Family Matters and the Frustrating Church

famfightFamily reunions are a funny thing.  They create this bizarre mix of emotions that only occur in a family setting.  It is this tumultuous emotional churning of happiness and frustration, anger and joy that induces both laughter and temple rubbing.  Families make us feel the full spectrum of emotions, and they do so for one simple reason.

They matter to us.

The things we feel the deepest are felt so deeply because they matter.  The things that cause us the most joy and the things that cause us the most sorrow matter.  The things that cause us to soar to the heights of happiness and the things that make our bodies vibrate with anger do so because they are important to us.  If they did not matter, we would never – we could never – feel them on this same level.

For me that perfectly describes my feelings about my church at this moment.

I write this for those of you who go to church with me and for those of you may feel the same way about your own church at this very moment.  The single greatest source of concern, stress, and frustration in my life at this very moment is my church.  To be honest, there are moments that it is so frustrating and stress inducing to think about, that I wish I could just give it up and walk away from it all.

But I never could – it matters too much to me.

In the past couple of years our church has hemorrhaged people – going from a church pushing 150 to a church that struggles to break 60-70 each week.  It has cost me my career and changed the direction of my life.  It has affected me greatly, and I feel it deeply.  As our church dies, I feel like I die along with it.  The reasons people give for leaving have covered not liking the music, not liking the children’s ministry, not liking the preaching, personal conflicts, and wide variety of others.  The issues are hard to specify, making them hard to address – and it eats my lunch every time I think about it.  It stresses me, depresses me, frustrates me, and, at times, enrages me. But here is the funny thing, when I think of all of those negative things that the state of my own church makes me feel – it makes me think of one thing:

Family reunions and the turbulent landslide of emotions that can accompany them.

Do you know why what is happening in my church makes me feel that way?  I think it is because it matters so much to me.  It has to be, because only things that matter so deeply can make us feel so deeply.  What is the church if it is not family?  What is a family if it is not willing to stick it out in the toughest of times?  How can either survive if we so easily forsake them, so quickly give up on them, so rarely practice forgiveness, so often shy away from reconciliation, and so rarely pitch in?

I have to ask myself this question about my relationship with my own church – If it truly matters to me, then what kind of commitment am I willing to make to help this relationship work?  If I am truly being honest, I have to admit that there are definitely times when I have allowed those emotions to hinder my ability to lead and to worship.  I have utilized them as excuses for not serving.  In doing those things, I have become a part of the problem.

To my church, I say I am sorry; but I also say – you matter to me.  Even in the midst of the dizzying array of things I feel about you right now – you matter so immensely to me. You are my family even when I feel distant from you. You are kin to me.  It seems strange to say, but I am grateful for the frustration, the heartache, and the fear.  Those are all evidences of this strangely deep and beautiful connection I have with you.

I think it is a tragedy that so many people experience these feelings and so easily leave a church.  It is, I think a horrible precedent and so far from what the church is meant to be.If only we could open our eyes to the reality that these things we feel – good and bad combined – are all normal things for a family.  They are, in fact, symptoms of the reality that we matter to one another. We should not fear or flee these feelings.  We should embrace them, face them, and let them serve as a reminder of the deep deep connection we share with one another.

You are all my family – crazy aunts, obnoxious uncles, boisterous brothers, and all the rest.  It is a bond that I could not break if I tried, and I wouldn’t want to.

You matter to me.

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Searching for Light

Russell Crowe as Noah

Russell Crowe as Noah

I know we are behind the times but my family just watched the Russell Crowe Noah movie.  I have to say, I absolutely loved it.  The film was an incredible portrayal of God’s wrath and love, the coexistence of good and evil in the heart of men, God’s gift of freewill, the triumph of love, and the redemptive nature of God.  Yes, the details of the story are different from the Genesis account – but Veggie Tales didn’t exactly get the details all right either and I never saw a produce boycott.

I found myself reading the religious criticisms of the movie online – most of them regarding the inaccuracies and the “corrupt” nature of some of the source material.  The whole thing got me thinking about how many believers search the world for evil and lies – and they find it everywhere.  In fact, they become so accustomed to searching out evil, that evil becomes all they are capable of seeing.  I can’t help but wonder how different life and faith would be if instead of looking for dark in the darkness, we looked instead for the light.

In order to do that, I think we first have to realize that we (Christians) do not own the light.

We (Christians) do not own the truth.

We (Christians) do not determine when, where, or how it reveals itself.

