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.

Wrestling With Marriage

599499_10152720592175121_1641852240_nI started writing this about two weeks ago as author and pastor, Rob Bell, came out in support of homosexual marriage. (Read about it here.) Then this week the US Supreme Court considered the same issue – and boy, oh boy, did social media ever blow up.  Pink equal signs popped up all over Facebook and Twitter, posted by supporters of marriage equality.  These were swiftly followed by Christians posting red crosses in retaliation.  Debates ensued, and to be honest, I was appalled by much of the derogatory and stereotype driven attacks launched by some of my fellow believers.  That is a whole ‘notha post…

602090_558674541688_682346995_nI know what you may be thinking – but this post is not about homosexuality.  I plan on writing about this in the coming days, but still have to get my ducks in a row on that one.  Instead, this dust-up over marriage equality has me thinking about the very institute of marriage.  I have been asking myself some questions as I try to come to grips with what it is that I actually believe.

This is a post about process – how I am struggling to come to a decision myself.  It is not meant to sway your opinion to mine, nor to give you answers.  It is solely intended to show you how I process information in light of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  In light of my last post  (Room To Wrestle) my hope is to show people that Christians can think, and reason, and struggle – that we aren’t all closed minded, brainwashed fundamentalists.  So – deep breath – here goes… (this could be loooong)

What does the Bible say about marriage?

As it should be for Christians struggling with any issue like this, the Bible is the first and primary source we go to.  If you are not a Christian, I don’t expect you to agree with this – but those who follow Christ submit themselves to the authority of scripture first and foremost.  The Bible does give some directives on marriage.  As I consider those directives, I am always thinking about context of the passages, intended audience, and (this is the big one) how equally we apply those scriptures today.

To be fair, the Bible never gives a direct command that marriage is a male/female union – but it is STRONGLY inferred.  When the Bible speaks of marriage it is always in the male/female context, but not always equivalent to marriage as we view it today.  Culturally, Old Testament marriages were arranged by parents and the marriage was done without the participation, sanctioning, or approval of religious leaders.  Marriage was neither a civil nor religious union – they were private affairs.  Once married however,  a couple had numerous religious directives to follow.

Old Testament laws and examples often treat marriage like an exchange of property, and in some instances, a result of the conquests of war.  There are plenty of examples of men of God having concubines, and multiple examples of polygamy.  In Deuteronomy 22 a command is even given that a virgin who is raped must marry her rapist (after he pays her father 50 sheckels).  In Exodus 21 a slave owner can force male and female slave into marital relationships.

Needless to say – those concepts of marriage would not fly with the masses today.

The New Testament also talks about marriage.  Jesus spoke out against divorce except in cases of marital infidelity and said that to remarry after a divorce is to commit adultery. His directions on divorce are some of the most clear-cut, strongly stated directives on marriage in the whole of scripture.  He also stated that, for those who could do it, it was better to remain unmarried.  This is a sentiment echoed by Paul in his letters.  Paul writes about marriage roles with the man being the head of the household and the woman being submissive to the man, and that believers should not marry unbelievers.

Just like the Old Testament, these are not marriage directives that we fully apply even within the church today.  Also, there are many Old and New Testament directives that we write off due to cultural relevancy and intended audience.  To think that there is not room for interpretation is a pretty prideful statement and would call into question the places where we do use these interpretive tools.  It at least deserves our consideration.

So where does that leave me?  Well, it leaves me wondering.  I wonder how we (Christians) can be so outspoken about defending the sanctity and Biblical standard of marriage on this singular issue of homosexuality – and yet ignore just about every example and directive given by the Bible in regards to marriage.  Pastors regularly marry believers to unbelievers.  Divorce rates in the church mirror those outside of the church, many of those being for reasons other than infidelity.  We regularly allow and actually officiate marriage ceremonies for divorcees.  So I ask myself, how sacred do we really hold marriage?  How diligently do we apply scriptural guidance and follow scriptural examples on marriage?

