Monday, December 17, 2007

Snowed-in, Sugar-Rushed, and Sermon-Deprived

On Saturday night Liz and I opened our house for a Christmas Cookie Exchange. Twenty-five folks from our church came, bearing gifts of sugar, frankincense, and cane. The spoils would be my comfort the following morning at the news:

...Leesburg Grace Brethren church, all services canceled...

Church was canceled for the second consecutive week. A week ago the culprit was ice; this week it was snow. The sky fell for more than sixteen hours, and when I didn't see a single car on the road Sunday morning, I was afraid I missed the apocalypse. The radio fed my suspicions:

...Christ's Covenant church, all services canceled; Precious Moments church of the Divine Nativity, services rescheduled for Christmas eve; Holy Faith church of the Four Seasons, all services canceled until spring...

I was disappointed; my sermons were getting forced into preservation, but I was out of good Tupperware. (They were filled with cookies.) What is a pastor to do when he cannot preach?

...Winona Lake Grace Brethren church, all services canceled; church of Laodicea, services may or may not meet; The Historic-Universal-Apostolic Church, all services moved to your home...

Well, like all good Christian men, he throws his children in snow drifts, drinks hot chocolate with his wife, shovels the driveway, sings Christmas carols by the tree, eats three dozen cookies, takes four hours to reflect on the NFL*, and spends the evening in fellowship with close friends.

In a word, we rejoice.


(*After reviewing the play, the call on the field is overturned. Four hours of watching the NFL cannot be deemed reflective. Pastor Tim is charged his final Time Out.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Prayer at the U-scan

They had dirty fingers, sallow eyes, and forty-three items in their shopping cart. The cart alone should have been a sign they were in the wrong line. Clearly posted was the rule: 15 items or less. I'm not typically a legalist, but when it comes to the universal law of counting, I don't bend.

It didn't help that I was carrying a squirmy two-year old in one hand, and a frozen pizza, Diet Pepsi, and gallon of Vitamin D milk in the other. Nor did it help that at one point, the squirmy two-year old wiggled free and ran to the Christmas toy display, displacing us in line.

I started to pray. The first prayer was rather imprecatory--it was addressed to the God of Angel Armies and Kroger Checkout Staff. I called down ice from the heavens (sorry Northern Indiana) to sheath their car. I begged for faulty bags to tear at the handles. I requested power outages in their kitchen to spoil their groceries.

Then, as I felt the frozen pizza thaw in my armpit, I realized a challenge I'd heard from a sermon the previous week. The pastor (a dashing chap) asked the church to pray that God give Jesus' eyes of compassion each time one of them shopped during the Advent season.

There I was, shopping, eyes set on petty injustices, and I thought I should change my prayer. God gave me a gut check, much like Jesus when he saw the five thousand chase him around the lake. They had no groceries. And they were without a leader, too.

Suddenly, the dirty-fingered, sallowed-eyed couple looked less deplorable. I still watched them cheat a system, but I knew it's because they felt like systems never served them. And not just U-scan systems.

(Sorry Wayne Grudem, that includes you're theology book, too.)

And [Jesus] took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward the heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied... (Mark 6:41-42, NASB)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Glories of Aging

"Do you have time for a cup of coffee?"

I'd stopped by to collect a box of books for our ESL program. The couple welcomed me in, offered me a brief tour, and invited me to sit. Since they likely didn't treat the mailman to the same hospitality, I chose to stay. Besides, the top bullet point of my job description is "Have time for a cup of coffee."

The books could wait, as well as my sermon.

In an hour I'd consumed eight ounces of Folgers and fifty years of personal history--work, married life, family, remodeling projects, church sagas, and a few surgical tales. I took them in sips, black and unsweetened.

I learned about running your own business and Christmas Snowflake Bears. I learned about building codes and government health care. And I learned that a man who passes the offering basket can lead a church, and a woman who sits near the back can throw a nasty right hook.

At one point I asked about aging. The difficulties were apparent; I wanted to know the glories. They shook their heads and smiled. The conversation returned to ailing eyes and prescriptions, but they hadn't fooled me.

The flesh may weaken, but the spirit persists. It glows in reminiscence and story.

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Response

My question was greeted with silence. Twenty faces met mine stoically; four looked at the ground.

Group settings are not always the most conducive to conversation. But typically there are those who feel too awkward in silence, so they fill the void with an expected response. A brave minority will wander into the realm of self-disclosure.

A high school student once told me he was doing me a favor by participating in class. To me his contributions sounded more like distractions, but he tried to convince me that without his input the class would suffer. "I'm saving you," he promised. Not really, I thought. Salvation wasn't the issue, participation was.

