radio station line-up or not.






Making Up Is Hard to Do

October 2, 2017

You see it on social media all the time.  Those pithy little encouraging quotes about how you should just ditch anybody in your life that disagrees with you about anything because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.  Life should be an unending stream of positive affirmations and warm fuzzies, and if anybody doesn’t fit that mold, you don’t need them.

Yet the Bible calls us to a fundamentally different understanding of life and people, radically re-oriented not around ourselves but around a man who lived and died and came back to life 2000 years ago.  In professing faith in that series of events and the reality that He did those things for us, we give our lives over in obedience to him and what He tells us about how to live.  We no longer get to define our life by how warm and fuzzy and affirming it is, because our Lord warns us that “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you” (John 15:18).  And we no longer get to simply throw people out of our lives when they do or say something we don’t agree with because our Lord commands us “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15).

But this is really, really, really hard work.  Supernaturally hard, I would argue, and possible only by the grace of God (whether the people involved are aware of this or not).  And last night at Happy Hour, we got to see and participate in such a miracle.

Two of the young men who come on Sunday nights hit it off badly when they first met a couple of months ago.  Unfortunately, the friction of that first meeting has lingered and in the last two weeks has erupted into very angry comments from one of them towards the other.  I wasn’t there last week to see it, but fortunately I was there last night to see it as it unfolded.  And more blessedly, I wasn’t the only one.  With the help of a couple of other people and by the grace and wisdom of God the Holy Spirit, we were able to begin interjecting ourselves into the situation in order to shift it from an angry outburst into an opportunity for personal sharing and learning about the parties involved.

This went on for at least an hour.  It seemed like six hours!  Each of the two had a chance to share about themselves and one another.  They sought input from the three of us as to what we saw and heard going on.  We discussed possible reasons for the way these two rubbed each other the wrong way.  They hugged and affirmed their love for one another, exhibiting a mutual commitment to learning how to deal with one another.  By the time everyone left just before midnight, I was exhausted, but also excited.  The group had accomplished something important together, and I think that God was glorified in that process.

I’m sure that things will still be strained.  The two people involved operate very differently.  But we can now work with them as necessary to call them back to last evening and their commitment to one another.  I look forward to seeing how the coming weeks play out in their interactions.  Awkward, undoubtedly, but hopefully improving over time!

Sunday School or Bust

September 28, 2017

Our congregation doesn’t have a Sunday School.  Are we still a church?

It’s an interesting question.  Our particular denomination (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) has always emphasized education.  Martin Luther developed the Small Catechism specifically so that families could educate their children, one another, and themselves about the essentials of the Christian faith and Christian life.  And ever since Lutherans arrived in America in larger numbers in the 19th century, education has been a prime focus.  This takes shape as Sunday School in the congregation, and pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, and a world-class set of universities.

But we don’t have Sunday School at our church for two reasons.  The first reason is that nobody really wants to lead and teach it, and the second is that we don’t have very many children.  We’ve made efforts at Sunday School over the past few years but they’ve always fallen by the wayside fairly quickly.

This has led some in our congregation to a state of angst.  After all, the traditional wisdom is that a congregation grows through families.  If you don’t have children in the congregation, you aren’t going to have the next generation of participants and leaders in the congregation.  A congregation without children, in the eyes of many, is a congregation headed towards death.

I understand and empathize with that angst to a certain extent.  I went to Sunday School, after all.  But the fact remains that we have only three children in regular attendance on Sunday mornings, and they happen to be my children.  My wife teaches them all week – both in the home schooling sense and in the Christian faith and practice.  I support her in not wanting to teach them in a Sunday School format on Sunday morning as well just so we can say we have a Sunday School.  It isn’t her responsibility to do that, and if nobody else wants to head it up, then we don’t offer it.

