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Pentecost Musings: Learning My Limits

We see them all the time. They are everyone in town and easily visible when driving on streets and highways. I’m talking about speed limit signs.

Yes, I know these symbols that appear on the side of the road are often interpreted as “suggestions.” We don’t often press to drive exactly the MPH that appears in black and white, but if we drive too far over that number we’ll see another “black and white” with sirens appearing behind us.

Sometimes bridges have limits too. I’ve seen these warning signs posted for drivers to see before passing over it. Many bridges are constructed to withstand a certain amount of weight. Any thing over that can result in tragedy.

People have limits too, it’s just that we don’t often go through life with that in mind. One of my favorite Clint Eastwood quotes from his Dirty Harry character is “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Being in the ministry is tough. One of the more difficult aspects of this kind of work is realizing what your limitations are and then living within them. It doesn’t have to do with how much faith you have but rather an awareness that human beings only have a certain stress level threshold before things get ugly. Each person responds differently to stress, and some of us are better at it than others. However, the ugly little secret in the ministry is that pastors and others in vocational service can get so discouraged that depression can set in. Even worse are the discoveries that seemingly healthy people have taken their own lives because of the pent up frustration and despair.

Another tough part is that no matter what you do there will be disappointment. You will disappoint some people because of what you do, others because of what you do not do, and still others who aim a continual beam of disappointment in your direction. The latter situation isn’t due to you necessarily, but rather an inability to control circumstances in their own lives. They have to control something, and since it can’t be their own circumstances, they will seek to find fault in what you are doing. And, for pastors like myself, it can be terribly frustrating and painful to realize that others around them. There is something within that wants to “fix” what is wrong.

Of course, that doesn’t always work. I acknowledge my own shortcomings and hope that they don’t cause problems with others. Regardless, living with disappointment is difficult but hopefully for a finite period of time.

In a recent blog entry, “Looking for God in Our Limits,” Peter Scazzero said: Limits are one of the most counterintuitive, difficult truths in Scripture to embrace. They fly in the face of our natural tendency to want to play god and run the world. Yet it remains a steady truth that we return to, over and over, in our role as leaders under Jesus.Yet God reveals himself to us, and to the world, through limits in unique and powerful ways—if we have eyes to see.

Like some of you, I follow trends in ministry and Christianity in general. There’s already been a lot written about the latest Pew Forum research findings about the demise of the church. CNN printed an article about it entitled, “Millennials are Leaving the Church in Droves.” I didn’t find anything particularly new, other than a reminder that the church needs to do a better job at communicating the faith to the next generation.

I’m preparing a sermon for Pentecost Sunday from Acts 2. I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the crowd to the disciples upon the arrival of the Holy Spirit: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is that each of us hears them in our own native language?”

I am trying to get a better handle on the problem the church is having, namely that of speaking to our culture and this generation in a language that is understood. Millennials (not to overuse that demographic) need to be addressed in a language with the gospel that is relevant and practical. The institutional church has struggled with this reality, and I am slowly and reluctantly coming to the realization that the church is choosing to respond with this mantra: We don’t care.

That’s a tough thing to say, and I hope I am wrong.

Darrell Guder put it this way, “For many people in North America, the church is a place for individuals to go passively to receive goods and services.” I translate that to mean that many of us are accustomed to “having our needs met” and if we don’t, then we leave for another place (church).

One of the other tough parts of ministry is taking time with people in their darkness and pain, and then having those people tell you that they are leaving because their needs aren’t being filled. In a similar manner, there are people who come into the fellowship for the same reason. I am finding it ironic that in some cases, people leave and come in for the same reason. It’s just that there are different reactions to the same situation.

At times, I don’t have a grip on my emotions like I need to, and this might be one of them. There are so many good things to accentuate about life as a community of faith, but some things bother me more than they probably should. Maybe that’s a sign of caring about people and what’s going on. However, I am grateful to Scazzero’s email a few days ago to remind me that I can only control certain things, and how people react isn’t one of them. There’s always something for someone to be upset about, and if I seek to control what I can’t I will lose a grip on my own emotional health. I also live with the awareness that if enough folks in the constituency agree that I’m not getting it done, it could mean I’m “out” in terms of church ministry. This has happened to many good people in the past and can happen again (cudos to MTM for their ministry).

