Sunday, May 22, 2011


Saturday night is the hardest part of my week. No matter how well-prepared I am for Sunday, I always get nervous on Saturday night. Sunday is just such a huge day. And until the sermon has left my mouth, until the last "Amen" is spoken, the anxiety doesn't fade. Even when every word of the sermon is typed in front of you, even when all the prayers are written down, you don't know what will happen. You never know when the Holy Spirit will show up and change the game plan. It's a dangerous business.

I guest preached this morning at a friend's church. I find guest preaching even more anxiety-producing than preaching in my own congregation. In your own church, there's always next week if the sermon goes over like a lead balloon. In your own church, you can predict whether your joke will get a laugh, and you can count on the grace of, "We know her, maybe this wasn't her best week, but we've seen her gifts other times." As a guest preacher, though, you just don't know. The order of service and the worship patterns are all a little different. And you don't have that home-court advantage.

I couldn't really tell how this morning went. It wasn't bad. My jokes at least got some smiles and a little tittering. But I wanted so badly to take good care of my friend's congregation in her absence, and I don't know how I did with that. I mean, I trust that the Holy Spirit worked and will continue to work through the worship we shared this morning, I just hope I didn't hinder it too much.

There is, of course, nothing I can do about it now. The worship is over, the echoes of the sermon have faded from the room. So I sip my coffee, take deep breaths, and let it go. At least until next Saturday...
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dear Me

Dear Future Me,

You probably don't remember me very well. I'm you... thirty years ago. I'm you when you were new to ministry. I'm the old you, the one who was so excited about God and the church's potential to make disciples and change the world that people told her to stop being so naive and idealistic. I'm writing to you so that you will remember what being me felt like. This is a preemptive letter. You see, I have seen what pastors can become.

At conferences and events, I meet pastors who have, through years of ministry, allowed their hearts to be hardened. They greet new ideas with cynicism, and respond by saying, "Been there, seen that fail." They sit in the back of conference rooms muttering that new ideas are a waste of time and telling young people to, "Grow up." I know how they get that way. After two years of ministry, I know this is difficult work. This vocation requires dedication, time, energy, patience, and passion. It can take the life out of you. It can leave you, at the end of the day, tired and grumpy and burned out. People in churches can be short-sighted and whiney and hurtful and, sometimes, outright crazy. As a pastor, you get yelled at, harangued, tricked, annoyed, and overburdened. You see the depths of human hatred and brokenness, you see evil and pain and darkness that most people never glimpse. And it's tempting to give up hope, to become defensive, to put your hand to the plow and slog through, bent over by carrying the weight of all of that in your heart. You know from experience that, as Ecclesiastes says, "There's nothing new under the sun."

I want to remind you, though, that we aren't working just with things that are under the sun. You're doing kingdom work, divine work; and God always creating, always bringing a new thing. I know you're going to forget that, as you go through years of the week-to-week work of leading worship and attending committee meetings and being part of the Church's work in the world. You're going to see conference initiatives come and go, the annual leadership-book-of-the-year appear and fade, churches grow and churches die, and you're going to lose sight of the huge, cosmic work that God is doing. Don't.

Jesus took a ragtag group of people from Galilee, taught them for three years, gave them the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent them out to spread the gospel and transform the world. Two thousand years later, their work is still being carried out in us. You have the privilege of being a part of that, you have the gift of the Spirit to help you, how can you allow yourself to lose hope?

Sure, the church is flawed, but it's also the consecrated vehicle for spreading the gospel, so it's way too important to abandon. People are hurtful and broken, yes, but they are also beautiful. For every complaint brought by one person, there is a theological insight brought by another. For every fruitless committee meeting, there is a moment of effective ministry. For all of the evil and distortion brought by sin, there is the beauty of God's image in creation and the recovery of that beauty through God's sanctifying grace. For every instance of hurtfulness, there is a display of the love of God extended through the children of God. So don't become cynical; God is at work in this place, and your cynicism slams a door where grace could be entering your ministry.

A few practical tips:
  • Put down the leadership book for a minute and pick up the Bible. Put down the commentary and pick up a poem.
  • Listen to children. Listen to youth. Listen to young adults. Take their ideas seriously and take their insights to heart. They know what they're talking about.
  • You're still learning, so keep asking questions.
  • Seek real healing and let go of the pain. Don't carry it around or you'll become defensive and bitter.
  • Call your friends and not just the people at your church.
  • Take long walks. Sit in the sunshine. Dance with the breeze.
  • Ministry is your vocation, it's not your whole identity.
  • You got into this because you love God and you love people. If either of those is no longer true, get out.
  • Feel things.
  • Pray to discern where to go next, and don't worry about the size of the church, the prestige of the appointment, or the salary that comes with it.
  • If you have a staff, earn their respect and trust and let them exercise their gifts. Manage them well, and remember that God has given them gifts and vision that you may not have.
  • Play.
  • Sing loudly and often.
  • Make (and keep!) appointments at the Church of the Holy Comforter.
Inside you somewhere is me. That means that, somewhere inside you, is the person who loves to blow bubbles, quote movies, and laugh at bad puns. Somewhere inside you is the person who saw so much potential and hope in local churches that it concerned the Establishment. In your heart is the person who loves Christ and the Church so much that she moved halfway across the country to a place where she knew no one just because she believed she was called to be there. Remember me, and don't let me down.

