Religion

The Best Thing About Church

It was a long, hard catechism process fraught with communication issues. You see, she’s Deaf. I have some basic signing, and she is an excellent lip reader, so most of the time it worked all right. She has told me repeatedly that I saved her life. She’s never been involved in a church before, and she’s been pulled in deep her. She loves women’s Bible study and attends faithfully.

Today she nearly cried.

After all that, what is it that affected her most? More than preaching the Gospel? More than the announcement of forgiveness or a home in heaven? More than peace with God?

I sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

“She was almost crying,” another church member told me after. “She said no pastor had ever sung Happy Birthday to her before.”

Um… ok.

Look, I get that as a small congregation, we get to make things far more personal than larger congregations. I can get away with silly things like singing Happy Birthday on a Sunday morning right before Bible study. I get that the people here greatly value that personal touch.

But… but the center isn’t my personal touch. That should be a “bonus feature” on the DVD of church. The main feature is Jesus. Not pastor – Jesus!

I’ve long struggled with church worship here. I’ve only barely been touched by pastor worship… but now I see it a little. It happened with a teenager, too. He told me that he can’t pay attention to other pastors, and now that I’ve had to enact discipline on his mom, he refuses to see me. So he might as well not go to any church, because he won’t get anything out of those other pastors, anyway. That’s pastor worship there – and other sins, too.

I have told people repeatedly – it’s about Jesus, not about me. When I leave (and it is a when, whether that’s in one year or twenty) – when I leave, nobody better leave this congregation. If they do, it shows me they were attached to me and not attached to Jesus.

I can’t save anyone, no matter how many times I might sing Happy Birthday to them. Knowing me will not forgive any of your sins.

This may shock you, but I’m not Jesus.

I appreciate that this woman appreciated my singing Happy Birthday. I do these things on purpose to express love. And I’m not calling her a “pastor-ologist” or anything like that. She trusts Christ and rejoices in him.

But if that’s the thing that gets her most excited about church… something’s lacking.

Does that mean I need to be less friendly? I don’t think that’s the solution. Can I point better to Christ? Well, yeah. Obviously. I can always do that better.

The best thing about church, though, shouldn’t be the pastor. And it shouldn’t be the people. Those things are nice and good, but they shouldn’t be the highlight.

The best thing about church is Jesus: hearing what he has done proclaimed to you; praising in response; confessing sins and hearing forgiveness; receiving the Sacrament… these things are the best things about church. Not pastor!

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Laughter fails.

Sorrow is heavier than laughter.

I laughed a good amount today. We had a fun Bible study (yes, that’s not only possible, but fairly regular at my congregation). I got to spend an hour playing Wiiu for the first time with some of the teens. I cuddled my kids and hugged my Bride. And worship… to speak those words, those true words, “I forgive you all your sins!” To deliver Jesus’s own body and blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine, and with it forgiveness? Yes. So many good things today, both for ministry and with family.

But even in laughter, the heart may ache.

“I can’t support a pastor who chases members away.” And so my day began, as a man accused me of trying to murder the congregation. He refuses to understand that God’s Word is very plain regarding sinners who refuse to repent: warn patiently and gently, but should there be no change, harsher methods start – for the good of the soul of that person. And so it is my fault that we are losing some members, when one person refuses to let go of a sin. At least, that’s what I’m told by a few.

Two members arguing to the point of destroying furniture. And I know why Paul begs. “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:2)

A man dear to my heart sits in the hospital, and he weeps. I sit with him and comfort, but his heart is so weighed down.

A woman dear to my heart sobs; she has been so hurt by another.

And there is so much pain. There is so much hurt. And no, I do not bear it – that is not my job. It is not my task to carry all of these hardships. I bring them before Jesus. And yet, I mourn with those who mourn.

It has been a hard month, and where I thought laughter would buoy me up again soon, sorrow continues to drag down. I don’t know what to do.

I talked to brothers in the ministry today. I don’t know if I’m being a whiny brat or if this is a Jeremiah ministry. I need someone to either tell me to shut up and be the shepherd of this flock, or if I am in that hard a ministry that my sorrow is justified. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with another pastor who knows this congregation and knows it well; he’ll be able to either whack me upside the head or help me to carry on. Probably both.

I don’t know if what I have is “grass is greener syndrome” or sitcomitis (the belief that everything should be wrapped up in time for the next episode) or, as my Bride called it, “first-year-itis” – simply put, the honeymoon is over and now I’m starting to notice the warts. I don’t know. But I know that tonight, I’m tired and down. My sorrow is heavier than my laughter. 

