Tuesday’s 10: What I Learned From My Pastor, Bob Flayhart

Back in 1996 I was a mess. I was in a toxic relationship, had very little direction, a ridiculous amount of debt and though I was beginning to enjoy the study of theology through books, my desire to be a part of a church was disappearing. All I knew were the Baptist Churches I had grown up in. I wanted out and had no idea where to go.

One day, while sitting on my parents front porch, I was talking with my friend Ross and told him some of my frustration about church. He invited me to one he had been attending. So that Sunday, for the first time I went to a Presbyterian church. And even though the Lead Pastor did not preach that Sunday, I was hooked.

And then for years I sat under the preaching of Bob Flayhart hanging on every word. And every word was a word of grace. Grace that comforts and grace that convicts. I needed both and every Sunday it was delivered with power.

No preacher has influenced me more. And I’ve longed to give tribute to his ministry and it’s peculiar effect on me. Today is his birthday. So I want to list 10 things I’ve learned from Bob over the years. And even though much of this has helped me as a pastor, far more often I’ve needed to hear these things on a personal level – as a man, a husband and a father. Some of these come from sermons, some from the pre-marital counseling he did for us. All of it is now part of me and I wouldn’t be able to shake it loose if I wanted.

1. The Christian life is a daily waltz. 1, 2, 3…Repent, Believe, Fight…1, 2, 3…Repent, Believe, Fight. This is in the DNA of OMPC and chances are you will here it at some point during a Sunday service.

2. Cheer up! You are a lot worse off than you think you are. And the gospel is greater than you could ever imagine. I know this a Jack Millerism but whenever I hear it, I hear it in Bob’s voice. And I hear it all. the. time.

3. Even in the midst of your sin, you are still loved. This is a variation on a theme. But I remember Bob saying this once and it caused a huge paradigm shift in my thinking. The love of God for his children is that great.

4. The “doctrines of grace” are given as encouragement. They had always been an argument since I’d bought in and became a Calvinist. Bob helped me see they are there to encourage Christians that God is at work always and will save his people.

5. Our spouse is given to us for our sanctification. If it true that all things are working together for our good, then our spouse and our marriage are both working for our good. This is an enormous help when you have two people who still have to fight against sin living under the same roof.

6. Our own sin should be far more obvious than the sins of our spouse. We should see ourselves as the greater sinner because we know the ins and outs of our own hearts better than anyone. This makes us slow to accuse and quick to show grace and mercy.

7. Marriage is not 50-50…”you do your part and then I’ll do my part” is a terrible way to live and love. It’s 100-100. The husband should give his life as Christ did. The wife should give her all as the church is called to give all. Both loving the other radically.

8. Husbands are not dictator and wives are not doormats. How many times did we hear this in weddings he performed? There was a time where it was weekend after weekend. I’ve now done two weddings and I’ve said the same thing. Because it’s true.

9. Transparency. It’s difficult to be transparent about your own struggles and need for the gospel of grace and not turn the sermon or lesson into a confessional.  But I’d rather have the struggle for balance than not see any need for transparency at all. Bob’s transparency turns “you need to” moments into “we need to” moments.

10. Looking for grace everywhere. No matter where I am in the Scriptures. No matter what I am listening to. No matter what I am reading. No matter what I’m watching, I’ve been trained to look for stories and ideas upon which the shadow of the cross falls. Sure, it’s been invaluable as a pastor. But more so as a person on the path so often needing just a sign – even a faded, warped one – that I’m loved because of the Son.

My Struggle With Reverse Karma

“Grace,…she travels outside of karma.” – Bono

About a week ago, I realized how much I think and believe as if Karma is true. This isn’t what I want but it is the reality. Just as a man can live as if he is more important than he really is – living in spite of the reality before him – I live as if Karma is true and the principal defining, controlling reality in the Universe. My Universe anyway. With me as the center.

