Know Thy Vocation

Proverbs 10.4

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 

When I was in middle school I, along with everyone else, was paraded into a computer lab, (do those still exist?) and put in front of a machine in order to take a test.

They called it an aptitude test and the hope was that, by the end of it, each of us would have a better idea about a future career that would suit us best.

I can remember a few of the questions being like “Do you prefer the day or the night?” And “Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?” And “Would you call yourself a leader or a follower?”

The questions went on and on and on and the room was filled with nothing but the sound of clicks as each of us tried to figure out who we would become.

After the final question, my computer processed the requite information and displayed my top three career choices: 

1. Public Speaker

2. High School English Teacher

3. Politician

We were each handed a print out of our futures and quickly compared our answers with oohs and ahs and a whole lot of laughter. 

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I know that most of us dismissed the test, we were 13 years old after all, but those answers really stuck with me over the years. To be honest, I was shocked that the random assortment of questions, asked by a computer, could so easily identify my owns strengths and desires for a day not yet seen. And when I think about where I wound up, it’s all the more crazy.

Because on any given week, I stand and publicly speak to a whole lot of people about a particular subject, I will gather in a small room to teach about the words from a book written long ago, and there are a remarkable number of aspects of my job that are, regrettably, political.

When I use the word political I don’t necessarily mean being either liberal or conservative, but political in the sense of being careful about what I say. It doesn’t do the church any good if the preacher runs people off for their different political proclivities or specific beliefs, but it also doesn’t help if we all stay the same all the time. Sometimes, it does the church some good to hear a word that pushes us to a place we didn’t expect. 

When was the last time you were surprised by what I, or any other preacher had to say? I’m sure some of you have been surprised by the stories I’ve told or the weird things I’ve whispered while handing you the body of Christ, but I mean really and truly surprised by something said in this space?

During the time of John Wesley’s life, preaching was, to put it mildly, abysmally boring. We have collections of sermons delivered at the time and I promise their best use today would be as a sleep remedy. So for a crowd to gather week after week, listening to someone droll on and on about this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t take a lot for them to be surprised. 

All congregants, then and now, bring certain expectations with them to church. People assume they know what will happen because of what they’ve experienced before, or what’s been filtered through television shows and moves, but John Wesley liked to turn things around and he approached them from angles previously unseen.

It was a tactic he learned from this guy named Jesus.

Here’s an example: There’s this parable Jesus told that we, today, call the Unjust Steward. The basic gist of the story is that there’s this crooked manager of funds who ultimately cooks the books so that he, and others, would be taken care of in the future. He acts immorally in order to selfishly benefit himself and others who didn’t deserve it. And then the master of the manager finds out what he did and praises him for being smart enough to do so.

Everything about the story is wrong. 

We know how its supposed to go, much like the crowds did the day they heard Jesus tell the story. We know the Unjust Steward is supposed to be fired right there on the spot for cooking the books. We know he’s supposed to be hauled off to jail for taking advantage of his powerful position. We know that punishment is inevitable. But instead Jesus parades this disreputable man out for all to see and says he’s the hero of the story.

Talk about being surprised.

But we have the benefit of knowing how Jesus’ personal story ultimately ends, we know that the tomb is empty on Easter. We know that Jesus himself was quite an unjust manager, doing whatever he could to cook the books in our salvific favor. But that’s for another sermon.

Wesley learned from the Lord the great joy and wonder that can come from surprising those with ears to hear. There’s just something awesome about lifting up a particular expectation and subverting it completely. That kind of preaching grabs attention and it sticks with people even years later.

And so it came to pass that the people called Methodist gathered to listen to John Wesley and he chose to upend their previously held expectations and beliefs to tell them something that most other clergy, then and now, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole: “If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you need to earn all the money you can.”

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Imagine, if you can, being part of the lower socioeconomic classes and listening to a man, in church of all places, tell you to go out and earn all the money you can. 

