Thursday, January 27, 2011

Feelin' Good

What could possibly be any better than a "thumbs up" from Jesus?

It's gonna be a good day.

When a Church Doesn't Want You

Finding a new church home is never easy – especially when you’re new to the area.

Sherry was a single mom with two young kids when she moved to California from the Mid-west. One of the first things she set out to do was find a good church home, so she began her search.

The young mom was quick to filter out the churches that wouldn’t fit with her needs. The kids were her top priority, so she wanted a place where she knew they’d be safe and blessed. She was looking for a church that wasn’t so small that she’d feel smothered, and yet not so large that she’d get lost in the crowd.

Week after week she visited the myriad of faith families in the city she now called home, and it didn’t take long for her to find the church to which she wanted to commit. Her kids loved their new Sunday school teachers and were quickly making friends and connections.

Sherry enrolled in the membership classes, which only served to reinforce the fact that she was indeed in the right place.

When the education was over, Sherry happily joined with the other graduates and prepared to become an official member of her new church. She and the kids had been regular attendees for six or more months and they were settling into their new life in California.

The final step in becoming a church member was meeting personally with the pastor, presumably so he could welcome the parishioners to the family. That’s when it all fell apart.

The pastor of the church Sherry now considered her home sat across the desk from her in his large office. “Sherry”, he said, “you are a single mom with two kids and I don’t think you fit our member profile. Thank you for your interest, but we won’t be making you a member.”

Why? Sherry may never know for sure, since she walked out of that man’s office and never returned to the church. Was it because divorce made her and her family somehow unseemly? Was it because she couldn’t contribute financially as substantially as some of the other parishioners?

It is only by the grace of God that Sherry still believes in assembling together with other believers and attends any church at all. Her kids are now teens, and like many of us, she’s seen her share of piety and hypocrisy in the church. My friend Sherry keeps her eyes on the Lord.

Look around. Are there new people sitting in the pew next to you? Welcome them, talk to them and listen to them—listen well. Get off the pew!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Direction?

How awesome it must be to blame God for not doing the job you’re being paid to do!

One of the part-time staffers at the church was called in last week for a chat with her supervisor. It seems that she’s been dropping the ball a lot lately. Her excuse? “God has been calling me to go in another direction.”

I worked at a church once as the Director of Drama Ministries. It was a ministry I was passionate about, and even though I served as an unpaid worker, I was faithful and put in a lot of time each week. I logged hundreds of volunteer hours especially around Christmas and Easter.

There were several people on our little drama team—each one with his or her unique strengths and talents. I loved those people.

One of the members of our troupe started dropping the ball. She’d promise to write, then wouldn't complete a draft, or she’d commit to rehearsing a Sunday morning skit then never get around to it. Her excuse? “It must not have been God’s plan since I never got it done.”

That has seriously got to be one of my biggest pet peeves among believers—we blame God for our laziness. Worse—we get away with it! I mean, who’s going to call us on the carpet and challenge our procrastinating ways, especially when it means we’re questioning God?

The church employee who met with her boss last week was able to quit her job AND get a good recommendation. She even got a pat on the back for listening to God’s voice in leading her life! Out in the real world, she’d get fired for not doing her job, and her permanent file would be filled with notes like, “hears voices”, and “thinks God talks to her”. Future employers would be hard-pressed to hire the crazy girl.

Look, of course I believe that God leads us in many and varied ways. I also believe He calls us to be people of the highest character, and He doesn’t want to be used as an excuse for our slothfulness.

Yep, it must be nice to be able to blame one’s bad behavior on “God’s leading”. I believe that when we do that, more often than not, we are slandering the divine and perfect character of the Lord.

Don’t be lazy and self-serving. Get off the pew!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When Preachers are Steamrollers

A young preacher was hired to lead one of the large churches on the Northwest side of our city. One of his favorite mantras over the past year-and-a-half has been, “I’d rather do something and make a mistake, then do nothing.”

So, Pastor W. has done a whole lot of somethings and has made a whole lot of mistakes. Sadly, many of his missteps have left wounded and broken people in their wake. Is that fair?

My question today is, at what point should a church board or council step in and decide enough is enough?

Pastor W. fired several long-time church employees and replaced them with younger, hipper staffers. He was new to our area when he was installed and he knew no one. He hired several people who swooped in and impressed the new guy, but who had little work experience. Some of those laborers didn’t work out so well. So, faithful long-time employees are out of work, and the church is still short-staffed because the younger, hipper new-hirers got in way over their heads.

Two decades ago the church family raised the funds to build a gym that could accommodate the needs of the growing kids and teens. It was an especially important project for the then-pastor because he recognized that without kids the church dies. It was a magnificent building—basketball court, moveable stage, tons of room—an all-purpose family life center.