Fortunately, in my heritage at least, after we approach scripture, we turn to tradition, reason, and experience.

What does history/tradition say about marriage?

The institution of marriage predates recorded history and is evident in cultures all around the world – with each culture holding its own traditions and definitions.  The first recorded marriage contracts date to nearly 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.  Needless to say, marriage in its varied forms has existed outside of Judeo-Christian cultures for thousands of years.

The Roman empire’s views and traditions of marriage dominated much of Western Civilization until the rise of Christianity.  In pre-Christian Rome, marriages were personal agreements that did not need the approval of either government or religion.  Marriage ceremonies took many forms – from informal unions involving no ceremony, to more elaborate affairs, thrown by those who could afford it, complete with witnesses and priests .

The Decretum

The Decretum

The rise of Christianity in the Roman empire brought with it changes to the Roman views of marriage with scripture becoming the defining ethic.  In 1143 AD a Benedictine monk named Gratian formalized marriage for the church in his law textbook, Decretum Gratiani.  This work formed the foundation for the Christian view of marriage throughout the 12th century. In 1215 the Catholic church declared marriage to be one of its seven sacraments (an outward and visible sign of divine grace), but it wasn’t until the 16th century that they declared that weddings should be performed in public, by a priest, and in front of a witness.  At this period in history the Roman Catholic church was both the predominant religious and governing body in the world. Because of this, marriage was legislated by both the church and the government because for all intents and purposes – they were one and the same.  Marriage as a sacrament was rejected by the protestant church (sadly in my opinion) – but the tradition of the church marriage was upheld through the split.

In modern church culture we recognize the marriages of people of our own faith as well as the marriages of people of different faiths and people of no faiths.  We recognize marriages that are performed by an ordained member of the clergy, a justice of the peace, the captain of a ship, or any other licensed secular official. We recognize marriages that have nothing to do with a commitment made before God.

So here is where I am with this – Marriage is historically and traditionally a very diverse thing.  It has existed and still exists outsides of the confines and definitions of the Christian church.  We recognize those non-church defined marriages as legitimate marriages.  That leads me to two deeper questions:

Who owns marriage?

Obviously, as Christians, we believe that ultimately God is sovereign over marriage.  He “owns” it.  The problem is that not everyone recognizes the same god as we do.  There are even those who recognize no god at all.  As Christians, we should be diligent in being obedient to God in all things, including marriage.  The question though is do we have the right to force obedience on those who share different beliefs than us?

The fact that government is involved in marriages at all is a HUGE part of the problem.  The government has asserted authority (ownership) over defining and legislating marriage.  In essence, this seizure of marriage by the government removes any sacredness from marriage and makes it totally about a legal contact – a right that is given and withheld based on the government definition.  Our government in the US was designed and purposed for protecting the rights of the people.

I’ve never understood how people can fight so vigorously to defend personal rights that affect them, and fight with the same vigor to have the government withhold rights from those they disagree with.  A government that withholds rights is a scary thing and the practice of denying rights a very slippery slope.

So if not government, then what about the church?  If marriages are taking place all over the world with different definitions and by different means, and they have been for thousands and thousands of years, does the church really “own” the right to now impose its definition on everyone, regardless of what they believe personally?

Let’s be clear, declaring what we believe and forcing people to live by our beliefs are different things.

I would argue that church “owns” the right to define marriage by Biblical standards in as much as we are talking about marriage between those who submit to the authority of God and his Word.  This “ownership” does not extend to defining marriage for the entirety of the world’s population.  We are called to be influencers of culture, but not to be slave-masters of it.

The reality is that modern marriage has become a three-fold thing (at least in modern western culture).  There is the element of marriage as a legal contract legislated by a government.  There is the element of marriage as a binding and uniting oath before God.  There is the element of a personal contract between two individuals.  Each of these elements are influenced by different motivations and purposes and submit to different authorities. They each are really completely different things.

