On Not Looking Like A Pastor

Stanley Hauerwas is known for telling his seminary students that they should never marry couples off the street and they should never do a funeral in a funeral home. His instructions to soon-to-be-pastors can sound a bit harsh the first time around but they are worthy commands.

Pastors should not preside over funerals in funeral homes because we are supposed to have Services of Death and Resurrection in the same place that baptisms take place. Our life with God begins in baptism, and finds its new beginning in our death; those two things should not be separated.

However, in my time as a pastor I’ve done a handful of funerals in funeral homes simply because the family was afraid of the cost of having the funeral home transport the body/urn and they were overwhelmed by the total cost to begin with.

But the prohibition to never marry someone off the street is one that I have taken very seriously.

In our current culture, the divorce rate is creeping above 50% which means that by the time I retire from ministry, there’s a chance that half of the marriages I presided over will have already come to an end. This terrifies me.

In response to the continually growing trend of separations and divorces, I have made a concerted effort to spend as much time with couples before their wedding so that whether I knew them before their request or not, they will not be strangers by the time I stand with them by the altar. I insist on having a minimum of three pre-marital counseling sessions and I reserve the right to not perform the marriage if I feel either something is wrong, or that I am not the one to bring them together.

Of all the questions that I ask, (and I do ask a lot) the one that makes couples the most uncomfortable is not the question about sex, or even how they handle money, but about why they want me to perform the wedding. And I don’t mean me personally, but why do they want it to be a religious service.

I ask this question because it is a lot easier (and cheaper) to drive down to the local courthouse and be married by a justice of the peace. There’s no premarital counseling involved, there’s no need to have a packed room full of people and for a liturgy. So, why have a religious ceremony?

Last night I was having a pre-martial counseling session with a couple whose wedding is coming up, and upon asking the question the soon-to-be husband very honestly answered that he is suspicious of organized religion, that my involvement has less to do with his choice than with the family’s choice, but that in the end he wanted it to be religious (and wanted me to do it) because I don’t seem like a normal pastor.

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Drinking Methodist “Champagne” at the Easter Sunrise Service

I hear that kind of thing all the time. I’ll be at a local coffee shop working on a sermon when someone will strike up a conversation and when it moves to the topic of employment, and they learn I’m a United Methodist pastor, they’ll say something like “Are you sure?”

Or I’ll be at a party with mutual friends and when I’m introduced, as a pastor from a nearby church, people will always hide their beer cans or glasses of wine behind their back until they see that I am holding one as well.

Or when I drop off my son at day care after months of learning about the teachers and other parents I’ll be wearing a clergy collar and someone will ask me if it’s a joke.

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor.

And I think this is a good thing.

I think it is a good thing precisely because of what Dr. Hauerwas taught me: Never marry people off the street. When I am invited into the intimacy that is shared between two people prior to their wedding, when I can have real and vulnerable conversations with them about the sanctity of marriage and God’s ultimate role in it, I can break down these strange stereotypes about what a pastor is supposed to look and sound like.

Being myself, rather than having a presumed pastor-like personality, helps to show the world that Christians (and the church) are not what the world makes of us. We Christians are not all like the Westboro Baptists who are forever picketing certain events, nor are we all like the gay-shaming ultra-conservatives who belittle people for their identity, nor are we all like the quiet, antiquated, and archaic pastors from television shows and movies.

We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world.

So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.

Devotional – Psalm 86.10

Devotional:

Psalm 86.10

For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

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Yesterday, while the United Methodist Churches in the Virginia Conference gathered for worship, clergy and lay representatives were at the Hampton Convention Center to hear Bishop Sharma Lewis lead worship. In her sermon she brought together many of the ideas from the weekend of Annual Conference particularly regarding the fact that God is in the business of doing new things. And she concluded with our new ministry focus: “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners, who influence others to serve.”

But there was another line from her sermon that has been playing over and over in my mind more than any other: “Laity, do not say to your Clergy who bring fresh ideas, ‘But we’ve never done it that way before.’”

I count myself blessed that over the last four years St. John’s has largely responded positively to new ideas. Working together with the leadership of the church has resulted in new ministries and ways to serve the community that have allowed us to accomplish God’s will. But just as we embarked into new territory during my time as the pastor, you (and I really mean you) need to continue to have open eyes and open hearts to the new ideas from your new pastor.

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Just because we did something a certain way while I was here does not mean that’s the way you have to do it forever. Frankly, you should probably change almost everything because that would be a better way of allowing the Spirit to move in new and bold ways. And that is what is at the heart of what Bishop Lewis said and at the heart of churches that are currently fruitful; a recognition that new ideas should be embraced because they ultimately come from God.

