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 – Ezekiel 27.1-2

Devotional:

Ezekiel 37.1-2

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

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I love challenging couples to pick their own wedding scripture beyond the cliché of 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind…). In between premarital counseling sessions, I ask them to dive deep into their bibles in order to final a passage or a verse that really speaks to them, and I have been deeply impressed with the scriptures they’ve picked. I’ve been blessed to bring couples together into holy marriage with the stories of David being anointed by Samuel, Paul’s description of what it means to be a Christian, a prayer to the church in Ephesus, and more.

The scripture passage a couple chooses for their wedding says a lot about what their relationship is like, and what their marriage will be like.

Years ago, two of my friends from Durham were married at a local Presbyterian church that was known for the preaching of the pastor. To start the wedding homily, the pastor described the sanctity of marriage and what it means for two individuals to make this covenant, but then he began shaking his head and said, “You know that these two standing before us are devoutly faithful, because when I asked them to choose their wedding scripture, they picked the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel.”

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I can remember sitting with my back against the pew and wondering what in the world he was going to do with the text. The valley of the dry bones is a remarkably beautiful passage, but it doesn’t naturally lend itself to a wedding sermon.

So the pastor continued on with bits of wisdom and advice, he shared stories about successful marriages and what to emulate as well as terrible marriages and what to avoid. But for the better part of ten minutes, he completely avoided the Ezekiel passage. And then, out of nowhere, the Spirit start blowing and he said, “James and Jennifer, I think you two can have a good marriage, but if you think that you can do it without the help of your friends, family, and the Lord, it will never be more than a dry valley filled with old bones. Only your friends, family, and the Lord can breathe the Spirit back into those bones and give them life.”

It was a simple sermonic twist, but it’s one that I think everyone it attendance will never forget.

What does your life look like? Is it filled with vibrancy and energy? Do you feel the Spirit moving in your midst? Or is your life like a deep valley filled with dry bones?

Thanks be to God who calls us into relationship with the Spirit, with our friends, and with our families who can breathe life into the dry bones of our lives.

On Sitting At The Reject Table – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Luke 14.1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friend or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

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Throughout the gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven. What does it take to get in? Who will be there? When will it happen?

And whenever Jesus is asked about the kingdom of heaven, do you know what he compares it to most often? A wedding feast.

I love weddings. I love getting to spend time with a couple as their special day gets closer and closer. I love working with families in terms of making the wedding ceremony as special and faithful as possible. I love being invited into this profoundly holy moment at the altar of marriage and bringing two people into an everlasting covenant. But more than all of that, I love weddings because they are as close as we can get to heaven on earth.

During the months leading up to a wedding, while I’m working on pre-marital counseling and the homily and the order of worship, the couple has a lot of work to do as well. They have to procure a reception location, taste test the hors d’oeuvres and the main course, and find the perfect DJ. But perhaps the most difficult and taxing requirements prior to the wedding are the guest list and the seating arrangements.

Nearly every couple I have married has struggled with who to invite and where to seat them. Does that uncle that no one has seen in years warrant an invitation? And what about your cousin’s ex-wife? Maybe we should just send her an invitation to be kind, but if she shows up where can we put her? And where in the world are we going to put the pastor and his wife?

At one wedding, I rushed through the rehearsal under the blistering sun and everyone was remarkably thankful when I stopped talking. Because the wedding was out of town, we were invited to the rehearsal dinner and upon arrival we did not know where to sit. There was clearly an area for the bridal party, so we avoided that table and decided to just sit at a table in the middle of the room. Like an awkward moment in a middle school cafeteria, we waited to see who would sit next to us, but as family members and friends entered the room, the father of the groom stood up to make a speech. He welcomed everyone and thanked the room for supporting his son and soon to be daughter-in-law, and then he pointed over at me. He said, “Now everyone, this is my pastor and the woman sitting next to him is his wife. So all you young men, you need to stay away from her tonight. Because Taylor has the power to send you to heaven, or to hell.” The room erupted in laughter at the joke, and it was pretty funny, but no one, and I mean no one, sat next to us for a long time.

