Crazy, or Courageous? (or, why I keep going to work)

You don’t want to be me.

According to a series of New York Times articles* and a plethora of other studies** done on the topic, pastors are ticking time bombs. Here are a few of the more alarming stats:

  • Pastors suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.
  • The rate of depression among clergy is 11 percent which is about double the national rate.
  • 13% report issues with anxiety.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health.
  • 70% don’t have any close friends.
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.
  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.

Ours is a vocation famous for competing demands, chronic fear of failure and loss of sleep, not to mention loss of weekends. And those are first-world problems. Pastor friends in third-world countries tell me they wake up every day prepared to die.

This is nothing new. In Paul’s two letters to Timothy, he counsels endurance even when it seems crazy. In Paul’s advice we hear Timothy’s state of mind. He is hanging by a thread — tired, stressed out, anxious. “Take some wine for your stomach,” Paul advises, because bearing other people’s burdens will give a person stomach problems. Watching them slide backwards after you’ve tried so hard to move them forward can make a person downright depressed. Competing complaints can send a person over the edge. Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Timothy is tired. So am I. I’m grateful the Bible gives me permission to admit it.

Maybe you are right there with us (Timothy and me) and you are tired, too. Tired of day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of conflicts and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

Are we insane to stay with this, when so much of it is crazy-making?

My experience after seventeen years of ministry and the start of tcrazy-courage2wo congregations is that the only thing standing between me and complete burn-out is not success, but the power of God. It is the power of God that saves me from those baser fight-or-flight instincts. The strength of this gospel keeps me bound to this call because in the end I’m convinced that’s where the power is.

Herein lies the difference between crazy and courageous. It depends on the thing you’re fighting for. What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of what we believe in, which is proven by the character it brings out in us.

It is not crazy to make ministry your vocation. Given the vocational hazards it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

 

*Several articles appeared in the New York Times in 2010 addressing the issue of clergy burnout. Begin with this one, and follow it to others. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html

**http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html

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Sow extravagantly.

I’m thinking about the very familiar story in Luke, chapter eight, of the sower who goes out and sows his seed. He tosses it everywhere — on rock-infested ground, into weedy nooks, onto fertile soil, onto a well-worn path. The farmer just keeps tossing. I like picturing him as a happyMDG : Seed : Plowing a field and sowing seeds in Ethiopia man, tossing away, humming something happy, watching the clouds as he tosses without the first concern for the seeds that fall in unproductive places. He doesn’t weigh the seed or test the soil. He doesn’t prognosticate about the probabilities. He just tosses seed and smiles.

Make no mistake: this guy is a farmer, not some crazy man who has no idea what he’s doing. He knows the condition of a piece of ground when he sees it. He knows when the ground is hard. He knows the chances of something rooting in most of that soil are slim to none. But still, he just keeps tossing.

Hearing Jesus tell this story, I’m reminded of the time a woman crashed a dinner when Jesus was eating at the home of a leper (yet another thing to love about him). This woman who’d experienced great healing walked right into this person’s house and began to pour very expensive oil over Jesus’ head. This was once-in-a-lifetime oil. Precious and expensive. Far beyond her capacity to afford.

Someone said, “She ought not be wasting that expensive perfume like this. We could be feeding poor people with that money,” to which Jesus replied, “The poor are not going anywhere. If we cash in this oil and use the money to feed poor people today, they will be hungry again tomorrow. Some things just are. The trick here is in understanding the moment. What this woman is doing right now — in this moment — is beautiful. It points toward Heaven. Meals last hours; this kind of adoration is eternal. From here out wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will be talked about in memory of her.”

He was right, of course. We’re remembering her even now.

Her story and the farmer’s both point to the same truth: resources are rarely the issue. In fact, our problem may be that we are not generous enough with our resources. In our quest for efficiency, we become stingy. We over-emphasize efficiency. We want the most bang for our buck, but it turns out that the Kingdom is not about efficiency. It is about effectiveness.

Extravagance.

Let me say that again: The Kingdom is more concerned with effectiveness than efficiency.

I suspect that far too often in this work of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, resources are not the critical issue limiting our effectiveness. Faithfulness is the issue. What confines and confounds us is the limit of our own imagination. We don’t tend to honor extravagance, even when it is a holy extravagance.

I am not at all a fan of the prosperity gospel, but I do believe that we in the West don’t trust enough in God’s provision. God seems to have the ability to shift resources into the path of Kingdom work when people who are following Jesus step out in faith.

If you’ve been called to be a sower, you need to be tossing seed everywhere. Don’t hold back.

Sow extravagantly.

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Life is not god.

In 2009, Washington State ratified the Death with Dignity Act, legalizing physician-assisted suicide. “This act allows terminally ill adults seeking to end their life to request lethal doses of medication from medical and osteopathic physicians. These terminally ill patients must be Washington residents who have less than six months to live.”* Four other states — California, Oregon, Montana and Vermont — have since followed suit.

The first patient to make use of the law in Washington was a woman with pancreatic cancer. She was divorced and bankrupt. She chose this path of assisted suicide because it was important to her that she be conscious and alert when she died. She wanted to terminate her life before the quality of it eroded beyond her capacity to control it. From her perspective, I can only assume that the termination of her life signaled the termination of hope.

This begs a question: Is there more to life than the quality of it? If not, then who could blame her for her choice? But if there is more to life than the subjective living of it, if there is a point bigger than us, then any answer that controls life as if it is ours to give and take has far-reaching consequences.