God alone owns truth and light, and at times He reveals it in places we would never expect to find it.  I had a good pastor friend once describe the Gospel as being woven into the fabric of creation – embedded in its DNA.  I love that imagery in that it helps me grasp the idea that light and truth can be found far outside the boundaries we define as Christianity.

There is light to be found in movies not starring Kirk Cameron.

There is truth to be found in songs not composed by Chris Tomlin.

There is inspiration to be found in books, art, cultures, and yes, even faiths outside of the boundaries we have created to contain our faith.  It is there because God is not contained by those boundaries.  It is there because his fingerprints are on everything.  It is there because His essence is woven into the very DNA of all creation.

And because it is there, we can look at things outside our imaginary borders and find truth, light, and beauty.  We can look into the eyes of the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the agnostic, and the atheist and see the evidences of that spiritual DNA.  We can watch movies like Noah, read books like Harry Potter, listen to music by Mumford & Sons, and in those things we find truths to embrace and share with the world.

Those truths resonate with all humanity.

Those truths break through the darkness.

Or we can choose to go on attack in the name of righteousness, and in so doing deny that there is light in places we do not own and drive people further into the blackness.

I think it is far better thing to search the world for beauty, truth, and light rather than go on the witch hunt for darkness.  Don’t read this wrong – I think we absolutely have to call out evil when we see it; but I think the world needs more of the light pointed out.  To me, helping people see light even in the midst of darkness is a far more beautiful and redemptive thing.  Light does not expose darkness; it obliterates it by simply being what it is.

3d-wallpapers-light-dark-wallpaper-35822I challenge you, look for light in the dark places. Point it out when you see it.  When a song speaks the truth, embrace it and declare it.  When a movie rings with truth, shout it out.  When a book, or a blog, or a person reveals the evidence of God’s DNA, even without knowing it, celebrate in the truth with them. It is the truth that sets us free – and we do not own and/or legislate that truth.  We can however help others see the truth that is already evidenced in their lives and world around them.

“(We) are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16

 

 

 

The Journey of Gray Beard

2014 was a year of continued transition for my family and me.  The end of 2013 found me moving from full-time pastoral ministry into a job as a service writer for a friend’s garage.  2014 found me settling into that role, struggling to adapt to life after full-time ministry, and enrolling in school as a full-time IT student.  I tend to think a LOT about my beliefs, and I think those transitions have really forced me to reflect even more deeply about what I believe, why I believe it, and how those beliefs impact my life.  As a result, the end of this year finds me a far different man than I think I was when it first began.

I can honestly tell you that I really struggle with my faith at times – even finding moments when I am not really sure at all what I believe.  There are moments when I truly think I keep expressing faith for no other reason than I can’t imagine my life without it.  Belief is the only reality I have ever known, and so to give it up seems comparable to severing an appendage – I just can’t imagine life without it.  I am thankful for that because, in those times of uncertainty, it keeps me from running full tilt off the cliff.

51cc33a700d53I see plenty of others who seem like they never waver in faith, who never question what is true, and who seem rock solid and unchanging in their convictions.  At times I envy those people.  To be so convinced and so unable to be moved off of what they believe seems like a place that is far less scary than where I often find myself.  For many of them, their faith is like being curled up under a fleece blanket on a plush recliner before a crackling fire.  It is a place of great comfort and warmth. Mine, however, can feel more like a midnight ride on a treacherous mountain road in a torrential downpour.  Sure, the views can be amazing, but getting there grays the beard. Yes, at times I envy those of the recliner ilk, but then again, I am rather fond of the gray in my beard.

The journey has changed and is changing me.  It has brought me to the brink of despair and the very nanosecond before giving it up.  It has led me see the world in new ways, broadening my theology, and increasing my desire for understanding.  It has given birth to a sense of raging inadequacy in my efforts to make sense of things, while at the same time breeding courage to question the unquestionable.

I have always taken the view that beliefs that do not change me are useless, beliefs that are not changing me are dead, and a faith that is not in some way developing/growing/evolving is not faith at all.  The older I get, the more I realize that I have been wrong on a lot things.  That realization alone is responsible for the lion share of changes that have taken place in my life in recent years.

My goal for 2015 is to blog at least once a month.  Each month I hope to present one list of important influences in my life.  These may be books I have read, songs, movies, or art that has inspired, or people who have impacted my life in good and bad ways.  The hope is to share bits and pieces of my journey with you as I become what I am becoming.