Yet, despite the prevailing wisdom (or at least accumulated experience) regarding Sunday School and children, our congregation is growing.  It has grown at a steady pace for the last seven years, despite the fact that our congregation is primarily made up of people over 70 years of age and therefore we have certainly conveyed a fair number of people into glory!  If a lack of children and Sunday School is tantamount to congregational suicide, we’re certainly not going gently into that good night!

The Church ultimately exists to equip the saints of God.  To teach them the faith as given to us by God himself in the Bible, and centered on the gifts of God in this Word, in the Sacraments, and most centrally in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus.  To show Christians how to live the Christian life.  To absolve them of their sins when they fail and are repentant.  To confront them with their sins and the risks associated with them when they are not repentant.  The Church exists, then, to give the people of God the gifts of God, that, sustained by God’s gifts, they may enter into glory eternally.

There are a lot of ways to do this.  And if you happen to have kids in your congregation, Sunday School is a really good and important idea.  I would argue that the primary importance isn’t for the kids, though, it’s for the parents.  The primary importance is that if the kids are in Sunday School, then the parents should be in adult Bible Study digging deeper into the Word of God and fleshing out the application of his Word in their lives for the week ahead.  How do I be a good spouse?  How do I be a good parent?  How do I be a good neighbor?  How do I be a good employee or employer?   And how do I model and teach and live out the life of Christian faith in a way that my children will see it and emulate it on their own once they leave my care?

It isn’t that Sunday School isn’t beneficial to kids, but it isn’t essential.  What is essential is parents who are grounded in the faith and encouraged and supported by the congregation to parent their children and love their spouses and neighbors with the love of Christ.  A congregation doesn’t need to offer Sunday School to accomplish these things.  But I would argue that it does need to offer and expect people to attend adult Bible study regularly.   I’m fine with not having Sunday School at our church for the reasons listed above.  I wouldn’t be fine with a congregation where nobody felt like studying the Word of God and learning how to apply it more and better was a really, really, really important part of their lives.

I understand that parents want Sunday School for their children for any number of reasons.  But I disagree that Sunday School – and nowadays it’s not just Sunday School but children’s programs on a larger scale – should be the primary criteria for determining which church to belong to.  Yet I’ve had plenty of conversations – or not really conversations, but just comments – by people visiting our church over the years that what they are most looking for is programs for their kids.

And because of that weird chicken and the egg dynamic, they don’t come to our church because we don’t offer extensive programming for children.  Because we don’t have any kids.  While our members like the idea of having kids and young families in worship, they so far haven’t indicated a desire to serve as Sunday School teachers and leaders yet.  Nor have they determined that they want to invest substantial money in hiring someone to launch this, not knowing whether or not it will draw kids and young families.  Like many communities, there are larger congregations around who can offer fantastic children’s programs that we can’t compete with in any way.  If children’s programming is going to be the main criteria for someone deciding to come to our church, we can’t compete with those folks.

Nor, I would argue, should we.

Rather, I think congregations should focus on the resources and giftings that they have, regardless of what those might be.  Maybe it’s a very loving and caring and welcoming community that can form bonds with visitors quickly and follow up with them so that they feel welcomed and an important part of the community quickly.  Maybe it’s strong educational offerings.  Maybe it’s a rich and vibrant worship service and environment.  Maybe it’s outreach and care for the elderly in a community.  Figure out what you’re good at and focus on that (always assuming, of course, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the grace of God are always front and center!).  Or figure out what you really think is important, what people are willing to commit not just their time but also their money and prayers towards, and pursue that.  The Holy Spirit is active and present!  Take seriously the idea that He gifts congregations and individuals differently!  Embrace that, rather than lamenting what He hasn’t give you, at least for the time being.  Don’t let Sunday School – or any other particular program – become the equivalent of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12.  If God has gifted you to be good at it, then go and do it and give the thanks and glory to God!  If He hasn’t, figure out what He has gifted you for and give thanks and glory to God!

