What’s your job?

I’m a pastor. That means many things to many people. There are many varying expectations about what it means to be a pastor and what a pastor does.

I’m not going to list all the things that I do as a pastor. But I will say this – there is one underlying thing that is the foundation for everything that I do. It is the summation of my job description.

My job is to make disciples.

Everything relates to this. My job isn’t to entertain. It’s not to do the ministry on behalf of everyone in the church. My job isn’t to save the institution. It’s not to keep people comfortable in their thoughts and beliefs.

My primary job is to make disciples.

And guess what – that’s your job too.

How I go about it may look different from your way. But both of us together have the same job – to make disciples. Jesus said so in Matthew 28. It’s the great commission.

I can’t emphasize this enough. My job is not to save the institution. Here’s why. If our focus is on saving an institution, then really we aren’t doing what we are supposed to. Plus, when we focus on saving the institution, what we really focus on is maintaining the status quo – maintaining things as they are. An institution exists for it’s own survival too often. But it certainly doesn’t have to.

If, instead, we focused on doing our job – making more disciples – you know what happens? The institution doesn’t get caught up in the argument over what is off limits and how much change it will allow. When the focus is on our purpose of having an institution, then the institution willingly adapts and changes to meet the needs. It transforms in order to support the movement and purpose. In other words, it thrives. And it is healthier as a result.

When we focus on trying to save something, it’s usually a sure sign that it won’t last because our focus is on the wrong thing. The reason for there being an institution is far more important than the institution itself.

For those of you who care about saving the institution of the church hear this – your best bet is change focus. To let go of trying to save the church and instead focus on living out the mission of the church. It is in being the church and carrying out the mission of the church that the institution of the church will survive and thrive. It will look different, no doubt. But the important thing is that the institution will have found it’s appropriate place in the life of faith – supporting the work of the mission of God.

A difficult question

The other day I was talking with someone and they mentioned a question that was posed to their congregation – a difficult question.

The question was this: Who don’t you want in your congregation?

Wow.

What type of people don’t you want in your congregation and why?

What are the characteristics? And why?

By extension, under what circumstances would you fit into a category of someone that was not wanted in your congregation?

These are not easy questions. But we should struggle with them. And be honest. And see our own brokenness. And then move forward with mercy and compassion.

Do we expect to encounter God?

Answer honestly…Do you expect to encounter God? Ever? Do you expect to encounter God in worship? Or are you just going through the motions, waiting for the pastor to stop talking?

Do you expect to encounter God in other parts of your life? Do you believe that life can be compartmentalized like that – that God only has access to the churchy parts of life, but must be hands off to other portions of your life?

Do you expect to encounter God, or are you hoping that you don’t? Many will say they want to encounter God – but I suspect that many people don’t really want an encounter with God. An encounter with God would mean that our lives would have to change. And if life is good (at least it appears that way), then we probably don’t want it messed with. We’d have to admit we weren’t in control. And then what? What would God have us do? What crazy things would we have to do? What would we have to give up? What would have to end?

Do we really want to encounter God? If you really do, then what are you doing in life to prepare for such an encounter? To be ready to respond?

Do you really want to encounter God? Do you really? Are you willing to pay the price for such an encounter? Are you willing to give everything you have away if that’s what God would ask of you?

We don’t have control over when God encounters us. We certainly don’t have control over what God will ask of us. All we have is how we respond.

This much I know – God isn’t interested in just one hour of your life once a week or however often you come to worship. God wants it all – 100%.

Do we really want an encounter with God? Or are we just telling ourselves this because it’s the “right” answer.

So much better would it be if we were honest with ourselves and with God. What would an honest answer be – God, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what it would mean to encounter you. I’m afraid of what you’ll want from me. I don’t want to let go of control – control over my life, my stuff, others, etc. Right now I keep telling myself this comforting lie that I am in control of my life. But I’m afraid that you’ll show the lie for what it is. Then what? What is left after the house of cards collapses? Maybe I’m afraid because I know exactly what you’ll do – change everything. Maybe I’m afraid because I don’t quite trust that you’ll keep your promise.