Is life God? If the answer is no then from a purely functional standpoint, do we approach too much of it as if it is?life-is-not-god

Think on this. Do we obsess about health and wealth in an attempt to control the bigger questions of life and death? Is my point in this life to be comfortable? Is that it? What kind of goal is that?

And do we use escape mechanisms to avoid responsibility for making the most of the life we have? In our pursuit of peace, do we chase things that have no power to satisfy, only to find ourselves at the end with no investment (faith or hope) in a life
beyond this one?

“There is nothing new under the sun,” Solomon famously quipped. Everything we can see and experience in this life, everything below Heaven, continues without end, generation after generation. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Life has very little capacity on its own to create hope. Why? Because it is not god. This was Solomon’s conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes: there is more to life than just living it. While that may smack of fatalism, we know this. We can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere. We can be incredibly busy and still look incredibly silly. Movement does not equal progress.

Life is not god. God, who has power over life and death, who offers a perspective larger than this physical existence, is the One Being who transcends this mortal existence. God gives hope. More precisely, Christ — himself a person whose body felt the limits of mortality — is hope. Without assurance of his singular victory over it, there is none.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian philosopher in the 20th century, once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words, instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other hoping that it all leads someplace we should start with a goal, then work back from there. Toward that end, I suggest a goal bigger than: live, pay bills and die.

Where is the hope in that?

Wouldn’t a better starting point be the Kingdom of God, the life beyond this one, the hope in something bigger than ourselves? Paul even tells us that in some mysterious way we are already there (Ephesians 2:6), so why not begin from that vantage point? If I’m already there, the rest of this is details.

So, yes. Begin there. Begin with the perspective of the most creative, redemptive possibility and work back from that. Imagine how that might change … everything.

 

*http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/DeathwithDignityAct

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Assume nothing.

When my daughter was seven or eight years old, I asked, “Claire Marie, why do you believe in Jesus?” She said, “Because you and daddy do.” I said, “Do you think that one day you’ll believe in Jesus all by yourself?” She said, “Maybe. When I’m forty.”

I thought that was profound.*

How many forty, fifty, sixty year olds are sitting in our churches, still waiting to have a faith of their own, who don’t even know what they don’t know?

I visited once with an elderly man dealing with depression. He was living in an assisted living home and so the folks there called and asked if I’d come visit. They told me when I got there that he wasn’t really excited about the visit, that he was a self-professing atheist. And actually, he was depressed because he thought he might die any day and he didn’t know what to think about that.

I went into his room and began to listen. He had questions, he said. He took me all the way to the beginning of time and to the end of the universe. He talked physics and biology. He was quite an intelligent man and very sharp at 91 years old. An hour into his rant, he ended up in Genesis with some obscure question about the creation story that he felt disproved everything. He wanted to know what I thought about that but by then I was out of politeness and patience.  “You don’t really want to know the answer to that question,” I said. “I suppose I could give you an adequate answer, but it won’t solve anything for you. You are 91 years old. You are going to die sooner than later. What is it you really want to know?”

And at that, this old man who claimed to be an atheist, who was angry and depressed, who had answers for everything except his own life, who had very few days left on this earth, said to me, “What do I want to know? What do I want know?” With tears in his eyes, he answered his own question. “I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart.”

Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? In my fifty-two years, I have never met anyone who didn’t want to know how to get Jesus into their heart. Maybe they don’t have the vocabulary or worldview to express it just that way, but beneath it all, that’s their hunger.

I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart. 

I want to know how to find joy and rest. I want an answer for my stress level and anxious spirit. I want the Jesus who answers the questions that keep me up at night.

Some years ago, we gave an invitation at the end of one of our downtown worship services. We invited anyone in the room who was ready for it, to stand and begin a relationship with Jesus. Maybe eight people felt the Spirit move on them and they stood to receive Christ.

After the service, an older man came up to me and said, “I stood up tonight because I thought I knew Jesus, but I was wrong. I realized that I know a Jesus, but I don’t know the Jesus. And now I have to rethink everything.” I thought that was profound.

A lot of us know a Jesus but not the Jesus. I’ve discovered in so many conversations that if you grow up in certain denominations your overwhelming feeling when it comes to God is guilt. Is that the Jesus they are getting? Or a Jesus?

I know someone whose life has been dramatically altered by a childhood experience. She told me that more and more she’s realizing just how many of the decisions of her life have been filtered through that memory of a man whose sickness intersected with her life. Surely that guy was not following the Jesus?

What about Harold Camping? He’s the guy who managed to get international attention because he was convinced the rapture would happen at a particular time on a particular day. He has predicted this more than once and hasn’t gotten it right yet. I sure don’t want to question that man’s faith, but I have to wonder: is he following a Jesus, or the Jesus?

Does any idea of Jesus qualify as reality? Maybe some of us have attached to ideas about Jesus that aren’t what Jesus himself said or believed or taught.

As preachers, the warning is well considered: assume nothing of those in your care. They may not have been given a fair account of the gospel.

As seekers, this advice is sincerely offered: don’t assume the version of Jesus to which you’ve been exposed is the one Jesus himself would choose for you. Seek him for yourself.

He wants your heart.

*For the record, my daughter claimed her own faith far earlier than forty. Now in her twenties, she is an amazing woman of God whose faith inspires me.

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