Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

Read More

The resurrection is reason enough (or, why ministry is still worth it).

A friend of mine who edits a website wrote this post some time ago and it still resonates. On this Monday after Easter, I appreciate being reminded that we all need to learn how to sit with one another in our graves — not because death is good, but because resurrection is possible.

I also appreciate being reminded of the grace I’ve received on this journey. I am not among those good and faithful pastors who somewhere along the way had the honesty to acknowledge that vocational ministry wasn’t for them (since my teenage years I’ve believed this is where I belong), but I definitely respect their journey. I get it. I’ve been in far too many dark, dark places in these nineteen years of full-time church life to pretend that I might not have ended up in their company.

Maybe I just don’t know how to quit. Maybe it is the mercy of being married to a man who won’t let me quit.

In any case, I can say after nineteen Easters as a pastor that as I look at the big picture of it, the staying has been a mercy. I am grateful I’m still serving the Church of Jesus Christ — still broken for his people, still passionate about preaching the Word. While a lot of vocational ministry isn’t what you’d call “fun,” I have found the grand sweep of it to be so very rewarding.

Not always easy, but always rewarding … always worth it.

There is a depth and beauty to honest, authentic ministry. It isn’t “gungho cheerleading,” as Jennifer says in her post. As she rightly notes, that kind of thing will stifle a spirit pretty quickly. What seems to work best is clinging to the cross … finding a personal resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. It is rooting one’s faith in truth, not emotion, because emotions will kill a calling faster than just about anything.

But clinging to the cross? That is worth spending a lifetime on. Knowing Christ and him crucified is worth every drop of us, even as he expressed on the cross that we are worth every drop of him.

The story is true: Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance. The resurrection is proof.

Blessings on you, my pastor friends, as you live into the resurrection on this glorious Monday, having spent yourself all weekend for the cause of Christ.

(Jennifer Woodruff’s beautifully expressed post on the vocation of serving Christ is here.)

Read More

The gift of justifying grace (or, why I still hum Tony Orlando tunes)

Back in the 1970s, there was a hit song by Tony Orlando (yeah, I know … “who?” or maybe, “Wow, you’re older than I thought.”) about a guy who spent years in jail paying for a crime. Over those years of his incarceration, he lost touch with his family. By the time of his release, he had no idea if his people still loved him or ever thought about him. Would they accept him if he went home? Or would they reject him and send him away?

He decided to write home before he was released to find out where he stood. “My time is up,” he wrote. “I’m coming home. I don’t know if you want me back or not, but I’ll be coming into town on the bus. When I ride into town, I’ll look up the hill toward our house. That big, old oak tree will be standing there as it has for generations. If I see a yellow ribbon tied around it, I’ll know you want me back and that it is okay for me to get off the bus. If there is no ribbon, I’ll understand. I’ll stay on the bus and just keep going.”

He sent the letter off, then prepared for his release. That day finally came. They sent him through the gate to freedom and put him on a bus. He was as nervous as he could be as he rode toward his home town and the family he’d be away from for so long. As he rolled into town and looked up the hill toward his house, there wasn’t one yellow ribbon. There was a field of yellow — yellow sheets hanging from the windows, yellow ribbons from every branch of that oak tree, yellow everywhere — all of it announcing the same thing: “Welcome home. All is forgiven.”

That’s the word of justifying grace. “Welcome home. All is forgiven.”

John Wesley knew the gift of this welcoming grace. He’d been an arrogant and naive young man when he decided to travel to America as a missionary to “save the natives.” He made it less than a year. Failing in his mission and floundering in his faith, he cried out to God. For the first time in his life, he sensed God calling back. Wesley wrote of that time, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had claimed salvation before that encounter, but it was in that moment that he came to understand what he’d been given. He discovered the rich and freeing gift of unmerited favor.

Justifying grace is that marvelous invention of God that enables us to be right with him, no matter what we’ve done. It is not God ignoring our sin; it is God forgiving our sin and helping us to live as new creatures. God’s justifying grace proclaims, “No matter what you have done and no matter who you have been, because you are walking through this door you are welcome in the Kingdom.”