The psalmist boldly proclaims that God is the one who is great and does wondrous things. Pastors can do good things for their churches, they can help to point to what God is doing in the world, but God is the one doing the things in the world! God is God alone and a church can only be fruitful when it knows and believes that God is the one from whom all blessings flow.

So when you hear about a new idea, whether it comes from your new pastor or even from yourself, know and believe that God is the source of the idea, and prepare yourselves to be surprised by the wondrous majesty of our God who is in the business of doing new things.

I will miss all of you and all of the remarkable things we’ve done together over the last four years, but I am grateful that God will continue to do even more for you in this new chapter of the church’s life.

Devotional – 1 Timothy 6.10

Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.10

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

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In the United Methodist Church we spend a lot of time every fall preparing for Charge Conference. Charge Conference is an annual meeting in the life of the church where we evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going, we discuss challenges and new approaches, and we vote on things like the budget and pastoral compensation.

Paying pastors is one of those things in the life of the church that we like to handle quickly and then move on to a different subject. Frankly, whenever we talk about money we want to address it as fast as possible and then get back to “doing church.” Money makes us uncomfortable.

On some level this is a good thing. We know that Paul writes to Timothy about the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Or we can think about a time when the fear regarding finances sent the church in a frightening direction. Or we can reflect on how the love of money has reshaped a relationship with a friend or with someone in our family.

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However, money and wealth is one of the things that Jesus talks about more than anything else, and we have slowly removed it from our common experiences in the life of the church.

On the Virginia Conference website for the United Methodist Church there is a page dedicated to the bishop. On that particular page anyone can find narrative information about our bishop, but there is also a link to what is called the “Appointment Workbook.” If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.

Paul warns us about the love of money in our individual lives and in the community of the church. When we become so consumed by the pursuit of money whether we are a teacher, or a doctor, or a denomination, we fall captive to the evil the sends us wandering away from the faith. As Christians, our ultimate call is to grow in our faith and Christlikeness, not in our annual salary.

Do Not Listen To Preachers (Including Me)

Jeremiah 23.23-29

Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? Says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

Pastor Holding Bible ca. 2000

 

A young preacher stands in the pulpit after a long week of parish ministry. The visits have all been made. A new budget for the coming year is finished and ready for approval. Plans for the Community Cook-Out came to fruition as people from all over the community gathered together.

The young preacher stands in the pulpit and looks out at the congregation. He sees couples that he has counseled; children that he has baptized; families that are struggling; individuals whose husbands or wives he has buried; and he even sees people he has never seen before. He looks over the bulletin one last time just to make sure that everything is listed the way it is supposed to be, and then he begins by saying, “This morning the sermon will be short and sweet”

“Hallelujah!” Someone shouts out from a pew.

“Is that for the short, or for the sweet?” says the preacher.

The congregation laughs.

The preacher sighs.

The art of preaching is a strange thing, but an even stranger thing when we consider that what we want from a sermon is something short and sweet. Some of you have been quick to say that you want a sermon that leaves you feeling good on your way out from the sanctuary. Others have said that you want a sermon that gives you something to think about during the week, or one that helps to remind you that God is love, or that Jesus wants the world to be a better place, etc.

I would classify myself as a short and sweet preacher. I fundamentally believe that if you cannot say what you’re trying to say in 15 minutes then you’re never going to say it. Additionally, I love pleasing all of you. I live for those moments in the receiving line following worship when some of you offer praise for what you heard through the sermon. I know I’m supposed to be humble, but it feels pretty good to be congratulated and praised for preaching.

In the last few years we’ve had an abundance of sweet sermons; times when I wanted all of you to leave with just one thought: “God loves you.” I’ve done my best to make you laugh and smile when thinking about the abundant glory of God’s grace. I’ve tried to cheer you up during times of domestic and international strife. I’ve worked to make this place as appealing as possible for as many people as possible.

And that is why you should not listen to preachers, including me.

“Am I close to you?” says the Lord. “Or am I far away? Who thinks they can hide in secret places so I cannot see them? I am the Lord! Do I not fill up heaven and earth? I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy in my name saying ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed! How long will they continue like this?”

The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time filled with false prophets, people who would ascend to places like this in front of a gathered people and make claims on behalf of the Lord. They would spout off about their visions of what the Lord was doing, and the more they said, the further they moved away from God.

God warns us against listening to false prophets, about succumbing to their visions, and about what happens when we trust them more than the Word.

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It would be easy today to make this whole sermon about the false prophets of our contemporary experience. We’ve got plenty of false prophets who use their skill to sell us on what they believe the future should hold. In fact this whole sermon could just be a warning against listening to the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

What kind of dreams are they selling?

“I have dreamed of a future where everyone can, and should go to college for free. Where healthcare will be free for everyone. We need to remember what made us great and start taking from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. It’s not about progress; it’s about fairness. We need to make America fair again.”

