Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Curious Thing About Doing Invisible Work, continued . . .

That “project accomplished!” feeling . . . that is indeed a good feeling.
But that’s a bit different—no, considerably different—from regular pastor work. Pastoring boils down to one task: the care of souls. And souls are delicate, fussy things to work with. Souls, being what they are and belonging to the sinners that they do, are impossible for me to fix. Working with souls is like damming a river with sponges—you get one trouble spot in a person’s life functioning better and another entire section breaks away, flooding their lives with destruction and havoc once again.

Souls are a difficult medium to work with because they are invisible. You can’t touch a soul. Can’t point to it. And when it is sick the best thing you can do is apply the proper medicine and hope it gets better. But because you can’t see it, you never really know if it worked or not.
I understand why so many pastors seem to run away from the essence of pastoral work. Instead of caring for souls, some prefer to run the church/corporation as a sort of Chief Pastoral Officer. Instead of caring for souls, others prefer to count dollars and demographics and knocked-on doors. Instead of caring for souls, still others declare that faithfulness is a specific and certain set of traditions and rituals and actions that can only be done just so. Anything to create a tangible, concrete, finished product that they can point to and say, “There, I fixed it!”
But a soul . . . well, that’s something that we pastors can’t fix. It’s not within my power to do. But I do know the One who can. And the One who does. And the One who promised to always do His own unique, special work with souls that I myself can’t see or hear or touch. And much to my admitted dismay, He is stubbornly on His own timetable. His work is as graspable as the wind. His statistics are impossible to quantify. But His results are gloriously and wonderfully His own.
So I cling. And I trust. I blindly and feverishly stack sponges against the coming flood, and as I do so I grasp hold of every promise He has made and apply His medicines of Law and Gospel, of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, of preaching and prayer, and I care for the souls He has entrusted to me in the best way I know how, all the while knowing that it is a work for which the results will always remain ultimately invisible to me.
And you know what? I’m okay with that. When I need a pat on the back I’ll glue a dining room chair back together. But when I want to grow God’s Kingdom, I’ll simply do what He has called me to do and let Him determine the hows and the whens of creating His results.  Because, you see, that way He gets the glory. Just as it should be. For He is the One Who does the work I can’t even see.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Curious thing about doing invisible work

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I learned something about myself recently. Something that I already knew, but hadn’t been able to articulate. Something that relates directly to pastoring and ministry.

Stephanie asked me a few weeks ago if I’d start a certain project. It sounded interesting. It sounded like something that I could do. And it sounded like something I’d like. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her “yes”. Not right now. And I told her why: Because I won’t be able to see it completed for quite some time, and for the moment I couldn't bear to begin a project that would be ages before I could point to it and say, "I'm finished!"

See, lately I’ve been getting great enjoyment—yes, enjoyment!!—out of ticking things off the weekend honey-do list. A little furniture repair here, a bit of paint there. Small repairs to my old truck. Recaulking the tub. Hanging pictures on the wall just so. Installing baby-proof latches on bathroom cabinets.
A couple of months ago I thought I had projects to do because I enjoy working with my hands and liked the diversion from routine pastor work. But when Stephanie asked me about that new project, the real reason I do those things clicked into place like the last piece of a puzzle. I enjoy those projects because I can get them done.

There’s a great amount of simple joy in pulling out the proper tools for the job. In measuring and leveling and planning how each piece will fit into place. The reason for that joy is because I know that if everything is done just right, the end result will be a finished project that adds beauty or functionality to our home. Even the occasional mid-project course correction (when things just aren’t quite playing out according to plan) are not stressful at all, because then I get the joy of revamping the plan to suit the materials or tools or skill that I have on hand to accomplish the task I want to get done. And in the end, I can point to a specific piece of furniture and say, “There, I fixed it.” I can touch the results of my own efforts. Admire a photo hung true and square. Use a repaired appliance. And—let’s be honest—I can also bask in a little bit of appreciation from wife and family even as I pat myself on the back just a bit.

