Confessions of a Pastor

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I read a blog post from another pastor confessing some things – essentially confessing how not perfect he is.  Seems like a good idea, so here’s my version.

I confess that I am not perfect.  In fact, I’m far from it.  I make mistakes.  I make bad decisions.  I can be irritable.  I can be cranky.  And, get this, even though I wear a collar pretty often, I sin.  Even when wearing the collar.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am no better than any of the rest of the people in the congregation.  The collar doesn’t give me sin protection.  It just points out my sin very clearly to me, if I’m paying attention.

I confess that I have my biases.  Maybe this is surprising, maybe not, but I have biases when it comes to many things, just like everyone else.  I have my beliefs about politics, faith, sports, and everyday life.  Am I right all the time?  Gosh no.  In fact, I’m willing to say that there is a good chance that I’m wrong more than I am right.  I come to the conclusions I do on what I think are good reasons.  But I could very much be wrong.

I confess that I can get really frustrated.  I can get frustrated with church, with people, with objects, with animals.  The frustration is really more about me not getting my way  if I am honest about it.  I’m not in control and sometimes that gets to me.

I confess that I have doubts about God, Jesus, faith, etc.  I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think having all the answers is healthy.  Where is there room for growth if we have all the answers?  Having doubt isn’t a bad thing.  The Apostles had doubts and they spent three years walking with Jesus – literally.  Who the heck are we to think we have to have all doubt removed?

I confess that there are parts of my calling that I don’t like.  I’m willing to bet that everyone has things they don’t like to do, but do it anyway.  Life isn’t all about doing only things you like to do.

I confess that I will never meet other people’s expectations.  Being a pastor is a very public thing.  And people look at the pastor through many different lenses.  And everyone has expectations of what the pastor should do, say, and be.  Guess what – I’m not going to meet those expectations because I am human, I am broken, and it is literally impossible to meet everyone’s expectation of what a pastor is to be.  Why?  Because more often than not, those expectations conflict with one another, are an idealized expectation of a pastor, and are unreasonable to the core.

These confessions may shatter your view of me or of pastors in general.  I’m not going to apologize for that.  My hope is that people will stop putting pastors on such a high pedestal.  We are human beings.  We have flaws and we fail.  We struggle with many things.  We are not the Herr Pastors of the past.  That was an unreasonable projection that all to often ended in abuse of both pastor and congregation.

My calling is to walk with people in their journey of faith, to raise difficult questions, to share the truth especially when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient, to afflict the comfortable, to comfort the afflicted, to make disciples who go and do ministry, to offer the sacraments, to proclaim Good News.  That’s what’s listed as the core of what a pastor does.

Here’s another confession.  More often than not, the calling goes way beyond that.  To be the administrator of a long-standing organization, to have financial acumen, to be the chief fundraiser, to be the chief spokesperson and marketing person, to have expertise in web and social media, to be a good communicator, writer, speaker, listener.  To be good with children, infants, teenagers, middle-aged, seniors, and everyone in between.  To visit many people who are alone.  To be a calm presence in the midst of anxiety.  To cast a vision and direction, and to keep moving the church forward even when it may not want to go forward.  To know the perfect words to say for weddings, funerals, and special occasions.  To craft perfect prayers on the spot.  To be a great teacher.  To meet with many different people to hear their problems and challenges, their sins and struggles.  To care for strangers who knock on the door seeking help – food, shelter, jobs, housing, etc.  To be a peacekeeper or peace maker in the midst of fights and abuse.  To listen to criticism and anger and fear and not allow it to hold me or you hostage.  To proclaim forgiveness for unspeakable sins.  To be an example of discipleship.

Here’s the real confession – no one can ever do all that.  I can’t anyway.

And so I ask for your forgiveness.  Forgive me with I don’t meet your expectations.  Forgive me when I forget your name.  Forgive me when I don’t remember something that was said to me in passing or many weeks ago.  Forgive me when I can’t make it to a meeting.  Forgive me when my sermon falls flat.  Forgive me when I’m just not feeling “it.”  Forgive me when we try something different and it doesn’t go smoothly.  Forgive me when I don’t get around to visiting everyone as often as you’d like.  Forgive me when I don’t match up to the idealized image of pastor.

Forgive me please.

Control

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I think there is a valid argument for saying that the biggest sin that humanity commits is control.  It’s a sin that puts the created in the place of the creator – crafting ourselves as a god.  The sin of control is the ultimate broken relationship with God.  It’s us saying to God: “We don’t like your ways.  We’ll do it our way, thank you very much.  You go sit over here for when we need you to bail us out.”

The first commandment states “You shall have no other gods before me.”  (Exodus 20:3)  This applies to how we make ourselves into a god as well – not just idols that are created and worshiped.