I wonder how our faith would change if we approached God this way. I wonder how our worship would change. I wonder how the world would change. I wonder.

Life, death, and resurrection

As Christians, we proclaim life, death, and resurrection. Proclaiming it is one thing. Living into it is something else. Too often the death and resurrection part is relegated to physical death and a hope of resurrection sometime in the future.

But the reality is that the cycle of life, death, and resurrection is for more than just our physical lives.

It applies to our churches too. But that gets rather uncomfortable to talk about doesn’t it?

What would it look like for a church to go through life, death, and resurrection?

It could very well mean the death of a church – that it closes, so that a new mission can be launched in its place.

It could also mean that something in the church dies, to make room for resurrected life within the existing congregation.

It could mean an attitude or culture dies to make room for resurrected congregational life.

It could mean relationships die to make room for resurrected relationships.

It could mean a number of things – the possibilities are endless really.

But are we willing to consider them? To really explore all the possibilities of how we, as a church, need to die so that resurrection can happen? Or do we prefer withholding some of the options because they seem to painful or uncomfortable for us to consider.

I think part of this comes from our attaching negative thoughts to death. Death seems so permanent, doesn’t it? That’s not what we proclaim from the pulpit though. Every funeral I do, I say some similar things – things like: “Death does not get the final say.”

But do we really believe it? If we do, then death isn’t totally negative. Yes, death sucks – no doubt. But sometimes, death is a good thing. That may sound shocking to you. Is it bad for an oppressive attitude or an unhealthy culture to die? Do we really mourn that? Or is it a sense of relief and freedom?

Let’s face reality – at some point, each one of our churches will die. That’s just reality. Nothing that is human made lasts forever. Even the churches that Paul launched no longer exist. They existed for a time and then died. But that doesn’t mean they were worthless. The letters we have to those churches are of great value – they show us that in some cases the challenges they faced are still being faced by us today. They show that churches were full of sinful and broken people, just like us. They show us the conflicts that existed – conflict in churches still exists today. And they show us that churches exist for a time, place, and people to advance the Gospel. And then something else will take its place to continue the journey.

If all churches will die, do we fear that death? Do we place the life of the institution above the mission of the Gospel? Can we see what resurrected life might look like for a congregation?

Crisis at the border

I don’t watch TV. There is too much anxiety, fear, anger, focus on entertainment, etc. If you enjoy it, more power to you. It’s not my thing. But I can’t avoid TVs when I go to the gym. They are all over the place, turned to a variety of stations – half of which are “news” oriented. The volume is down on these TVs, but you can’t help but see the pictures and the headlines. Often, you don’t even need the sound in order to know what is being said.

Yesterday, some of the stations broadcast the headline: “Crisis at the border.”

As I did my workout for the day, I let that headline sink in for a bit.

I quickly realized that the headline was inaccurate. I can’t say if there is a crisis at our southern border, or exactly what that crisis is. All too often, catch phrases like “Crisis at the border” convey many ideas and thoughts all in one tiny little phrase.

But my mind wandered a bit – digging in a bit more to the headline. “Crisis at the border.” I understand what is being conveyed in those four words. But I think it’s missing so much.

I think the crisis at the border goes much deeper and extends well beyond the border. Maybe the headline should read something else? Maybe it should broadcast a different message. “Crisis of the heart.” “Crisis of meaning.” “Crisis of identity.” “Crisis of Christianity.” “Crisis of trust.”

I don’t have nice easy solutions for our immigration situation. I do know that until we do some self-examination, we aren’t going to come up with a good solution. I do know that if we fail to acknowledge our brokenness, we’ll never come up with a good solution. I do know that if we fail to work on trust with others, we’ll never come up with a good solution.

We are facing a crisis of the heart, of the soul, of the mind. We face a crisis of who we can trust and why. We face a crisis of agreeing on why the nation exists and what its purpose is going forward. We face a crisis of what it means to be a Christian and what Christians actually do to show they are followers of Jesus. We face a crisis of politics that has supplanted faith for ultimate purpose in life. We face a crisis of fear and anger. We face a crisis of control.

