Wow…a feedback barrage! And a clarification

Well that last post touched a nerve for sure.  I think some people wondered if I was despondent or contemplating quitting.  (NO.  Not in the slightest.  I am right where God wants me, without a doubt, and happy as a clam) Whatever, the outpouring of encouragement and support has been tremendous.  Thanks to everyone for lifting my spirits!

Also, I want to make sure I am really clear.  I wasn’t fishing for compliments or pats on the back with my previous post.  Seriously, I am in fantastic shape emotionally, psychologically, and mentally. (physically is getting better too!)  I wanted to share how God took some stuff that I originally really struggled with and turned it into some amazing personal growth in my walk with Christ.

See, I honestly can say now that I am not sad that those families left our church.  I miss them, I really do.  They are friends, and it is never easy when friends misunderstand your intentions and choose to leave.   But God’s kingdom is WAY bigger than my church.  If they can serve Christ better and grow in Him more elsewhere, then who am I to be upset about that?  That is good for them and their family, and more importantly good for the kingdom of God.  God has really, truly led me (back) to the place where I want to see His kingdom grow rather than mine.  And for that, I am really grateful.

I forgot to add some of the blessings, too.  The roof is being handled by a friend of the church who is an attorney.  So we won’t need to pay the goofy company their demand.  Yay!  God is at work in so many amazing ways at church too.  The boy who went to ICU on Monday will come home tomorrow.  The friend going in for a biopsy found out that it was benign.  We have an elder who we have really missed coming back onto the elder board.  Family night starts back up in two weeks!  We have a couple of people who responded to our missions outreach.  I have been witness to Him healing at least one marriage recently. (still in progress, so pray if you would for this couple)

So please don’t hear “woe is me” in my last post.  Hear the story of how God took the stuff that I saw as poo poo and used it to fertilize the soil of my soul.  I just wanted to share the process, let you “behind the curtain” to realize that pastors are normal people too.  We have bad days at work, make bad judgments and occasionally get petty. (okay, more than occasionally)  We can take stuff personally that is really not meant that way.  Every now and again someone uses the pastor as a surrogate because they are upset with God; when they do it hurts.

With that, though, most pastors I know are really good people who really feel called of God to do what they do.  They want to serve the Lord by serving His people.  And I am one of them.  I am so privileged to be invited into people’s lives at the best and worst moments.  I get to dedicate their children, pronounce them husband and wife, pray with them when they are buying a home, visit them in the hospital when they are sick.  I get the joy of baptizing them, of mentoring and helping them commit to holiness and overcome sin.  What a joy to be a pastor.

Sometimes the road is bumpy, and I wanted to share that with you all.  I want to share much more, though, how much I love this road.  I am joyful this week, resting in the grace of God and looking for ways to make His kingdom a higher priority.  Thanks for taking the journey with me.

Watch out…it’s a bumpy road

So the last couple of weeks have been interesting, to say the least. I thought I would share what the last several weeks have been like in my life, just in case you were thinking about becoming a pastor. If this doesn’t cure you of that itch, then maybe shepherding is for you. Or maybe you need to see a counselor. Or maybe both!
CAUTION: This might sound whiny for a bit. Bear with me, I am not in desperate need of catharsis. There will be a payoff, I promise. 🙂
Ever feel like a boxer that is just getting the stuffing knocked out of you? Like it is some kind of dream but the punches keep on coming, and all you can do is take them on the chin? Yeah, we all have those times in life. I have been the recipient of a fairly decent beat-down over the last month or so, the kind that attack us all from time to time.
We just had to re-roof our church building, and in the process we had a company demand $2000 from us that we didn’t have to cancel a contract that we had canceled within the specified time frame. They threatened to sue us. Since donors had provided the money for the roof, I was really stressed out about handling it well.
Some of our best friends in our church live a good 35-40 minute drive from church, so this summer they decided to look around in their area and see if they might be better served (and serving) with a church in their neighborhood. Nothing wrong with that, but it hurt for me to see them go. They may come back if they don’t find something, but it still hurts for them to be gone.
Then a couple of weeks ago I got an email that a man and his wife were leaving our church. I mentored him for a long time and have seen God work through him to call others to Christ. He said that he had prayed over it and decided to leave our family to pursue ministry in another setting; however, a couple of weeks previously we had a conflict over me helping him in a significant way that, in the end, I couldn’t or wouldn’t (depending on which point of view you look at it from). I “read between the lines” and figured that it had more to do with our personal conflict than with any significant ministerial reasons.