Something bad happens. I infer I must have done something wrong to offend God. Stuck in traffic? I probably pulled out in front of someone. Cut them off. My child is sick so I must have been horribly unkind to someone. An important email has not been returned, I most likely have yet to do the same. No one is reading my blog post today, God is paying me back for pride over the popularity of another post. Worse, I did something laudable and God is repaying me. So I look for checks in the mail.

I give lip service to grace but only have eyes for Karma.

So, all this was floating around in this head of mine along with prayers to God for belief in grace when something else struck me. I not only live as if Karma is true but I am an evangelist for what I call Reverse Karma.

Karma is believing we are getting repaid for all the good and bad we do. If we are good, we are repaid with good. If we are unkind, we are repaid in kind. Reverse Karma is different. It is the belief that something bad has happened to me so I have the right and need to be unkind to others.

I not only get in my head that if I wreck my car, it is because I was unkind but I also instinctively will be unkind with others when I wreck my car. When tragedy strikes, I will inevitably ask God why he would do such a thing and then proceed to thumb through the rolodex of my past and search for a reason why this tragedy has befallen me.

You probably do it too.

And then with the repeat of a loaded firearm I take aim and in response to the tragedy I recoil and retract with unkindness. My weapons are demanding and impatient, keeping a record of wrongs in a mental excel spreadsheet.

You probably do it too.

So here it is. I…we forget, ignore and betray the grace given in the cross and think God is always repaying us for our sins. Sins, which by the way, we cannot even imagine the number of. And then we turn around and in response to the payback, we dole out unkindness to others in word and deed. I get sick and wonder what I did to deserve it. My frustration over it all leads me to be frustrated with others.

The only thing which will cut all this off at the knees is buying into the reality of grace. Buying into a reality which is harder to see – that we are loved beyond imagination and not merely the targets for divinely wrought bolts of lightning. And buying into the call of doling out this grace – reacting to grace received with grace given.

The picture? A response to difficulty believing the God of all grace is working for our good and a desire to be good to those around us in the midst of the pain and inconvenience.

A Mother’s Day Sermon…If I Had to Preach One.

(I wrote the following post a year ago on another blog. I thought I was going to be preaching on Mother’s Day last year. But after worrying about what I would preach on, I found out I was not. This post is the result of the worry.)
The Mother’s Day Sermon. Oh how I have hated thee!
Usually one of three types of sermons are preached on Mother’s Day. The first is one in celebration of Mother’s. You know, “Mothers are awesome! God loves Mothers! Look at Mary!” The second is one telling Mother’s how to be better Mothers. “Be like Mary or Hannah or…” “Happy Mother’s Day…now here is how to be awesome as a mother.” The third sermon we sometimes hear on Mother’s Day is one that has nothing to do with Mothers. To be honest this is the one I usually prefer. Honor the Mothers…wait – all the women in the congregation and then preach on whatever you would have preached on if it were not Mother’s Day.
I have never had to preach on Mother’s Day. But I’ve asked the question, “What would I preach?” I would not want to preach either of the first two kinds of Mother’s Day sermons above but I would want to try and preach one of encouragement to Mothers.
So, I’ve thought about it. It should be practical. Encouragaing. And rooted in the heart of God for Mothers. And it shouldn’t be the vacuum-cleaner-as-a-gift kind of sermon. This is not a time for bitter medicine. So, after thinking, the following is what I came up with:
Romans 8:1
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Thesis: Mother’s, if you are in Christ Jesus, you ought to have no fear of condemnation because of your standing of righteousness because of Christ’s work on your behalf on the cross.
Mothers, even though you may feel you are…

You are not condemned by your messy home.

You are not condemned by your lack of desire to homeschool.

You are not condemned by your personal sins.

You are not condemned by the knowledge of how easy it is for you to love one child more than another.

You are not condemned by your miscarriages.

You are not condemned by your lack of desire to have more kids.

You are not condemned – even though you feel it – when you read over and over about other’s perfect parenting moments on facebook.

You are not condemned by your inability to cook.

You are not condemned because your kids are not ‘normal’.

You are not condemned because you are divorced.

You are not condemned by your desire to be alone, away from the kids, for a time every. single. day.

You are not condemned by your body, which may not be what it once was.