In learning environments, a question that elicits no replies means one of three things:
  1. The question was poorly phrased (too confusing, obvious, or rhetorical, never too dumb
  2. The inquirer is not trusted (he may be laying a trap)
  3. The respondents do not want to share (due to reasons 1 & 2, apathy, fear, or irrelevance)
What are some things we can pray about? I asked

Silence. Perhaps this was too confusing. Too obvious. Too rhetorical.

I counted to sixty-six. Perhaps I wasn't trusted.

The Sound Guy cued the
Jeopardy theme song. Perhaps people didn't feel safe to share. Too personal. Too intimate.

Lingering silence.

Epilogue: The tragedy is the pastor now has nothing to pray for on Monday morning...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

An Outside Perspective

This is published without permission, but I'm sure if I asked, it would be granted. So if you ever read this, Johnny D. Miller, just say "Uh Huh." And since he's "too old-fashioned" to blog, I put it up here for him.

Miller Moment 145

I dropped by one of my favorite coffee haunts today and decided to try something new; French press coffee. Never having it before I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m the type who’s willing to try anything at least once. They brought it to the table in a clear glass coffee pot with some type of fancy plunger on the top. The gal pressed down on the plunger forcing the coffee through a metal filter hence the name, press coffee. She then poured the first of this brew in a small square coffee cup and left the rest complete with sugar and crème. Now I’ve been a coffee drinker for 40 years and the one thing I don’t believe in is covering up the taste with condiments. Besides ‘real men’ drink coffee black. I took my first sip and I could have swore I heard “Houston, we have ignition.” With the second sip I could feel new hair growing on the top of my head; and nose; and ears. Don’t get me wrong this rocket fuel was delicious, but if this is what the French drink no wonder they work 30 hours or less. They gotta be so stoked up on caffeine that they can get their work done in less time. As I sat there looking at this pot of jolting java and wondering if I drank the whole thing would my body go into high energy vibrations causing the power of invisibility, a familiar voice greeted me. It’s always a pleasure to see his smiling face and it also gave me a chance to share this TNT nectar with someone else.

The first time I met Tim was shortly before the day he took his beautiful Elizabeth to be his life-mate. I feel I can call Liz beautiful with no bias what so ever; even though she is the sister of my beautiful daughter-in-law. Tim worked on and received his graduate degree from the seminary here in our community. Upon completion the young couple moved to Phoenix for an internship with a church there. I sure do love the way God works things out for ones who trust in Him. My son Jeremy completed his education at a college in the southern part of the state here, but had read about one of the top schools in recording engineering that he applied to and was accepted. The biggest obstacles would be finances and a place to live since the location was so far from here; Phoenix! (saw that one coming, didn’t ya?) Jeremy and Bekah moved in with Tim and Liz and Bekah went to work the same place as her sister. For a Midwesterner, there’s nothing better than to have children who live on a desert to go and visit in the dead of winter. But the summers there; I don’t care if there’s no humidity or not, it hot! Visiting the kids was great and it gave me a chance to know Tim and Liz better. I love talking to young people and getting their perspective on life and what direction they were planning to pursue. With Tim I naturally assumed he wanted to be a pastor someday. “Oh no, that doesn’t interest me in the least,” he told me. “My plan is to work on the grassroots level, like house Bible studies and such. As a matter of fact shortly after Jer and Bekah move, Liz and I are heading to Denver to move into a large house with some other people and start a neighborhood outreach.” I found myself with a small cynical smile on my face, not because I didn’t believe in what they hoped to accomplish, but remembering a time some 30 years plus back.

The ‘Jesus Revolution’ as it was called was in full swing with many young people turning to God, carrying Bibles and openly telling everyone they came in contact with about Jesus. Many of these enthusiastic converts were spreading their wings and heading to new areas with the purpose of spreading God’s word. It seemed that one of the popular mission fields was the Rocky Mountains thanks to John Denver and his inspiring tune “Rocky Mountain High.” A small band of these believers I knew heard the call of God to move to Denver, start a Christian commune and reap the fruits of their rewards by watching the Lord turn it into the biggest evangelical movement in history; or something like that. It was about a month before the first of them returned to Ohio tired of living in a slum row house, working for minimum wage at whatever they could find and living on breakfast cereal and hotdogs. The rest floated back in east within six months and it was obvious that some animosities had cropped up amongst members of this close fellowships. I heard stories of ones who wouldn’t pull their weight, others who instead of sharing of light of Jesus got caught up in the night lights and life of the big city. “I don’t know what went wrong,” one told me. “We were there for the Lord; what went wrong?” Several ideas went scrambling through my brain as a possible answer to the question, but before I could voice any a man who was with me and possessed whole lot more maturity than I spoke up and asked, “Did you pray about this before you left?” “Well of course we prayed,” came an indignant response. “We told God our plans and we’re just sure He was going to honor them.” Now I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box, but something was telling me that this old boy was missing the point. Now, some thirty years later I had another bright eyed visionary standing in front of me telling me his plans, which felt a lot like deja vu. Tim could tell by my demeanor that I had reservations about his plans. I reassured him I hoped the best for him, but also told him the story of the pilgrims from my generation and what happened. I was going to ask him the same question that my mature friend put forth those many years back, but his next statement made me realize he was cut from a different fabric than the others. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen once we get there; I just want to do what God’s will is for my life.”