If I can accept that, practically speaking, marriage has both secular and sacred elements then I have to ask…

Can the church practice what it believes to be true/right while also allowing freedom to those who disagree?

The question all this leads to for me is this – “Is it possible for the church to operate within its own definitions of marriage – to apply its marital standards to people who adhere to its teaching – while also allowing others freedom to operate according to their beliefs?”.

Don’t we already do this is many other areas?  Doesn’t God operate this way with humanity?

The Bible lays out guidelines that followers of God should adhere to in marriage – and thus the Christian church should follow those guidelines. Other faiths have different guidelines and standards that they apply to their marriages – and we accept that people of those faiths operate within those guidelines even if/when they differ from our Christian traditions.  If a church or religion does not want to extend the “sacrament” of marriage to someone who cannot or will not adhere to those standards, then they should have the right to do that in adherence to their guiding statutes.

If we believe that last statement to be true, then shouldn’t we also believe that our standards shouldn’t apply to everyone else? A church/religion can take a stand for what it believes in while also allowing others to exercise freedoms – God exemplifies this in how he acts/interacts with mankind throughout all of history.

I am in no way saying that the church shouldn’t stand up for what it believes in – but as I see it, what we talk about when we talk about marriage and what the government talks about when it talks about marriage, are not the same thing.  We may be using the same word to describe it – but they are separate concepts.

Finally – this leads me to wonder – how in the world can we argue when we aren’t even talking about the same thing?  No wonder we get nowhere in the argument.  Christians are arguing to defend their faith from a perceived attack (yup, whole ‘notha post needed for that one), while those supporting gay marriage are arguing against a government that withholds a freedom from millions of people. Totally different debates there…

For me, this issue isn’t as simple as “The Bible said it, I believe it, end of story.”  There’s too much room for interpretation of scripture in this; and too much diversity in belief and practice throughout our history and tradition to write it off that easily.  It is something that we all need to research and struggle with.  I just wonder if there isn’t a common ground that can be reached –  a place where the church says, “This is what we believe and why we believe it.  We hope you believe it too, but if not, well then, we love you anyway.”  And somewhere in that statement is a freedom for people to decide how they want to live, not have it mandated or shoved down their throat by a church or government action.

I wouldn’t respond well to that if I were on the receiving end.  I would wager that you wouldn’t either.

No matter where your wrestling leads you, I hope you will always operate out of love, seek first to understand rather than to be understood, pursue peace, be kind, and always give grace.

That was heavy – so I leave you with this…

Room to Wrestle

Baa, baa, blah, blah, blah

Baa, baa, blah, blah, blah

There are times when I feel like a black sheep…or more like a black sheep wrestler.  You could call me Mutton Chops.

I feel this way not because I am a self gratifying, wild living, fast and furious rebel – but because I struggle with what I believe.  I have an ongoing conflict between my heart and my head, my experience and my tradition.  It is a struggle that has produced more questions than answers in my faith.  It is a battle that at times makes me feel very different, even very alone in my faith.

Yes, I have faith – but I also have doubts.

I also have convictions – but I also wonder why and if they are the right ones.

There are even huge sections of scripture that I struggle to understand and spiritual things that I find very hard to believe.

The black sheep feelings come because I often feel like I have no forum to openly explore.  Often, the very act of questioning is perceived as a lack of faith.  Wondering about long held convictions is seen as godlessness.  There are things I want to blog on, but fear the backlash – questions I want to ask, but fearful of the repercussions they might generate.  In essence, I often feel like rather than being a place where I can work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), the church can be a place of confinement, where my exploration is limited by boundaries that we just do not cross.  There are questions we just do not ask.

There’s no room to wrestle.

For the past couple of weeks The History Channel has been airing their mini-series, “The Bible”.  It is bringing to life the stories of both the Old and New Testaments, and for many people, it is bringing up some very deep hard questions.  An old friend from high-school posted on Facebook this week asking the question, “Ho w could people worship a God who orders his followers to do some of these things?”  There are lots of those directives in scripture that are just hard to understand:

The genocide of the Amalekites (men, women, children, animals) in 1 Samuel 15.