That same week I found out on Sunday morning that another family had left our church. This was not a family that hung around the edges of the church, but one that was in significant ministry. There were more than ministry connections; there were personal ones as well. I found out fifth hand from my wife who was in tears. Not so good. Then after I contacted them and asked to talk, I found out that one of the underlying reasons was me. I was at least a part of the problem. That caused discomfort, so they left. I heard the reasons only after the fact.
This past weekend was fine; it was, though, our worst offering of the year.* Since we are a grace giving church and I don’t look at giving records, I don’t really know what to change or if we even should. However, if things don’t pick up we are looking at either a staff pay cut or laying someone off at some point. I absolutely hate budget stuff; it is the biggest pain I deal with as a pastor. Since I am the shepherd, these decisions lie mostly with me.
Monday was a doozy. My good friend’s father passed away, with grief compounded because they were estranged. We had a toddler rushed to ICU after he stopped breathing during a tonsillectomy. Another friend went in for a biopsy for possible breast cancer. And a friend called for help when an 11-year-old child she knew committed suicide. So I spent the day mostly on my face in prayer, though I had to teach at the seminary on Monday night as well. It’s hard to focus on the formation of the NT canon when all that is happening.
The icing on the cake came Tuesday. I sent out a prayer request via email for the toddler, and had someone email back asking to be removed from the church email prayer chain. That is not in itself a crazy happening, but this came from a person who I knew wasn’t particularly happy with a decision I had made regarding a wedding ceremony for a couple associated in a secondhand way to our church.
In a series of emails, I heard from this person that I am the most disappointing pastor they had ever met. I had single-handedly driven this couple (the couple with the wedding officiating issue) from church, and had completely ruined their church and they had nothing more to say to me. Of course, that email was cc’ed to my elders. (I would have forwarded it anyway) I was, in this person’s mind, the sole source of their not wanting anything to do with church.
Was I at my desk when this email came in? Of course not; if I was I would have been able to collect myself. Instead I got this email on my blackberry while out with my wife shopping to celebrate her birthday. Focus FAIL. (technology FAIL too…) I tried to keep my mind on Laura and her special day, but I admit to being distracted a lot.
Believe it or not, most pastors who are true shepherds absolutely ache inside when they fail their congregation. When things aren’t going well, it hurts. I am one of those. It is hard when someone takes what you have done or said completely wrongly. Our church is a reflection of me and my service, so when it is going haywire that is a reflection in some way of me going haywire. Shepherding is tough work and not for the faint of heart, to put it mildly.
Now this might sound like a good time to consider a new profession. Maybe God is telling me to seek out alternative employment. Or maybe, just maybe, this is all part of the ebb and flow of life.
See, when this started I started asking the Lord for something. I started praying for God to speak clearly to me, and to show me that He was pleased with me and my ministry if He was. He did so in numerous ways:

  • My wife affirmed my decisions and my calling. She is very much intuitive about relationships, and she sees past the situation to the heart very well. She affirmed that I was doing things the right way. She also subsequently pointed out some “rough edges” that could use polishing, which has been very helpful to me.
  • I got a very encouraging email from one of our elders in response to the email that was cc’ed to him. He thanked me for making hard decisions and for shepherding with heart and conviction.
  • I got a RANDOM call from an old friend, one who Laura and I knew way back when I was an Officer Candidate in the Navy. She needed some advice from a pastoral perspective and told me how much our interactions had made her excited to find a church home when she moves soon.
  • I talked to my mentors and filled them in on the details of the situations. Under the GIGO principle, I gave them each the run down on the situations and how things went down without sugar coating. They both affirmed my decisions and told me to hang in there, that these things happen and that every shepherd would have times when things appear to be going in the wrong direction when in reality God is preparing hearts and minds for His plan.
  • God reminded me that someone provided for ALL the funds we needed for the roof, with some more left over besides. And then God reminded me that even if we had to pay the extortion penalty this company demanded, we STILL got the roof done cheaper by going with another company.
  • I got to visit in the hospital today with a lady from our church who is in a ton of physical pain and is ready to be done with it sometimes. She has had one thing after another go wrong physically and feels like she can’t catch a break. She felt mentally, psychologically, and spiritually tired from the battle. In encouraging her to sit quietly at God’s feet and rest in Him when life didn’t make sense, I was encouraged in the same way as well. If she can be still before God in the face of pain and surgery and uncertainty, why can’t I be still before Him in the face of change and challenge?