That “project accomplished!” feeling . . . that’s a good feeling.

It’s one that I absolutely crave at times. But if it’s a feeling that I compulsively crave from pastoral ministry, I run the risk of trying to make that work into something it shouldn't be.  Instead of fixing, I'll create a kludge.

More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

From Boys to Men, Part 2: Mentoring

Our culture enables weak, selfish, irresponsible boys. Boys who don’t have the slightest idea of what it means to truly love another. Boys who don’t exhibit the barest qualities of manhood other than having the requisite plumbing.

You can’t properly call them “men”, because despite their age they’ve only matured physically, not emotionally. Not spiritually. Think about it: Little boys are self-centered. Good men sacrifice themselves for the benefit and bettering of others. Boys are content to eat off their mother’s table and have everything prepared for them. Men provide for their families. Boys shirk unpleasant tasks. Men embrace “duty” as an honorable word and concept. Boys are governed by emotions. Men by wisdom.

Everywhere you go you will see boys that should have learned to be men long, long ago. In the store, on the street, even in the church. It is a plague on our culture. It is destructive to families. Furthermore, frankly, it is disgusting. How did we get to this point?

I suppose there are a great number of factors that went into the modern-day deconstruction of genuine manhood. But rather than get bogged down into theoreticals and hypotheticals, let’s hit one very simple, important, practical reason.


Specifically, a lack of mentors. Boys need a man to teach them how to become men. They need to be shown. They need to see genuine manhood played out before their eyes by a man who understands and values unique manly qualities. They need to be taught to turn a wrench and run a saw. They need to learn how to flip circuit breakers and how to mow a lawn properly. But more than that, in order to be genuine men boys need to see the masculine strength of humility, the manly compassion of personal service, the Godly process of wisdom. They need Men-tors. Men who have counted the cost of manhood and embraced it. Men who love being men and want boys to become real men.

What’s a mentor? The simplest definition is a man who takes a boy under his wing and shows him the way.  No fuss, no frills, no program.  Just find a boy and help carry him towards manhood.

Once I was at a garage sale and witnessed a man buying an old hunting bow. When I wished him good hunting with it, he laughed and said, “Oh, no . . . I’ve got one at home that I use. This is for a boy who doesn’t have one, but wants to hunt.” That man was a mentor. I picture him teaching the boy to shoot, to walk quietly through the woods, to read the sign and to bring home his quarry. But more important than that, he’s showing a young boy what it means to be generous with both his time and his money. He’s helping a young boy become a man.

Another man I know builds large, flying, model airplanes. You know, those gas-powered, remote-controlled ones that are so fun to watch. It’s not uncommon to see a young boy in his shop, listening to him tell stories of the old days, learning what makes a small piston engine go, and seeing the craft and care an old man puts into doing the job right. He’s another mentor influencing young boys towards manhood.

I recall yet another man who routinely sat down at his old roll-top desk in the evening and open his old, worn Bible. Without making a show of it, he’d read . . . he’d pray . . . and then more often than not sing a hymn. And on a lot of days there’d be a small boy sitting across the room, playing behind a chair, but always watching him with one eye. That man was my grandfather. And his own unassuming way he showed me what it meant to live out a quiet, personal, yet unmistakably all-transforming faith in Jesus Christ.

Fellas, young boys need your mentoring if they are ever going to become men. They can’t learn it on their own, because you didn’t learn it on your own, either. It’s time—beyond time, actually—that take mentoring seriously so that boys can be drawn into manhood joyfully.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From Boys to Men, Part 1

I have just about had it with little boys. No, not the ones who are genuine little boys—the ones who are 5, 6, 7 years old, they’re cute and a whole lot of fun!—but the little boys who should have outgrown their diapers decades ago.

You’ve seen them. You’ve had to deal with them. These are the little boys who in their mid-20’s are letting their girlfriends provide everything for them. These are the little boys who in their mid-30’s are making their wives take the initiative for discipline and training in their homes. The little boys who in their mid-40’s and beyond who spend every minute on the job griping about their boss and every minute off the job doing exactly what they want to do and never lifting a finger to serve another human being inside their house or out.

