Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

Covering the Bases

July 2, 2020

As I continue to work slowly through a book on improving my preaching, the next chapter deals with different ways a speaker/preacher connects with the people they are speaking to.

Ethos listeners prioritize the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. If there is a strong connection with the speaker the message will be heard better. Likewise (though not explicitly stated in the book) if the relationship is strained or not good between the speaker and the listener, the listener is going to have a harder time connecting with what is being said. Sometimes this is referred to as an issue of integrity or character on the part of the speaker or the hearer’s perception of their integrity or character. Reaching people who react well based on ethos involves reminding them of this shared relationship. Speaking about we and us as opposed to them or you. Referencing personal stories or the impact of the sermon topic or verses on you personally.

Logos listeners focus on the cerebral or intellectual content of a sermon. They want to be presented with ideas to chew on and mull over or be challenged by. They’re most engaged when learning something new, and sermons that include a focus on information sit well with this group.

Pathos listeners react on the emotional level. They love real-life stories or anecdotes, but they also are most attentive when they are part of the sermon, and can connect what is being preached to their lives.

Ideally every sermon should have some of each aspect in it to best reach as many of your hearers as possible. And that seems reasonable. I can certainly confirm that people who are not in a good relationship with me have a harder time hearing what I say in the sermon, and are more apt to take things the wrong way (or at least in a way I wasn’t intending). Likewise I believe a good preacher should be teaching in a sermon. Not like I would teach a Bible study class, but there should be elements where I’m sharing what I’ve learned rather than just rehashing what I’ve heard all my life from others. The familiar can be comforting but if that’s all I give, people get bored. Or at least I get bored! And I’ve seen firsthand how a good story can really draw people into the sermon.

I like to think my sermons involve all three of these ways of preaching, though certainly the balance will vary from week to week. I also find myself hearing St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth emphasizing how we should also be careful not to be too calculated in how we speak the Word of God. Ultimately the power in a sermon is God’s Word and the Holy Spirit at work in that Word. While I want to be a good and effective preacher I also realize I can only control this to a certain extent, and there are limitations to my abilities so that I shouldn’t rely on them.

At the end of the day (Sunday?) I hope people have heard the Word of God applied to their lives in a concrete way. I’m experienced enough to know this can happen when I personally think my sermon stunk. And it can not happen when I think my sermon was a home run. I resonate well with those masters of the preaching craft who insist that if the sermon stinks, it’s my fault. But if the sermon is really good, then God gets the praise and glory. That’s how it should be, not as an excuse for me to neglect my duties or be shoddy in my preparation, but as a means of keeping my humbled and my community focused on what is important – Christ crucified.

Preaching Progress

June 30, 2020

About ten years ago – oh wait, it was really just this past February! – I began a book on improving my preaching.

Then the world fell apart.

But the book remains on my desk open to the chapter I have been working on sporadically for several months. Chapter 2. I did say sporadically, didn’t I? Intermittently? More not than often? Anyways.

Chapter 2 has me go through past sermons over the last several years to determine when parts of the Bible I primarily preach out of. He divides Scripture into different sections –

  • Genesis-Deuteronomy (Pentateuch)
  • Joshua – Esther (History)
  • Job – Song of Solomon (Wisdom Literature)
  • Isaiah – Malachi (Prophets)
  • Matthew – Acts (Gospels/Acts)
  • Romans – Philippians (Pauline Epistles)
  • Hebrews – Revelation (General Epistles & Revelation)

What I learned in this is my system of saving my sermons does not lend itself to an easy examination of what texts I primarily preached from. So I had to open every single individual sermon to determine what I preached from. Which is incredibly time-consuming, and so I didn’t go through five years of back sermons. I made it through about a year and a half and I’m going to call that good.

I preach primarily on the Gospel texts. This makes good sense as I believe the Gospel should predominate in worship. However I often incorporate the Old Testament lesson or the Epistle reading or even the psalm into the sermon as well, so that even while I’m preaching mostly on the Gospel readings it isn’t exclusive to the other readings. I guess this is good. The author’s idea is that you should have a balanced use of Scripture in your sermons over time, an idea I agree with in principle so long as the Gospel predominates.

