Monday, September 8, 2014

Weight Loss

I know I’m not alone in needing to drop a little weight. Not only will it make me healthier, but it’ll make me feel better and enjoy my life more. Voices in various media make all kinds of promises for easy ways to drop this weight. But in my core (which needs the most exercise) I know the answer: walking…with Jesus. See, the weight I’m talking about dropping is not excess fat and flab. This weight comes from fear and judgment and all that is bound up with them. And yes, the culture offers all kinds of quick fixes. And yes, I’m finding that Jesus offers the only “program” that truly takes the weight off.
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

God In the Dark

I don’t remember being afraid of the dark. I’m sure I went through normal childhood nyctophobia, and I certainly have those moments as an adult in which I’m fearful about some unknown noise outside at night or in a dark house. But there’s a deeper fear of a deeper dark with which I’m all too familiar.

In Ascent of Mt. Carmel, John of the Cross talks about faith as darkness, and that one who wants to live in union with God must enter the dark. This dark faith is opposed to senses and intellect, i.e. opposed to outward circumstances and our constant struggle to figure out how everything will work out and how we can position ourselves for the best possible outcome.

We are afraid of the dark, and that fear of stepping into the unknown is understandable. But the problem, all too often, is the reason for the fear. It isn’t because we know there will be struggle and that we must learn to walk by faith rather than by sight. The reason for our fear is because we are sure that we are all alone. Surely there is no one there to lead us into the light. Is there even any light at all? 
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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

To Be a Sheep

The Call to Be a Shepherd

I was on one of those walks, one of those discernment walks where you’re hoping to hear from God. I had my small Bible with me. I had been reading through Matthew’s Gospel. I walked to the park a few blocks from our newly-wed duplex. We had been married only a few months. And I was only a few months more than that into a discernment process, something of a vision quest. I felt like God might be leading me to be a pastor—maybe. Pieces were coming together. That day, sitting at a picnic table in a park in my hometown of Canyon, Texas, I read an important piece:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. –Mt. 9:36

That verse, set in the context of a description of Jesus’ kingdom ministry and followed by his declaration that the Lord wants workers in his harvest field, worked its way into my soul and became part of my calling. To this day that image of Jesus having compassion on the harassed and helpless sheep in need of a shepherd’s leading continues to inform my pastoral vocation. But is that all there is?

The Call to Be a Sheep

“What is there about the life and teaching of Jesus that speaks most powerfully to you?”

That question came to me in a morning quiet time recently. I was reading a devotion rooted in the life and teaching of St. Ignatius and his reflections on the life of Jesus. It’s a fair question: What about Jesus’ life and teaching is especially meaningful to me? The problem is, I didn’t know how to answer it. And this troubled me…deeply. I don’t think I’d ever tried to answer it really.

I’d progressed from a childhood “Jesus is my friend who loves me” to that young decision “He’s the way to heaven” and the deep teen years of “He’s the God-man” and then the young adult “He cares for the poor and needy” and recently, as a pastor doing doctoral work in mystical theology, “Jesus is the bright revelation of the dark mystery of God.”

But what about Jesus’ life and teaching speaks most powerfully to me? To me? Not to the books or movements I’m currently into, to the authors and musicians and preachers and teachers I’m absorbing lately? But to me? Not even to the sermon I’m working on or the study I’m preparing for or even the book I’m writing? Just me?

I guess it comes back to the childhood “Jesus is my friend who loves me.” And that friendship and love are revealed in his compassion for me, that I am harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd. I had gotten so caught up in being a shepherd, spent so many years in the training and vocation of pastor, that I forgot what it was to be a sheep—if I ever really knew. Now it began to dawn on me: The Lord is my shepherd…

So Jesus calls me, even me, to be part of his life and teaching, to be part of him. He leads me and teaches me. He tells me his stories about a kingdom, about the heirs of that kingdom, about life in the kingdom as a steward and builder and even as a child of the King.

But it’s me he wants to lead and teach—not some abstract, generic, and even profound movement or thinker or leader. This is what it is for Robert to be loved and to love. This is what I need to do to live freely and faithfully, using my gifts and personality and passions and desires to follow him and be his student and his friend. To my shock, I am only at the beginning—the beginning of the journey through green pastures and still waters and right paths, the journey through the valley of death’s shadow and into the presence of my enemies, the journey with anointed head and overflowing cup into the house of the Lord.

