In Defense of Your Pastor

I have wanted to write a post about this for quite some time (years), but I did not want it to come across as self-serving. Since I am in paid ministry, this might seem like I am “airing my grievances” for my own benefit. But, I truly am not writing this to defend myself. If you are a member of a church in any capacity, I am writing this because you need to know it for the health of your church community and the health of your pastor and his/her family.

Let’s be honest. Some pastors do a bad job. Maybe they are just a poor fit for that church’s culture (I’ve been there). Maybe they have some personal issues that are really distracting them. Maybe they are burnt out. Undoubtedly, some pastors have some deep issues that are detrimentally unhealthy. They are like anyone else. Some need time to grow through experience (I took my first ministry job at 23). Some need to develop better leadership qualities. Some need to stop being so arrogant. So no, this post is not about letting them all off of the hook. They are far from perfect and sometimes that has to be dealt with. But, for the most part, they are people that, rightly or wrongly, feel called, are sincere and truly want to “pastor.”  With that, I by no means claim to speak for all of them. These are my personal observations and conclusions (obviously).

This post is about perspective and I hope that it can aid, again, in creating healthier relationships in our churches. We undoubtedly need them. So, here are six points (in no certain order) you need to know.

  1. They have all of their eggs are in one basket. For most (not all) secular jobs, there are natural, healthy boundaries between work, family, friends, and faith. If something goes south at work, you can at least find some solace at home, with your friends or at church perhaps. If something is troubling your marriage, that does not necessarily put a lot of extra stress on your work life. It might, but again, there are some natural boundaries there. Plus, church and friends might actually help. Something wrong at church? Well, you can step out of the role you are in to ease the conflict, create some space between you and the other person, or, if all else fails, you can find a different church altogether to invest in. That is not a great option, but I have seen it be necessary.
    But, for a pastor, all of those areas are intertwined. Something wrong at work? That means something is wrong at church and your family and friends are all in that mix. All of a sudden, stress in one area of your life can pour over into all of the other areas very easily. A work conflict is a church conflict which can easily turn into a family conflict. Stress in your family? Well, your family goes to work with you at least once per week and everyone knows them. Privacy is hard to find. Learning to create healthy boundaries is part of the job of a pastor, but it is not easy. I hope you can appreciate that.
  2. Moving is hard.
    A lot of people move for work, but they do not always have to. If you work in IT and live in a large enough area, you can change jobs without relocating. If a pastor needs to find a new position, they are going to have to move and most of the time they are going to have to move a considerable distance and not just from the north side of town to the south. I have lived in seven states, nine cities, both coasts, the South and Northern Midwest. Sometimes I wanted to move, a lot of times I simply had to. I have seen the average tenure at one church for a pastor reported as low as three years and as high as seven. My average is four. Either way, three or seven, pastors and their families move a lot and moving is hard. With that, a ministry degree and ministry experience, at least in the mind of a recruiter, does not translate easily into any other line of work unless you can afford to take a pay cut back to entry level or work a sales, commission based job. My biggest piece of advice to someone majoring in theology who is planning to be a pastor? Double major. You need a plan B that does not involve having to relocate or for when you cannot wait out the six months or longer duration of the typical church hiring process. Plus, I know more ex-pastors than I do pastors. The chances that you will do this for life are not in your favor.
  3. Pastors are criticized by the people they are trying to love and it always get’s back to them.
    Criticism comes with any job, but not every job requires you to be emotionally available to and invested in a large group of people. Ministry requires a certain level of vulnerability and that will always, at some point, be exploited. With this, people like to talk. So, you might think that you are just airing some criticism or concerns privately among friends, but it never, I mean never, stays private. Your kid will tell the youth minister what you said. The pastor’s friend will hear about that conversation and warn them about so-and-so. Your comment will be repeated. Again, please hear me, what you say about your pastor will get back to them. Always. 
  4. A lot of people think they know how to do the pastor’s job and maybe even better. (Especially of you are a youth minister)
    Imagine that you are an accountant. You have an accounting degree, maybe even a CPA and you have a few years of experience under your belt. A family from church invites you over to “get to know you” and after the small talk, the husband starts asking you more about your job. At some point, he says something like “You know I used to do some accounting in my day (he used to do his own taxes). If you don’t mind, let me give you some advice.” Advice is tolerable, but too often it is assumptive and condescending. Now, imagine that happens all of the time. It does in ministry, especially if you are a youth minister. Almost every time someone invites you over, the topic of church will come up and opinions will be shared. It can be exhausting and disheartening. Just because you did two years of youth ministry back in 1995 does not mean that you know how to do any of it today. You used to volunteer in ministry? Cool, that is completely different than doing it for a living. If you ever start a sentence with “We used to do x,y or z…” just slow your roll. The key phrase there is “used to.” That means you stopped doing it at some point for a reason. You are remembering the good, but forgetting the bad.
  5. Volunteers are messy and progress is slow .
    A church is basically a non-profit organization heavily reliant on volunteers. This means that it takes a long time to get things done and maintaining a level of excellence is difficult, to say the least. To begin, at some point you will have a bad volunteer in your ministry. Maybe they are in the wrong role, or maybe they are volunteering in the completely wrong ministry. Some volunteers need “fired” or “reassigned.” Now, think about how complicated that would be to do in a church. Pastors need all of the volunteers they can get. Plus, a good pastor ministers to their volunteers beyond just putting them to work. No matter how delicate you are, their feelings and/or ego are going to get hurt. If they are emotionally healthy, things will eventually heal to some degree. If they are not, and a lot of people aren’t, the situation could become very volatile very quickly.
    Ministry is heavily reliant on volunteers. People are busy and spread thin. So, volunteers do not have time to be as thorough and prepared as you would like them to be. Set the bar high, but know it will not be reached very often. If you push too hard, you will burn people out and you need them to stay. Because of this, so and so’s small group leader may not be up to their standards or such and such program may be a little less than ideal. You will hear about it and someone will want it fixed fast. It is never that simple. Nothing in the church world happens fast. We are steering a cruise ship and not a fork-lift. (If you don’t know, those things turn on a dime.) In a volunteer based organization, change is always messy and drawn out and some people are not understanding of that.
  6. The pastor’s spouse (and possibly kids) will get hurt.
    Remember point one about all of the eggs in one basket. Also, remember point three. Not only will the negativity get back to the pastor, but it will inevitably get back to the spouse and maybe the kids. If a pastor is doing a decent job at creating boundaries, they will shield their spouse and family from a lot of the negative, but they cannot block it all. Sometimes, the spouse will hear about it first. I’ve had people disguise their personal criticism as a “suggestion” and ask my wife to pass it on to me. Please… This can make church a stressful environment for a pastor’s family and it hurts. It can really hurt.

