Relapse and recovery (or, how to get back up when you fall)

Recovery is characterized by relapse.

I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.

It happens.

Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.

What it means is that we are sunk without grace.

Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and allrecovery-and-relapse2 twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.

Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is. And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.

Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …

Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.” We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.

So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?

For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).

Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.

And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:

  • The practice of it makes a habit.
  • The habit of it ruins your influence.
  • The persistence of it destroys trust.

And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.

So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?

If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.

Read More

Has the Church lost its prophetic voice?

Sandra Richter, Craig Keener and others teach about the triad of leadership found in the Old Testament. Three distinct voices spoke into the Israelite community. The king was a civic leader who shaped society by establishing civil order. The priest kept the temple and represented the people to God. The prophet represented God to the people. Keener says the prophet was the one person who could step into the court of the King and call him out and not get killed.

Being a prophet wasn’t all fun and games (read Hosea for proof) but it had its perks.

Where the Church has lost its voice in the world, I suspect it is because the Church has handed its prophetic voice over to the “king.” We have placed too much power and expectation at the feet of elected leaders and secular voices. We want them to be king, priest and prophet, all rolled into one. In that bargain, we strip the priest and prophet of their role in building up the community.

Who today is speaking prophetically into our culture? Not just pontificating or opinionating, but representing with authority the Kingdom of God? Where we are expecting that voice to come from a political source, we disconnect the voice of the Church from its proper role within culture.

Have we lost our prophetic edge? Are we still willing to bear the cost of confronting culture in redemptive ways, not by standing on soapboxes but by confronting sin face to face in loving and redemptive ways?

The real value of a prophetic voice is that it exposes the stark contrast between the Kingdom of God and the culture of a world that wants its laws to fix all its problems. Can the Church recover this voice? To do so, it will first need to recover a biblical definition for the gift of prophecy.

Prophecy connects us to the heart of God. Prophecy is the word of God for the people of God. Deuteronomy 18:18 says, “I will raise up a prophet and I will put my words in his mouth.” Prophecy reveals God’s heart and connects us with biblical truth. The prophetic voice isn’t a sin-o-meter; to the contrary, it begins with a broken heart. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14 that when an unbeliever enters that atmosphere, he is laid bare. The secrets of his heart are disclosed and falling on his face, he worships.

Prophecy is an encouragement. Paul says that prophets speak to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. That doesn’t mean it will always sound like a fortune cookie (“You will make a change and your life will improve”), but it does mean that the prophetic word has the best of others in mind, knowing that sometimes upbuilding and encouragement means stopping someone before they walk off a cliff.

Prophecy builds up the Church. Paul tells us this is the real gift of prophecy. It builds the Church. That’s why I believe the best leaders aren’t just talented people who want to be fed or do things they enjoy. The best leaders are prophetic because prophetic voices build the Church. This was the heart of Solomon, who sought the gift of wisdom so he could govern the people better. Prophetic leadership is the great need of Christ’s Church.

Practicing the gift of prophecy matures our thinking. A prophetic word is not on the same playing field with scripture. Scripture is the ultimate benchmark by which all other words are tested. But as we practice the prophetic voice and test it against scripture, we discover that our thinking matures. This is the whole point. The practice of prophecy sanctifies us. It reveals things we can’t know by ourselves.

Prophecy makes worshippers. Sanctified people are attractive to unsanctified people. People are drawn to wise, faithful, truthful, mature, encouraging people but much more than that, when someone comes into contact with the prophetic voice they are drawn, not to a particular political party or ideology, but to God.

Scot McKnight says, “If Jesus was prophetic then the church that follows him is prophetic. If Jesus was a prophet, then the followers of Jesus are to embody a prophetic message in how they live.”

If we who follow Jesus are going to recover our right to speak into this culture with authority and in redemptive ways, we will need to find, not a stronger opinion, but our prophetic voice.

Read More

Rolling stops and resurrections

You know what a rolling stop is, right? It is what less responsible (or more distracted or in-a-hurry) drivers do when we get to an intersection. We sort of stop, but not really. We pull up to a stop sign, glance around, then start to pull off before the car fully stops. But then, just about the time the hood of the car is in the center of the intersection, we see the cop sitting there just behind a tree, looking for people like us who roll through intersections without actually stopping. We see him and there we are, sitting in the middle of the intersection. We put the brakes on to stop completely. Then we pray for mercy. Then we start again.

And as we drive on through, we hope.