Jesus was once invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees and was being watched closely. When he arrived he noticed how particular people chose to sit in places of honor and he used the moment to teach about the kingdom of God. “When you get an invitation to a wedding, do not sit in the places of respect and honor. Someone might come up to you who is more distinguished and important and they will take your place. You will then have to disgracefully move to the reject table. Instead go and sit at the reject table from the beginning, so that when the host comes by he may call you to a grander table. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There is always a strange moment at wedding receptions when all the guests stand in line at a poster or some other Pinterestly designed labeling system for where each of us will be sitting. At another wedding, after preaching and leading the ceremony, we got in line with everyone else to find our names and our corresponding table. As my eyes went down the list, I knew that we literally knew no one at the wedding (except the bride and groom) and I wasn’t hoping for anything special. But when my eyes finally made it to the end of the list, I knew that we were definitely assigned to the reject table.

You know the one, the table where you send the odds and ends, that strange second cousin that you had to invite and you hope he doesn’t get too rowdy, the piano teacher from a decade ago, the weird friend your mother insisted on inviting but who always drove you utterly crazy. That table.

When we made our way to the back of the room, it only took one glance to confirm our suspicions that we were at the reject table because no one was talking and none of the people knew each other. At every other table in the reception area conversations were flowing and laughter was breaking out, but at the reject table it was silent.

In the silence you could almost sense the recognition of our reject status, but the nail on the coffin was when the pastor and his wife pulled out their chairs and sat down. At a wedding, if I sit at your table, you are part of the rejects.

At first we just further perpetuated the silence by sitting there awkwardly fumbling with our cell phones and such, until I decided to break the ice and compliment the camouflage koozie that was keeping a beer cold in the hand of who I can only imagine was a distant cousin. I said something stupid like, “Man, I could barely tell you were even drinking a beer.” At first he didn’t respond, either because the joke wasn’t funny, or because he was unsure of how to speak to a pastor about beer. But when Lindsey laughed at my foolish attempt to be funny, the whole table seemed to take a collective breath and relax.

From that first, albeit strange, compliment a conversation began to percolate and eventually spilled out over the whole table. Within ten minutes we were probably the rowdiest table in the entire room and were regularly being shushed by other guests while the speeches were being made. We didn’t care that we couldn’t see the bride and groom at their table in the front, we didn’t care that we were the very last table to be called to go through the buffet line, we didn’t care that we were the misfits at the reject table. Instead, we were just happy to be there.

From the humility of the reject table we were exalted to the joy of the wedding celebration.

Jesus spoke to the people gathered together to teach them about the virtues of humility. And in telling the parable of the wedding banquet he was not just assigning them to be humble at weddings, but in all aspects of life. To live the kind of selfish and exalted life of the best table is to forget that we depend on God. It is to believe that we are in control of our lives and that we have the power to save ourselves. It is a fundamental lack of trust that the Lord will provide.

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Humility, on the other hand, is an unselfish way of living while depending on the Lord. It is to believe that our lives are not our own and that only God has the power to save us. It is a fundamental trust in the Lord’s ability to provide.

And Jesus does not leave it at that. He pushes the gathered body even further. Whenever you’re invited somewhere, live humbly. And whenever you are the host, do not invite people with the expectation that they will provide the same courtesy. Do not invite your family, and your neighbors, or your rich friends assuming they will do the same. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people you would otherwise ignore. And you will be blessed precisely because they cannot repay you.

This is a tough commandment for all soon to be married couples. Most of them would never dream of omitting an invitation to family members, and friends, and rich relatives who give the best wedding gifts. They would never dream of inviting strangers and outcasts and rejects to their wedding feast and celebration.

But the marriage of Christ with Christ’s church is a wedding celebration that all of us have been invited to. We are here in the midst of worship: the wedding of God with God’s people, and none of us should have been invited. We can never repay the kindness of God’s invitation, we are unworthy of sitting in these pews, we fail to be obedient to the kind of love that we experience here. And yet we are invited. And frankly, we are all sitting at the reject table.

Jesus Christ invites us to this place to celebrate the great victory over death, the resurrection of glory, and the reconciliation of all things. And that’s different than just being included. Many churches love to claim and proclaim their inclusiveness. Inclusive has become such a buzzword in Christianity that you will find it on nearly every church website and every church bulletin you come across. We so desperately want to appear welcoming and inclusive with the hope that it will draw people into our wedding celebration called the church.

But being inclusive is lazy. Because being inclusive does not require us to do anything but sit here, stare at the doors, and hope people will show up.

            Jesus did not lead an inclusive ministry.

            What Jesus led was a ministry of invitation.

