On Hope and Shame

 

…hope does not put us to shame.” — the Apostle Paul

One of the lingering questions I have about my faith is the place of hope. Not that I have conquered all other foes whose forces wield wild arms against my trust in God, but this one will not let me go.

It’s the balance I cannot get right. The hope of things here and the hope of all things to come.

I keep hoping for a new job. I keep applying for a new job. Inevitably I will hear about a job either because I saw it posted on a website or someone told me about it. I will work on my résumé and labor on a cover letter. Then I’ll spend a good chunk of time filling out an online application with all the information that is on my résumé already. Then I’ll tell my wife, a few friends and maybe my mom. And then I wait and nothing happens.

I used to tell a lot of friends and family. “I just applied for a job!” But now, I really don’t even want to tell my wife. It’s now just embarrassing.

Hope is all about tomorrow and the desire for some change to make it all better. Even if nothing is demonstrably wrong in your life, you will hope for something. You will hope a meal is good. A game is won. A good weekend is had.

But mostly hope is about things getting better. A crooked path made straight. A right being wronged. Pain ending. A reason for joy beginning. Fears alleviated.

I know I’m supposed to hope. I seemed to be wired for it. You probably feel it too. There’s the push and pull of contentment, but hope, as the old saying goes, springs eternal and like spring blooms big and bright.

Back when I was a youth pastor I taught Paul’s letter to the Romans everywhere I served. And we creeped through that thing. Slow. But I never knew what Paul meant when he said, “…hope does not put us to shame.” Because hope that is disappointed can do that. You hope and you hope and hope and hope and then nothing. And shame slithers in. Because you were so hopeful but nothing happened. Again. And then people wonder.

You hoped that *this* time he really would change and be faithful to you. You hoped that finally the doctors would be able to help your child. You hoped for the Christmas bonus. You hoped the prodigal would come home. You hoped that after years of trying, you were pregnant.

I don’t know all that Paul means when he says “…hope does not put us to shame.” But I do know this — he is pointing to hope higher than those of the here and now. A gospel hope that has the cross as its surety, the Holy Spirit as its strength, and an eternity of no disappointment waiting.

And it will not put us to shame. For it will be all we have hoped for and more.

Random Thoughts for Thursday

I continue to think about Greene’s masterpiece, The Power and the Glory almost everyday.

The great problem with Christian music today is it does not sound like reality. It’s the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Technically fine but profuse with sentimentality that ignores the dark night of the soul and the grey times of life’s many dawns.

Even before I saw Mike Trout play in his first season, his numbers made me think of Joe DiMaggio. I wasn’t the only one, either. Even now the comparison is being made. Some want to compare Trout to Teddy Ballgame, but that’s ridiculous. Trout has speed and mad defensive skills, whereas The Kid had neither. Plus Ted’s first two seasons of hitting are much better. DiMaggio only struck out 369 times in his whole MLB career. Mike Trout has already struck out 307 times in just over two seasons.

Our children’s bedtime is 8ish. It’s like the start of a vacation every night.

The United Cerebral Palsy is down the street from where I work and they bring in participants regularly to cash paltry checks. Everything is topsy turvy with these people. The amount of the checks are small and they smile with every dollar. The rich impatiently waiting behind them in line have few smiles in their worries. The older ones are prone to laugh like children and the young shuffle their feet like the aged who have seen too much of this world and are ready for the one beyond.

On Monday I was at a bookstore and one of my blog readers introduced herself to me. It was a highlight of my seven plus years of blogging.

Most of the talk about Christians in the workplace is flat. Most of what is said is by those who work as pastors and professors and those working in non-profit ministries. They mean well and they say a lot of true things. But they do not have the same scars. Their talk lacks the contours. It’s the difference between hearing a historian talk about being in the trenches in war and one who has the very dirt under his nails.

I think Paul was very serious about eating whatever is served to you. He was worried Christians would offend in their desire to eat clean foods and not eat food that was deemed unclean. We are willing to offend because of ingredients.