The Holy Spirit came upon those disciples with power and in a such a way that their witness changed the world. My desire is that the same power will help me to live boldly. I ask that the Lord and His people will forgive my failures and allow me to live with my shortcomings. And, on this Pentecost Sunday, my prayer will be that I have trust in God with no limits while acknowledging my own weaknesses (limits) and trust Him with the rest.

Kingdom Business is better than Church Business

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnanimous votes hardly ever happen in a Baptist church. I have had people tell me that they voted “no” just to make sure that the ballot count was authentic and that every vote mattered. That’s part of it I suppose. That’s what made last Wednesday night so unique, in that our church had two 100% votes which related to the launch of a five year Preparing for the Future capital campaign, and the continued relationship with the Chin Community Church. UHBC is sharing its chapel space with this congregation.

Showing hospitality in this way is not without its complications, especially when there are cultural and language barriers to navigate. But, it is a wonderful gesture of Kingdom business to open doors to those who can utilize space for worship, fellowship, and spiritual formation. Sometimes churches can become territorial with their space. That temptation and danger exists among our people too, which is why we must continue to pray and be reminded of our purpose on a regular basis.

I have to admit, I am not a fan of church work. I am not the only pastor who feels that way. Many pastors get into this line of work in order to care for souls rather than run a church. I know that’s why I did. It’s difficult to explain that distinction to the people at times, but it is important to note the difference. Kingdom business is not always church business. That is a sad but realistic commentary on life in many American congregations.

It drains my soul to count the “nickels and noses” on Mondays. But, every now and then, something happens to renew my spirit and encourage me as pastor. That happened about a week ago when I got to baptize Savannah. Baptisms are among my favorite things to do, and I suppose the reason for that is it’s consistent with life in the Kingdom of God. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having people “transfer their membership” too. But, there’s nothing like being part of a new believer’s baptism experience. I cherish those moments, and refer to them often to keep me encouraged.

I read recently about a prominent pastor who resigned because of ongoing issues with declining church membership and revenues. This was particularly painful because of the public nature of the situation. But, this isn’t the first time something like this happens in a local church. It won’t be the last, either. These difficulties play out each and every week on a much less noticeable basis all across our country. Sadly, it’s not an unusual development or problem. Pastors are under a great deal of stress and are dealing with factors that are often not of their doing. We can get blamed for things that aren’t our fault, and occasionally get credit for things that we had little to do with as well. It’s frustrating for the pastors and their congregations.

When this starts to happen, then the shift away from Kingdom business is not far away. The “business” of church takes over. It can be a subtle sensation that comes in the form of thinking of what to do to “keep the doors open” rather than how to “get out of the doors” into the community. That pressure is real and surfaces in business meetings and parking lot conversations. However, I have read through the New Testament and have not been able to locate a passage of Scripture which indicates that self-preservation should be the priority of the body of Christ. There’s also nothing to indicate that a particular local church is supposed to exist forever. Local churches have their functions and if they true to their mission, then the Lord can be trusted to take care of the rest. That’s an interesting and sobering perspective: not every church is supposed to remain viable forever. I won’t say that a church can’t “exist” indefinitely, because some do as long as the money or endowment is there. But, existing as a church is not the same thing as engaging its community with the gospel.

Kingdom business is risky. Despite all the challenges that come with ministry in America, our “first world” problems are not worthy to be compared to the real dangers that churches in other countries face on a regular basis. Martyrdom is a real possibility for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we ought to remember that the next time we’re prone to complain about how many people showed up for an hour on Sunday morning. This numerical basis isn’t always the best way to measure effectiveness in the Kingdom. When Jesus was delivering the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t say “Look at what a big crowd we have today!”