As with driving, so with life. That complete stop is the step many of us miss. There we are, speeding along with our bad habits and dysfunctions, hoping we don’t get caught. Then something happens to get our attention. We realize we probably ought to stop but instead of bringing everything to a complete halt, we tend to roll through the intersection.

We don’t really want to stop the old behavior. We don’t really want to submit to holiness, the life Jesus calls us to. We just want to slow down and make sure we’re not about to kill or be killed.  Then we roll on through.

That may be our pattern, but that is not the pattern of the resurrected life. For resurrection to happen, the body has to stop. In a real resurrection, there is a period of darkness, of battle, of facing the enemy of our souls, of facing the lies head-on and speaking truth over them so they lose their sting.

Resurrection isn’t about rolling through the intersection. It is about killing the old life so something completely new can exist.

Bud McCord says, “The language of the New Testament is not change language. It is begin-again language. It is leaving the Kingdom of darkness and going into the Kingdom of Light. It is leaving death and entering life. It is being crucified with Christ to begin living in Christ.”

Think of resurrection as re-creation, and of faith in the power of resurrection as creative faith — the kind of faith that calls us out of the old and into the new.

That decision to roll through the intersection seems harmless most of the time. Maybe even more efficient. No one is around, we think.  What’s the harm in it? Where’s the harm in me holding onto this one habit, this one grudge, this one offense? Can’t I just roll on through and hope for the best?

Here’s the hard fact: that choice to roll on through doesn’t lead to the power of the resurrection. Maybe that’s why Paul said about himself, “by any means possible.” He said, “So that by any means possible, I may attain the resurrection.”

That means everything is on the table, nothing held back. I will do whatever it takes, by any means possible, to experience life in all its richness.

Because “whatever it takes” is the difference between a rolling stop and a resurrection.

Read More

Sanctification is hell (or, a lesson on the vocabulary of freedom).

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Kroger on my way back from Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been sharing with another church so someone else from our preaching team had the message at Mosaic that morning. One of the first people I saw at Kroger was a Mosaic person. She hugged me and said, “Mark’s message today was great but it was hard. I’m telling you, sanctification is hell.”

Amen to that.

This person is a new Christian (or at least, a renewed one). She’s come home to Jesus after years away. Watching her find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life has been a joy for me. I happen to know, because I’ve prayed with her and listened and shared tears, that it has not been all fun and games.

She’s right, of course: sanctification is hell. It is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen something has to die, and deaths are not easy. Ask anyone who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work. Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse if not of where we are then of where we’ve been. We see in the rearview the depths to which we’d let ourselves sink.

Sanctification happens while we are doing it — like that boom that happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, or like when a spaceship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. We may not be able to see the line we’ve crossed, but there is an unmistakable shift. We feel it when we walk from death to life, from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation; it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on.

Holiness is not for wimps.

The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. This is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often dwell on. Sanctification isn’t designed to keep us safe; it is designed make us sanctified. Holy. Strong. Wise. Mature.

Paul closes his letter to the Colossians with these three words: “Remember my chains.” Those are the words of a man who is working out his salvation, who is practicing the art of holiness prolifically.

Remember my chains. People don’t say that kind of thing as they reach for a glass of iced tea while they sit by the pool. These are the words of a man who has learned to let every beating, every jailing, every debate become part of his sanctification. He has embraced the hard road because he knows that is the only road that leads to Jesus.

We do no one any favors when we preach a gospel that neglects the cross nor the process of sanctification. We help no one when we refuse to speak truth in love when it comes to things that shackle people and keep them from going someplace spiritually. We don’t help the cause when we avoid words like sanctification. My friend the new Christian proves that anyone can learn that word and grasp its meaning and find power in it as she practices it. We don’t have to shield people from the vocabulary of freedom.

“Remember my chains,” Paul says. Because he needs the people of Colossae to remember that this following costs, that things won’t always be easy. Sanctification can be hell when you’re in the middle of it, but the real problem in any morality equation is not sanctification. The real problem is the thing that got us stuck in a hell of our own making in the first place.

And that ends up being quite the point and quite the freedom of this beautiful theology we who follow Jesus are living. Sanctification is that part of the Christian life that points out our hell … and then delivers us from it.

Hallelujah.

Read More

Biblical … or superstitious? Which are you?

Consider how the following three numbers are related*: 2, 4, 8. What would you say is the likely relationship between these three numbers? Is there a pattern (hint: yes)? To confirm your guess, write three other numbers you think follow the same pattern (or rule) as the three above.