I talk to a lot of new married couples and they almost always tell me how many people warn them of the difficulties of marriage and rarely the joys. Christians seem to be the worst about it. One couple, both of them believers, said I was the first (outside of premarital counseling) to tell them that marriage can be wonderful and still get better. Maybe we should stop filming proposals and stop with the creativity in announcements and such. We’re celebrating engagement and trudging through marriage.

“There is no frigate like a book.”

Unless you’re prepared for a pastor to enter your workplace and critique your job, be slow to critique his.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

The argument that we shouldn’t take the creation narrative as literal because the Bible is not a science book argues too much. “Lazarus and Jesus were dead.” “Wellll, maybe not literally, the Bible, after all, is not a science book.” I respect many men who do not believe in 7 literal days. But that argument I do not.

My daughter’s recorder did not come with a silencer.

Baseball season brings with it the hope of Spring.

I try to come up with a loophole and a condition for Matthew 21:22 every time I read it. Which means I undercut the belief necessary as part of my hermeneutic.

I miss not going to work because of ice and snow.

The desire to be seen as thoughtful, intelligent, or sophisticated is just my own adult version of “cool.”

Libraries are wonderful things. Full of wonder. Providing wonder. Feeding wonder.

It is a strange business to advise people on financial matters while having so little.

When I look at my wife I realize the genius of including “in sickness and in health” and “for richer and for poorer” in marriage vows.

Progressive Christianity is strange. It complains about the culture wars and then goes on to see every problem on the outside, never looking in.

The Hollow Feeling of Doing Well

“What is that like?”

This question is a common one. When I tell someone I was once a pastor but now I work in a bank I get this question. Not always wanting to answer I respond with a “fine” or “different” or something general. Sometimes the question is asked at parties, and even at work. My discomfort with revealing what I do now and what I used to do is acute and has probably caused me to avoid some social situations when I know the question might be asked.

Every now and again, I’ll answer by telling people I have the worst job imaginable for a person like me but I cannot escape no matter how hard I try. But when I do that I can feel the awkwardness creep in the room. I used to tell people I’m the worst banker in the world, but I cannot tell people that anymore.

Today I found out I have the highest sales score in the branch and I’m on pace to get a bonus. It’s unexpected because I’ve been doing so poorly over the past few quarters. And it’s unexpected because I’m not very good at what I do.

I have a hollow memory from back when I was young enough to be riding my bike everywhere instead of driving. We lived on the side of Ruffner Mountain and the street in front of our house ran like a short stubby asphalt river down into a small valley and met the bottom of another hill. That hill was called Thrill Hill because of the thrill derived from going over with a little speed. Actually it required no speed whatsoever to feel your stomach in your throat. It was a pretty dangerous hill and when I was much younger I can remember some teenagers losing control and their car ending in the living room of the house most at risk because it sat at the corner of my street and Thrill Hill. By the time I was a teenager most homes in its path had set up large stones and other impediments at the edge of their yard. Thrill Hill was dangerous and I was not allowed on it at all. But one day I did go up, riding as far as my legs and Huffy would take me and then I pushed it the rest of the way. Somehow my parents knew this and I was in serious trouble. I can remember the empty hollow feeling inside of so needlessly upsetting them.

That’s kinda how I feel now about doing so well at work. Empty, like a plundered tomb.

Yesterday I started reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Buechner keeps referencing it. I’m only a few chapters in but the whiskey priest has already revealed why I feel so hollow. He is on the run. They have shot all the other priests. His clothes are as tattered as his own soul is drowning in drink. But he still performs his duties as a priest when asked and does so without pay. At one point a man asks him why he doesn’t just renounce the priesthood like another priest who took a wife. And he says he cannot do it. Though poor, hunted, and always needing a drink, he is a priest. He has no home. He has no income. He does not even have an assigned parish. No boss to report to. But a priest still.

At one point, he is in a man’s home and all he wants is sleep. But the man wants to confess his sins and the whiskey priest hears them and then the man goes and wakes up his neighbors so they can do the same. And the whiskey priest is sitting there with tears in his eyes. Tears of exhaustion and anger. And the man is telling his neighbors the tears are for them and their need of forgiveness.

