Thursday, November 28, 2013


"People who live together can be sources of great sorrow for one another.  When Jesus chose his twelve apostles, Judas was one of them.  Judas was called a traitor. A traitor, according to the literal meaning of the Greek word for "betraying" is someone who hands the other over to suffering.

"The truth is that we all have something of the traitor in us because each of us hands our fellow human beings over to suffering somehow, somewhere, mostly without intending or even knowing it. Many children, even grown up children, can experience deep anger toward their parents for having protected them too much or too little.

"When we are willing to confess that we often hand those we love over to suffering, even against our best intentions, we will be more ready to forgive those who, mostly against their will, are causes of our pain."

-Henri Nouwen

Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Focus on Spirituality?

"What is the use of living for things that you cannot hold on to, values that crumble in your hands as soon as you possess them, pleasures that turn sour before you have begun to taste them, and a peace that is constantly turning into war?  Men have not become Trappists merely out of a hope for peace in the next world: something has told them, with unshakable conviction that the next world begins in this world and that heaven can be theirs now, very truly, even though imperfectly, if they give their lives to the one activity which is the beatitude of heaven.

"That activity is love: the clean, unselfish love that does not live on what it gets but on what it gives; a love that increases by pouring itself out for others, that grows by self-sacrifice and becomes mighty by throwing itself away."
  -Thomas Merton

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How to Become a Pastor

In Acts 1 we have a scene where the apostles must choose someone to replace Judas as one of the 12.  All the disciples gathered around, chose one or two, listened to them preach, looked at their education and experience and prayerfully chose one.

Wait, that's not how it happened?

No, actually, they took all the people who were qualified-- who had been following Jesus for years-- and they rolled dice.  That's right, they allowed dice (or lots, same thing) to choose the person who would be one of the 12 people who would head the church for all time.  This is a common idea in Scripture, that when you want to hear God's voice, you can cast lots.  David did it frequently, and in Proverbs it says, "The lot is cast into the lap and its every decision is from the Lord."

It is one (of many) Mennonite traditions to choose a pastor to put it to the lot.  A friend of mine, Frank, was chosen as a pastor in just this manner.  He was qualified to be a pastor in the church, as were most of the members.  They were farmers, mostly, had a high school education, had been in the church for a while and had a good reputation.  All the ones who met these qualifications stood up at the front of the church and each were handed a Bible, which were carefully mixed ahead of time.  They all opened up their Bibles and Frank had a Bible with a piece of paper with a black dot in it.  Then all the congregation went up to Frank and laid hands on him, dedicating him to be a pastor.

Frank didn't feel especially qualified to be a pastor.  Honestly, his favorite thing to do was to go out in the fields and plow or weed or water.  He liked the solitude and he had no idea why God had chosen him to be the pastor above other people who seemed more qualified.  But he fulfilled his duty and got what education he needed after the fact and continued to be a pastor until he passed away.

I know that many people see being a pastor as a profession, requiring a certain education or a certain skill set.  But as far as God is concerned, this is simply untrue.  Spiritual leadership is a calling, not a profession.  Being a pastor doesn't come after one's education.  It comes once one is called by God and a community.

This doesn't mean there aren't qualifications.  One must have a walk with Jesus that has lasted for a number of years.  One should be of good reputation in the Christian community.  One should be able to preach and to discern the word of God.

But no one is qualified to be a pastor after they have completed some Bible education, whether on a graduate level or otherwise.  No one is qualified to be a pastor because they greatly desire to be a pastor.  Even so, no one is disqualified from being a pastor because of lack of Bible education.  Nor are they disqualified because they don't want to be a pastor.

I certainly did not want to be a pastor.  Frankly, I've always been too harsh, too demanding to really "make nice" with other Christians.  I've always been separated from the Christian community, not really fitting in.  I know a lot of stuff, but I also refused to get graduate degrees because I felt they are "giving in" the world's system.  Frankly, I'm still ashamed of the one Bachelor's Degree I have.  I got my education the old fashioned way-- I read.

But I did become a pastor.  Not because I wanted to or because I had the skill set required to be a pastor.  I became a pastor because I was called.  Because others dragged me into it, kicking and screaming.  The one most responsible for making me a pastor is God.  He put me into this.  It certainly wasn't my idea.

Being a pastor isn't something we can really prepare for anyway.  It is a calling, something others look at us and see in us, even if we don't see it ourselves.

Another thing I learned about pastors is that there is not one right way to be a pastor.  There are as many kinds of pastors as there are pastors.  Some pastors are great at preaching, while others... um... aren't.  Some pastors are excellent at discerning the word, but others' gifts are might be in counselling, in encouraging, in community organization... heck, even in administration (although these pastors are very rare).