So what’s your guess?  Are you thinking that each number doubles the one before it? If that was your assumption, think again. While your rule may work for the numbers you’ve chosen, the rule I’m thinking of is that each number is higher than the one before. So 1,2,3 also works. And 15,21,82 also works.

Back in the 60s, a psychologist named Peter Wason developed this test to prove a mental tendency he called confirmation biasIt is that tendency we have to pay attention to information that confirms our beliefs, while we ignore information that challenges our beliefs. You want to believe you don’t do this. You want to believe, in fact, that you always filter information objectively and see the world just as it is. The fact, however, is that we all tend to confirm our suspicions by gathering information that fits what we already believe. And that can be very dangerous to our worldview and especially to a right understanding of God.

How, you ask?

Have you had the experience of having several bad things happen in a day, only to come to the end of it believing the world — or God — is out to get you? Have you had a streak of bad breaks, leaving you feeling that God has abandoned you? Or that you’re not good enough? Or that God is punishing you, or doesn’t have enough power in your life, or that you’re somehow wrong as a person?

That kind of “bottom up” thinking is actually more pagan than Christian. By “pagan,” I don’t mean “sinful.” I’m talking about a worldview almost as old as the world itself — a view that promotes the idea that everything is hard-wired together. Everything. So the tree in your yard is connected to your chair is connected to your dog is connected to your car is connected to … you get the picture.

This view of reality not only connects things, but also events. It makes sense of the world by connecting unrelated events to explain why things are as they are.

Animist religions follow this thinking. Take this view of the world far enough, and you’re collecting the eyes of newts to cast a spell on a noisy neighbor. Or back off just a bit and you’re wearing the same Atlanta Braves hat every day because your team is on a roll and consciously or not, you’ve decided your hat is a contributing factor to their luck. You don’t really believe that … but you still wear the hat.

Do you get the idea?

In this worldview, I begin with events in front of me and reason outward from them into the  realm of cause and effect. When I’m thinking from creation up, I may actually begin to believe that I control the world, or at least my world. And I may even begin to use the condition of my world to define what I believe about God. A creation-up worldview even colors my understanding of scripture, when I require my personal experience to define for me what the Bible means.

Of course, this isn’t the way the world (or the Bible) actually works, though we often function as if it does. A biblical worldview teaches that when God reveals himself, it isn’t from creation up — we can’t conjure him or his power up by doing certain things that compel him to act — but from the Kingdom down. Things don’t define God; God defines things.

Hear this: There is inevitable mystery in the gap between God and the world and God is the one who chooses where to break through that mystery to reveal himself. God is the one who defines what is. 

In a Christian worldview, grace is the critical link that spans the gap and makes the unknowable knowable. We don’t generate grace; God does. And it is only by God’s grace — not by our actions — that we can know him. Any mysteries solved, any connections made, must come from the top down.

From God.

Do you begin to see why our perspective on the world and what controls it — how we see things — can have a major impact on how we understand God? It becomes vitally important for us to begin with God’s revealed character rather than with our circumstances, in order to build a right relationship with him.

And ironically, it is in our use of the means of grace (things like Bible reading, prayer, worship, community, service) that we are most able to connect. Think of the means of grace like bowls that catch grace. Or like “God glasses.” These habits don’t conjure God up nor do they define God, but they are places where God reveals himself.  When we wear these lenses we are likely to see him as he is.

So we come back to our thought experiment about numbers. What I learn is this: first, that the world isn’t always as we perceive it; and second, that while I can’t know the world by beginning with the world itself, I can know the world by beginning with the end in mind.

In other words: Don’t think from creation up. Think from the Kingdom down. This is the essence of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Do not be infants in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”

 

* I first saw this thought experiment in an article in The New York Times.  You can find it here. The last half of this post is inspired by a lecture given in a Doctor of Ministry class by Dr. Joe Dongell (Asbury Theological Seminary).

Read More

How to sit with someone in their grave (or, How to surrender your sexuality to God)

A friend of a friend works with men who have gone through sexual trauma and in a conversation about how healing happens for them, he says, “These men cannot make resurrection happen. The only person who can do that is Jesus. They don’t know when—or even if—it will ever happen. And we (the church) don’t know how to sit with them in their grave [until it does].

Most of us know something about graves. The very, very difficult reality is that we do all kinds of things that lead to death. We struggle with porn, have affairs, deny we’ve had affairs, drink to excess. We are slaves to our emotions and say hateful things and explode in anger. We lie to protect ourselves. None of us is above the sin line and that very fact should be cause for a deep sense of humility as we talk with those who sit in graves of their own making.