Ready for Chapter 3, I guess!

Bible Study

June 12, 2020

After three months it’s time to start leading a new Bible study as our congregation continues the slow process of restarting our community after months of self-quarantining and self-isolation.

Someone asked me if it would be difficult to restart such a study in an age of Coronavirus and masks and social distancing and fear. But I’ve never not enjoyed studying Scripture. It’s perhaps the most personally fulfilling aspect of making the work of God my vocation. It is never unrewarding to go to the Word of God. To grapple with it, to dissect it for meaning, to understand it contextually and to see how contexts thousands of years old are as pertinent and necessary today as they were then.

For me, putting together a Bible study is not a simple process. Since I first started leading Bible studies in my early college years, I’ve never been content with off-the-shelf studies. Never content to follow along what somebody else created, to be guided by their questions and interpretations. I’ve always preferred to wrestle with the text personally and to access the thoughts and ideas of other men and women throughout history who also sought to understand and apply these same texts.

So for me, preparing a Bible study is a lengthy process that requires many resources and a process of learning the texts better myself, which should in turn assist not just the Bible study but preaching and counseling and applying the Word of God in all manner of unanticipated ways. As another portion of his Word becomes a greater portion of me, the effect is always good, always rewarding, always exhilarating.

I’m starting a book study of 1 Corinthians, a letter written by St. Paul to a congregation he started in the Greek city of Corinth. And for this study, I’ll be utilizing not just the English and to lesser extent Greek texts, but also the following resources to varying degrees:

  • The New International Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians by F.W. Grosheide, Eerdman’s 1980
  • Concordia Commentary: 1 Corinthians by Gregory J. Lockwood, CPH 2000
  • The New International Greek Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians by Anthony C. Thiselton, Eerdman’s 2000
  • Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 4 by John Lightfoot, Hendrickson Publishers 1853
  • Africa Bible Commentary edited by Tokunboh Adeyemo, Zondervan 2006
  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans 1979

I’m looking forward to getting to know this letter much better. It has a lot to say about the life of faith both individually and communally, and I trust we’re going to have some interesting discussions along the way!

Book Review: Small Church Essentials

June 8, 2020

Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters

This was lent to me by a member along with the previously reviewed The Grasshopper Myth. Both of these books cover a lot of similar material, and spend the bulk of their time pushing the basic point that size is not the sole determinant of a congregation’s health or success. While the last several decades have seen large congregations and mega-churches held up as the pinnacle of faithful pastor leadership (if you’re doing a good job, obviously you’re going to get bigger, right?) this is not only not necessarily true, it is overwhelmingly true less often than not.

A lot of pastors need to hear this because both implicitly and explicitly the goal of being a large congregation is out there in pastoral ministry. And when you’re struggling to care for a small flock on a small budget it’s easy to look longingly at the lush grass of a mega-church where money isn’t a problem and there are enough programs and staff to utilize a massive campus every day of the week.

Vaters makes the much-needed point that while large congregations are all well and good it is fallacious reasoning to presume that all congregations should become large or that small congregations are somehow deficient. Different sizes provide different dynamics that appeal to different people, Vaters argues, and properly so.

Vaters than gives advice for building on the strengths a small congregation likely possesses in terms of friendliness and intimacy, both good suggestions. He warns about the dangers of allowing a building to dictate what a ministry can and can’t do – a problem I’ve witnessed in multiple congregations and always to unfortunate results.

This is a handy book for both lay people and pastors to help alleviate the shame or disappointment that can come in comparing a small ministry to a large one. Better to focus on what small congregations can do well (and there are several things) rather than on what they can’t do.

Book Review: The Grasshopper Myth

May 22, 2020

The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters

Much of church culture in the United States over the past 20 years or more has been dominated by the discussion of size. Mega-churches worshiping thousands of people have become the emblem of church success. Borrowing our economic ideas that bigger is always better, it only makes sense that a bigger church is better than a smaller church, right? More faithful? More impactful? Lots of different ways of describing it. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of churches are small churches (defined by Vater as under 350 members but more realistically under 250 members).

