Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book review—Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity

Since the time I was a young boy, stories and tales of adventure and heroic commitment to a greater cause have stirred something deep within me. Those stories—whether heard in a tale, read in books, or seen on a screen—touched something in me, something deep and elemental and not entirely explicable. And those tales would cause a transformation in my inner being. For a time I would carry myself more erect, I would look at the world with a keener eye, I would observe with clearer vision. The elemental forces stirred my heart to beat faster and my life to live louder.

Primal is such a book.

It’s not that Primal is a theological masterpiece or the concepts that Mark Batterson proposes are supreme examples of finely honed propositional truths. It’s not that Mark exegetes the Scriptures with grander precision than scholars of Hebrew or Greek. It’s not even that he has captured something new and different truth of Christianity to speak about. In fact, if you asked me for a book that exemplified any of those things, I would not recommend Primal to you.

But if you desire a book that touches off an elemental stirring within your soul, a book that breaks you and challenges presuppositions and brings you to repentance over a passionate zeal for God you once had but now have lost, a book that stirs up your heart with God-sized passions, a book that reinvigorates your vision for doing God’s mission in the place where He has placed you . . . then Primal is a book you want to read.

You want to read it because Mark Batterson does a splendid job bringing to paper the grand, visionary scope of the words Amo Dei . . . “Love God.” Loving God with all your heart, and your soul, and your mind, and your strength. Those concepts are so large that sometimes I have forgotten how elemental they truly are, and how world-transforming they can truly be. That’s where Primal shines. It rekindles those loves, awakening them from a cold, ashen slumber and fanning them back into living flame. Primal stirred me in just such a way.
You can purchase Primal for yourself at Amazon.com

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

10 ways to stretch your gift-giving dollar this Christmas

Do you want to save money this year, and still make Christmas meaningful?

As I've studied and thought about worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all (inspired by http://www.adventconspiracy.org/), I came up with 10 easy ideas to stretch your gift-giving dollar this Christmas. If you're not done shopping yet, may I suggest the following?

Cut costs by making gifts or regifting:
1) Give freshly baked goods as a gift. Give warm, fresh bread. Give Christmas cookies.
2) Give a homemade blanket or quilt
3) Give your friend an item you own that they admire.
4) Give a family member a specific item for which they have expressed a sentimental value.
5) Give a friend a cherished but broken item that you have taken and then repaired for them.

Give a gift that multiplies value:
6) Give a pair of TOMS shoes. For every pair you buy, they give a pair away. One for one.
7) Give a bottle of Cherry Creek Winery’s “The Winds ‘07 Cabernet Sauvignon”. Not just the profits, but the FULL PRICE goes to provide sponsorships for the Jackson, MI School of the Arts
8) Give a gift that helps a friend serve others: a gas gift card to a person who is always taking other people to the doctor, yarn to a person who knits mittens for children, etc.
9) Give a gift in their name to an organization that serves others such as the Hudson food pantry, Compassion International, or the LCMS World Relief water project.
10) Give a Bible

Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Tyrants and Hirelings

You can’t describe the full spectrum of pastoral ministry with one single word. It’s impossible. But I think you can do it with one hyphenated word: servant-leader.

In the Scriptures and in church history there is an astounding record of men who have led the church. These are bold, passionate men who have led both the local church and the church at large with vision and a committed zeal. They were often misunderstood at the time, but history has exonerated them.

The church MUST have leaders like this! We desperately need men who are willing to speak truth even in the face of opposition. We desperately need leaders who have a passion for carrying the timeless truths of God’s Word into the future. We desperately need pastors who boldly lead their churches into a fuller realization of disciple-making.

But if history shows us good leaders, it also shows us “leaders” who were little more than self-centered narcissists intent upon using others to broaden their own fame. That’s why it’s so important to remember that while a pastor must be a leader, he also must be a servant. A pastor can’t just go his own way, but must do the bidding of God, for Whom he works. But what’s more, the pastor does God’s work for the benefit of others. The pastor is servant of both God and man.

It’s hard, at times, to find the right balance in applying servant-leadership. I’ve seen pastors lean too much upon “leader” and become petty tyrants, ruling their little empires with absolute domination. I’ve also seen pastors lean too much towards “servant” and become little more than people-pleasing hirelings. Neither is pleasing to God. Neither benefits people.

But when a pastor hits that balance, everything clicks into place! The Gospel is proclaimed. Sinners are comforted in Christ's forgiveness. Members are empowered to do ministry. The church moves forward, an unstoppable juggernaut, a barbarian horde, a disciplined army, a finely-tuned machine, a primal force. It is a loud, bold, private, humble, frantic, focused, wildly exciting free-for-all that is as unparalleled in sheer historical weight as it is in sheer weight of paradox. It is life-changing and world-transforming. It is history in the making. It is service. It is leadership.

It is one hyphenated word: servant-leader. That’s what being a pastor is all about.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Small-town pride of a different sort

A little, pesky sin found me again this past week. Our small community puts on a top-notch Christmas cantata every year. Beginning at the end of October, people from churches all around the area come together on a weekly basis to practice. And because we’re all church people, the director (who does an AMAZING job, by the way!) will always ask one of the participating pastors to close us in prayer. There’s where that small, pesky sin begins to bite at me. That pesky sin is pride. Honestly, I like to be asked to stand and pray.

