Monday, May 22, 2017

Holy Matrimony, Happy Matrimony: God's Splendid Gift

I attended a wedding last weekend. Peter and Cassie, a young couple from my church, tied the knot. They looked radiant: reading vows, exchanging rings, pouring sand, holding hands. Their smiles beamed and eyes brimmed with tears. At one point, I pressed my arm against my wife's, reflecting on fifteen years of marriage, so grateful for her friendship.
Liz and I sometimes muse about the early years, how much we loved one another while knowing each other so little. We were poor, naive, and a bit passive-aggressive. We moved often, furnished our living spaces with cinder block arrangements, and debated the color of our dishes. (They were gray). But we had no lack of love for one another.

As difficult as Liz and I know life to be, marriage has never been too terribly hard. Sure, we fail to communicate details, approach parenting differently, and suffer the typical tensions around money, sex, and Netflix; but love covers a multitude of sins. And when our human love tanks run low, God's grace abounds.

God authored marriage. His passion for the institution has no rival. His vision for our marriage eclipses our happy-but-momentary view. So we learn from him. His marital wisdom has nurtured fifteen happy years of faithfulness.

God teaches marriage is a gift, not  a right. Thus, he calls us to steward the gift, not spoil it. Considering ways I'm grateful for my spouse will do far more good than airing my grievances. Taking time to listen, give eye contact, affirm, empathize, and share my heart nurtures the marriage. Its too easy to get busy, lazy, or take the gift of companionship for granted.

God teaches forgiveness is a way of life. Liz and I talk about "1000 Little Forgivenesses" before arriving at One Big Absolution. If I make a habit of forgiving (i.e. releasing my preference in) minor matters--squeezing the toothpaste from the middle, not putting DVDs back in their cases--and so does she, then we have normalized forgiveness. We must be humble enough not to codify our preferences.

God teaches marriage is central to family life. When our children were babies, we could stick them in strollers or cribs and control them. Now they want to have conversations and control. They could become the epicenter of our family if we allowed. We will not. We aim to be marriage-centric as a family. When both mother and father abide in Jesus and delight in one another, the long-term health of the family has greater promise.

I have shared similar ideas with Cassie and Peter, David and Val, John and Michelle, and many other engaged couples over the years. One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is reaffirming the holiness of matrimony. I am equally pleased to share advice to help them experience happiness. The potential for holiness and happiness in marriage reaffirms God's splendid gift.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Years of Pastoral Ministry - Lessons Learned

This week marks my tenth anniversary at Leesburg Grace Brethren Church. Ten years ago I returned to the town where I attended college and lawfully wedded my wife. Ten years ago I had an impressive crop of dark brown hair and little experience. How the roles are reversed. Weathered, wise, and bald, I have established my pastoral rhythm and learned a few lessons along the way.
Fellow pastors will read the following observations, nodding in agreement at many points. Readers who are not professional clergy may appreciate the candor of a hired, religious gun. My wife and children, who probably won't read this, would simply say, "Here he goes again with the lessons."

