Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Minister's Paycheck is the Problem

It was time. Having concluded on Mother's Day 2009 that I was released from the church I had served for the precious 13 years I made my plans to resign. And I wasn't resigning because I had another church job to go to. In fact, the truth be known, I had been sending out resumes all over the country and did not get even one nibble. This, after being in professional ministry for 25 years and serving in a variety of positions, denominations, and locations. I was being set free not only of the current position but of professional ministry completely.

And I had no job waiting for me. It was a position that is clearly unadvisable and one I had never previously assumed. I never left a job without already having another in my pocket.

Yet, strangely, I had incredible peace. My wife was in agreement with the decision and we were comfortable to accept whatever may happen even if it meant living in the proverbial "poor house".

I should add that I had arrived at this point after several years of gracious, if not miraculous activity in my life by none other than the God to whom I was completely devoted. Like the blind man in John 9 whose eyes were blind not due to anyone's particular fault and  Jesus opened so that God's glory could be known, I felt like I had been "blinded" so that that the vision Jesus would bring would be both miraculous as well as uncomfortable to those who knew me all my life in a certain way.

My eyes were wide open and I was seeing things I hadn't previously seen or been allowed to see. My experience with the God I had served personally for 40 years and professionally for 25 was "reforming". I had crossed thresholds that had I chosen to avoid would've been like the person Jesus said had put his hand to a plow and turned back. I'd have been unworthy of the kingdom I was truly called to represent.

What started as a calling to full-time "ministry" as I sat in the pew of my home church when I was 18 evolved into what is culturally and religiously expected when that happens: it inevitably became a choice for a career path. Naturally, I would get the right kind of education including bachelor and masters degrees in a field that could make me marketable. I would land a starting position as a youth minister (along with several other church-related hats needed to justify a full time salary) with the career plan to one day achieve the pinnacle of all professionally "called" people, being a senior pastor with a church of your own. Somehow in our culturally saturated way of thinking, this was all evidence of a true calling. I struggled thoughout my "career" trying to justify to others why I wasn't driven to be a senior minister, or why I chose Christian Education (what is now a completely
irrelevant degree, I might add) instead of following the expected Master of Divinity track.

My experience of growing up in the home and church of a Bible "believing" charismatic Baptist minister was unique and honestly provided God with a foundation on which he could perform the miracle of granting sight to a blinded boy to no fault of the parents who raised him. My experience as a professional provided places and people where and with whom I could challenge conventional and cultural Christian practices. This was the miraculous and gracious activity of God Since my background and training should not have provided the fertile ground on which the seeds of God's life could've grown.

And the fruit that these seeds produced pushed me in directions that left behind not only my professional career, but my participation in conventional and cultural church life. I've learned that the life Jesus represented and taught lacked the professionalism that is part and parcel to today's so-called Christianity. Few people in our culture honestly question not just church attendance as a standard feature of true discipleship, but the current definition and practice of  the church they attend. Sadly, what happens each Sunday and the way it happens is perfectly fine for those who attend as it somehow communicates that the practice of their faith, while not perfect by any means, is good enough for God and for the church who loves to have them in attendance.

Since walking away (not fired, surprisingly) after years of "subversive, passionate and outspoken"
efforts to represent Jesus as a called but professional minister, I have concluded (for now) that were I ever to find myself in the "pastor/leader" mode again, I would refuse to be paid. It changes everything for me and the people. I'm convinced I'd preach better sermons with greater relevance to the people that might share their time and their stories in a healthy and non-judgemental dialogical environment.

I can now honestly say that while I hoped my weekly  sermons changed the lives of my listening congregation, what I really hoped for was that they would not only return to my church the following Sunday, but that they would become "full participants" in the life of our church (read: tithe, serve a
committee, teach a class, be an usher, etc.). And until this is exposed as a cultural evolution, it will continue to provide young men-and contrary to literal biblicism- women with a career path.

Professionalism in church work thus provides an income to people who believe they are following a "call" as well as a means by which the "Christian" in attendance can feel secure in paying for some to be the Christian they say they'd like to be but don't have the time like the professional has to read the Bible, pray and serve the world.

It seems to me that Jesus' message was that life in the kingdom was to be lived by all people and not reserved for those who have been "called", prepared, and paid to do so. That's why I'd welcome another reformation that would overhaul current church practices and cultivate a true community where people function according to their gifts and not heir resumes. That's why I couldn't in good conscience accept a paycheck to be a "pastor" as that would continue to support practices that prevent both the professional and the layperson from realizing full participation in the life of Christ.