Pastor on Mute

So, I was useless this week. I canceled pretty much every appointment. I did half the work I set out for myself to do. In fact, I could only achieve about half my normal work. I was physically incapable of doing more.

No, I wasn’t flat on my back with an illness. And no, I didn’t get run over by a bus and get laid up in a hospital. I was in my office every day, working on office stuffs. But I couldn’t visit people… because I lost my voice.

Do you have any idea how much a pastor relies on his voice? It means I can’t communicate the Gospel easily. It’s near impossible to comfort another person. If the other person is susceptible to illness (such as someone who’s older or someone in the hospital) I can’t even visit them. Bible studies? Nope. Sermons? Nada. I can listen, sure! And that’s really important to do — but I also need to be able to clearly communicate what God has done to people. And I can’t do that without a voice, unless the other person knows sign language. (I know basics, so that would work…)

I actually lost it over a week ago, so Sunday morning was a struggle. I posted a bit on that last week. But then… I had to cancel almost all my meetings. I had a lot of evangelism visits lined up this week… all canceled. Instead, I languished in my office. I worked hard on the sermon (and honestly, this was a good week to spend extra time on the sermon). I prepared Bible studies. I still did lots of work, but spent very little time with people.

And you know what? It was frustrating! I got grumpy. I had little motivation to do the actual necessary office work. I wanted to nap a lot, and it wasn’t from the cold. It was just me being grumpy.

By the time my voice came back late Thursday, I was ready to go. I spent a good chunk of Saturday going out and visiting people, and my spirit soared. There is something about getting out and serving people that helped me. Sure, the interactions were generally positive. All but one visit were evangelism visits, as I stop by just to see how people are doing and remind them that hey, there’s a pastor and a church ready to serve them!

(It also helped immensely that one such family came to visit our congregation for the first time today!)

But I’ve learned this about me: If you take away my ability to serve the congregation, I get grumpy. Now, that doesn’t happen if I’m vacation or serving in a different capacity – say, at a pastor’s conference. But if I have a week straight of nothing but office work, I get cranky.

I guess I just need to serve.

And also get rid of the cough that’s returned. That can’t be a good thing.

Elephants in the Bible Study Room

Jesus knows how to take care of souls better than we do. Go figure; he created them. So why is it we insist on taking care of things our own way?

Bible study was more than a little interesting today. I lost my voice due to a combination of cold and being outdoors and shouting all day yesterday. So, I planned a video for Bible study. It was one that I thought should elicit a good amount of conversation. It’s a well-done video that you can find here:

 

And after the video, I asked: “What did he get right? What did he get wrong?” I expected a conversation following why we need to gather as Christians, condemning legalism, and the like. (And if you want a great response to the video, watch this:  )

 

OK, so I asked for responses. I got some of the expected basic answers: He was able to talk about the Gospel, how Jesus is the center, how we do nothing, how hypocrisy is bad… And one woman asked: “If we’re supposed to be full of grace… if we’re not supposed to judge… then how can we judge sin? Everyone sins! We shouldn’t be kicking people out of church just because they sin!” (more…)

It’s not my church.

I have an imagination. Sometimes that’s a blessing. I love making up stories. God has given me the ability to tell his stories in a way that people hear “story” and not “boring Sunday school,” and so they learn more about the Bible. Imagination is a good thing.

…and then it’s not.

This past week, I had two related meetings. Both of them were high stressors for me — to the point that I wasted two days this past week, not able to do any office work, not able to visit anyone, because my head was in those meetings and mentally preparing and bracing myself. I do not exaggerate when I say: If these meetings went badly, this congregation might not make it to the end of 2013. And my brain decided the best thing to do was to make that worst case scenario the most likely scenario.

And that’s when imagination is a bad thing.  (more…)

What shirt do you wear?

Galatians 5:2-6

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

This week we studied these words in Bible study. And as I explained part of this to the class, an illustration came to mind:

Imagine you’re going out on a date. Your date is awesome. Perfect. But he tells you: “I’ll only go out with you if you wear this one shade of blue. That’s the kind of shirts I love.”

Well, wanting to have a good date, you find that shade of blue. Except… it’s a shade off. And your date clearly sticks his nose up at you. Do you want to go out with this guy again?

That’s what having a relationship with God based on the law is. If you want to follow rules, you can follow rules. But it’s going to ruin your relationship. You’ll be “alienated from Christ.” And that goes with any kind of law-keeping, from “Thou shalt obey!!!” to “I’m just a nice guy.” Ultimately, it will alienate you from Christ.

