Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1) My hearts tendency to legalism is manifested most clearly when I look in the Bible for what to do, as if Holy Writ was given to me as a self help book. What needs to happen is for me to go to the scriptures and listen for what God is saying about himself and myself and my neighbor.

2) One of the more staggering stats of the young baseball season is Andrelton Simmons having 49 plate appearances with no strikeouts. Back in 1929 Joe Sewell went 115 games without a strikeout. I’m not sure how many plate appearances that was but it was 437 at bats. He only struck out 4 times that season. And averaged only 1 K every 62.6 at bats over his hall of fame career making him the hardest batter to strikeout in MLB history.

3) While April is a little colder than I’d prefer, springtime in Birmingham is really glorious with all the azaleas and lilies and irises blooming and the trees are a blinding green. It’s hard to sit at a desk, you feel like your body is about burst with the need to sit outside and laugh with friends.
Spring is great everywhere but hometown Spring is singular.

4) Obscurity with my wife in a quiet room with a book is preferable over out with the movers and shakers.

5) I got a note this week from a pastor who has been taking his small group through my book. That group has among its members a banker and a plumber. So my week has been made. If those two were encouraged at all it’s worth it. The royalty checks are nice. And necessary. But hearing that? It’s a particular kind of wealth that cannot be earned or bought.

6) Went to a ball game downtown last night. Had a hot dog and an orange drink. We have some serious award inning restaurants in town but I’d chose a ball game, a dog and an orange drink over them every single time.

7) Over the past week I’ve helped a 75 yr old lady with $2 to her name and another elderly lady in tears, who lost a daughter in law to the long battle of cancer. I’ve sat between two broken marriages. And I’ve spent 2 hours talking with a woman whose drug-addicted son has been stealing from her and she has to bolt her bedroom door from the inside when she sleeps at night, when she can sleep. I would not have chosen this preparation for the pastorate, but it is the wisdom of God.

8) The Psalms are full of the Blues and sometimes you can hear Mississippi John Hurt and Son House and Big Bill Broonzy in them.

9) I long for a vacation the way a fat kid longs for cake.

10) It sounds like some tired cliche but work is far more tolerable when I am praying for my fellow employees and my bosses. Sometimes those prayers are more like the groans of creation waiting for redemption, but still.

11) The songs sung by the characters in the The Lord of the Rings are very different than the songs sung after the adventure begins.

Eugene Peterson and “the Faulty Job Description” of the Pastor

I’ve been slowly reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles again. If and when a church calls me as a pastor, I want a paradigm I can go to when the pressures come. My assumption, based on my experience in vocational ministry is that what I’m supposed to do will constantly be questioned and challenged. I need to be able to say to myself and others (with gentleness) what my calling is and is not. The following quote is helpful to that end. It’s not helpful simply because of what I want to do. It’s a good reminder of what’s in my own heart. I am subject to the temptation of feeling a passage or sermon is not useful if it was not what I wanted.

The faulty job description has been written by customers in a consumer society. Historically, a unique thing has taken place in our society. The causes are multiple but the effect is single: everyone is a customer. We have been trained to think of ourselves and then to behave as consumers. We are known by what we buy. We measure the health of our nation and the success of our lives in terms of per capita income and gross national product. If people save what they earn instead of spend it, the nation gets sick. If we devote too much time to creating something enduring and beautiful without calculating its cost-efficiency, we damage the economy. If we look too long without buying, we retard progress. If we give away too much without counting the cost, we interfere with the market. If a politician running for office asks the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” everyone interprets that “better off” in terms of what money they have on hand to spend. I am worth what I spend.

No pastor is exempt from this conditioning. Our educators train us superbly in the acquisition of goods. Marshall McLuhan often remarked with dismay that the advertising budget of our nation exceeded by several times the school budget, and that the people who ran the advertising agencies were, with a few exceptions, far more able than those who ran the schools: “The classroom cannot compete with the glitter and the billion dollar success and prestige of this commercial education…disguised as entertainment and which by-passes the intelligence while operating on the will and the desires.”

If I receive my primary social identity as a consumer, it follows that my primary expectation of the people I meet is that I get something from them for which I am prepared to pay a price. I buy merchandise from the department store, health from the physician, legal power from the lawyer. Does it not follow that in this kind of society my parishioner will have commercialized expectations of me? None of the honored professions has escaped commercialization, why should the pastorate? This has produced in our time the opprobrious practice of pastors manipulating their so-called flocks on the same principles that managers run supermarkets.