We do this when we try to control things by keeping them the way they are or try to re-create the past.  Except we can’t.  Change will happen, does happen, and there is no way to stop it.  We can certainly adapt to it.  We can resist it to some degree, especially if the change is not healthy and good.  We might even be able to redirect the change.  But that isn’t the same as trying to stop change and keep everything the same – forever.

Look at the effort we give to trying to stop change from happening.

The most obvious way this happens is with ourselves.  We try to stop the aging process instead of embracing it as a part of life and adapting to it.  Our bodies change – that is a fact.  Look at yourself in the mirror.  Is this what you looked like 20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago?  Of course not.  Your body changed, regardless of how you wanted to stop it.  You couldn’t.  Even if we cover it up, have surgeries, exercise, and have procedures, the fact remains that your body is still changing.  Yet, we are told a lie that we can stop aging, that we can hold onto our youthful look, that we can make our bodies youthful again.  And many buy the lie that we can stop change in ourselves.  There’s a lot of money to be made with selling a nostalgic self-image.

We try to stop change in our institutions as well.  Church is a good example.  Many want it the way it was, the way we see it through an idealized lens in which the pews were full, the pastor did all the ministry, everyone in town came to worship, everyone dressed up, and the culture assisted the church with laws and mores that gave the church a privileged position in society.  We want church to be a steady rock that never changes, all the while we will voice a desire for change, mostly because it seems like the right thing to say.  That is until we actually consider how that change will impact us, not just other people.  We want change in church, but change that doesn’t require us to change, only other people.  Often the change that is voiced isn’t so much a change with progress forward, with adaptions, and new ministries to serve new peoples in our ever-changing communities.  Rather it is a change by looking backward to nostalgia.  We want the world and the church to go back to the way it was – ignoring the challenges and sins that existed in the church and in the world.  We want to make church a steady and stable rock again.  We want a sense of control over life.

Yet, when Jesus calls people to follow him, he is asking for a huge change – a personal change.  He’s saying drop everything – all the nostalgia and the desire to control and stop change – and follow me.  Die daily so that new life can take hold.  Don’t just voice it, actually do it.  Jesus said:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do no do what I tell you?  I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.  But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.  When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of the house.”

(Luke 6:46-49)

We try to stop change politically and as a nation.  We hear it in the slogan “Make America Great Again.”  Many desire a change to some romanticized time in which all was well, that we were great, and everyone thrived.  Except this time never actually existed.  It’s a change backward, a reverse of time.  And it’s a lie.  There has never been a time in this country when all was well and where everyone thrived.  Never.  Certain groups of people certainly have, but not everyone.  And often there have been and still are groups of people who not only aren’t thriving, but are struggling to survive – pushed down by those in more privileged positions in life.  This is what the desire to control does.  There is a cost.

Things that are alive change and adapt.  Any science book will tell you that.  Things that are dead don’t move on their own and don’t adapt.  They wear away and decompose.  In that respect, even things that are dead change.  And eventually, they become unrecognizable and become dirt.  Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

And in the end the question remains – what is the point of trying to stop change completely?  Or of turning back the clock?  Change is coming.  It is already here.  It walks with us.  Why not spend our energy adapting to it, maybe even steering it in a positive direction towards something that actually can allow for more people to thrive?  What if we took some of the good things of the past and adapted them for our present circumstances as opposed to trying to recreate the past?

What is the point of trying to change things in a backward fashion – to a time that never actually existed and certainly can’t be recreated.  Everything else has changed around us.  The environment in which we find ourselves has changed.  We can’t go back.  We can’t be any of those things again.

Change means there is newness.  There is no “again.”  No matter how much we desire it, we can’t go back in time and have those beautiful memories become reality again.  There is change.  There is life and there is death.  And out of death comes new life.  We allow the past to die so that there is new life in the present and the future.  Shackling the present and the future with the past doesn’t bring us back to the past and the way it was.  It just holds us hostage.  And in the mean time, the world continues to change, without our consent.  Because we are not in charge. And we fall further behind.  This makes adapting to changes more difficult and costly.

This is what it means to follow Jesus.  We aren’t called to go backward in time with the church.  We aren’t called to go backward in time with our nation.  We aren’t called to go backward in time with our bodies.  We are called to go forward and to let past things die, so that new life can take root.

To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:59-62)

These would-be disciples wanted to go back, to hold onto the nostalgia – to bury their dead and to say farewell.  To look back.  But Jesus knows that a look back will only hold us back.  You can’t plow looking backwards.  You can’t drive a car looking in the rear view mirror.  You can’t walk forward while you keep your eye behind you.  It doesn’t work.  You can’t be the church, or you, or a nation by having a tight grip on the past, holding the present and the future hostage, with an old model that doesn’t meet current conditions and challenges and cultures.

Jesus calls us forward, not to a time of nostalgia.  The kingdom isn’t in the past.  The best days of the kingdom of God are unfolding now and are to come.  They aren’t in the past.  It’s unfolding right now.  It’s causing a change.  Will we be embraced by it, or will we resist it?  In the end, resisting it and trying to stop it will never win out.  It can’t.  Because change is always taking place.  The kingdom is always unfolding in new ways, in ways that are different from the past.