Much like being invited to a modern wedding celebration, Jesus actively went out seeking others to draw them into the party. He met them where they were and invited them to join him on the way that leads to life. His ministry was about breaking down the labels and constructs that people were isolated into, and gathering all of the so called rejects together to celebrate the glory of God.

Our Lord invites all without expectation and without assumption. God Almighty knows our sin and our failures and still sees potential. The Lord meets us where we are through the words of our worship and through our friendships. The great story of scripture, from this passage in Luke to the entire narrative, is not about God waiting for us to show up, but God’s great work to find and transform us.

Sitting at the reject table comes at a cost. It means being surrounded by people we do not know, people we probably don’t agree with, and people who might drive us crazy. It requires a tremendous amount of humility and trust and faith. But it’s also the way we got invited to this party. Amen.

 

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What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?

Mark 10.2-12

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of you hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

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This morning we continue our sermon series on Questions. After polling all of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we will strive during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we continue with “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?”

 

 

Good morning. It is so nice to see and be with both of you for this premarital counseling session. I am really excited about your wedding and I considerate it a privilege that you’ve asked me to preside over the service.

Before we really get started, let’s pray… Amen.

So, tell me about your last fight… Uh huh, interesting. And would you agree? … Okay. So let me get this straight, your mother keeps offering her unsolicited opinion about what you two should do with your money, and then your mother keeps inserting herself into wedding plans? But the fight really started when you began arguing about where you would be spending your first Christmas as a married couple. You think you should be with your parents and family? And you think you should be with your parents and family?

This is going to be a great session!

Marriage is a strange thing. Out of all the people in the world, out of all the conversations and friendships and relationships, you two have been brought together (somehow or another) and you are now about to make a public covenant that you want to be together for the rest of your lives.

Let’s talk about why you want to be married. Everything in your relationship seems to be going fairly well, so why do you want to move toward marriage?

Because you love each other… How precious. We’ll talk more about love later. What else? What makes you feel like the person next to you in the one you want to wake up next to forever?

You trust each other… nice. You feel complete when the other one is around… good. You want to start your own family together… great.

Marriage is a public union ratified by God in heaven. In gathering together before your friends, families, and the Lord you will make a covenant to embody Christ’s love for us with the person sitting next to you. It is just about the most serious decision and commitment that you will ever make.

So you know why you want to get married. The next question, then, is why do you want to get married in the church? Because the three of us could get in the car and head down to the courthouse right now and you could be married within the hour. It would be a legal marriage in the eyes of the state and it would probably cost a whole lot less. So, why get married in the church?

I love that answer: You believe that marriage is bigger than just the two of you, and you want to the community of faith to be there with you. Wow.

Have you all thought about what scripture you want to use in the service? I encourage all couples to spend time in the bible and search for a verse or a passage that has special meaning for you. My only caveat is this: I will not preach on 1 Corinthians 13. Do you know it? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”

Why won’t I preach on 1 Corinthians 13? Love is not enough to make a marriage work.

A successful marriage will never be contingent on your whims or your romantic feelings for one another. There will come a day, I promise, that you will not look or feel as good as you do right now. Love is not enough to carry you through the changes and the frustrations that will occur. Marriage requires more than love.

Between this session and the next, take the time to dive deeply into your bibles and find a scripture you want to use in the service and we’ll go from there. Just stay away from 1 Corinthians 13.

Have you thought about any hymns you would like to use in the service?

Number 408. Wait… is that “The Gift of Love”?

Were you not listening to anything I just said? Love is not enough. A successful and faithful marriage is based on qualities like endurance, patience and hope, conversion and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation. (sigh)

Anyway. Have you all considered the seriousness of your marriage? Which is to say, have you talked about divorce?

Both sets of parents are currently divorced? And it happened when you were a child, and when you were in college? How do you feel about divorce?

Interesting. You believe this covenant is so important that you will never get divorced? That’s rather admirable.

But here’s a dose of reality. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces per year. Divorce is so remarkably prevalent in our culture and society to the degree that we have become numb to it.

For too long the church has refused to confront divorce. We’d rather talk about every other controversial subject under the sun, but bring up divorce and you start making people really uncomfortable.

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And let me be clear, there are circumstances that occur in marriage where divorce is probably the best possible solution. Situations like physical abuse or traumatic adultery, but people get divorced for the most mundane reasons. “Our interests have grown apart” “We no longer effectively communicate” “We’re not in love anymore.”