I can see what I think I needed to learn at this point in this journey. God absolutely, definitely spoke to me through my study of Luke in preparation for my sermon (Particularly in Luke 9:23-27 and Luke 9:46-50) as well as in prayer that I need to be focused on the kingdom of God and not the “kingdom of John.” God’s kingdom wasn’t hurt by a couple of families leaving “my church” (notice, “my church” not “Christ’s local church that I serve”); it was rearranged but not hurt meaningfully, in that those who left will find another church in town to serve Christ in. If they are growing in Christ, serving meaningfully, and experiencing God in authentic ways that they weren’t at my church then where is the bad in their moving?
Add to that some more lessons. When I talked to the first couple that left, it turns out all of my “reading between the lines” was, simply put, wrong. They had been seeking the Lord for some time on where they should serve, and as this was a time of transition in their life anyway (for other reasons) they felt called to serve elsewhere. That is a TOTALLY legitimate decision and had nothing to do with any conflict. It never entered their mind, in fact. So I took something personally that was not personal. (note to self: don’t take things personally. second note to self: get the facts before getting emotionally invested)
When I talked to the second couple, again I was but a small part. There was no animosity, just hurt from something that I wasn’t part of and could never have affected. I was only a secondary issue, and this couple didn’t WANT me to feel like I was the problem so they just left quietly so as not to cause problems and hurt my feelings. I wish the process had been a little less abrupt and the timing better, but again they will be serving Christ in another place that doesn’t have the same hurt attached. God’s kingdom has not been hurt one bit, and my angst was misplaced. (note to self: don’t take things personally)

So I needed to stress less about issues over which I have no control and not all of the facts; instead I need to focus more about making sure I was shepherding all of the other areas of my ministry, taking care of the sick and hurting. I needed to focus on the marriage counseling and hospital visits and sermon preparation and growth of the people in our congregation, and our heart to reach out to those outside of our four walls.
I also realized that, now that I have been in my ministry for two years, that it is a good time for spiritual attack. Real, significant ministry doesn’t start until a pastor has been somewhere for two years, and I just passed that mark at my church. This would be an excellent time for Satan to attack my confidence and commitment to my pastorate, to tear down what God is doing and make me want to quit. Especially after learning that what I was taking personally wasn’t so personal, the spiritual attack (if there was one) was internal to me and not external to our church family.

Once I realized those two big lessons, my whole perspective changed. I have a renewed focus on God’s kingdom instead of my own, and a reminder that this time in my ministry is a critical time for seeing God at work and being part of it. My frustration toward those families is completely reversed, and I have been praying that God would bless them in their new home and with their new service in His kingdom. That alone has been worth the price of the bumpy ride.

Maybe this was a spiritual attack, and if so there is nothing to do but trust God and ask Him for shelter and protection. I am not one to see Satan under every nook and cranny, but if this is, then fortunately for me God made the lesson clear too soon for any real damage to be done. Tailspin averted, ship righted, mission recommitted to.
Maybe you’ve been through similar pains in life recently, whether in ministry or a regular job (pastoring is a highly IRREGULAR job) or with family or other relationships. If so, may this lesson that God taught me encourage you on your journey as well.
*By definition, every year MUST have one week at which the church receives its worst offering. It happens. Welcome to reality. It was just hard being THAT week.

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, Part 3: The Case Against Political Activism

John’s note: This post was written by a good friend of mine, Tom Milton. Tom is a former Phoenix City Councilman as well as Vice Mayor, and teaches a class on Christianity and Politics at Southwestern College. I will offer a little extra insight at the end.

As Christians in America, we should fight for the Christian political agenda, right? It includes issues like opposing gay marriage, outlawing abortion, removing evolution from public schools, keeping the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, fighting for prayer in public schools, displaying nativity scenes anywhere we want at Christmas, and keeping the Ten Commandments posted in public places. This agenda is about winning the culture war and electing Christian men and women to public offices.

The conflict is less about this agenda and more about our means of accomplishing it.

In his book The Myth of a Christian Nation, Gregory Boyd describes a fundamental conflict relevant to the question of how Christians should be involved in politics. He describes this conflict between “the Kingdom of the Cross and the Kingdom of the Sword.”

The Kingdom of the Sword is in the world and upon us now. Although worldly governments can be good and useful (Romans 13:1-7) they also have an evil influence. In the wilderness, Satan offers Christ authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus does not refute Satan’s authority to offer this to Him, although he does resist the temptation. This shows Satan’s authority in the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to Satan as the ruler of the world three times (John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11). Every nation on earth, no matter how good, is still influenced by the ruler of this world. A government’s authority lies in its ability to make people do (or not do) things based on its power and might. In the Kingdom of the Sword, order is kept with a sword, has worldly influences, and God has declared that it will someday end.