The question operates subliminally, shaping my behavior: what do people want from me, their pastor? Something surely along the order of a better life: encouragement, insight, consolation, formulas that enable them to get along better in a difficult world, uplift them (a friend calls this “brassiere theology”). We, of course, are conditioned to comply. Why should we not please the people who pay our salaries if we can do it with good conscience? And why should not our consciences be good, ratified as they are by the vote of congregation after congregation? This consumerism shapes us without our knowing it. There is nothing in our lives that it does not touch in one way or another.

This acquisitive mode is so culturally expected and congregationally rewarding that it cannot fail to affect our approach to the Scriptures. When we sit down to read the Scriptures we already have an end product in view: we want to find something useful for people’s lives, to meet their expectations of us as pastors who deliver the goods. If someone says to me, “I don’t get anything out of reading Scripture” my knee-jerk response is, “I will show you how to read it so that you can get something out of it.” The operative word is “get.” I will help you be a better consumer. By this time the process is so far advanced that it is nearly irreversible. We have agreed, my parishioners and I, to treat the Bible as something useful for what they can use out of it. I, a pastor shaped by their expectations, help them to do it. At some point I cross over the line and am doing it myself—looking for an arresting text for a sermon, looking for the psychologically right reading in a hospital room, looking for evidence of the truth of the Trinity. The verb looking has taken over. I am no longer listening to a voice, not listening to the God to whom I will give a response in obedience and faith, becoming the person he is calling into existence. I am looking for something that I can use to do a better job for which people will give me a raise if I do it conspicuously well enough.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

The proof of self-righteousness within a particular tribe of Christianity is it’s unceasing criticism leveled against everyone else but itself.

I like everything with my Sriracha sauce.

I have not seen the Noah movie. But I do think it is reasonable for people to be upset about it if only for one reason. From what I’ve read Noah is not portrayed as a righteous man in the movie. But he is described as one in Genesis 6:9. You can debate all day about whether that’s a problem or not but it’s certainly reasonable for people to expect Noah to be portrayed as righteous in the movie and then be upset when he is not. I would be very upset about a version of Pride and Prejudice portraying Lizzie and Jane as whores. As would all who love those characters as I do.

I cannot remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. Or bacon.

Rachel Held Evans is a General in the culture wars.

Last night I taught a small group of pre-teens and it reminded me of why I went into and loved youth ministry.

On Monday my sons had tee ball and baseball practice. Coaches never let me hit though.

The force with which we, evangelicals, typically talk about evangelism and missions is far afield of the way the Apostles did. Way far afield. I don’t understand why this is ok with so many people. You can not find one place in the NT where the person in the pew is made to feel guilty about the unreached. Go ahead. Go look. I’ll wait. Why do we think this is laudable? And it’s done usually by people who do not know the people they are preaching to. They fly in and thunder guilt for which they have no biblical precedent.

I now prefer my wife’s cooking over all other foods. Especially if I’m eating it with her.

My next book may have to be a study for young communicants because the one my daughter goeth through is not makingeth it.

Music made by Christians should not sound like Clay Aiken singing for a knitting circle. It should sound like the creation of all things, the thundering weight of the fall, empty tombs, horseman of the apocalypse tramping through visions of the exiled, breaking hearts, dreams shattered, redemption birthed through suffering, the blood, sweat and tears of this beautiful and terrible world. Our music should sound like the return of the King of Kings and the making of all things new. It should at least sound like this -

On Pastoral Job Descriptions, Part 2: Our Guilt and An Idea

Hearing from others in response to my first post on this subject got me thinking. Dangerous, I know.

First, I’ve thought about how none of us are innocent in the problem. Most job descriptions for pastors are focused on satisfying the consumer-driven tendencies of our culture because we are driven by the same. We all have some blood on our hands. I know I do. One of the reasons we are like this is all the wealth and freedom we have. Our wealth makes it near impossible for us to be content with what God has provided, and that includes what he has provided ecclesiastically. So we pine for me. The best we can afford. And our freedom gives us many churches and pastors to hear from. You put those two together in the pastoral search and it can get and does get awful. many of them sound like PR campaigns done by HR departments. And we haven’t even talked about the lure of salary and benefits.

But I think there is a better way of doing things.

Someone asked me how I do it. And my answer came rather easily. Instead of churches and search committees making public their job description, they should not make it public. Ask those interested and those they are interested in to send them some thoughts on a job description and then see how well those fit with what the church wants in a pastor. Why not come up with one that is very bare bones and amendable? None will fit perfectly and that is probably right and good. A pastor is likely to know more about what a pastor should be than a committee of lay-persons. Just as an computer programmer will know more about programming than an hiring manager will. Certainly any pastor worth hiring would be worthy of learning from in the process. How could expect to be led by him after he is hired but not at all before? So any job description should be amendable.