  1. My life with God is the wellspring of meaningful ministry impact. Anyone can act religious. Anyone can posture as spiritually sympathetic. Anyone can develop people skills, rhetoric, and organizational competencies to manage a church efficiently. But I refuse to view ministry as mere mechanics; meaningful impact is the fruit of abiding in Jesus (John 15).
  2. My family deserves the best of me. Some of the greatest professionals are the worst parents. Balancing family life and personal success requires focus and discipline. To borrow Andy Stanley's great line, "I choose to cheat" the church, rather than my family, if it comes to that. God makes this provision for elders and overseers, asking them to be men who lead their families well.
  3. Preaching requires more editing than I ever expected. If the congregation let me (and it won't), I could preach for hours. The Bible abounds with theological ideas, anthropological insights, difficult questions, and practical advice. Bridging the text to the complexities of our post-modern culture and specifics of our congregation adds another level of depth. Closing in on 500 sermons, I still wrestle in deciding what to include, emphasize, illustrate, and cut.
  4. Preaching brings more joy than I ever expected. I love the creative process of sermon-crafting: to brand a series, build a message, and find ways encourage participation. I love the research and meditation that goes into studying God's word. I love the way preaching builds awareness in my soul (as I personalize the message), empathy for people in my church (as I agonize over their struggles), and awe of God (as I gaze into his revealed heart).
  5. I have too many faults to count. I am an administrative imbecile, communications delinquent, poor recruiter, vanilla vision-caster, reluctant delegator, and always running late. Fortunately, love covers a multitude of sins, and the body of Christ complements many a minister's weaknesses. I'm finally learning to own my weakness and allow others to thrive where I fail.
  6. I must not take myself too seriously. While I will not downplay pastoral responsibilities -- equipping, preaching, prayer, counsel, leading, shepherding, etc. -- the pastoral title still feels a bit too snug. Like everyone else in my church family, I am a struggling child of God. I happen to have a microphone and personal study, but I have the same identity and Spirit. My heavenly Father, of course, helps maintain this perspective by allowing many a humble moment.
  7. I don't give God's people enough credit. More often than I'd like to admit, I assume people from my church care more about pop culture and politics than the kingdom of God. I assume their service is driven by duty and a desire to bail me out, rather than an overflow of joy. Admittedly, I have heard a few groans and seen a few frowns in ten years. But I have also heard numerous prayer requests, personal testimonies, and words of gratitude. I remind myself often, "God is at work in his people. He will finish what he has started" (Phil.1:16).
  8. I hate outreach events. Lest I come across too strong, I should clarify. I hate outreach events, not reaching out to show the love of Jesus. Spinning our ecclesiastical wheels to run a public relations event that results in limited life change and lots of carpet stains has never sat well with me. I prefer ongoing ministries that build relationships with people to show Christ's love in tangible ways.
  9. I will never be famous. None of my YouTube videos has gone viral. None of my sermons has caught fire (or much flack). None of my blog posts has trended. The invisible audience I envision all too often is imaginary. Even within my modest, denominational circle, I am bound to remain conspicuous. I will likely never speak at my Fellowship's national conference or make the CE Wall of fame. While I have not yet resigned in my reach for the invisible audience, I find relief in admitting its futility.
  10. God has merely begun his work through me. To borrow a phrase from the prophet Isaiah, ten years is "a drop in the bucket." Ten years of pastoral ministry has never felt like a drag. Books and conferences aimed at pastors assume we are an ailing, languishing, dried out bunch. By God's grace, my experience does not match up. God had given me joy, endurance, imagination, love, wisdom, and good companions in my first ten years. Not naively, I expect he will continue to bless. It is, after all, his work, not mine. And he boldly claims to "do more than we ask or think through the power that works in us" (Eph. 3:20).

Monday, May 8, 2017

Glory Days, Coaching Kids, and Making Strides

I coach track for a rowdy bunch of fourth through sixth grade students. It is safe to say most of them do not have the makings of an Olympian. They flail and shuffle and smile and wave in their lanes. They look at the fans, their feet, or the runners behind them more than the finish line ahead. These are not the tactics of elite players. No: these are children at play.

What my athletes do not realize is they have a winner in their midst. "It is I," said the balding, aging, former winner of the Wheeler Award. "It is I," wrote the blogger reminiscing about his glory days.

During my peak running career, I could run a 5K in less than 16 minutes, an 8K in 26 minutes, and a 10K just over 32 minutes. For twenty-six laps around the track, I kept pace like a steady clock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The longer I ran, the stronger I felt. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I learned mental tricks and breathing tips and once predicted my race time to the second. Tick. Tock. Yes: I was a champion.

But these days I stuff my pride and go by the title, "Coach Mister," or "Claire's Dad." I am a part-time volunteer, living vicariously through the next generation as I cheer from the infield and coach from the sidelines.

My strategy is to develop their mental game. I encourage my distance runners to break the race down in to smaller segments.

"Stay calm: No one wins the race in the first fifty meters."
"Stay close: Stick with the leaders."
"Be strong: The second lap is the hardest, so be tough."
"Dig deep: Go all out for the finish."