We are all fighting against fallen human nature, all battling manifestations of selfish desire. We all struggle against things that “feel natural” and we all need the grace of God to conquer those cravings. That’s why we need to learn to sit with one another in our graves. Not because death is good, but because resurrection is possible.

Earlier this year, our church spent five weeks developing a biblical theology of the body.¹ We ended that series with a conversation about how those truths intersect with grace. In the course of preparing for those conversations, I consulted with Phyllis Kiser, a therapist who practices therapy in the area of sexual brokenness.

I asked Phyllis to think with me about the kind of pastoral counsel she would share with someone ready to come out of sexual brokenness. I share these thoughts here for those who may have made a few mistakes in life, some of them around the use of your body and your own sexuality:

1) Surrender your sexuality to God. All of it. Your desires, attractions, behaviors, hormonal surges, history, future. All of it. Have the humility to submit yourself to your Creator.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:12), he gives them this sage advice: Don’t allow yourself to be dominated by anything.

We should all write that on a post-it note and put it on our bathroom mirror. I will not be dominated by anything but Jesus.

After Paul hands this advice to the Corinthians he immediately shifts to the subject of Jesus being raised from the dead, as if to say, “Jesus is more powerful than whatever you have been dominated by.” This is begin-again language. There is no mistake so far out there that it can’t be made right, no wound so deep that it can’t be healed.

God specializes in resurrections.

2) Don’t buy the sexual message this culture is selling. Be intentional and learn about God’s sexual economy. Examine your thoughts and expectations about sex. Develop a biblically based theology of sex.

Satan’s big win in the Garden was his ability to make the first humans see sin differently. The enemy got them to believe that life was designed to fulfill their own needs when in fact, life is designed to glorify God. Consequently, so much of our teaching on our created design is dead wrong.

The morality message plays off fear and shame. The message is, “It is bad. Don’t do it.” This is what we teach our kids. We use morality to scare them away from treasuring their own bodies.

The biology message focuses on physical and emotional feelings and attractions. The message is, “If it feels good, do it.” For teens, the message is, “Protect yourself.” This separates body from soul.

The theological message, however, teaches us that there is no shame in Christ, that the goal of this physical life is to be fruitful, to experience biblical joy through a covenantal relationship, to learn true intimacy rooted in trust — all with the intended end of pointing our lives toward God.

3) Invite the Holy Spirit to empower you to live a life that pleases God. We need the Holy Spirit to tell us who we really are. Andy Stanley says it well: “Focus on becoming someone, not finding someone.”  Because we live under the shadow of the cross, we are not orphans. We are children of the King.

The cross is our rescue from slavery. Through the cross, Jesus used a body to prove the point that bodies can connect us back to God. Our creator used a body to remind us that we are more than plumbing and wiring. We are redeemed people with bodies and stories and spiritual gifts, all designed to be in partnership with God to build the Kingdom on earth.

 

¹I am grateful to Dr. Timothy Tennent and those who lead Asbury Seminary’s chapel services. The messages Dr. Tennent delivered on the theology of the body at Asbury’s chapel last year deeply inspired and informed our conversations.

Read More

Act as if … (how to start up a stalled life)

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.” 

This was a line in an email from a greatly loved one who feels her life has stalled. She is discovering that it really is true: being stuck is a painful place to be.

In the recovery community, we often hear people say, “Act as if.” It is a reminder that we are not limited by our present reality. We don’t have to stay stuck. We can act as if what we want in life can happen, especially if we are willing to be patient and let God do his work.

We “act as if” more often than we might admit. I do this every morning when I get out of bed to go to the gym. I am not naturally a morning person (in fact, I’m not naturally a vertical person). I am not that person who bounces out of bed full of energy at the crack of dawn, ready to get on with her day. Not naturally. I am definitely not that person who loves to exercise.

Who I am is someone who loves sleep, who loves a good cup of coffee, who loves to stay in her morning chair for two hours. That’s who I am. But who I want to be is someone who doesn’t have a ton of health issues in her later life. I want to be that person who is disciplined enough to care for this temple God has given her, and who is up and moving early enough to care for this temple and still have time for God (and a shower) before the day begins

So every morning, what gets me out of bed is not the person I am but the person I want to be. When it comes to my health and schedule, I have learned to “act as if.”

The same holds true with my personal time with God — the time I devote completely to hearing from and worshiping him. The discipline of personal worship and spiritual growth isn’t natural.   If it were, none of us would have a problem getting to it every day.

