When Harvard Discovered the Sabbath

I was struck by a headline that came across my Twitter feed on Monday.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the key to being happy and not becoming a grump at work is to have a life outside of it.

The article was written by Ran Zilca, the Chief Data Science Officer at Happify. That there is a website called Happify is certainly a topic for someone to explore.

The idea that the key to happiness comes from realizing that there is more to life than work isn’t a new one. The work that God has given us, as significant as it is, doesn’t define our life.

Instead, as Luke Timothy Johnson taught us in Introduction to the New Testament, the Bible’s view on work-life balance isn’t that nuanced – regardless of your job your primary vocation is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Period.

According to Zilca, overworked and overwhelmed workers who haven’t been able to experience a life outside of the one their employers create for them showed much lower levels of gratitude than others.

In sum, being chained to your desk isn’t the best way to become a grateful person.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about this all the way back in 1951: “This is our constant problem – how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

The research reminds us that Sabbath is as important today as it has ever been – no matter where or how we work.

In Exodus 20 God gives us the command to the Sabbath: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

The Sabbath isn’t just about taking a break from work. No, we are commanded to take a break because that is what God did, in resting on the seventh day of creation. After all, if God can take a break who are we to say that we can’t?

But it is more than that. In obeying God’s command to observe the Sabbath we realize that despite what we tell ourselves the world will go on just fine without us. By taking a 24-hour break from the constant cycle to produce, we create the space for our souls and our bodies to become renewed. In ignoring the foreman’s whistle we are reminded that what we have isn’t of our own making but instead is the gift of the God who loves us more than we can imagine.

Sabbath helps us discover the way God’s love expresses itself in providing for us. We remember all the ways we have been taken care of and we allow God to teach us and show us again the particulars of grace and mercy.

In short, Sabbath teaches us how to become grateful for all we have been given. We experience gratitude by remembering all we have received from God. We become thankful by recalling all the ways God made a way for us. We experience renewal by recounting all the undeserved gifts that have been dropped into our laps.

This is what Heschel reminds us in the definitive book on Sabbath, appropriately titled, The Sabbath: “The world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.”

The same could be said for us. Our ability to experience real life depends on our ability to turn our business off. The first step to experiencing contentment is realizing joy doesn’t come from our paychecks. We were created for more than work and life is about so much more than promotions earned or tasked completed.

Whether you trust new data or old wisdom, the lesson seems to be the same. Put your phone away, leave your calendar in your desk and rest and revel in real life.

 

 

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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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Church With a Capital C: Life Shaped By A Great Friend

I can’t remember exactly the first time I met the man; but I remember liking him almost immediately.  He liked Duke Basketball, and as a teenager I thought it was pretty cool that a preacher could talk about college basketball, even if it was in praise of Duke.

Despite growing up Methodist and living with their annual reshuffling of the church deck, this was the first change in pastors I had experienced.  I remember though, that even as a teenager, I listened to what he had to say – at least most of the time.

1798799_10100530861675767_590931584_nThat’s because church led by Jim Bailes was different. It was Church with a capital C. It wasn’t that church wasn’t important or that it didn’t matter before, because it did.  But even as an oblivious teenager who hadn’t yet discovered coffee, I was awake enough to notice that when Jim came to town, church was more intense and had more of a purpose. It was almost as if learning to follow Jesus Christ with all you had mattered more than anything else possibly could.

I’ve been lucky to know a lot of preachers and was cared for well by all of them who were sent to my home church. Looking back, however, it is obvious that Jim’s ministry was the first one to point me to the power and the fullness of Jesus and his Gospel. I knew that others pastors who served that church loved me and cared about my family. Jim, however, showed me that the preacher was more than someone you saw on Sunday mornings.  He (or she) could be someone who could know about your school life, could care about your home life, and could be interested in the life you shared with your friends at school and on the baseball field.

The most lasting thing he taught me was that the Gospel was about more than having a nice and comfortable Sunday morning experience. He taught me that we weren’t being faithful to Jesus if our Gospel didn’t bring good news to the poor, didn’t move us beyond ourselves and didn’t make us a little uncomfortable.  He was the pastor who first taught me that embracing the full Gospel was about embracing everybody – even and especially if they didn’t talk like you, didn’t think like you, didn’t dress like you or didn’t grow up in the same kind of neighborhood that you did. Those are hard truths to live sometimes, but just because they are hard doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

Our relationship has changed over the years.  Because now we’re more than pastor and church member, we’re more than friends.  We are colleagues. And most of that is his fault.  Because when I was trying to nail down just what it was God was asking me to do with the gift of a life I had been given, it surprised no one that one of the first places I ended up was at his house – talking and sharing, listening and praying.

In no small part because of the way I had seen him take seriously following Jesus no matter the cost, I found myself in seminary, exploring and living into a call to ministry that I was determined would reflect the love of God and love of people I had seen in him. Jim was one of the two pastors who officiated my wedding and he has become an invaluable guide as we have navigated the joys and challenges of leading two very different churches in the city that we both love.