You are not condemned by your repeated failures as a mother.

You are not condemned by your rebellious children.

You are not condemned by the frustration of having to scrape mac and cheese off the kitchen floor. Again.

You are not condemned by all the fears and tears which flirt with insanity and take you to the precipice of despair.

You are not condemned by not being able to throw the birthday party of the year for your kids.

You are not condemned for not feeding your kids meals that did not come from Whole Foods.

You are not condemned by your need for a vacation. Away from the kids.

You are not condemned for not living up to the standards of your Mother or Mother-in-law.

You are not condemned by the stares of those who have no kids when yours erupt into volcanic screams in public places.

Mother’s, even though you may feel condemned, if you are in Christ, you are not condemned. This is the real reality.

You are not condemned, because if you are in Christ, your identity…your righteousness is Christ alone. Therefore, enjoy the unending love and affection and acceptance of being a daughter perfectly loved with an unwavering love that flows from your Father in Heaven.
And to all those who are not mothers…
Do nothing as Pastors, Husbands, Sons, Daughters, Mothers, Fathers, Mother-in-Laws, Father-in-Laws, friends, acquaintances and advice givers to diminish this reality. Nothing.

Random Thoughts

1. My son displays some serious action moves while playing Lego Star Wars.

2. Removing the word ‘Dude’ from my vocabulary has been hard. Hard but necessary.

3. I would like to coin a new gospel-hyphenated term – Gospel-breakfast-meat. Feel free to use it often.

4. Even if I celebrated Lent, I wouldn’t tell you.

5. Piling on.

6. Saw the King’s Speech. It hit a little close to home.

7. Yes, if it turns out that Rob Bell’s new book trumpets Universalism, I will be disappointed that Eugene Peterson endorsed it.

8. The reading of this blog is completely voluntary and never compulsory. You will feel compelled by the wonder herein, but you do have a choice…though it will not feel like it.

9. Started reading Keller’s King’s Cross. And I realized something. Some books are so great, you have to keep reading or you cannot function. Some you have to stop after every few pages. This one is more like the latter. I planned to start and finish it on Saturday but now I plan to use it devotionally.

10. I wonder if anyone ever said to David, “Hey dude, your Psalms are sounding a little cynical as of late.”

Thoughts At Christmas For the Rest of the Year: Part 2, "The Impossible"

Part 1, “The Waiting”

Stories have a way of telling us things we could not have heard any other way. Eugene Peterson calls it “telling it slant” (using Emily Dickinson’s words). We are not always happy to see things about ourselves when told outright. But stories reveal our heart’s motives – sometimes through the heroes and often times through the villainous. They show us the sins we hold dear. And stories can reveal the virtues we lack. Reading the story of Mary, the soon-to-be-mother of Jesus, did this to me.

I started running recently. A few months ago – all to lose weight and get in shape. When I started I was not happy to be doing so with the wrong gear. For one, my shoes are at least six years old, I bought them from the LL Bean “clearance store” back in 2004 and have been cutting grass in them for a number of years. Also, I really wanted one of those cool Under Armour shirts. In Blue. It felt impossible that I could get to my initial goal of losing twenty pounds and running 5K with such pitiful gear.

But I did.

Twenty-five pounds lost later and now able to run more than 5K and thinking about a half marathon this Spring, I now laugh at my thoughts of what was possible. I looked at my circumstances and my problems and thought, “impossible.”

Mary started out thinking the same thing. I mean, it was a good question, “I know you are saying all these great things about what my son will be and do, but there is one little problem… ummmm, how do I put this lightly? (Whispers) I’m a virgin. Sooooo, how could this be possible?” But God, not put off by such circumstances and problems answers through Gabriel, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

When you look at Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ real close, you start thinking God is doing some incredible stuff through what looks like an impossible situation. Through the scandal of a pregnant unmarried teenager, “all the nations will be blessed.” Through an event sure to draw judgment from gossipers “he provides mercy from generation to generation.” Through a backwoods town, Nazareth, “he shows strength with his arm.” Through the poverty of Galilean peasants “he scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Through a baby “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Through a child who depends on his mother’s milk “he has filled the hungry with good things.” Through a virgin he will make a baby and fulfill the promises he made to his people.

