Monday, November 30, 2015

Three Tasks of Pastoral Ministry Hashed Out in a Honda Accord

I worked on my magnum opus for pastoral ministry from the back seat of an '97 Honda Accord. On the return trip from Atlanta with two fellow pastors, conversation lulled after ten hours. And since the custom CD, replete with Nineties alternative music and heavy metal only pulled me back to my teenage years of angst, self-loathing, and female-induced depression, I focused my thoughts in a healthier direction: my vocation.

For eight years I've vacillated between considering my work in pastoral ministry as a special calling and a specialized career. Public speaking and wedding ceremonies are not for everyone. Marriage counseling and event planning take a unusual skill set. And yet, prayer, Bible study, and conversations about God are not the pastor's exclusive right.

Indeed, every Christ-follower can do the work of the evangelist (2 Tim 4:5) with the aid of the same Holy Spirit dwelling in the pastor and informed by the same Holy Bible read by the pastor. Moreover, many a Christ-follower in a given congregation may do the evangelist's work more naturally and with greater results than the pastor himself.

So what's so special about pastoral ministry?

(Before describing three essential tasks of pastoral ministry, I should note that leadership in the church is not restricted to pastors. Ephesians 4:11-16 describes a variety of gifts (five or four depending on how one parses "pastors and teachers") given by Jesus to the church for the "equipping of the saints for the work of service for the building up of the body of Christ" (4:12). My magnum opus does not hold a candle to the apostle Paul's, which he outlined in this critical text.)

The pastor does three essential tasks to help conform others to the image of Jesus. These are not simply public or pulpit ministrations; his work is part of an ongoing and informal conversation "that leads to godliness" (Titus 1:1).

First, the pastor does theological reflection. In the sermon he speaks of the wonders of God. In the hallway he affirms God's beauty and sovereignty. At mealtime he returns thanks, noting God provides daily bread. When a conversation arises about a challenge or worry, the pastor fights the cultural pressure to say, "You'll make it through. You'll be fine. You got this." Rather, he reinforces a theological worldview and, without sounding campy, says: "God will provide. He will take care of you. He will get you through." Surely, every believer has the responsibility of theological reflection, but good pastoral ministry sets the tone (e.g., Phil. 4:8-9; 1 Tim. 4:15-16; 2 Tim. 3:10-17).

Second, the pastor provides  empathetic connection. He should model the care and patience of Jesus (1 Pet. 5: 1-4). He should take time to listen to people without a cell phone in hand or glances at the watch. Pastors show empathy when they remember previous conversations, family names, and personal struggles. Writing notes of encouragement or sending texts that force a laugh or show concern can communicate empathy. While the incarnation of Jesus was a one-time event (John 1:14), the Lord's nearness is reinforced through the empathy of church leaders (1 John 1:1-4). Again, every believer is called to empathetic connection, emulating the selfless Savior (Phil. 2:5-11), but the pastor is often invited into the most grave and joyous moments (e.g., funerals and weddings) of a believer's life, as well as the daily grind.

Third, the pastor inspires missional exhortation. He helps everyone see the value of his or her life. He ascribes meaning to work in the factory or volunteer service in the public school. He helps people recognize opportunities for ministry within the church and outside of it. He celebrates the way people show Jesus' love in their various spheres of influence. And he identifies ways the church can corporately impact their neighbors, both locally and globally. All believers are co-laborers with Christ and may give missional exhortation to one another, but the pastor gives public attention to God's great commission (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 15:58).

As I pondered these tasks in the backseat of the Honda Accord, I took comfort in how well they aligned with the mission of my church: Every Christ-follower becoming full in Christ, united in love, and strong in service. When I shared my reflections with the other two pastors in the car, they seemed less than impressed. I can't blame them: Bohemian Rhapsody was playing at the time. Again, my magnum opus was no rival.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Evangelical Brothers Rooming with a Runner

I shared a hotel room with three other guys in downtown Atlanta last week. We convened there for the National Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting -- a.k.a., Christian Nerd-fest, replete with bow ties and beards -- to think through a theology of marriage and family, among other topics. My attendance was also spurred on by the discount books and meaningful dialogue.

The four of us crammed into a single Motel 6 room, vying for bathroom time and sharing two full sized beds. I slept terribly and my digestion revolted. Fortunately, our conversations about family, ministry, and the Bible were rich. And I was able to maintain my running routine.

I always pack my running gear when I travel. Not only do I want to make up for the billion calories I consume at restaurants or fast food joints, I also love to experience a new city or landscape while jogging. The view from the street while buzzing past buildings, city parks, and pedestrians only rivals the skyline scene.

In recent years I have run the crowded Washington DC Mall, the industrial Newark (NJ) Airport roadways, scenic Carpinteria (CA) beachfront, and competed in the bustling Chicago Marathon. 

Last Tuesday I set out from my hotel to Olympic Park, making two laps before returning. Although the route was short, I came back drenched in perspiration. I removed my sweaty socks, took off my sweaty shirt, shed my sweaty pants... (Any more details would verge on pornography, so to the point...) These soiled garments couldn't go straight to my bag for fear of making the rest of my clothes musty. Unfortunately, I didn't have a line to hang them on. So I improvised. Sweaty running gear accented door knobs, light fixtures, and the TV screen.

Rooming with a runner has few benefits. The other guys may feel good when I launch out and they lounge around. Or they may feel guilt when I get up early to exercise and they sleep in. They may feel gluttonous when I counter my calories and they keep consuming.  Most likely, they may feel gross when they find my wet boxers briefs dangling from the shower head.