Psalm 37:4-6 – “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.”

I know a lot of good people who have gone off in some direction convinced it was God’s will for their life, without ever taking time to talk to God and see if that’s really what He wants from them; then sadly giving up and becoming disillusioned. I’m not saying God is going to talk in an audible voice and give you an itinerary of what you should be doing. But every believer I have ever known that I consider strong warriors or workers for the Lord spent many hours on their knees praying to God that He would lead them in the path He has chosen and to let His will be known to them. The best way to travel any path is to have a map. And where do you get the map? Go to the MAPMAKER!

Tim and Liz didn’t stay in Denver; why? That’s really not as important as what he told me and he truly meant; “I want to do what God’s will is for my life.” And what’s he up to these days? Well my young friend who never pictured himself as a preacher was called to a little church on the edge of a corn field back here in Indiana to be their new pastor by a voting consensus of 100% of the congregation. From front line warrior looking to tell people about Jesus in a metropolitan area, to a country preacher in Hooterville. Not exactly the direction he saw for his life, but as country boys say ‘happier than a hog sleeping in mud in the hot sun.’ Not because this is what he was looking for; because he knows He doing God’s will for his life.

Blessings to you and your loved ones

Johnny

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Auction

We sold our teenagers last night. We portioned them out in three hour increments. Their going price was based upon domestic skill, charm, and brawniness. One of them flexed while he was up front (that raised the bid five dollars); most of them smiled and shuffled. I probably would've ducked.

They could bake cakes and do laundry. They could rake leaves and fix computers. The money went to the church for youth conference. Any on-site injuries would be billed to the purchaser. I sat to the side, upping bidders and buying little.

When the auction broke for refreshments and a game, I changed seats. I scooted next to a girl who'd raised a modest fare and asked, "How did it feel to stand up there?"

"It was awful," she replied.

I could imagine:
standing in front of a group of work-weary church people;
getting evaluated on your skills/talents/trade;
receiving donated money for your service;
wondering if you're worth the cash;
wondering if you're worth the votes.

I know a guy who deals with that each week. And he doesn't even bake cookies.

There are all kinds of pressures on the preacher, both from within and without, to be all kinds of other things and to speak all kinds of other words. To speak the truth with love is to run the risk always of speaking only the truths that people love to hear you speak, and the preacher's temptation, among others, is to deal with those problems only to which there is, however complex and hard to arrive at, a solution. The pressure on the preacher is to be topical and contemporary...But he must remember the ones he is speaking to who beneath the clothes they wear are the poor, bare, forked animals who labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives let along the world's tragic life. (Buechner, Telling the Truth; 34)

Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Jesus)

Monday, November 5, 2007

How to Employ Missionaries

I am sitting on stage with missionary team, Nate and Deb Dunlevy. Currently on home missions, Nate and Deb had contacted me about helping at the church. "We'll do whatever," Nate said. I thought about having him head up our laundry ministry, but funding has been an issue. So I came up with a better solution: Teach us how to be missional.

While the term missional has gained prominence in church-planting/growth literature (albeit, not enough to escape the nasty red underline of a misspelled word!), it hasn't stuck enough for us to employ homebound missionaries the right way.

Typically, the missionary will report with statistics, slides, and stories, followed by a request to partner with prayer and/or money. Sometimes the lesson will go further, educating us on the culture where they serve--specific challenges, values, and customs.

But most of the data comes already processed: facts and figures and field reports.
We hear about your culture, show but not how you unwrap it.
We hear about your context, but not how you contextualize.
We hear how you are sent, but not how we are.
We are asking the wrong questions.
What is the process?

Stepping down from the platform, Nate begins with a question. "What is culture?" Walking to the white board, he begins to explain.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Advice from an Old Guy

Young Man, you sound irritated when you preach.

Certainly, I am not.

But you come across a bit vitriolic, like you have something to prove.

No, nothing to prove. It must be the eyebrows.

Eyebrows?

Yes. They naturally slant downward, making me look perpetually peeved.

I would submit there is also a bit of downward slant to your voice.

Really?

Have you listened lately?

To myself? No, but we record the sermons.

I'd suggest you watch, and, more importantly, listen.

What am I looking for? Overused hand gestures and that sort of thing?