This book premises that bigger isn’t always better. Vater does so without denigrating mega-churches and large churches, which is good and right, while providing inspiration and a new way of thinking to pastors of small congregations. Is the pastoral goal to grow a small church into a large church? Why? At what cost? What are small churches good at that large churches can’t be? Vater poses these questions in an easy-going style.

This is sort of a cheerleader book. Vater doesn’t make any specific propositions about how to do small church, but does a good job at encouraging pastors and congregations not to feel bad about themselves just because they’re small. It’s an important work in that respect, and I trust it might be helpful to many, many pastors and congregants and church leadership teams trying to figure out what the Holy Spirit might want them to be if they don’t have a million dollar budget and rock-star musicians and 300 programs running each week.

The shame is that a book like this is necessary at all, that we’ve so blindly swallowed questionable economic premises (bigger isn’t necessarily better for companies either!). But we have, and so books like this are a helpful corrective.

Vater has two other books, the next of which is Small Church Essentials. I’m reading that next. I’ve only just started the introduction, but his warning list of signs of an unhealthy church (regardless of the size) is certainly something pastors and congregants alike need to keep their eyes out for:

  • Inward focused
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousy
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

I don’t normally read these types of books, but I was asked to do so by a concerned congregant. I appreciate their concerns and hopes, as they are mine as well. Hopefully the books will offer some tangible help. Interestingly enough the author is already on the slate to do a special workshop on this topic in Los Angeles for my denominational polity. Apparently some people are finding what he has to say helpful!

Everything Is Political

May 13, 2020

I opined earlier this week about the goal of restarting church worship without polluting the effort with agendas beyond what is best for the people of God in a particular community setting.  As opposed to other religious groups who are issuing press releases and petitions and doing press conferences, I think a congregation’s leadership needs to assess what is best for their members and  make their decisions accordingly.  Quietly.  For their members, not for the public.  For their members, not in a desire for publicity and gaining members.  For their members and not for political reasons.

A reader wrote to say that in their opinion the entire COVID-19 handling is a political issue.

And I agree completely.

Politicians of all stripes and persuasions are attempting to use the COVID-19 situation for personal betterment in their careers as well as jockeying for control of and for their political parties and agendas.  I don’t believe anyone is innocent of this, and of course the media reports on this in a particular light and with particular agendas as well.  COVID-19  has been, is now, and will continue to be handled politically.  The Church should strive to recognize this and adjust her actions and check her motivations constantly, but politics will inevitably be a part of those decisions at one level or another.

Because everything is political.

This is both good and bad.

As creations of the personal God of the Judeo-Christian Bible, we are designed to be political.  Genesis 1-2 informs us we are creatures, so we are not at the top of the food chain in terms of ordering our lives.  We were designed for a particular political order, an order where we lived in harmony and obedience to the Creator’s design for ourselves and one another and the world around us.  We were designed with a need for an order, an order woven into the very fabric of creation.  Politics in this sense is not an evil or even a necessary evil.  It’s how we were created – with a need to be ruled, and an ability to determine either obedience to or rebellion against that rule.

In rebelling against this in Genesis 3, we opted against obedience and for an effort to establish our own rule.  At best, we thought we could improve upon our Creator’s design of us.  At worst, we sought to displace our Creator and supplant him and his design with our own.  We sought self-rule in the purest and most disastrous sense.  In doing so, we broke the design of the Creator and have ever since been struggling to adapt ourselves to this broken creation – and politics is no exception to that.  Perhaps it is the most primal embodiment of that struggle.  Who will rule and how will they rule?

God made it clear our replacements for his perfect rule would not be pleasant.  Creation itself would now be in rebellion as well against the stewardship  of humanity (Genesis 3:17-19).  Our very bodies would be in rebellion, leading ultimately to death (Genesis 3:16).  And though designed to be in perfect partnership with one another, that partnership was now damaged greatly by sin, resulting not in cooperation but a struggle for  dominance and control of one another (Genesis 3:16).