It’s a privilege to be part of the Kingdom. It isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. It’s vital to stay focused and allow Jesus’ admonition to “seek first the Kingdom of God” to take hold of our hearts and minds. Church work can be tiring and discouraging. Ask any pastor, though, and s/he will tell you that baptizing new converts never gets old. It is the one thing that can make all the ‘church business” more bearable. That’s because it’s the one thing for sure that is Kingdom business. And, Kingdom business is more fun that church business any day.

Sabbaticals are Gifts of Grace

Several of my friends in our church have been encouraging me to take a sabbatical.

Fortunately, they are on the personnel committee. And, even better, there is a stipulation in the personnel manual which allows for such an experience for the senior pastor. We don’t have to sell the idea to the church.

I have been postponing the idea of taking a sabbatical, mainly because I have had difficulty getting my mind around the idea of leaving the church for two months. It’s hard enough to leave for a week, not because I don’t enjoy my time off, but as with other jobs, it takes a while to “dig out” of the stuff that accumulates over time. There’s also the possibility of folks dying, getting sick, and other things happening in the church family which might require my attention. There’s also the possibility that some people might not understand their pastor “not being there” during those moments too. The phone can ring anytime, and well, that has the capability of changing my plans in a heartbeat.

I warmed up to the idea of sabbatical after having four funerals in two weeks. Our church is at that age when we are burying some of our long time, faithful members. Churches go through grieving stages as well, especially when they are looking at the prospect of their own mortality and saying farewell to people who have sat beside them in the pews and have had shared life experiences. It’s been a tiring process, and along with everything else that challenges a pastor with administrative tasks and pastoral care, the rationale for a sabbatical is more readily understood.

I believe ministerial burnout is real, and pastors are especially at risk. Some pastors who might not resign have thought it about seriously, and not just the proverbial feeling on a Monday morning. Here is a good article by Peter Chin which explains some of the pressures that come upon a pastor. The title “How to Destroy Your Pastor” is accurate enough for those who have taken it upon themselves to “keep their pastor humble.” While reading Chin’s account of being in the house of an irate church member, I could relate to how tough it can be to be honest with people. Chin was attempting to resolve a problem with a member and wasn’t getting anywhere in that effort. Chin’ reminds pastors and congregations of how things in the church can get toxic when small groups can deteriorate into gripe sessions. I’ve heard about the “gang of two or three” from my Ministering to Ministers friends. It’s a real threat if not handled by others in the congregation.

I’ve used a quote from a book by John Killinger entitled “Seven things they don’t teach you in seminary.” One of the chapters is called “There is a meanness in some people that is simply Incredible.”  It’s hard to explain that to someone who thinks that churches are utopian environments. They are not. But, they can be places for people who understand their own brokenness and sinfulness to gather for the purpose of extending grace to each other.

When a church plans for sabbatical leave for its pastor, that is one of the most gracious things they can do. I am grateful for our congregation for their wisdom and willingness to provide this feature for their pastor. Prolonged stress, conflict, along with the privileges and burdens of leadership can lead someone to say and do things she wouldn’t ordinarily so. And, over a period of time compassion fatigue can set in. It is encouraging to know that there this condition is not unique to this pastor. It is even more encouraging to know that our church recognizes this reality and cares about the spiritual and personal well-being of its pastor. I applaud churches who provide this benefit as a way of encouraging longer tenured ministries.

The other point I would make about sabbaticals is that I believe they can be useful to the congregation as well. Hearing other voices for a period of time can be beneficial. It can provide opportunities for others on staff to step up and be appreciated for their leadership roles in the church. It might offer a season of prayer and renewal for the congregation as they seek the Lord’s direction for themselves and their pastor.

I was glad to hear that the CBF is making such an emphasis at the General Assembly this year. My prayer is that that idea will permeate all of our congregations, and that those who don’t offer sabbaticals will imitate the actions of those who do.

Religious Freedom and Kenyan Christians

These last several weeks we’ve had a lot of news related to religious freedom. Indiana and Arkansas are among the states most recently to sign into law protections for religious freedom. They are attempting to strike a balance between people who have strong opinions about and against LGBT persons while protecting the rights of LGBT persons. The public relations efforts have been remarkable. No one wants to be seen as discriminatory, and one of the arguments now being used in that of religious freedom.