“I have dreamed of a wall unlike any other wall. This wall will fix all of our problems. It will bring wealth back to our country. We need to bomb the Middle East into oblivion to assert ourselves as the top of the world. We need to make America great again.”

Politicians have always been false prophets making promises that cannot be kept; selling a vision of the future that rarely comes to fruition. And we know this is true. That’s why we’ve grown so jaded by our political seasons and apathetic about whatever will happen.

But there are more false prophets out there than just politicians, and one of them is talking to you right now.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God warns us against listening to people like me, people who march up to the front of the gathered church and strive to proclaim God’s faithful word. For whenever we hear a preacher go on and on about the beauty and majesty of God’s Word, whenever the Lord is watered down to a spirit of love, whenever we hear more about the preacher’s dreams than God’s will, we need to be reminded that the Word of the Lord is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.

Since we’ve been together in this strange thing called church, I’ve preached over 150 sermons. I’ve preached from Genesis to Revelation. I’ve mentioned the patriarchs and the prophets. I’ve proclaimed the possibilities of the psalms. I’ve proudly preached on the power of parables. I’ve done different series on “Why We Do What We Do” and “The Basics” and “New Beginnings” and “Strange Stories from Scripture.” I’ve even dressed up and preached not one, but TWO sermons from the perspective of a donkey.

And for what?

Has the preaching in this place challenged you to be a better disciple? And maybe not just from me, but have you ever left this church really feeling convicted by what you heard and wanted to live differently? Or has your experience been like most, and you leave feeling pretty good on Sunday afternoon?

We preachers are tempted by the practices of false prophecy. We like to be liked. We want to fill pews with people to boost our egos. We need to hear praise from lay people on their way out the door. We yearn for success. We, after years of sermon preparation and proclamation, fall prey to hearing our own voice so deeply that we no longer hear others, nor do we hear the Lord.

For the last three years I’ve had a dream about the future of this church. I have dreamed of Sunday mornings where so many people fill the pews of this sanctuary that I cannot know everyone’s names. I have imagined crowds gathered around the baptismal font in anticipation of bringing a new person into the life of our church. I have pictured people having to park on the front lawn because there are not enough spaces left in our parking lot.

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And because I had this dream, I preached and worked toward things like our Community Cook-Out. I implored our Church Council to use enough money to give away the food and the games and the fellowship all for free. I sent out hundreds and hundreds of post-cards to all of our neighbors so that they might join us on the front lawn.

I have dreamed, and I want the dream to become real. So I work week after week on ideas and programs and sermons that will draw people into this sanctuary on Sunday mornings until that dream becomes reality.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in our narthex right before our opening hymn. Most of you were sitting in the pews; our liturgist had gone through the pertinent announcements and necessary welcome. Rick was playing something melodic on the organ as we prepared our hearts and minds for worship when I stepped onto the carpet with our acolyte.

Without thinking much about it, I started to count the back of all your heads. I started with the front left and made my way toward the back, then my eyes moved to the front right and all the way toward the back. My lips must have been moving because our acolyte looked at me and said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m counting…” I said while trying to not lose track of the number.

And then he asked, “Why?”

Why?

In his question, in the simple raise of an eyebrow at my action, my heart caught on fire, it burned like a blaze, and I felt it crumble into ashes.

For how long have I deceived my own heart? For how long have I been so consumed by the number of people in our pews that I have forgotten the call to share the Good News? For how long have I proclaimed a God of love who is so loving that he does not expect us to live changed and transformed lives? For how long have all of us listened to false prophets who preached their own dream instead of speaking the Word of the Lord faithfully?

In his question I heard the Lord convict my heart because I have been caught up in church growth not for the sake of the kingdom, but for my own affirmation. I have wanted the front lawn to be packed with people from the community not for the sake of the kingdom, but for the pews to be filled in worship. I have preached sermons to make us feel better not for the sake of the kingdom, but for all of you to come back the next Sunday.

Sermons are a good and strange thing. After all they are the means by which the Word of the Lord is interpreted for our lives on a weekly basis. But they cannot be blindly accepted without challenge. For to only ever hear about God’s grace does a disservice to the Lord who is always calling us to live more like Christ. And, on the other hand, to only ever hear about how sinful we are neglects to reveal the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.

God cares more about spreading the Good News than about filling up the pews.

And sometimes that Good News is that we need to be better than we were when we arrived, that we are called to a life of discipleship that pins us against the world, that the Lord expects great things from us. The Good News is that God has not abandoned us to our sinful desires and devices, that God believes we can be better even if we don’t, and that we can transform the world but we first must transform ourselves.