So everything is political, a struggle for control whether well-intentioned or blatantly self-serving.  We struggle for control  of ourselves and others on both individual and group levels.  This is true in the Church as it is in the larger culture and society.  No action, no goal, no plan can ever be claimed to be completely without sin, completely without some small trace of that primal selfishness that dominates our lives in ways large and  small.  The goal or plan might be laudable.  It might be the best possible plan, but in some way either in the plan or implementation the sin inherent in every one of us will make it’s way into and through the plan.  We must do the best we can, hopefully with the humble acknowledgement that the closer we try to adhere to the original plans of the Creator, the better off everyone will be ultimately.

But our aim is poor, since even that is affected by sin.  So it is that those claiming to act on our behalf and for  our well-being are not immune to the sins of pride and ego that lead them to apply their own policies and directives unevenly, to stray even from their self-crafted processes and mechanisms.  The temptation is almost overwhelming, and again this happens in the Church as well as in the secular realm.

So yes, I want to try and avoid other motivations as much as possible.  But of course that  won’t be perfectly possible.  That should lead me to a humility and willingness to listen to many voices.  It will also necessarily lead me to searching out my sin in the situation and repenting of it, and finally lead me to trust in that forgiveness not as a justification for doing whatever I feel like and indulging my sinfulness, but in a freedom that allows me to move forward making those adjustments to my attitude or my practices that are closer to the mark of the Creator’s plan, even if never a bullseye.

Everything is political because we are designed as political creatures.  We just  need to remember that we were not designed neutral in terms of politics.  We were designed to exist best under a particular rule, and to exercise our roles with one another in light of that particular rule.  Only by keeping that original rule in mind to the best of our ability can we hope to even hit  the edge of the target, let alone the center.

Which Way Forward?

May 11, 2020

Now two months into the COVID-19 lockdown, more and more people are beginning  to recognize we can’t continue like this forever.   You can see it in lots of ways.  There’s more traffic now than there was a month ago.  Yes, people are wearing masks and social distancing and giving each other the stink eye if they get too close, but people are out more and more.  There are also more official determinations that we have sheltered in place long enough.  Articles like this one show a growing determination that things need to begin shifting back to normal.

On a personal level, I agree it’s time to start reopening things.  I have little doubt that even when things open back up more fully, people are still going to keep their distance.  Perhaps those plexiglass shields in front of cash registers will remain for weeks or months or maybe they’ll never come down.  It’s hard to gauge the psychological impact of two solid months of fear.

I totally empathize both with small business owners as well as employees who understand keenly the need to get back to work or risk losing their businesses, homes, and who knows what else.  Very simple economic realities dictate whether or not businesses can remain shuttered indefinitely and people can cling to  unemployment perpetually.  The answer is pretty clearly no.  The question is how to deal with this reality.  Do we open things back up and let  people go to work again with reasonable precautions, or do we rely on the government to continue spending our nation into a hole to demonstrate how the State is our salvation?

But my issue is the church.  This is my vocation, my profession.  How do congregations determine what to do?  When to do it?  How to do it?  It’s a difficulty congregations and pastors and church leadership has been dealing with for two months now, and there is a range of responses.

I know some pastors who have continued to lead public worship on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes more  or less as they always have.  Sometimes in multiple, smaller services.  Some have opted for virtual church, streaming their services and providing online or telephone consecration of elements for Holy Communion in peoples’ homes.  Others offer drive-by Communion.  Some offer parking lot worship where people gather in their vehicles, and either bring their own bread and wine for Holy Communion or are provided individually packaged elements when they arrive.  They tune in on their cell phones or car radios to have church together.  Some, like me, provide devotional resources and teaching and sermon materials to their parishioners through e-mail or YouTube.

It’s a mixed bag.  Hard decisions.

I want to reopen church for worship.  But why do I want  to?  That’s the question I’ve grappled with for weeks.

Although I empathize with what the pastor in the opening article is doing, I don’t want to do that.  I won’t hold a press conference.  I won’t issue a press release.  I won’t agree to a television or radio interview.  I’m not making announcements to the general public, because this is not about the general public.  This is about my congregants.  Or at least it ought to be.  Publicity shouldn’t be my motivation.

Politics shouldn’t be our motivation either.  Church is inherently an anti-political institution.  Or perhaps an trans-political or ultra-political institution.  Christian churches – whether sprawling mega-churches or tiny little places – are places where the powers of this world are described for what they are.  Transient.  Temporary.  Blessings from God for the time being at best, the worst of sinful devils for the time being at worst.  Usually somewhere in between.  They are to be respected insofar as they keep the peace, but they are not to be looked to as saviors.  Psalm 146 offers a fair assessment of the powers and institutions of this world.

