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.