But all these crises a far bigger than a crisis at the border. These crises require a great deal of time, energy, and effort to tackle. Dealing with these crises can’t be handled through a tweet or social media meme in which we get to score some kind of points against our opponents. No, dealing with these crises requires us to stop seeing opponents and adversaries and enemies the way we currently see them.

Instead, we need to see people as people. Especially those who see things differently from us. We need to see what we share in common and build up from there. We need to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and never will. We need to start with the assumption that people come to their conclusions for very good reasons. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with the conclusion or the reasons. It is acknowledging that people experience the world differently.

If we want to solve the crisis at the border or any other crisis for that matter, then its time to take a breath. To stop seeing everything as an epic battle and instead see the world as a marathon – a long, slogging marathon that is going to take a good bit of time and energy and effort to finish.

Leave beside the handful of professional runners for a moment. I’ve done 11 marathons in my life. I’m part of the 99.9% of the runners who have no chance of winning, yet we still run anyway. We don’t run to win. We run for the joy of running. We run for the challenge of running. We run to push ourselves. We run to learn. And in every marathon I have run, there comes a time when someone needs some help. Sometimes it’s you and sometimes its me. Regardless, the beauty of distance running is that there is always someone right there to help you along. To encourage you. To walk with you if needed. You are all competitors technically. But the results don’t matter if you don’t finish the race. And so you help another runner out. You tell them that you are going to run along side them for a time. You cheer them on. You do this because you’ve been there before – you’ve been on the receiving end. And having someone to help you finish the race – a complete stranger you’ll never see again – wouldn’t have been possible without that person. But you had something in common – a goal, yes. But more importantly, you share humanity – striving, pushing. You share persistence. You share. And when you cross the finish line, you celebrate with the person who helped. And you wish them well.

Crises are like marathons in that regard. We don’t face these crises alone. And yes, we are competitors. But the reality is, unless we assist each other, no one is crossing the finish line because we are all struggling.

Are the best days of the church ahead or behind us?

People know that they are supposed to say that the best days are ahead for the church. But how can people be honest if what they really think is the opposite?

The real answer to this question comes out in how people think, what they say, and what they do. It comes out in what they believe about God and God’s relationship with creation and humanity. It comes out in people’s giving. It comes out in their engagement with church.

Another question is this – Does an encounter with Jesus change lives? A follow-up question might be – how have you encountered Jesus in your life? And what changed as a result?

Can you answer those questions honestly? How has following Jesus changed you?

Here’s another question – what is the cost of discipleship? What has discipleship cost you?

Can you answer those questions? Or has there been no cost at all? If there is no cost to discipleship, is it discipleship?

Seeing

How are your eyes? Do you see clearly around you?

Scripture gives us a lens we can look through. Jesus gives us a lens we look through too.

I recently re-watched The Matrix for the umpteenth time. It came out in 1999 and the movie is still relevant as ever. And it is chock full of theology. The basic premise is that what we see in the world is not the real world.

The part that stuck out to me this time related to Cypher – the character who betrays everyone. He makes a deal with the Smith Agent to betray the crew in exchange for being re-inserted into the Matrix, forgetting everything. It’s just too painful living in the real world for Cypher – seeing what it is really like. He’d rather live in a lie.

When we see the world through the lens of Jesus, our eyes are opened, much like taking the red pill in The Matrix.

And once you can see clearly, there is no going back.

When you look through the Jesus lens, you see the idol of money and how it is worshiped and how we listen to it to make all our decisions. When you look through the Jesus lens, you see the idol of violence and how it is worshiped and sanctified. You see the idol of might makes right.

To question any of these idols (and others) is to bring condemnation on yourself. It can be costly for some. You might be considered crazy or unpatriotic or something worse.

What’s really crazy is how we prop these idols up and do what we can to maintain the systems that keep them in place.

I think we have tried to make Christianity too safe. To put it in a box. To contain it – to contain Jesus. We have sanitized and sanctified safety – assuming that it is the highest good. But that idea doesn’t match up with Scripture or Jesus. The way around that is to discourage people, especially Christians, from reading Scripture. We’re pretty good at that. Reading Scripture isn’t a membership requirement for most denominations. Where the idea of membership and Christianity being together is a whole topic that I’ll never get.