That grace is the door to the good life. And the handle is on our side.

Read More

A Bakery, a Battlefield and a Birthplace

Bethlehem.

It is so much more than the name of a middle-eastern town. Buried in this treasure of a term is the story of Christmas.

Beth El in the Bible means “house of God.”  The first part is the usual word for house, but it has connotations of family. It can also mean temple.

The second part of Bethlehem is the Hebrew word for bread, but this bread is not just the side item on your plate. It is what Jesus was talking about when he taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” This bread is the difference between life and death.

There is another connotation to that second part of the word Bethlehem. Sometimes, it can mean “to do battle or fight.” That isn’t the usual meaning attached to the name but there is this strong connection to a battle.

When we put all that together, something like a little miracle emerges in what God has woven into the name of the place where Jesus was born. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in a place called “House of Bread.” The one who did battle with death itself and won, who was raised to victory after three days in a grave, was born in a place called “House of Battle.”

God chose a seemingly insignificant place, Bethlehem, and there he created the Bread of Life and the One who would defeat death. And on the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus lifted up the symbols of a bakery and a battleground — bread and blood.

Christmas and Easter really do belong in the same breath.

When we place our trust in Him — this God-man who is spiritual food for us and who promises to do battle in the spiritual realm for us – we are born spiritually into his family and become members of the House of God. Our birthplace then becomes Bethlehem just as surely as his was.

Bethlehem. It is a place of possibility, a place of new birth, a place where we are fed, where we are protected, where we are home.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small …” – Micah 5:2

Read More

God Heals Dis-grace.

I love the way Chonda Pierce teaches the creation story. She talks about how, in the story of Adam and Eve — before they sinned or ever talked to that serpent — the Bible says they were naked and unashamed. There was no sense of judgment or condemnation. No fear of rejection. No shame. Then came the temptation of Satan to be something they were not, and then that terrible fall from grace. That’s the moment a human first saw himself — herself — as somehow not good enough. That’s why they put clothes on. Shame compelled them to hide behind something.

It must have broken the Father’s heart to see his beautiful children experience such shame.

Dis-grace.

God came looking for them and since they were covered, he asked, “Where are you?” They answered, “We were afraid because we were naked, and so we hid ourselves.” God said (and you can just hear the grief in the question), “Who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you had something to be ashamed of? Who spoke that word into your life? Because that word is a lie.”

Don’t move too quickly past this truth: shame causes us to hide things. Shame sends us to dark places.

Shame is a lie.

Shame is the very word our Jesus has come to heal. He came to heal that word of dis-grace, thatdisgrace-and-grace2 lie that someone along the way has spoken into our lives to make us feel ashamed. The lie that because you are childless you are second-class or because you are broke, you’re worthless. It is the lie that makes us make a lot of money when it doesn’t come naturally to us to do so. It is the lie that leaves us tethered to jobs we don’t like, and relationships that aren’t healthy, and addictions that choke the life out of us. It is the lie that makes us expect too much of our kids, while we shrink back when we look in the mirror because we’re not who we think we ought to be.

Dis-grace.

God came to heal that. When John the Baptist’s father doubted God’s ability to give him a child, an angel indignantly struck him mute for a few months. “Take time to think about what you’re saying, Priest,” the angel seemed to say. So Zechariah did. In that season of silence, he contemplated the nature of a God who would both send a Redeemer and strike a man mute. When his son was finally born and Zechariah directed them to name him John — “God is full of grace” — he got his voice back.

Grace is the word that gives us our voice. It is the assurance that it is God’s work, not ours. God’s work, God’s word, God’s redemption, God’s plan, God’s grace.

In Christ, God has come to heal our dis-grace, and in him there is no shame at all. Hallelujah.

Read More

What’s true in the world

Are these things true?

This was the question asked of Stephen, one of the followers of Jesus who served the first century church. Those who asked were antagonistic toward the movement and had seized Stephen because he was one of the more outspoken of the believers.

saint-stephen-the-martyrStephen, knowing the danger of the situation, answered by telling them everything he knew to be true about Jesus.