Fortunately, my roommates extended grace when I stunk up the place. That is the benefit of rooming with Christian brothers.

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Wasn't Born for a Beard and Other Emascurities.

I was not born to wear a beard. Every November this reality comes crashing down on me, when I commit to "no shaving" to raise awareness for Prostate Cancer. (Side note: I'm not sure if "No Shave November" really intends to help fight the disease, or simply steal some thunder from the ubiquitous pink in October. However, if breasts and prostates were in a popularity contest, it takes little imagination to crown a winner.)

Any amount of time I give to growing a beard results in no more than a dirty dusting of facial hair. I get scruffy, not hairy. I look gross, not handsome. I fight the feelings of inadequacy because my genetic inheritance boasts more baldness than burliness.

My emascurities (a word I coined for insecurities that make me feel emasculated) extend well beyond facial hair.

When I was in youth choir, the director had me sing with altos. When I answered the phone as a child, callers confused me for my mother. When I reached middle school, I was the last of my friends to grow armpit hair and experience a drop in my voice.

Making matters worse, to date I cannot fix cars, remodel homes, or lift weights. I have never shot a gun, caught a fish, or won a wrestling match (my daughters excluded). I've experienced a growing disinterest in professional football, violent movies, and winning in games.

In place of these stereotypical, testosterone-driven activities, my recent cache of pleasures includes long jogs, a good cry, curling up with a book, and meaningful conversations.

If it weren't for my lovely wife, I might question my manliness all together. She fortunately does not judge masculinity by facial hair and handyman skills. "What a man," she said a week ago when I scrapped iron deposits out of our toilet. "What a man," she exclaimed when I made dinner for the family and cleaned the dishes afterwards. "What a man," she chimed when I called a guy who was angry at me and sought to repair the relationship.

My wife knows I was not born for a beard. Not all men are. The measure of a man must go beyond our grooming to our goodness. Every man was born to honor God, love his wife (if married), shepherd his children (if a parent), work with integrity, and outgrow his insecurities.

A beard is a bonus feature I will never achieve.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Prayers and Pits

Tolerance does not accept all ways of thinking. Religious convictions and practices often get pegged as oppressive and legislated to the margins. Christians should not fear the margins, it is a position where faith has historically thrived. The prophetic voice of critique and hope resounds from the margins. When Christian voices mingle with the mainstream, they're often diluted or drowned out.

Daniel chapter six provides an interesting case study in prophetic action in a godless world. While the Medes and Persians were known for their policy of tolerance (Ezra 1:1-4), Daniel quickly finds out that tolerance has limits. His jealous opponents trick King Darius into making a law that restricts prayer to the king for a thirty day period. They know Daniel will chose the law of God over the law of the land.

And he does. Daniel continues praying - bowed to the ground, facing Jerusalem (1 Ki. 8), three times a day. His religious acts are not a political statement. He is not posturing. Daniel simply maintains piety in the face of scrutiny because he values God's unchanging law over the ever-shifting law of the land. His prayerful resistance results both in persecution (e.g. a night in the lions' den) and God's protection.

While America is not Israel, Christians can certainly relate to the political environment of Daniel's day. Laws morph. Tolerance reigns. That is, except for tolerance of firm morals and upstanding faith. American Christians empathize with Daniel's sense of exile no more than Christians of any time and place understand exile. Christians are not citizens of this world (Phil. 3:20). And as strangers and exiles, Christians are not called to greater politicking, but greater piety (1 Pet. 2:11ff).

Perhaps the best starting point for piety is on one's knees. Praying. Confessing. Resisting the gravitational pull of a godless world to drift into the mainstream. This sermon calls us to such a faith as this. 

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, November 2, 2015

Revivalism and Pious Prayers

Piety is a bad word these days. It sounds officious and religious. It implies higher moral ground and prudish sexual standards. It seems oppressive and disingenuous.

The word has not always received such negative reactions. Its word origin shares roots with "faithful, believing, devout." In the former days of John, Paul and James, belief and action were not divorced. "Faith without works is dead," James wrote (2:14-26). "Love in deed and truth, not simply tongue and intention," John exhorted (1 John 3:18).

In more recent history, preachers of the Great Awakening sought to practice holiness in daily life. Rather than accept the divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, men like John Wesley and Alexander Mack gave themselves to daily confession, Bible study, worship, witness, and humble service. It was Wesley who considered many of his countrymen "Almost Christians," because he noted their profession of faith did not align with their practice.

In a world trending toward godlessness -- not always in deed (for environmentalists and educational reforms have done some good), but certainly in outlook and egoism -- a return to piety is crucial. Revival will not grow from more evangelical politicking or mere "relevant" posturing, but from a return to piety.

In its purest form, piety holds the truth of the gospel (Christ buried, raised, ascended, and alive in His church - 1 Cor. 15) in one hand, and the other hand invests itself in work and worship. The apostle Peter, who understood his audience as a paradoxical blend of exiles and priests, summarized the call to piety well:

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe themglorify God in the day of visitation.

I pray the church return to piety. I pray she humble herself, pray, seek the face of God, and turn from her wicked ways, positioning herself not only to receive the blessings of God's forgiveness (2 Chron. 7:14), but also to direct the world back to God in the process.

It's not too late for a global revival. A return to piety may be its spark.