As a professional I preached that those in the pew should live a fully devoted life. I believe I am expected to live in the same manner with the same obligations to life that those who listen to me might have. I should manage  the same stress and celebrate the same blessings that all do yet with the understanding that Christ's life empowers me to live and share my life in the community of those whose trajectory is like mine.

This is a matter of heart and not paycheck.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

On July 4 I'm more than an American; I'm an Estherian

Citing the Old Testament these days for cultural and spiritual relevance is tricky business so I carefully and thoughtfully approach referencing an Old Testament personality in order to highlight a few of my personal perspectives. And not only is using the Old Testament a currently questionable practice, the book of Esther can take the discussion to another level still. The canonization of this book has always been a matter of controversy since God is never mentioned, even though God's providence seems undeniable.

But enough about God, the Old Testament, providence....lets talk about me- or perhaps more accurately, us. We had no say when or where we were born. Like it or not, randomness and luck appeared to be determining factors for where we are in time and space.

Randomly and luckily I find myself living at what appears to be a time and place that may be unique if not special. I'm lucky to be living in a postmodern world which affords me the undeniable opportunity to challenge things and theologies that I might've otherwise accepted unwittingly resulting in spiritual stagnation- a sad description still of many people today struggling to fight off inevitability.

I'm also randomly and perhaps lucky to be living in America. As a follower of Jesus, I'm finding it uniquely challenging to transcend nationalism and separate that which is true of me as a citizen of Gods kingdom from that which I've grown to believe as an Americanized Christian. I'm hopeful that by living in a country that is currently having a severe identity crisis, I can live Jesus' life and not that which is currently represented politically and religiously.

Which makes me want to coin a new moniker: Estherianism (since we need more labels!). If we peer into the book of Esther and prayerfully reflect on what we read there about her, it's possible that the time and spaceless Spirit of Jesus through whom our faith filter is calibrated, can make her situation comparable to ours and we can find rivers of living water flowing from within us.

Esther found herself randomly living in a context she didn't choose. I doubt that as a Jew she wanted to be one among many young girls whose life would be defined by the pleasure she provided a powerful man. Her cousin Mordicai saw a bigger picture and challenged her with vision and opportunity. He baited her with possibilities that could be hers because of randomness and luck- and perhaps a bit of providence. Esther was asked by Mordicai if she could grasp that she was living in a unique time and found herself in a unique place. How could she know if she might not have been born for just such a time?

Like those of us who want to please God yet find ourselves confused if not angry in the context we live in, Esther must've struggled with the grandeur of Mordicai's invitation. We read that she accepted the randomness of her position and the opportunity that came with it. And like many of us who by accepting the perilously blessed challenges of randomly finding ourselves alive in our time and place, she resigned to whatever the future might hold by such a decision. With no promises or assurances that all things would work together for her good because she was yielding to her best understanding of a God that's not even mentioned, she soberly and resolutely declares that if she is to perish, so be it.

I'm grateful that I live at such a time as 2015 and in such a place as troubled America. At whatever cost, I hope to be what Jesus says I am and live incarnationally within my frame of reference hoping that my light attracts the people with whom I come into contact to the One I'm still figuring out. And if I perish, I perish.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Using the Buoy To Survive in the Sea of Cultural Crisis

Rather than learning to swim to survive, Christians adrift in a sea of post-modernism continue to grasp for a buoy that fails to provide them with the security they think they desperately need.

The Bible is the bouy.

Yes, the Bible has provided and can continue to provide a modicum of spiritual security and sustenance but when truly examined as a long term plan for spiritual health and independence, it falls short- by its own admission. The Bible itself teaches that when in the sea of current cultural and historical context, the follower of Jesus has an internal Source of survival, yea even a Source of direction, that frees us of an unhealthy attachment to and dependence on the Bible-bouy.

It's called the Spirit of God/Christ.

We can see this teaching played out very practically and relevantly when the first followers found themselves in a rhubarb regarding circumcision of early Gentile followers (Acts 15).  Instead of restricting this text to a historical account of a fresh theological understanding of how non-Jewish believers like me no longer are required to get snipped to be accepted in the club, it may serve us better to view this passage as a model of how to face cultural and contextual crises as they emerge over the centuries yet to come.