So I don’t feel it’s the work of the Church to pit itself for or against a particular political party or system or set of decrees.  As an American citizen I may seek to do that and rightfully so, if unfortunately.  But as a pastor and as a congregation, I am ultimately not concerned with these things.  My concern is the Gospel and helping my parishioners remain focused on the Gospel here and now, in this world, regardless of what political party is in power or what economic system is in place.  To help them see how their identity in Christ transcends and also transforms their lives as citizens of a particular geo-political entity.

And I don’t  want fear to drive a decision.  Either the fear of losing religious liberties or the fear of possible infection and sickness and death.  As a Christian my life is not to be characterized by fear, and as the Church we are to live out this to the best of our ability.  Whether the State takes away religious liberties or gives them is ultimately irrelevant as their decrees are not what for the basis of my identity in Christ or how that identity is lived out.  Ample examples throughout history and around the world remind us that Christians don’t disappear just because religious rights are curtailed or eliminated.  We might have to change how we do things, but the faith goes on, and that faith is inherently communal and will find ways to be so.

And fear of sickness and contagion should not keep the Church from being together.  Not  if there are precautions that can be taken and common sense to be implemented.  The Church cannot keep people safe or guarantee their lives any more than the State can.  Unlike the State, the Church can and should equip people to live their lives in the joy and freedom of Christ and not in fear of sickness or death, even as we employ our God-given minds to make choices that are reasonable and prudent.  It is not in my power as a pastor to ensure  that none of my  members get the Coronavirus.  At most, I can and should take reasonable measures to ensure that if and when they gather, we are minimizing that risk.

So if my congregation is to begin meeting again, I want to be as clear as possible in my own mind that this is not a political move.  It is not a move motivated by fears either political or financial or perhaps even theological.  It is not motivated by a desire for personal or congregational attention or notoriety.

Rather, it is only and always about Christ,  and when we make a decision to start meeting again it is because life in Christ is communal.  The talk of family and brothers and sisters and a heavenly Father is not simply metaphorical – it’s real and true even if we may not always experience it as such because of sin.  Church is essential, though it might be true Church is not essential economically or to the State (although I’d argue that the Church actually is essential).  When we begin meeting again it will  be to embrace our identities in Christ once again.  To celebrate his gifts of life and health that are only that, gifts.  Gifts we did not bring into existence on our own and which ultimately remain in his sovereign hands regardless of what measures we do or don’t take to ensure or longevity.

So I pray for all those pastors who wrestle with this issue, an issue that is not nearly as neatly and simply defined by government mandate as the State – or the Church – might be inclined to believe.  And I pray for the people of God around the world who must navigate this together as well, and pray they can be in open discussion and prayer with their religious leaders to try and find the best path forward for them, in their context.

Metrics I

May 6, 2020

On the mornings I stop for coffee and a bagel at my favorite coffee shop, I pass by a nearly invisible church.  You’d never know it was there, really.  The signage for the personal training business is better situated.  But in the past few weeks a new sign for the church has gone up.  A large photo  of the husband and wife pastor team.  Sharply dressed in a homey atmosphere, brilliant white smiles.  Photogenic.  And if that wasn’t enough, the biggest lettering on the sign focuses on how many YouTube subscribers they have and how many millions of times their online  content has been viewed.

What’s your metric?

Everybody has metrics for what they consider success to look like.  Dollars, zip codes, assets.  A corner office, an invitation to join the Board of Directors.  Perhaps finally publishing that book or being invited to the first of several speaking gigs.

Pastors are no exception.  Maybe it’s moving up the hierarchy to  serve in capacities beyond a simple local parish.  Maybe it’s impressive growth figures for your congregation.  An impressive building project.  A large staff to oversee, a diverse budget supporting all sorts of projects and ministries.  The unspoken but obvious awe and respect of your peers who struggle in their small parishes and envy the comfort and success you’ve achieved.

