Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Worth the Struggle

Here's a link to the article I wrote about my journey from the Presbyterian Church (PCA) to The Episcopal Church: The article was published in the January 22, 2017 issue of The Living Church.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Receive the good news (2016)

We live in a broken world where we hurt the people around us, and they hurt us. We often feel "weak and wounded, sick and sore." And so we try to manage our discomfort in any number of ways. Some go about their days and weeks in anger, in their attempt to insulate themselves from the fear, the pain, and the near panic that gnaws at them. For others it may be cynicism, the near cousin of anger, that becomes the ointment they hope will numb their troubles. Or, if not anger or cynicism, it could be lust (of any kind), or greed, or alcohol, or gluttony, or a host of other things. What about me? O, I am multi-talented when it comes to my own attempts to numb, pacify, or otherwise deny the brokenness of my soul, body, and relationships. I often live like witch doctor of self-reliance; constantly adjusting my witch’s brew in my vain attempt to meet the needs of the moment, day, or week. It can be hard to even imagine what it would look like to interrupt or stop this vicious cycle.

Attempting to deny our hurts, aches, and longings is another attempt at self-reliance. The witch doctor approach is one attempt to numb our pain and our longings, but when we attempt to deny these things we are more like mad scientists, believing we can train or make ourselves into a more advanced being. But it just doesn’t work. Attempting to live in denial, we may think we are transforming ourselves into a bionic man/woman, when the result is really more like Frankenstein. (Even Frankenstein eventually learned to feel though, right?) Perhaps another way to think about it is to think of the world of science fiction. Attempting to live in denial of our wounds, aches, and longings is like trying to perform a Jedi mind trick on ourselves - with a wave of the hand we try to think: these are not the pains you’re looking for, they are gone! Move along.

The problem, of course, is that it is frightening to acknowledge our aches and longings, while at the same time acknowledging that we are powerless to heal and satisfy ourselves in our own strength.

So what are we to do?

One day my middle daughter got lost. We were at a party at a friend’s house. My wife had stayed home with our son, but my 2 year old daughter and I were there together. Most of the guests were outside, enjoying a time of friends, food, and relaxation. In addition to the adults there were a number of other children there, and my daughter was having a great time laughing and playing with these friends. But there came a time when I noticed that I had not seen or heard my daughter for a few minutes and so I began to look for her. I called for her and looked around outside for her before going into the house. A number of people had been going in and out of the house off and on for various reasons, so when I realized that my daughter was not outside, I ran into the house to look for her. As soon as I came through the back door I could hear her crying. I called for her and ran to the sound of her cries. I found her, tears streaming down her cheeks, in the dark of the foyer, desperately pushing on the closed front door that she could not get open. I drew her into my arms and sat on the floor holding her as she told me through her sobs that she couldn’t find me. As I wiped away her tears, I told her that I had come looking for her and that I loved her. 

How many times have I felt just like my daughter did that day—lost, alone, searching, and desperately crying in the dark. It is precisely here that the Bible and the historic Christian faith comes to us with gospel good news. God has come looking for us in the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus comes to us in our fear, in our pain, and in our desperation saying, “I’ve been looking for you, and I don’t ever want to lose you again.”

So whatever cocktail or witch’s brew of self-reliance you are currently using to self-medicate your body, mind, and soul from the wounds and aches of your life, won’t you dare to try Jesus? Aren’t you tired? Wouldn’t you like peace and rest? Jesus said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And, instead of attempting to deny your pain, hating yourself for continuing to hurt and struggle, reach out to Jesus.

The Christian gospel of God’s breathtaking grace through the person and work of Jesus presents us with another way, a better way. A real relationship with a real and living Jesus means receiving from him acceptance with God, the forgiveness of all of our sins - our rebellion against God, and the harm we have done to others, to ourselves, and to our world - adoption into the family of God, a record of perfect and spotless righteousness, and an eternal inheritance of life and flourishing, which can never perish, spoil, or fade.

Thoughts on Luke 6:26 for those in Christian ministry (2016)

Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. - Luke 6:26

Those who go into Christian ministry tend to genuinely like people, and want to teach, shepherd, and minister to people. And so, we tend to be the kind of people who like it when people like us. In Luke 6, Jesus is preaching to a great multitude, and so his comments are not exclusively intended for members of the clergy. But the last of his four couplets seems especially applicable to those of us in the clergy, and perhaps especially to the clergy who serve in North America in the 21st Century. "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets...Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets." (Luke 6:22, 23, 26)

Jesus is warning us against a dangerous temptation, namely the temptation to value and even find our security and significance in the affirmations of others, rather than in Him.

