Monthly Archives: April 2016

Bi-Vocational Pastor: Your Fundamental Belief in People

I’ve been coaching the sport of wrestling for over 12 years now.  I’ve always enjoyed working with athletes, teaching them the sport, about life lessons, and helping them achieve their goals.  It is truly satisfying work, but I noticed something disturbing in myself about 9 years ago – I found myself spending increasingly more time focusing on our best and most talented wrestlers, and less time focusing on less gifted ones.  In fact, I found myself seeking ways to avoid those less gifted kids, even though the level of commitment and desire to get better was the same from both groups.

It is natural for us to spend time with those who seem more responsive to our coaching and leadership efforts.  If we’re honest, we do so because we derive a sense of satisfaction, a measure of success and reward for ourselves.  I don’t see this tendency to be the problem.  What I do see as the problem is that if we dig a little deeper into the why, it raises this question:

What do you fundamentally think about people?

What I found for myself 9 years ago is that deep down, I simply thought less of my less talented wrestlers.  They weren’t worth my time and energy because there was a lower probability that they would achieve what I had defined as success.  As I dug deeper into my fundamental beliefs and attitudes about people, I discovered I viewed my talented wrestlers through a similar lens.  They were worth my time because they were a commodity that would ensure my success and self-worth as a coach.

I recently listened to a podcast by a popular non-denominational pastor who began to talk about the lifestyle choices of the people near the church they were discussing.  He described them as a “challenging context.” He and his partner could not comprehend why these people wouldn’t want to have families, why they seemed more interested in their dogs and drinking coffee, and “secular things.”  In fact, they even went as far to suggest they felt threatened, that their “perfectly normal” life of having a wife and 4 kids was looked upon with scorn by these people.  Yet clearly in their minds, that is the life that God desires for all of us!  These people “need God” and it validated their attractional ministry to in the premise their lives were somehow “lacking.” 

 I also sat in a church-related meeting where one person, encouraging the rest of the group to reach out to families in the community, suggested that this was desirable because “each of those families….that’s $1,000 right there.” Enough said right there. 

Now if you were one of the people these folks were referring to, and were a fly on the wall for those conversations, would you want to be part of their community of faith?

What you fundamentally think about people will affect how you interact with them.  And those fundamental beliefs will show through to people, regardless how “nice,” “welcoming,” and “well-intentioned” you try to be.

Our tendency towards sameness when it comes to who we surround ourselves with blinds us to this fact.  It deceives us into believing there is something wrong with the other, and creates an “us versus them” mentality.  Even worse, we think “they” don’t notice. The truth is, people are smarter than you and I think.  People are always watching and evaluating, and they are especially evaluating leaders.  I know 9 years ago my wrestlers were watching, just like they continue to do so today.  The same is true in my role as pastor and Navy chaplain.  You don’t have to like every person, and you don’t have to treat each person the same.  You do, however, have to hold a universal belief about the worth and value of human life.  What that is for you, I’ll leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.   I do know, however,  your integrity and effectiveness as a leader depends on your answer.

 

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Sermon 17 April 2016: “Don’t play the victim.”

Text: Acts 17:1-9

The Bible often includes a list of “firsts”: Adam and Eve and the first Sin, God sending a flood to destroy the earth for the first…and last time, Israel’s first king, the building of the first temple, and of course, the first time God took on human flesh – that guy Jesus.  And I think today’s account in Acts could be labeled “he first passive-aggressive act recorded in the history of the church.”  You would think that the healthy thing for the Jewish leaders to do would be to go to Paul and raise their issue with him.  But no, rather they simply bypass all that, hire a bunch of ruffians to drum up some bogus accusations, and thus causing a lot of problems for Paul and Silas. There’s two things about passive-aggressive behavior that always seem to be true:  one, it usually happens because people feel threatened, and two, very rarely is it simply the intended targets that get hurt: everyone suffers.

It was all about a fence.