Ugh. There, I said it. I like to be noticed. I like to be honored.

Being in a small Midwestern town is probably one of the few places left on earth where a pastor receives some automatic honor and community status. The manager of our local grocery store greets me with “Good morning, Pastor!”, even though he’s not a member of my church. Every so often I get a phone call from a community leader, “Pastor, we’d like for you to come and do the opening for _____.” If I ever need a calling card to get me in a door, it’s “I’m the pastor down at the Lutheran church, the one by the schools.”, and I’m in. It’s bizarre. It’s like being a mini-pope. I half expect someone someday to kiss my ring.

. . . and I like it that way. Which makes me feel really, really gross.

It’s one of the few times in Scripture where I can hear Jesus speaking directly against me. In Mark 12:38-39, Jesus warns his disciples, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.” And I think of myself, in my Lutheran clerical garb of flowing robes, and my fleshly desire to be known and respected . . . and I weep. I weep for what that pesky sin twists and warps inside of me.

So I make choices to combat that pesky sin. I choose to be the anti-pastor. I’ll live like the common man. In my time off I’ll go around in jeans and my warm and worn flannel shirt. I’ll talk like a normal human being. I’ll be known around town by my first name. I’ll smoke my pipe in public and even unashamedly buy some good beer at the store. And ultimately, I’ll live out my faith in simple, quiet ways. I refuse to live a life of loud piety, broadcasting it with flowing robes and important-sounding titles.

Because in the end, I want to be known for Whose I am, not what I do. I want to be known for the character of Christ that causes me to love others, not my office that demands I preach to them. I want people to know that I am just a servant. That I must decrease so that the One I serve may increase.

I want Christ to be known . . . not me.

And then, just every so often, a person pays me a compliment higher than all the deferential treatment combined. Every so often, a person I’ve known for a while will say in a very complimentary way, “I didn’t know you were a pastor.” And then, more often than not, they’re ready to hear about the One I serve. Then He increases . . . and I decrease . . . and I rejoice that Christ has been made known.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Deliberate communication in a small church

My philosophy of pastoring an established, smaller, rural church is simple: Honor the past, look towards the future. A church like ours has a rich heritage that spans several decades. Traditions have been established and certain notions have been set in stone. But we’ve also got a good future ahead of us as we look ahead and try to discern how we can continue to carry the Gospel out into our community in the 21st century and, God willing, beyond. That’s why I believe it is so important for a church like mine to communicate using a variety of different mediums.

For instance, on the one hand, we look towards the future, so Our Saviour is a digital church. The newsletter is delivered in .PDF format. Church members and church council can exchange ideas and information on an internet bulletin board. We podcast sermons and email prayer requests and follow Tweets. Some people stay connected throughout the week by texting. Many of us use Facebook for our friendly “water cooler” time. These people expect—and, I think it safe to say, need—digital communication.

But because we also honor the past, we’re also a paper church. Paper bulletins. Actual hymnals. Hard copies of newsletters for those that want them. Hard copies of church council minutes. A phone prayer chain still makes the rounds every so often. We make verbal announcements after church and have a coffee fellowship so that people can share thoughts and ideas and friendship.

There are some days that I think it would certainly be easier if we could stick to just one type of communication. If we had a different sort of church we could probably do just that. But precisely because we are what we are—an established, smaller, rural church—we have a group of people that vary in age, in technological savvy, and in communication preferences. And so we deliberately communicate across a variety of different mediums because we want to keep as many people as possible connected to the life of the church, to each other, and ultimately to Christ.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Heck yes I'm tired of being a pastor! . . . or am I?

When faced with the routine (and some not routine) challenges of being a pastor, a certain pastor friend of mine is fond of saying, "Ministry is a grind." And he's right. Ministry is a long-haul vocation. It's not one that tends to provide immediate gratification. And it tends to weary you, to wear you down and tire you out over a period of time.

Let's be honest and up-front: people are sinners. Their lives are messy. They deal with each other in messy ways. Even the best people still struggle with wanting to do good but choosing evil (or ease) instead, and they get weary. And since pastors are people, too, that means pastors are subject to messy lives of their own. Add to that the burden of an intense vocation that is often relationally enmeshed, and the weariness that dealing with messy lives and messy people produces is magnified. Pastors just plain get worn down.

But another friend of mine has a saying, too. He likes to say, “I’ve read the end of the Book, and I know how it all turns out.” He means that we can cling to God’s promises, because He is faithful and true and what He says, He does. So the church will prevail in spreading her message of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ. God’s Word will continue to work repentance and faith in the hearts of those who hear it. Sin and messy lives will one day no longer wear us down. I know this is true, because God has promised it. So I don’t worry about what may happen in the future. I know how the Book ends.

So, yeah. Ministry is a grind. Pastors get weary. For that matter, I’m weary right now, this moment. But I’m not worried. God has promised good things, refreshing things, eternal things, both to me and to His Church. He will deliver on those promises in His time. There’s no doubt in my mind.

And I just discovered something: In the knowledge of that promise, I’ve just found that I’m not nearly as weary as I thought I was. God is good . . . all the time.