This is not an exhaustive list of what makes being a pastor somewhat uniquely challenging. And, again, this is not an effort to excuse a pastor who is doing a poor job. Maybe in the future, I will give my two cents on the healthiest way to share suggestions or critiques with your pastor. But for now, I hope this at least provides some context and insight into some of the challenges that your pastor and his/her family face and that it will inform your thoughts and actions as a member of a faith community.

Leave Them in the Pit

If your child were in need and the only way that you could get them help would require you breaking the law, do not tell me you would not do it. Don’t tell Jesus either. He would not commend you for your piety.

The law was clear in regards to the Sabbath. No work was to be done. But, it is ridiculous to think that if your child fell into a pit on the Sabbath, you would wait until Sunday to pull him out.1 (Although, a day in a pit might be good for them:) Religious adherence was not the point of the Sabbath. The point was creating a healthy rhythm of life for God’s people. It was a gift of rest. As Jesus put it, “Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”2

David and his men ate bread from the temple that, by law, only the priests could eat. But, the circumstances surrounding that event, the context, prioritized their need before the law.3 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment (discernment) of God rather than burnt offerings.”4 Kindness and compassion are more absolute than the religious law.5

Human hunger matters more than the holiness of a piece of bread. Restoration of someone’s health is not to be impeded by a religious law. It seems obvious, especially when we read about the astounding stubbornness of the Pharisees. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.6

“Sorry crippled man. Ain’t no healing available today.”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “It’s the Sabbath.”

This does not mean that the Bible and its teaching are to be treated frivolously or are simplistically relative. I am not saying, nor was Jesus implying that the only thing God wants from us is kindness. What this means is that you can site a seemingly clear biblical teaching and still miss the point. A “The Bible says it, that finishes it” approach is theologically shallow and lazy. Romans 13 does not permit us to let our government go unchecked. It does not free us from intellectual Christan engagement of policies. At the same time, we cannot simply remind everyone to love their enemies as if that in itself solves the most complicated questions regarding human violence, evil and the like.

The way of Jesus demands more from us than our talking points. My family’s safety and yours are important to me, but protecting my family does not let me off the hook of my moral responsibility to the hurting and needy. If you lived in Aleppo, you would do whatever you could to get your family out of there. You would not care about any immigration law or some border. Your kid’s safety and quality of life trump everything else. (see what I did there?)

My goal is not to change your mind about any certain policy, but simply to season the speech that is the overflow of your heart. Do not talk about “keeping the terrorists out” without expressing compassion for those truly in need of refuge. Leaving someone in the pit because it is the Sabbath misses the point. You may not be sure how to get them out (how to solve the problem) but, acknowledging the need, the moral imperative to do so, is a good starting point.