Contrast this with the Kingdom of the Cross. This is a kingdom without worldly power and might. In John 18:36, Jesus tells Pontius Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Jesus is actually explaining how His followers will not abide by the Kingdom of the Sword. His was a ministry of humility, grace, and service. Jesus came to change hearts. The Kingdom of the Cross began with Christ’s ministry and will continue through eternity.

In the Kingdom of the Sword, people might not murder because they fear the earthly consequences. In the Kingdom of the Cross, people will not murder because their hearts will be transformed and loving. Both of these kingdoms can achieve the same outcomes (people not murdering). One will use the threat of force; the other will use a converted heart. One is controlling; the other is transformational. One of them is temporary; the other eternal.

So how do we apply this to Christian political involvement? For some time now, Christians have had their agenda backwards. We try to force people’s behavior to fit a Christian idea of morality and presume their heart will follow their actions. Everything I have experienced in my Christian walk has been exactly the opposite. As Christ affected my heart, my actions followed. Christian activism should focus first on hearts!

Is there a case for political activism among Christians? Yes, but I would suggest we rethink our traditional approach to politics. We have been using the methods of the Kingdom of the Sword to attain outcomes only achievable through the Kingdom of the Cross.

We MUST resist fighting a spiritual battle for the hearts of our neighbors with worldly approaches. We can’t allow homosexuals to only be defined in our eyes as sinners. We must stop throwing anger and shame at women (and men) who have had (or supported) abortions. We must quit battling over superficial debates that alienate non-believers and don’t serve the Gospel. We have to stop preaching a one-dimensional God who only values holiness. We have to demonstrate love in all of our political activity. Some day all of the things of this world will pass, but the Kingdom of Heaven will reign forever.

Change their actions and their hearts MIGHT follow, but they might not.

Change their hearts and their actions WILL follow, and there will be a great rejoicing in heaven.

First off, thanks to Tom for the interaction. Secondly, notice the main argument against political activism in evangelicalism today. The argument says that we should focus on changing hearts, because change from the inside out makes a difference in both kingdoms while change forced from outside affects only the kingdom of man. So the argument says to make the Gospel the main thing and the political issues a secondary concern (if at all). Let God change people from the inside out, and don’t expect the world to meet the moral standards of Christianity.

Next week I will post my interactions with both sides.

Guitar Hero and God?!?

Laura and I have had this recurring discussion about Rock Band and/or Guitar Hero for the longest time. Her conscience is more sensitive than mine to the songs in these kinds of games. I am not about letting my kids play Slayer or Megadeth, but I love the genre of music games so I wanted one of them. Laura could have lived her whole life without it and has been worried that it exposes the kids to music we wouldn’t let them listen to.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the major video game chains had the Guitar Hero band kit (with the drums, guitar, and mic) for $90. That was half price, so I finally got my way. We agreed to go through the songs as a family, and to agree as a couple on which songs the kids could play. Since Laura’s conscience is more sensitive, she gets final say.

Well the kids had two songs they could start with: Beat It and Eye of the Tiger. Nothing like bringing out the 80’s! 🙂 We have been playing through them in career mode, and decided that many of them are not okay for our family content-wise. Others can be okay with instruments if the volume is low enough to keep the lyrics at bay.

Last night, though, I got to finally see the potential of this game. James came home from kenpo camp, so after a great dinner we fired up the Wii for some GH:WT time. We switched off playing the drums, guitar, and mic for over an hour for sure. I love the new nuance in this game that has a “beginner” difficulty. That let Sarah and Abby play too! So all six of us took turns. It was a fun night of gaming as a family, giving high fives and encouraging one another in our pursuit of five stars for “Sweet Home Alabama.” (I rocked the lyrics to that one!!)

What a great time playing as a family. We had fun, laughing and joking and pretending that we were a rock and roll band.* It was a fun night of victories, as well as discussions about what is okay and what is not in our entertainment choices. We did something as a family more involved than watch TV! Okay, it wasn’t like we studied Obadiah together or something, but we thanked God for it nonetheless in our family prayers last night.

So where did I see God in all of this? Well let’s just say that I needed the laughs a lot. I had had about 72 really tough pastoral hours, with 2 families deciding to leave our church (without any discussion with me, of course…) and a company demanding our church pay them for their mistake and threatening legal action if we didn’t. I had asked the Lord to give me some sense of His pleasure, and he did so through the smile of a 10-year-old boy and the look of success in a little girl’s eyes who just finished a song on the guitar (with her mama helping!).

No, all my problems didn’t evaporate. There has been more struggle, and the problems didn’t go away because of a video game. Life is not so simple. But it started me on the path to getting over myself and that was a great reminder today as I thought about it of how blessed I am by Him.