A small church outside of my hometown has a cemetery next door to it.  And for years, the same fence has been maintained around it.  It’s getting weathered, but overall, the fence is intact and when damage does happen, members of the congregation to take it upon themselves to fix it up.  A few months ago, two members of the congregation felt like the fence needed to be replaced with a white plastic version, which would be much easier to maintain and upkeep.  So they went around to the other members of the small congregation and started asking, “wouldn’t it look great if we had a new fence, one that was easier to maintain?”  Despite their enthusiasm, they didn’t get the response they hoped for, and so the two members had one side of the fence replaced so that people could see “that it looked good” and that they would then vote to replace the whole thing. Of course, it caused a problem.  A few others objected, upset that these two had made such a decision on their own.  Two factions formed, words were traded, the pastor was called, and eventually it led to a congregational meeting in which more words were traded, feelings were hurt, and a split vote to keep the fence in its original state won out.  However, the damage was done: prior to the meeting and vote, there were a lot of “parking lot” conversations, hurtful things said, and persuading to one side or the other.  Former members and family members who lived far away who were still members were called for the vote.

All because of a fence.

I think so often in the stories of the Bible when one group is being marginalized and attacked we like to place ourselves in the role of the victim.  We like to place ourselves in the role of people like Paul and Silas and all those who “heard the gospel” and chose to follow them.  I know I’m guilty of that….but if we’re being honest we’re more like the Jewish leaders, with a need to be right and to be in control.  When something challenges that, we feel threatened, and we act out of that.  Yet, the victim never lashes out in a frontal assault.  They tend to lash out in passive-aggressive behavior.  Recruit some ruffians.  Replace just a section of the fence.  But the damage often gets done just the same….and it leads at best to hurt feelings that tend to linger and at worst it completely destroys the sense of community we love and cherish.  People get caught in the crossfire, and no one wins.  And indeed, to serve the god of passive-aggressiveness is to serve the god of death.

Yet the Jewish leaders who were so jealous towards Paul and Silas heard the same good news as all the others: “This is Jesus, the Messiah, who I am proclaiming to you.”  The good news of Jesus is for them, despite their jealousy, despite their passive-aggressive behavior.  And Jesus is for you and me just the same today.  In Jesus, this is the God who says despite our backhanded, passive-aggressive tendencies, “You are mine and I know what you can do and be.  By grace you have been saved….live free from your jealousy, your fear, and turn away from that which destroys and kills: serve me; serve the God of LIFE.”

So what about that little church near my hometown? Healing comes slowly, but in the end, the desire is for healing is there, and they’re slowly figuring it out – TOGETHER.   We know that our Redeemer lives; let us live free from our fear that kills and destroys and be gathered up in God’s grace – TOGETHER.  Amen.

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CYF Ministry Thoughts: “Get the Grandparents to do it.”

I serve two congregations whose average age is well over 60 years, and most of them are grandparents.  While my conversations with them are laments about how there are “no kids in church,” many of them are also lamenting about the fact that their kids – particularly their grandkids – are not attending church.

There are a few of them who simply are interested in nothing more than keeping their congregation alive for years to come, however, many of them express their worry for more substantial reasons.  My congregants express their appreciation and love of the church as a community in which people go through life’s peaks and valleys together, and gather to worship, pray, and serve so that they might know that there is a God in Jesus Christ who is present and active with them in their lives.  They express that while saddened that their children choose not to be part of a church, at least they as parents raised them in the church and exposed them to what church is and can be for them.  Yet my congregants’ greater saddness is that their grandchildren are missing out on church as well – a community that bears the trials of life with each other and gathers to know of a God who bears life alongside all people.

One day I was listening to these laments of one of my congregants when I simply blurted out, “What if you brought your grandsons to church?”

I was initially met with silence, but over the course of the last year, this woman – well into her 70s – has been doing just that: bringing her grandsons to worship with her on Sundays.  While she is unsure if they will stay interested in church as they grow up, she has expressed that at least she knows they have been exposed to the church and to the good news about God in Jesus Christ, and that it is enough to hope and trust in that.  However, I’ve seen the transformation happening: her boys slowly but surely becoming interested in the church on their own terms and seeing it for what it is.

The AARP has conducted studies that show more than 2.5 million grandparents are taking on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren.  Furthermore, certain cultural realities are enabling grandparents to pick up and relocate closer to their grandchildren. The reality is that this generation of grandparents are often more committed to matters of Christian faith and church than their children are. In my own experience, working with parents has been the most challenging part of Children, Youth, and Family (CYF) ministry.  Their opinion (with exceptions, of course) is to leave matters of faith to the “experts”: youth ministers and youth pastors.  Yet studies show that children who are interested in religion and faith have parents who are invested in the same.  Such findings are nothing new; those working in CYF ministry have known them for years now.

Yet, if grandparents are taking on more a caregiver role in the lives of children and youth, and if they are more committed and interested in matters of church and faith overall,  shouldn’t those of us working in CYF ministry should be asking, “Are grandparents the key to successful CYF ministry?”