One of the better explanations of the issue came from the Baptist Joint Committee. Here is Brent Walker’s approach to the matter. He argues for better conversation and more consideration when seeking to affirm religious liberty while avoiding discrimination. Ultimately, this comes down to how we treat each other as individuals. I appreciate Walker’s reaction to RFLA and especially these words:

“We need to tone down our hyperbolic rhetoric and understand that our supposed “enemies” are really our neighbors and fellow citizens. For our conservative Christian friends, try loving your LGBT neighbors unconditionally and understand that providing them goods and services in the marketplace is an act of Christian hospitality, not an indication of approval of their nuptial decisions. To our LGBT friends, try extending grace to others who have religiously informed objections to same-sex marriage and not ask them, in their eyes, to participate in your marital ceremony. Give that privilege to businesses who will celebrate your marriage along with you.”

Baptists have always been a champion for religious liberty. This is one of our historic values and we have John Leland and a few others of our Baptist forefathers for that being included in the Constitution.

My emotions have been stirred upon hearing of the tragic deaths in Kenya at Garissa University College. It is located approximately 90 miles from Somalia. Militants charged the gates of the school at killed 157 people. The death toll is still rising. The killings began with a Christian prayer service. The militants went throughout the school, separating Muslims and non-Muslims, and brutally executing the latter group. Essentially, if you were a Christian who happened to be there at that terribly unfortunate time, you would be killed.

I’m getting ready to preach for Easter Sunday. It will be about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how that eternal truth makes a difference for us in the here and now. While it’s a great privilege to bring this good news, it is also a great challenge to present news which transformed the direction of human history. History rotates on the axis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Either you believe it or you don’t. My hope is that our church family will once again be stirred by the news that “Christ is risen” and they will respond “Christ is risen indeed!”

I won’t have to worry about terrorists keeping me from attending worship on Sunday morning. It won’t be in the back of my mind that I might be killed for telling people about Jesus from the pulpit. The same holds true when I talk about the Lord on the street corner, on the campus, or at other places I might go. Living in this country offers a great privilege to worship and express my faith in any number of ways.

Christians have been persecuted and even killed for the faith throughout the centuries. The adage “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” still holds up. Even now I marvel at how Christ can instill boldness and peace in people to the point that they would not deny him even when it meant their deaths. How few times we American Christians are called upon to make that kind of sacrifice?

While recognizing the political and religious issues relating to recent local and national events, I cannot bring them to the same level as those Kenyan students who were killed simply because they were Christians. They were praying, minding their own business, and that turned out to the be last act of service to the Lord they performed. These students were executed because of Jesus. Their act of sacrifice in the midst of what must have been sheer terror should be shared among us who claim the name of Christ.

May God help us to realize how much we’ve been given and to keep things in perspective. Life goes on here in America, and this Easter is a time to embrace the words of the angel at the empty tomb, “He is risen, just as He said!” The resurrection is a validation of everything Jesus did and said while he was living with us. My hope is that more of us Christians would take time to re-discover all the things that Jesus said and find ways to implement them as a way of life.

Schweich’s Suicide another Sad Story

Tom Schweich committed suicide. He was 54 years old.

He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at this home. Schweich had been elected to a second term as state auditor and was positioning himself for the GOP gubernnatorial nomination.

Former U.S. Senator John Danforth and now Episcopal priest performed the eulogy. He had been a friend to Schweich and his death had particular impact upon him. Danforth reflected upon the tragedy, which was related to political and personal attacks upon Schweich as he sought higher office.

Danforth questioned whether Schweich was suited for the rough and tumble nature of politics, indicating that he “was a person easily hurt and quickly offended.”

One example resonated with Danforth, as he referred to an attack ad on Schweich: “As for the radio commercial, making fun of someone’s physical appearance, calling him ‘a little bug,’ there is one word to describe it: ‘bullying.” And there is one word to describe the person behind it: ‘bully.'”