Consider the problem for those who passionately loved Jesus and the "Bible" that was revered by all, including Jesus himself! Circumcision was instructed by God as the identification for all (obviously men- a fact that in itself should reveal its limitations and male-driven perspectives rampant at that
time) who would be a part of a committed covenant relationship with God. It was documented and codified in the Torah (read: Old Testament) and practiced religiously for centuries. Questions about its practice, relevance or need were simply not entertained. Like today, those who would question it would be seen as heretics as they would be questioning the Bible, God, and orthodoxy.

But the problem was that uncircumcised people-men and women- were experiencing an undeniable committed (new)covenant relationship with God EXACTLY like those who had obediently followed the historical and biblical practice instituted by God Himself! This didn't make sense to the Jesus-loving  biblicists at that time.

I can only imagine that had the blogosphere and Facebook existed then that it would've looked eerily similar to what we witness today, especially in regard to homosexuality. After all, I can safely say that
I know practicing gays who evidence as much, if not more of a committed faith and practice in the
ways of Jesus as me. I, like the apostles in Acts 15, have to conclude that no matter what the Bible says, there are people who are experiencing God like the rest of us contrary to a few quotable biblical passages. And, like the statement issued by that notorious Jerusalem Council, no one- especially those of us who have loved, revered, read and quoted the Bible (including, sad to say, verses condemning homosexuality) should get in the way of or make if hard for people to experience Christ.

Church reform and cultural renaissance in the 1500's, slavery in the 1800's, and equality of women in the 1900's have gone through the crucible of biblical scrutiny and come out (accept the pun!) on the other side embraced by Bible believing followers of Jesus.  What we easily accept now could not have been easy for those Bible loving people wrestling with these issues in their time and place.

Sexual orientation and practice in the 2000's is facing the same challenges and the model provided for us in Acts 15 can (and should) get us to the other side of this issue even if it is difficult. It was no
doubt difficult for many in the room at that momentous meeting to accept a new way of living in the Spirit of God that felt like it contradicted that which was believed to be initiated and blessed by that same Spirit.

So instead of expecting the bouy to be that which saves us, perhaps we can trust that which transcends and is supported by the bouy to accept that God's ways are not our ways.

And apparently, sometimes God's ways are not even His ways as we have come to expect them to be.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Every Generation Needs a John

(From John 1:23)

Today's religious and cultural "wilderness" needs, and hopefully has, voices that understand the times (like the sons of Issachar) and offer the clarion call to "straighten" God's ways. Christendom, patriotism, and consumerism have, like in every generation from Moses to Christ to Constantine to today, allowed, yea, encouraged movement from straight to crooked. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah (among others), Jesus, Luther, McLaren, Rollins all have a time when their voices were in their respective wildernesses calling for straightness when all that surrounded them was crooked. A voice in the wilderness is like a ray os Sun peeking through a very cloudy atmosphere. We get so used to clouds that we wonder at what the beam of brightness might mean. It might even be said that we grow to believe with certainty that what is truly crooked we now call straight. We can't tell the difference until a voice is heard declaring that the emperor is naked. The accepted geography of crookedness is a tough place to hear a seemingly new but very accurate voice. People had to leave the accepted crooked city limits to find the voice of straightness in the country. We have to follow our abrahamic instincts and venture from the comfortable to the unknown. Our uncertainty is a challenging and hopefully welcome part of a process traveling toward the zip code of straightness and simplicity.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Being Satan? Is Today's Church Worthy of Jesus' Rebuke?

In Mark 8:31-33, we find the challenging story of Jesus outlining his agenda only to be challenged by Peter- a good and loyal follower of his Master. Jesus, though, calls out Peter as "Satan" for not sharing Jesus' perspective.

I wonder if the criticism being offered for what may appear to many conventional believers as activity that couldn't represent the heart of God is worthy of the same rebuke that Peter receives from Jesus. When people defend the institutional church instead of listening to what the Spirit is saying to the church, are they representing Satan- to use Jesus' label for a well intended disciple named Peter? When Christians take the position of hawks over doves, would they hear Jesus say that their minds are set not on the things of God, but the things of man? When believers judge the sexual activities of other humans thinking they represent God, are they perhaps simply not able to accept a message from the Master that is uncomfortable and therefore unacceptable? Maybe being "Satan" in Jesus' view is more about a closed minded and uninformed representation of what we have grown accustomed to in our religious practice of what we call Christianity than an overtly stated allegiance to the Anti-God. I'm guessing Peter was shocked at Jesus' rebuke and apparent horrific label, feeling that it wasn't deserved and even harsh. Yet, there it is for us to read and see if there is application in the story to contemporary practice by well intended disciples.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What? No Celebrities?