Of course, none of that holds a candle to the apostles, if anyone really even thinks in terms of envying them anymore.  Their career path was hardly enviable and their retirement packages were, well, substandard by our enlightened standards.  No apparent families, no kids to pass the family legacy down to and through.  If anyone could have benefited from a career coach it would have been these guys.  Then again, I guess they did have a career coach.  But his advice to take up their crosses and follow him is disturbing at best.

But we’re safely distanced from the apostles so it’s not as though we really need to compare ourselves to them.  We read their words 2000 years later and are largely insulated from many of the implications they carry with them.  Easy to listen and nod along in agreement and never realize we’re acting in the complete opposite direction.  Heck, pastors can even preach on those very words one moment and seem to have completely forgotten them by the time the weekly meetings roll around.  We love our apostles safely in heaven and distanced from us for the time being.

Imagine those in the early Church though.  Those privileged to know and listen to and speak with the apostles!  We often talk in awe-filled tones about how amazing that would have been, and certainly it would have.  But it would have really screwed up the metrics of those converts to the faith, those who first heard and received the Good News of Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead.  How do you advance career-wise when you’re competing directly with the apostles?

Among many other sins, the Church is guilty of the personal pride and ambition of her members all too often, both lay and ordained.  And in recent decades that ambition and pride has overturned centuries and centuries of Biblical exegesis and practice.  Oh, the terms for it are noble enough – equality sounds pretty darn Biblical, doesn’t it?  Until you actually read the Bible  and realize our privileged  egalitarian ideas of equality are rarely found in those pages.  God is rather doggedly determined to do things his way, oftentimes through an individual or a small group of people rather than a representative democracy or a congregational meeting or even a church Board of Directors.

But for all those who struggle with metrics in the Church, Stephen is a fascinating story in Acts 6 and 7.  We read this week about Stephen’s execution at the hands of a frenzied mob of self-righteous people with decidedly different metrics than Stephen.  We applaud his boldness.  We applaud his willingness to speak truth to power, demonstrating all those coveted leadership principles the Church (and our larger culture) fawns over these days.

But Stephen’s story starts earlier.  And it starts with Stephen being selected to be a waiter.

Yeah, that’s right.  Go back and read the opening section of Acts 6.  Same guy.  Stephen is selected with six other nameless people (sure, their names are written down right there, but how many of those names do you know?).  The apostles had work they were uniquely qualified for.  They knew Jesus.  Better than anyone than perhaps his own family.  They were needed to teach and preach the growing Church what Jesus said and did.  To bear witness.  It was important work.

But so was feeding the widows.  So important that all the disciples convened all the rest of the core of the Church to address the issue.  To select Stephen and the others to handle this important task so the apostles could dedicate themselves to their important tasks.  Different tasks.  Both important.  Both needing to get done.  Requiring different people to do them.

We aren’t told Stephen’s response to this arrangement, but it appears he did his job well and faithfully.  I don’t know what his metrics were.  Maybe he was just one of those two-dimensional Bible figures without any real issues or personality or dreams or hopes.  Maybe he’d always wanted to be a waiter.  Maybe he had hoped for more.  He certainly seemed capable of more, filled with wisdom and faith and the Holy Spirit as he was (vs. 3-6).  Installed in his capacity as waiter by none other than the disciples of Jesus and the leaders of the Church.  And certainly as he waited tables and ensured the widows were cared for (because nobody else wanted to do it), the Holy Spirit was working through him mightily.  Very similarly, in fact, to how the Holy Spirit  was working through the apostles themselves (compare Acts 6:8 with Acts 2:43).

Yet Stephen never seemed to push for a promotion.  Maybe he never got the chance.  Maybe Stephen’s story would have read a bit differently if it had played out over a longer period of time.  Maybe his martyrdom was a gift, keeping him from succumbing  to societal pressures and definitions of success and ultimately risking his faith and the unity of the Church in a quest for advancement.  With demands to be recognized as greater than just a waiter.  Maybe this is a Biblical example of a great quote from arguably the best of the Batman movies – The Dark KnightEither you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  

A dark thought, but a cautionary one.  We all have metrics.  Whether those metrics align with the Word and promises of the God who created us  and redeemed us and sanctifies us is another matter.  Satan offered Adam and Eve a different metric.  Rather than simply being obedient to God as his creations, they could be like God.  They could maximize their potential.  They could activate their leadership qualities for the good of creation.  They could be all that they could be.  The could just do it.

