(Almost) Leaving Church

Psalm 25.1

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 

We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.

He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.

I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.

We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.

“So, how did God call you to all of this?”

It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer. 

And I’ve heard them all.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.

I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.

Or, at least I thought I was.

Because he didn’t answer my question.

Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”

“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”

“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”

“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.” 

“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”

Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.

He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”

“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”

A Bucket In The Ocean

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Ace Ventura, mashups, Twitter as a complaint box, temptation and strife, namesakes, parabolic utterances, Jesus’ jokes, vacancy in the Kingdom, and Flannery O’Connor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Bucket In The Ocean

Weighted Glory

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 16.2-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including video production ministry, history as repetition, shortsightedness, nearness in the pandemic, Peter Sagal’s running habits, storied stories, idolatrous worship, ego death, and grumbling with grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Weighted Glory

Adventure Time!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 12.1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13.8-14, Matthew 18.15-20). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lead in the pipes, Rugrats, Christological readings, singing our faith, metaethics, dinner parties, the irony of solitary Christians, truth telling, and the need for grace. If you would like to listen to the episode (#200!!!) or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Adventure Time!

God Finds Us

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including middle names, Shea Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things), stinky feet, witnessed suffering, qualitative differences, hardened hearts, exhortations, wedding promises, and the loss of self. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Finds Us

Be Peculiar

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 1.8-2.10, Psalm 124, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reading in quarantine, managing people, personifying the powers and principalities, leading questions, preaching for the eye or the ear, participating in Christ, and making the right confession. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Be Peculiar

What Is Our Why?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 45.1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.10-28). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Augustine’s Confessions, the cost of reconciliation, Last Week Tonight, the oddity of unity, oily abundance, the irrevocability of the Gospel, cancel culture in the church, preaching in prison, and identifying with the right characters. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Is Our Why?

God Helps

Psalm 121

I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber not sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when all of the sudden the ground fell out beneath her and she fell into a giant sinkhole. After she brushed herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep to climb out by herself so she began crying out for help.

A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the woman yelled up, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”

The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole and kept walking.

Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted up, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!” 

The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge and the woman in the pit shouted, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”

To which the older lady replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.

Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here,” she shouted, “Can you please get me out of here?” And the friend jumped straight down into the pit. The woman said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!”

And that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” 

A few years ago the results of a national poll were published and it was discovered that more than 8 out of every 10 Americans think, “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is in the Bible. Even more troubling is the fact that more than half of the people who were part of the poll were strongly convinced that is is one of the core messages of scripture!

And it’s not in the Bible!

The expression itself is thought to be traced back to Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1736.

And yet a super majority of Americans (even American Christians) believe it’s straight from the lips of Jesus!

Now, of course, there is a small smidgen of truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around at our dinner tables praying for manna from heaven, we’re probably going to be left empty handed. However, we can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and the means by which we can procure food for our tables whether its gardens in our yard or employment in order to purchase food.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening and responding to our spouses, nurturing our children, all of these things result in the betterment of our lives because we have worked for them to be better.

However, all of that pales in comparison to how “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligations to help others.

The expression in question has far more to do with capitalism than it does with Christianity. In fact, it’s rather antithetical to the message of scripture as a whole for God is the God of deliverance for a people undeserving.

People like us.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves.

Period. Full stop.

Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, natural disasters, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves.

Some people, in fact most people, are in holes so deep with walls so steep, that there’s no way they’ll ever climb out without help.

Food scarcity is a major problem in our area here in Woodbridge. As long as I’ve been the pastor here we’ve participated in a food distribution program once a month where huge crowds of people show up just to receive food. They will often stand in line in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter for hours at times just for a chance to bring home a grocery store bag’s worth of food.

Our local elementary school, right across the street, has a majority of students who, when schools are actually open, have free or reduced price lunches. And for many of those students its the only reliable food source they have in any given week.

And I lost track a long time ago how many people have stopped by our doors on any given day asking simply for food. Not for money, not for gas, not for anything else but food.

Now, can you imagine what it would be like if, every time someone asked the church for food we responded with, “Um, don’t you know you’re supposed to work on yourself before God will do something for you? How about you come back next week with at least three examples of how you’ve turned your life around before we give you some food? Ok bye!”

And, just for the sake of clarity, food really is everything. A few years ago a national study was published in which countless researchers looked into what were the best things to do in order to increase the education of students across the country. They looked at smaller class sizes, access to newer textbooks, different educational models, and on and on and on. And do you know what they found to be the best indication of increasing education?