The great problem with the process as we have it now, is that it’s too much like the dating i did in High School in college. Everyone is on their best behavior and trying to impress each other in the very beginning. All weakness is hid. All failures are swept under the carpet. Both parties try to show off a little by dressing up. I’ve written about this here and here.

If churches would just keep their job descriptions to themselves and ask candidates to provide them with one to see if they just might match up, then you would cut much of the consumerism off at the knees. There is never a guarantee a process will work out perfectly. But if the goal of the process is to model the very gospel by which we have have all been saved, I think the process can be more healthy.

Eugene Peterson’s Double Focus

peterson

 

From The Pastor

“When I became a pastor, I resolved on a double focus for keeping my vocation on track: worship and community. At this point in my ‘long obedience,’ that resolve had been thoroughly tested and had developed an extensive root system. It had to if it were to survive. The religious culture of America that I was surrounded with dismayed me on both counts. Worship had been degraded into entertainment. And community had been depersonalized into programs.”

“By the time I arrived on the scene as a pastor, the American church had reinterpreted the worship of God as an activity for religious consumers. Entertainment, cheerleading, and manipulation were conspicuous in high places. American worship was conceived as a public-relations campaign for Jesus and the angels. Worship had been cheapened into a commodity marketed by using tried-and-true advertising techniques. If so-called worshippers didn’t get ‘anything out of it,’ there had been no worship worth coming back for. Instead of calling people to worship God, pastors all over the country were inviting people to ‘have a worship experience.’ Worship was evaluated on the ‘consumer satisfaction scale’ of one to ten.”

“And community. The church as a community of faith formed by the Holy Spirit. Church in America was mostly understood by Christians and their pastors in terms of its function – what it did: build buildings, become ‘successful,’ change the neighborhood, launch mission projects, and create programs that would organize and motivate people to do these things. Programs, mostly programs. Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of ‘doing church.’ Far more attention was given to organizing and giving leadership to programs than anything else. But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently nonpersonal. A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are. The more program, the less person. Church was understood not in terms of personal relationships and a personal God but in terms of ‘getting things done.’

“This struck me as violation of the inherent personal dignity of souls. The abstraction of a programmatic approach to men and women, however well-meaning, atrophied the relational and replaced it with the pragmatic. Treating souls for whom Christ died as numbers or projects or resources seemed to me something like a sin against the Holy Spirit. I wanted to develop a congregation in which relationships were primary, a household of hospitality. A community in which men and women would be known primarily by name, not by function. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t. The programmatic methodology was epidemic in the American church.”

On Pastoral Job Descriptions

(Update: Maybe I need to point out that I’ve been in contact with a few churches in the last couple of weeks. None of them have given me a job description. And for that I’m glad. Maybe that’s how it should be. The search committee should hear from the candidate about what he thinks his calling is and then either it matches what they are looking or not. Perhaps they will even like what he says more than what they have articulated. It’s possible.)

The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”
— Eugene Peterson

So I’ve been looking at pastoral job postings. I usually look at only the ones in my denomination, which for the most part, are pretty good. But I’ve started looking at all of them. Just to see what churches are looking for in a pastor.

It can be depressing. Especially since I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. One of themes of the book, as well as all of his books on pastoral ministry is we have reduced church life to a consumeristic enterprise and the pastor is a hawker of spiritual goods and services. The pastor, who is supposed to be the one who introduces the people to God and directs the people toward what he is doing, has in America, become a businessman.

So Peterson has in some ways ruined me. His picture of ministry which places prayer in a prominent place seems so at odds with the way we think. And honestly, even at odds with the way I’m prone to think sometimes. Prayer doesn’t look busy. It doesn’t seem to make things happen. And we are a culture of busyness and making things happen. We want quick results and prayer vitiates against that. I see this with my family. And myself.

One of the reasons Peterson has been so helpful, is that I tend to look at Pastoral work and my desire to return to it as what I want to do and what I will do. I suppose that’s a natural way of thinking. But he gave me a picture of pastoral ministry where God is the one who effects growth and change. I know that sounds ethereal and possibly cliched but hang with me here.

Peterson says we are too impatient. We do not really believe in the power of prayer, the ministry of the word (and sacrament), and patient spiritual direction. We want to fix problems. And we want it now. My own heart does. I look at my kids and see things I don’t like and I see them “as problems to be solved and not stories to be entered into.”

We start with thinking these things will work and then we leave them off because we cannot see the progress we expect. It’s too slow. And again, I cannot help but but smile as I type this, because I do this with my kids.