Worrying about any one particular program – or the lack thereof – is probably not the key to a congregation’s longevity and viability.  The Holy Spirit works in unpredictable ways!  While our culture may write off anyone over 55 as more or less irrelevant, those people are children of God whom Christ died for.  They can respond to the Gospel just like a five year old can.  And improbable as it might sound, a congregation of mostly post-retired folks can continue to grow and thrive in the grace of God the Holy Spirit.

Challenging Vocations

September 27, 2017

As a ‘bonus’ for now being a vice-president, I got to hang around for an extra morning of meetings today!  Truth be told, I would probably have had to stay anyways, but still.  It’s a painful sort of gratitude, if you ask me.

Our District President was welcoming and providing some training to the Circuit Visitors (which was another of my titles – along with Grand Poobah – until very recently).  These pastors serve as the most local representation of the larger District and ultimately the District President, and are his go-to guys for helping out with situations good and bad that happen throughout the District.

He shared that currently there are 19 congregations in our District that are in the process of Calling a pastor.  Normally that number is higher but there were a lot of Calls and installations that occurred over the summer so the number is momentarily lower.  There are also another 40+ congregations who can’t afford to Call a full-time pastor.  He discussed how, due to the very high cost of living in coastal Southern and Central California, it is increasingly difficult to find pastors able to come here because they’re afraid they aren’t going to be able to afford to live here.  While our District provides guidelines to congregations to assist them in paying their pastors a living wage, some estimate that at least half of the congregations in the District are paying below the District recommendations, either out of necessity or ignorance.  He then commented that his word to guys considering Calls to this area is to advise them that they need to expect that their wives will have to work outside of the home to generate additional income so their family can survive.

And that reality sticks in my craw.

Culturally, of course, the idea of women working outside the home has been championed not as a choice that a woman might avail herself of based on her interests and abilities, but rather a necessary demonstration of the equality of women.  Because feminism quickly jumped the rails ideologically, it defines equality between men and women as women doing everything that men do.  This assumption is remarkably misogynistic, ironically – that what a man does should be the basis for generating respect and therefore is the definition of equality.  Rather than demanding equality for women as women – in whatever vocational direction they prefer to go – feminism insists that only by working outside the home does a woman have any real worth, and that opting to work at home as a mother and spouse is demeaning and a betrayal of women everywhere.

How is the Church to respond to this redefinition of equality?  Rather than being created equal, we are only equal in terms of what we do.  I don’t have an issue with a woman or a wife working outside the home.  I don’t view them as inferior to men in their productive capacities in the workplace at all.  Nor do I espouse the mentality of men who assume or assert that a woman’s place must be in the home.  But I do have an issue with an ideological assumption in our culture that women will or even must work outside the home – whether for ideological reasons or economic reasons.  And I worry about a Church culture that goes along with this because it’s economically advantageous.

I’m blessed to serve a congregation that pays me enough to live on so that my wife can work in the home – raising our children, educating our children, and being a partner par excellence.   I say regularly that she has the harder job of the two of us, and I’m mostly serious.  And just like a man working by the sweat of his brow in a field or an office, the burden of responsibility she bears in her work takes its toll on her.  Only an idiot presumes that a wife not working outside the home isn’t working.   And only an equally ignorant person would assume that just because there isn’t a paycheck made out in her name every two weeks that the work she provides is worth any less than her husband earning a paycheck.  My paycheck is also hers.  Only by working together can we earn it.  We support one another.  This is our equality, that we support one another in complementary and different ways – not that we do exactly the same sorts of things.

This is the Biblical understanding of the relationship between men and women, a relationship that was damaged significantly in the Fall (Genesis 3), but is being restored in Christ, to the point where Paul can cryptically share that marriage is actually a representation of the relationship between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32).  It is an equality that celebrates our differences and complementary natures that express themselves physiologically, psychologically, theologically, and in all sorts of other -allies that I’m too lazy to list.