The destruction of the Midianites and the enslavement (possible sexual enslavement) of their young girls.

The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11.

The application of the death penalty for everything from homosexuality, to dishonoring your parents, from sorcery to losing your virginity.

And there are many, MANY more.

These things are HARD.  Yet the response is often to flippantly write them off as God being God, his ways are higher than ours, and after all, who are we to question God?  Either that or we write them off as Old Testament revelations that have been superseded by the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.  Can’t we at least understand how that may seem contradictory – that the God who never changes was like this but is now like this? (Even now some of you are reading my questions as my answers)

If we are being completely honest we have to admit that at times the Bible seems contradictory, at times God seems to be more wrath than love, and at times the Bible seems out of touch with modern society.  At the very least, I would hope that we can at least agree that at times the Bible can be hard to understand and a real stumbling block to many people who want to believe in the goodness of God.  And if we can agree to that – then maybe we can allow people to ask those questions, to struggle with those concepts without calling into question their faith.

And think about what we do – we use things like historical cultural relevance and New Testament revelation to write off parts of scripture that we don’t want to apply to us, but refuse to extend that same grace to people struggling to make sense of the world they live in.  For instance, in my church (The Church of the Nazarene), we ordain and support (at least in theory) women in pastoral leadership.  We do this despite Paul’s very literal and blatant directives to NOT do this.  (1 Timothy 2:11-121 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:6-9)

He also writes that women should be silent in church, not cut their hair, and pray with their heads covered. (1 Corinthians 11:5-6)

But we write those things off – saying that they were either only specific to the church he was writing to and/or culturally relevant in his era.  I have no problem with that application, but I struggle to understand why it is good and right to do it for this topic because it supports what believe, but not to allow the application of this same filter to topics that we historically do not support.

Bring up homosexuality and the historical context of Paul’s teachings – and look out – WWIII is underway.  It is, after all, an abomination of the worst kind.  You just can’t have that conversation without people making assumptions about who you are and what you believe.  Again, people read questions as answers.

It applies to evolution and creation theories, to absolute truth, to the authority of scripture, to – well to a multitude of topics. There are countless tough questions that scripture just does not give cut and dry answers for but that tradition demands we accept a common answer to.  There are scriptures that we cling to, and scriptures we reject.  There are passages we read culture into, and passages that we refute the importance of cultural relevancy.  And yet, there are some topics we do not broach, some questions we do not ask, and some conversations that we just do not have.

My problem with all of this is not the questioning, it is the lack of wrestling room within the church.  Often, when a tough question is posed the church declares that the person posing it refutes the authority of scripture and defensive walls go up.  When a person expresses serious doubts about what they have been taught to believe because what they see and experience are in conflict with the application of the scripture as dictated by the church they are called faithless and more walls go up.  As wall after wall is erected, the “wrassling” room disappears.

You apparently are allowed to work out your salvation with fear and trembling only as long as the trembling doesn’t shake things up too much.  Take away the room to wrestle with these things, view faith, theology, and tradition as static, and you soon find people bashing their heads against the walls that confine them.  Do that enough and 1 of 2 things happen.  Either people conform, or they quit fighting it and go the other way.  No wonder people are leaving the church in droves – their heads are hurting!  Worse than that, we launch attacks over the walls we built.  We label people heretics and false prophets. We question their faith to the point of even questioning their salvation.  Listen…

I can believe in the authority of scripture, yet struggle to understand its application.

I can wonder if truth is deeper than details and not be heretical.

I can believe God is love and yet wonder where that love is sometimes.

I can have incredible amounts of faith, and equal amounts of doubt at the same time.