It’s pretty incredible. But we don’t really believe he can do this kind of thing. Most of the time. Most of the time we think everything must be just right in our lives and and in our churches. Belief is not enough to change us as individuals and the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is not enough for our churches.

Our spiritual lives need super-spiritual crazy experiences and our churches need audio and visual excellence. We think we need lots of extra stuff, you know, to help out the Sovereign God of the Universe. Who created everything. Out of nothing. We think we need something else and we need to remove everything that looks like a problem – for God to work. We think we need the best preaching and the nicest worship space. We think we need new songs or old songs. And lots of resources.

God began the most significant act in history through what looked like an impossible situation and we think we need more gear.

We are not like Mary, at least the Mary after the Angel reminded her what God was capable of. Maybe we need a reminder. You know, God has been doing this for awhile. A huge family making up a nation from two really old lovebirds. Armies defeated by lamps and jars. Marching around a wall and taking out a city. Five smooth stones. More clay jars.

And it did not stop with Mary. The Disciples had to have thought, ‘impossible’ while Jesus’ limp and bloodied body hung with shame upon a Roman cross. The circumstances were bleak. The problem stood before them in painful stark relief. Their hopes – dashed against a rock that looked like a dead man’s skull. And yet through this, far more was accomplished than they could have ever imagined during the three years while they were dreaming of him vanquishing the foes of God’s people.

Through what looked impossible the One, Who, by the way, makes all things possible, did the unimaginable. He rescued not only those who had followed him. But all who had rebelled against him and looked to him for salvation. And even now those who look at their own black hearts and think ‘impossible’ can be rescued when they with Mary believe, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Practice Your Unrighteousness on Facebook and Twitter

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” 
– Matthew 6:1

I am certain I’ve done it before. But when I saw someone on Twitter a couple of days ago, say how they would be spending the day in prayer, I was reminded of why I don’t like looking at my Twitter feed. And I was reminded of the temptation to show off how awesome we are as Christians.

But here’s an idea:

Maybe we should stop practicing our righteous on social media and start practicing our unrighteousness there. You know, start telling people how much we need the righteousness of Christ credited to us instead of telling people how much time we spent in prayer for the hurting throughout the world. Maybe we should start telling the world how much we struggle with unrighteousness instead of only telling them about how passionate we are about holiness, leading them to believe our lives are as pure as the wind-driven snow.

What if some Mom started a revolution of telling other moms how much she fails her kids and in longing to be better she leans on the merciful arm of the living God? What if she did this instead of trying to impress everyone with the beauty of her kids through doctored pictures and expensive portraits?

What if fathers confessed their inability to lead well in the home instead of acting like all is well by telling the world about the wonderful times of family worship meant to conjure up enviable Rockwellian moments?

What if we kicked self-righteousness in the teeth and in the interest of encouragement, found ourselves more willing to admit our struggles with righteousness than making sure people see our perceived righteousness?

What if?

I’m Thinking About Dying

I’m thinking about dying.

Not suicide. I like living. And that is why I’m thinking about dying. I guess it happens to everyone around my age. I’m 38, which isn’t old but I do turn 39 this year. And that feels old. Actually the only thing I really don’t like about getting older is the dying part. And diapers, which I actually fear more than death, itself.

Getting older has many advantages. The distance between now and High School is ever growing and for that I am thankful. Wisdom does come with age. And you have money. People call you ‘sir.’

But dying is the hard part.

When I was a youth pastor, I was into dying. You know, making kids feel bad because there are martyrs in China and “all you want to do is drink beer and play ball.” I probably said that. So we talked about death a lot. Dying to self. Dying to sin. Dying one day soon…”sooner than you know.” I probably said that too. All these are important subjects but I was obsessed with the idea. And I admit it was because it got their attention.

