There is No Mold

A few weeks ago a friend posted a question online – what are the most important things you have learned since beginning full-time ministry?

That is a good question, and like most good questions, his prompted plenty of answers.

The thing I’ve learned the most, particularly since becoming a lead pastor – the person with whom the buck stops, the one people most often look to for an answer about what the Gospel means in the world-on-fire 2016: There is no mold.

We’ve been invited, no more than that, instructed to jam ourselves into the ways of life created by ministry superstars, to preach like they do, to speak with their cadences, to build the ministry they were called to and to reach the kind of people with the Gospel that God uses them to reach.

But that mold doesn’t exist – that’s what I’ve learned over and over since being dropped in the middle of three unique country churches in the shadows of the mountains a few years ago. The one size fits all open it up and run it straight out of the box church kit is an illusion. I suspect it always has been.

To be a leader in the church in 2016 is to accept a charge as a risk-taker, a summons to be an innovator and a call to be a pioneer. The ways and the practices we’re used to in church aren’t as reliable as we have been told they always have been. Anyone who tells you they have a plan and a formula that is guaranteed to work for you is either selling you something or lying, and probably both.

This is the truth I’ve learned, whether you spend most of your days in a church or whether you wouldn’t know one if you drove by it on the way to work.  And if you live near me, you pass a slew of them on your way anywhere.

Life doesn’t come with easy solutions and guaranteed outcomes. The things that work for you might not work for your neighbor. The strategy that helped your colleague thrive at work might leave you with egg on your face when you try it. Your best friend might be able to balance being a parent and sole provider but you know that’s a guaranteed disaster for your family.

The only thing that matters, the only way ministry works, the only way to thrive in life and help connect people with God is to be the authentic person you’ve been created to be and lead with the special and unique gifts God has given you. Read the books, learn what you can, it’s all good. But in the end, living with integrity and finding the path to flourishing comes by using the tools and embracing the passions you have been given. Then you just get to sit back and watch God use them to connect with people in ways you never imagined.

That’s what brought me to this point, today, to writing my first post at a website and domain that has my name on it – without the safety of WordPress in between.  It’s scary. It’s intimidating. I’ve wrestled for weeks whether it was the next step in faithfulness or a master class in pretentious arrogance.

And yet, here I am, doing something I thought I had left behind a long time ago.

For five years I wrote almost every day – about things people care deeply about, care too much about – I wrote about college football. But then I didn’t. I began full-time ministry a few years later and decided that writing was something I used to do, something I did before I do what I do now.

The people I was told to read didn’t blog. The preachers I was pointed to didn’t write, other than about how to supersize your church using their formula (Five simple steps to show Peter how to really catch fish!) To be a pastor who writes, who helps people think about their faith and the places they live their lives, to be a writer who pastors people online, well that didn’t come with the mold. (Of course, if I had paid better attention, or knew where to look, I would have found that there were plenty of teachers out there to help me live into this calling.)

About eighteen months ago that began to change.  A friend donated some money to my church earmarked for my continuing education. And so I went, all the way across the flyover states, to a weekend writers conference in California. I spent two days talking about writing and dreaming about how my ministry and my writing might intersect. On the flight back I made a covenant to start writing again, to use the gifts God has given me, not as an addition to my ministry but as an essential part of it.

What happened is that blogging helped me learn to love writing again. I saw the ways that writing on the blog made me a better pastor to the people all around me. Writing once a week taught me how to discern, how to come to understand what it was I was called to speak about and what was better left for others. I discovered that my words not only helped me notice grace, but helped others locate it, too.

I often found that the posts I felt the worst about were the ones that spoke the most to my readers – funny, how God can even use the Internet to teach you how it’s not about you.  Grace shows up in the weirdest places.

Paul’s image of the Body in I Corinthians has become almost trite in the church. We know the sermon almost before the preacher gets there – many gifts but one Lord, some apostles, some teachers, none better than the others, we need each other.

We remind each other of this, though, because we need it and because it’s true.

There is no mold. There is no pre-packaged theme. Only you, living and giving the gifts you’ve been given.

Use them, share them, and sit back and watch what happens.

You do your thing, I’ll be here doing mine – watching, listening, waiting, and finally, writing.

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The Church Beyond Anxiety

We live in anxious times.  

It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it.  It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side.  If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. 

It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been. 

It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories. 

The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do.  The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty. 

I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God. 

When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience. 

The Antidote

The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty. 

That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans.  Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow.  The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.