Doubt is not the absence of faith, and faith does not put an end to questioning.  Instead, the two work in cooperation, stretching us, challenging us, taking us places that we never dreamed possible.  Real faith withstands the hard questions. Doubt can lead to deeper seeking and intimate encounters with Christ (see Thomas).  Together they can open doors and create gateways instead of erecting barriers.

We (the church) do it because we just want to defend what we believe, we want to defend God, and because we want to proclaim our own “rightness”.  We think that we have it figured out and are just helping the lost and blind find the right way.  It seems to me that Jesus encountered some people like this in his journeys – religious leaders who proclaimed that they knew how to best read, interpret, and apply scripture and that their interpretations applied to everyone.  I also seem to remember that Jesus’ anger and rebuke is saved, not for the ungodly, but for these religious men.  He told them repeatedly, “you have believed this, but i tell you THIS…” They must have been shocked, appalled, offended by the notion that they had been challenged.

I bet they wanted to kill him.

I’ve been reading Rob Bell’s newest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About GodI know, I know, he’s a gay loving heretic – so write this off if you must – but he writes about this struggle between conviction and humility, between faith and doubt:

“…conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.”

He sees this struggle as a dance of sorts.  I don’t think it is always that beautiful.  I think sometimes the conflict within us gets downright messy.  I think sometimes it leads to severe brokenness and pain as we what we have learned comes into conflict with what we are learning and when what we know is challenged by what we don’t.  I can only speak for myself, but every time I have engaged in this spiritual struggle, I end up all the better for it.  Luckily for me, I have found people of faith who are open to my struggles, who speak wisdom and truth while also practicing patience and tolerance.  The struggle often leads to breaking me down – but good things can come from brokenness.

Brokenness and struggle breeds humility, tolerance, peace, and ultimately, the growth of God’s love in my heart. Trust me, I am not “there” yet, but I know who I was and see who I am becoming through these struggles.  I like who I am becoming.


Let’s Wrassle!

The dance imagery is beautiful, but this black sheep often needs less of a dance floor and more of a wrestling ring.  My hope is that the church can blow out the walls for people like me.  That they can pad the floors with patience and rope off the ring with grace. That they can allow the Holy Spirit to ref the match while they cheer for those of us working out our salvation with fear and trembling.  Give us space, not constraints.  Make everything open for questioning and trust that God is big enough to take it.  Let people wrestle with him and be forever changed by those encounters (ala Jacob)  Let’s tear down some walls and erect some wrestling rings.  Can you smell what I’m cooking? (see what I did there)

Do you think they make tights for wrestling black sheep?  I would look awesome in them…

Not That Different…

I was reading in 1 Corinthians 12 this week about how we are one body made up of many parts.  It is the idea that the church is supposed to be a place with incredible diversity that functions with incredible unity.  Parts come in all shapes and size, colors and design.  The functions of these parts are equally diverse.  Somehow, in the midst of all this diversity, unity is achieved.

The unity of the human body comes from a singular purpose – the betterment of the body.  In the context of this scripture this relates to the functioning of the church.  It is a truly beautiful thing when it happens.

I can’t help but wonder how much more beautiful it would be if we applied this concept to humanity in general.

We live in a world where our diversity segregates us on both macroscopic and microscopic levels.  Think about it – we tend to separate ourselves by race, religion, economy, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and politics.  We separate ourselves on issues – pro-life or pro-choice, pro gun or pro gun control, conservative or liberal, and countless other divisions.  This list of segregations go on and on.  We surround ourselves with people who think like us, act like us, and often, even look like us.  We manufacture groups of “us” and “them” We just believe that we are far too different to ever function in unity.  The only interactions between “us” and “them” is in arguments.  (Thank you Facebook.) No minds are changed, no compromises made, and no resolution achieved.  Each segment looks out for its own interests, concerned with meeting its own needs, functioning in ways that serve only its purposes.

It is a flailing mass of body parts. No wonder it feels like no one is getting anywhere.