If I could, when people ask me what it is like to work in a bank after working as a pastor, I would describe that scene. They might not understand it. After all they are just making conversation and being polite. But that would be my preferred response. But I wouldn’t just tell those people. I’d also like to tell other men who have decided they don’t wanna be a pastor anymore.

I could also tell them the story of Thrill Hill which really has nothing in common with my present circumstances except for the emptiness. I felt empty then because I did something I was not supposed to do. Now, it’s success in work that more and more seems at odds with my calling as a pastor.

When I wrote The God of the Mundane, I was hoping to get people to see the inherit dignity and importance of what we typically call secular jobs. Every job is inherently spiritual and kingdom work. There is no job more spiritual than another. I still believe that to the core of my being. My experience in the business world has confirmed it. But you do not get ordained into the business world.

A man may leave one area of business and do something wholly different and the soul remains at ease. But it is not the same for a man who has been called by God and man to be a pastor. When that man does, the fabric of things is stretched and torn. At least for me this has been the case.

For a while now, people have told me again and again that I am still a pastor. A pastor to them specifically. I’ve appreciated the sentiment as compliment. But I did not believe them. I was too miserable. Just like that whiskey priest, I didn’t feel like I should be thought of like that.

I’d like to tell that to all those who are thinking of walking away from the pastorate.

There are “how did I get here moments?” galore. You’ll be sitting across from a very sad person whose life is shambles and you will find your soul revolting against the responsible you have to the person in front of you as a banker.

I know this sounds sad. And on one level it still is. But on another level, I’m glad to know now. I’m glad my wife and I see this together. I still hesitate to say it was a mistake to leave vocational ministry. But I’ve been reading this story of the whiskey priest. And his conviction of his calling fits far too well with the hollow place I’ve tried to fill. What he holds onto at the risk of his life, I let go of.

I could probably do a good job of justifying myself. And even be right in doing it. But I’m not really all that interested in doing that anymore. And so now when people would ask me what it’s like to be banker after being a pastor at my best moments I look them full in the face and tell them I’d like to return.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

So far I’ve worked an hour and a half this week making it the best workweek ever.

Conservative evangelicals can be reticent to read those on the outside like Buechner. But there is no one on the inside to compare him to. C.S. Lewis, though accepted by evangelicals, is no evangelical. No one writes like them on the inside. That I know of.

One of my favorite foods is lunch.

Cormac McCarthy’s genius lies not only in his able prose but in his ability to draw out the image of God…the humanity of the most dark characters, keeping them from being caricatures of their sins.

Less than two weeks till pitchers and catchers report. In other news I’m alluvasudden craving overpriced hot dogs and watered down orange drink.

When you’re snowed in, it’s best to already be living with your personal chef.

For every insult hurled our way by a Northerner because of our difficulty with snow, there was a wonderful act of kindness in the midst of the chaos. That’s a lot of kindness.

How did we get to the point where believers are comfortable retweeting ridicule by anonymous parody accounts?

A pipe without tobacco is like a skillet without sizzling pork.

A warm home is an echo of heaven and all it’s graces.

Learning As A Banker What I Did Not Know As A Pastor

Van Gogh, Exercising Prisoners

It is no secret I don’t like my job. For almost two years I have done almost everything I can to escape it. No matter how hard I try, I cannot. There are days the work is tolerable and there are days when I am not sure I can get through. I cannot sleep like I used to. A full night of sleep is like treasure. Debilitating anxiety seems to always be at my elbow. And just when I feel like I’m getting the hang of what is expected of me, change like a tidal wave.

But I’ve learned something while I’m here. I suppose I could have learned it elsewhere just as well as here. But God in his Providence taught me through my work at the bank a lesson I may not have listened to otherwise.

Back when I felt God’s call to ministry, it was born of my love for the gospel. I had discovered something. Something like gold for the poor. Fresh bread for the hungry. And it changed me and the trajectory of my life. And then as I trained for ministry, every taste of ministry in the church made me hunger for it more. I longed to teach and lead and counsel and all that comes with being a pastor.

I loved the gospel of grace. I loved it because of what it meant for me. And consistently I was seeing all it meant for others. The hurting and the failures. The Pharisees and the libertines. And I loved most of what it meant to be a pastor. I was motivated by these things, motivated to serve and sacrifice so much. But there was one thing not motivating me.