The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us.  It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it.  It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.  

It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling.  It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us. 

We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith  and membership in God’s beloved community. 

Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy.  It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God.  But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time? 

It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon.  As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.  

But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.  

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Must Read: Found Grace

After I came across two references to breast-feeding in the first two pages of this book, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of book I had just downloaded. 

But when the next few pages contained so much truth – the kind of truth that you know deep in your heart and in the core of your bones – I was absolutely certain what kind of book I had gotten my hands on. 

In Found, Micha Boyett’s gritty and beautiful memoir, I had discovered a book of grace that stays with you, one of those books you jab in the hands of the people who trust you, and even a few who don’t because it is that good, the kind you want everyone to read because surely no one can receive this gift and remain unmoved. 

I saved so many quotes and sections that I pushed the edge of the Kindle app’s memory. I’m really lucky there wasn’t a pen nearby, because had there been I am certain there would have been so many marks on my screen that my iPad screen would have been easily confused for an Etch-A-Sketch. 

This was more than a good book – I’ve read plenty of those.  This was more than even the best book of any type or genre I had read in a long time, although it was and is.  This was a gift of grace, a moment when I wasn’t so much objectively reading someone else’s story as I was seeing my own laid out on the screen, narrated in words and phrases that had been given to someone else and were now being given to me.

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I was saving sentences and praying over the words of a kindred spirit, because despite the not insignificant differences between a San Francisco mom and a dog-dad from East Tennessee, it was apparent that God was writing two unique stories with a whole lot in common. 

Her story reminded me that I wasn’t alone in mine.  Sometimes life is about figuring out how to slog through a spiritual life that changes on you. And in Micha’s words I received the language I needed to help me understand that grace still moves in and around you, even when it is pretty good at hiding. 

I wrote last week about the journey into the hard middle between what God had given me as a new Christian and the new spiritual life that God was preparing me for as I graduated from college into adulthood. I had been searching for the words to describe it longer than I even knew, and I would still be looking if I hadn’t stumbled across holy words in a book appropriately named Found.  

“I am living the middle ground, between the faith of my childhood – the Spirit who snagged the front of my overalls by God – hook and towed me to the altar for salvation – and the doubt of my mind, which though it has repeatedly seen the miraculous in the lives of the young people I ministered to, still struggles to believe the Spirit world is living and breathing, much less that I am breathing in it.” – Micha Boyett

The truth that is there, and drips across almost every page of the book, is the truth that I need reminding of every day. God isn’t waiting for some magical point when everything lines up as a precondition for showing up.  No, God is present in the life that I have been given and the life that I have right here, even if it isn’t the life I imagined for myself.

The same God who called me out of the chaos of my life as an only child turned college sophomore is the same God who inspired me to dream about ministry in the hardest neighborhoods of our city. The God who laughed when I said I would never serve in a local church is the same God who is here now, in the ordinary of producing a bulletin every week and in the mundane of washing my hands after being walked by the dog.

I spent my late 20’s dreaming about living a life that would impress people, a life so inspiring no one could accuse me of selling out to live it.

But faith isn’t about creating and presenting a life other people are impressed with.  That’s what Instagram is for, I think.  

Instead, faith is about recognizing all the ways that God is here right now, inviting you to give thanks, and then living the life you have been given with as much gratitude as you can muster. 

My new book friend Micha is a better writer than me, so she says it like this: 

“Maybe redemption is the only possible story my life is telling. We are all being written together by a generous author.”

This is why we read and write – to speak the truth in such a way that God might use it to move in the life of someone we haven’t yet met. 

It is grace – the gift that lifts us out of anguish and despair to give thanks – for all that has been and all that will be, but most importantly all that is, right here and right now. 

So here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: grace can be found anywhere, even on a tablet and in a story that you found and that is still finding you.

 

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Rerouting

I’m not even here yet, and this is already a disaster. 

I’m on my way to a neighborhood I know at least somewhat well – it is down the road from a gym I used to frequent on the rare days when sleep didn’t win the morning battle with my alarm clock.

I’m not sure how the two dots on the navigation app could be any farther apart. And that annoying voice – well, usually it is annoying but now it has reached four-alarm ready to chuck the phone out of the car. 

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I can feel my blood pressure rising.  More concerning is that I am fairly certain that my heart is about to explode through my chest.  Breathe, I say, more as the necessity for survival than a practice of serenity. 