I am fully aware of the toxic nature of our politics. It is routine to hear politicians and political action committees attack opposing candidates and office holders. We’ve become so saturated by it that it’s easy to become numb to its affect. And, in this case, I can sympathize with Danforth’s assertion that temperment should be a consideration when seeking the kind of work Schweich was in. You have to have an extremely “thick skin.” Still, it doesn’t excuse hateful and harmful speech.

Why would someone commit suicide? It’s a haunting question. I don’t understand how a prominent political figure with a wife and children would take his own life. I think it has to do with the fact that none of us can truly know what is going on in a person’s life. I felt similarly when I heard about the death of Robin Williams. I also struggle with it when I hear the cries of parents when their child takes her own life.

Suicide victims, regardless of their age, must have reached a level of hopelessness from which there seemed to be no return. Christians and Non-Christians alike can experience this.

I’ve been a pastor for 20 years, and I can tell you that vitriol and hateful speech can manifest itself in any number of situations, including the church. I’m reminded of John Killinger’s work “Seven things They Don’t Teach You in Seminary.” One chapter is entitled: “There is a Meanness in Some People that is Simply Incredible.”

I am writing this to challenge us to choose our words carefully and be mindful of the devastating impact they can have on others. I also want us to be sensitive to the struggles of others and do our best to encourage them. We may not be able to “fix” their problems, but we can offer them support. And, let’s do our best to make sure our words are consistent with the witness we profess on Sundays.

Suicide isn’t a political issue. Neither is bullying. I have three children in our public school system who are being taught that bullying is wrong and that there should be “zero tolerance” for it. I fully support that. As adults, we ought to model that behavior as well. We can’t expect our children to rise to an example that we ourselves are unwilling to set

Musings on a Snowy Ash Wednesday

Kids around Springfield, MO are thrilled. This is the THIRD snow day in a row, and remarkably for the Ozarks, these are the first “snow days” that have been used this school year. I relate to the joy of not having school for a few days, but if we go too many more we might be going into June like we had to when I first moved here eight years ago. Not fun.

We’re entering the Lenten season officially today. Ash Wednesday. And, actually the whole concept of Lent is designed to promote self-sacrifice and reflect upon our mortality (“from ashes you came and to ashes you shall return”). A lot of people decide to “give up something” for Lent. If you’re having trouble choosing, then here is a good article about suggestions coming in via Twitter.

Lent isn’t supposed to be fun. This 40 day period of reflection is supposed to get us thinking in the direction of Christ’s sacrificial death for us on the cross. Forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday for the purpose of recognizing what Christ has done for us.

I’m grateful our church is open to this aspect of spiritual formation. We haven’t done the ashes on the forehead practice, but we are mindful about this season of the Christian year. Of course, today with school being out, we’re not doing anything church related this evening. But, it’s still Ash Wednesday but with more of a snowy feel to it. We will change the color of our Sunday bulletins, and with the first Sunday of Lent coming up, our people can expect that difference to bring attention to the season.

I’m also hoping there will be other differences to note as well. I spend a lot of time promoting different aspects of church life. This part of the year in particular, we are gearing up for a budget approval process, Nominating Committee process, and scheduling a deacon election in the near future. These are important aspects of our church’s life and essential to keeping our church active and functional. Sometimes they are not fun. However, I am also mindful of the more significant aspects of life in a community of faith and aim to keep the mood of Lent before us as much as possible. That doesn’t mean I will be gloomy but it will mean that I will lead our people to consider our dependence on Christ and our unity as the people of God.

Lent isn’t necessarily geared to be fun. No one should want to live in a “Lenten mentality” all the time. I think that’s a good clue as to the meaning of the season. Our desire should be to live in the light of Easter Sunday, and until then, we will reflect upon what life would be like without the Resurrection hope.

I don’t know what you’ll be “giving up” for Lent, if anything. But, I hope that for each day of Lent,  we can collectively embrace what sorrow and suffering mean and realize that there are people around us who experience this for far more than 40 days. Perhaps we can consider ways to alleviate their suffering. Perhaps too, the virtues of humility and penitence can emerge from our lives and give us a greater awareness of how much we truly have to be thankful for in this world.