St. Paul was writing specifically to a member of the clergy in his second pastoral letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4:1-5, St. Paul writes: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry."

For those in ministry this is a challenging call to live by faith. To care so much about God, His word and sacraments, the glorious gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, and the Church - the blood-bought lambs of the Lord Jesus, that I care very little for my own reputation, my comfort, and even at times my job. The more we grasp the enormity of the challenge, the more we are unsurprised that there are so many failures. I have known ministers paralyzed by fear, unwilling to say, propose, or teach anything that cause the least controversy in their congregations. I have known ministers who have become callous and harsh, never acknowledging or repenting of the damage done by their words and actions. And I have known ministers who have become apathetic, who mostly just show up for services and events so that they can continue to receive their paychecks while expending the least amount of effort possible.

At any given time I can be tempted to fall into each of these three ways. And I have fallen and made mistakes in ministry in each of these directions. I have also had moments and seasons where I can say that by God's grace I have fought the good fight, and I have kept the faith.

Perhaps you have heard the maxim, "If you try to please everyone, no one will like it." The reality of life in ministry is that everyone is not going to like us. Everyone will not like your sermons, no matter how orthodox their expositions, how lively their illustrations, or how practical their applications. Everyone will not agree with our decisions with respect to worship services, what ministries to create, which ones to promote, and which ones to replace. And that is not to mention the critical issues related to the temperature of the sanctuary or the arrangement of the altar flowers, whether we had anything to do with those details or not.

Be encouraged, as it says in James 4:6, "He gives more grace." Fallible, broken, and sinful servants are the only kind of servants Jesus has in the Church. So let's be quick to repent, and quick to understand that there will always be people in the church who are disappointed with us.

And be encouraged, Jesus is the true and ultimate judge of the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1), and His verdict on you is in: Forgiven, righteous, accepted, loved. Jesus really is risen from the dead, and He really is today seated on His throne, the King of kings and Lord of lords. I need this reminder daily, and even moment by moment, because I so easily forget. As Tracy Chapman put it in her song, Fast Car, "me myself I got nothing to prove."

For those of us in ministry today, let us renew our love and trust in God, and let us renew our commitment to love and serve God's people - knowing that if and when we do this well everyone will not speak well of us, and knowing that we will need to always be sober-minded, to endure suffering, to do the work of an evangelist, and to fulfill our ministry. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Come to the Table (2012)

And God blessed them...And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (Gen. 1:28-29)

From the beginning, God has provided food for his children. God designed and created a breathtakingly beautiful world that produces an abundance of good food to sustain human life.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!...You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. (Ps. 104:1, 14, 15)

But God’s desire is not simply to feed us in order to provide for our physical sustenance. Throughout the Bible we learn that God wants us to eat and drink with him in fellowship, thanksgiving, and celebration of our close relationship with him.

From the Garden to the Passover Lamb to the covenant renewal meal on Mount Sinai, from manna in the wilderness to the shared meal of the peace offering every time they gathered for worship, God is not only providing food for his people, but also calling us to eat and drink with him.

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel...they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Ex. 24:9, 11)

In the Gospels we often find Jesus eating and drinking with Pharisees, disciples, and sinners alike. He turns water to wine, he miraculously feeds the masses, and he tells parables of fathers and masters who prepare feasts and invite others to come and dine with them.

Even after his resurrection, several of the accounts of Jesus are related to food.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent. So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. (Luke 24:28-31)

As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace be to you!’ But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit...And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:36-37, 41-43)

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread...Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’...Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. (John 21:9, 12, 13)

And when Jesus returns at the renewal of all things, our new life together with God in the new earth will begin, of course, with a banquet.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Is. 25:6-8)

And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ (Rev. 19:9)

So let us come to the table today and always with family, friends, and neighbors and give thanks.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. (Ps. 136:1)

As we eat and drink together, may we catch the scent of the banquet to come, marvel at the grace of God, and lift our glasses to sing his praise.