Not exactly. Look for the tone of love beneath the words of truth. Listen as if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, and crave intimacy with God. Listen as if you're tired, heart-broken, and insecure in you walk with Jesus. Listen as if you have been hanging on for six days, hoping to make it to this hour where a hallowed moment of song and Scripture might provide the answer to the weight in your chest. Listen as if you're desperate for grace and truth.

But most people don't come on Sundays feeling desperate.

That, Young Man, is why you sound like a prophet and not a pastor. Desperation is the deepest feeling--your voice (a conduit of the Spirit's) should draw them out. A commanding posture elicits insecurity and rejection; a gentle word will raise people up.

Whisper to them. Allure them. Love them.

Thanks for the tip, Old Guy. I'll take it to heart.

And there's one more thing, Young Man.

Yes?

Work on those eyebrows.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Proportions

My reading comprehension level is directly proportionate to my proximity to a computer. For every foot I place between myself and the computer screen, I gain seven extra minutes of reading. It's simple mathematics--1:7.

The problem with my office at the church is the computer in it. The machine sits eight inches from the edge of my desk, seven feet from the door, and eight feet from my comfy chair. At best, I'm an hour from a distraction. An email. A blog. A perusal of NFL statistics. An online bank transfer.

But I've found a solution. I call it a reading sabbath. This week I'm going away. With a book, a Bible, and a memo pad, I'm going to put miles between myself and this place. And since a mile equals 5280 feet, I should have at least three days before something steals my attention.

That is, of course, if no one calls my cell phone.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Organic Decay: A Parable

We bought forty-five pumpkins for the Leesburg Bluegrass Festival with hopes that kids from the community would come and claim them. I took great care picking each one from a local patch, but broke one in the process. Not thinking it was ethical to substitute a healthy pumpkin for a maligned one, I heaved the topless fruit in the bed of the truck.

By the end of the day fifteen pumpkins remained, the topless one among them. We brought them inside the building, so as to protect them from the infamous Leesburg Pumpkin Raiders. They slept peacefully beneath our roof.

But by the following morning, whether it was the previous night's foot traffic, the 3 gallons of left over chili, or a biblical plague, the church building was buzzing with flies. They outnumbered the locals in attendance at the festival. During the singing, arms swatted at the airborne intruders. During the sermon hands waved wildly at pesky insects. This was our closest brush with Charisma.

By Monday the flies had multiplied, playing sentinel at the front door and patrolling the kitchen. I armed myself with the fly swatter and rushed the building like a madman: knocking down plastic trees, overturning tables, flushing toilets and slamming doors.

I killed twenty buggers, but they continued to come. They were surging, spawning, swarming. And then I spotted their locus. They'd inhabited the topless pumpkin, laying eggs and hatching plans in the organic decay we'd brought into our worship hall. (Composting doesn't work at room temperature.)

So I did what any noble pastor would do, I grabbed the pumpkin and ran outdoors. I raced until I reached the edge of our lot and tossed the cancerous fruit from our property. Its decent was majestic, climaxing with a muted explosion.

And that's how a church really gets rid of flies.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Confession

Each week our church has a confession. We draw truths from the Scripture about our identity in Christ. We read the confession, recite it aloud, and then I encourage everyone to revisit it during the week.

Few do. Perhaps it seems to puerile. Too obvious. Too boring.Or, perhaps it takes too much faith.

One girl who faithfully reads the confessions admits they are difficult to say. Admitting you're glorious when you don't feel your glory seems contradictory. But that's the point. Often glory isn't felt because it isn't stated. Quietly held truth rarely grips us.

The Identity element for the week is: I am a Masterpiece (Psalm 8; Jer 18; Eph 2:10). Here is our confession:
  • I am a MASTERPIECE
  • I am MOLDED by the Master Artist
  • I am VISIBLE
  • I am USEFUL
Do I believe this? Probably more spoken than typed.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Catalyst and Conformity

I'm wearing a Don't Conform shirt. I was one of eleven thousand people who got the shirt free today, proceeds of Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace ministry. One of eleven thousand people challenged to purge his life from consumerism, while booth-hopping for schwag and iPod drawings. Every ninety minutes one in eleven thousand will win.

This is the emerging, relevant, next generation church. It is cool, hip, and committed to redeeming the church from Christianity and restore it to the Way of Jesus. They do it with Pomade and embroidered button ups; they do it with pop culture and social concern. They do it with with people under forty.

I would be one, but my shirt encourages me not to conform (so does the free Bible I received, compliments of Tyndale).

Fortunately, my generation balances its appetite for image with a genuine love for Jesus. They show it in their growing concern for both mediate and global communities, biblical practice, and gaining an audience with unchurched people. They will gather, even if too groomed, at events like Catalyst to share in the movement of God. And they will listen to seasoned leaders cast vision and spout wisdom on shepherding the church.