God and people

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What do we think about God?  This isn’t one of those head in the clouds type of questions.  The answer has practical implications.

Do you believe that God is angry and wrathful and ready to destroy whoever opposes God?

Do you believe that God is love, merciful, oriented towards peace?

Do you believe the claims of God?  Do you trust God?  Or do you rather verify before really trusting?

Do you believe that God is hands-off, not really someone or something that we experience or interact with?

Do you believe that God is just an idea, not a “person” at all – but rather a set of ideas?

Now switch out God with people and see if the answers are any different.  Often we think that how we relate to God and to other people is far different.  But I don’t think so.  Sure, there are some differences.  But at the core, how we think about God will have an impact on how we treat other people.

That’s how faith works.  It comes to us and impacts us in such a way that we spread this faith we have been given to others and it guides how we interact with others.

How we think about God and what we believe about God has an impact on how we treat and interact with others.

These are dangerous times

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These are dangerous times.  I don’t think that is a controversial statement.  The world order is being rattled severely.  Nationalist politicians are winning leadership positions in many nations, especially in Europe.  Let me be clear, nationalism is different from patriotism.

Merriam-Webster.com defines nationalism as “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”

By nationalism, I mean politicians that are anti-immigrant to the point of blaming immigrants for the problems in any given country, along with other nationalist oriented policies.  And not just blaming, but implementing policies that are designed to kick immigrants out of their nation.  This, by the way, is the classic definition of scapegoating – to put the sins of a community or nation on a goat and send it away, thus the community can believe that all its sins have been cast out. Except, scapegoating doesn’t actually clear a community or nation of its sins.  It just covers them up with a lie.

Many of these nationalist politicians utilize fear and anger rhetorically to push their agendas.  Scapegoating requires there to be an enemy that is to be feared.

And we just had the US President openly siding with a foreign government regarding interference in US elections, in spite of the fact that pretty much every one agrees that Russia interfered with our elections.  On top of this, long-established international relationships are not healthy at the moment.  There is a high level of anxiety racing throughout the world.

So what is a follower of Jesus to do?  Are we to be anxious?  Are we to fight?  Are we to resist?  Are we to attack?  What?

Or do we look to Jesus?  Is that different from the other options?

This much I know, there is not a nice easy answer to this.  Difficult times call for difficult decisions.  Difficult times call for solid faith.  Difficult times call for prophetic voices.  If following Jesus were easy in difficult times, then everyone would be doing it.  Instead, difficult times are not easy.  And following Jesus is certainly not easy.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are not easy to follow:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

(Matthew 5:3-11)

Jesus doesn’t say only follow these and be these when times are easy.

Jesus is constantly inviting people to follow him.  Yet there always seems to be an excuse.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’

(Matthew 8:18-22)

Jesus certainly didn’t say follow me to this disciple when times were good – but rather in a very difficult situation – the death of his father.

But here’s the thing – following Jesus isn’t about following him in the easy times.  It’s all about the difficult times.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

(John 14:1-7)

Jesus says the above quote not long before he is handed over and then crucified.  It wasn’t an easy situation.  And Thomas asks a valid question.  Discipleship often leaves us with unanswered questions and make us feel blind and lost.

Our faith isn’t there for us for the easy times when the waters are still and we can see the shore clearly.  Faith is given to us for just a moment as this – when the waters are a storm and we are perishing.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

(Mark 4:35-41)

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  That’s what the disciples and many of us are asking Jesus. And, just like in the story, we aren’t getting a verbal response that we want.  Instead, Jesus asks the disciples and us an important question – “Why are you afraid?  Have you still not faith?”  Do we ignore Jesus’ question like the disciples, too easily distracted by the storm and the miracle to pay attention to what Jesus is saying?

How do we respond to the storm of this world that is currently building?

I don’t know the full answer to that.  I can’t see the shoreline and the water is coming into the boat.

But this much I know – Jesus is asking us right now this important question: “Why are you afraid?”

Why are you afraid?  Do you really believe Jesus, what he teaches, who he is, and what he commands us to do?

Then why are you afraid?

Maybe you are right there with the disciples and asking their question – “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Jesus doesn’t answer that question and for good reason.  He doesn’t promise that we get to escape death.  He promises that death doesn’t have the final say.  In fact – this is uncomfortable for us if we are willing to admit it – Jesus calls on us to die daily.

Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

(Luke 9:23-26)

Jesus doesn’t promise us safety and security.  He calls on us to die daily.  To deny ourselves.  To follow him.  To step into the unknown with trust.  To look at death square in the face and tell it that it can do its worst, but it doesn’t have the final say – God does.