So go find something to do with your loved ones today. It might not look like the epitome of growing in Christ together, but sometimes God works on our hearts just by making us laugh together.

*I SOOO wanted to link the Shel Silverstein poem “If we were a rock ‘n roll band” here, but for the life of me I couldn’t find it on the intertubes…props to the person who finds it for me!!

Becoming a Spiritual Leader

I have yet to see an arena of life where leadership is not absolutely critical. I was in the Navy for almost 8 years, and of course the direction and example provided by our officers and Chief Petty Officers was critical to an effective fleet. In my business experience, the company rose and fell on the leadership of our managers. In our church, in our schools, and especially in our homes leadership is absolutely critical for success.

No aspect of leadership is more critical in a home than the spiritual leadership that a husband and father provide. I ask couples that I mentor for marriage (what most call premarital counseling) to read several books. His last book is Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker’s Every Man’s Marriage. It is not a wimpy book; it takes us men on a ride and demands that we consider our commitment to God and our wife as intertwined.

I am reading it as my summer marriage builder and cannot recommend it highly enough. In their chapter on “serving as a spiritual leader” (pages 200-212) they set out a model of what it takes to lead spiritually. Men, as you read these rate yourself in each area on a 0-5 scale, with 5 being you’re all over it and 0 being a colossal failure. For a man to lead spiritually, they argue, he must:

  1. Develop the deepest knowledge of God’s Word: He doesn’t need a Bible college degree, but he should be committed to reading, knowing, and understanding the Bible. It should be a daily commitment (even 5 minutes!), and when practiced brings security to your family and respect from them to you.
  2. Become the best at submitting to Scripture: Along with biblical knowledge must come biblical obedience. A true, biblical man leads in submission to God and to changing those areas that need changing in life. He puts his own goals and desires behind the desire to submit to what God says his life should be.
  3. Be the most comfortable with worshiping at home: God created humanity to worship, and a man must lead his family in that. This means prayer time, alone, with his wife, and with the family. It means spiritual conversations at the dinner table when appropriate. It means spending family time in the Word (and if 1 and 2 are getting done, it won’t be hard). It even means being willing to sing to God at home or in the car. When the man of the house worships all the time it opens the door for the family to worship all the time.
  4. Be the most consistent in your prayer and devotional life: Not only must he be comfortable, he must also be consistent. Consistency brings intimacy with God, and that intimacy with Him will impact every area of life.
  5. Be the quickest in the family to forgive and ask for forgiveness: Forgiveness is the cornerstone of Christianity. (see 1 John 1:8-10 for the model of forgiveness in the Christian life) When we come consistently to God and ask forgiveness for our sin, it frees us to offer forgiveness quickly to others and also makes us seek forgiveness from our spouse and children when we hurt them. A biblical leader is quick to forgive and quicker to ask for forgiveness.
  6. Set the spiritual thermostat in his home: A man must be the one to set the standard of holiness, conduct, and commitment in his home. If he sets the bar low, the spiritual chill in the home will affect other areas. If he turns up the heat, the whole family will be allowed to as well. If dad is cold, though, the whole family must shiver.

So how are you doing? This will only help if you are honest with yourself. If you decide that you want to just give yourself all 5s, no one will call your bluff.* If you put a score of 1-5 on each one, that would mean that your score would be somewhere between 0-30. Where are you? If you were back in high school or college the grading curve might look like this:

  • 27-30: A. You’re doing very, very well. No doubt your wife and kids are given every opportunity to live for Christ and your family life is at least moving in the right direction spiritually.
  • 24-26: B. You are definitely doing well. Your leadership shows and your family is blessed for it. While there is room for improvement, you are leading in a positive direction.
  • 21-23: C. You pass. You haven’t abandoned your post, and your wife and kids know that God is an important part of your life and should be in theirs as well. Perhaps you need to be more proactive in leading your family spiritually, but the foundation is there for you to do so.
  • 20 and less: F. Your family can’t see a significant commitment to godliness and it hurts them. When God is not important to you, He is not important to them either.

No man is perfect…we all need to get better. I am working on making devotions that are not part of my sermon prep a more consistent part of my life, so there is definite room for improvement for me. Take this inventory, though, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with Jesus doing the grading.

Ladies, you too can take this quiz and see where you stand. How would you grade yourself in these areas? Where can you improve to allow Christ to change you from the inside out and make a difference in your marriage, your kids, your work, and your ministry?

As the adage goes, leadership is everything. Spiritual leadership in the home truly is everything.

      *Today that is. One day, though, Jesus will!