The preacher who oversaw the building of that center passed away a few years ago. I wonder what he would say now that the gathering place for kids and families has been remodeled into a second Sanctuary, and is no longer basketball or kid friendly.

Under Pastor W’s leadership, Sunday school classes have been cancelled, events are no more, ministries were told to roll up their banners and call it quits, and Bible study groups have been disbanded. Services have been added and subtracted, and the “direction of the church” has changed four or five times in less than 2 years.

Not everyone is as ADD as the young new pastor, and parishioners can be slow to change. You know, Christians love their church. They love the choir, their Sunday school teacher, the nursery “cuddlers” who invest in their kids and grandkids, and the friendly face that greets them with a warm handshake every Sunday morning.

Change is good. Change is necessary. Without change there is no growth. But is there such a thing as moving too fast? What happens to the church body when you steamroll over it? People have hearts and relationships and feelings. Christians are like everybody else—we need to find a place where we belong.

Is steamrolling over folks and their ideas really the best way for Pastor W. to grow the church? People are leaving in droves, while others are sitting and stewing in their pew of anger and disappointment. The church board is “trusting God”.

I firmly believe that change is a GREAT thing and is imperative for new growth. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think that pride gets in the way when good men put more value in their ideas then they do on the feelings and needs of the people who hired them. We get mad at politicians who do that and we fire them! But when a pastor does the same thing, we often get angry, hurt, or bitter, and leave the body. Some of us have spoken up, but we’ve been chastised by pew-sitters for doing so.

I don’t know the answer, but we’ve got to do better. Get off the pew and do better!

Monday, January 24, 2011

She's a...Prophet?

My friend “Libby” and I have known one another since we were kids. Our parents were friends, we attended the same Seventh-Day-Adventist church and the same Adventist school. Neither one of us are Adventists today.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the Adventist faith, let me give you an overview. Adventists are sabbatarians, that is, they (like the Jews) believe that Saturday is the Sabbath of the Bible and are legalistic about keeping it. Sabbath begins each week on Friday night at sundown, and ends when the sun sets on Saturday.

The Seventh-Day-Adventist church has its roots in a religious movement that began in 1833 when a Baptist layman named William Miller prophesied Jesus’ return (which he believed would happened in or about 1843). Among the “Millerites” was a woman named Ellen G. White. It wasn’t long before her visions and prophecies had more believers and followers than Mr. Miller’s, and a group broke away and formed a new church. The S.D.A. church was formally established in 1863.

Okay, back to my friend Libby. We were chatting the other day about some of our high school memories—teachers, friends, etc… We both remember being in a Bible class where we rarely opened the Bible. Rather, we studied the extensive catalog of books and writings by Ellen G. White—the church’s prophet.

In 1982 a man named William Rea published a book titled, “The White Lie”, in which he outed Mrs. White as a fraud. When she was a teen, Libby read Mr. Rea’s book. She recollects sitting in Bible class and having many questions about Ellen White and her writings. She wanted (and needed) answers, so she raised her hand and made her queries. The teacher called my outspoken friend out of class.

“Libby”, said Mr. M., “your questions are confusing the other kids in the class and you need to keep your mouth shut.” Mr. M. didn’t stop there. “Also, I am dumbfounded as to how exactly to deal with you as you are neither male or female.”

Why would a teacher say such a thing to a high school girl?

My friend was embarrassed, ashamed, and confused. From that moment on she didn’t speak out in class, and she kept her questions to herself. Rather than deal with the questions and allow personal opinions and debate, that teacher dismissed my friend.

Hey, I know how the situation could easily have been resolved. It was “Bible” class, right? Here’s an idea…TEACH THE BIBLE! It’s no wonder the Adventist church is seen by many as a cult. The writings of the “prophet” contradict the Bible in plenty of ways, and yet more emphasis has often been put on Mrs. White’s word, than the Word of God.

I wonder if Mr. M. is still a Seventh-Day-Adventist today. I wonder how many other students he shut up because he wasn’t able to explain away the holes Libby saw in the Adventist theology.

To all you who teach, lead, or in some way influence young people, let me encourage you. Please, please let kids ask questions. Encourage them to think outside the box and look for answers. If you don’t know the answers to their questions, don’t shut them up. Rather, help them find the solutions to their puzzles. You could even learn a thing or two along the way. You might have to get off the pew to discover and discern, but you’ll be glad you did. Get off the pew.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clean For Jesus

Thank goodness! You never know when you're gonna need a bit of divine intervention, and now I can carry it in my pocket.

Note the small print on the top part of the label on this hand sanitizer - "Save Yourself" "Save Others". Woo Hoo!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Be Careful What You Pray For!

"Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain." I Chronicles 4:10

Many Christians know this scripture as The Prayer of Jabez. Bruce Wilkinson wrote a little inspirational book published in 2000 titled, “The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life”. I read the book, as did most of my friends, and the pastor preached a series of sermons based on the principles inspired by the scripture and bestseller.

Oh, that You would bless me indeed… Not a little, but INDEED. The adverb is used here as an intensifier. In praying this, I’d be asking the Lord to not just show me a tad bit of kindness, but also bless me big. In this context Jabez was petitioning God for favor and mercy. Mercy. Indeed.

Enlarge my territory… It was, apparently, the desire of Jabez’s heart to share his faith with as many people as possible. Most of us hate the idea of getting out of comfort zone, but not this man, Jabez. Whatever God had to do to widen his sphere of influence, he was open to it. I felt the same way.

…that Your hand would be with me… That was far and away the easiest part of the prayer to REALLY mean from the heart. I wanted the Lord to cover me, keep my family and me safe, and walk with us every minute of the day.

…that You would keep me from evil… Temptation is everywhere. I pray everyday that God will keep me from myself. You know what I’m talking about—we are always at war with the desires of our sinful human nature.

…that I may not cause pain. I’ve not always been successful, but it has always been my prayer and desire that I not cause pain for anyone else. I know that I can be thoughtless and selfish, so this little prayer reminded me that with I could do all things through Christ and with His strength—even be a nicer person.

I was inspired to pray the short prayer with my family every day. So, each morning before breakfast, we recited the words together.

It didn’t take long for our morning ritual to become second nature. We blessed our breakfast, and then every adult and child at the table narrated the scripture in unison.

Be careful what you pray for.

I really did want God to bless us big, to keep me from sinning, and to keep us safe. I did indeed want God to expand my territory, and I thought I knew how He might do that. He ended up giving me a bigger platform than I ever expected, and He did it His way.

Our meth-addicted daughter ran away from home and my territory expanded to addicts and liars. She went to rehab and we became friends with counselors, parents of prodigals, and people from all over the country. Our drug-addicted son went to prison and our territory expanded to include parole officers and other broken-hearted parents.

As if living with the disappointment and brokenness caused by the choices of our kids wasn’t enough, the pastor of the church we attended asked us to leave because our son was “too hard”. The pain was crushing, but our sphere of influence once again expanded to other people in other churches.

In an earlier post I lamented the church’s lack of compassion and action in regards to parents of prodigals. Nothing excuses bad behavior and acts of judgment and condemnation. I want to remind myself, however, that if not for the ugliness I might still be sitting on that comfortable pew—not speaking, not sharing, not growing more passionate about God.

So, I will continue to pray, “Lord, expand my territory in any way you choose to do so. Make me uncomfortable so that I’ll get off the pew!”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Does Attitude Really Trump Talent?

“Attitude always trumps talent.” A guest pastor stood before the congregation last week and preached what I’ve come to call a stock sermon. I think it might have been #23 from the top 100.

The pastor told story after story about talented people who’ve moved in and out of his ministry, but who were in desperate need of an attitude adjustment. If you’ve been around churches for any time at all, you know the stories—the guitarist who plays on the worship team in the morning and the bar at night, the actor who had that questionable bit part in the low-budget film, or the singer who dared to audition for American Idol.

I’ve watched so many talented volunteers and part-time staffers fired from ministries because they just didn’t have the “right heart”. They’ve been accused of being “worldly minded”. I myself was fired from my job as the Director of Drama Ministries at a church because I performed at a small dinner theatre.

Why is it that the pastor who judges the heart of the artist is never taken to task for his or her critical and judgmental spirit?

I’ve watched several churches walk through the pastoral search process. In most cases, it can take a year or more to find the pastor who meets all the requirements of a church congregation or exploration team. Nowhere on the list, I’m guessing, are the words, “attitude trumps talent”.

Parishioners want their pastor/teacher to be highly educated, experienced, AND talented. Imagine a search committee coming to a church board meeting and saying, “We found the guy. He’s not very talented or educated, but man, has he got an awesome attitude!” It wouldn’t happen!

My personal experience tells me that when a pastor says, “attitude always trumps talent” what he often means is, “that guy was talented, but I just don’t like him”.

Pastors can be a bit arrogant and insistent about doing things their way. Artists can also be audacious and proud. Both groups are faced with the reality of having to put their work and heart on display to be scrutinized and analyzed by a sometimes-critical audience.

When a pastor is confident he says, “I’m following God’s leading”. When an artist challenges a minister he or she is called, “insubordinate”. Perhaps God wants to use the singer, actor, or musician to lead alongside the pastor in a fresh new way.

A servant is one who has an attitude that puts others first, AND the talent to do the job well. The 5-star restaurant wouldn’t hire a chef who loved to cook, but never went to culinary academy. A public school couldn’t hire a teacher who loved kids, but didn’t go to college.