IMG_0264I can’t wait to meet the me that exists at the end of 2015.  I cannot promise you the journey will be a pretty one.  In fact, I can probably assure you that I will piss off my fair share of you, disappoint many, befuddle more than a few, and be the inspiration for a few hundred face palms in the coming year.  I share my journey though, because I hope that for some of you it will be inspiration and encouragement on the treacherous roads your faith travels.  May our beards grow gray together.

Symbolically speaking, ladies…

The Burden of Being Good

NagasakibombThought for the day – If you are going to declare your side good and right, you must be held to the highest standards of conducting yourself ONLY by what is good and right.  That means good and right for all mankind – not just what is required for self-preservation.  Being on the side of goodness and rightness means that the playing field is tipped against you, and yet your side will never act against what is good and right to tip it back.  To act counter to goodness and rightness in order to level the playing field disqualifies you from wearing the labels good and right.

Justifying wrong in the name of right is evil’s greatest deceit.

Microblog: Sheep and Goats

micro04

I miss blogging on a regular basis but find myself less than inspired to dive too deep into a subject right now.  So, in lieu of the grandiose, I am going to experiment with micro-blogging.  These will just be short posts, a few sentences or single statement, on what I am thinking and/or questioning right now.  Mini-thoughts are all I am capable of lately.

The hope is that the discussion then becomes the real meat of the content.  Sooo, don’t hold back on the comments….

Thought for the day:

Christians who declare other people as “Christian” or “Un-Christian” because they believe and/or think differently on a topic are counter to the Kingdom.  Matthew 25 – There are going to be some surprises regarding who is “in” and who is “out”. Thinking about how right you are and how wrong they are seems a bit more out than in to me.

I’m pretty sure Dan Haseltine is in though…

My Job Is Harder Than Yours

I'm more stressed than you... na na na na boo boo!

I’m more stressed than you… na na na na boo boo!

I was a full-time pastor for the past 15-years.  Within the last 2-months I dropped to part-time at the church and accepted a full-time position at a small business owned by a good friend.  As a full-time pastor, I remember many a days when I longed for one of those easy secular jobs that didn’t come with the stress of full-time pastoral ministry.  I remember thinking how no one understood just how hard my job was and how mentally and emotionally draining it could be at times.  Recently, I have seen many a post and/or links to posts from pastoral friends of mine referencing how little respect or understanding people have for how hard  their pastor(s) work and just how much stress there is on them and their families.  I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with these posts – but I fear that, in some way, they show how disconnected the pastoral office can (at times) be from their parishioners.

Funny how a little perspective changes everything.

In the past 2-months, I have learned something about jobs that I had forgotten.  Be it pastoral ministry, neurosurgery, emergency services, or flipping burgers – every job has its blessings and its curses.  My fear is that when we, as pastors, begin to believe that our job is somehow harder, more stressful, more time-consuming than those of the people we pastor, we distance ourselves from both reality and the people.  Pastors, we are not the only people who lose sleep over our jobs.  Even worse is when we begin to believe the lie that somehow our job is more important.  Pastoring from a position of power and exceptionalism is a dangerous, scary thing.  As a pastor, I am not better than you.  My job is not harder than yours.  My life is not more stressful than yours.

I truly believe every pastor should take a 6-8 week sabbatical to work a “secular” job and gain a little perspective.

The other thing I have heard and read a lot of lately is just how undedicated many pastors feel their church members are to their local church.  We preach and write about how people’s lives have become too busy with jobs, sports, school events, PTA meetings, and other extracurriculars and how all these things are a sign of spiritual weakness and lack of religious fervor.  Of course, we do this after making announcements about the fellowship supper, mid-week prayer meeting, planning committee, youth fundraiser, trunk-or-treat, small groups, Sunday school, and missions rally that we want you all to attend.  I think you see the problem with that.

Apparently church busy-ness is a different and better thing than our regular busy-ness.  (Read my thoughts on simplifying church)

(I wonder how Pharisitical it is to demand such dedication to the thing we call “church”.  Has “church” become the new “law” – the new legalism in some way? Do this or be labeled a heretic/blasphemer/insert insult here) – Just thinking out loud as I write.

It just seems to me that it is very easy, as a pastor to be out of touch with the reality of people’s lives.