Withholding mercy cannot be justified by appealing to your duty to uphold some religious or civic law. To do so is to forget the mercy and grace that have been afforded you.

1 Luke 14:5
2 Mark 2:27
3 Mark 2:25-26
4 Hosea 6:6
5 We Make the Road by Walking Brian McLaren pg108
6 Galatians 5:22-23

Praying with Your Legs

I remember praying the first time I was unemployed for things to change. That is right. The first time. I have been unemployed three times in my life. Once I quit. Another time I was laid off due to a shrinking budget and the last time I was basically fired. Not a stellar track record. My poor wife and kids… I am talking about the first time. Obviously, I prayed for a job. I prayed for a good job that would provide us financial, emotional and mental comfort. In a word “peace” – peace from what I was feeling like at that point. None of us are immune to the pain that causes our faith to feel like spreading rocks beneath us eroding into frustration, anger, and dark despondency. Why? Where is God? What good is God if he does not even help in times like these? That whole “Footprints in the Sand” poem does not help me. Maybe I am too cynical.

Hope emerged and faded so often and quickly that it seemed to hurt more than it helped. I remember looking out a window unsure of what to do with myself after getting lost again in the rabbit hole of searching for jobs on the internet. My inner dialogue seemed to blur the line between thinking and praying. Suddenly, the phone rang, as if a phone rings with any other timing than suddenly, and I was pulled out of the tangled mess of my mind. It was a friend, a business owner, and he had a job offer. Hallelujah. Jehovah Jireh.

Joke. It did not happen that way. Nobody called, This whole thing did not end abruptly, easily or gloriously. It kind of just faded out of view in the background over way too many miles as we drove away going up and down hills.

My struggle with God then was not just about him answering or not answering me. I wondered if I even deserved to be answered. I was asking for something a lot of people do not have. Why what makes me so special that he would just magically make it happen? I was unemployed, but I lived in a nice house with a good family and a lot of “things.” What I wanted was to be able to pay for it all without stress while loving my work. On one hand, I felt like a Christian sitting at slot machine wondering why the infidel next you is winning when you at least try to serve God and would probably at least do a little good with it. That guy will just blow it on himself. (Yes, I did that.) On the other hand, I knew as I sat there wanting a blessing, there were kids starving to death who would not get an answer and who would eventually completely die from a lack of food. There I sat stuck between “Is this too much to ask? A little help here!” and “Nevermind God. You should go help someone with bigger problems.”

This is the problem with believing in miracles. Because, if they can happen, why do they not happen to me? For every one person healed, a million others still die. He healed the physically sick, the physically deformed, the mentally ill. He brought people back to life. He made a bunch of wine out of water which is really less serious than all of the other miracles but seems fun.

John calls them signs. These were points in time where the entire wavelength of our faith was condensed into one moment. For that person, at that time, everything was made new. That in a phrase is the Christian hope. Everything will be made new.

Yet, we are not to sit by the pool and wait for someone to push us into the miraculous water.

“I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglas (From a speech in 2011 after the Bowling Green Massacre. Just kidding my politically informed friends.)

Praying with your legs is what we know as walking by faith and not by site. We do not walk because of what we see around us. We walk because of what we do not see. Right now, we sigh and make muffled growling noises of frustration. We feel burdened and are exhausted from the chemical reactions taking place in these bodies we now live in caused by stress and worry. We long for a different existence.1 The only way to survive this is to walk by faith and not by the results, or lack of, that we witness. This is what people of faith have always been commended for.2

“When Jesus speaks about the world he is very realistic. He speaks about wars and revolutions, earthquakes, plagues and famines, persecution and imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and assassinations. There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world already belonging to the kingdom of joy.” Henri Nouwen

So, we do not move forward hoping for the miraculous to take place in order to make today or tomorrow better. We move forward with hope because of the miraculous that has already taken place and is promised to take place again once and for all.

What this means is that your struggle is not due to a lack of faith. Your existence in that struggle is a testimony of your faith. Today, do not take heart in what you see around you. If you are waiting for things to start looking up in order to find the strength to get up and walk, you will be laying there a long time. Take heart in the faith that moves beyond simply promising tomorrow will better and promises that eventually, it will be better forever.

 

1 2 Corinthians 5:1-7
2 Hebrews 11:1-2

Citizenship

I have never been comfortable with the word “sermon.” It sounds too stuffy and distant. So, I have never been satisfied with calling the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 “The Sermon on the Mount.” That title does not even come close to capturing the weight of what he was saying. This is not just a collection of moral instruction. It is a charter, a constitution for a new nation, a new kingdom. The kingdom of Heaven.  Israel was not the kingdom of Heaven. America is not the kingdom of Heaven. These are nations of men. Jesus calls us out of our national identity and citizenship into a citizenship in a new nation. It is a spiritual kingdom that transcends the physical borders of land, ethnicity and human culture. We are called to allegiance to this kingdom of Heaven first, foremost, and solely.