Yes, there are many pastors who have sought to be one and then accomplished their goals.  They go the education, and they like the professional status, and the salary that comes with it.  I'm sorry to some who might be reading this, but I do not consider these folks real pastors.  And anyone who comes to a congregation and argues about their salary doesn't deserve the name pastor.

A pastor is called, they are chosen, they do not choose their profession.  A pastor is someone who God has put his finger on, and a community recognizes that selection and decides to choose them as well.  A pastor may not have a salary, as long as they have the heart of God.  A pastor may not have a Bible education, as long as they are committed to the Word.  A pastor may not have a large congregation, as long as they encourage and strengthen in Jesus those who will listen to them.

If you have been called, you will seek the education and ordination and jump through all the hoops after the fact, if you like.  But once you have been called, you are a pastor, like it or not.  And if you have not been called, no matter what training or professional status you have, you are not a pastor.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Law and Grace

“Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.”

Throughout the book of Romans, Paul is encouraging us not to judge.  He is primarily speaking about Gentile worthiness to come to Jesus without any hindrances, but he could be talking about homosexuals, drug dealers, prostitutes or Republicans.  He says that we are unworthy to judge sinners, because we are sinners ourselves.  He says that both the judged and the religious are saved by living out their faith in Christ.  He says that Jesus came to save his enemies, and that means sinners.

Then the question comes up, as it always does, “But if you are soft on sin, then you might as well be encouraging people to sin.”  Paul says that, to the contrary, we are unified with Christ through baptism, which gives us the power to live in Jesus, not a life of sin.  And he also says that when we are in Christ, we transfer our certificate of slavery from sin—so we were forced to commit sin—to Jesus, who gives us grace.
Paul says, though, that the real transfer is from the Law to Grace. 

“Law” is specifically the Mosaic law, but it can be any law that is not governed primarily by Love. It could be a church law, or even a national law.  It is a list of policies or rules that take God’s active place in our lives, to tell us how to live right before God.  Law is a principle that says that as long as we obey the law, then we are okay before God.

Grace, however, is the way of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that the way of Jesus doesn’t have specifics that we should follow.  However, Jesus’ way is different.  Because Jesus is less interested in giving us rules as he is principles.  Jesus re-interpreted the law of Moses with the more basic principle “love your neighbor as yourself”, and the law looked very different, being both more encompassing, and more lenient.  The law of love takes in every action, whether big or miniscule.  But love also permits failure.

If you had known what this means: "I desire compassion and not sacrifice", you would not have condemned the innocent   (Matthew 12:7)

The law is a set list of rules.  You either obey or disobey.  If you disobey, even once, you have broken the law, and it is determined from that point on that you are a law-breaker.  The law is like pottery.  Once it is broken, it cannot be repaired.  You can put a pot back together, but the break will always be seen.

Grace is a principle we are learning to live like.  We have received grace by being forgiven by God when we were a law-breaker.  This makes us want to give grace to others, because grace produces grace.  We sometimes break grace—the principle of love—but Grace always gives us another chance to live in grace.  As long as we repent of our failures to be compassionate, to forgive, to be merciful, to help in times of need, then there will always be an opportunity to return to grace.  Grace is like flesh—you can cut it and make it bleed, but it will heal.

If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  I John 1:9

Law is a curse to all.  Once you break the law, you are a law-breaker and nothing changes that and all law-breakers are cursed.  Both the lovers of the law and the haters of the law have this in common—they are all cursed by the law, because they have all broken the law.  This curse leads to death.  All who live under the law die, because no one is able to live according to the law a hundred percent.  Those who live under the law are punished while under the law for their lapses, and they eventually die eternally.

Grace is a blessing to all.  Grace calls out to law-breakers, law-lovers and law-haters and calls them to live out the principle of love.  Grace gives a second (and third) chance to all.  Not because it loves sin, but because grace understands that walking in love and the Holy Spirit takes time, and that time is the only way to heal the wounds of judgment, and to learn to live in love.  Grace grants life to those near and to those far away, and everyone can feel the radiation of the love of Grace.

Do good and lend money expecting nothing in return and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.  (Luke 6:35)

Law produces fear and judgment.  It makes people think that people are looking at them, that God is staring down at them, waiting for them to fail, to break the law.  Those under the law feel the eyes of law everywhere and are reduced to guilt, even when there is nothing to be guilty of.  Because they feel judgment everywhere, they consider it only normal to judge others, and to consider others to be worthy of judgment.  They see others’ worth only as good as their obedience, and most everyone is, at the end, unworthy of life, only death.

Grace produces grace.  To be given a chance to make right, gives freedom to do the same to others.  The grace-full God encourages his followers to forgive, to give to those who are unworthy, to bless all, without regard to worthiness. Those living in overflowing grace find it the easiest thing in the world to allow that overflow of blessing to go to others because they have so much.  The graceful one is only more rich in grace as they give it away.  Grace multiplies when it is given away.