We have made talking about difficult topics in church inappropriate. We can’t talk about money – it might make people uncomfortable. And they might leave or withhold their offerings. We can’t talk about sex or sexuality or gender – it might make people uncomfortable. They might leave or withhold their offerings. We can’t talk about addictions. We can’t talk about policies that dehumanize or degrade people, or put people in danger. We can’t talk about race and racism. We can’t talk about violence. We can’t talk about many things – it might upset someone and cause them to leave.

I wonder, why do we allow our churches to be held hostage by such threats? As if the church is a hostage that is to remain silent on all topics that might be uncomfortable.

There’s a reason these topics are uncomfortable – we may be guilty. And then what? If we are guilty, we might need confession. Oh Lord forbid we admit we are broken and sinful. We’re good people after all. The problem with this is that good people don’t need Jesus. Broken and sinful people need Jesus.

We have made Christianity safe so that we don’t have to be changed or transformed by Jesus. Instead, we stay attached to the Matrix – the lie that we cover our eyes with. The lie that blinds us from seeing the hatred around us. The lie that blinds us from fear, from us versus them, from the evils in the world. The lie that says that we are not connected to any of it. And if we aren’t connected, then we aren’t part of the solution either. We can live blissfully ignorant and detached from what happens in the world because we can tell ourselves that it doesn’t affect us – it’s someone else’s problem.

It’s time to take the red pill and to wake up in the real world. To see it for what it actually is. And to see that we are called to respond to Jesus’ call to love. Love is the only answer. It is the only way that will change anything in this world. We are called to love our enemies. We are called to love our neighbors. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. We are called to make disciples.

And that is costly and uncomfortable. And that is how the world changes. We see the world for what it really is, and we participate with God in changing it to the vision God has.

Who is my enemy?

Jesus said to love our enemies, right? Technically that’s correct. But when it is said this way, it seems rather abstract. It applies to who exactly? When it’s said this way, it sounds more like a collective effort, doesn’t it?

Here’s what Matthew 5:44 has Jesus saying:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

That’s a little different. It’s a direct command to you and to me. It’s like Jesus yelling from across the room – “Hey you! Yeah, you! I’m talking to you! Don’t ignore me. Don’t pretend you can’t hear me. You heard me loud and clear. Love your enemies. Yes, I know it sucks. Do it anyway. Now!”

This command to love our enemies may be the most difficult command that Jesus gave because it is costly. It requires a great deal from us without any guarantee or reward. In fact, the chances are pretty good that our enemies will see what we do as a weakness and use any opening to come after us. Hence, that’s why an enemy is called an enemy.

But, you know, enemies didn’t start off that way. Being an enemy takes time. It takes a series of events, decisions, statements directed at the other. Making someone an enemy is based on a series of broken trust strung together over time.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemy, it requires us to see our enemy differently. It requires us to find something decent about our enemy – something human. It requires us to find something that connects us to our enemy, not something that pushes us away and separates us.

Our enemies are connected to us in ways that we would rather not think about. Our enemies are related to us. Loving our enemies takes great effort and energy. Loving our enemies means seeing our survival lined to theirs. Loving our enemies forces us to see them as us and vice versa. To love our enemies is to recognize their humanity, dignity, and the respect they deserve as being Children of God, just like us.

To love our enemies means to give what is unearned and may not be deserved – and usually before anything is offered in advance. To love our enemies is to be vulnerable. It is dangerous. It is subversive. Loving our enemies risks everything. It requires us to take the first step.

Most importantly, loving our enemies requires me to admit that I have enemies and that I am broken. I can’t do it on my own.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he’s not saying it to be nice. He’s saying it because loving our enemies changes everything. Because of sin – things that separate us from God – we are God’s enemies. Yet it is God who loves us anyway – God loves God’s enemies. And because God loves us, we are called on to follow in God’s footsteps.

The conversations we refuse to have…

There are conversations we aren’t having in the US that we should have.