This “Sermon on the Mount” is, in essence, the political platform of this new kingdom. It is the spiritual infrastructure of kingdom culture. As Brian McLaren called it, it is a “Kingdom Manifesto” – a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization. This manifesto is our platform. It is our political agenda. We are not Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarians, we are Kingdom Citizens. We espouse a greater agenda than any party platform compromised by the failings of men.

The nations of men honor the politically powerful, wealthy, and attractive. They consider athletic ability a blessing, give awards to each other, and clap for the successful.
In the kingdom of Heaven, the meek, peacemakers, seekers of righteousness, neglected and hurting are to be honored. These are the characteristics of those worthy to lead, to be celebrated and to be voted for. (Matthew 5:1-11)

In the nations of men, the truth is hard to discern. Deceit and spin are the norms.
Kingdom citizens are to be illuminators of clarity and goodness. If we compromise, we lose any effective influence. (Matthew 5:13-16)

In the nations of men, one’s character is often defended by comparing it to the actions of another accused of worse infractions as if “not as bad” is an acceptable assessment.
Kingdom citizens are not satisfied with control over our actions, but with eradicating from our hearts that which is not of God. A man is not accurately assessed by reviewing his rap sheet. His heart and mind are where his true character resides. (Matthew 5:20-30)

Technicalities, loopholes, confusing contracts and the easy way out clog the courtrooms of men. The short-lived relationships of celebrities clutter our headlines and infidelity is a multi-billion dollar business.
Kingdom citizens are people of kept promises to our spouses and to everyone we deal with. We forgo personal expedience and honor our commitments. We do not settle for half truths. (Matthew 5:31-37)

In the nations of men “Kill them all” and “Bomb the heck out of them” are common mantras, fear rules and the humanity of others is devalued. In the nations of men, we brag about our abilities to kill others and take pride in our capacity for violence.   
Kingdom citizens end the cycle of violence by loving our enemies and not seeking revenge. (Matthew 5:38-48)

Men seek fame and status. Public servants often become nothing more than sociopathic power mongers. Their good deeds are little more than self-serving political stunts. Preachers become tv personalities and stylish, whitened-teeth figures. 
Kingdom citizen’s religious practices are free of selfishness and attention seeking. When our faith communities become narcissistic, pats on our backs from each other are all we get. (Matthew 6:1-18)

The nations of men worship the dollar and build fragile economies. They are concerned with the clothes worn on the red carpet, climb the ladder of greed at all costs and their stomachs are their gods.  
Kingdom citizens live life from the greater perspective of the larger story. We transcend the smaller stories of fear and worry written by men and our shallow, consumeristic desires. (Matthew 6:19-34)

In the nations of men, the line between good and evil runs between us and them. We are the sophisticated and they are the savages. We are “the legal” and they are “the illegal.”
Kingdom citizens look at others through the lens of grace. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Pledging allegiance to Jesus means embracing this kingdom manifesto and participating in this God-culture that is counterintuitive to the culture of men. But, I am afraid we have diluted this message with the influence of political parties and nearsighted, man-made agendas.

I acknowledge the difficult position followers of the way of Jesus find ourselves in as we attempt to navigate our political landscape. All of this is much more complex than an 800-word blog post can address. But, my point is not to tell you how to vote or to present answers to our most difficult challenges as a nation. My point is to remind us to not sell out, not to compromise, not to justify and to not let anyone person or group commandeer our voice. I seek only to remind you of the nation of your true citizenship. As you physically reside in the kingdoms of men, you yourselves are aliens. Live as such and do not fail to maintain the culture of the kingdom.

The Crutch of Christianity

This was less of a provocation and more of a question. It was a question of his identity. “If you are him, prove it.” But typically, when we read that weird story of Jesus going into the desert and being asked to provide a proof of identity, we read it more as a story of resisting sin. The lessons we can take from this story when read as an example of sin resistance are good and beneficial. But, I do not believe this is first and foremost what is happening here.1

Christianity is often maligned as a crutch, as simply a way for people to create a mental and emotional context that enables them to deal with life as we know it. Unfortunately, I think this criticism is accurate. It is an accurate judgment of the faith we have most broadly made known.