So for the Church to say to a husband and wife we want you, but we want to force you both to work outside the home rather than honoring and supporting the roles that you have found work well for you and your family is dangerous to me.  We lament the demise of the family but are unwilling because of fear of cultural backlash to look at how the redefinition of family and gender roles has contributed to this.  We marvel that our kids and grandkids aren’t in church, yet we entrust their intellectual and social formation primarily to an institution that is now actively working against encouraging or even just respecting a life lived in faith.  We presume that the constant mantra of buy, buy, buy must be answered with dual incomes.

Again, this is not a diatribe against women working outside the home!  But it is intended as an alarm to a church that demands this.   The work of the Church should not come at the expense of the family.  The family is the original and first Church, and the Church would do well to remember this and promote and support the family in every possible way, rather than seeking to put the family in service to the Church.  I would far rather, if I had a congregation of young parents, that instead of spending all their time at congregational functions and events they would spend time together at home intentionally as a couple and a family.  That they would take on the major responsibility for raising their children in the faith and nurturing faith in one another.  The Church should stand ready to assist in this, but it is a dangerous turn when the Church ends up putting programs ahead of the relationships those programs should serve.

I will be having conversations with our District leadership in my new capacity to explore and discuss this issue further.  There isn’t much to be done about it officially since our congregations are self-governing.  But we certainly can and should, I believe, adopt an attitude that challenges congregations who make these sorts of assumptions and place these sorts of expectations on the families they wish to serve them.  Sacrifices for the Gospel shouldn’t surprise us.  But it ought to surprise and dismay us when the Church is the one demanding the sacrifice.


Bigger or Better?

September 25, 2017

At a recent gathering of brethren, the typical discussion topic for those engaged in professional church work came up – what to do about dwindling weekly worship attendance and churches that are small and struggling?

The participants in this discussion came from large churches, depending on your definition of large.  But they were seriously concerned about small churches.  Congregations barely able or not able to Call a pastor.  Weekly worship levels in the low double digits.  Or even single digits.  Groups of Christians sitting on property worth millions of dollars but unable to engage in outward-oriented ministry because of budget difficulties and a lack of manpower.

These are all valid concerns for a variety of reasons.  But what to do about it?  There was a consensus that we should encourage congregations to work together more, to share resources and ministry opportunities.  But how to get congregations to do this?  How to get pastors to do this?

One of the suggestions was to change the way we talk about our numbers and metrics.  Instead of focusing on worship attendance at just our congregation, we should instead report the aggregate number of people in our denomination in worship in any given week as though it were our own.  So instead of saying that we worshiped 20 last Sunday, or 100, or 200, we would report that we worshiped 22,000 or so.  Which might be the number who worshiped at all of the congregations in our region combined.  The idea was to give hope and encouragement while also fostering a greater sense of the larger Church, of a given congregation being not an island, but rather part of a larger body.

I commend that goal wholeheartedly, but I am somewhat uncertain about the continued emphasis on metrics and numbers.

In a culture where bigger is better, the idea of reporting a large number is an indicator of success, and people want to be successful and associate with other successful people, and this can buoy the spirit of a small congregation and create an environment that others want to be a part of.  Or something like that.  Because at the end of the day, all this talk about working together and collaboration and partnership is a matter of numbers.  If so many congregations weren’t struggling to keep the lights on our make payroll, we wouldn’t be needing to talk about collaboration (though I would argue we still should).

Numbers and economics were driving the conversation that took place in that boardroom.  And God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-filled men and women were genuinely concerned that for many of their colleagues, numbers and economics were bad and continuing to get worse.  They wanted to help.  They still do.

But I don’t think reporting larger numbers is going to help.  The decline that is most prominent in small and vulnerable congregations is part of a larger-scale cultural decline in regularly Christian worship that even large churches are struggling with, though their struggle may be with plateaued worship attendance instead of declining attendance.  But if projections are correct, this cultural decline is going to continue.  Rapidly.  And even the big churches will be affected by it somewhat.  Aggregating our worship attendance won’t be a big psychological help if the number continues to shrink.  And I worry that changing the way we talk about worship numbers isn’t really going to build collegiality and a greater sense of unity amongst our various pastors and congregations.