There is a saying among pastors with a kind of dark humor. It goes like this —”Ministry would be great if it wasn’t for the people.” It’s funny because ministry exists for the sake of the people. It’s dark and sad because ministry exists for the people.

I can honestly say I loved people while I was a pastor. But I look back, and if I’m honest, I admit I did not minister to them because I loved them. Concern for them was not a motivation, just a by-product of liking them and them liking me.

My love for the gospel motivated me. My love for my work motivated me. The need or desire to love people did not motivate me. I did not write lessons and curriculum and sermons out of love for the people I ministered to. I did not teach and preach and plan and counsel because of love for them. Love was present but not the driving force.

I’m not saying I didn’t love the great majority of the people I served. I’m not saying love was not present in my ministry. I don’t think anyone could call it a cold ministry. There was too much laughter and tears to say that. Love was just more filigree than fuel.

Over the last month, I’ve sat across the desk of a woman whose husband cheated on her and then left a couple months after she gave birth to their daughter. I’ve talked with a man not long out of prison after 20 years and he kept saying over and over “I just wanna get back on my feet.” A man whose wife took all the money and left and all he wanted was her back. The elderly losing their memories and memory and independence. A wealthy son not happy about holding $300,000 check from his father’s life insurance policy and holding a visible sadness I’ve also carried since my own father went on ahead. Not to mention all the divorces and financial difficulty and lost jobs and wayward children.

A few days ago I opened an account for a registered sex offender who probably could not imagine real kindness after I saw the scarlet letter on his ID. Someone asked me if I wanted to punch him and if it made my blood boil. No and yes. I did not want to punch him. Rather, I wanted to show him kindness, him knowing I know.

This has been a hard lesson. And often it has felt like a cruel one. But I suppose all children think the discipline they are getting is cruel. The pain must be seen in the past to be appreciated. And then owned. And then carried like the presence of God itself, in the midst of his people, going before them in all their endeavors. Because in the midst of his people is exactly where I found myself.

Not long ago I preached at my church and I realized something. Maybe for the first time I wanted to preach because of my affection for the people in front of me…knowing their hurts and pains and assuming they are dealing with much that my customers deal with daily. I preached for them because of love for them and not just a love for preaching.

That was new and different.

I was so used to thinking of preaching as an act of worship, I never saw the need to preach as an act of love. Of course, love for God and all he has done for us in Jesus is in play. But also love for our neighbor, the people I usually share a pew with. And a meal, sometimes. And a whole host of doubts and fears and failures and hopes and dreams about the tomorrows following Sunday worship.

This is probably par for the course for so many of you. Admittedly, I’m slow on the uptake.

However, I get the feeling there is no arrival in this learning. No graduation. No moving on to harder things. The temptation in the Christian life is to check a particular discipleship characteristic off the list and then work on something else. But loving others is the primary ethic of the follower of Jesus. It cannot be learned in Seminary. This must be learned in the crucible of the world as it is, where “beautiful and terrible things will happen.” A world marred and marring. A world where quite possibly in the thick of your own misery, you will look up and see someone else’s, and then have to decide if you will respond in love or not.

Laughing at the Gods

 

Back when I learned Greek Mythology in High School, I did not understand. I could not grasp the importance, the value of such knowledge. But some of the stories were entertaining. And I can very well remember the enjoyment when one of the gods fell into ruin and misery. These gods, so full of themselves, so self-important, deserved to fall and there was a feeling of justice when they did.

 

I have often written on the problem of celebrity in our culture and specifically in evangelical culture. The celebrity often gets in the way of the gospel – his or her image crowds out the image of God in the face of Jesus. And they end up wielding a power that puts them beyond effectual reproof or correction. We share a lot of the blame when this happens. We create them. Our hearts are idol factories.

 

There is another celebrity issue I cannot get my head around that makes even less sense.  A celebrity, such as Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, falls hard into addiction and sinful destructive behavior and we take to the internet and make jokes at the their expense. We retweet and share others who are making fun of them. Why? I assume because they deserve it.