In other words, “Get the grandparents to do it.”

This doesn’t mean we stop working on and working with parents of the youth we minister to.  But perhaps we empower grandparents in their lament about their grandchildren by challenging them to take an active role in their grandchildren’s faith formation.  Like my 70-something congregant, maybe it starts by bringing their grandchildren to church, and see what the Holy Spirit might do from there! 

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Sermon 3 April 2016: “Now what?”

Text: Acts 1:1-14

How many of you remember the movie Forrest Gump? It was released in the 1990s and featured Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump, the lovable-guy with a low IQ who found himself in extraordinary places and doing extraordinary things. You might remember the part in the movie when Forrest, after his life-long love Jenny leaves him yet again, he decided to go for a run and ends up running back and forth across America – for three and a half years. It becomes this really inspiring story, and people begin to start running with him, and he generates a pretty significant following as he continued to run across America.

Then there’s the scene when Forrest just stops in the middle of the road and says, “I’m kinda tired…I think I’ll go home now” and he just starts walking back to Alabama. His following stands there, stunned, until one guy shouts, “Just like that? What the hell are we gonna do now?”

What an emotional rollercoaster for the disciples: Jesus’ death, resurrection, his reappearing to them, and thinking this was the time Jesus was finally going to stick around and change things….he decides to take off, ascending into heaven. As the disciples watch Jesus float up into the sky, you have to wonder if they weren’t thinking, “What the heck are we gonna do now?”

Good question. But Jesus gave them a pretty straightforward answer before he takes off, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

In other words, “Guess what folks? I’m going to keep this ball rolling. The same spirit that worked through me is going to work through you. You’re going to preach, teach, dine with sinners, perform miracles, and even raise the dead, just like me.”

 Yeah, you heard me right. We’ll have the power to perform miracles and even raise the dead.

Jerry Riewer was a Physical Education teacher in a small town in Minnesota. Like many teachers in small towns, Jerry took on a number of other roles: driver’s education instructor, cross-country coach, and baseball coach. In fact, Jerry was a successful coach, having guided 22 teams between the two sports to the State Tournament with 3 teams being crowned champions, and being honored as State Coach of the Year in both sports. Yet Jerry’s greatest role in the town is that for over 50 years, he’s taken care of the baseball field before and after practices and games. Raking, watering, mowing, chalking lines….he tirelessly spend hours and hours making sure that the field was always ready to play on and taken care of. Jerry was honored for his service a few years ago when the baseball field was renamed to Jerry Riewer Field.

For Jerry, it was “just doing a good deed.” Yet, long rains and even heavy snow that would flood the field and turn the infield into mud, and Jerry performed small miracles getting the field ready for practice and play. The even greater miracle perhaps: countless kids grew up on that field playing baseball and becoming young men, and a town had a place to gather, watch their kids, and be community together. Kids and families from all parts of town and even those who lived outside it on farms came to play and watch baseball….including this Minnesota farmkid. And some of those kids grew up in tough situations and because there was a baseball field to practice and play on, they went on to college and careers…..through Jerry’s “good deed,” lives were even raised from the dead.

I think so many of us go around do “good deeds,” but not really believing that they just might be miracles in their own right. Yet if we think about the real power of Jesus’ miracles, it wasn’t the magical deed itself, but what came out of it: unclean lepers, the blind and lame, hemorrhaging women were reconnected to the community. Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter were raised from the dead so that they could be joined with their loved ones in relationship again. This restoration of people back to community and relationship was the real power of Jesus’ miracles.

And as Jesus’ followers today, we’ve been empowered by the same Holy Spirit. Our simple “good deeds” might be the very miracles that Holy Spirit is working through us to restore and create relationships between people. And those miracles might be the very things that change lives, even save them perhaps, but also witness to the ends of the earth about the power of God to raise up new life and hope in all sorts of places and people.

I mean, such miracles might look like how we care for each other as church. Or how we truly welcome the stranger in our midst. It might look like the seemingly impossible task of feeding 5,000 people this year or keeping a preschool open for the sake of families when it would be a whole lot easier to just close it down. Such miracles can happen….and are happening.

So, what are you doing sitting there just staring? The Holy Spirit is out there performing all sorts of miracles, witnessing to the Kingdom of God in Portsmouth, Hampton Roads and to the ends of the earth. And who knows?  Those miracles, they might just happen through you. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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