Attendance isn’t the number that we need to look at.  Our economics are the numbers we need to look at.  Does it make sense to still define a successful or viable church by the fact that it owns a piece of property with a church building on it?  Particularly in our part of the world, where real-estate is so incredibly expensive, wouldn’t redefining how Church looks give a better opportunity for people to be excited about what Church does?  Not every congregation may need to ask this question.  Financially secure or large congregations may well reasonably decide it makes best sense to stay put in the facility they own.  But for many others, accessing the capital tied up in the ground under their feet could enable them to initiate additional outreach and ministry opportunities to reach more people.

How we have learned to do Church in America over the last 200 years or so may not work so well in the future.  Especially if some of the benefits the Church enjoys here are removed – tax exemptions in particularly.  A change of tactics is necessary but it goes deeper than just getting people to work together to the issue of how to work together, and what we’re working together for.

The New Testament doesn’t talk about numbers much.  There are a few mentions in Acts about the miraculous number of people who are led to faith in Jesus Christ.  Those numbers are descriptive – here is what happened by the grace of God the Holy Spirit.  They aren’t prescriptive, in terms of this is how big your church should be.  We have to stop listening to corporate marketing and sales models that are tweaked slightly for churches.  I had an e-mail the other day from someone with a program for fine-tuning our web and social media presence to generate a 32% increase in worship attendance within a year.

I don’t believe it.  But even if I did, I’d want to question why that’s an issue for me.  Is it to share the Gospel with that many more people, or is it to buoy the budget?   We need to be brutally honest about what our motivations are when we talk about these things, because people are going to suspect that our motivations are selfish and money-oriented.  Why?  Because that’s the way the rest of our culture and society function.  They’ll assume the Church is the same way.  And if that’s really at the base of all our talk about the Gospel, they’re going to smell it pretty quickly.

I’m worried about small congregations as well.  I want to encourage congregations of all sizes to be more collaborative, to partner, to share resources.  I understand very well how difficult that can be at first.  But I believe that it is a privilege far more than a necessity.  In learning how to work together as the Body of Christ, we can present Christ more authentically to the culture around us.  That’s what really matters, trying to follow the Holy Spirit as He guides us through challenging and perplexing times, but not through situations and circumstances that are new.  These are issues the Church has faced throughout the last 2000 years in various places.  We should be humble and wise enough to be willing to learn.  Together.  Regardless of the numbers.

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.


Mind the Collar

September 12, 2017

There was a brief flurry of comments about the young man who appeared at the MTV Music Video Awards in his clerical collar to denounce racism.  This got him into a bit of trouble with his congregation resulting in him offering his resignation.  This is his letter explaining his actions and the results.  Where to start with this?

Let’s start with his congregation’s concerns about his actions.  Is this warranted?  Of course it is.  The young man expresses surprise that his congregation has a problem with what he did.  Their reaction was”deeply hurtful” to him.  Perhaps he can understand then why his actions and words were “deeply hurtful” to some in the congregation.  He mentions his “right to free speech”.  But his right to free speech ends when he puts his clerical collar on.  Once he puts on the garb of a minister, he is voluntarily giving up his civil right to free speech in recognition that he is formally representing the Church or at least his congregation.

Did he consult with his leadership regarding whether or not appearing on a show broadcast around the world was a good idea?  Did they approve the specific statement he issued in that venue?  Did he honor his congregation by verifying that this was something they wanted him to do beforehand?  He specifically states that he is speaking “as a pastor”, but a pastor has a context.  Without ensuring that his congregation supported his statement, he should not be surprised that some were hurt by the publicity and offended at certain aspects of his remarks.  If you want to appear as a private person, without a collar and without reference to your vocation of pastor, that’s one thing.  But if you want to wear that mantle, you accept the restrictions that go with it.