I don’t make time with God because it comes naturally and easily; I make time because I don’t want to get stuck in my spiritual life, because I want to my relationship with God to mature, because I want more than what comes naturally. I’m learning to act as if I am spiritually disciplined, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Discipline — especially spiritual discipline — is not intuitive. It is the daily work of being there even when I don’t feel like it. It is the practice of my gifts over time so that I begin to see results.

The fruit of a disciplined life doesn’t appear overnight. It happens over time. 

One of the things that helps me is remembering that everything is a process. There are very few “events” in the spiritual journey. Most people are not healed immediately. Most problems are not solved in a moment. Most of the time it is a process of healing, a process of walking through the valley, a discipline of trusting the rod and staff that guide us toward the feast on the other side.

We may have no ability to imagine that feast, but we trust the Guide so we act as if

Act as if our recovery is complete, even if we’re still on the journey. Act as if our relationships are healed, even if they are still in process. Act as if our physical health is improving, as if our depression is healing, as if our finances are stabilizing. Act as if the deal is done, even if it is still under construction.

This is the very invitation given to Abraham, who was invited to act as if he was the father of a great nation long before his first child was born. Noah was invited to act as if there would be a flood before the first drop of rain fell. That moment when Jesus stood on Peter’s faith and proclaimed that this kind of faith would be the very thing on which the Church of Jesus Christ would stand happened long before Peter took authority over his own call and stood to preach the good news.

All of these men were invited to act as if … and at the time of the invitation none of them had yet achieved any great faith or great fruit. Their God-given identity came on the front end, based not on their potential but on God’s character …

Their stories are our encouragement. This is how our God tends to work. He invites us to display confidence in his promises even before we see how the lines will be drawn. He invites us into change, even when it is hard, because  long before we understand him God is at work.

God is making good on his promises. God is faithful. Act as if that is true.

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

Take a little wine for your stomach (or, how to live well in a stressful world)

You definitely get the sense in Paul’s two letters to Timothy that he is writing a young and anxious pastor who is hanging by a thread. You can hear the anxiety and depression in Paul’s advice: “Take some wine for your stomach,” he tells Timothy. “Remember that if you’re suffering for the gospel, you’re not the first to do that, and you won’t be the last.”

This is Paul encouraging a young leader who is beginning to question his call because frankly, this is hard. Bearing other people’s burdens will give you stomach problems.* Watching them slide backward after you’ve done so much to move them forward can make a person downright depressed.

And all the pastors said, “Amen.”

Timothy is frustrated. It seems almost like the folks with whom he lives have gone deaf. The message he has for them seems to have no effect. Maybe they’d rather believe comfortable things than uncomfortable things. “Maybe Jesus was more like a ghost than a flesh-and-blood man,” they say, because that is an easier answer to grab onto than the idea of a man who is fully human and fully divine all at once.

Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Some of you are right there with him. Just tired. Tired of weekly reports of terrorist attacks. Tired of the day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of a political scene that only reveals our corporate insanity. Tired of conflict and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

The question seems inevitable: Why bother? 

William Blake once wrote, “You ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men.” Whether he meant to or not, Blake is paraphrasing Paul, who told the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Both the apostle and the poet are saying the same thing: God uses foolish things, foolish people, ordinary people, obscure people, nobodies, everybody to accomplish his purposes. And in fact, God refuses to accomplish his purposes without those partnerships, no matter how obscure or foolish.

In that word, I hear a word for Timothy and all of us who dare to listen: Hang in there, because what you do with your life matters.

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 the one in whom we place our faith, which is proven by the character he brings out in us.

It is not crazy to stand for truth, to live by a moral code, to trust that there is more to life than just fallen people. It is not crazy to make your life count for something more than a bank account balance (after all, the one with the most toys still dies).

It is not crazy to look beyond a job to a vocation. In fact, it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. Maybe you will work hard and sleep less and endure criticism or worse yet obscurity; which is to say, we’re not the point even of our own calling. And that ends up being quite the point.

We don’t always (or maybe even ever) get the results we think we deserve. But here’s what we do get. We get the one thing that makes all the rest of it worth it: We get Jesus.

On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

 

* Just for clarity’s sake, I’m not proposing that we deal with stress by buying a bottle of wine. Been there, done that and by God’s immense grace, I enjoy a beautifully sober life. The point is that life can be hard but Jesus is good. And Jesus is worth it.

Read More