Law shrinks the world.  The hearts of those under the law shrivels into a hard, black rock.  The gaze of those under the law wither the worth of those around them.  Action is difficult, and the freedom to love cannot be granted.  The law must restrict love to retain control.  The successful man under Law is the one who controls and stamps out freedom.

Grace expands the world.  Grace is open to anyone, anything.  Grace invites people to live freely in love.  Grace grants full freedom to love, in any expression that is truly love.  Grace does limit actions of hate and judgment and harm, for these are not love.  But there is freedom for all else.  The successful one under Grace is the one who freely blesses and gives the most to the most people.

Whenever you stand praying, forgive whatever you have against another.  In this way your Father in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. (Mark 11:25)

To be faithful under Law is defined only by obedience to rules. Either you are true to the Law or you are a failure.

To be faithful under Grace is defined by how one appropriately loves others.  One is faithful to our God, our spouse, our friends, our enemies in different ways, but they are all based in how we can best love them with all we have and are. 

Grace isn’t a license to sin, but a freedom to love.  Law isn’t a restriction to sin, but it actually increases sin by increasing the laws that “make” sin.  To increase law is to increase sin.  To increase grace is to give freedom to live apart from sin.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Spiritual Discipline of Preaching

I don’t know that I’m a great preacher, but I’ve done it a lot, more than average, I’d say, over the last 14 years.  At times I’ve done four sermons a week.  That doesn’t make me an expert.  But I know what works for me.  The real problem with preaching is that everyone does it differently, and that’s the way it should be.  Everyone should have their own standards and ways to learn.  But there are some things that are the same for everyone.

The act of preaching
We preach not because it fills a hole in a worship service.  We preach in order to communicate what God has to say to the people in front of us.  We preach the word of God because that contains the basics of what God wants to say to those listening to us.  When we have nothing else to say, and people expect us to say something, we should always remind people what God has to say to everyone in God’s word.  But we also need to listen to God to hear what he wants to say to our people specifically. 

We need to remember that we aren’t the only people God is speaking through.  God speaks through songs, through the Word directly, through life experience, through His Spirit.  We are only one way for Him to speak.  But we need to take our speaking seriously.  We aren’t speaking for ourselves, although we are only human.  We are in God’s place.  That is a serious responsibility and we need to take it seriously.

Tips for preaching: 

1.       Find out God’s message
If we are to take God’s message to our people seriously, we need to take God’s message seriously.  We find out God’s message in these ways: a. Prayer for guidance, b. Bible analysis (to know what the text really says without our assumptions), c. Prayer for God’s emphasis (to find out which part of the text God wants to emphasize) and d. Preparing how best to communicate to our people.  We want our sermon to bring Jesus’ message to the people in front of us.  This means that we need to hear from God and find the best way to get them to hear it as well.

2.       Distill the message
Besides whatever else you want to say, find a snappy way to present it, so people can remember it.  No one remembers a half hour message.  But if you have a single line or a short list of words, then people will remember that.  Summarize your message into a way people can remember it.

3.       Don’t preach to yourself, but your audience
For those of us who preach to a different cultural group from ourselves, this is especially important, but we need to remember this with every audience.  If we are preaching to a “normal” church group, at the very least there are two sexes represented there, and we should remember them both.  We should remember the classes of our audience, the education level, the experiences and the suffering of the people in front of us.   I’ve changed my whole sermon in the last minute because I realized that something different would speak to the people in front of me instead of the people I thought would be there.  If I was speaking to myself, I’d use theology-speak all the time, or a number of technical words.  But I am speaking to communicate God’s message to people, not to speak what makes me feel good.

4.       Hang out with your audience
If we are going to know our audience, and so speak to them, we have to meet them, get to know them, ask them questions, listen to their stories.  If we only hang out with people who are like us, we will never be speaking to the people who are unlike us.  We have to go out of our comfort zone and spend time with people who listen to us who we might never spend time with.

Be encouraging
Sometimes we have to speak a hard or even harsh message from God.  That doesn’t mean that we need to speak to our people harshly.  If we have a hard message from God, recognize it is hard and try to say it in a way that can still be heard, standing with them, amazed that God would speak so roughly to us all. 

6.       Work from the learned to the unlearned
No one learns anything out of the blue.  Much of what we say will seem strange to people, (if we are speaking God’s word accurately).  We need to draw them in to understand new things with what they already know.  This is why I often begin a sermon with questions.  Not only does this invite people to participate in the subject at hand, but I can hear what they already understand about the subject.  Sometimes I can hear my whole sermon being briefly preached before I get to it, which is wonderful!  It also means that I can hear what others have to say, and lead them, step by step, to the message God has for them that day.

