Saturday, January 30, 2010

Busting chops and being a man

I am honored—absolutely honored—to have a select group of Godly men in my life that are in no way afraid to bust my chops when I get out of line. One group is a group of men that I only know virtually through an online forum. The other group is a group in my local church. Still others are valued friends that I know from other venues. These are men that have stuck by my side through thick and thin, through fire and flame. They have comforted me when I needed it, encouraged me when I needed it, and absolutely thrown me to the mat when I needed it. They have continually exhibited courage by being unafraid to speak a word of rebuke to me at those times when I have rightly warranted it. These are men whom I have relied upon for guidance, for strength, and for Godly friendship.

We are told in Scriptures that iron sharpens iron. I know from personal experience that iron is only sharpened with friction, with heat, with pressure, and by the shearing away of all that is dull until a sharp, battle-ready edge is honed. I've often thought that--for the iron--this cannot be considered a comfortable experience.

This is the job of Godly men: To be a friend that does not fear truth, whether spoken or received. To foster a friendship that endures discomfort. To craft a relationship that knows the Biblical reality that steadfastly standing by another in battle in no way mitigates the responsibility of using the double-edged sword of the Word to pierce a fellow warrior’s self-reliant and sinfully self-centered armor. Godly men know that the phrase “I’ve got your back” means that we know we can trust one another for protection from the flaming arrows of the enemy as well as we know the full meaning of the words “wounds from a friend can be trusted.”

In other words, the job of Godly men is to forge friendships that center upon the cross, where our sin and salvation meet. And God—in His Divine grace and wisdom—has given me friends such as these.

Together, we stand. Together, we fight. Together, we confess our failings and receive absolution for our sins. And as we do, the Kingdom of Heaven advances in our own lives as it does in our communities.

Today—as always—I thank God for these, my friends.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Trying, Risking, and Failing

In a small town and a small church, there is always the very real danger of making “comfort” an idol of sorts. Nice traditions become unchangeable rituals. Weird congregational quirks get set in stone. “We’ve always done it this way” becomes a refrain meaning, “We don’t know why we do it this way, but we don’t dare change it now!” We know that what we used to do used to work, and because of our small size and limited resources, relying on the past seems to be the most comfortable way to head into the future.

Old habits die hard; I understand that. Not everybody is wired to be a risk-taker; I understand that. There is great value in tradition, ritual, and even comfort; I even understand that.

But the danger of comfort’s siren song is that when we expend all of our energy in pursuing the comfort of the familiar, then the church’s mission finds itself dashed upon the rocks. The purpose of the church is set aside. The church’s destination is obscured. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” becomes “We have built it, let them come.”

Repeating the patterns of the past may create a neat, orderly, and comfortable feeling, but I’d rather take the road that leads me to the messy but impassioned labor of storming the gates of Hell.

I believe that—missionally speaking—that a small church especially must learn to become comfortable in being uncomfortable. It must learn to take comfort in the cross while constantly pushing forward into the enemy’s strongholds in the community. It must stand upon solid doctrine while constantly challenging itself towards new and unfamiliar missional ground. It must embrace trying and risking and reaching while also refusing to be paralyzed by the fear of stumbling and failing.

The church’s heart beats faster when it loves the question, “What if . . .?”

The church’s life is lived more fully when it loves the answer, “Why not?”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Conflict is unavoidable, not undesirable

I’m not a guy who particularly enjoys conflict. It’s rare that I feel compelled to get up in somebody’s face. I hate those awkward moments where I struggle to find just the right words to say to delicately approach a touchy subject. I would much rather that people just got along.

And there’s the rub: people don’t just get along. Everyone has their own personal history, their own personality, their own likes and dislikes. What seems common to me seems strange to you, what is “normal” to you is “different” to somebody else. And those differences ensure that sooner rather than later people will come into conflict with somebody else. Now, add the fact of everyone also having their own struggles with sin, and we’ve got a grand recipe for conflict to brew. Conflict is unavoidable.

But that doesn’t mean that conflict is automatically undesirable. Look at what I just said: conflict is often generated by personal differences. That means, for starters, that conflict is an opportunity to get to know someone on a deeper level than you did before. You can find out their passions, what affects them strongly, what moves them like nothing else does. Conflict provides an opportunity for intimate knowledge of another human being.