I come as a sheep to the Good Shepherd. I come as a child to my Friend. It’s ok to say it, to believe it, to live it: Jesus loves me, this I know…

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

5 Lessons for Pastors (and Others) from Dead Poets Society...Besides Carpe Diem

I was blessed to come of age among romantics, dreamers, artists. My closest friends in my teen and young adult years were deep thinkers and lovers of beauty. We asked big questions, dreamed big dreams, and looked at the universe as a grand home in which we were free to sprawl and traipse with muddy shoes. But we were also awkward, self-conscious, and searching. When the movie Dead Poets Society came out, we found in it something of an autobiography.

Here was a group of boys entering manhood, seeking comfort in their own skin while clothed in ill-fitting family armor. In Robin Williams’s John Keating they found a teacher, mentor, and friend who gave them permission to embrace and unleash the life-passion pounding in their young hearts. Mr. Keating didn’t place pressure on them to be themselves; he simply offered them encouragement to find themselves.

Dead Poets Society was, providentially for me and my mates, released only days after high school graduation. In my mind it set a course. I was going to be a composer, a poet, a professional romantic. I grew and aged and moved from being one of the schoolboys toward the role of the teacher—or at least some combination of the two. Then I became a pastor.

But I never forgot John Keating. I’ve continued to be inspired by this character, both as he was written and as Robin Williams played him. I hope that, at least in some ways, I am a pastor in the way that Keating was a teacher. I try to seize the day, I’m a lover of words, and when I preach I even sometimes tell the congregation to “huddle up!” But there are deeper lessons. In that spirit and in honor of the beautiful lifework of Robin Williams, I offer a few of the ways this plays out.

1. Pastor with Passion
Mr. Keating teaches from the heart. He speaks and listens intently. He teaches purposefully. He whistles the 1812 Overture. He stands on his desk and sounds his barbaric Yawp!...and encourages others to do so. Nothing is half-hearted.

The authority of the King and his kingdom mission are not to be undertaken lightly. What fuels our passion? What saps our passion? Feed the former and starve the latter.

2. Know What You’re About
In a private conversation with Neil, it is discovered that Keating has a significant other who is in London. Frustrated in his own struggle for identity, Neil says, “You can go anywhere. You can do anything. How can you stand being here?” Mr. Keating replies, “Because I love teaching. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

We must guard against double-mindedness and distraction, against giving our hearts to others who are more than willing to tell us what we’re about, and against a culture that is eager for us to be disappointed with ourselves and to buy their greener pastures.

3. Be Original
Examples of Mr. Keating’s “be original” message and methods abound. A key example of both is in the courtyard scene, in which Keating takes the boys out of the classroom (which is typical and also illustrates the point) and encourages them to take a stroll in the courtyard. Soon, some are in line, marching in step, as others stand by and clap in rhythm. They all conform to each other and to some indefinable pressure to be “right.”

Each of us is a God-made original, with our own ways of being a human and a pastor. We do well to find and follow our own unique manor in living our call and plying our craft.

4. Work Broadly
Keating leads the boys onto the athletic field. Each is given a line of verse to recite boldly (see #1) as they kick a ball, all to the accompaniment of a record playing exalting music. Sport, verse, music…comradeship. Another time, Keating reminds them that, ”… medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Pastoring is broad—teaching, counseling, scholarship, preaching, management, social justice, monasticism, and on and on. It reaches across the ages and sprawls into eternity. And Jesus’ kingdom mission reaches even more broadly. How blessed we are to engage, equip, and empower God’s many-splendored people as they bring God’s kingdom into their own disciplines and setting.

5. Stand for Truth
I can’t watch the end of Dead Poets Society without being stirred to tears. Who can?! As Todd finally emerges from his fear and “quiet desperation” to take a stand (literally) on behalf of his disgraced, scape-goated mentor, and as others follow his example, Mr. Keating smiles in satisfaction that the lessons he has tried to convey to them have indeed taken hold.

Like other professions, and like the young lives in Dead Poets Society, the pastor is haunted by the dark temptations of conformity, of waywardness and alienation, of going through the motions or doing whatever it takes to “succeed.” Too many of us have left behind the Truth of Jesus for a misguided and misleading message that big, rich, and famous are God-blessed, while small, poor, and anonymous are God-forsaken. We attend conferences and graph the metrics of J. Evans Pritchard, PhD., while Jesus is urging us onto our desks. 