Listen, talent matters, education is important, and attitude has value. Jesus chose 12 men with a bit of talent and a lot of good attitude. He then lived with the men for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for three years in order to insure the men had the very best education. Only then did He release any of them into their own ministry.

Jesus created the best volunteer/employee model for us: bring equal parts talent and attitude and give it a good education.

If you’ve got a heart for service and you feel God is leading, get of the pew and get educated. If you’re a pastor looking for a really great volunteer, look for someone who’s already doing the job you need done. Chances are they’d love to share their time and talent—they just need to be asked.

If you lead a church and you’re dealing with someone with a bad attitude—pray for and with the person. You’d be surprised how quickly attitudes improve when the person feels respected, loved, and appreciated. Now get off the pew!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I Count It All S@*&

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them S@*& that I may know Christ. Philippians 3:8.(NIV)

What? Your Bible doesn’t say that? Well, let’s look at that verse more closely.

Christians are really good at bragging about their spiritual pedigree. I’ve been to retreats and conferences where the mere introduction of a speaker leaves me feeling vastly inferior. They go something like this: “Bob Smith comes from a long line of spiritual giants. His great, great, great grandfather was the first pastor of the first church in the first incorporated city in the first county in the state of Kansas. His granddaddy built the first Christian college west of the Mississippi and his mother led an active Christian Mommy and Me playgroup which grew to be the largest Christian women’s organization in My Town, U.S.A.”

The speaker is then brought to the podium, met with thunderous applause and a healthy smattering of standing ovations. We’re not worthy, O Great One. Teach us your ways.

A woman from the mega church we used to attend started a class called “Leaving a Spiritual Legacy”. She taught parents to raise kids with the right spiritual pedigree. She pointed out that each time her children left the home she reminded them, “You carry the family name, and it’s your job to let people know what we are. Let it always be said that the Anderson kids are children of the Lord Most High.”

It reminds me of the Westminster Dog Show, or the Kentucky Derby. The prized pooches and ponies come to the games with impressive pedigrees. They often hail from a long line of winners, and they are the frontrunners from the starting gate.

Paul the apostle came to the pulpit with all the right papers—a well-respected pedigree. He lays his credentials out in Philippians 3:4-6. He came from a Jewish family who did it all right and took the idea of leaving a legacy very seriously. Paul was circumcised on the 8th day after his birth. He belonged to the people of Israel, and even more importantly, he belonged to the prestigious Tribe of Benjamin. He was a zealous legalist who followed all the laws without error. He was “righteous” and “faultless”.

But wait, in verse 8 Paul tells the Philippians that he considers all that stuff—all that spiritual pedigree nonsense—“rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in Him”. Righteousness, says Paul, doesn’t come from doing all the right things, but rather from knowing Christ.

The Greek word used in the passage for “rubbish” is skubalon. In the KJV this word is translated, “dung”. It’s the only time the word is used in the Bible, and I’m sure it shocked Paul’s audience to hear it spoken by him. Literally translated today, the word would be “shit”. Paul was telling the Philippians that his spiritual pedigree was nothing but shit that should be buried along with the rest of the camel dung. The only thing that matters is knowing—really knowing—Jesus Christ.

Look, I’m not saying that being proud of the multiple generations of preachers in one’s family is a bad thing, and I’m certainly not saying that raising up a child with a sense of Christian heritage and legacy is anything other than noble. What I am saying is that your pedigree won’t save you and Jesus doesn’t really care about it.

I’ve known many 3rd and 4th generation believers who know very little about the character of God. They’ve not seen His unconditional love in the wake of selfishness and lawlessness. They’ve not experienced the free and complete forgiveness that comes from the very heart of God—forgiveness that will NEVER come from the world (or The Church). These people brag about their Christian heritage and their prestigious lineage, but they don’t know Jesus.

I know recovering alcoholics and addicts who’ve come from long lines of sin and debauchery. Many of them only know their daddies and granddaddies from the ugly stories told to them by the pregnant women the men left behind. Some of these people have never known their moms outside of prison walls. They don’t have the Christian family Coat of Arms to hang above the fireplace mantle. But they’ve got something more valuable—they KNOW Jesus.

I don’t care what you know. I want to know how you learned it and whom you met along the way.

To all of you out there who are on search committees looking for your next inspirational speaker for your retreat or conference, I challenge you. Go out of your way and get off the beaten path. Look not for someone with all the “right” papers and credentials, but rather look for someone who has come to know—really know Jesus Christ. Let them tell their story. Let them tell you how doing all the right things is but shit when compared to feeling the warmth of God’s unconditional forgiveness wrapped around you.

Now get off the pew and look at God’s kids through the eyes of Jesus. Come on, you can do it. Just get off the pew!