Rerouting

I am on my way to a spiritual retreat, a day to pray with pastors and church leaders. I am here because in my first year as a lead pastor I have discovered that leading a community called to be a sign of the Kingdom is exhausting. I am here because I am tired. I am here because a day apart to rest and pray seems like a great idea, an idea long overdue, actually. 

And I’ve failed before I can get there, wherever there even is.  It turns out that there is an event center that really is a guest house located behind another house, which just happens to look like every other house on this street in the middle of nowhere. 

I am here, finally – frazzled, haggard and in some seriousness need of extra strong coffee.  

As I reflect on the words of the morning Scripture we have been given – Psalm 23, it’s always Psalm 23 – I realize all of my ideas about why I am here have missed the mark.

The annoying voice on my phone was telling me exactly why I am here.

I am here to be rerouted.

I’m Still Here

I came to faith in a serious way for the first time in college.  Sure, I dabbled in church growing up, even speaking on Youth Sunday and participating semi-regularly in church – at least until I got a car. But college was where it happened for me. 

College is usually either the place you discard faith only to pick it up once you have a family or the place where you begin to enter into faith’s beauty and mystery. The first option is the stuff of coming of age movies. My story comes from the second one. 

With this development came a spiritual life unlike any I had experienced before. Sure, the preachers talked about prayer and I even read a book or two on the subject, but in college I reveled in a prayer life that was both uplifting and shockingly reorienting.

I was experiencing a beautiful connection with God – enjoying the hope that comes from speaking and listening to the Author of the universe, receiving direction when I wasn’t sure which way to go, and constantly being reminded that in all the hurdles and challenges of trying to become a full-blown adult, God loved me, even me.

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In my Methodist tradition, we make a big deal about assurance – the idea that God’s Spirit speaks and calms our spirit, assuring and reminding us that what we have experienced is true. We can actually count on it – we are beloved and redeemed children of God.

Looking back, it is pretty obvious that this early faith experience was an experience of God’s assurance.  I had responded in faith to God’s love and grace, and in my prayer life God was letting me know that this wasn’t a myth. No, this is real.

Like any person who seeks out God and shares their wants and desires, some of those prayers were self-delusions. It probably wasn’t much of a coincidence that the things I heard God say just happened to be the things I wanted to hear. But over time I learned to test the spirits as I grew in maturity as Christ was continuing his work in me.

But then something changed.

I kept trying to do the things that had nurtured my relationship with God, but nothing seemed to work.  It turns out you really can’t force God to do anything.  I wanted the clarity and the certainty of the Divine-shaped details. But the more I tried, the more I waited for a silence that never broke. 

Change is inevitable.  The prophets remind us that God is doing a new thing. But what do you do when the new thing disorients you and leaves you searching for the anchor you were certain you had already found?

The Pain-Filled Middle

God was trying to teach me one of the essentials – the content of our faith might be the same today, yesterday and forever.  But our experience of it, try as we might, never stays the same.

That’s our very hope – to experience sanctification, to learn to live and love more like Jesus, demands change. And the new thing God is up to, it will happen, regardless of whether you like it or not or whether you ask for it or not. 

What was happening in those post-college years was that I was in a middle place, sandwiched between the experience of God I had known and loved and the new place God was preparing me for.

I didn’t like it one bit, because one of the things they don’t tell you about growth with God is that it is always involves plenty of pain.  

As I I read books and stared at the walls wondering just what was going on, I couldn’t dodge the suspicion that God has abandoned me. When I turned to those familiar passages of Scripture hoping they would speak life into me one more time, I wanted to know what I had done wrong. When I just couldn’t connect with God any more, I kept wondering why faithfulness felt like an illusion and how connection became the struggle that never seemed to cease. 

It was a time of questions without a whole lot of answers, a place of darkness without a whole lot of light,  and a life full of seeking without a whole lot of finding.  

John of The Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul.  At the rate I was going, one night didn’t seem so bad. As the days and the nights piled up, I kept wondering what name they had come up with for months of darkness. 

The Spirit’s Place

Sunday is Pentecost – the day we celebrate the birth of the church and the sending of the Spirit. One of the truths Pentecost teaches us that real life confirms is that the middle – the anxiety producing, doubt-infusing, heartbreaking middle – is also the place where the Spirit lives and does its work. 

The middle is the place where God speaks the truth that we will never be left behind, no matter how many times it feels like God might have memory loss when it comes to that particular promise. On Pentecost the Spirit explodes into the middle, not in the comfortable place where they had come from or in the established church to which they will go.