Last Friday, a few hundred of Knoxville’s most committed people, heard a small amount of his legacy at the Emerald Youth Foundation breakfast.  Despite his protests, a mutual friend called him to the stage and shared some of the highlights of his ministry – his love and commitment to all of God’s children, his faithfulness in a variety of churches across East Tennessee, his involvement in helping launch the Volunteer Ministry Center, and his assistance and work for many more non-profit agencies during more than 30 years of ministry. Implied in the recognition were the hundreds and thousands of lives, including mine and those of my family, who have been touched by his grace, his wit and his passion for the church, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

It was a well-deserved moment.  Dr. Bailes will be retiring at Annual Conference in June, and I haven’t fully processed what doing ministry without his partnership will be like.  He will no doubt still be involved in making our city look more like the way God envisions it, but things will be different.  Our conversations about Gospel and culture and family and Christ will likely feature even more talk about his granddaughter and his fruitless efforts of convincing his wife to allow him to bring a dog into the house.

Different or not, on my end they will still be full of gratitude – for the man who has probably done more than anyone to show me what Jesus looks like and where and how I can find him – in my life, in the life of the church, and in the heart of our city.

That, of course, is his fault.  But I’m much better for it.

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Church With a Capital C: Life Shaped By A Great Friend

I can’t remember exactly the first time I met the man; but I remember liking him almost immediately.  He liked Duke Basketball, and as a teenager I thought it was pretty cool that a preacher could talk about college basketball, even if it was in praise of Duke.

Despite growing up Methodist and living with their annual reshuffling of the church deck, this was the first change in pastors I had experienced.  I remember though, that even as a teenager, I listened to what he had to say – at least most of the time.

1798799_10100530861675767_590931584_nThat’s because church led by Jim Bailes was different. It was Church with a capital C. It wasn’t that church wasn’t important or that it didn’t matter before, because it did.  But even as an oblivious teenager who hadn’t yet discovered coffee, I was awake enough to notice that when Jim came to town, church was more intense and had more of a purpose. It was almost as if learning to follow Jesus Christ with all you had mattered more than anything else possibly could.

I’ve been lucky to know a lot of preachers and was cared for well by all of them who were sent to my home church. Looking back, however, it is obvious that Jim’s ministry was the first one to point me to the power and the fullness of Jesus and his Gospel. I knew that others pastors who served that church loved me and cared about my family. Jim, however, showed me that the preacher was more than someone you saw on Sunday mornings.  He (or she) could be someone who could know about your school life, could care about your home life, and could be interested in the life you shared with your friends at school and on the baseball field.

The most lasting thing he taught me was that the Gospel was about more than having a nice and comfortable Sunday morning experience. He taught me that we weren’t being faithful to Jesus if our Gospel didn’t bring good news to the poor, didn’t move us beyond ourselves and didn’t make us a little uncomfortable.  He was the pastor who first taught me that embracing the full Gospel was about embracing everybody – even and especially if they didn’t talk like you, didn’t think like you, didn’t dress like you or didn’t grow up in the same kind of neighborhood that you did. Those are hard truths to live sometimes, but just because they are hard doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

Our relationship has changed over the years.  Because now we’re more than pastor and church member, we’re more than friends.  We are colleagues. And most of that is his fault.  Because when I was trying to nail down just what it was God was asking me to do with the gift of a life I had been given, it surprised no one that one of the first places I ended up was at his house – talking and sharing, listening and praying.

In no small part because of the way I had seen him take seriously following Jesus no matter the cost, I found myself in seminary, exploring and living into a call to ministry that I was determined would reflect the love of God and love of people I had seen in him. Jim was one of the two pastors who officiated my wedding and he has become an invaluable guide as we have navigated the joys and challenges of leading two very different churches in the city that we both love.

Last Friday, a few hundred of Knoxville’s most committed people, heard a small amount of his legacy at the Emerald Youth Foundation breakfast.  Despite his protests, a mutual friend called him to the stage and shared some of the highlights of his ministry – his love and commitment to all of God’s children, his faithfulness in a variety of churches across East Tennessee, his involvement in helping launch the Volunteer Ministry Center, and his assistance and work for many more non-profit agencies during more than 30 years of ministry. Implied in the recognition were the hundreds and thousands of lives, including mine and those of my family, who have been touched by his grace, his wit and his passion for the church, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

It was a well-deserved moment.  Dr. Bailes will be retiring at Annual Conference in June, and I haven’t fully processed what doing ministry without his partnership will be like.  He will no doubt still be involved in making our city look more like the way God envisions it, but things will be different.  Our conversations about Gospel and culture and family and Christ will likely feature even more talk about his granddaughter and his fruitless efforts of convincing his wife to allow him to bring a dog into the house.

Different or not, on my end they will still be full of gratitude – for the man who has probably done more than anyone to show me what Jesus looks like and where and how I can find him – in my life, in the life of the church, and in the heart of our city.

That, of course, is his fault.  But I’m much better for it.

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