As a society, we no longer take the covenant of marriage seriously. Some of us are too quick to end the relationship whenever we feel those first hiccups. As Christians, however, we are called to hear the bible and Jesus who are quite clear in their reflections on divorce.

The pain and complications of divorce cast a great shadow across almost every family and congregation, yet we fail to talk about it. Jesus once told his followers “What God has brought together, let no one separate.” God is the one who does the joining; it is we, with our fallen and broken natures, who do the separating. Marriage is a serious thing, perhaps the most serious, and we need to start taking it seriously. Divorce will always be a possibility, but it should be a last resort.

I have some tips for you. They’re not full-proof ways to avoid having your marriage fall apart. But they are practices that you can initiate now in order to help when things get rocky.

Accept the fact that you two are different. Opposites tend to attract and each of you are not only physically different, but have different backgrounds and outlooks to particular situations. God designed these differences for a reason. The more you learn to celebrate the things that make you different, the stronger your marriage will become.

Leave and cleave. Don’t let either set on in-laws dictate how you will lead your new family. Decide in advance that no one will become a wedge between the two of you. Every couple has lots of other relationships, including the possibility of children at some point, but none of them should be allowed to interfere with the oneness God will create in your marriage.

Make a commitment to the marriage no matter what. Couples usually assume that everything in their marriage will work out, when the reality is that many couples only commit until it becomes difficult or until the love starts to fade. If, and when, you struggle, you need to learn to ask for help. Remove the fear of asking for professional counseling if necessary. It would be better to get help early than to see your marriage disintegrate beyond repair.

Model after the right couples. I encourage both of you to find a couple whose marriage you admire, and follow them closely. If they are as good as you think they are, the probably have stories to share about how they got there. Things may not have been as wonderful throughout their marriage as it is right now.

Put Christ first. This is the one that you were probably expecting me to say, but it’s not just the preacher in me talking, it’s the best way to ensure a lasting marriage. Your individual and collective relationship with Christ will enable you to move through the toughest days in marriage. When I stand with you before all of your friends and family, you will make a vow, but it is not a private one. In marriage, the two of you will enter into a union that is not your own, but will be received in participation with Christ and properly lived out in the church.

Are you still feeling like you want to get married? I know I’ve made it sound like one of the hardest things in the world, but that’s because it is. If you are serious about committing to your marriage, then you have to recognize that the only way it can be done well is with the grace of God. There will come a day when you wake up next to the person you are sitting next to right now, and you will have no idea how it happened. You will move through tragedies and hardships, you will celebrate on the mountaintops of joy, and if you are still married it is because you have found the true nature of marriage through the God of hope.

Marriage, and I mean Christian marriage, is committed and covenanted. Marriage, seen this way, is about as counter-cultural as can be. Marriage can only be sustained in a community, like the church, which understands itself as something strange compared to the world. Marriage is one of the ways the community of faith embodies the surprising hope of new creation.

If you want to know the real secret to a successful marriage, is begins with discipleship. As disciples, you learn about how God’s commitment to us is so strong that God will never divorce himself from us; God will never abandon us. As disciples, you learn about the sacrifice Christ was willing to make for us and therefore we are able to sacrifice for one another. As disciples, you learn that the only way to make it through this thing called life is to have a community around you to support you through it all.

I want to thank both of you for taking the time to meet with me in preparation for your wedding. Over the coming weeks and months we will meet again to talk more about marriage, the church, and your actual ceremony. It’s going to be great. Throughout his ministry, Jesus loved comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. This means that your wedding will be one of the rare times that we can experience a little bit of heaven here on earth. Thank you foe inviting me into this holy and remarkable moment in your lives. But I have to warn you, if you chose to invite me to the reception following the ceremony, I will dance the entire time. Amen.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 51.1

Devotional:

Psalm 51.1

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I am asked to preside over a wedding, I take full advantage of the opportunity to share the beauty of God’s love. During pre-marital counseling I encourage couples to find a bible verse that relates to their relationship, we discuss what it looks like to pray for our spouse, and we use God’s love as a lens by which we view the love we have for our partner. During the actual wedding ceremony I am unashamedly open about God’s love being at the center of this relationship, and that only with God’s power can all couples live in harmony and peace with one another.