Driver’s Ed was the coolest non-class I ever took. Not sure why, but there were two teachers and I guess they gave us grades but I remember mostly sitting in the classroom teacherless and some guy flicking pennies at me. This hurt but I preferred this treatment over a real class with work. And a teacher. I do remember driving around in an American me-maw car with a brake in the passenger floorboard and then going through drive-thrus of fast food places on Roebuck Parkway. I liked fast food.

The creepiest part about the ‘class’ was the pictures shown to us of mangled teenagers in mangled cars. Polaroids. Slides. Flannelgraph. Blood was the common theme. The point was to scare us into driving slower and more careful and without alcohol. But the teachers seemed to love this part of the class the most. I remember boredom on the part of the instructors being the consistent tone. But when they brought out these pictures the room was electrified…like driver’s ed porn.  Maybe it would have scared kids from the suburbs in the ’80s but all my friends were watching Faces and Death by this time. Most of the guys were not grossed out or freaked out in the least. They were entertained.

I was the ministry equivalent of the driver’s ed teacher in High School.

So I used videos and stories from books about martyrs who put the paltry faith of my hormonal teens to shame. It worked sometimes. I kept their attention. They were even entertained a little.

But back to me. I know Paul says dying is gain and all but something inside me tells me that I should not be in a hurry for it. I like it here. When I wake up in the morning and my wife is beside me…well, that’s what I want to happen everyday. Death is the end of that. I know we have the promise of something greater. But, I’m mot sure I am supposed to want it more than waking up next to Bethany.

For many, I have just finally proved to be a carnal person. But, I mean, if we are supposed to just want to go to heaven above all things, how come we eat? Wouldn’t it just be OK to stop feeding our bodies and then eventually die? I know it sounds painful but we are also supposed to move toward suffering too, right?

I think that cover on the spare tire of my teenage next door neighbor’s jeep is right. Life is good. And Death is not good. No one celebrates cancer and heart attacks and strokes and fatal car wrecks (well, my driver’s ed teacher really liked showing us those pictures). We may be glad someone has gone on to be with God. That’s certainly pretty great. But death? It’s a reminder of how bad things really are.

Death should revolt me, and not only because I don’t like the idea of someone else marrying my wife if I die sometime soon. If my neighbor’s tire is right and life is good, then death is a problem.  It ends marriages, friendships, puts holes in communities. It creates fatherless children and mothers with holes in their hearts the size of a toddler bed.

So my thoughts about dying are not the romanticized notions they once were. There is a lot to leave behind. Sure, I know God is greater than life. And I know the promise of the gospel is that death has been conquered. But he gave us life and he placed me where I am for a reason. He’s smart that way. Guilt should not be the result of being in no hurry to go. We all have those folks in our life who can utter, “I’m ready to die and be in heaven.” And they mean it. I always feel guilty on the inside because lunch is coming and I like lunch. But I nod on the outside and I make that sound all Baptists learn at an early age to show we agree with something really spiritual and profound. You know, the sound you made a few paragraphs back.

So there’s a tension. We should live while we are here. Be present and faithful where we are. All the time recognizing that Death is not the way things were meant to be. But also realizing that death has no more sting. It is now because of Another’s death, death is the next great adventure. Either Dumbledore or Gandalf said that. I can’t keep the two apart.

Novels are for Pastors

My parents did not always buy me the toys I wanted. Dad was a pastor and we never had tons of money, though I never really knew it. But they did buy me books. I went through a period where I was going through Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books like most kids go through video games. I have this one memory of my parents driving me around to various little local bookstores to find one I had not read. This is a precious memory to me because we were on the way to their friend's house and I wanted...needed something to do while the adults talked. I had no siblings near my age. Books like these were my friends. I would pore over them again and again and again. The stories still stand dust-covered in the shadows of days long gone.