Essentially, we have pared down a globally transformative movement to a personal relationship –  a personal relationship founded on morals and therapy. It is what we are known for; the parsing of every action and choice in order to label that which is sin and that which is not. Our moral conclusions have become our mission statements. Amid the struggles and pain of life in this sinful world, we turn to God for therapy so we can cope. Our language is deluded with corny clichés and our music has become little more than love notes from God written by us to ourselves. But, Christianity is not a crutch. We have just made it one.

Morals, therapy, personal relationship… these all have a place in a larger context. Apart from this context, they are inadequate fragments.  The story of the testing of Jesus is not just about resisting sin. To take heart in the part of the story where the angels attended him in his weakened, but victorious state and to declare “Glory, hallelujah!” as we are filled with hope that God will do the same for us is missing a larger framework. At times our faith is little more than therapeutic deism.

In refusing to prove himself to satan, Jesus declares his identity to us. He is authoring a new faith. It is a faith of renewal and restoration back to the original intentions of God – God’s intentions for all of creation. This new faith holds out the promise of being fully realized in the future as we realize it incrementally now. It is a faith that speaks to our economy locally and globally, our education, our business practices, our community priorities and every aspect of life as we know it. This faith includes us as individuals for the benefit of all and not just ourselves.

Morality and therapy fit within this framework. This faith is a decision that begins with you personally. Will you personally be a part of this movement of restoration? Being a part of it will demand a new, counterculture way of living. It will require a commitment to being pure of heart and peacemaking. It will be emotionally depleting. You will need a place to recover where you are reminded that you are loved.

Social justice does not happen without individual transformation. Apart from moral development, justice is short lived. Moral development separated from creative altruism2 is nothing more than fundamentalism. To argue from one side against the other is missing the comprehensive point. Something that I believe our current Christian narrative does far too often.

 

1 Matthew 4
2 “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Disillusioned Bohemian

It’s always something. There is always someone. Some way to be better. Someone better. The new healthier way to eat. The latest in intentional parenting. That book you have to read. That speaker that you have to listen to. There is that friend who seems to live so free, off the grid. The other friend who you see traveling every time you make the mistake of checking your news feed. There is that one couple’s marriage that seems a thousand times happier than yours. That one guy with that unbelievable career.

Then there’s you. You don’t have enough time to chop all those vegetables so you can eat clean. You do not live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and you can’t make your own bio fuel out of used cooking oil. Your kids watch a lot of Netflix. That last time you went to the mom’s group you knew for sure you had to be the very worst mother of them all. You want to escape the rat race and live free in the woods or on the beach, but you love amazon prime, showers and your kids have too many toys for that tiny house.

That other lifestyle is so much more hip, healthier, exciting, deeper souled…than yours.

Simplifying, eating heathier, becoming a more soulful person…enhancing your lifestyle is good. We can all become better. But, do not believe the lie.

Bohemian – having informal and unconventional social habits. We generally stereotype them as hippies, writers, artists… he was less peacenik and more activist. He grew up in the system. He was all set to be a revered leader in the system. But, the system was flawed and he would have felt like a sellout if he just played the game. So, he left. He went all bohemian, left town, wore weird clothes and ate organic. He had an edge though. He was kind of an angry bohemian who did not leave to simply break free and live quietly. He left because it was time for a revolution. He railed against the flawed status quo and the people who upheld it. He called out the abusers of power and exposed them for what they were.

It was his destiny and he fulfilled it. He was a pioneer – a path forger, but he was cognizant of his limitations. The movement was bigger than him. He brought the matches. Someone else would ignite the fire.

“Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?”1 John, from prison sent this message, this question to Jesus. What did he mean “Are you the one or should we expect someone else?” He had to know he was the one. They were related. Undoubtedly, he heard the prophecy about him too. And, when Jesus came to be baptized by John, he not only recognized Jesus’ greatness, but God declared it.2 He knew who he was.

This was more of a respectful way of John saying “I don’t get it Jesus. This revolution is anemic. Is anything happening? And hey, I am in jail. Are you the Messiah or not? Get me out! Make something happen.”

Sometime it all feels like talk. They simplified and then they had kids and minimalism became much more elusive. She ate healthy, but still got cancer. Their cool, adventurous marriage ended in divorce. That diet ended up not being the best after all and everyone has moved onto the next fad. Sometimes we try to get all bohemian, reinvent our lives and break out of the status quo. It might work for a while, but then the jail door of reality shuts and we are stuck again.

It is the same with churches. We use words like vision and talk about attacking poverty and “doing” social justice. Sometimes it just feels like we talk a lot and accomplish little. Sure, we fed them, painted their house, or provided Christmas. They got hungry again, the paint eventually peeled, Christmas came again and their finances were not any better. What is this Jesus? Does anything ever change? Are we throwing pebbles in the ocean hoping we might create a wave when we barely generate a ripple? What are we doing?