We need good preachers, men and women who are willing to lay down their egos at the altar and faithfully proclaim God’s Word. And we need good lay people who are willing to crucify their fears and speak the truth in love toward the preachers who have fallen into the trap of false prophecy.

So, may the Word of the Lord be like a hammer that breaks our lives into pieces! Let it shatter our false identities and insecurities, let it break down all our preconceived notions and assumptions, and let it burn and blaze forever and ever. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 12.7

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 12.7

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

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When I was younger, the bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference appointed a Korean man to serve as the pastor of my home church in Alexandria. MJ Kim is a gifted pastor and served the church faithfully during his appointment, though it was challenging. I was too young to understand it at first, but as I matured I started to witness people at the church complain about his accent and heritage. I would hear adults in the narthex express frustration about not understanding what he was saying from the pulpit, or growing tired of hearing anecdotes about Korea. Yet, from my young vantage point, I loved having him as my pastor. His accent was powerful in the pulpit as it continuously reminded me that God is the God of all peoples, and his stories about Korea and growing into his faith were exciting and dynamic.

Year later, after MJ was appointed somewhere else, I was talking with one of the ushers at my home church about all the pastors that had served the church. This particular usher, though kind and faithful, was one of the people who were notorious for complaining about MJ during his time at our church. As we stood together before worship, comparing all of the pastors of the past, the usher sighed deeply and said, “MJ was such a gift. I wish I had appreciated him while he was here.” I stood speechless as this usher had apparently changed his entire perspective around our former pastor and then finally asked what had led to this shift in opinion. His response was simple and to the point: “Sometimes I couldn’t understand him, and sometimes his stories felt so far away, but whenever MJ was in that pulpit, I felt the Spirit with us.”

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Paul is quick to remind the church in Corinth that each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good of the community. While so many of us are quick to judge and complain about the people in the pews next to us, Paul beckons us to see them as gifted and blessed people who can help transform us for the kingdom of God. MJ Kim was indeed a blessing to that church precisely because he was different than most of us; his gift of the Spirit challenged us to be more like Christ every single day of our lives.

How has God blessed you with gifts? What are your strengths for the common good? Are you faithfully using the blessings God has given you to make the community better for everyone? Are you thankful for the people in whom you experience the manifestation of the Spirit? What can you do to contribute to the common good?

Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
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Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

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The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

Devotional – Ezekiel 2.3

Ezekiel 2.3

He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.

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God loves to send people where they least expect. Moses was shepherding when God spoke to him through the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt in order to lead the people out of captivity. Jonah was minding his own business when the Lord told him to go to Nineveh. Paul was in the middle of his campaign against the early Christians when God told him to go see Ananias in Damascus.

In the United Methodist Church pastors are appointed (sent) to serve different churches. Rather than being interviewed and examined by every individual placement, a bishop (and cabinet) discern God’s will and send pastors accordingly. This style of appointments allows for churches to be challenged by their pastors (and pastors by their churches) because neither of them have a choice in the matter. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that some UM pastors feel like they are being sent to “a nation of rebels” whenever they are reappointed.

Yesterday marked the completion of my second year serving the needs of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, Virginia. I can still recall the first phone call I received detailing my appointment, and I will freely admit they I felt a little uncomfortable about where I was being sent. After all, I knew nothing about the town, the people, or the church.

I can also recall the feeling in the pit of my stomach two years ago when I approached the pulpit to preach for the first time (Between the nerves and the excitement we were lucky that I even made it through a sermon at all). I looked out from my vantage point and saw the people of God gathered together to hear the Word and respond accordingly. To this day I still thank God for blessing us with the Holy Spirit that morning who allowed us to listen, laugh, and love.

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In the beginning of my time at St. John’s I foolishly thought I was bringing something to the church that they previously lacked. I believed that I was the one who could turn the ship around. I expected that I would grow the church, have us start paying our apportionments (in full), and preach in the midst of the rebels. For a time I thought I could be the savior.

I quickly realized that my expectations were way off. Instead of being a prophet sent to the rebels, I myself was a rebel in the midst of rebels. To believe that I could save the church meant that I was putting faith in myself, rather than the Lord. To believe that I had the power to make the church start paying its apportionments meant that I did not trust God to provide. To believe that I could be the savior meant that I forgot that only Jesus is our savior.

If we have done anything to please the Lord over the last two years, it has only come because God gave us the power to do so, and only secondarily because of us (me).

We are all called to go and be Christ’s body for the world in different ways, but it is vitally important for us to remember that we have just as much to learn as we have to teach; that no matter where God’s sends us, we will be transformed just as much as we transform others; and that in the end Jesus is Lord, and we are not.

This week, let us reflect on the places the Lord has sent us to be Christ’s body, and on the people who have been sent to be Christ’s body for us.