I got to thinking about this a few weeks ago as I observed my own boys. A few of them are teenagers and within a few years they’ll be striking out on their own. They’re not ready just yet because they’re not men just yet, but they are well on their way. They don’t know I’m watching them, so they’re not putting on a show for my benefit.

As I watch them, every month I see manly qualities becoming increasingly evident in their lives. Qualities like serving, caring, and compassion.  They can work with their hands and their minds.  They love like men—a bit coarse and gruff at times, but deeply and enduringly and unfailingly.  They have an intuitive grasp of how to respect and submit to proper authority without being an ingratiating yes-man.  And more and more all the time I see them exhibiting masculine strength that is held under the restraint of self-discipline.

I’m proud of my boys. Darn proud. They give me hope for the men of our future. I pray that in time they will stand as examples for how to be strong, Godly men in a culture that positively breeds a poisonous little boy Peter Pan syndrome.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"The best laid plans of mice and men," or, "How I resigned from a job that I never did"

The best laid plans of mice and men . . .

Yeah, I know. Cliché’ me to death. “When God closes one door He opens another.” “It’s for the best.” “No sense in crying over spilt milk.” “It’s not the end of the world.” Sigh.

Unfortunately, it's the cliché’s that seem to express my feelings best when it comes to how my plans to become more active and in-the-thick-of-it in terms of serving my community did not pan out. Last month I applied for—and was appointed to—a position on our local Board of Review. On that board, I would have had an opportunity to come into direct contact with people in our community as they sought relief from property taxes. I viewed it as a good opportunity to serve people in ever broadening circles of influence. Rather like an extension of some aspects of my work as a local pastor.

However, it seems that there was a small technical, legal glitch: I live in a parsonage and therefore do not own any taxable property in the city limits myself, which in turn makes me ineligible to legally serve on the local Board of Review. So today I resigned from what is possibly the shortest and least productive Board of Review term in the history of our little city. Just a few weeks long and not even a meeting to show for it. Curse you, obscure legal jargon!

At a time when I feel an ever-increasing desire to help see our community thrive, missing out on that opportunity is a bit of an irritation. Still, from an irritating grain of sand a pearl is formed . . . or so I’ve been cliché’d. I’m confident that other opportunities will present themselves in the future, and when the time is right, those opportunities will come my way.

In the meantime, here’s to you, Hudson! May you thrive as God blesses you through the work of others!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Improve your church's prayer ministry in just 20 minutes

Had a brilliant and yet simple idea today on how our prayer ministry could be improved, and wanted to share it with you so that God may be glorified and His people might pray!

Like you probably do, we have a weekly prayer list inserted into our church bulletin. It includes prayer requests for members and others that we know and love who need a touch from God in some way. It includes regular prayer requests for missionaries, for area Lutheran pastors, and for local pastors of other traditions. Finally, it also has a section devoted to praise and thanksgiving for answers to prayer.

So far, so good. Pretty routine prayer list, in all honesty. But this morning as I was typing up Sunday’s prayer list, this small, simple idea was birthed in my head. On the back of the prayer insert I added a space for individuals to write in their personal prayers for the week and another space to record God’s answers to their prayers. This small addition should help people want to keep the prayer list handy, thus allowing them to better incorporate Sunday’s prayers into their lives throughout the week and also make it one small step easier for them to develop a regular and habitual prayer life.

And then, as usually happens with good ideas that come from God, another idea piggybacked onto that one. When I thought about how good it is to recall God’s providence and answers to prayer in our past, I realized how easy it would be to put together a system to do just that. All people would have to do is take our newly modified prayer list with their prayers and God’s answers now written on the back, put it in a folder and voila! Instant prayer journal! Way to go, God!