It is easy to be this way when everything is an “issue”.  Issues are faceless hordes of mindless zombies that have no heart and soul.  Issues are stats on a page informed by our own limited world views and experiences.  Issues are media-fed stereotypes that feed on our fears.  They allow no space for humanity, no room for diversity of thought, and ultimately, remove the need for true communication and understanding.

Zombies make for good TV – but they are not real.  There is no such thing as an “issue”.

What is real? People.

Hidden behind the facade of “issues” are real live human beings – people with hearts and souls. These are individuals with stories and experiences of their own.  These are people that feel the way they feel and believe what they believe not because they are stupid or ignorant, but because of their unique situation in life.  They have been through things that you have not and been influenced and informed by a different environment.  Behind every issue are people who just want to be understood.

Behind the issue of illegal immigration are masses of hard working mothers and fathers just trying to escape violence and give their children a better life.

Behind the issue of abortion are countless women dealing with trauma and uncertainty.

Behind the issue of welfare are families stuck in a cycle of poverty that they lack the resources break free of.

Behind the issue of the war on terrorism are the faceless innocent victims killed in remote villages and the families of mourning soldiers.

Behind religious debates are people raised up with a faith as a core part of their existence.

There are people wrapped up inside every issue:

  • Gun Control
  • Same Sex Marriage
  • Foreign Aid
  • Health Care Reform

Divided by circumstances and issues – yes.  But we are also united by something greater than that which divides us.  We are united by our humanity. After all, are we really that different?  I found this quote from Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi that sums this idea up beatifully…416850_290471434354171_217514361649879_803039_217490730_n

This morning in Iran a mother woke up and fed her children breakfast before sending them off to school.  A liberal democrat got dressed and headed out the door to work, hoping to make enough to make this month’s mortgage payment.  A Muslim man sipped coffee while talking sports with his buddies.  A card carrying NRA member bought milk and bread on the way home from work.  A welfare recipient father played catch with his daughter in the backyard.  An illegal immigrant family sat down for a family dinner. A homosexual couple laughed at an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Take away the issues, and I think we may be more alike than we realize.  Maybe there is no us and them – maybe it is just US?

What causes division amongst US is not the lack of sameness – it is the lack of desire to understand.  Understanding takes more effort than arguing.  It means swallowing pride, listening (REALLY LISTENING), practicing empathy, and sometimes admitting we are wrong. Mind you, understanding and agreeing are not the same thing.  Understanding is about information that broadens our perspective, informs our opinions, and more than anything – tempers our attitudes and tongues with compassion.  Understanding may not lead to agreement, but it does lead to respect. Together, respect and understanding breed unity.

I wonder what we could accomplish as a body of humanity if we functioned with respect and understanding?  What world problems would be annihilated?  What injustices would be conquered and what wrongs made right?

To become that sort of world starts with me.  It starts with you.  It starts as individual humans decide to get past issues and build relationships with those on the other side.  It builds as we stop investing ourselves in argument and instead invest ourselves in fostering environments of respect.  It thrives when we lay down our passions for “rightness” and pick up humility, compassion, and sacrifice.  Argue less and engage more.  Withhold attacks and extend peace. Think people – not issues! It changes everything when my world becomes less about me, and more about you.

We are not that different.

What You Catch ‘Em With

This would attract me to youth group... and keep me coming back!

This has nothing to do with the blog – but I figured bacon would “Attract” you to read…

Ever heard the old phrase – “What you catch ’em with is what you keep ’em with?”  It is a phrase usually used to warn a girl against using her body to attract a guy. The thought is that there is a danger in using the “wrong things” to establish a relationship – that if you use your body and sexuality to “catch” a guy, that becomes the expectation for the duration of the relationship.  I wonder if this isn’t advice the church needs to consider when thinking about youth ministry.  After-all, how we approach youth ministry becomes a primary informer of how our students will view church as they mature.

The typical mindset of youth ministry has been attractional.  The thought was that planning big events that included relevant music, wild games, “hip” leaders, and well furnished youth rooms would entice students to come to our youth group like rats to the Pied Piper.  Do it well enough and students will come – they’ll even bring friends – and in no time your youth group #’s could be soaring through the roof. For the churches with the resources and staff to make it happen – it works.