I recite other mantras -- stay strong; you're tough; everybody hurts -- and offer various forms of affirmation -- good job; way to go; high five; crash it, you did great. And by the end of the meet, I feel satisfied in having coached these students not only for track, but also for life.

All our problems break down into smaller problems. 
Encouragement and honest feedback diffuses our fears.
We are stronger than we think we are.
Keeping focused on the finish line helps us fight through pain.

As I watch these children flail and shuffle, smile and wave, I can't help swell with pride. Not because I could beat every one of them in a race (I credit the Holy Spirit from holding me back from trying), but because many of them are making strides. My daughter Claire is one of them.
Sprankle Family runs with cousins at Joe's Kids Splatter Dash on Saturday, May 6th. Claire won the mile. Margot took second. Sensi received a medal, but will not be entering the Olypic Games anytime soon.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Happily Ever After - God's Big Story Ends Well

The author of Hebrews calls Jesus the "Author and perfecter of our faith" (12:2). The final chapter of his Big Story awaits his return and renewal of all creation (Rev. 21:5). Various authors of Scripture provide glimpses of this renewal, including golden streets, glittering crowns, glorified bodies, domesticated beasts, vibrant streams, angelic songs, glassy seas, diverse nations, and God among his people (e.g., Is. 65:17ff; 1 Cor. 15:35ff; 1 Pet. 4: Rev. 5-7; 21:1ff). "Happily ever after," is an appropriate summary.
Of course, to appreciate this final chapter, one should trace the entire plot of the Bible, starting with the opening lines: "In the beginning" (Gen. 1:1). From Creation to Consummation, God's Big Story shows the Creator's overflowing love, tremendous patience, and personal sacrifice. It displays human rebellion, rejection, and failure to reflect their Creator. It makes God's love plain and approachable in the person of Jesus, whose story is told in the stuttering life of the church.
 


Sadly, God's people have settled for theological principles and moral exhortations. We've traded his Big Story for a Sinner's Prayer and theological hopscotch. When we strip doctrinal proof-texts and ethical examples from their storied context, we settle for a brittle, humanized, scientific text. 

Moreover, we betray the very form of communication implicit to Moses (see Deut. 1-5), Joshua (see ch. 24), David (see Pss. 103-105), Isaiah (see ch. 5), Ezekiel (see. ch. 16), Jesus (see Matt. 13) and Paul (see Acts 26). Part of the imago Dei is the capacity to share stories; crocodiles tell no tales.

Among the many authors advocating for a return to the storied understanding of Scripture, author Eugene Peterson makes his point clear. "[The] Bible turns out to be a large, comprehensive story, a meta-story. The Christian life is conducted in story conditions. The Bible is basically and overall a narrative—an immense, sprawling, capacious narrative…. Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites our participation" (from Eat This Book, 40).

Author Scot McKnight addresses those who conflate story with fiction. "Saying the Bible is Story is not saying it is make-believe or a fib or fiction or myth, nor is it to assert that gobs of the stories didn’t happen. We say the Bible is Story because if we read it from beginning to end, we discover that it has three features: it has a plot (creation to consummation), it has characters (God-Father, Son, and Spirit—and God’s people and the world and creation around them), and it also has may authors who together tell the story." (from The Blue Parakeet, 66).

Followers of Jesus should take a fresh look at God's Big Story. We should learn to live it and share it. The wounded world will find story-tellers more winsome than moral watchdogs. And they may find the "Happily ever after" of heaven more appealing when they understand the cruciform path God chose to meet us there.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Gloriously Imperfect People - The Church

The Church receives a great deal of bad press. Her sex scandals and stories of hypocrisy make their rounds. Her "outdated" morals, "inconsistent" Bible, and logical lapses get attacked. Her members are pegged as judgmental, hateful, bigoted, and naive. At 2.1 billion members of various tribes and tongues, the Church is a big and broad target.
Not all the criticism is unfounded. Any social group includes examples of excellence and miserable failures. Look at any corporation, political party, classroom, or sports team, and both role models and cautionary tales stand out. The Church, and each of her local embodiments, has its faithful witnesses and fumbling wretches. Most of the members fall well within the margins: average, ordinary, up-and-down, inconspicuous examples of Jesus Christ.