That’s not what they expected him to say. 

Instead, they expected him to berate money, and even more to loathe the loving of it. They expected him to lift up gold and silver as the banality of all evil and the great corrupter of souls. They expected him to, as another pastor once did, lift up a few bills, light them on fire, and say, “I have just killed the god you really worship.”

Which, to be fair, are all things that could be, and perhaps should be, said about money in church. It really can become a horrific wedge between people, it can become an idol we worship, it can become so many terrible terrible things. 

But before money becomes anything, it is first a gift from God.

When we talk about the word vocation in church people either miss hear it for the word vacation, or they assume that it only refers to pastors. A vocation is, after all, a calling. And I do in fact feel called to do what I do. But vocations are not for pastors alone.

The church has done a great disservice over the years by losing sight of how God calls all of us to our vocations. And to make things all the more complicated, its almost always easier to see our vocations after we’ve gotten into them rather than the other way around.

Like that aptitude test I took all those years ago, the church is called to help individuals see how their gifts and graces can be used in ways that accomplish God’s best purposes for our lives, and to help fulfill God’s life-giving purposes in the world. Each of us have been bestowed with gifts and grace by God that can be used by God for the upbuilding of the kingdom that ultimately belongs to God. 

God calls all of us in ways seen and unseen to use what we have in ways seen and unseen for the larger work of God’s work in the world.

When Wesley spoke to the people in the early movement about earning all they could, it was not just about earning money for it’s own sake. Wesley called them to earn all they could for the higher purpose of fulfilling God’s hopes and intention for their lives. 

  His preaching was straight-forward and to the point. He almost never used a quippy little story to shed light on something else, something I do all the time. Instead he jumped in with an almost refreshing clarity…

Never leave anything till tomorrow which you can do today.

Do not sleep or yawn over your work.

Put your whole strength to the work God has given you.

Spare no pains.

Let nothing be done in halves, or in a slight or a careless manner.

Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done with work.

Those are all quotes from the guy who started the movement that led to a church like this! And they are not instructions to pastors alone, though it wouldn’t hurt. These are instructions for all who want to follow Jesus. 

And, lest we walk away today thinking that Wesley was some crazy dictator envisioning a future working class of the church alone, he got all of these ideas from the Bible, and in particular from the book of Proverbs. I already shared my dislike for the book last week, God forgive me, because it doesn’t necessarily preach – there’s not much more I can add to the straight-forwardness of a collection of aphorisms about what to do.

There is profit in hard work, but mere talk leads to poverty.

Laziness brings sleep, and a slacker goes hungry.

The lazy have strong desires by receive nothing, the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.

Those are all proverbs from the book of Proverbs. And when you combine their motifs with what Wesley had to say it all kind of comes down to: Don’t be lazy and earn all you can.

In other churches, in other denominations, that might suffice. A pastor could end the sermon with a call to end laziness and then send everyone on their way. But there’s more to earning than just earning for the sake of earning. Wesley put it this way: Gain all you can by being diligent. Don’t be lazy, don’t wait to get done what you can. All of that. But then he also added this: Gain all you can by common sense. Which is another way of saying, improve thyself. 

Did you know that 25% of Americans haven’t read a book in more than a year? As Christians we are caught up in a movement that is built upon the idea what we are in a constant state of learning. And not just from the Bible! According to Wesley being a Christian means being willing to have our horizons expanded, to glean from others as much as we possibly can, to grow in Christlikeness is also to grow in wisdom. 

Part of that common sense, to use Wesley’s words, is about learning how to use something like our wealth for a larger purpose than just our own satisfaction. There’s a reason we release more endorphins in our brains when we give someone a gift than when we ourselves receive a gift. 

And Wesley’s final caveat for gaining all we can is to do so without paying more for it than it’s worth. And to me, this is where is gets really interesting. It’s interesting because as people who gain all we can, we cannot do so at the expense of our health. We are creatures who need rest and reprieve, we need recreation for re-creation. Burning the candle at both ends just to gain all we can only insures that our candle will disappear rapidly.