That I can conform to.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We are Turtles

"Men are like turtles."

There was a pause. Although the comment was axiomatic, self-evident, I wanted him to elaborate. I wanted him to come out of his shell.

He explained, "We would rather stick our heads in and not talk. It's difficult to get us to come out and open up."

This was how the discussion began on the second night of our men's retreat. Such pithy comments may be excuses or threats. He meant it as an observation.

We can be quiet. Reserved. Proud. Independent. We can be competitive, afraid of intimacy, uncooperative. These are the attributes that surfaced--the reptilian faces that emerged.

But they emerged with a grin, because men are great at laughter and play. They like to watch toy boats sink and float. They like to watch RISK armies fall, flags get captured, and drumsticks turn to bone in the hands of their most festive eaters.

And then, when they're far enough from shore, having followed the wake of shared experience long enough, they might share a thing or two. I just hope we don't have to wait until next year's retreat to hear more. Because more than turtles, we are RELATIONAL.

Monday, September 17, 2007

There's Water, Why Not?

The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch reads like a parable for our post-modern culture. Riding solo in the back of his SUV, the royal slave is listening to religious poetry on his MP3, bobbing his head to the beat. He knew the tune was spiritual, which was the nature of his journey, but he couldn't decode its truth.

He needed explanation and got it from Philip, who explained everything--through narrative, not dogma. "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, he preached Jesus to him" (8:35).

The eunuch lowered the volume and keyed in. He listened, hungry for meaning. And when he saw water, he asked the question, "Why not get baptized?" He had the anti-lock breaks slammed, and he and Philip rushed from the vehicle.

The royal servant wanted to validate his knowledge with experience. Immediately. True religion is more than principle, it is expression (Jas 1:27). But when there's too great a pause, expression becomes performance.

Yesterday I performed my first baptism since becoming a pastor. Four youth from the church had decided to obey the ordinance. Their relationship with Jesus began long ago, but their decision for baptism had been stalled by a gap in pastors, lack of planning, and busy summer schedules. These are excuses of the modern church.

We are in a different era. Spiritually curious people may not be patient for the performance. Fortunately, in the greater Warsaw area there are lakes everywhere.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Delaware GBC Weekend Retreat

Over Labor Day weekend I attended a four-day retreat, and I'm still recovering. I was the speaker for DelawareGBC youth, bringing Jesus before their eyes. Before the first message, my sinuses were suffering cockpit pressure. By the second message, my voice had departed. Fortunately there was a microphone.

High school retreats comprise a fascinating sub-category of youth ministry. They are relationally intensive and emotionally sensitive, rivaling only Steve Fee's worship band in its spiritual effect. By the end of the weekend, everyone loved everyone else; every represented high school was on the Tipping Point of the next Great Awakening; and everyone who was previously uncertain about his previous spiritual commitments was pushed through womb of conversion one more time.

Truly, it was a beautiful thing.

Now they are home. God be with them!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Maintenance and Mortgages

When our friends in Denver took the plunge into homeownership, their biggest concern wasn't maintenance and mortgages. Their longing was that their house become a place of rest--for themselves and others.

They didn't envision home as the typical single-family American fortification where the drawbridge shuts as soon as the car is in the garage, your sweatpants are on before your work clothes off, and the neighbors can't see you watching your forty-two inches of high definition, on-demand programming until you fall asleep in the La Z Boy with potato chip crumbs raining grease over your Hanes tee.

These friends ate healthier. And, in fact, lived healthier.

They set a precedent moving into the new house, bringing several of us through, room-by-room, to anoint the place in prayer. In the dining room we prayed for Upper Room fellowship; in the bedroom we prayed for purity and intimacy; in the television room we prayed for laughter, stress-relief, and discipline with time; in the office we prayed for success and vocational excellence; in the bathroom we prayed for regular bowel movements.

My wife and I close on our house this afternoon. A new chapter begins for us, which includes paying utility bills, learning repairs, and watching closely the amount of water we wash down the drains. Like our friends, we don't want the focus to be maintenance and mortgages. We seek a place of rest, and we will pray for it room by room.

Father, we pray thee to fill this house with they Spirit. Here may the strong renew their strength and seek for their working lives a noble consecration. Here may the poor find succor and the friendless friendship. Here may the tempted find power, the sorrowing comfort and the bereaved find the truth that death hath no dominion over their beloved. Here let the fearing find a new courage and the doubting have their faith and hope confirmed. Here may the careless be awakened and all that are oppressed be friend. Hither may many be drawn by thy love and go hence, their doubts resolved and faith renewed, their sins forgiven and their hearts aflame with thy love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Oxford Book of Prayers; from chapel porch of Pleshey Retreat Home)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Marketing and Communion

Grace College students have returned this week for the 07 Fall semester, and the greater Warsaw (IN) area is in a stir to recruit. Personally, I feel funny putting up posters that advertise our church. We're not a product or production. We're a called out people. Regardless, we're vying for ten new students.