Early Church was no stranger to this reality. As her story emerges in Acts, develops in the epistles, and runs her course in history, she displays humility in her self-critical posture. The book of Acts exposes sins of deception, division, and jealousy. The letters reveal a penchant for sexual immorality, disunity, drunkenness, favoritism, and pride. Patristic literature echoes similar correctives.

Such self-criticism does not excuse sin (e.g., Romans 6:1-2), but acknowledges the work of spiritual maturation is incomplete. By calling out these errors, without blushing, biblical authors do not assume holiness, but admit sinfulness. In fact, this awareness only intensifies their longing for Jesus' return, who would make them blameless, spotless, and glorious in his coming (see Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Corithians 15:50-57; Jude 24-25).

Somewhere along the way -- many blame Constantine or the Religious Right -- the Church's criticism turned outward. Rather than striving for God's internal cleansing, she sought to scrub the dirt off society. Rather than being content to live as a window into God's New Creation, she acted like a mirror of secular morality. Rather than bowing like a servant for public good, she took an elevated stance on political grounds.*

The time is ripe for Christ's beloved bride, for God's called out people, for the Church to reawaken to the Spirit's work within her (Ephesians 3:20-21). The long-term, tedious work of developing Christ-like character through corporate worship, shared life, and spiritual disciplines will put a fresh shine on God's gloriously imperfect people.

Bad press will not disappear--Jesus forewarned us--but good faith may triumph. If not now, when the bridegroom returns to put his finishing touches on his fragile people.

Come, Lord Jesus.

________________
These thoughts are inspired by a recent sermon: Church - Chapter 5 of God's Big Story.

*Certainly God may raise a prophetic voice or two for social causes, but the Church, as a whole, does not serve these purposes. Her mission is more about being a Christ-like, Spirit-empowered people (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 4:11-16), than propagating political and moral opinions.






Monday, April 17, 2017

Following Jesus at a Reduced Price

My mother instilled the value of living frugal whenever she announced her savings at the grocery store. Sorting through weekly flyers and clipping coupons was a religious act. The receipt at Kohls, with its crudely scratched circle over final savings, was sacred. I, too, learned to love the clearance rack, shop for lightening deals, and recite the mantra: BOGO.

Unfortunately, this notion of saving money and stretching my meager resources, at times, translates to cheap faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church against cheap faith. "Jesus bids us come and die," he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. This is costly faith: We cannot cut corners or coupons in our pursuit of Jesus.
A college student at our church has recently wrestled with "cheap faith" pervading evangelicalism. Following a sermon about "tensions" Christians feel in our culture, he emailed the following sentiments:

I seem to always conclude that something is off. Something is very wrong with how comfortable people are, and how just with the tension being felt right now, so many Christians are already getting weak and, like you said, they are drifting. What happens when the real persecution comes? How many Christians will there be in America if things get violent, if laws are created against God's law, and if people start to be physically and mentally targeted and attacked? I sometimes feel like I want that persecution to come [here], because maybe that would push me over the threshold of timidness or whatever holds me back from really making a stand, from really being different, from making excuses why it isn't a sin to see certain movies, listen to certain music, and such. I would probably regret it if that kind of persecution came upon us, but right now it seems like that would be the best way to get myself and the church to really recognize what righteousness and the pursuit of God looks like.

Last week I picked up the conversation with the student while we jogged. I confirmed his feelings and talked about keeping a pure conscience. Convictions and passions differ among Christ's followers, and each person is responsible to live according to his convictions. Complacency comes naturally in a culture of comfort and ease.

I cautioned against pursuing discomfort and pain as an antidote. Masochism and asceticism are no more discipleship, than weekly church attendance and lukewarm, religious affections.