Pastor with passion. Know what you’re about. Be original. Work broadly. Stand for truth. Find the barbaric yawp in your soul and let it out—not just once but always. Look to Jesus, that resurrected “sweaty-toothed madman,” as he charges ahead, and follow him into the thick of it, into the thick of life itself. “O Captain! my Captain!”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Millennials, Mainline, and Methodists: The Cure for What Ails Us

I’m tired. I’m tired of the posts and ads and quick fixes. I’m tired of the head-scratching and magic bullet appeals for how to “reach” millennials. I’m tired of marketing tricks and demographic reports that promise to hold the key to attracting customers. In conversations about the problems with the church, with mainline decline, with the “nones,” etc., in our culture today, I hear recommendations for everything from increasing parking to Instagram to inclusivism, and many sure-fire fixes in between. What I hear woefully little of is the need to make disciples…real disciples.

Churches and leaders feel the need to add descriptors to the word disciples: dynamic disciples, fully-committed disciples, faithful disciples, disciple-making disciples, and on and on. This need for qualifiers indicates to me that we have a weak and desperately underdeveloped understanding of what a disciple even is.  And, thus, we don’t see the value and necessity for disciple-making as the cure for what ails us. 

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Deep Art of Easter

The summer movie season is already upon us. I heard a movie critic say Hollywood is starting summer earlier in order to prolong the huge box office profits. What this largely looks like is loud, big-budget superhero and sci-fi blockbusters. Captain America and Spiderman are already out, and more Avengers, X-Men, and Transformers will be visiting soon. Interspersed among these will be the quieter, some would say deeper films.

A key difference between the blockbusters and the deeper films is whether or not they stay with us. So called “high art” typically has us wrestling with its meaning long after our initial exposure to it. These are the movies that get to us, that we’re still wrestling with the next day or next week or for the rest of our lives. On the contrary, lower or pop art is typically good for a couple hours of blow-em-up escapism and then we’re done with it.

Mark’s telling of Jesus’ resurrection is art of the highest order. More than this, the resurrection itself is of such complexity and beauty and power that we spend the rest of eternity working out what it means for our lives and for the world. We think the resurrection gives us answers. But it really leaves us with more questions.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Make Someone Happy...Yeah, Good Luck With That

Make someone happy
Make just one someone happy
And you’ll be happy too

Despite Jimmy Durante’s classic words, we can’t really “make someone happy.” That’s too much pressure to put on anyone. We might do or say things that result in someone else’s passing moments of happiness, and vice versa. But for many, this is much bigger. We fall into the romantic notion that if we “make just one someone happy,” then we’ll “be happy too.” It makes for a nice song about investing ourselves in a significant other. But the reality is a trap we too easily fall into.

I can’t be responsible for the happiness of my wife or child, my neighbors or friends or coworkers, and certainly not (as a pastor) an entire congregation. Their happiness is up to them. And I mustn't depend on them for my happiness. Selfish as it seems, I need to be concerned with my own happiness and let them be concerned with theirs. The lyrics might more truly say, “Make yourself happy, and others might be happy too…maybe.” Not such a good song I guess, but more accurate.

Now this is a slippery slope. The truth is, until my happiness includes loving others redemptively, putting their good first even at my own personal cost, then much of it is a wash. Selfish happiness is no real or lasting happiness. But putting others first and making them happy are two very different propositions.

It comes down to obedience, faithfulness. If our decisions and motives and actions are held up as responsible for other people’s happiness, as is so often the case, then it’s all a fickle mess, because we are all just people subject to moods and mixed motives. And the corollary is true as well – moods and whims are also responsible for unhappiness. If others’ happiness depends on me, and mine on them, then we’re all in trouble. People are flaky.

Come to think of it, so am I. So even if I live just to make myself happy, I’m still after a wildly moving target. Happiness has to be realigned with faithfulness. We have to learn the subtle but abiding joy of living faithfully, following Jesus and participating in the life of the Triune God. Then my happiness is God’s happiness – a fixed, eternal target. This is the still center of eternal life and true happiness…and you’ll be happy too.