My Shepherd will supply my need: Jehovah is His Name; In pastures fresh He makes me feed, Beside the living stream. He brings my wandering spirit back When I forsake His ways, And leads me, for His mercy’s sake, In paths of truth and grace. 
When I walk through the shades of death Thy presence is my stay; One word of Thy supporting breath Drives all my fears away. Thy hand, in sight of all my foes, Doth still my table spread; My cup with blessings overflows, Thine oil anoints my head. 
The sure provisions of my God Attend me all my days; O may Thy house be my abode, And all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, While others go and come; No more a stranger, nor a guest, But like a child at home. (Isaac Watts, 1719)

Thursday, December 2, 2010


A long quote by C. S. Lewis and a short quote by J. R. R. Tolkien regarding vocation:

"Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain...The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public, nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain. And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside, that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric, for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it." (C. S. Lewis, "The Inner Ring")

"Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere." Elrond (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 283)

I find that I need constant reminders about what is most important in my vocation. Lewis's essay, "The Inner Ring," is both convicting and inspiring every time I read it. I still feel the temptation in me at times to pursue the inner ring, though I have made it my passion and my commitment, as far as I am able, to simply be a sound craftsman. I want to be a sound craftsman in my vocation as a minister of word and sacrament. And though the world, and perhaps even others in my vocation, may look at my craft as the work of small hands, I truly believe that it is the kind of work that helps to move the wheels of the world.

And when I think of all of that, I am humbled and I am content. Truly, the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places (Ps. 16:6).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Comapny They Keep

About a year ago I read Diana Pavlac Glyer's wonderful book The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.

As a fan of both Tolkien and Lewis, it was wonderful and fascinating to read about their creative process.

A large part of Glyer's book examines Tolkien, Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings as resonators, opponents, editors, and collaborators. It was simply amazing to discover how much these great writers wanted and received input from their friends during the creative process.

As a pastor, I immediately began to think of correlations between their work and mine. I crave the input and feedback of others in my work of preaching, teaching, and ministry leadership. I would even go so far as to say that these kinds of interactions with holy friends are vital to my pursuit of faithfulness and excellence in ministry. Here's what Jones and Armstrong, in their book Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry say about such friendships:
“How do holy friends shape us in our discernment, and in our growth? Holy friends are those who, over time, get to know us well enough that they can challenge sins we have come to love, affirm gifts we are afraid to claim, and dream dreams about how we can bear witness to God's kingdom that we otherwise would not have dreamed.”
I have been blessed to have a few such friends, but I want more.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Value of Repeated Words

I'm not sure a pastor can overestimate the value of repeated words. You see we are so prone to doubt and forgetfulness, at least I am, that we need to hear things over and over again.

We understand this truth in some of the other contexts of life. It still moves my heart for my wife to tell me, "I love you," even though I have heard her say that literally thousands of times.

Our children hear us pray for them every night that "they would never know a day they did not love and trust the Lord Jesus as their Lord and Savior." (I learned this phrase by hearing it over and over again from my pastor during my years in seminary.)

A couple of weeks ago, when my small children were struggling a bit with all of the new things that have come with our move (home, school, routines, etc.), I told each of them at different times - "I have a job for you." I said, "I have an important job for you, do you think you can do it?" "Sure!" was the confident reply. I said, "Your job today is to remember that your Daddy loves you. Can you do that?" Each time a little face lit up, I received a nod or a "Yes," and I could see a precious soul encouraged. It's only been a couple of weeks, but now, as they are heading out to school, I just have to say - "Do you remember your job?" or "Remember your job today, okay?" and I see fresh encouragement. Repeated words are that powerful.

God himself filled the Bible with repeated words and phrases. "I will be your God, and you will be my people" is the refrain of God's love song to his people on page after page of Holy Scripture.

The Apostle Paul wrote, "It is no trouble for me to say the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you." (Philippians 3:1)

Repeated words are powerful. And the particular repeated words may change with a change in context, or perhaps over time, but it is hard for me to imagine pastoral ministry now without them.

Here are some of the repeated words I have heard myself saying over and over again:

(In pastoral conversation with someone struggling to believe that Jesus really takes away the guilt and the shame of sin)

"Listen to me. As a minister of the gospel, and on the authority of God's word, I tell you that your sins are forgiven because of Jesus."

(as a part of the liturgy of the Lord's Service)

-the Declaration of Forgiveness
"Almighty God, in his mercy, has given his Son to die for you, and for His sake forgives you of all of your sins. Therefore, upon your confession, I declare to you that God forgives you of all of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

-at the Lord's Table
"May our faith grow even now, so that we would believe more than ever before in the reality of our salvation - that our salvation is as real as the taste of this bread and the scent of this cup - for we pray in Jesus' name. Amen." (I also learned this phrase from Dr. George Robertson, my pastor during my seminary years, by hearing him use it so often.)

Don't people come to know what I'm going to say at certain times and in certain contexts? Yes. But they like it.

Can't repeated words, especially in a liturgy, become a lifeless routine? Yes. But abuse does not negate proper use. When the words of worship become a lifeless routine we must act pastorally and relationally - calling brothers and sisters to repentance and falling on our knees ourselves and praying that God would send again seasons of refreshing through the Savior appointed for us, even Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).