Some churches are handing out pens; others loaves of bread; several have promised laundry, meals, and a home-away-from-home where no chores are required. One promised to put students to work.

I want to offer Jesus to the students, but he's hard to package. Actually, he did that once, and the result was rather deadly. I'd assume we leave him in enthroned in heaven and stick to handing out wafers and grape juice.

That is, indeed, his body. That is, in fact, his blood.

Community and communion--quite the slogan. Now if I can find some fonts and graphics to accompany it...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pastor as Narrator

The title Narrator rests handsomely be beneath the name on my business card. I was in search for a fresh metaphor since pastor has mixed connotations. Literally shepherd, the term pastor is biblical (John 21; Eph 4:11; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25) but contextual.

Leader as shepherd implies people are without conflict. Sheep travel through vast hillsides with no thought toward their worries; my people walk through grocery stores with coupons and cell phones, concerned about minutes and discounts. They commute to church and work and after-school activities in over-sized cars on over-priced gas. They wonder if they are okay: accepted and loved. It is part of their story.

Leader as shepherd implies people are without voice. Sheep baa and bleat and chomp their teeth, but they cannot cry 'Wolf.' Contrarily, people will tell you if you preach too long, talk too loud, don't make sense, or challenge their hearts. More importantly, they have vision and values, if vocalized, that enrich the drama of the local church's story.

Leader as shepherd implies people are without effect. Sheep may affect grief, if trapped in the jaws of a wolf, or frustration, if wandering from the fold, but the beast will not direct the choir. Shepherding is functionally akin to corporate America, directives flowing from top down. The local church works better as a serial novel, part of a progressive story (i.e. the Kingdom of God), each character--minor or major--playing an essential role. Everyone shapes, influences, and effects God's narrative.

Anyone who has ever spun a story or told a tale knows that the characters burst from the page. Both heroes and villains become intimate table mates; they have histories, flaws, and mixed motives. They are complex. They are vocal. They are knowable.

I have the easy part: I narrate. The author is Jesus (Heb 12:2).

Monday, August 6, 2007

Post-Conference Distress Disorder

"If the church in America would only get this ONE thing..."

Those who came to Equip07 know how I feel right now: piles of mail on my desk; emails crowding my in-box; ill-prepared sermon notes crammed in my Bible; and, most unfortunately, a fresh stream of ministry ideas rushing my head.

The diagnosis is grim. Post-Conference Distress Disorder (DSM-IV, p. 870) can be treated with a prescription of caffeine, extended office hours, and increased cardiovascular attention (to counteract the overconsumption of starch at Alpha Dining Commons). Left untreated, the disease could lead to impulsive 'changes of direction' and irregular bouts of crying.

Simon, a pastor from Ohio, admitted, "This is my first conference in four years. I loved all the sessions, but hated the aftermath: Each time I returned home, I felt like I had to rebuild the church."

"This conference gets me every year," wept Marilyn, a missionary in Singalaria. "Since 1999, every time I've returned to the village, we've taken a new route, a new banner. I believe the indigenous people are finally catching on."

Change is good. It is gospel. And according to the keynote speaker, "It is the most important thing for the church to grasp." Then again, so is the understanding of our identity in Christ, touted Neil Anderson. Or, said Jim Brown, "Going Fishing" is the only begotten essential for the Fellowship.

These were the three people I conferred with during Equip07, who told me the three ONE things I needed to know/practice/teach. These were the three people who have me wondering what other ONE things I missed--from post-modernism to church-planting to worship-leading--which, if known/practiced/taught, would result in local church vitality.

As a sale, three-for-one is a bargain. As a doctrine, three-for-one is a mystery. As a brethren, three-for-one is an ordinance. But as the pastor of a local church, three ONE things is a dizzying disorder.

Don't misread me: Fresh ministry perspectives are essential for pastors. Dialogue and ongoing personal maturity will only better suit our churches. Moreover, speakers and workshop leaders have to be convicted about their material--even to the point of bursting neck veins.

Nonetheless, we should recognize if not treated as a compliment to the mission of our local churches, each ONE idea becomes competition. Conferences may tell us to juggle, but experience reveals that simplicity is more effective.

Acknowledging this has cured me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Our house

Not too many pastors can admit to living with their in-laws. And this is not like Simon Peter who took his widowed mother-in-law into his home (Mk 1:29-30). My wife's parents are housing us; we're the recipients of their hospitality, not vice versa.