I’m a bit busy today, but thought this was too much of a God idea to put it off. So I put together a very simple and easy system. I took some regular file folders and glued a cover sheet to the front labeling that folder as a “Our Saviour Prayer Ministry” folder. And then this Sunday I’ll give them out to our members for them to put each week’s prayer list in, and in time they will have developed a long, long list of exactly how God has worked to answer prayers in their lives. God will be glorified, His people will be strengthened, and we’ll all learn to pray even more!

Total time invested this morning in this small, but important improvement in our prayer ministry? 20 minutes, start to finish. Love it when God puts a plan together!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Why I love the tipping point

The tipping point is that place right before all the action happens and time dances for just a moment. It is that place where your mind races through approximately one billion different scenarios—successes, losses, huge victories, crushing defeats—while time hangs. It is the place where no path is forbidden, no door is yet closed, and all that exists is possibility. The tipping point is after the pregnancy test has been peed on and before the results show up. The tipping point is holding a lottery ticket just before they announce the winning number. The tipping point is right after the cars crest the first climb of the roller coaster and right before you raise your arms.

It is a place that like no other is pregnant with potential. And I love that moment. I live for that moment.

I love that moment not because it is safe (it’s not). Not because I hate to commit to one path (I don’t). Not because I am afraid of making the wrong choices (I’m not). Not because I’ll be frightened by the hard work that will comes afterwards (I won’t). But I love that moment because in that one suspended heartbeat of time I see threads being woven together. Each thread is a vibrant future possibility. Each thread is tied directly to another possible outcome. Each outcome spawns new possibilities. And in that eternal microsecond of the tipping point colors, hues, and shades of potential are woven skillfully and masterfully, with blinding, blurring speed into a tapestry that reveals the human stories of what may yet come. All our joys, all our sorrows, all our triumphs, the hopes and fears of all the years, each is a thread being held and woven by a single, masterful hand. A hand who cares more about what the future may hold than even I do.

The hand weaving that tapestry is the hand of God.

I love the tipping point because there in that silence between “tick” and “tock” I see God’s benevolent guiding hand over our days to come more broadly, more deeply, than I do at any other time. I see that He truly does both see and hold the future—no matter what that future may be—and that I can entrust myself, my family, and my church to Him.

And so, as the tipping point comes to an end and my glimpse into future’s tapestry fades, I close my eyes . . . raise my arms . . . and plummet screaming with joy down the thrilling, exhilarating ride into God’s future.

God, do I love the tipping point.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Love Jesus? Or love serving Him?

If you could have just one dream come true, what would it be?

Last night I preached a sermon on church. Although I didn’t get too specific, I clearly wasn’t thinking about “Church” in the big, broad sense of the word. I was thinking about us. Here. The church we call Our Saviour Lutheran. And the question that I posed was this: Have we lost our first love?

It was one of those questions that was safe to ask because I already knew the answer. I knew the answer because I know this church. I know other churches. And without fail, every single church that I’ve ever been in, attended, served at, or heard of has in some way, in some fashion, been guilty of falling in love with something other than Jesus Christ. Some churches fall in love with Robert’s Rules of order and stick to that above all costs. Others fall in love with themselves, and start to believe their own hype. Others still fall in love with service, or ministry, or evangelism. They fall in love with the idea of serving Jesus, but somehow misplace Him in the process.

Let me tell you, I love Jesus Christ. I love Him because of the dead way of life that He brought me out of. I love Him because in Him I have forgiveness, I have peace, I have strength. I love Him because of what He’s done for my wife and for my children.

But last night and then some more today, I realized that when it came to church, the dream I had for Our Saviour had a focus that was ever so slightly misplaced. The dream I wanted to come true was for us to be a church that took great joy and fulfillment in serving Christ and serving our neighbors. That’s good, and it’s worthy of a big dream . . . but not if it means that we love serving Christ more than we love Christ Himself. Live in that kind of dream too long, and eventually even a worthy dream becomes an idol.

So, I need to tweak my focus just the tiniest bit. Our Saviour needs the same thing. Like I did last night in the sermon, we need to bring back to mind all that Jesus has done for us in the past and all that He is doing now. Jesus needs to become our first love again, because He’s the one who first loved us.