MLK Weekend Musings

One of the most common New Year’s resolutions has to do with losing weight.

It’s a national obsession. Americans struggle with the embarrassment of having too much at our disposal and too little discipline to handle it.

Molly Marshall, our good friend and president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, talks about the need to reassess our values and sedentary lifestyle. The beginning of a new year offers a great time for that.

In her recent article, “Gaining Theological Heft,” Marshall recalls a conversation with a friend in the ministry who had been forced into early retirement because of chronic back pain. This man determined to include a daily exercise routine into his daily regimen. Marshall asked him to pray for her as she sought to do this. He responded in a less than sympathetic manner: “Only you can be the answer to this prayer.”

The answer wasn’t what she was looking for.

Marshall then commented on how life is about losing things and then adding things. She writes, “I am concerned that over the years, some of our tribe has been more focused on articulating what we are against than what we are for. Which is not enough.”

Baptists through the years have been good about proclaiming our positions against certain vices. On occasion, this has gained more prominence than our communicating what we are “for” as God’s people. I find this to be the conclusion of many college students who are starting out in their spiritual journey. They want to know what the church is “for” and are not greatly interested in making pronouncements and judgments.

There is a time and place for the latter, but I’ve become more convinced that effectiveness to our culture and world depends on a positive message which accentuates the Good News that Christ offers. We need to explain why it is good news, news that affects not only the spiritual needs but also the physical as well.

This Sunday is Martin Luther King weekend. It’s a time to think about our past as a nation and how far we have come in race relations, and far we have yet to go. It’s almost impossible to think about this man without his “I Have A Dream” speech. Many Americans are drawn to these words and dream, but it has not always been so.

During the 1960s, national magazines and television portrayed police dogs attacking black people in the South who had sought voting rights. Police officers were shown carrying bullwhips and beating black youth who wanted to sit at public lunch counters. The media proved to be a powerful catalyst in bringing these uncomfortable images from far away places into living rooms all across America. What the nation saw and felt changed attitudes on segregation.

We have made progress in dealing with discrimination and oppression, but there is still work to be done in this area. There are still those who struggle under the grip of poverty, homelessness, and hopelessness.

The challenge for us is to consider the impact each one of us can make to improve the lives of those around us. There is a time and a place for doing things “for us” and it seems like here lately that need has surfaced ytime and again (wait until you hear about the roof!). However, we need to be reminded that our mission exists in places and people outside the walls of the building. UHBC has a great capacity to impact our community, and has done so time and again. I want to see our church continue its involvement in our community, helping those who are poor, hungry, and in need of the compassionate message of hope that is found in Jesus Christ.

That’s my hope for a new year. It’s a prayer that only you and I can answer

Happy New Year 2015

Happy New Year! It’s getting close to the deadline, in terms of making resolutions, that is.

I haven’t been a fanatic about making a long list of resolutions that might not last beyond Valentine’s Day. But, I do think this is a great time to reflect and consider leaving some things in 2014 rather than taking them into a fresh new year. There are some attitudes, beliefs, and burdens that plague a lot of us, and today is a good time to decide that 2015 will be different. I genuinely want to “lay aside the weight and the sin that so easily entangles” and see what difference that can make. I hope others do too.

I’m a pastor by calling and choice, but more of the former than the latter though. I still believe in a divine ambition to serve the Lord through the local church, and appreciate especially so many others who toil in any number of difficult ministry fields. I join with many of my brothers and sisters in Christ who hope that this next year will be more productive than the one we’re leaving behind.

One thing about 2014: it’s been brutal. Hailey Owens.The suicide of Robin Williams, Malaysian planes crashing which killed more than 500 people (another one near Indonesia this week), and of course the racial unrest in Ferguson. Police officers executed in their vehicle and a general feeling of unrest and sadness. It’s been rough in this regard. On the bright, less serious side, the Royals made the World Series. And those low gas prices have been great. I would trade higher gas price for peace and goodwill, but unfortunately it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other.