That model informed how we as leaders approached other aspects of ministry.  Retreats were less about retreating and more about feeding students hunger for “more” of the bigger and better.  Summer camps now required zip lines, jet skis, 4-wheeler, paint ball fields, and rock bands.  As leaders we began to believe that these “exciting” and “edgy” elements were necessary to attract and educate teens.  We catered to the attention deficit and need for constant entertainment that we believe was inherent in all teenagers – and we called it outreach.  It was a “just get ’em in the door and hope God gets a hold of them” mentality.  Oh sure, we would schedule a service project here and there – but that was for our more “mature” students.  The “newbs” don’t like/can’t handle/aren’t ready for that kind of stuff you know…

Back off fellow youth leaders – I am not saying youth ministry can’t be fun. (I say as I look at the “No Farting” sign hanging across from my desk).  Fun can and should be an element of all youth programs – but fun can take many forms.  I’m not asking you to ban FUN – just asking you to ask deeper questions and dream bigger dreams as you think about your ministries…

  • I am asking you to think deeper about today’s teens and ask yourself, “Am I selling them short?”

I believe there are things that are more attractive to even non-church kids than flash and bang.  Teens desire relationship and purpose at levels that go far deeper than their attention span.  They want meaningful relationships but may need help forming them.  They want to feel like their lives make a difference – but they may need help figuring out how.

Can I make a suggestion here?  Its my blog – so yes I can…

Service oriented projects and mission trips are powerful things.  These sort of activities are full of the “fun factor” that we find in traditional attractional models, but include some deeper elements.  I have found that relationships formed at these sort of events are deeper as students unite around a common cause.  The stories they develop are lasting ones about human elements, about compassion and accomplishment, about God’s provision and what He accomplishes through them.  Purpose is discovered as they see the work they are capable of and the difference it makes.  Deep bonds form as students and leaders rally around common goals and celebrate common achievements.  Oh – and crazy enough – they have fun doing it!

That is why our group has given up traditional models of camp in exchange for more mission oriented models.  It engages them more fully in God’s kingdom work.  It makes God’s redemptive work bigger than them.  It instills in them a sense of purpose.  It creates lasting stories of God’s provision and strength to accomplish the impossible.  They see God at work through them – and BOOM goes the dynamite in their faith!  Trust me – it is not as hard a sell as you think it is.

We have mistakenly adopted the ideas that missions and outreach are mutually exclusive and that missional endeavors are only for the “spiritually mature”. Please – don’t overlook the capacity of missional activities to attract and transform people in ALL stages of their spiritual journeys.  Don’t separate the two.  In fact, combine them and you just may exponentially increase the effectiveness of both!

It is often fear that drives us.  We fear that our students won’t be supportive and find comfort in knowing what we already do generates numbers.  We fear failure to the extent of losing the ability to dream bigger dreams and expect bigger things for our students.  I encourage you to challenge your students to be and do more than society says they are capable of.  Engage even the outsiders with the challenge instead of molly coddling them with the flash and bang – and watch them RISE to the occasion.  Believe in them more than they believe in themselves and watch the “attraction” multiply in deeper ways than you ever dreamed. YES – even those fringe kids! NEVER sell short your students’ ability to be more than attention starved, entertainment craving immature adolescents.

If you don’t dream big – neither will they.

  • I am asking you to think about how your models of ministry inform their view of church, and how that view will affect their future decisions about church.

Think about this – if we catch them with flash and bang, then it is going to take flash and bang to keep them.

If we catch them by catering to their needs, we keep them by catering to their needs.

If we catch them because our expectation of them are low, we keep them with low expectation.