We ended our run and conversation, committed to talk again about the cost of following Jesus. In the meantime, Easter has come and gone, and the shadow of the Cross looms large. Moreover, I've started reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, in which author, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield recounts the losses she sustained (e.g., lover, social connections, career) upon leaving her lesbian identity in pursuit of Jesus. Her conversion and Calvary contrast sharply with my personal account of debits. For your reading pleasure, I disclose the following costs of following Jesus:

  • a monthly tithe of a few hundred dollars, which I could otherwise spend on myself or family
  • several hours of sleep each week, given instead to spiritual disciplines
  • the prospects of a prosperous career in something other than full-time ministry (e.g., international spy)
  • the weight of conscience and the reduction of pleasure (including binge sessions of TV shows)
  • the restless concern for others, and not just what they think of me, but what they think and how, giving the opportunity, I might connect with them
  • a sense of purpose I will never fully realize this side of death
I admit the list is pious. Worse, it is remarkably painless. These costs comprise personal habits, at first difficult to hone, but once established, they require little notice to maintain. Giving a tithe does not feel like death. Skipping TV has not stopped my heart. Waking up early brings more joy than hurt. 
Jesus took nails for me. Bonhoeffer lost his life for Christ. Butterfield lost her career and more. Apparently I am getting a pretty good deal. In the end, however, I wonder how much I've actually saved?

Monday, April 10, 2017

I Farted in Church and Other Embarrassing Moments

I farted in church yesterday. The noise was subtle, but the PA system picked it up. It amplified the sound. When I muttered "Excuse me," I left little room for doubt. The pastor, indeed, broke wind.

To clarify, my flatulence was not live. It was background noise on the back end of a YouTube video I shot the day before. I've aired a reflection on each of Jesus' beatitudes during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. "Blessed are the pure in heart," started yesterday's reflection. Like each preceding video, this one closed with an invitation to meditate on the theme for forty seconds.

The infamous fart occurred as I recorded the last scene in my garage with my thumb pressed over the camera lens. I remember immediately thinking, "I have to mute that," but haste subverts short-term memory. I exported the video, uploaded it to YouTube, and left it with the A/V team to broadcast.

My rude reminder came in the company of my congregation. "Take a minute to meditate on what is beautiful, pure, wholesome, and holy," said my recorded self.

[Fade to black. Boost the music. Cue the fart.]

Pfft... "Excuse me." 


My meditations were cut short. A string of panicked questions ensued. Did I forget to mute that? Did anyone else hear? Do I say anything? Do I plunge forward with no remark? Do I blame the kids?

I was not sure how many people noticed the offence, so I played it cool. I feigned meditation on purity. I dismissed the kids quickly. I commenced with my sermon immediately.

All illusions of ignorance, however, dissolved as soon as I returned home. My children betrayed looks of embarrassment. "Daddy, why did you fart in the video?"

"You heard?"

"Yes, we heard. And you even said, 'Excuse me.'"

"I was hoping no one heard," I confessed.

Unfortunately, my family was not alone. My kids witnessed a family across the aisle suppressing their laughter. Later that day my friend told me his wife could hardly keep from cracking up. And at the close of Sunday evening, I received a text from a friend telling me he "heard a toot during the sermon."
I'm guessing most of the congregation heard my fart. My cover-up failed. My haste indited me. Purity of heart is no rival to a pastoral fart. Had I checked and double-checked my work, I would have avoided this party foul. But, alas, haste makes waste (and funny noises).

I will merely add this incident to my list of embarrassing moments. I once preached an entire chapel message to high school students with my fly down. I once made an awkward comment about my conjugal rights in a sermon. I once read a quotation from Augustine about boys playing with "balls and nuts" without a second thought to it being misunderstood by modern (i.e., perverted) ears.

I often sing off-key and tell lame jokes. (What kind fish is in the circus? Pause: An acrobat fish.) I regularly misstate dates names. (I've called Peter, Paul and God, Satan.) Weekly I misplace my sermon notes, Bible, or clicker during the service. And I always mispronounce words. (In fact, I once confused flatulation for flagellation when talking about disciplines gone awry.)

The more time one spends in public light, the greater his exposure to humiliation. Hopefully pastors find the occasional dose humility becoming. It purifies the heart, which is especially important when he's breathing in his own exhaust fumes.