 

Their sins are so great, they deserve to be publicly mocked. Their mugshot…their image as a criminal, hangs in cyberspace for us to laugh at. And why shouldn’t we? We might as well cast lots on ebay for their gear while we’re at it.

 

Because we should be the last ones to do so. We should be the ones silent if we cannot love them. Why are we so slow to show them mercy in the public sphere instead of heaping up ridicule? Because our love will not get a laugh. It will not make us feel better in the insecurity of our ordinary lives.

 

Our knee-jerk reaction to the downfall of the rich and famous should be an echo of the grace we ourselves received. We should be quick to look on them with the same love we enjoy from God. The evangelical church so desirous to evangelize the world has so much trouble with “Love is kind,” when it’s a celebrity we didn’t really like in the first place. We want to change the world in the name of Jesus all the while ridiculing those who most need the very grace we have received.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

Look I’m no marketing guru but I think coupling The God of the Mundane with bacon would’ve been genius.

I can remember the first time I stepped into Toys-R-Us and walking those aisles, my mouth agape in wonder…an echo of what those first few moments are like for those who have gone on ahead.

Braggadocio and insults are now a fundamental part of the football experience.

Some people fear terrorist attacks. I fear writing a cover letter for a résumé.

Celebrities get away with behavior we would never condone in our children.

I’m not doing much writing because you have not bought me a computer yet, internets.

What’s that thing called when in the middle of the night you are attacked by a sensation of panic that overwhelms all attempts at reasonable thought? It’s on the tip of my tongue…

When we get audited at work, it is easy to hope someone else makes the mistakes. It is hard to prefer it is you because you care for the others.

My wife is a living breathing sermon of grace for my soul.

Books are more than things. So much more.

Random Thoughts for Thursday

The words of Jesus are like food for my soul. And I really, really like food.

A Progressive is a person who doesn’t like the violence of God in the Old Testament but never misses an episode of The Walking Dead.

A quiet evening sitting in the den with my wife is pretty exciting.

The landscape art of Alfred Sisley.

I’m glad we measure our weight in pounds and not wings because that would make losing weight that much harder.

When I get a new job, I’m gonna relish being able to look up into the starry night without having to fight the dread of the following day.

The Scriptures are an unrelenting reminder of our lack and God’s day-in and day-out provision.

While you’re watching reruns of Law & Order: Toledo, my 10 yr old daughter is reading graphic novels of Shakespeare in her spare time.

If you can be thankful for what you have learned from those with whom you have deep disagreement, then grace is certainly working itself through your whole being.

If the only ones who care about pastor Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism/ghostwriting are Progressives, then we can be certain that the neo-Evangelical/Reformed movement has spiraled downward into a cultural Christianity that worships celebrity and offers it no accountability. It has a standard of integrity below that which is expected of 18 year olds by professors, pagan or no.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

The Church in the west has lost the idea that Christ’s power is made manifest in weakness. Though the celebrity pastors will tell you different in HD.

In the past few weeks I have sat across the desk from a lot of hurting people. From a new mom whose husband is leaving her for a younger woman to a criminal sex offender with a scarlet letter on his Driver’s License. It’s made me want to be a pastor even more.

I love art, especially paintings. I read books about artists and art-theft and art history. I have a desk calendar from the Met. I watch documentaries on painters as much as I can. But I disagree that we need to be having more conversations about art and faith. What we need is more conversations about plumbing and faith.

What if the Christian publishing industry said they would just do away with Ghostwriting in the name of integrity before a watching world?

In a few weeks I’ll help teach a Sunday School class on the attributes of God using Knowing God by Packer. I could not be more happy.

When you are dieting everything tastes like pizza. Except pizza, it tastes like the banquet at the world’s end.

My wife is an indescribable gift.

I never knew the entitlement I felt towards luxuries like vacations and working cars and so much else, until those were taken away. I wouldn’t trade the luxury of seeing that for anything.

If you compare your life to what people post on their Facebook page, you will despair or you will slip into envy.

Money is the root of all evil because the chief temptation is to think more of it will solve the problems we — as individuals, families, and churches — are facing at any given point in our lives.

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