Metrics are not neutral and we need to question their sources.  Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing.  But we need to ensure we don’t sacrifice the Word of God on the altar of ambition or metrics or even equality.  Even those things that seem inherently good and better – a big church rather than a small one, a large financial endowment rather than scrambling to pay the bills each month, a powerful presence in the community rather than the obscurity of sharing space with a personal trainer – even these things can ultimately prove not just complicated but divisive and even destructive.

And for a culture insistent that equality is defined on our terms, Stephen is a challenging anecdotal call for a pause and a more cautious scrutiny of both our terms and our motives.  Stephen the waiter.  Stephen called by God the Holy Spirit into this role.  Stephen used powerfully even as just a waiter.  Stephen who is one of the best known New Testament figures despite never being promoted  to the upper echelons of church ministry.  Stephen who lived and died serving God as God led him to, and you and I still reading about him 2000 years later.  Even as Iacocca and Welch, as well as Graham, Swindoll, Driscoll, fade or begin to fade into obscurity.

It isn’t the YouTube hits or the subscribers.  It isn’t the District or Synodical positions whether paid or unpaid.  It isn’t ordination or not ordination.  It’s something being and doing what God the Holy Spirit leads you to be and do.  To identify your personal metrics and compare them to Biblical ones.  To pray to be all God has equipped and called you to be without reaching beyond what’s either safe for you or best for the people of God.

Good advice as I take my bagel and coffee back to my office and struggle to post second-rate videos to YouTube to try and help my people through a confusing and isolating  time.  Good advice to all God’s people in all their varied capacities.

Courage and Diplomacy

May 5, 2020

Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

~ H.L. Mencken ~

Strong convictions are good things.  Making our way through life is easier in some respects if we have firm convictions to guide us in decision-making and, if necessary, strengthen us when facing opposition for those decisions.  Modern concepts that relegate convictions to the garbage heap of relativity or, worse yet, criminalize them will ultimately be shown to be the lunacy they are.  But that may take some time, and in the meantime quite a few convictions as well as those who hold them may get burnt at the proverbial stake.

Convictions are good but there are times when regardless of how convinced we are of a proper course of action for ourselves it is only reasonable or polite to acknowledge others may be convicted to act otherwise.  Theology is one arena where this is true, and where there are no shortages of charred stumps  of past stakes and new young growth ready to pile  kindling around.   The tricky thing is that sometimes we strike the match with our words, casting aspersions or derision upon courses of action we have not opted to take.  Feeling strongly about something is one thing, knowing when – and how – to speak about it is another.  Several times in the past year I’ve been described as diplomatic.  I take it as a compliment though some  would surely consider it an insult.

The current COVID-19  situation has all of us up in the air without sure footing in how to navigate things.  And while it’s great that some people take the lead in blazing a trail, what that can sometimes do is disparage what others do.  Particularly if you actually disparage what others are doing.  Like, out loud.

Pastors in particular are grappling with how to do their work for their people when they aren’t allowed to gather with their people, or when their people don’t want to gather with them out of worry.  Hard stuff, and stuff nobody in our current generation of pastors has had to deal with.  Others in other generations have, but they’ve entered glory now and can rest without the angst of knowing how to care for God’s people and preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments in a pandemic.

So in the meantime, pastors, choose your path the best you can.  Seek good counsel where and when you can find it.  Don’t be afraid to follow the path you have chosen, but also remain open to input or other factors that might cause you to change your mind and your path.  But be very, very cautious about what you say and how you say it about your fellow pastors.  You might agree with them or not.  They might be doing things similarly to you or differently.  But if you’re going to talk or write out loud, recognize that your words can easily become a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 8:9) as well as an offense (1 Corinthians 10:32).

Advice to myself and others out there, whether we think we need it or not.



Giving and Taking Away

April 25, 2020

Last night as I checked my e-mail before bed I noticed a message from our county regarding sheltering in place restrictions.  Curiously, the title of the e-mail and the message is County Modifies Stay at Home Order: Municipal Golf Club Opens April 25.