Instead, the Spirit chooses the uncertain and never-wrecking middle as the place of creativity. The middle is the moment where the Spirit shoves us away from the familiar of what has been and into the new and better thing of what will be.

God knows the middle. And no matter how dark and cloudy it may seem, God knows how to bring the light through.

Restoration

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That’s what I was reminded in the back yard of that long-searched for house behind the house.  Watching the ripples spread across a sun-soaked pond, I remembered and prayed those words I’ve said so many times before.  Usually I say them at the graveside, words of comfort and hope for other people.  

But today they are for me. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  

God never promised it would be easy and painless, but God always promises to restore and renew. The same God who promised never to leave me is the same One who now assures me that I will make it through.  

In the longing and the waiting, God is present. In the wrestling and the crying, God is right here. In the hoping for something more, God will see this through.  In the hunger for life and the thirst for connection, God will fill my soul with the nourishment it longs for.

Even in the middle I can say it – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  The Lord is my portion, I lack nothing.  

I walk inside to the final reflection of the day, with a serious case of sunburn. The mark of a day that began with brooding darkness yet somehow is ending covered in light.

I don’t mind it though, I need the reminder.  God’s still working on me.

The light leaves it’s mark. God’s not done with me yet.

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An Uneasy Hope: Finding Forgiveness and Receiving Change

For the last several months I have been largely successful in avoiding the craziness of the Presidential Campaign.

But a couple of weeks ago I finally gave in and started paying attention. Just in time, it turns out, to discover an article on Donald Trump’s uneasiness with asking God for forgiveness.

“I like to be good,” Trump said. “I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.”

(Important note: You can find the full article here. I hope this will be the first and last reference to Trump or any of the other candidates on this page.)

I don’t know many people who enjoy asking for forgiveness and admitting that they messed up, committed sin, or made a mistake.  But what I kept thinking as I finished the article was that I just don’t have that much faith in myself.  There are few moments in the day when I am not painfully aware of my need for forgiveness and the necessity of asking God to restore me back into right relationship.

I’ve never been able to experience God’s grace apart from forgiveness. The Gospel’s very premise is that our lives are so broken, our wills are so distorted and our relationship with God so fundamentally damaged by sin and disobedience that it is impossible to be faithful to God apart from the forgiving love and grace of Jesus.

We’re reminded of that even more strongly as Wednesday looms, with the imposition of the ashes that mark the beginning of Lent. As we make the slow march to receive the mark of the Cross, we are made painfully aware of our deep brokenness  and desperate need of forgiveness.

The pattern that leads to life we read about in Scripture and can experience in our lives is that we become convicted our sin, ask and receive God’s forgiveness, and pray for the power to turn away from the sin and towards the life God wants for us.

The truth is that we need to seek and receive forgiveness because our lives are heartbreakingly limited without it.

We need forgiveness because without it our identity is defined by our ability to achieve perfection in every part of our lives.

We need forgiveness because without it our self-worth is capped by the limits of our ability to make or achieve success on our own –  to get promoted at work, to attract a sufficient number of friends or to feel good about what we see staring back at us in the mirror.

We need forgiveness because without it our only chance at maintaining healthy relationships is to never hurt another person through our sin, the inevitable missteps that happen in any relationships or failing at the dance of growing in step as people inevitably change over time.

We are destined to be disappointed with the lives we live if the only power we have is within us, if the only resources we have to draw upon are our strength, our own capacity to deal with adversity, and our own wisdom and skill.
The true power in forgiveness is that by seeking it we can receive a power is that is outside of ourselves and greater than ourselves.

Bright Light CrossWe have all experienced, again and again, what it is like to realize that you don’t have it all together, that there are problems that you can’t solve,  that there are some parts of your life that you can’t heal, that there are some mistakes you can’t undo and that there are some relationships that you are powerless to redeem.

Yet when we understand the Gospel, and come to live in the life-giving and life-healing pattern of confession, repentance and forgiveness, we understand that God has the power to change things that leave us stuck and that God can redeem and restore situations where all seemed lost.

Real change, the kind we all hope for, requires forgiveness. Repentance and turning towards God can only happen after we have first asked for and received forgiveness.

It’s no coincidence, I imagine, that when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Church door, the first one was centered on repentance.

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

No one enjoys confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness. Yet the path to true change demands it.

And so on Wednesday, I’ll make my way to the front, and when the preacher says Repent and Believe the Gospel, I’ll do it  gladly.

 

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