Deeper than that, though, is this strange truth: Conflict—when exacerbated by sin—provides an opportunity for Christian intimacy and fellowship like nothing else can, because it provides an opportunity for you to actually forgive a brother or sister in Christ for their sin and humbly receive their forgiveness for yours, as well. And in that, what was formerly a lamentable division in the Body of Christ becomes an amazing testimony to Christ’s ability to not only reconcile us to God, but to one another. Conflict, when healed, results in the Body experiencing greater Christian fellowship than it had before.

The conflict that I considered undesirable has now become indispensable.

Think of that the next time you butt heads with someone at church.

Monday, January 11, 2010

That darn shrinking budget!

I have mixed emotions over what went on here at Our Saviour on Sunday. No, not at the worship service; that was pretty good, actually. But what’s got me feeling at odds with myself is what happened during the rest of the day. Let me explain:

New year means new budget. Every year since I was called to pastor here, we’ve seen the church budget shrink just a little more every year. I understand the causes, but that doesn’t make it any easier to learn how to try and do more with less. And still each year our budget has grown smaller.

But what’s more, each year our budget hasn’t been balanced. You heard me: for five straight years we’ve passed a budget that, when we’ve done the math and estimated how much money we could expect to receive in the coming year, we acknowledge ahead of time we won’t be able to meet.

This is the part of the story that bothers me. It worries me. An unbalanced budget doesn’t seem like a good business practice. A shrinking budget raises red flags for continuing future ministry. I wonder if I’ve led the congregation wrong, somehow. And I wonder just how long this church can continue on.

I don’t want this church to close down. Not on my watch. Not ever. Because people that I love are here inside the church. Not only that, but there are people I love out in the community who haven’t yet joined our family. Both groups need Jesus, both groups need His forgiveness, His providence . . . His life. And both groups are people that God Himself has placed me in relationship with, people of whom He has said, “Pastor, you just offer them what I have to give, and I’ll make sure that I give them what you have to offer.” And never once has God let me—or them—down. He’s always been faithful to His promises.

When I look at church finances and an ever-shrinking pile of money, I doubt. I fret. I worry. But when I look at the people I see their need for Christ, I remember His promises, and I simply believe and act.

Now you tell me which of those has a future.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Courage does not come in comfort

Being comfortable does not require courage. When a church remains in a state of spiritual stasis, it does not need courage. Doing what we’ve always done, maintaining the status quo, and perpetuating a weekly cycle of go to worship/give an offering/go back home does not demand courage. Living the way you’ve always lived is a comfortable existence (if somewhat bland), but it is not a courageous one.

In Biblical terms, living in Ur is not an act of courage.

When God called Abram, He offered him the chance to not only be immensely blessed, but also to be an immense blessing to others. He offered Abram the chance to literally be a world-changer. “You will be great” and “You will be a blessing” were two sides of God’s one coin that He held out to Abram. It was an amazing, heart-pounding moment filled with enormous opportunity. But there was one catch:

Abram had to have courage.

Abram had to get up, he had to leave, he had to go away from what he knew and the people he loved and set out on a journey. A journey for which God had chosen a destination that He hadn’t even felt necessary to share with Abram at this time. God demanded one thing of Abram: faith in what God was promising was good and worthy and deserving of courage.

Courage doesn’t come in comfort. It only comes in crisis. Courage comes when a church finally grasps that it is dying a slow death and that it must make some changes in order to continue with God’s mission. Courage comes when you call in end-of-life hospice care for your husband and you realize that very soon you will be alone. Courage comes when the phone rings and the doctor says, “Your test results are back. We need to speak face to face.” Courage comes when life is shaken up, when the status quo is thrown out the door, when you are forced to come face to face with the realities that life means change, that change means discomfort, that discomfort means crisis, and that somehow God still has a destination in mind for you at the end of it all. Courage only comes when are forced to say, “Yes, Lord . . . I do believe that what you promise is good and worthy and deserving of courage. Speak, Lord, and I will follow, no matter what the cost.”

In other words, courage comes when you follow God and leave the comfort of your own personal Ur.