I came across an enlightening article by Jonathan Davis; it is written by a millennial about millennials which come close to my thoughts about ministry and how I hope to approach a brand new year. In short, Davis is telling church leaders: “don’t try so hard.”  What he does do is ask churches to focus on these three themes: community, authenticity, and service. Davis addresses small churches in particular, but I think his premise is accurate for all churches regardless of size.

What I want to do this upcoming year is to reaffirm the importance of these aspects of ministry and find ways to implement them into our church. I don’t know what that’s going to mean in terms of attendance, giving, and other marks of church growth. But, I have come to believe that it has a lot to do with the Kingdom of God and that’s where I want to be in 2015.

Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6.33). I memorized this verse decades ago. I hope and pray the the Holy Spirit breathes new meaning into this passage so that might take root in my life and in the lives of others around me.

The Christmas Surprise

I don’t play golf. That probably makes me an oddity when it comes to pastors. But, I can nevertheless appreciate the frustration of hitting a ball that is just sitting still into places that have no resemblance to where you intended it to go. One of the key rules of golf is hitting the ball where it lies, unless of course you like to use the proverbial “foot wedge” when you don’t like where the ball landed.

I heard a story about a golf course in India that has a rather unique problem–monkey infestation. Golfers hit the ball and monkeys periodically come onto the course, pick up the ball, and throw it to just about anywhere–the rough, sandtrap, even on the green! As you can imagine, this created a lot of angst among the golfers and the trustees of the course tried to correct the situation. They even constructed barriers to keep the monkeys away, but not only did this not work, but it seemed to motivate the monkeys to bring more of their friends with them. After a lot of time, energy, and money was invested to no avail, the golf course proprietors decided to add a new rule. It is probably the one course in the world with this rule: “wherever the monkey throws the ball, play it there.”

This story reminds of Joseph, Mary’s husband. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him to have heard that his future wife was pregnant. And to realize that this baby was not his child must have devastating and the worst of all surprises. Fortunately, the beautiful nativity story has a good ending, thanks to the work of the busy angel of the Lord who told him to go ahead and take Mary as his wife.

The words of angel must have been a great surprise (and relief) to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1.20-21 NIV). Equally astonishing under those circumstances is that Joseph got up from sleep and did what the angel had instructed. There isn’t much commentary or embellishment to his actions, only a focus on his obedience.

I’ve dealt with many people who have had the monkey move the ball on them this past year. There is a young man I am thinking of who has a wonderful wife and little boy who has been diagnosed with cancer. He had his life planned out it seemed, but now the ball has been moved on him and he’s having to play it from another spot. I admire his courage and determination to do that very thing. In a very real sense, he doesn’t know what the future holds for him. He’s only trying to live one day at a time, doing his best to trust the Lord in his situation.

Christmas is all about surprises, and my hope is that we will all remain open to them. I also pray that they will all be “good” surprises because those seem to easier to handle. Still, there are those other kinds of surprises which stop us in our tracks and shock us to the point of not knowing what to do or say. I have experienced this kind of sensation before also, and am drawn to the Christmas narrative and Joseph’s reaction to his shocking news. Interestingly, there aren’t any recorded words from Joseph. We do see his obedience, however, and a recognition that even though the “ball was moved”, he would “play it where it rested.” He did so when having faith didn’t make sense when compared with the facts of the situation.

The Holy Spirit is a key player in the birth narrative, and He remains and active part in our narrative today as well. May the Lord give us courage to trust him during the times when the ball gets moved, and that we would realize the the Holy Spirit has a bigger purpose for us than what our next shot or decision might be.

Ircel Harrison’s “For Such a Time as This”: A Review

Like many pastors, I have done my share of reading books on leadership and being “on the missional journey.” There are a several choices and definitions about what this subject means and how it relates to the local church. So, I must admit I approached this latest effort from my friend Dr. ircel Harrison with modest anticipation. This has more to do with a poor mindset on my part rather than the contents of what I knew would be a fine work.

