When Preaching Means Meddling

I walked upstairs Saturday morning and announced to anyone who would listen – my wife, my dog, my two-month old baby – I just don’t know how to finish this sermon.

The text of Scripture was on mercy and compassion. The text of the week was President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration.

Gospel and News, Faith and Life. They make the best sermons. They produce the most sleepless preachers, too.

I’ve yet to figure out how to be one of those preachers who just preaches “The Gospel” and doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Our Gospel is one of Incarnation, of God coming into the world because God so loves the world. And so, the way I see it, to be faithful – to myself, to the Scriptures, and to the people who trust me to help them interpret what it means to follow Jesus in 2017 – is sometimes going to involve connecting Christian faith with a social issue or two.

Or sometimes faithfulness means you just have to meddle.

And in the aftermath of a contentious political season and a tumultuous civic life that I’m not betting will calm down anytime soon, preachers are going to have to keep wrestling with how and when to meddle.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about meddling.

1. It’s Always About Jesus

Most of the people in the pews, or chairs, have been in church a long time. They are smart enough to have a pretty good idea about your political leanings. They are also smart enough to know whether you are honestly trying to preach about Jesus or whether you are using Jesus to make the point you want to make. They are much more likely to listen to you if they trust you are trying to be faithful to the Gospel and help them become faithful in their own discipleship. Our job isn’t to build a voting bloc but to point people to Jesus and to a life committed to building his Kingdom.

2. Lean on Scripture 

We follow the Narrative Lectionary in our church, a series of Scripture readings designed to help us live more fully into the Biblical Story.  It has been amazing the number of times the assigned reading for the day has intersected powerfully with issues in the culture. And the people in our church who pay attention to how we plan worship know that when I have something to say that might make us uncomfortable it is grounded in a Scripture text that has been chosen for me not one I went looking for to prove a point. Particularly in more theologically conservative churches, if it comes from the Bible people will listen to you. That doesn’t mean they will agree with you, but they will listen to you.

3. Pick Your Spots 

People, particularly these days, are inundated with analysis and opinion on about politics. CNN, Fox, The New York Times, their local newspapers, the radio, social media – it’s everywhere. Most of them are not looking for your opinion as well. People will listen and allow you to preach as you feel called, but you can’t make every sermon about the news of the week.  People are looking for messages of hope and grace, how the Gospel intersects with their daily lives and in the ways that won’t make the evening news – how to be a better spouse, what Jesus has to say about raising their kids, how to spot God’s Spirit in the hospital, the cemetery and all the places in between.

4. Own Your Bias

All of us live with bias, we pay attention to certain things and ignore others. One of the best ways to understand our bias is by asking why do we get our news in the places we do – MSNBC isn’t purely objective and neither is Fox. Part of my own sinfulness is my bias – I am willing to see certain points of view as more non-negotiable than others. This same bias lives in every person in our churches. If I am going to challenge or question one side I have to be willing to take on the other side when they go astray from my interpretation of the Gospel. The Gospel is political, but in a different way than we think. Gospel politics transform and judge all of us, regardless of ideology or affiliation.

5. Don’t Be Afraid 

Fear Not. Jesus says this more than almost everything. It’s been my experience that most of the things I usually worry about end up causing me the least amount of trouble. The headaches usually come from things I never see coming. Although people might prefer you not preach about certain topics, they also lose respect for you if you don’t. One of the fastest ways to lose spiritual authority with people is to let them know you aren’t willing to stand up for what you believe. Most people, particularly your leaders, want the church to lead with moral authority even if we disagree about the particulars.

6. Make Yourself Available 

At their best, sermons provoke conversations – about Scripture, about life, about what it means to be faithful to Jesus. Every sermon, particularly those that dabble in controversial topics, are opening statements and not the last word.  I hope and expect people will talk to me about what I said. I want to make space for people who disagree to have the opportunity to engage with me.

There will be people who disagree, and sometimes strongly. As the preacher I have a privileged place and microphone in these conversations. So stand up, make yourself available, and let people be part of the conversation. Most of the time people just want to be heard and reminded that you value them and that God loves them. Disagreement about the application of the Gospel does not mean we have to write the person off.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Just a few things I’ve learned. How about you – how do you proclaim what you believe with integrity and humility in contentious times?

 

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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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Book Review: Elaine Heath at Englewood Review of Books

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I’m over at the Englewood Review of Books today, with a review of Elaine Heath’s book, God Unbound, on the wisdom of Galatians for the church in anxious times.

It’s an important book, because if there is one reality for those of us in the church and in leadership, that reality is that the church knows anxiety well.  We’re anxious about a lot of things, but mostly we’re anxious about the future – what the church is going to look like in five years, ten years, not to mention six months.

Elaine Heath is one of the most important and helpful thinkers in the UMC and her wisdom to find our footing by rooting ourselves in spiritual disciplines – like prayer, confession, honest Scripture reading and the Examen – feels not only wise but faithful to the Gospel to which we’ve been entrusted.  This is a book well worth your time.

You can find my review at ERB here.

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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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