Do Pastors Fail?

Yep.

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I was recently invited to join the one and only Todd Littleton on the Patheological podcast to discuss the strange, and often avoided, subject of pastoral failure. Many of us are all too familiar with the failure made manifest in places of church leadership like adultery and embezzlement. Those I would categorize as moral failures. But there are other failures as well.

During our conversation Todd and I cover a number of the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years, and how I’ve grown from them. I fundamentally believe our mistakes make us better pastors/Christians AND that we need communities to help us see our failures and push us toward better solutions. Otherwise we pastors run the risk of falling into a frightening statistical category: 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month in this country never to return again.

If you would like to listen to our conversation, you can do so here: Pastors Fail?

I highly suggest subscribing to Todd’s podcast – he strives to provide conversations for the pastor/theologian and it has been a tremendous help to me in the past.

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Devotional – Mark 8.36

Devotional:

Mark 8.36

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

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When I do pre-marital counseling sessions I have a set of questions I use to get the conversation going. I always start with “What was your last fight about?” It knocks the couple back for a second, but then very quickly they can share with me a disagreement that they recently worked through (more often than not it has to do with wedding invitations!). All couples fight about something, and so instead of advocating for no fighting, I do what I can to help them see how they already reconcile their differences, and then encourage them to work on those practices.

Later in the conversation I will ask, “Why do you want me to perform the service?” The question isn’t about me particularly, but more to the point of having a church wedding. Many couples might think they want a church wedding, but they’ll come to pastor and ask for it to happen in a church but “without the God stuff.” I am of the opinion that if a couple does not want the Lord’s blessing on their wedding, then its probably better to be done in a local courthouse than in the Lord’s house.

But of all the questions, the one that usually stumps couples the most is, “How much money is too much money?” Most respond with something like, “There’s such a thing as too much money?!” But then I’ll ask the question again. Many couples getting married are young and not quite in a position to be swimming in the dough, but a time could come in which they will make more than they need. And so I ask if they’ve ever contemplated how much money would be enough money, and what would they like to do with the rest.

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It should come as no surprise that the most prevalent reason for divorce today is money. Whether it’s hiding money in a separate account, or arguments about how much to spend on a certain item, or not saving enough for the future, or a great number of other financial disagreements – money is at the heart of divorce more often than not.

And so, as a couple prepares to embark on the strange territory that is marriage, I ask, “How much money is too much money?” I ask the question to get them thinking about finances now, and later, but also to get them to think about what their lives are all about.

We are trapped in a world where the accumulation of wealth is the end all be all, but what will it profit us to gain everything at the expense of our lives? Is the time we spend at work making money more important than the time we spend with our friends and families? What will be more important at the end of our days, the money in the bank or the people we share our lives with?

Hoping Against Hope

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Dr. Emily Hunter McGowin about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Emily is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She has a book on evangelical family practices titled “Quivering Families” coming out in May. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the recent school shooting in Florida, the covenant, name changes, mutual suffering, professional Christians, the difference between trust and witness, and the obsession with safety. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hoping Against Hope

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The End Of The Rainbow

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

 

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Things were looking good for the people of God, but just six chapters into the Good Book, humanity has become polluted beyond repair. The situation was so terrible that God sends a flood to start over. However, God calls upon Noah to build an Ark that will be the seed of new life, and he and his family, plus two of every animal are spared..

And then, after rocking gently on the waves for forty days and forty nights, the waters recede; the family and animals walk down the ramp, and up in the sky is a rainbow declaring God’s love toward all of creation.

This, of course, is the most beloved of all Sunday School stories for children. I have yet to encounter a church nursery or children’s Sunday school room in which the ark wasn’t painted on a wall, or a book describing the events couldn’t be found on a shelf, or plastic figurines of the animals and Noah weren’t tossed in a corner after years of repeated use and play.

At my last church I would take time every year to teach the children in our preschool about Noah and his Ark. We would put on little animal masks and line up two by two and march around the church property making animals sounds as loud as we possibly could while cars would slow down to watch a tall bearded man lead a group of children in flapping their wings, clomping their jaws, and shaking their tails.

And it would inevitably end in the playground where there was a large plastic boat that had enough space for everyone to climb aboard. We would pretend that the waves we shaking us back and forth, and then we’d look up in the sky for our make-believe rainbow.

            The end.

And we almost always tell the story that way; we jump straight to the rainbow. But in jumping ahead, we forget about the immense devastation the survivors would have witnessed. We forget that God sent the flood for a reason, and that death and carnage would have spread as far as the eye could see.

Have you seen what Houston looked like after the flood waters receded? Do you remember how long it took to sift through the entire city of New Orleans after Katrina? That’s what the flood must have been like, but worse.

            And we teach this story to our children.

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The rainbow was in the sky as a sign and reminder of the covenant God made with God’s people, but it was also done in the presence of death and destruction. “Never again,” says the Lord, “Will I destroy the earth.”

On Wednesday afternoon, while countless Christians were walking around with ashes in the sign of a cross smeared across their foreheads, a young man pulled the fire-alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and waited for people to pour out in the hallways. And then he began shooting.

17 dead, another dozen injured.

In October, a man looked out from his room in Las Vegas at the crowds of people dancing at a music festival. While the pumping music was filling the air, he added to it with the sound of gunshots.

58 dead, 851 injured.

On December 14th, 2012, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting.

20 dead, the majority of whom were 6 or 7 years old.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. Those numbers don’t include what happened in Las Vegas, or a number of other shooting related events. But in the last five years, 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings.