Jesus sent John an answer.

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”3

To the disillusioned He says “Take heart. It is happening.”

Your effort matters – to be healthier, less stressed, more generous and soulful. Our efforts as faith communities to participate in taking care of others in our neighborhoods, spiritually and physically, matter. Often our disillusionment comes from missing the point of idealism. The ideal will never be fully realized here and now. Idealism is a direction like East or West. There will always be a “West” no matter how vigorously you chase it. So, move, but not to the peril of your own psyche, contentedness and presence in today. Look to the horizon, but maintain perspective.

 

1Matthew 11:3
2Matthew 3:13-17
3 Matthew 11:4-5
4 Matthew 11:11

 

Sleeping with the Fishes

To the contemporary ear, it sounded like something from The Godfather, but with an ancient twist. Dumped in the ocean with concrete shoes. Left to sleep with the fishes. But, it did not come from the lips of a Sicilian crime boss or a short, stocky hitman. Jesus said it.

“It would better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and drowned in the depths of the sea.”1 Concrete shoes. Sleeping with the fishes. He had moved surprisingly quickly from a gentle moment of encouraging his disciples to be more childlike to a brutal warning of a gruesome end. A gruesome end for the exploiters, abusers and deceivers of children.

His disciples were once again arguing about their own greatness. Self-consumed full of themselves. So, Jesus had a child come and stand among them. Immediately shaking them back into an awareness beyond themselves as they stared into the eyes of innocence and vulnerability. He calls them down from their towers of aggressive, self-assuredness and into peaceful, benevolent trust. In the kingdom of heaven, the uncorrupted soul of a child is honored.

And if you corrupt it, there will be hell to pay. As soon as Jesus himself took his first breath on earth, he was under the threat of violence from men. Children were massacred at the hands of a man who perceived his power was threatened. Threatened by a child. In our violent and savage world, children are indeed innocent victims. They are the casualties of our warring desires.

They are the innocent victims of poverty. The blameless victims of war. They are the orphaned and discarded. They are powerlessly and unknowingly corrupted by those in authority who should know better. Then, they become like us. They become us. For this, we deserve millstones tied around our necks and left to sleep with the fishes.

It all seems so complicated. Politics, foreign policy, healthcare, poverty, education, religion, culture wars… There are no simple answers that provide immediate remedies to our matted, dread-locked societal problems. But, this is where we go wrong and get bogged down. Finding a solution is not the starting point. We begin with finding the appropriate posture.

In the middle of the argument, Jesus invites a child to stand among them and calls them to a childlike ethos. Here, in this innocent, vulnerable, authentic and uncorrupted state, viable, just and generous answers to our most convoluted problems are found.

So pause. Stop the words, the brainstorming, the typing, the inner dialogue. Interrupt the meeting and invite in a child to stand among you. Be reminded not only to approach each other with the essence of a child, but to think deeply about how your words and decisions will ultimately affect the souls of our young. Bring a baby into the elder’s meeting before you decide what to do with the minster. Bring an underprivileged 2nd grader into the booth when you vote on the levy or vouchers. Bring someone’s kids into the board room before you make that policy decision that only benefits the investors.

If we were to lay everything else aside and assess ourselves as individuals, churches, states, and as a human race solely on the state of our children, would we have any case to make before God? We would not. And in act of redeeming grace, He would patiently loose each knot that we have tied from around the necks of our children and slip the millstone necklace slowly over our heads. And rightly so, we will all sleep with the fishes.

 

1 Matthew 18:6

The Body of Mary

“This is my body, broken for you.”1 Hours before his death, Jesus took this ancient meal, a celebrated memorial of freedom from enslavement, and reimagined it. It was now to be a celebrated memorial of the freedom of all people through his whole-self sacrifice. In a way, they echo the very words of his mother spoken more than thirty years before. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”2

When a woman says yes to motherhood, she says yes to whole-self sacrifice. She says yes to the physical devastation that comes with having your body pulled, pushed and stretched from the inside out for months on end. She says yes to a twisted, life-long dance with moments of gut-wrenching low notes and soft, floating highs. Motherhood requires an exhausting balance of delicateness able to support the fragile and yet brute strength needed to defend and endure. In essence, saying yes to motherhood is saying “This is my entire self, broken for you.”