Regarding what he said specifically, I have a few issues.  His designation of racism as “America’s original sin” has a lot of theological implications when he speaks in the uniform of and under the title of pastor.  I’d be curious how he reached this conclusion.  What is the exegetical basis for this assertion and again, how is it that he decides to publicly assert this as a leader of part of God’s Church?  It sounds a lot more like personal interpretation and exegesis to me, regardless of how many others might share in his viewpoint.  How does this become the country’s original sin given that it was not a sin universally engaged in?  At what threshold does can a sin be attributed directly and personally to everyone, if everyone does not directly or personally engage in it?  Slippery stuff, there.

I agree that racism is a sinful thing that should be confronted as such as necessary.  What about white supremacy, though?  How is this defined?  Does the demographic preponderance of whites automatically equal white supremacy?  Is it the particular ideological assertion that whites are inherently superior to other ethnicities?  That’s a big term to throw around without defining anything.

Most egregious, however, is the fact that when referring people to inspirations for confronting racism and white supremacy, Mr. Lee mentions only contemporary political movements and persons with extremely limited scope and questionable ideologies of their own.  I would think that if he wants to don the garb of a pastor and speak as a pastor, then he should have at least referenced Scripture as the first and foremost inspiration and power for confronting sin in all of it’s many facets.  Was he requested not to mention Scripture, or did he simply not think of it, or did he specifically choose not to mention it?  Curious.

So yeah, I understand why some of his congregation was upset.  And I find his rather immature surprise and hurt at this to be just that (hopefully) – immature.  His letter smacks of a self-righteousness that still doesn’t recognize the hurt that he caused, preferring to focus on the hurt he has personally experienced.  I pray for his sake as well as for the sake of his next congregation that this is a time of growth and maturation for him as a man and as a pastor.  I pray that he finds good, wise folks around him to help him in this process.

I pray this for myself.  I’m pretty sure it’s a good prayer for everyone, which might minimize the frequency of these sorts of public problems.


Mixing Up the Mixers

September 4, 2017

Last night was a wonderful happy hour.  One of my concerns about the community that has been forming on Sunday nights at our house is that it is almost completely made up of graduates from the local private Christian university.  Thus a lot of those stories and experiences form a major portion of the conversations that go on.  It’s more of a historically oriented discussion about who people were and what people did, which makes it difficult for my wife and I and others to join in.

But last night the mix was more even, with almost half the folks not coming from that school.  These weren’t regulars but folks that are part of our church community about half the time.  Plus one of the folks there last night is new to our area and worshiped with us for the first time that morning.  I invited he and his wife and he showed up.  It was cool to see him comfortable mingling, so much so that he stayed over four hours, until things started wrapping up!

The Epistle lesson for yesterday was the final sections of Romans 12.  Verse 13 includes an exhortation to show hospitality.  I never know how hard to emphasize this.  Obviously, our family is tuned in to this particular spiritual gifting and find it both beautiful and important.  It’s also exhausting – particularly after a week filled with people.  But it’s part of who we are.  But as a culture we seem more isolated, more fearful of people we don’t know well.  Less inclined to open our homes to someone that we don’t know.

I don’t know how hard to push people on this.  There are many types of giftings, after all, and certainly hospitality is not one that everyone will share.  But it’s also one that rarely if ever gets talked about in our larger culture or even within Christian community and church.  It seems like something we ought to be examining more closely since it’s not part of our larger cultural practice.  Welcoming the stranger and showing love to people is intimidating but also so rewarding.  Every week we’re reminded of how important this simple thing is – being available, being willing to welcome people into our home to show them love with food and drink.

How many people out there have this gift and are using it?  And should we be talking about it more?  Not in the sense of pressuring others to do likewise, but in terms of reminding the body of the value of this seemingly simple act?


Humility in the Wilderness

August 31, 2017

I’m leading (and creating) an in-depth Bible study on the book of Revelation.  It has been an adventure, to say the least, one that has left me with a deep appreciation for the awesome task of making sense of God’s Word, and the reality that our understanding is at times very limited in this respect.