What is a follower of Jesus to do in these stormy times?  Follow Jesus.  That will take different shapes and forms for different people. For some it will mean speaking up.  For some it might mean protesting the powers that be.  For some it might mean serving.  For some it might mean prayer.  We are each gifted and called in unique ways to follow Jesus.

Follow what he calls us to do.  And what is it that he calls on us to do? The simple version is to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God – to participate in an alternative way of living and living in community.  To love, even those that are our enemies.  To offer mercy, even to those who are merciless.  To be a peacemaker, even when peace is not welcome.  To forgive, even when it is not deserved.  To offer grace, even when it is not welcome.  To serve the least among us, even when service doesn’t seem to make a difference.  To make disciples, even when discipleship is not appealing.  To die daily to self, even when we’d rather be in charge.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  I don’t even know what all the questions are.  I don’t judge those who would respond differently from me – at least I try not to.  There are certainly good arguments for other responses.  And I believe people respond in the best way they know how.

This is my path.  This is the path I walk on.  It is a road I am called to walk down.  You are welcome to walk with me.  Regardless of the path you take, I will hold you in prayer.  Please do the same for me.  What is your path? Maybe our paths intersect.  Maybe they are on the same path.  Maybe they aren’t.  But let us go forward, holding each other in prayer and then carrying out the Kingdom.

How to talk to a wall

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Last week I asked several questions about the state of faith and politics.  Overall the comments from people who answered were that there was concern about how to have difficult conversations with people who didn’t seem interested in talking.  How do you do that?  Often it feels as though you are talking with a wall.

I’ve had many encounters with such people over the years – mostly from my years in politics, but occasionally it still happens.  The short answer is – there isn’t much you can do.  The very essence of conversation is that you have two people who have mutual respect for each other, who are open to listening to each other, and are open to being persuaded by one another.  When someone is more like a robot in that there is no room for any change whatsoever, that isn’t much you can do.  In a sense it is as if this type of person has put themselves in a prison and thrown away the key.  Or maybe a better analogy is that they cover their eyes and ears with their hands and scream so that no one can get to them.  It’s the idea that if I cover my eyes, then I can’t see you and so you aren’t really there.  Of course, that same person isn’t willing to see reality either though.

When a person isn’t willing to see or hear the realities of things around them, then they are locked into their own perspective as if it is the only perspective that exists.  And unfortunately, they lose out on seeing the fuller picture.  The sad truth is that there isn’t much you can do with someone like this.

So the question is, what is a follower of Christ to do?  God offers an invitation to all.  Yet there are many who refuse this invitation – they want life on their own terms and without God.

And we believe that God is a God of love.  So God does the loving thing and honors this.  God grants this person exactly what they want – life without God.  God loves us so much that God would allow us to separate ourselves from God – or rather push God away.  You see, Hell isn’t a place where God torments people. Rather, Hell is a place of self-torment – a place with people who insist they can do better without God.  And they suffer the consequences of that.

When Jesus sends out the disciples in twos, he tells them to wipe the dust from their feet from towns and people who reject them.  And so should we.  Wipe the dust from our feet, symbolically, from people who refuse to engage, to talk, to see, to hear.  Wipe the dust from our feet from people who reject being open to any conversation, or consideration.  They have made their choice – a choice of self-torment.  That doesn’t mean we stop loving these people – we continue to do that.  We continue to pray for them also.  God always offers grace, forgiveness, love, peace, and mercy.  And as a follower of Jesus, we are called to offer those things too.  Because without God, and God’s mercy, we end up with karma – the idea that you get what you deserve.  But God’s mercy is different – you get what you don’t deserve.  People who are completely closed to conversation have attached themselves to the idea of karma.  And the best way to handle these folks, is to let them have their karma, continue to offer grace, and to move on with life until such a time that there is an openness.

 

There’s nothing special about these people

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A fellow pastor and friend of mine once gave some sage advice – “When you follow Jesus, the world will break your heart over and over again.”  So true.

This coming Sunday we will hear about the beheading of John the Baptist.  I challenge you to google beheading and see the reality of this.  Look at an image.  That’s the reality of this passage of Scripture.  And it is the image of contrast of two feasts that are offered.

There is the banquet of Herod celebrating his birthday, and there is the feast that Jesus offers.  Two kings throwing a banquet in celebration, but the two banquets are far different from each other.

Herod’s feast is actually pretty lame.  It’s fake and based on lies.  Sure, the rich and powerful are there – all the celebrities of the kingdom, those that lobby for things, VIP’s, etc.  They are all there.  They say wonderful things about Herod – how great he is.  The food and entertainment are fabulous.

But it’s a lie, down to its core.  The people there don’t care about Herod, they are just like Herod.  They only care about themselves.  Sure they say wonderful things about him, but the reality is that the moment Herod dies, these same people will just jump ship and say the same lies to whoever is next in line.  Being close to the seat of power is what is important to them.