So obviously I can’t be too hard on people and search committees for thinking this way about pastoral ministry. We’ve all breathed an ecclesiastical air that has pastors swooning with the idea they are there to fix what is wrong. And churches often look to them to do it. And even more often than not they cannot deliver what is needed. And then everyone is frustrated. And severance packages are paid out and new committees are formed to find the answer.

Guys like me aren’t frustrated merely because they want to do and be something other than what is expected of them. They are frustrated because the work of ministry they were initially called to has evaporated or been suffocated under a lot of other work. It’s not what initially made their hearts break for the souls of men and women.

And now there is a palpable fear that God could draw himself away from the work they are doing and no one would know the difference. Everyone is still busy. Everyone is fixing problems. But really the glory has left.

My wife says I’m the weird one. Maybe it’s because I left and I’ve had time away to reevaluate what I was as a pastor previously and what I want to be. I’m now too acquainted with my own weakness to want to go forward with anything but my weakness. So I keep coming back to Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth when he reminds them that God has chosen what is weak and appears to be weak to make his strength known. They have the ring of good news about them.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised int the world,
even things that are not,
to bring to nothing things that are
So that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

That sounds like a good pastoral job description to me.

The Kind of Pastor I Want to Be

Consider this my cover letter. I hate cover letters. Really, they drive me nuts. So let this be mine. Keep in mind as you read, these are aspirations and never arrivals. I may never get there. But God, I want to. And it is only he that can get me there. I hope this post doesn’t come across as narcissistic. Some will see that. They may be right. But I’m gonna risk it. I think what I’ve learned while not in vocational ministry is too important. You may think there are a number of obvious things I’ve left out. Feel free to assume I’ve done those things well in the past…

What follows is a description of the kind of pastor I want to be.

1) If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, its the difference between ministering to people with a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross. When I was a pastor the first time around I worked out of the first paradigm. It bred an arrogance that placed me in a place of importance over against the people I was called to serve. If the cross is true then it is not only the power by which we minister, the message we preach, but also the example of how we must deal with those whom we are called to. There must be a kind of laying down of our lives for people. The pastorate is not a well-paid therapist but a shepherd with sheep he must be willing to bleed for.

2) I want to bury them. My ministry for the most has been some time here and some time there. Sure, good done everywhere. I’m thankful for those times of service. But I want to be somewhere long enough to watch them grow old and then bury them.

3) I want to preach and teach and counsel in a way that betrays the steadfast loving-kindness of God and his gospel of what he has done in Christ for sinners. I bought into a way of preaching and teaching that said conviction of sin was the measure of power in preaching. If they were convicted and felt guilty, mission accomplished. Sometimes, yes. But sometimes God’s people need to hear, “You are not alone” and “Be not afraid.” “You are forgiven. Relax.” You don’t have to buy into Osteen’s theology to see the resplendent kindness of the message throughout the Scriptures to comfort the wounded and sad and hurting.

4) No easy answers. There are none. Our bumper sticker theologizing is killing the soul. And those who long for easy answers will not be patient with those who don’t accept them. And our culture is full to the brim with those who will not tolerate them. I want to be patient and live comfortably with the tension.

5) One of the things I struggled with in ministry was the work/life balance. I did not handle this well. Every intrusion was unwelcome. I started ministry seeing anything that cut into family time as an intrusion to the way things should be. Some pastors err on the side of neglecting their families. I erred on the other side and never saw the blurred lines between ministry and family as a good thing. When I left the ministry, I looked forward to a job where you clock in and clock out. The only thing that could have convinced me I was not made for such a job is actually doing that kind of job. I know this sounds crazy, but if someone called me in the middle of the night for counsel or to rush to someone’s bedside, I would revel in the opportunity. That’s not bragging. I’ve been through much fighting within to feel this way.

6) Just because I want to bury them doesn’t mean I want to kill them. I’ve been in the workforce for over 2 years now. And I’ve seen two things I could not have seen otherwise. Volunteering for the church is a real sacrifice when it is not your job to do so. And I’m sure I’m *not* an ideal volunteer so I need to be patient with those who are reticent. People are busy. Probably too busy. But telling them that doesn’t work. I want to be patient when people are slow to volunteer. My first reaction was to assume they don’t care about the church. It wasn’t fair.

7) The push and pull of suffering teaches you something about prayer. Especially when the troubles persist. Prayer is powerful. It changes you. And you find yourself praying just as hard and often when the suffering wanes and you find yourself more ready when it waxes anew. If Eugene Peterson has taught me anything about the pastorate, it’s that I wanna pray more as part of being a pastor. It’s more important than study, counseling, teaching and vision plans.