Things have not changed much. I still read novels; many of them over and over, year after year. I have added a memoir or two and I always read stories new to me. These stories have become familiar friends, very familiar, for many have been read more than a dozen times. The stories are never knew but it does not matter, I read them anyway, expecting something new. Never disappointed, though the story never changes, I see glimmers unfamiliar, each time.
But there was a time I had an uneasy relationship with novels. I did not stop reading them, but I started feeling guilty about it. Not the kind of guilt which leaves you up at night. But the kind of guilt which keeps you from talking about what you are reading with others. We pastors (and really spiritual people) are supposed to read “spiritual books” you know…not fiction.
Like I said, the relationship was ‘uneasy.’ Mainly because I was listening to some voices which made me think, as a pastor, I had neither the time nor the freedom to enjoy fiction on a regular basis. The responsibility was too great. The urgency was too real. Hell is burning. And you want to read Dumas? But then I would enjoy the warm comfort of a paragraph written by Austen or O’Connor’s ragged Southern wit. The joy of Dillard’s The Maytrees is without equal. And I am always in the mood for a murder of Agatha Christie’s making. Needless to say, the guilt lost out to the beauty and the profound weight of all I had learned about life and writing from so much fiction. Stories have been good to me since my earliest days, where memories run slow and shallow.
But I want to go out on a limb and suggest novels are ‘good.’ They are not just OK. They are good and not just as sermon illustration fodder. They are stories. And stories I assume are good things. We know this because the Bible is a story. Though it has instructions, it is not an instruction book. It is not a “game plan” for your life. It is not a mere roadmap. It is nothing if not a story, the story of what God is doing. Has done. Will do.
And Jesus told stories. Yes, they are parables. But they are wonderful stories nonetheless – full of life and wonder and excitement and reality and fiction and tears and blood and heaven and hell and violence and passion and sin and beauty. All are works of fiction meant to arrest the listener and now the reader.
The Gospel is a story. And we are justified by faith in this story. We have lost sight of the fact that the facts and truths we espouse as believers are of the kind which belong to a story. It isn’t fiction, mind you. But is has more in common with fiction than a religion of lists and propositions alone.
And every life is a story. The rich and poor alike are stories lived, whether told or untold. And if told would be worthy reads. James Joyce taught us this. No one is an abstraction. Our social security numbers and long lines at airports try to convince us differently. But we, ourselves are the stuff of epic tales…every moment worthy of a memoir.
Novels, though fiction, when they ring true, are full of truth. The kind of truth which makes us sit up in bed, underline sentences and read them to your spouse out loud. The label ‘fiction’ only plays at the edges of what it often is.
All of the above begins to give us a glimpse into the help novels and stories can afford pastors (and those who are more spiritual than everyone else). But also, novels can help pastors in the way they write and teach. Most theology books are not distinguished because of how well they are written. No, they are set apart from books on matters doctrinal because of their ability to impart the themes they have set out to communicate. Novels are often set apart (not always) because they have been written well. The novels usually distinguished are those which have the feel of craft.
We, pastors as a vocational set, could use a little instruction in craft. We could use some informal training in how to craft sentences worth remembering and the subtle wielding of words. Our ability to communicate the truths we love and are convinced of, can…will be strengthened by reading fictional stories.
We are not mere information producers for consumers of religious goods and services. We are story-tellers. We tell our story. We tell the old, old story – the story which gives all other stories depth and significance. We are not solely educators instructing students from whom we expect regurgitation of information. We are in the line of those who crafted those 4 marvelous edifices of Gospel. No one who has looked into the well of the original languages can walk away without seeing they did not just write out information they remembered. They crafted. Our sermons, letters, emails, lectures and for God’s sake, our blog posts could stand some more craft in them.
This is not to say all fiction is created equal. But if I have any ability to write, I owe much to Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. If I can turn a phrase at all I credit Tolkein and Annie Dillard. Certainly some fiction may be not so helpful as others. But this is no reason to not pick up a novel and read some fiction.
Someone will read this and suggest I am telling pastors they should put down their theology texts and pick up Twilight. Let me say with a resounding voice, “Maybe.” Certainly I am saying, we should see novelists and storytellers as gifts from God, who can add much to our ministry. At the least I am pleading for a desire to create a pastoral environment where works of fiction are not relegated to the sidelines of afterthought and leftover pieces of time but are seen as fresh help as we must craft messages of hope and grace.