Monday, March 31, 2014

The Corpse-Frog Pastor

I died on stage two weeks ago. The occasion was the annual Pastor's Appreciate Banquet. The setting was the Oakwood Inn (Syracuse, IN). The cast was a professional Murder Mystery Group and yours truly. I earned the spot by winning a contest.

I have my friend Scott to blame for my death. He told one of the actresses that I had a background in theater. (My wife and I met in a production of Twelfth Night.) The woman interrupted my final bites of Parmesean chicken to ask me to die. "It won't last more than ten minutes," she assured me.

My death was not guaranteed. I was in competition with three other people. We would each sing Happy Birthday. We would do so impersonating a famous character.

"Can you do any impressions?" she asked.

"I can do a mean Kermit the Frog," I said.

"I've never had anyone do Kermit the Frog before. This should be good. I'll get you in a few minutes."

The troupe commenced with their show. They mentioned one of their cast failed to arrive on the scene. They would need a volunteer from the audience to play his part. All four members stepped off the stage. They were looking for victims. The actress I had spoken with grabbed a hold of me and led me like a sheep before the slaughter.

The troupe leader explained that competition: Each of us would sing Happy Birthday mimicking a famous person. The most impressive impression would be cast as a corpse.

Displaying 20140321_203558.jpgThe first contestant did a believable Marilyn Monroe. The second stumbled through as John Wayne. The third wailed like Elvis. And I summoned my inner Kermit the Frog to the roaring approval of my colleagues. I won the competition, and took my seat among the dead.

As I sat there, eyes closed, motionless, and feigning death, I couldn't help but feel a bit of pride. In a room full of religious performers, I alone earned the spotlight. My Kermit the Frog impression placed me front and center. Seven minutes into the script, as promised, they moved my body off the stage. They allowed me to return to my seat, where my wife beamed at me and several folks nodded. I inhaled my dessert, basking in fame.

Later that night, my euphoria dissolved. Instead of pride, suspicion took residence. I began to worry that my fifteen minutes of fame would lead to a lifetime of Kermit the Frog references. I was, in fact, among pastors, who are notorious for depersonalizing people. By trade, we turn people into gifts and resources. Sadly, all humans are guilty of this tendency.

Sure enough, the next morning when my wife and I entered the breakfast room, I was a marked man. The first person to greet me clasped my shoulder and said, "It's Kermit the Frog!" The next person pointed a fork at me and said, "It's the dead body!"

Pride came before my fall. Among my fellow clergymen, I will henceforth be known as the Kermit the Corpse Pastor.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wedding Planning and Gospel Witness

I won't marry just anyone. When couples call the church and ask about using our building and employing our pastor (moi), I require at least one meeting. As much as I want to hear their plans and purpose for marriage, my greater interest is to tell them about God's plan and purpose for holy matrimony. Weddings are a gospel witness.

People marry for a variety of reasons. Love, validation, security, financial stability, raising a family, tradition, and societal pressure top the list. God's rational for marriage is more pure: "to encourage holiness, not happiness" (Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage). The Apostle Paul made a similar claim in Ephesians. He calls women to submit to/respect their husbands, and husband to love/sacrifice for their wives. The aim of a biblically-conditioned marriage is to move flawed individuals into flourishing a pair of Christ-followers.

The initial meeting with an engaged couple allows me to relay God's story of marriage. Before launching into the narrative, I try and gauge the couple's spiritual sensitivity with questions.
  • If they've been co-habiting, why marriage? 
  • If they've been married before, why do it again? 
  • If there are kids in the equation, how does this change things? 
  • If they don't attend church, why get married in a church by a pastor?
After hearing their responses, I introduce God's story. "The Bible is God's Word to the world. It tells about God's Son Jesus who died for our sins (do you know what sin is?) rose from the dead, and will return someday. The Bible teaches us about church life and spiritual matters. It also reveals God's heart on matters that seem ordinary: money, honesty, parenting, and marriage. I think it happens to tell the better story on marriage."

At this point, I let them know I'm going to take them to two different places in the Bible. If I have matching copies of the Bible available, I give them each one to read. We turn to Genesis Chapter Two, which I identify by a page number (since we're reading the same copy). I explain Genesis as a anthology of beginnings. Just as the world has a story of beginnings (slow and gradual, random and violent selection), God's story has a beginning. I happen to find the story of an all-knowing, loving Creator who made us to reflect Him in ruling and relating (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:14) far more compelling than Naturalism.

We read the Genesis 2:18-24 account of Lonesome Adam and Lovely Eve. I describe marriage as a gift from God. I stress Adam's awe over Eve. I stress Eve's role as a helpful partner. I tell of their need for independence. I explain their opportunity to birth, raise, and prepare their children as image bearers. I usually throw in a comment about how they stood naked together without shame, and how we've come a long way from that first scene.

Next I introduce Ephesians. I tell them the Bible came in two parts: Old Testament and New Testament. The NT recounts the life of Jesus and the begins of the church. Much of the teaching came in the form of letters, helping churches think through how to follow Jesus in their day. Ephesians was one of these letters. Then I lead the couple through Ephesians 5:21-33.

I watch the woman's face cringe when we read the wife is to "submit to" her husband. I watch the man gloat when I read the husband must "love his wife." When we move to the subordinating clauses about sacrificing himself and presenting his wife spotless before God (who? her?), a look of worry crosses his face. So I give them an opportunity to interact with these words "submit to/respect" and "love/sacrifice." They tell me the idea seems antiquated.

"The Leave It to Beaver days have passed. Women burn bras and work outside the home now. Men watch Downton Abbey and wash their own pants in our age."

But I assure them some things have not changed. A man's need for respect is no less important today as the Bible days. Every husband wants a pat on the back, a warm fuzzy, merit badge, and sign that his lady honors him. Every wife craves love, sacrifice, affection, and pursuit, if her man gives without agenda. (Wives can tell when their husbands are trying to warm up the marriage bed.)

The man's call to "love/sacrifice" moves him from passivity to passionate pursuit. The woman's call to "submit/respect" moves her from fearful control to faithful compassion. When these qualities permeate marriage, we truly become the gift God intended us to be for one another.

If the couple has engaged with me to this point, I can typically see some change of expression. They recognize holiness is better than happiness. And passionate pursuit and faithful compassion trump personal comfort any day of the week.

The session may not lead to conversion or subsequent premarital sessions, but at least they've heard God's heart. If the would-be husband and wife entertain my marriage-as-gospel-witness speech, I am happy to officiate their ceremony. But I won't marry just anyone.