But now imagine that you go out with a guy, and have a great time. You clearly are meant for each other. He treats you well. And then he lets you know, “I think you’d look really pretty in blue.”

Well, you want to make this guy happy, right? And he’s not forcing anything on you. What are the chances you wear blue next time you get together? A lot higher?

That’s what a relationship based on the gospel is. We long to please God, because he’s kept all his promises to us. Our relationship isn’t based on trying to please him. He did everything for us. How could we not rejoice in him? How could we not desire to please him — not because it gets him to do anything, but because he’s already that good to us?

– – –

I enjoyed the illustration, and it seemed to help the class understand our relationship to the law a little better.

And then we got to verse twelve, and I was amazed at how many people didn’t know what the word “emasculation” means…

I wasn’t made for the ministry.

I wasn’t made for the ministry.

That’s the conclusion I had today. My wife termed it a “fire day.” I have office days, visiting days, and now I have fire days. Days where everything catches on fire, and I need to put them all out.

It’s so stupid. A member doesn’t want to listen to what God’s Word says, so she simply tells me that I’m “just another person silly.” Discredit the messenger, discredit the message. Oldest trick in the book. And her life is a mess. I’ve wept for her and with her. She should know the love I have for her, that I want what’s best for her.

And now I feel betrayed. And it’s stupid. It’s not me she’s spurning. It’s Jesus.

That’s supposed to make me feel better. It doesn’t. Now, instead of rejecting some schmuck, she’s rejecting what her Savior says. And I weep for her more.  (more…)

“You’re too old/young to have a good idea!”

I am so proud of my congregation.

Before I explain why, let me say: my congregation is full of sinners. Its pastor is a terrible sinner. We do terrible things to each other. We are broken human beings that, really, are just getting used to being open about our brokenness with each other.

And yet, sometimes, something happens that shows me that they are not what they were. They have been washed, they’ve been sanctified, they’ve been justified by Jesus. And it’s so awesome for me, as their pastor, when that shows.

We were having a congregational brainstorming session. It was pretty open. I served as moderator and tried to keep things focused and on track as well as allowing everyone the chance to speak. It went well. Lots of ideas came up. The central thought of the meeting was this: How can we make Jesus clearer to a visitor? How do we get all the junk out of the way that we do sometimes, how do we get all the thick “This is the way we do things” out of the way and simply present Jesus? (more…)

Is being a pastor making me a worse husband, or a better one?

I come home. I walk past my children, to my Bride. She’s in the kitchen, finishing up supper. She sees the look on my face. I embrace her, and she holds me. I don’t sob, but it comes close. There are tears. From the dining room, the children call out, asking if we can come in so we can all pray and they can eat. My Bride answers, “Pray by yourselves!” She continues to hold me.

Finally, we separate. I whisper through tears, “Think on this. Tell me how I can love you better.”

My Bride hasn’t gotten back to me quite yet; that was a few hours ago. I suspect she will, though; she’s amazing about things like that.

Why was I so shaken? I just returned from some marital counseling that has not been going well. I see the wounds that are so very deep. I see obliviousness in the wounding partner. And though my focus is on them, when they leave, all I can think is, “Is this me?”

I see the filled plate on the empty table my Bride prepared for me… and I was late to supper. Again. I hear my children asking me to play, and me telling them, “I’m tired. I’m sorry. Not right now.” I smell the burned pizza, because I was on the phone with a member and didn’t get to the oven on time. I see all the times I’ve failed her because I’ve been pursuing ministry… or because I’ve been selfish.

This morning, she laid our youngest down in the crib. He began crying a few minutes later. She asked me to take care of him… and I didn’t. My sinful nature declares, “You tried but you were too tired!” The truth is I was simply selfish. I wanted sleep, and I believed the lie that I needed it more than her.

The truth is, I am a horrible, sinful, selfish husband. My Bride deserves so much better than what I am.  (more…)

My Bipolar Week

This week was such crap.

He sat around the corner of the table, facing me. I asked him, “Do you admit that this is a sin?”

He paused only a moment to convey he understood the gravity of the situation. “Yes.”

“Do you have any desire to leave it?”

He paused. He considered. “No.”

He walked away, knowing he was living in sin, knowing he had no forgiveness, but that was ok because he loved his sin more than God anyway.

Let me tell you, that is a crap feeling. Knowing that someone was knowingly walking away form Jesus. Thinking they had something better. That this flash of pretend-goodness was better than everything that is good in heaven. That five minutes of two-dimensional game play was better than the endless full-immersion adventure of heaven.  (more…)