Food.

In the end, they discovered, it doesn’t matter whether students have computers, or better textbooks, or smaller class sizes. If they don’t have access to food, none of those things make a difference.

The Church, and I mean the whole big “C” church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to care for the other with the use of yet another trite and cliche non-biblical sentence because God, more often than not, actually commands the people called church to specifically do for the last, least, lost, and little what they can’t for themselves.

Just pick up a Bible sometime, scan through any number of prominent stories from both the Old and New Testaments – it will become quickly clear how the actual biblical truth is that God helps those who CAN’T help themselves.

Leviticus 23.22 – God says, ‘When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think these fields belong to you, but they actually belong to me. So quit hoarding up all your food because there are others who need it more than you. My kingdom is bigger than your field.”

Hosea 6:6 – The prophet writes on behalf of God, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think you’ve got this whole worship thing figured out. That, as long as you do enough good things for your faith, you’re covered. But do you know what I love more than all your singing and all your praising? When you actually put your faith into action and care for the people I care for most.”

James 1.27 – James implores the early church that, “true devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulty.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, remember how I delivered you out of slavery in Egypt, remember how I delivered you out of the bondage to sin and death in Jesus Christ? The kingdom is all about delivering people from a worldly reality into a kingdom reality. The kingdom is all about doing things for people who can’t do them on their own. Get it?”

I could go on and on.

And, you what? I think I will…

Consider Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. He’s been out teaching and preaching and healing all day in the heat of the sun, and as the day comes to a close the disciples realize that these people need something to eat so maybe it would be better for them to return home.

And what does Jesus say?

“Hey, listen up, uh you all need to start pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps. There are no handouts in the kingdom of God. Thanks for coming out today. Bye.”

Or: “Look, I know you’re hungry, but if I give you fish to eat it will only help you for today. So instead we’re going down to the water and I’m going to teach you how to fish for yourselves.”

No.

Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

And when they can only rustle up a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, Jesus miraculously makes it into a meal for 5,000, with leftovers.

Jesus did for the crowds that day what the disciples and the crowds themselves could no do on their own.

Again and again in the New Testament Jesus connects with the brokenness within every community and brings healing.

He sends the abandoned and forgotten back to the villages that disowned them.

He feeds and heals and teaches out of the abundant mercy of God.

Jesus helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your life right now, I can’t even see you to know, on your faces, whether this is sinking in at all. 

But maybe, just maybe, you feel like you’re down in a pit – life just won’t let up and you feel overwhelmed and suffocated by worry, fear, and anxiety.

Or perhaps you’ve lost someone you love and every single day is a biting and ringing reminder that you will never get them back.

Or maybe you’re struggling with an addiction that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t kick it.

We can claw at the walls all we want. We can fashion ladders of self-improvement. We can even make promises to ourselves that tomorrow we will finally become the best versions of ourselves.

But sometimes, the only way out of the hole comes when someone else is willing to jump in and show us the way out.

The psalmist puts it this way: “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we discover, bewilderingly enough, that our help comes from God.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the friend who recklessly jumps into the depths of our despair, who never abandons us even we go off assuming we can do it all on our own (thank you very much), who humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to be born into this broken world of ours.

That’s who comes to help us.

And that’s the whole point.

God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so too we do the same because that’s exactly what God did, and does, for us.

God was born into the world as a fragile child into the deepest pit of fear and terror for a couple all alone in the world.

God went to the margins of society in Christ Jesus sinking lower and lower just to be with the abandoned, neglected, and forgotten.

God chose the broken and the battered to dwell among in order that, in the end, they would be delivered from the miserable estate.

God even went the depth of death just to bring each and every one of us to the other side of salvation. 

And God did and does all of this without cost. 

The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – We cannot help ourselves into grace.

Grace is something done for us and to us.

It jumps into the hole right next to us, and it shows us the way out. Amen.

The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Coronatide, NOVA, the case for Karl Barth, narrative theology, dreamers of dreams, church leadership as evangelism, different righteousnesses, exegetical grammar, and God’s oddness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

Don’t Lie

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 17.1-7, 15, Romans 9.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Biblical character identification, new names, God’s marks, pentecostal prayers, divine time, false witness, Pauline anguish, faithful food, better education, and bigger tables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Lie