Called to life out of chaos and nothingness by the breath of God, we humans seem at every turn bent on returning to that chaos. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” And so God sent the flood.

Following the Flood, God placed the rainbow in the sky, and God promised to never drop such violence on us again, and for some reason, we’ve failed to hold up our end of the bargain.

God’s act over creation binds all of creation together, from the fish in the sea to the birds in the air, to the people in the pews next to you. And yet violence, anger, aggression, they rule the day. They captivate our attention, they fuel our inner thoughts, they drive our responses to frustration. We are a people near the end of the rainbow.

It’s like we’re so obsessed with the end of the story, we forget what got us here.

Since Wednesday afternoon I have been bombarded with messages from people both inside and outside of the church.

On one side there are people fighting for stricter gun control. They believe that sensible legislation could prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to make it harder to purchase a firearm.

It’s important to note, that of the last 18 mass shootings, the majority of the firearms were purchased legally and with a federal background check.

On the other side, there are people fighting for greater access to weapons and freedom to use them. They believe that arming teachers and administrators will prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to protect their freedom to defend themselves and others.

Violence, it seems, is inescapable. Regardless of the rainbows above our heads, this world of ours is captivated by one in which the power to end life reigns supreme.

But God has a knack for making a way out of no way.

We all know what chaos looks like, we don’t need the reminder from Genesis, we have the nightly news, and Facebook, and Twitter to show us what real chaos looks like. But it is in the midst of chaos, with the stories flooding in and the destruction around our ankles, that the rainbow arches across the sky demanding our attention.

And when we see that bow, when we hear about those teachers who sacrificed their lives to protect their students, when we witness the children standing in front of the school praying for their friends, we remember what God did for humanity and all of creation, we get a taste of the covenant, we discover redemption.

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Maybe that’s why we teach children the story of Noah and the Ark, and the rainbow in the sky, even if we’ve lost a connection to its deep and frightening truth – we want our children, in fact we want everyone, to know that God’s love and hope is present in the chaos, that even while the world is full of disturbing devastation, God has not forgotten us.

In the covenant made through the sign of the rainbow, God bound God’s own self to us in a new and different way. God became intimately connected with the creatures of his creation, preserving, sustaining, and encouraging them (us) toward redemption.

The rainbow, therefore, acts like a mirror, in which we see the truth of our reflection. We see who we really are, with our anger, and our propensity toward violence, and our fear. We see the truth, and we remember that God hung his bow in the sky.

So, perhaps the time has come to reclaim the strange, ugly, and beautiful truth of the rainbow. Maybe the time has come to put an end to the rainbow in nurseries and children’s bibles alone. Perhaps we need to seal our hearts with the rainbow that declares a new day has broken, that there is a better way, that there is room for all of the colors that make the covenant what it is.

That kind of rediscovery could completely reshape and shake up what we know of who we are. It won’t make us perfect, it won’t rid the world of evil, but it will stand as a reminder, just as it once did, that God has not abandoned us to our own devices, that God has made a new day and a new way.

This story from near the beginning, is the beginning of the covenants that lead to the kingdom. It is a promise established in Noah, and later with Abraham, David, and through our baptisms into Jesus’ death and resurrection.

            The covenant, at its core, is a witness to the fact that God is stuck with us, and that we are stuck with God.

In life, there are moments when we can feel the rage build within us. It usually happens in response to something we experience in another person, whether right in front of us, on television, or on the Internet.

And, to be clear, there are times when rage is appropriate. The Psalms are filled with these little vignettes into the anger of the people Israel amidst such terrible injustice. It is good and right for us to be angry when we see what happened in Florida this week, it is good and right for us to be angry about innocent children being murdered indiscriminately, it is good and right for us to voice our opinions about what can and needs to change.

            The challenge is in remembering that God is with us in the midst of our anger. That God saw the deplorable state of the world not only during the days of Noah, but in the days right before Jesus’ birth, and God sent us a new sign, in his Son, who came to show that love always trumps violence, that we are bound to one another even when we can’t stand each other, and that there is a better way.

The rainbow above Noah’s head, the experience of Jesus in our lives, they are a reminder that the world was broken, is still broken, and that God is in the business of reconciliation. It forces us to confront the brokenness of our own lives, and in the lives of others. It even makes us uncomfortable – for if God was willing to refrain from violence upon the world, if God was willing to hang up the bow, why haven’t we done the same? Amen.

The Last Jedi – Spiritual or Religious?

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A few week ago I was able to share a conversation with Jason Micheli and Chaim Saiman for our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice about the theological dimensions of Star Wars, and in particular The Last Jedi. After seeing the most recent Star Wars film, Chaim was struck by some of the subtle (and not so subtle) religious motifs within the movie and wrote an article for The Atlantic titled, “Why The Last Jedi Is More Spiritual Than Religious.” Chaim is a law professor at Villanova and is interested in the intersection between law and faith.

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Our conversation covers a range of topics including Jesus and the Law, growing up in the bible belt, the First Commandment, Jesus as the proto-Christian, the religiosity of Star Wars, and how our faiths and cultures are tied together. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Fact Checking Star Wars

Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

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If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.

You Deserve To Die

Ash Wednesday tends to bring out the best, and the worst, in us. We’re forced to confront our finitude while giving thanks to God for not abandoning us to our own devices. We are marked with signs of the cross and told to not practice our piety before others. We are reminded that we are dust, and then promised that dust is not the end.

It’s a lot of fun.

And because Ash Wednesday is fun, the team from Crackers and Grape Juice got together to record a brief conversation about the liturgical holy day, and the season of Lent that Ash Wednesday inaugurates. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: You Deserve To Die