Be me, but wiser, stronger, deeper, and more loving. Talk to strangers, play with matches, and set the world on fire with the flame of the Spirit.

Me (2011)

Characteristics of the Church of the Future

At a conference I attended this week, we were invited to imagine the "Church of the Future". I know this isn't what they meant, but this is what my friends and I came up with:

1) Holograph Pastor: Even though the pastor is present in the building, he or she will speak from hidden in a back room while a giant holograph of the pastor is projected instead. This arrangement, much like the Wizard of Oz, will make preaching much more impressive and powerful.

2) Robot Ushers: Instead of members in suits distinguished by special nametags, robots will serve as ushers. They can use Inspector Gadget-like extending arms to pass the offering plates down the rows. And if people are slow in retrieving items from their purses or wallets, the robots can just keep holding the plates in front of them until they make a contribution.

3) Youth Spring Break Mission Trip... TO MARS: Our youth can take spreading the good news that Jesus is the savior of the universe to a whole new level. All we need to do is put some ceramic tiles on the outside of the church bus to help absorb the heat of reentry.

4) Fellowship Meals of Dehydrated "Space Food": Forget potlucks, the Church of the Future will have meals that could be served in the International Space Station. It's nourishing AND it will never go bad in the church fridge.

5) Small Groups via Skype: Physical presence and even proximity aren't important as long as you have a computer. You can discuss Scripture with your peers from the comfort of your own home. And, as long as your webcam is angled properly, you don't even have to wear pants.

6) Adapting Jeremiah: We will talk about beating our lightsabers into plowshares.

7) Worship Music: Amy Grant and Chris Tomlin will be considered "Traditional". "Contemporary" will refer to music from 2015... and will still be old.

8) Summer Fun: Church ice cream socials will serve Dip'n Dots.

9) Outreach: The "other" really will be alien.

This was our flight of fancy in the midst of conference meetings. What ideas would you add?
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Wednesday, May 04, 2011


From time to time, when I'm caught up in the minutaie of everyday church life, I lose track of the bigger picture. I get bogged down in the little stuff and forget how beautiful the wider view can be. The last few weeks, though, have reminded me of just how miraculous the body of Christ is.

In a world that is increasingly divided, the church is one of the few places where people who are radically different from one another come together by choice and love each other without regard to the lines that usually separate us. It's not like school or the DMV, where we have no choice but to occupy the same space with people who are different from each other. In the church we choose to be together. In the church, at least when the church is what it should be, young people and older folks know and care for one another instead of allowing generational squabbles and communication problems to halt the conversation. Democrats and Republicans break bread together. Business and school rivals claim a common identity. And all of us gather, trying to make sense of our lives and help each other through.

It's countercultural and a bit counterintuitive, but God brings us all together. And in order for the whole thing to work, we have to work together; we have to talk to each other and give of ourselves. The miracle is that, by the grace of God, we actually do.

This was made manifest for me over the past few weeks in my congregation. Holy week worship requires a ton of people's time and effort. People of all ages, with all different gifts, came out of the woodwork to arrange flowers and altars, to gather items for multisensory worship, to play music and sing, to usher, acolyte, and greet people, and all out of a desire to glorify God and celebrate Christ's resurrection.

When Holy Week came to a close, we were all exhausted, staff and members alike. Still, when tragedy struck on Easter Monday, the will to serve overcame the weariness. The same folks who had worked so hard to put together worship for Holy Week came together again to put their love into action, enveloping those who were grieving. Again, details were arranged, tasks taken on with quiet dedication, and the congregation reached out with a loving embrace. I found myself marveling at the beautiful way God was at work through the body of Christ, even in the midst of incomprehensible sorrow.

There are those who hold out little hope for the church, who believe we will succumb to the conflict and divisiveness that seem to be destroying the Church. But in weeks like this, when I see even a glimmer of what God can do through the Church, my hope is renewed. The church is like an old hammer. It may be ugly and a little rusty, it may not look like it's sturdy enough to finish the building. But in the hands of the master carpenter, it can build strong and beautiful things.
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