What happens when the attraction fades, their attention shifts, expectations climb, and interest change? A 2006 Barna survey answers that pretty emphatically –> 70-75% of high school students leave church after graduation.  Could it be that the bait we are “attracting” them with isn’t enough to keep them “hooked”?  Even worse – could it be that we are attracting them to the wrong things?  Are we attracting them to the attractions?

The consumer nature of the American church has been discussed ad nauseam.  American Christians are looking for churches that cater to their wants and needs – fast food churches that serve them “their way”.  That is why large churches with large resources grow – they are better poised to meet the demands of the American Christian culture.  That is also why the American Christian church is losing to ability to communicate with the “outsiders”.  We know our own wants and needs better than we know theirs and we are used to having those needs met.

Does an “outreach” oriented youth ministry that is attractionally driven perpetuate that consumerist mentality?  Are we raising up generations of “needy” church-goers poised to populate the pews of the mega-church?  Just questions…just questions…

I’ve heard the main counter-argument – “But Jesus met the wants and needs of the masses before he dealt with them spiritually.”  True – only Jesus was feeding them food when they were hungry, giving them sight when they were blind, restoring movement to the paralyzed, driving out demons, and restoring life to the dead.  He met the deep physical needs they had – not their desirous whims.  I don’t see the correlation between his actions and ours.  Alas – I think that often, what we think their “needs” are, and what they really need are worlds apart.

People are attracted to movements that make a difference – so help your teens engage in MAKING A DIFFERENCE!  Attracting & connecting them through missional endeavors connects them deeply to the Kingdom work of Christ.  When you see Christ’s body at work – it is hard to not be attracted to Jesus.  I am pretty sure the Bible itself says that when we lift up Jesus, he draws all men, women, boys, and girls to himself.  I could be wrong on this, but I have a feeling that this sort of attraction may have a much more lasting and transformational effect on a person’s life.

Our teens after drywalling an entire house in Texas - LEGENDARY STORIES!!!

Our teens after drywalling an entire house in Texas – LEGENDARY STORIES!!!

I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

Attract them with something bigger, deeper, and more substantial and you just may end up with a bigger, deeper, more substantial connection.  And along they way – you just might feed a few hungry people, repair a few broken homes, and save a few lives.  BONUS!

Okay – so all that was a vent and a rant – but I mean it none-the-less.  As youth leaders we need to quit buying into the lie that teenager are mindless, entertainment hungry, hormone slaves that lack the capacity for attention spans greater than 10-minutes.  They hear that about themselves enough.  What if we communicate the counter-message – that they are more than what the media/world says they are?  We need to believe in them unwaveringly, challenge them ferociously, lead them courageously, dream bigger dreams with them, and tackle the impossible alongside them.  We need to help them see a church that is bigger than their cravings and a God that is more powerful than their desires.  Isn’t that how God deals with us?

Your bait is bigger than you think it is.  Catch them with Christ and His kingdom at work – I’m pretty sure the nets can hold…

High Five

I promise – no long post today.  No rants or rages.  I just had my spirits lifted by an anonymous stranger while sitting in my local Panera.  I received thumbs up,  a rousing encouragement, and – get this – a legit high-five from a total stranger!  It is a story too good not to tell!

Crazy man you ask?  (Him, not me you cotton headed ninny muggins)

Nope.  I was just sitting here, by myself, reading the Word and this guy walks by on his way out.  He does a double take as he passes – stops – turns around and comes back. The following conversation transpires…

Him – Great job brother!  You’re doing it right! (he says with both thumbs up) Are you on fire?

Me – Oh – what?

Him – Are you on fire for the Lord!  On fire because you are in the word!

Me(laughing) Oh! Absolutely!

Him – Keep it up!  The kingdom needs you!  (he then smiles, high fives me, and walks out the door).

A breath of fresh air to start what I thought was going to be a hectic day.  A pep talk to start the morning.  All wrapped up in a smile and a high-five.  It has challenged me to be an encouragement for those fighting the good fight – to lift up spirits with a simple kind word and smile.

God’s people should be walking, talking, living high-fives!