It certainly sounds like good news!  It links (I hate when e-mails contain hyperlinks to resources but then you can’t actually click on them because the message is really an image rather than text so you have to manually type out the link in another window!) to this document.  The document mentions golf clubs in passing but it’s hardly the emphasis by any means.  The document explains an easing of stay safe at home orders and which businesses are now allowed to re-open given social distancing and other precautions.  It all sounds good, until you look through the attachments where the details are spelled out.

And really, the main thing that is spelled out has to do with faith-based services.  Faith-based services and golf courses are both included in Appendix A as allowed to open/meet, and both have the most detailed specifications on what they have to do in this regard.  Faith-based services are Appendix A, Item 19, subsections a, b and c.  Here, faith-based services are only allowed if they are either online or meet the following criteria:

  1. Are only outdoors
  2. Everyone stays in their cars (no more than five to a car, all from the same household)
  3. Six feet minimum  between cars
  4. Nobody leaves the vehicles they came in
  5. Nobody is allowed to use a restroom on site
  6. Nothing – including food items – can be transferred to vehicle occupants

Such restrictions are nowhere imposed on any of the other businesses and organizations listed.  Particularly galling to me is the specification about nothing being transferred to vehicle occupants, and food items being specifically mentioned.  I don’t know how else to interpret that other than a prohibition on Holy Communion.

I can walk into a McDonalds and maintain social distancing and they can hand me food to eat.  I can walk into a grocery store and pick up produce that has been passed by or even touched by perhaps countless other people.  Yet there is no provision that a church could meet the social distancing requirements as well as safe food handling requirements?

For the first time (at least locally) I feel as though the restrictions are being focused specifically on religious organizations.  Certainly many other places are also affected and I disagree with that as well.  However to curtail religious freedoms that are Constitutionally guaranteed when similar curtailments are not placed on other organizations seems blatantly discriminatory at best and illegal at worst.  To tout the freedom to golf while essentially denying the Constitutional freedom to worship is twisted.

Some may not see how these restrictions are discriminatory or a violation of Constitutionally protected freedoms.  Understandable, and I’m sure that there will be a diversity of opinions even among Christians on this interpretation.

It is forcing us to change how we worship.  I believe this is intentional, even if intended only for a temporary period of time (an indeterminate period of time, however).  It is is a recognition that worship, unlike grocery shopping, is a communal experience.  I may bump into someone I know at Trader Joe’s and stop for a chat.  But in worship I know I will  see other people I know and love and that is part of the intention.  While American Christianity has done much to disintegrate the communal nature of the faith through a lop-sided emphasis on Jesus-and-me theology and personal salvation, at its purest worship is the place where our righteousness through Christ before God the Father draws us  back into proper relationship with one another and this isn’t just a theoretical or theological speculation but something that is lived out.   It’s tangible.

Ironically one of the reading’s for next Sunday is from the end of Acts 2 and describes how the Christians lived in light of faith in Jesus as the Son of God raised from the dead for their sins.  It is a beautiful passage but also an inherently communal one.

And it is this communal nature of worship that is being gutted by the restrictions mentioned above.  And it is compounded with the absurd elevation of freedom to golf over freedom of religion.

I – and many other churches – have voluntarily suspended worship services.  I don’t believe the government either State or Federally has the right to force us to end our worship services.  I have voluntarily suspended them.  Voluntarily agreed to limit our Constitutional rights in the interest of public safety.  Our congregation has the space and the ability to meet the social distancing requirements imposed on other organizations.  We can provide the hand sanitizers and soap and water.  We can begin worshiping again while still agreeing to the questionably arbitrary demands of the State that we substantially modify how we worship.  And frankly, nearly all of my members are of an age where they may opt not to attend just yet – which is their freedom in the Gospel.

But it’s a Gospel freedom, not a State-controlled freedom.  And Christians throughout history and around the world have understood there is an important distinction between the two.  To prohibit us from worship and the Sacraments when we’re free to go to Burger King or the grocery store or the golf course is inexcusable, and it will be interesting to see how other religious leaders react to these mandates.