We also cannot gain at the expense of our souls or our neighbors. If our wealth is only a product of the devaluing of others, or if we make profits off of evil and horrific means then we will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world and lose our souls. There is bad work that we can do, all sorts of jobs that can fill our coffers but if they result in a more broken world then they are not for us. 

And finally, Wesley says that we cannot gain it all unless we recognize from whom all of it comes in the first place. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of the endless stories of the self-made individuals, of the people who earned their own fortune without the help from anyone else. No one is self-made. Period. We are all creatures created by God, we’ve all been purposed with gifts to participate in the kingdom in ways both big and small. In the eyes of God the richest person on earth is of the same value as the poorest person on the earth. God makes us what we are, not the other way around. 

Because in the end we are all actually poor. We can’t bring money with us when we die. And no amount of money could buy us a spot in the kingdom of heaven anyway. It is the Lord who makes us worthy, through the craziest means imaginable, death on a cross. 

God has already given to us more than we could ever ask for. Jesus has cooked the books in our favor. Earning all we can is good but it has nothing to do with salvation – God has already given that to us scot-free. Instead, we earn all we can so that what we earn can be used here and now for the Lord and his kingdom. Amen. 

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.

Devotional – Psalm 96.9

Psalm 96.9

Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

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When was the last time you were really nervous? Can you remember being called to the front of the class as a child and the anxiety that poured on you like a wave when it was your turn to speak? Was it at your wedding when you saw your spouse standing next to you at the altar? Was it the moment you found out that you were going to become a parent for the first time? Was it the time you were called into your boss’ office and didn’t know whether you’d still have a job at the end of the meeting? At the heart of my vocation is a call to stand before the gathered congregation and proclaim words about the Lord. And, even after doing this for a number of years, I am thankful for a large pulpit that covers up my nervous ticks when I’m preaching.

This Sunday, my best friend (and the best man at my wedding) will be in town with his family and will worship at St. John’s. We became fast friends while in seminary and he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest preachers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And to be perfectly honest, I am really nervous about leading worship and preaching in front of him on Sunday. Perhaps its because I know how gifted he is, or because we are so close that I really respect his opinion, or maybe it’s the conflation of having not preached for a month because of the birth of my son. Whatever the reason, I am nervous about Sunday.

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However, nerves can be a gift. If you’re anything like me, being nervous often brings out some of my best work. When the deadline approaches, and my anxiety jumps up a few notches, my focus becomes clearer and I am more articulate. As I am placed in a situation that makes me nervous I respond from the heart, rather than stewing about it for a prolonged period of time and answering from my mind.

Sometimes we need to feel nervous before the Lord. Not necessarily every Sunday in worship, or every time we open our bibles, but we do need to have experiences when we “tremble before him.” We often sugarcoat church and worship to make it as appealing as possible with messages about how loved we are. And, even though those types of Christian experiences are important, we also need to have them balanced with conviction. We need close friends who can challenge us to be better than we are. We need churches that challenge our sense of the status quo and push us to be more like Jesus. We need experiences of God that leave us trembling so that we remember that God is God, and we are not.

Ten Things I Learned My First Year of Ministry

I recently celebrated the completion of my first year of ministry for St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.  Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the body and blood with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry.

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1. Every Church Is Different 

I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.

 

2. Being New Can Go A Long Way

When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.

 

3. It Can Be Lonely

Jason Micheli has previously written about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. In a similar way  my wife and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.

 

4. Committee Meetings Are Hard

Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.

 

5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community

When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (performing continuously since 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.

 

6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision

I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.

 

7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away

Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.

 

8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles

I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.

 

9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching

Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.

 

10. I Have The Best Job In The World

A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

 

 

(Originally written for the Tamed Cynic blog)