Harrison employs the title is “For Such a Time as This: Aligning Church and Leadership for Missional Ministry.” He acknowledges that there are already many books on the subject. But, he indicates that there is a great need to redeem the “traditional” church for ministry in the 21st century. In order for this be be effective, the congregation and leadership need to be in sync about what is important and how to go about “doing church.” Rather than detail the particular chapters of this book, I will do my best to point out the “takeaways” that I found to be most valuable and informative.

One of the most important takeaways from Harrison’s effort is his affirmation of the “traditional” church. It seems like many of the leadership conferences I attend only provide me with an opportunity to be discouraged. Those who are presenting the information preside over congregations that are new starts and do not have the organizational structure that exists in many traditional (dare I say ‘institutional’) churches. It is difficult and arguably a poor use of time to undo much of the organizational underpinnings of the traditional church. However, Harrison believes that these kinds of congregations (which comprise a large percentage of our churches) can be re-energized with a fresh vision and awareness that ministry is about people rather than merely maintaining the institution. He also provides help for pastors and other church leaders who find themselves in these kinds of churches, but want to move them forward in engaging their culture with the gospel. I found Harrison’s appreciation for the traditional church refreshing and on point with the reality of an aging church in a changing world.

Another takeaway related to Harrison’s emphasis on the church discovering “who it is” rather than “what it does.” In other words, the church should function from a concept of “being” rather than “doing.” Harrison is optimistic that the local (traditional) church can be an effective influence in a post-modern world. Harrison says, “I believe that the adoption and practice of a missional ecclesiology can have a greater impact on Christian witness than the ’emerging’ or ’emergent’ church movement” (33). He appreciates the lessons that can be learning from the emergent movement as it has helped the church understand a changing social and theological constructs. However, Harrison maintains it is also imperative for the church to re-discover “who we are and what we are about” (33). Rather than jettison our theological and biblical pedigree, the church needs to embrace the truth that it not only has a mission, but is the mission of God in the world. Harrison rightly points out this powerful truth.

A third takeaway is that Harrison draws from several authors in the field of leadership and church life to provide support and clarity for his views. The bibliographical material alone will make For Such a Time as This worth reading. I was familiar wita few of these individuals already, but Harrison uses them to provide organizational structure for his chapters. Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Reggie McNeal, and Curtiss Paul DeYoung are among those in the church leadership field whom Harrison references. By doing so, Harrison directs the reader to do additional research and seek out those whom have been writing on this subject for some time. Drucker and Collins are not “church” authors necessarily, but their insights have use for the local church. Harrison does well to incorporate them into his presentation.

Harrison’s perspective on leadership provided another helpful takeaway. He believes that leadership must have spiritual and relationship components in order to be relevant (66). There are several applications to this axiom, but the primary one is that a team of leaders may be very talented yet ineffective because they are not “on the same page.” I believe this to be at the heart of where many churches go astray. Some congregations have ample leadership in place but cannot agree on one direction to pursue. Harrison brings in the concept of “alignment” as essential for churches to on mission for God. It is possible to have multiple agendas on a church staff or among lay leadership, and attempting to satisfy these individual desires is an exercise in futility and frustration. Harrison offers a solution to this problem. He states that effective teams must have “mutual commitment to specific values and principles. Team members must have a core around which they can grow, encourage one another, and serve their church and organization” (82). The answer to the problem of “being on the same page” is to have only page to be for the pastor and church leadership.

The last takeaway relates Harrison’s providing questions at the end of each chapter. These questions provide a format for further reflection and are ideal for small groups and church leadership. Harrison raises the important questions for those who serve and love the local (traditional) church. There are those, like myself, who want to be authentic with the people within the church while being effective in reaching those who are not connected to the body of Christ. These questions allow readers to do some introspection and evaluation of their approaches to life, leadership, and ministry within the church.

I highly recommend this work, if for no other reason than Harrison’s appreciation and affection for the traditional church. He affirms those who serve in this context while challenging pastors and laypeople to recognize the tremendous opportunity that exists for sharing the gospel. I think that there is a great deal of similarity between the 21st century church and the 1st century church. Harrison reminds us of that this is the only context we have to live in, and it’s vital that churches “start where we are” in order to make a difference for Christ.

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