Because we were expecting our second child within two months of our move, we wanted to make the transition as smooth (and cheap) as possible. Our plan, then, was to take time finding the right house, without feeling rushed. This way we could be prayerful and strategic with its placement, and gradual in learning the language of homeownership.

The plan had its downsides. First, living with your in-laws means the home is not yours. And as much liberty as they gave us to invite people from the church over, my wife felt considerably juvenile asking, "Do you want to come to my parents house to play?"

Second, house-hunting is dangerous, especially every time we were in the car. The greater Warsaw area is not huge, but properties are aplenty. Virtually every time we drove from hither to thither (which means Winona Lake to Wal-mart), the car was sidelined by For Sale signs. RE/MAX, Coldwell Banker, and Century Twenty One became our traffic signals.

Third, we learn best by doing. So we put an offer on the first house we toured. Strategy and prayer were involved, but mainly we loved the house. It's inviting, cute, well-situated, feasible, and my wife wanted it more than a vacation with me.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sleepless Nights and Spiritual Battle

Both my daughters were born with their mother's drugs and their father's eyes. Claire, the eldest, was born on eight hours of Pitocin, which sent her into the world functioning at a resting heart rate of 237. Margot emerged at a modest 22 beats per minute, compliments of a dulling prescription of Vicodin.

July 18th marks Margot's one month birthday; she already sleeps better than her older sister did into the second year. The difference could be drug related, the fact that her parents are far less paranoid about imminent death, or a host of thirty other causes found in thirty separate books which have 'Getting Your Baby To Sleep' somewhere in the title. We've given up searching for the perfect method and gone on to retirement planning.

Margot's inertia has been a blessing: Sunday through Friday nights she sneaks through the night with only a single feeding. Then she's back to sleep before my dream completely fades.

But something happens on Saturday nights--those sweet, dormant hours before I preach--which I hesitated to identify. Margot was waking (2:00 a.m.), staring (3:00 a.m.), and fussing (4:00 a.m.) in two-hour blocks. At first I called it coincidence. After three weeks in a row, though, I'm confident the matter is spiritual.

Sleep is my safeguard against insanity. When I lack it, I feel irritable as father, lazy as a husband, clumsy as a preacher, petty as a Christian, and irresponsible as an American consumer (e.g. QVC).

Spiritual attacks on Saturday nights threaten my performance (meant militarily) during Sunday battles. And yet, the fact that I'm being wakened suggests that the church in Leesburg poses a challenge to the Enemy...because we preach Jesus.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Sugar Purge and American Dieting

"You look like you could be anorexic."

My wife heard this only two weeks after her second pregnancy ended in a C-section. To a degree, the comment sounded like a compliment. Of course, compared to a full-term mother-to-be, NFL linebackers look anorexic.

On Sunday morning I announced to the congregation my and Liz's goal to purge from complex sugars for the month of July. The task is more difficult than it sounds. Complex sugars are the staple of American dieting. I was afraid I would be charged with treason from the pulpit and banned from the Pledge.

But before an insurrection broke out, I appeased the masses by tossing candy bars into the seating area. My office was home to eight full-sized Hersey products and more than 100 miniatures. I had no chance of fulfilling my vow if temptation filled my desk drawers. Oh, sweet saccharine ecstasy. I will release you from your foil gown and let you melt in my mouth.

The Great Sucrose Purge began shortly after the birth of our first daughter. Pregnancies often culminate with a gluttonous sense of entitlement. The exhaustion, pain, and expectation are appeased with donuts, candy bars, Frappucinos, and ice cream. And that's just for the husband.

By design, the purge released us from compulsive, entitled eating and detoxified our bodies. The second purge intends to do the same. My fear, however, is that the unintended consequence is a lack of dinner invitations from people in the church.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sons and Fathers

"It's natural to swing harder when you're playing with Dad."

He was making excuses for my poor play on the golf course. I needed excuses. A week earlier, I was a self-proclaimed driving champion. Seven days later I had returned to form: a shanker. The game of golf is miserably captivating. I might write a devotional on it some day, if no one else takes up the challenge. (Too late.)

My parents had come to town to meet their new granddaughter; a perk of returning to the Midwest is more frequent grandparent/child interaction. More spoiling and babysitting, too. One afternoon the men of the house took a golf trip. I was determined to impress: sons are bred with the impulse. However, the only shining aspect of my game was my being teachable.

Widen your stance. Keep your head down. Follow through. Stir vigorously for 30 seconds.

I tried the same advice the following day from the pulpit. I'm sure my father noticed because he told me he was proud. Any son likes to hear this, regardless of play or performance. And not simply because we're desperate for approval, but because a father's pride says something about him. Being my father gives him joy.

I suspect God relates along similar dynamics (Mark 1:11).