There are conversations we aren’t having in our churches that we should really be having.

But the reality is that we generally won’t have these conversations for multiple reasons. One reason is because they are difficult conversations. Another reason is because we don’t know where to start, or how to listen – to often we are jumping to how we are going to answer something because just raising the question feels like an attack on us. And another reason is because we just aren’t even aware that there is an issue – so why talk about something that doesn’t directly affect us. Lastly, I think we don’t talk about difficult conversations because we are afraid of how the conversations may require us to change.

So what are these conversations that we should be having, but refuse to participate in?

One of the conversations would be around race. I’m part of the whitest denomination in America – the ELCA. We’re just starting to tap into this, but not throughout the entire church.

Here’s another – money. Want to really understand how protective people are around issue of money – just ask people to pull out their cash or credit cards and hold them up for people to see and tell people that you want to have a conversation around money in church. Good luck.

Here’s another – civic religion. How does society expect the church to behave and what do we expect our churches to do in relation to the state? What is the proper role of a pastor in relation to a civic function? In what ways do we attempt to equate the church and God with the nation and the things that symbolize it? Most churches can’t even have a conversation about whether a flag belongs in a sanctuary or not – it touches on identity.

Too often we are not willing to talk about these deep subjects because to talk about them means that we might have do some self-examination. And if we do that, we might have change what we think and do. If we talk about these things, we might just expose the lies that we have bought into – and then what? What does that mean for our identity? If we talk about these things, we might have to look and see how we try to use faith and religion to sanctify and sanitize what our culture and society does.

These are dangerous conversations if they are not done with a spirit of openness and honesty, forgiveness and mercy, grace and peace.

But I wonder, should we throw our hands up and give up because not everyone is ready for the conversations? No, we should move forward anyway. Find those who are willing to talk and listen, to question and confess, to be open to change and progress.

I certainly don’t know all the answers to the challenges that I listed above. In some cases, I know that I have blind spots that limit what I can see. But I want to have these conversations. Nothing should be off limits – we should be talking about difficult and uncomfortable challenges that we face as individuals, churches, cultures, nations, communities. We owe it each other to have these conversations.

Do we see clearly?

How is your eyesight? How about the eyesight of your church? How about of your nation?

Is the lens that we look through clear? Does it offer you clarity in how you see the world? Others?

Does the lens of your theology assist you to see the world clearer? How about the lens of your politics? How about the lens of money?

What other lens do you look at the world through?

When we look at others around us – Are we clouded in how we see the other? Do we see the other as our brother, sister, mother, father? Or as completely separate from us – no relation what-so-ever?

Matthew 25 is a lens that I try to wear. I don’t always succeed in wearing it though. There are plenty of people I have difficulty seeing. There are plenty of others that I don’t want to see.

And there are others, not from Matthew 25 that I see all too clearly – the ones that I struggle with. Sometimes my lenses are blurry. Sometimes they are broken. Sometimes I try to remove the lenses because I don’t want to see – it’s too painful or uncomfortable to see the world the way it actually is.

But the lenses don’t go away. Jesus’ lens is one of those lenses that is persistent. It is patient too. Jesus stays right there with you, tapping you on the shoulder, whispering in your ear – “maybe you should try this lens.” Jesus is persistent about this. Never letting up. “Try this lens on for size.”

“Remember, I chose you, beloved child, to follow me. That means seeing the world through my lens. In all of it’s pain and suffering. In its hypocrisy and anger and fear. In its division and idols. I gave you that lens not to get you down, but rather, so that you could appreciate the kingdom that is unfolding in your midst – a reign of God that I invited you participate in. I gave you this lens so you could see the world as it is and appreciate the way it’s going to be when my work is all done. Right now you see the pain. But you also see the healing that is happening. Right now you see the fear. But you also see the love that is enveloping so many. Right now you see the division. But you also see how people are being brought together. Right now you see the reality of death. But you also see what resurrection really means. Put on the lens and look around. See it all.”

With an invitation like that, how can I possibly refuse to put on Jesus’ lens and see the world. When we put on this lens, we Revelation 21.

And what a beautiful site it is.