I know I will offend quite a few pastor friends who read this – but I am writing this from a place of conviction myself.  I want to be a better pastor – and for me that means opening my eyes to realities.  It is REAL that my stress is not more real than that of the people I pastor.  It is REAL that church can often be the biggest time drain for people.  It is REAL that it is H.A.R.D. to make it to a 7:00pm church event when you don’t get home until 6:00pm.  It is REAL that choosing to be at a kid’s soccer game over the church work day is not a sign of spiritual deficiency.

For me a large part of being an effective pastor is keeping in touch with those realities.  It is respecting the lives of the people I pastor – the difficulties they face, the decisions they have to struggle with, the sacrifices they regularly make.  I can’t do that when my view of myself is elevated and out of whack.  I can’t do that when my definition of church is out of line with scripture.  I want to lead from a place of humility and vulnerability – walking amongst the people I pastor as one of them.  Really, that’s all I am –  a fellow disciple journeying with them.  My job just happens to be as a pastor.

Well, at least one of my jobs…

Life Together

600-00983799I am working on tackling a couple of more issues that I have been wrestling with – but in the mean time, I felt compelled to share what has been on my heart the past couple of days…

This week I went to visit friends of ours who were celebrating the birth of their first child.  She is a beautiful little girl and my wife and I noted that even as we entered the room, her dad had a mile-wide smile adorning his face.  It seemed like it was permanently planted there.  It’s been awhile since I have held a newborn which may have heightened my awareness in that moment, but as her daddy placed her in my arms, I was momentarily overcome by just how “special” this moment was.  The new dad told me that the very moment he first laid eyes on his child, he was keenly aware that everything was different – in a good way.  I remember that powerful feeling at the birth of both of our daughters.

Because I am a person of faith – I attribute it to God’s holiness.  It is a powerful thing.

Then yesterday I attended the funeral of a beloved old saint of our church. There we heard stories of his life – about a love for his wife that not even her death could silence, about his dedication to family, and about the many laughs he shared with friends.  It was a curious mixture of laughter and sorrow, of celebrating and mourning that only special moments like that can generate.  In that moment a strangely familiar overwhelming sensation came over me.

It was a moment not that different from what I had experienced just days before holding that newborn little girl in my arms.  It was a special moment – a holy moment.

Now you may not share my faith – but I would wager that you have shared a similar feeling. These are experiences that most of us have had or will have, and if not these specific experiences, then other ones like them…

Looking into the eyes of your bride/groom

A long conversation reminiscing with a senior citizen

A  long awaited reuniting with family or friends

Seeing the ocean, mountains, or milky way galaxy for the first time

Special moments raise up special feelings inside every one of us.  I attribute those feelings to God’s holiness breaking through the mundane.  You may attribute them to something altogether different.  In essence though, I think that for most of us, those moments are ones in which we are keenly aware of our humanity and our smallness in comparison to something so much greater than ourselves.

I woke up this morning dwelling on those two moments.  I couldn’t get past the awesomeness of them both.  I couldn’t get past the awareness that these special, “holy” moments are things that people everywhere around the world, in every religion, in every generation, even in every period of history have had.  These moments have made me feel very connected to God, but also to humanity.  Our humanity links us together in such a massive way.

I could blog on and on.  I could write about the issues that divide us and how trivial they are to the real problems we face; but more words on a page won’t change a thing.  I do believe in some words that can change everything though – words that if applied, regardless of your religion or lack of religion, can bring us all back together.  The power in these words are not that they direct actions for the masses – but for the individual.

Change starts with me.

The words are from St. Paul to the church in Colossus, and I hope, regardless of what you believe, that you can see the powerful truth in them…

“…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

That is a personal goal for me.  I desire unity, not only within the church, but with my fellow human beings.  “Brother” and “sister” should not be words that are reserved for people who share my belief structures.  Truth be told, I have a brother and a sister in real life – and we OFTEN disagree – but we never lose our familial bond.  We never lose our unity.

I, for one, refuse to live separate anymore.  In all things I say and do, I will show compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  I will bear with those I disagree with, and forgive those who wrong me (even if they don’t deserve it).  And above everything else, I will love without condition.  And I will do these things regardless of who you are, what you believe, or how you live. I may not be able to change the world – but I can change the “world” around me.

I will do these things because you are my brothers and my sisters.

I hope that some of you will join with me and that someday, we can share some of those “holy” moments together.  I imagine that, as we learn to live in unity, more and more of God’s holiness will break through, and we’ll have more and more of those overwhelming, awe inspiring moments to share.

Now, back to “wrassling” with some stuff.