In Mary, we see the embodiment of “offering oneself as a living sacrifice.” We see a renewed mind open to the unknown will of God beyond our finite terrestrial understanding.3 In her words, we hear an understanding of God’s will freed from the tangles of our cultural norms. In our world, the rich and powerful are considered blessed. In our world, royalty gives birth to royalty. In the culture of the kingdom of God, however, the humble are revered and kings are born from the wombs of unknown commoners.4

But, Mary had no idea what indeed she was saying yes too. There was no “What to Expect When You are Expecting a Fully God Fully Human Baby” book. She gave birth in a barn while on the run. The government wanted her son dead. The religious leaders would eventually want the same. He went missing when he was a tween and thought his parents were crazy for wondering where he went. He could make alcohol miraculously. Imagine if your teen could do that? (And, by the way, it seemed like when they ran out of wine at the wedding that Mary immediately knew that Jesus could fix it. How did she know that? Had she had him make some miraculous wine before? Hmmm…)

His ministry of mercy and grace toward everyone else would lead to years of stress and sorrow for her. All over the region she watched as crowds adored him while others despised him. Some said he was a prophet and others said he was a drunk. The most powerful among them plotted his death, while the most vulnerable washed his feet. She watched as he was tortured and she witnessed his final breath.

On this side of the cross the words “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said,” should drop with ominous weight. Self-sacrifice is a dense and unwieldy burden. It leads to healing through a broken body and cleansing through shed blood. In the often and unfortunate shallowness of our holiday season, our pristine nativity scenes fail to truly tell not only the story of the baby in the manger, but they fail to encapsulate the reality of the young mother who months earlier laid down on an altar of obedience to God and offered herself as a living sacrifice.  May the words of Mary be our words, but as with birth, may we be filled with joy and yet labored by the weight of their glory.

 

1 Luke 22:19
2 Luke 1:38
3 Romans 12:1-2

Custodians of the Faith

They were called “the ones who speak for another.” They spoke for God. They were not neatly groomed sages climbing down from their towers, waltzing into throne rooms, delivering mystical wisdom or coded predictions and retiring back to their offices to work on their next PowerPoint presentation. These were weathered, often homeless individuals with bounties on their heads. Being a prophet was less like being a celebrity and more like being a fugitive. They were leathery skinned, trash talkers ripping up the powers that be and tearing down the pride of the people. They were harsh and at times even crude.1 Yet, they weren’t macho, loudmouth jerks. They were deep souls – brave poets – delivering some of the most beautiful and gentle imagery in the Bible often quoted by Jesus himself. They were custodians of the faith, guarding it from not only godless influence, but internal distortion and the missing of the point by the religious. From this vocation the prophets spoke and wrote.

“I’ve been asked to say this and to make it loud and clear. We talk about being a people and even a nation under God as if we have a merit worthy morality or at least did back in the 50’s. We ask God for justice and pray for His return. We worship Him and give of our time and money. So, why is our country in this shape? Does He see us?

God sees you. He sees you worship and yet on that same day you commit violence with your words, fists and weapons. You live in a society full of exploited people and you chastise them because they don’t pull themselves up by their boot straps. Is that the kind of worship he wants, an hour of emotional expression and bowed heads? Is that what you call worshiping God?

Do you know what He really wants? He wants you to care about the inhumanness of our prisons where we joke about criminals being raped and call it justice. He wants you to stop getting filthy rich off your employees while you demand more work and longer hours. Help the poor and stop stereotyping everyone on welfare as lazy and enabled. They are not.

This is the type of religious worship God really wants. When this is done, you will be that city on a hill you claim to be and things will get better for everyone. When you live like this, you put yourself in a place where God can protect you. Outside of that, you are on your own.

When your speech is filled with hate and you point your finger of disgust at everyone else, God hates that. When you fail to show any amount of empathy to overworked people and simply disregard other humans as illegal outsiders, inner-city thugs or fly-over state white trash, your Sunday morning prayers are ignored.

But if you work tirelessly to put an end to all of this, you will again be “garden people” living in a dense, forest-green peace. From within you will flow a deep, clear soul. Then you will be known as restorative, life-giving people.” (That was my paraphrase of Isaiah 58.)

But, our morality is lopsided. I heard a story of a minister who stood up in front of an auditorium full of ministers and said “There are thousands of people in our city going hungry every day and none of you give a damn about it. The problem is that you are more upset that I just said the word “damn” than you are about the hungry people.” Christianity has in many places been hijacked by moralistic terrorists checking the length of women’s skirts and the frequency of your quiet times. Many are more concerned about women wearing scandalous yoga pants or the amount of curse words in that movie than we are about the murder rate in Chicago or the horrors of Aleppo. Jesus told the Pharisees the same thing:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”2

This is not either or. We cannot separate the way of Jesus into a spiritual or social gospel. Listen to His own description of his ministry as he read from Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”3

This is about our witness. When we are more offended by the immorality on television than we are by that of our leaders, our witness is weak. We cannot make excuses for ourselves by shrugging off disgusting behavior for the sake of a political agenda. As followers of the way of Jesus, we are not afforded that moral maneuvering. This is a call to a more complete morality than we see in either political party. This is a call back to the higher way of God. This is a call beyond the lopsided morality of much of evangelical Christianity that gets more angry about whether the Home Depot greeter says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” than we do about Syrian refugee babies washing up on the beach shore. This is a call to be custodians of the faith cleaning up the puke in the hall left by an unhealthy Christian witness before the pungent odor of grossly missing the point sets in permanently.