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (‭Acts‬ ‭9‬:‭31‬ ESV)

This verse is couched obscurely within the more talked about narratives that preceded and follow it. The spectacular account of Paul's conversion not only effectively thrusts him into celebrity status- not unlike the conversion of modern day celebrities (I.e., Deion Sanders, Steven Baldwin, etc.), but also offers us a conversion story that has never been repeated by our Lord- and it's safe to say there have been plenty of others throughout history who could've used the same kind of encounter (Hitler? Hussein? Osteen?).  After a time of being the poster child of faith, Paul is shipped into a decade of obscurity. This verse is followed by another Christian celebrity (Peter) having another landmark experience that pushed the believers out of the box they had already created for their newly embraced religion. So what is this verse possibly saying about the functioning and growth of the "church"?

It grew without any recorded celebrity or personality. The only "personality" present was the Spirit. They were "built up" in the way Paul would later affirm by each member of the body supplying to others what may be helpful in that moment.

Today's American model of Christendom is based and dependent on "personalities" if not celebrities. Even local church staffs play into this role on a smaller scale then do, say, Joel Osteen, John Piper, Mark Discoll, Rob Bell- just to name a cross section of possibilities. And the pew sitter supports this because we live in a celebrity culture.

God's culture is sans celebrity. The true "rock star" is and always will be Jesus and it is his Spirit that is in us as we collect in any venue. The model that this verse implies is seen as too risky in our time and yet it would seem that the risk is worth the result.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why Did Jesus Read the Bible?

The Bible we read tells us that Jesus was familiar with the Scriptures of his day- what we call our Old Testament. For instance, we find our Master quoting from the Scriptures to ward off the temptations of the Devil in the wilderness. We also see him using it to counter the equally informed Pharisees use of the same set of Writings.

So did Jesus read the Scriptures as an act of devotion or as means of engagement with his culture?

As a boy growing up in the home of a King James toting Baptist minister, I was duly influenced regarding the inerrant and quasi-magical "word of God" (read: Bible). In time, I would recognize the bibliolotry I had been taught and of which I would later repent. But on the good side of such an upbringing, I learned to read the Bible- a lot! Every new calendar year marked the beginning of yet another reading of Genesis (perhaps the most widely read book in the Christian-literate world as a result!) which inevitably waned by mid-February when Leviticus reared its annual ugly head. In spite of failing more than succeeding in my yearly quest, I still became very familiar with the Bible's content and did a fair job at both "sword drills" and memorization.

Once I became a minister, I ravenously read the Bible. And while I would claim I was reading for personal devotions, I was guilty of the professional curse I was under in that as I read, I was looking for the next passage from which to preach a "biblical" sermon. For years I read the Old Testament every year, the New Testament and Psalms/Proverbs each month. I really knew the Bible and could weave passages into all conversations and contexts. And if I couldn't cite the exact passage reference, I could always get to the general area in the Bible where the passage was found.

And I felt spiritually mature. And my congregation and friends were impressed.

Did Jesus read his Bible for the same reasons? Was it a requirement for him as well in order to have a healthy relationship with God? After all, we all know the prescription for living as a Christian and the answer to all questions posed in Church: read your Bible and pray!

God graciously allowed me to be free of attributing divine status to the Bible and like Hezekiah did to the brass serpent, put it in its proper perspective.

So if Jesus didn't need the Bible for his own spiritual health for what reason did he read it at all? It is not recorded anywhere in our Bible that he actually read it does report that he prayed. I have concluded that our ("evangelical" Americanized church goers) approach to the Bible is beyond the scope of it purpose and intent.

It appears to me that Jesus needed to read the Bible so he could use it to put proper emphasis on its use and to counteract misinterpretations of its content. I'm sure his familiarity with the Scriptures provided him a level of spiritual encouragement that we all can access. His ability to "rightly divide the word of truth" (a quotation from Paul to Timothy that believe it or not, may not be referencing the Bible as we so often assume) was based on the same source as ours should be: the filtering presence of the Spirit of God.

To conclude, then, I need to read my Bible so I can, like Jesus, understand it through the same Spirit he did and then to lovingly interact with my Christianized culture in hopes of coming to better and more accurate applications not only of the Bible itself, but more importantly, of life in Christ today.