7.       Humor
Make an effort to be lighthearted at times.  Sometimes a message is so heavy, humor is inappropriate, but that’s pretty rare (or should be).  People can’t handle just straight speech for longer than five minutes.  Something has to be done to break it up, to lighten the load for a bit.  If people can laugh (or be amused), it makes the next thing they are presented easier to hear, no matter how deep it is.

8.       Repeat
Be sure to say your summary a number of times, both in different ways and in the same way.  We want to explain what we are going to say, say the message, illustrate the message, repeat the message, say why the message is important, say the message again… you get the idea.  It’s okay to repeat.  We are just emphasizing how important God’s message is.

In a sense, this is a summary of much of what I said before.  We all think in stories, react in stories and get emotional in stories.  As much as I love concepts, a story is often the package that we carry concepts with us.  How often has it been that we forgot what a sermon was “about” but remember a great story in the sermon.  Tell a story to tell your message.  You may thing that you aren’t any good at telling stories.   But I bet you tell a story to your spouse about something that happened to you that day.  The Bible is mostly story, and that’s one of the secrets of its popularity.  Use that strength.  Tell stories.

10.   Live your message
Don’t just tell a story, live the story.  Be your message.  People may not remember your words, but they will remember what you did, and tell it to others.  If you live the most important messages, then whatever your sermon was about, you’ve done your job.

11.   Ask for feedback
I’ve taken two classes on preaching in Bible school, and I don’t remember a thing from them.  I do remember preaching a number of sermons, though, and the feedback I received from these sermons helped me be a better preacher.   If there’s something others think we could do better in our preaching, they won’t say it unless we ask and act open to listening to what they have to say.  It’s hard not to be defensive about certain things, but it is best just to listen and let them speak.  After they are done we can evaluate ourselves and decide what we can do and what will improve our preaching.

12.   Practice
Like most skills, we learn by doing.  If you have people who want (or are willing) to listen to you, then just keep at it.  You will hone your skills and find your personal voice and speak God’s message in the best way you can.  The Holy Spirit will recognize your faithfulness and you’ll become what God’s needs.

Preaching is the act of speaking God’s message to God’s people.  Take it seriously.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The False Context of Theology

Theology never should begin with a concept, but with an experience.   Of course there is feminist theology and African American theology, even as there is a white Anglo protestant theology.  Our theology flows from where we are, from what we have experienced and who we have become.  Even as every ethic written by humans is a human ethic, even so every theology is encased in culture, events and life understanding.

The university is a faux culture, separated from the nuts and bolts of life.  In the university the intellect is separated from raw emotion, life-changing sorrow, deep bitterness or revenge.  The university encases sperm, viruses, hormones, murders, starvations and even death itself in numbers, charts and tight text columns like lifeless cubicles.  And there is a place for the organization of life into picture books where it can be grasped by experiential toddlers.  But this knowledge must go back where it truly belongs: on the street, in the ghetto, on social media, in the bars, in the bedroom and on the toilet.  Medicine is pointless if it does not assist the victim of AIDS.  Psychology is but types and tables if it does not ease the suffering of the mentally ill. Economics is feel-good headiness if it does not alleviate poverty.  Literature is dusty volumes unless it helps us experience life more fully.  And theology is but a pastor’s library unless it alleviates human suffering.

The application of theology is not for the church, if by “church” we mean the assembly halls of Christians.  Some may say that a church is a hospital, but this is simply not true.  The main purpose of a hospital is to diagnose and treat specific illnesses.  A church rarely, if ever, accomplish this task.  Certain churches are like quarantine centers so that everyone knows where the most ill are kept and can remain at a distance.  Churches, in general, have three main functions: worship, education and the care of feeding of professional clergy.   In other words, a church typically follows a university model, where the worship of God replaces sport, where a very few talented participate and many observe and cheer.  And the center of this activity is not God, necessarily, but theology.  The only difference between the university and the church, for the most part, is the theology is popularized and given entertainment value.  

And how does this alleviate human suffering, enact God’s redemption to human slavery? It perhaps provides a spiritual pause in the midst of a world that is becoming less and less dependent on the spirit world.  But church almost never provides a spiritual connection, a deeper dose of reality than one’s rebellious children, faithless spouse, unmanageable bills, awkward relationship with the police, chronic illness or ostracism from one’s friends.

Theology is dead and has been for millennia.  God is not dead, nor is He silent, but theology has become disconnected from God and from human reality and so speaks to almost no one anymore. 
And by “theology” I mean that taught in seminaries and universities, and, to a lesser degree, that preached in sermons ad nauseum.  Theology is still alive in social media—vibrant and powerful, full of new ideas and experiences.  Theology is still alive in the homeless camps and the slums and the refugee camps and in every fundamentalist group.  The Bible is still living and powerful as ever, no matter how beaten it is by theologians.  But the Bible must be separated from formal theology, and placed in a context again.  Even as it was in the Bible, originally.