At Herod’s banquet, John, the prophet, is jailed because prophets tell the truth and say things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient to the privileged and comfortable of Herod’s court.  Prophets are inconvenient and they cause us to look at the reality that is in our face, as opposed to pushing it aside out of convenience.  Privilege and comfort have the luxury of pushing inconvenient and uncomfortable things aside so that they can continue living their lie.  They can tell themselves that the inconvenience and uncomfortableness of others doesn’t affect them.

Herod’s banquet is about cold, hard law, and compliance.  And even Herod is enslaved to that and suffers the consequences of his own law.  The man in charge is no more in charge than anyone else.  Zero tolerance law means everyone suffers harshly.  The law leads to death.

Herod, and everyone else at his banquet, is imprisoned by the lie that power sets you free.  Power entraps you and demands your life and tells you a lie.  In reality, you are a slave to it – and it is a hard task master.

Herod’s banquet leads to death.  Herod’s banquet is a fraud, just like Herod.  Herod, the king, won’t even get his hands dirty and carry out his own orders.  It might mess up his outfit.  He might get blood on his hands.  He might not be able to sleep well.  He shows how weak he really is.

The other banquet is the one Jesus holds.  It’s a feast.  All are invited.  The poor and homeless will be there.  So will the outcast, the prostitute, and more.  The rich, the powerful are also invited.  So are the people in the middle.  Jesus’ feast leads to transformed lives.  Jesus is willing to get his hands dirty – showing us over and over again his willingness to be ritually unclean by touching the impure and healing them and bringing them into community.  Jesus’ feast brings life.  And all are welcome, not just the VIPs.

Every would be Herod does the same thing, says the same things, gets the same results.  There is nothing special about Herod or any who would be Herod.  These people are all the same, the only difference is the name.

This was true of the kings in the Old Testament.  It was true of the kings in the New Testament.  It was true of the kings since the time of Scripture.  It is still true today.  There is nothing special about Herod or anyone like him.  Nothing.  At all.

There is nothing special about people who use Herod’s language, who use the law the way that Herod did, who implement Herod-like policies.

There is nothing special about people who use anger and fear and violence to get their way.

There is nothing special or unique about people who spin things that are unethical, like Herod did, in order to comfort their wrecked conscious.

There is nothing special about any of these people.  And that may be the biggest insult these people can possibly hear.  That they are not special.  They and their methods are run of the mill.

Herod sent out an invitation to his banquet.  But he rejects God’s invitation, beheading God’s messenger instead.

Herod and those like him – both before and after – are not special.  They reject an incredible gift from God.  And God honors their request for God to be out of their lives.  They live in their own version of hell and suffer the consequences that they impose on themselves.  That’s not special.

What is special is Jesus and his way.  A way far different from the way of the Herods of every age, including our own.  A way that calls on us to die daily to ourselves so that we can rise in the fullness of who God calls us to be.  A way that is risky and doesn’t come with all the answers and glitz and glamor.  A way that is uncomfortable and inconvenient. A way that opens our eyes to see things we cannot unsee.  A way that the world rejects and thinks is crazy.  A way that causes us to go and do.  A way that transforms lives, not just allows us to survive.  A way of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.  It is the way of Jesus.

It is special because it is different.  It is special because it is so often put aside.  It is special because those that follow it know something unique – that life is so much more than power, or stuff, or strength, or being right, or money, or fear, or anger, or anything else.  Life is a gift from God.  Faith is a gift from God.  And God invites us to use these gifts to participate in the unfolding of God’s Kingdom.

 

What does faith cause you to do?

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What does the faith that God gives each one of us cause us to do?  How do we respond to it?

How has faith changed your life?

Is church just something that you’ve always done, so you’ll just keep on doing it?  Or does it impact your life, cause a change?

Is church just a social club where you get together with people who you like and look forward to seeing them each week or however often you go?  Or is church a training ground and refueling station from which you are sent back out into the world to participate in the unfolding of the kingdom of God?

Is it your faith, or is it the faith that God gives you?

Does this faith ever make you uncomfortable or inconvenienced?  If not, why not?  Do you believe that faith should never make you uncomfortable?  What about those that are afflicted or suffer injustice?  Does that affect you at all?  Or are they just a bunch of whiners?

Does it ever afflict you in your comfortableness?  Does it comfort you in your affliction?  Does this faith demand that you take steps without knowing where you are going, what you will be doing, where things will be coming from, and will not have all the information that you desire?

Does this faith cause you to seek out people who Jesus spent time with?  Does this faith make your hands dirty?

Does this faith question and poke you in ways you would rather not?  Does it question your loyalty and allegiances?  Is this faith costly?  Does this faith guide you in the midst of trial and trouble?  Can this faith be there when it is most needed?  Or does it only work when times are good?