His answer was beautiful, a perfectly worded account of the gospel from Genesis to John.

And his answer got him stoned to death. Christians now commemorate his martyrdom in the days just after Christmas.

When we interview for staff positions at Mosaic –whether it is for a childcare worker or a ministry director — we ask candidates to share the good news with us in about three minutes. I am surprised at the number of people applying for work in a church who can’t do it. I think I know why.

It is because most folks have never had to. Most of us have never been required to articulate in our own words what it is we say we believe in.

Brothers and sisters, the gospel deserves our attention — first of all, because we claim to believe it, and second, because one day we may find ourselves having to answer the question, “Are these things true?” Lives hang in the answer to that question. Families in Nigeria are being displaced from their homes because of how they answered that question. Asia Bibi and Imran Ghafur have been in jail in Pakistan for seven years, awaiting trial for “crimes against Islam,” because of how they answer that question. Christians are leaving their homes in Iraq and Syria because of how they answer that question. Families are being torn in two because of how they answer that question. Surely we owe it if not to ourselves then to those people who stand their ground when asked how they answer that question to have a reasonable answer of our own.

Are these things true?

Do you remember the dramatic rescue of thirty-three men who were trapped in a mine in Chile a few years ago? For seventeen days, it was believed that all thirty-three were dead, until somehow they got word to the surface that they were all alive. Not just some, but all.

For the next fifty-two days, that little group of men became an international fixation as the world watched their survival and rescue. They were coached in the art of survival, taught how to discipline their days so they could maintain sanity while they waited for those on the surface to figure out a rescue plan.

Eventually, a plan was devised and the rescues commenced. Do you remember how it was for us on the watching end? Every miner pulled up from beneath was celebrated. All thirty-three. Many of them dropped to their knees upon reaching the surface to thank God for their life.Mario-the-miner

Mario was #9.

I can’t imagine Mario coming up out of that shaft feeling so good about his own rescue that he forgets to care about the twenty-four still down in the mine. I cannot imagine the people of Chile losing interest after the first few rescues, shrugging their shoulders and leaving the scene for the boredom of it. That’s not how great rescue stories work.

And in the same way, I cannot imagine a follower of Jesus coming up out of the darkness and shrugging his or her shoulders over those who are still down there, who will die down there if no one goes in after them. I cannot imagine a person with the spirit of Christ saying the others don’t matter.

I can’t imagine not having a reasonable answer to that question: Are these things true?

The gospel deserves our attention because there is a world full of people out there who haven’t been rescued yet, and no follower of Jesus should feel complacent or comfortable as long as there are people waiting for a fair account of the gospel.

Are these things true?

How you answer that question is critically important. The Kingdom of Heaven is coming and only those who see Jesus in the answer will participate in it.

Read More

You’re not crazy (or, what it feels like to be a pastor)

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, people like me are ticking time bombs.

Consider these stats:

  • Pastors suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.
  • The rate of depression among clergy is 11% — about double the national rate.
  • 13% report issues with anxiety.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 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. There is actually a viable market for something called “pastoral dismissal insurance.”

What sane person would want to deal with competing demands, the constant fear of failure and the chronic loss of sleep (not to mention the loss of weekends)? And those are first-world, 21st-century struggles. Pastor-friends in African countries tell me they wake up every day prepared to die. A pastor’s home in India is likely to be smaller than your master bathroom. A friend in Nepal hid in an attic to avoid being killed by a Hindu extremist (he later escaped the town on foot).

In the first century, signing on to be a leader in the Christian movement meant signing on for something that was completely reviled by the prevailing religious and political world. The life expectancy of a circuit rider in early Methodism was 33 years.

A person would have to be crazy to sign on for this job, right?

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. I can relate. I’m grateful the Bible gives me permission to admit it when I have those days.

Maybe you are right there with Timothy 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 eighteen years of ministry and the start of two 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

 

Read More