If we embrace a strong personal morality and religious conviction and yet, at the same time, fight against injustice, work for equality, and live from a heart of grace and mercy for all people all over the world, “then our light will break forth like the dawn, and our healing will quickly appear; then our righteousness will go before us, and the glory of the LORD will be our rear guard.”4

If we refuse to sell out to any political party and refuse to comprise one part of our morality for the sake of the other, no matter how hard it is, then “the LORD will guide us always; he will satisfy our needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen our frame. We will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”5

When we do this, we will again have an empowered witness. When we do this, we will again be ones who speak for another.

 

1 Ezekiel 23:19-21 – you’re not going to read that in church.
2 Matthew 23:23
3 Luke 4:18-19
4 Isaiah 58:8
5 Isaiah 58:11

You’re a Piece of Grass

There is an official record of 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War.1 I remember the first time that I visited the memorial in D.C. In order to find a specific name on the wall you must consult a memorial book located nearby. The names are listed alphabetically in the book along with their location on the wall. As I flipped through the book, I looked for my last name. It seemed to be a subconscious attempt to connect in some way with someone out of that staggering list. At least that is what I tell myself. It might have just been narcissism. But, as I turned the pages, the finiteness of my life weighed on me. I once did not exist. One day I will only be a memory. Eventually, I will never be thought of again. My insignificance, at least for a few moments, was tangible.

That doesn’t feel good. To matter and to be known feels good. But, like the billions of people before you and likely after you, your significance is short lived. In the Bible, we can find two extremes so to speak on this topic. At one end we have Psalm 139. It is a description of the intimate level at which God knows us. “You created my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb…” stuff like that. Warm, fuzzy and a bit much for the cynics among us. Then there is 1 Peter 1:21 that says ““All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall…” The sentiment in one of those two passages will sell books in the Christian bookstore. The other, not so much.

And then there is Paul’s speech to the Athenians. As he describes God, the true God that they are yet to know, he makes this statement:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Act 17:26-28

Is there truly that much intention and purpose to our lives? For those of us who have been stopped too often at the reality checks on the road life, it is hard to believe. Most of the time, significance is harder to find than that Lego piece your son lost only to realize it was already attached to the structure (yep, that happened). And, when we encounter moments in which we feel significant, we are extremely suspect of them. We usually feel more like a piece of grass.

But, what if it is true that there is this deep level of significance and purpose to all of us?

The design is far too vast for you to take it in all at once. From your limited perspective, you will never see it all. You cannot see the whole ocean from your position on the beach. And this leaves plenty of room for doubt. Yet, wherever there is room for doubt, there is room for faith. Faith that there is, even if it is imperceptible, significance to your life now. The intersection of you, this time and this place has purpose. However, you need to stop trying to understand it or put it into words, because you will never be able to, again, take in this vast design all at once and grasp the importance of your place in it.

Because this is about so much more than you. This is not about your fuzzy feeling of significance. I am not writing this so that you can feel good about yourself. I am writing this to remind you that you have been given a role in the design and refusing that role leaves a void – a gravely, unfortunate void. It is a void that you can never fully understand and trying to measure it is not only an exercise in futility, but selfishly detrimental.

Measurement is comparison. Comparison erodes. It erodes this faith in our God-designed significance. Comparison paralyzes. It is a self-inflicted wound whose shrapnel sprays those closest to you. And honestly, we usually compare ourselves to our incomplete perceptions of others. We never know the whole story. With that, this comparison sometimes leads us to find solace in the downfall of others. When those who are grossly idolized fall, it makes us, in a twisted way, feel better. We do not realize how it weakens us all for we fail to grasp the complexity of all of our connectedness.

On the other side is selfish ambition. Selfish ambition is a weapon. It is a wound that we inflict on others when we seek to first and foremost create or protect our own significance. The selfishly ambitious become the low-quality graffiti defacing the grand architecture. A life of manufactured self-significance becomes the weak spot in the greater plan designed to hold all of this together.

The writer expresses nothing without the reader and the speaker is unheard without the listener. We are all writers and speakers and we are all readers and listeners. Everyday. You are but a blade of grass in an endless field. Yet, you occupy a certain space for a certain amount of time for a reason. Live there, for significance is bigger than you, but it includes you.

 

1 https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html