Does this faith cause you conflict with the ways of the world?  Ways of anger, fear, violence, blaming, scapegoating, desiring safety above all else, having enemies, coveting other people’s stuff, believing that buying more stuff will give you meaning, and more.

Does this faith cause you to weep when you see the world – does it break your heart?  Over and over again?  Does it grab hold of you and not let go?  Does it present a way forward and show you that there really isn’t another option – everything else doesn’t make any sense?  That the ways of the world fail us over and over again and yet we have this sick addiction to keep trying them?  How many wars do we need to go through, how many times do we need to use violence, how many foreigners do we need to blame and dehumanize, how many enemies do we need to create and blame, how many people do we need to curse and damn, how many people do we need to take pleasure in their suffering?  How many until we see that these ways don’t work?  That’s why we have to keep doing them over and over and over again.  They don’t work.  When will be see the stupidity and insanity of the ways of the world instead of embracing these ways?  When will be follow the way of Jesus instead?

Does this faith make you understand the prophets and their desire to run far away from God – yet you follow anyway because where else are you going to go?  There is no hope outside of God and God’s way.

Does this faith wrestle with you and leave you with so many uncertainties, yet you know the most important thing there is – that God will not abandon you and God keeps God’s promises?

Does this faith give you life, especially when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death?

Does this faith demand you die daily so that the real you can be released and flourish?

Does this faith remain unsatisfied with just surviving, but pushes you forward, cajoles you into thriving life?

Does this faith see beyond you as an individual and show you how you are connected to so many others and their well-being?  That to turn a blind eye on those suffering around us isn’t just ignoring them and keeping you safe, but keeps us trapped in a cage with a thick wall around us.  We become prisoners of our own desire for safety that can never be fulfilled.

Does this faith that you have been given have impact on your life?  Does it call to your deepest self and invite you to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God?

Is this faith worth devoting your life to and ultimately dying for?  If not, then why not?  What are you afraid of?

How do you respond to that?

By sitting and waiting?  By being scared?  By delaying?  By running?  Or do you take a risk and take a step in faith?  A risk that could lead to utter desolation.  Or a risk that leads to unbelievable life.  I know this much, the alternative – the way forward without faith – without responding to this gift that has been given to us – leads to certain death.  Always.  No exceptions.  It’s just a matter of time.  And when we consider that, which is really riskier – not responding to faith or taking a step in faith knowing that God walks with us?

The invitation remains to all.  The gift has been given.  Will you unwrap it and respond, or will you put it on the shelf for a more convenient time?

I am grateful that God doesn’t consider the same question for each one of us – will I encounter you or just put you on the shelf for a more convenient time?  God invites us to participate in the most amazing thing ever.  What are we waiting for?  Now is the time.  You aren’t alone.  Let’s take a risk together. Jesus is with us and risks it all for us.

Following Jesus

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In Luke 6, Jesus is quoted as saying:

‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’

(Luke 6:46-49)

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?”

Good question Jesus.  Why do we do that?  Makes no sense does it?

We call Jesus “Lord,” and then turn around and ignore what he has to say.  Why?

We call Jesus “Lord” and then go to politics and pretend that Jesus isn’t Lord over politics and how politics is done and what policies are implemented.  Why?

We call Jesus “Lord” and then come across people who are different from us and ignore what Jesus says about them.  We instead listen to another set of “lords” – anger and fear – and follow what they tell us to do and say.  Why?

We call Jesus “Lord” and then ignore what Jesus says about money.  Why?

We call Jesus “Lord” and then ignore what Jesus said and did with the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the outcast, etc.  Why?

Are we embarrassed by Jesus?  Do we think he’s a nice guy, but really doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about?  Do we think Jesus’ way is fine when everything is going well, otherwise we need to use the wisdom of the world in tough situations?  What kind of followers are we?

We call Jesus “Lord,” but what does that really mean?  The title means that Jesus is in charge – completely.  Yet is he?  Is he in charge of your life?  I mean really in charge.  Is he really in charge when it comes to how we interact with others?  Is he in charge over your politics and ideology?  Is he in charge over your money?  Is he in charge over your communications? Is he in charge over how you interact with your enemies?  Is he in charge when it comes to how we care for the poor?

Or are we just like the people Jesus was talking to when he asked “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?”

The church model

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For as long as anyone can remember, the model the church has used is to have a building, a pastor, a musician, and to make worship the primary function.  There has been other support involved – education, fellowship, and special gatherings like funerals and weddings, celebrations, etc.  The church grew because people in the denomination moved and found similar churches, or had babies to help replace members who had died.  The culture assisted the churches too – ensuring that “blue laws” existed, telling the story of Christianity, etc.  In other words, the church held a privileged position in American culture.  It was expected that this would continue.

Except that’s not happening.

“The model we have used — a church, a pastor and a commitment by people to support the enterprise — is getting harder and harder to maintain.”

(Source – click here)

That’s a quote from an article about churches closed in Minnesota.  But it’s not only about churches in Minnesota.  It’s nationwide.