Today we’re tackling Chapter 17, the beginning section treating the fate of three powerful entities aligned against the people of God, his Church, and ultimately God himself.  The events of Chapter 17 unfold in the wilderness, a locale scripturally associated both with God’s formative work in people’s lives (the people of Israel in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) as well as temptation (Jesus tempted in the wilderness, Matthew 4).  In John’s revelation, the wilderness is both where the Church flees from the persecution of Satan (Chapter 12), and is now also where John beholds the Great Harlot and her fate.

Even in just that simple paragraph I’ve no doubt offended, confused, or contradicted several dozen different interpretative moves amongst Revelation scholars.  I take comfort in that they also offend, confuse, and contradict one another, so adding my comparatively light academic and theological opinion to the mix is hardly the straw that will break any camel’s back!

But what struck me as I concluded my preparatory reading this morning was that  in the interpretation above, both the real and true Church of God, the bride of Christ who has been made pure, as well as the great harlot drunk on the wine of her many sins are in the wilderness.  Contextually, the Church is there because God has prepared a place of refuge for her there (12:6, 14).  We presume that the harlot is there in order to waylay those in the Church or those who might seek her.  She is there to seduce and misdirect whatever of God’s faithful she might, and to ensure that those currently outside of the fold of faith are unable (or at least unlikely) to reach it.  The harlot is attired in all the wealth and accoutrements and esteem so valued by the world.  It could only be by the very grace of God that someone was not fooled into following her instead of searching out the  bride of the Lamb clothed in fine but comparatively simple (and pure!) linen (19:8).

I side with those who interpret the woman to be the embodiment of the second beast (Revelation 13).  She is the lure of false religion as well as false teaching within the Church itself, leading to apostasy and rejection of true faith in Jesus Christ and knowledge of God as self-disclosed by God in his Word.  Which means you have the True Church as well as the False Church both out in the wilderness together.  Both contending with one another.  Both arguing for the truth of their identity and position and teachings.  One of them faithful and pure, the other terribly, eternally wrong.

If such is the case, then I would think it prudent for those claiming to be followers of Christ today to have a certain amount of humility and caution as they engage with one another.  Particularly I’m thinking of the current, codified version of an ongoing argument among Christians.   And I would particularly think that those whose major argument is for some sort of new divine revelation that directly contradicts thousands of years of theological understanding and interpretation would be just a tad wary that perhaps their arguments aren’t nearly as divinely inspired as they believe.  That perhaps they are being led astray into a false teaching intended ultimately to wrench them from Jesus himself.

This is not to say that longevity is to be equated with truth.  But within the Scriptural context, there is the clear warning against faithfulness that over time turns to unfaithfulness.  The bride or unmarried young woman who becomes the whore.  The danger is always that we are being led away by our own ideas and passions, which are not really ours but rather are the promptings of our ancient enemy, the Accuser.  I put a great deal more stock in the long-held interpretations and teachings of the Church over and against whatever spirit of the age might be popular.  It isn’t that the Church is never wrong, but it seems that the odds are better of her being right in the totality of her history and teaching than of me being right by coming up with some new interpretation or application.  Especially if it directly contradicts not just the teaching of the Church but the fairly clear Word of God itself.

We’re in the wilderness, that much is clear.  So we should be extra careful of the company we keep, so to speak.  One of the people we’ll meet in the wilderness is going to lead us to death, and the other to life.  One is going to seem obviously the right choice because of her wealth and power, as opposed to the persecuted and scorned condition of the other.  If our theological stance places us on the side of the spirit of the age and those self-entrusted with directing our ideas and values, perhaps we need to be very, very skeptical and nervous that we’re not in the right camp.  It isn’t that we haven’t been warned that it’s going to be confusing.  But it also isn’t that we haven’t been assured that the truth is available (Revelation 14:6-7).