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Squinting and the Promises of God

"God's promises are bright."

After talking to the man, I thought I should wear shades. He was a retired pastor, thirty years of ministry experience. We met in a bookstore; I make many acquaintances here. This one was Bob.

Bob recently moved to the area; Bob ordered a copy of Barna's Revolution; Bob drank his coffee black. We had a few things in common.

He asked me what I was did professionally. He'd overheard a conversation about coaching cross country, so he asked if I was a coach. "I'm a pastor," I replied.

"Where?"

"Leesburg."

"I'm new to the area and not sure where anything is."

"Three miles north of Wal-Mart," I said.

He nodded. Wal-Mart is the compass, the alpha and omega of small town traffic.

"Have you wanted to be a pastor for a long time?" he asked.

He was sixty-three, I'm twenty-eight: I wondered whose 'long time' we were referring to. Then I responded: "I heard you order Barna's book. When I finished Seminary, I wanted to try an alternative church style. I jumped on the house church train. After four years, a kid, and 60,000 miles, I decided I wanted to lead. House church teaches 'everyone leads,' which effectively means no one leads." I stated this dispassionately, an analysis rather than a criticism.

Bob looked at me affectionately. "Well, God's made some promises to you. To you and your family. You'll learn more about yourself in the next few years than you can imagine. Your future is bright. Let God lead."

Bob left, and I sat there squinting.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

House Calls and Speedways

"I'm the pastor, so you have to let me win."

It sounded like an ultimatum. But what could I do? Banish him from Sunday School? Withhold prayers and preaching? Ask that he be given no snacks during the fellowship time? Any consequence I might lay out would only sound childish. And since he was the six-year old, I figured I should probably play nicely.

"My son is a world champion at Mario Kart," the father boasted. I was pretty good myself; I owned a copy of the game and expected to hold my ground. Besides, I was the pastor here--the spiritual guide and reverend of the roadway. My job description intimated something about being the "authority on all things."

I put my racing gloves on and took a seat in front of the television.

The good news is that I was never lapped. That bad news is I was unable to scheme my way into a victory: I tried sarcasm, whining, poking his eyes and stealing his controller, but to no effect. I was never even close.

When I returned home, I poured through my ministry syllabus, looking for the section on how to respond to defeat. "Get used to it," it said. The text was bold.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reading My Confessions

"Be careful what you write."

For the past two years in Denver I gave students this advice. With the rise of MySpace, Facebook, and other online communities, stories circulated around the nation of individuals who'd forgone their sense of anonymity and typed impeachable comments. Then they were fired, jailed, or spit on by friends.

"What happens," I warned, "is that eighty percent of companies now search for your blog to see if you incriminate yourself: slandering co-workers, selling company secrets, waving guns, using drugs, et cetera. Big Brother can read," I assured them.

In my case, Big Brother was a contingent of four elders and a moderator. They called themselves the Pastoral Search Committee. They liked to laugh, eat potlucks, and ask difficult questions about divorce, baptism, and the emergent church. They read my confessions but made no reference to them.

Until later. Two weeks into the job, it was an elder's turn to confess. I donned my robe, called him into the booth, and listened.

"I read your journal."

"Continue."

"The whole thing."

"And?"

"We probably should have asked you more questions during the interview."

I made the sign of the cross and offered forgiveness. Then added, "Does this mean I can keep my job?"

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Laughter and Alarms

"For my first sermon, I will need volunteers."

I felt like a magician, beckoning a brave soul from the crowd. My inaugural message would be participatory to illustrate my style from the beginning. One lady reluctantly agreed, sharing a previous experience when another pastor had nailed her answer to the cross of theological scrutiny.

"My goal," I replied, "is to be the only object of public humiliation during a message." A soft laughter circled the table, easing the tension.

Perhaps I don't take myself seriously enough, but I am admittedly clumsy as a Christian. To fake a strut when I habitually limp smacks of hypocrisy. The era of impeccable leaders is fading; now is the moment for handicapped voices to lead, laugh, and encourage communities to limp along together.

God spoke this message when I opened the door to the church my first morning. I was told the lock was tricky; I was given the code to the alarm. I was expected to make myself at home. After a few minutes of manipulating the bolt, I rushed to the keypad and entered the thirteen digit number (the number of digits has been changed to protect the identify of the real password). The code was rejected. I entered it again, the beeps increasing with my blood pressure. I erred again. Thirty seconds passed and the halls of the church sounded the rapture. God laughs like a fire siren.

A minute later the security provider called. "Your alarm just went off." My ears were still ringing; I asked her to repeat. "Your alarm went off."

"Is that what that was?" I asked. "Sorry. I'm the new pastor. This is my first day. And I'll probably set it off again."

"No problem, reverend. Welcome to the ministry."