8) Honestly, my critics were nearly always people to be dismissed. That was a mistake. Truthfully, I was most likely worse than they knew. But I knew it. And I was defensive. I don’t want to fear criticism anymore.

9) Somewhere I bought into the idea that because I was the leader, I knew what was best for the people I was leading. I knew what the people needed far more than they did. It’s really a lonely way to live. But I was often working with elders and men and women who had invested a great deal of their lives in that congregation. It doesn’t mean they would be right in their thoughts about the direction and decisions about the church and its purpose. But those opinions should be respected. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m attentive in prayer and in study of the Scriptures, we can makes those decisions together in a way that honors God and edifies the body of Christ.

10) I don’t want to be afraid of offending the powerful but I do want to be afraid of not caring for the marginal.

11) The work of Jesus to save sinners and make all things new is to be central. I want that more than anything.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1) I had no idea the response I would get just by saying on social media that I was looking for a position in pastoral ministry. It’s a luxury really because back when I was in pastoral ministry you had to be fairly quiet about looking. I’m thankful for the kind responses and interest churches and individuals are showing. A blog post is coming soon…

2) My 10 yr old daughter told me she can’t wait till high school so she can study chemistry so I’m wondering where I can get a paternity test done.

3) One of the best ways to deny someone’s dignity is to ask them what their thoughts are on something and then immediately argue with them.

4) This past weekend Bethany and I celebrated our 15th Anniversary. The kids stayed at my mom’s, we ate out, slept in, went hiking and sold a car. You know the stuff you’d expect to do on an Anniversary weekend.

5) Ichiro once had 262 hits in a season where he played 160 games. Think about that for a moment.

6) My time working in the business has been a masters level instruction in humility, patience, and kindness. I’ll never graduate.

7) My surburban Wal-Mart is more diverse than…well, anything.

8) Only a person in their 20s would ask me in my forties why I eat bran every morning.

9) Spring in Birmingham is one of my favorite things. The sights and smells and feels stretch back into childhood and all the hopes and dreams of warm weather and long days.

10) There’s a ragged beauty in honest hurting people – the poor in spirit, I suppose.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

20140306-072929.jpg

I confess I’m a little unnerved by how many Protestants observe Lent. I can’t even get a hold of the laws in the Scriptures much less the ones we add on. This is not to demean those whose traditions call for it. But ours doesn’t. (My unnerved-ness comes from so many not really understanding what they are doing and also being very…how shall I say it?…public about it all.)

Tony Gwynn averaged 209 hits for a 162 game average. That’s averaging more than one hit per game over his career. That makes sense because he had 10,232 plate appearances and had 3141 hits. He most likely always had 4 at bats a game. He averaged only 29 strikeouts over a 162 game average. That’s one strikeout every 5.6 games. And that’s just otherworldly. Those numbers are better than Joe D’s. DiMaggio did have far more homers, RBIs and runs. But remember he played on 10 pennant winning teams, nine of them winning the World Series. Gwynn played for the Padres. They both averaged 36 doubles over a 162 game average. But Gwynn had 3x as many stolen bases. Joltin’ Joe got more than 200 hits twice in his career. Gwynn did it seven different seasons. Seven. And Gwynn’s highest batting average is higher than Joe’s. His lowest is also higher than Joe’s lowest. But he played for the Padres. So, yeah.

I miss being a pastor.

I’d rather eat fried pork skins and wear crocs than wear skinny jeans and eat kale wrapped in marketed fear.

If theology does lead to love for others then we are doing it wrong. And my guess is we are doing theology more to be right than loving. For the cross is the centerpiece of all theology and the cross is where we get the power and example of love for others.

The older I get the more I believe it is not the strong with the answers who we should be listening to. But the weak who’ve had to ask all the hard questions in search of strength beyond themselves.

Power feeds on fear.

One of the more interesting story lines of the coming baseball year is Ryan Braun. He lied about using steroids, got caught and is now back. And he’s hitting .875 in Spring Training. And getting booed a lot. The thing is, he probably didn’t need them. The guy can hit. And if he can hit after all this, well, that will be very interesting.

If as Christians we wanna be holy and set apart from the world around us, we must not be motivated by money. Our sexual morality will impress no one. But men and women uninterested in wealth are a force to be reckoned with.

Fifteen years ago today, Bethany and I were married. How happy are we in marriage? We would not trade our modest celebration this year for anything, really. Our lack has shown us what we have in each other. It’s a relationship of grace upon grace.

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