The church needs to face the reality that the times have changed.  The church no longer has a privileged place in society.  But the church still acts like it does in many cases.  The church no longer can count on members of the denomination moving into the area to fill the pews.  There are more and more “nones,” people who don’t believe.  The church can’t use the same model it did before because the circumstances have changed.  But that’s exactly what many churches are doing – holding onto a model that doesn’t meet the current challenges.

Fashion changes, sports teams change, businesses change, politics changes – but somehow many in the church don’t think that change applies to the church.  The problem with this is that there are fatal consequences for this.  If the church doesn’t change its model, it will die.

What would a new model for the church be?  I don’t think there is just one model that will work.  I think it depends on the people gathered together in community.  One church may thrive by turning to ministry in the community, another by a focus on worship, another by selling it’s building and the expenses that go with it.  The point is, we’re in a new era where a new model is needed – or rather, new models are needed.

A good set of questions might be, if we were gathering together as believers in Jesus for the first time, what would this look like?  What would we be doing?  Where do we see the Spirit at work?  What is drawing in people?  What allows us to best carry out the mission God has for us?

Numbers don’t lie – even in the age of fake news.  Trends tell us important information.  We can either ignore the trends or learn from them.  This much I know – continuing with an old model, because it’s what we know, will lead to many more churches closing their doors.  Adopting a new model is a risk – a big risk.  It could be a complete and utter failure.  Or it could mean new life.  The first option isn’t a good option.  The second option is a risk.  This is where the church has to ask itself this question – are we all in?  Do we trust Jesus and where he is sending us? If so, there really is only one option.

When it’s ok to not follow Jesus

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You claim to be a follower of Jesus.  And life is complicated.  You’re tired of the pastor saying things you disagree with about what it means to follow Jesus. What does he/she know anyway?  He/she lives in a bubble, not in the real world.

Looking for a list of situations of when it’s ok to put Jesus aside?  When it’s ok to not follow Jesus?  Look no further.  I have spent hours and hours of time compiling a list for you.  All from the best sources – words from Christians, people who claim to follow Jesus on when it’s ok to not follow Jesus.  Without any further ado, here goes:

  • When you are attacked.  Of course it’s ok to put Jesus aside in this instance and strike back.  It’s not like Jesus said to turn the other cheek.  That’s just crazy.  You could get hurt or even die.  Plus that whole turn the cheek thing is for other people, not you.
  • When you come across someone who is clearly wrong.  On any subject.  You can certainly put Jesus aside here.  Jesus was obviously more concerned with right belief and compliance, and getting your act together before following him.  Plus, you are the authority on what is right anyway.  Everyone knows that Jesus comes to you for the answers.  There couldn’t possibly be another way to looking at a situation or issue and coming to a different conclusion?  There’s only one way and you have it.  Why would Jesus want someone who’s clearly wrong following him?  That would make him look pretty bad.  Plus it would get kind of crowded – you don’t like crowds, and you can’t imagine Jesus does either.
  • When you come across the poor/homeless/prostitutes/victim of human trafficking/etc. It’s not like Jesus spent time with these people!  No way Jesus wants you to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced by these people.  They are just lazy after all.  And smell.  You might get dirty or something.  And of course these people are violent and might steal from you.  Instead, throw them a dollar and tell them to get a damn job.  That’s definitely the Jesus way.
  • When you come across someone from another country – especially an immigrant, or even better, an asylum seeker.  These damn foreigners are going to kill our country.  It’s completely fine to not follow Jesus with these vermin.  They are just going to be an infestation in our land, taking our jobs, and stealing all our government welfare.  They are going to use our health care.  They are going to rape our women and kill us all.  Damn foreigners.  No way that Jesus would want us to treat them like ourselves.  No way.  They aren’t even people, they are just illegals.  Send them back to their own shithole country.  It’s not like Jesus and his family ever fled for their lives to a foreign country.  Or went into a shithole like Samaria where the people hated Jews.  He was just trying to make Israel great again, not expand the kingdom to outsiders.
  • When you are dealing with an enemy.  Yes, we know that Jesus said to love your enemy, but really?  Do you really think he meant that?  By love your enemy he clearly meant to nuke the assholes and wipe them off the face of the earth.  Then we could have peace.  Peace, after all, is the absence of enemies – once we’ve killed them.  God is on our side anyway, so that trumps whatever Jesus said, right?   Besides, national security is God ordained.  Anyone who doesn’t care about it should just leave.
  • When dealing with someone who is different from yourself.  Jesus was a working white guy from the US after all, so we know that he was just like us.  He only spoke English.  I know this because I’ve read the King James Version of the Bible – the original authorized Bible.
  • When dealing with someone in the opposing political party or anything political at all. Jesus was all about scoring political points and making his political opponents look like the schmucks that they were.  Children of God – Ha!  Children should be seen and not heard, don’t you know.  And those damn (Democrats/Republicans) act like a bunch of babies.  They are more interested in destroying the country anyway.  Plus, what did Jesus have to say about politics anyway?  He was just a nice preacher who never made anyone feel uncomfortable – unlike your pastor.  The guy/gal won’t shut up about politics and injustice.  Politics and religion don’t mix.  There’s no way that God wants to say anything controversial or upset the status quo.  Besides, even Jesus said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesars.”  That means you can have whatever political beliefs you want – Jesus doesn’t want to have a say in politics.  It’s not like the church is trying to change the world.  It’s more like a country club.
  • When dealing with money.  It’s not like Jesus ever talked about money and what it should be used for.  You earned it, you determine what to do with it – all of it.  God should feel lucky to get any of it.  It’s like another damn tax – a God tax.  I don’t want to pay the bills of the church.  The pastor only works on Sundays anyway.  What the hell does he (she – God forbid there be a female pastor) do anyway?  Why isn’t he/she checking in on my more often?  That lazy pastor.  We ought to get rid of him and get someone who will do all the ministry, bring in more people, find more money, do all the visitation, stay away from controversial topics, and make you feel good.  We pay him/her too much anyway.  I only want my money going directly to ministry, not paying salaries.  I’m not sure how that ministry will happen without staff, but that’s beside the point.  The staff should be happy they are getting anything.  It they want to be well paid, they should work for something like a video game company that makes violent video games, not a non-profit or church that are trying to make a positive impact in people’s lives.  Seriously?  What does the pastor think the church is about anyway – making disciples and following what Jesus said?  Yeah right!  It’s about me and my well-being.  That’s what I pay him/her for.
  • When dealing with our own safety.  Jesus doesn’t want us to be unsafe.  Jesus understands our fears.  It’s not like Jesus said to pick up the thing that will kill us and carry it.  No, Jesus said to pick up a gun and follow him.  We have to be able to protect ourselves after all.  And that means we have to mistrust people.  Especially anyone we don’t know, looks different, sounds different, looks at us strangely, walks near our property.  Jesus really said pick up your crossbow and follow him.  The editor missed the end of that.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few exceptions – times when it’s ok to not follow Jesus as a self-proclaimed follower of Jesus.  The above lists are actual arguments, with actual language that has been used (and a few exaggerations, but based on truth) I’ve heard related to these topics – so Christ-like, isn’t it?  Christ radiates out of all of these sentiments, doesn’t he?  Maybe we can redo the words of the old hymn – “They will know we are Christians by how we ignore Jesus, how we ignore Jesus.  Yes, they will know we Christians by how we ignore Jesus!” Needs a little work, I admit, but you get the sentiment.

When you compile this list, you’ll see that in reality being a follower of Jesus is pretty easy.   There really aren’t a whole lot of times or situations when you need to actually follow Jesus and his way.  It’s not like Jesus is asking you to drop everything and follow him with your whole life.  Geesh!  Actually when you look at what’s left, I think the only time you need to follow Jesus is when you are by yourself, feeling happy, have no worries and aren’t bothered by anyone else.  So about 1% of your time.  Unless you want to follow Jesus in your sleep too.  That jumps the time right up to 25-33% of your day right there.

Of course, if we claim to follow Jesus, then are there exceptions?  No.  The above arguments are as empty as they sound.  They are statements of faith though – faith in something else besides Jesus.  Sorry to burst your bubble on this – actually, I’m not sorry to state this obvious fact at all.  I guess I’m one of those pesky pastors people complain about.  If we claim to be a follower of Jesus, then that means we follow Jesus.  Always.  Especially in difficult situations.  There aren’t exceptions.  Exceptions mean that we think Jesus is full of it, when it comes down to it.  Why would you follow a way of someone you either don’t trust or don’t really believe?  That’s what we are saying when we make excuses for ignoring what Jesus says about difficult situations, enemies, money, and more.

Here are some other’s who had the same belief.

Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’

(Matthew 8:21-22)

Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

(Luke 9:61-62)

If your faith is only a guide for you in easy, simple, and peaceful times, then what good is it?  If it doesn’t guide you in difficult times, then why bother?  If following Jesus doesn’t make a demand on your life and isn’t costly, then why bother?  If it doesn’t change your life, then what is worth?  If following Jesus isn’t worth following in difficult situations and times, then do you believe that Jesus knows best?  Do you believe that Jesus is your salvation?  Do you believe that Jesus will be with you?  Or do you think that Jesus will abandon you in times of trial, so you have to go another way?

We’re moving into difficult times.  Now is the time for faith – faith that will guide our steps.  Faith that will guide our lives.  Faith that will sustain us.  Faith that will save us – not from trials, but will walk with us in these trails.  Faith that doesn’t need exceptions.  Following Jesus way does that.  Especially in difficult times.  Everything else is lacking.