This past Saturday I stood before a gathered community outside under the hot sun for a wedding. With sweat beading on my forehead I shared reflections on the joy of marriage and how God plays an integral role in all of our relationships. I used stories from the couple’s history in order to make the homily approachable, and I even included a number of lines from famous movies because the groom is a self-avowed movie buff. (For example: “Enjoy this time because life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it” –Ferries Bueller’s Day Off)

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Following the ceremony I was mingling among the wedding guests when a young woman approached me and said, “I wish my pastor was like you.” Startled by the compliment, I asked her to explain and she described how her pastor “never connects the scripture with regular life” and that she leaves church feeling like she “listened to a lecture.” Our conversation continued for a few minutes, and before we went our separate ways she asked where I was a pastor and told me that she would be joining the church for worship sometime soon.

As I stood there taking in the complimentary conversation, feeling affirmed in my words, and hopeful about a new person coming to church, I was struck with the sensation that I had lost my focus. I let myself get puffed up by her kinds words and I recognized that I selfishly wanted her and her family to start attending the church I serve. I like the idea that she wanted to come to the church because of me. It only took a few words to stroke my ego to such a degree that I forgot my place in the kingdom.

So before she had a chance to walk away and disappear into the crowd I asked her to do me a favor and I said, “Before you come to St. John’s, I think you need to pray for the pastor you have. Maybe God wants you to help him grow and learn what it means to serve your church rather than leaving to just try something different.”

The psalmist calls for God to “blot out my transgressions.” In our daily prayers we thank God for our blessings, and we ask God to intervene in our lives and in the lives of others, but rarely do we pray for God to make us clean, to rid us of our selfishness and false pride. This week, let us take time to be honest about our sinfulness, pray for God to transform us, and begin taking steps into a new way of life.

10 Things I Learned From My Second Year Of Ministry

Last year my friend, peer, colleague, and theological-hero Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) asked me to write a post on ten things I learned my first year of ministry. Next week marks the beginning of my third year as a United Methodist pastor so I decided to write another post on ten things I learned during year two.

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1.       The Church Is Huge

How do you measure the size of a church? Is the church as large as the Sunday worship attendance? The membership role? Throughout the last two years I have realized that the church is almost always larger than I think it is. I’ll be out somewhere with my wife when a stranger will ask if I am the pastor of St. John’s. Between our preschool and missional involvement, the community of faith (also known as the church) has connections with people all over the place. It is always important for me to remember that I have been called to serve the needs of the community, which is usually larger than I think it is.

2.       Praying Is As Important As Breathing

The Bishop for the Virginia Annual Conference, Young Jin Cho, is known for saying “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregations.” And he’s right. Prayer, and other spiritual disciples, are immensely important for the work of ministry and the local church. I strive to begin every morning in the sanctuary with time dedicated to prayer. If I neglect this discipline it has a negative impact on the rest of my day. Like feeling short of breath, I am not as active nor am I as attuned to the Spirit’s work in my midst. Regular prayer is as important to discipleship as breathing is to living.

3.       Collaboration > Competition

There are a lot of churches in the community I serve (I can see four different steeples from my front yard). I have heard on a number of occasions that there are more churches in Staunton per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no way to confirm whether or not this is true, but just driving around town leads me to believe that it could be true. Over the last two years I have had the privilege of working with other pastors to help live into the kingdom of God here on earth. When we work in collaboration, and stop seeing each other as competition, we participate in Jesus final prayer: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17.23) If the church wants to thrive, then we need to realize that we are all in this together, regardless of our denominational affiliations.

4.       Weddings Are Hard

Compared to some of my colleagues I have done a high number of weddings during my short time in ministry. At the age of 27 I meet a lot of people who are nearing their wedding and I am often asked to officiate. I love celebrating the covenant of marriage, but it can be very hard. What an average person experiences during a wedding is a beautiful thing, but it requires a tremendous amount of planning and work to go well. Not only do I have to take the time to meet with the couple ahead of time for premarital counseling, but I want to make sure that I give them all that I can to make their day worthy of God’s blessing. The metaphor of a shepherd with sheep finds its fullest meaning during weddings when I feel like I am primarily a people-mover. Weddings are great, but they can be hard.

5.       Funerals Are Harder

I once heard a pastor say, “I would take a funeral over a wedding any day.” That comment confused me when I heard it for the first time, and still confuses me to this day. During my first year of ministry no one passed away within the community of faith, and I therefore was not required to preside over a funeral. During my second year of ministry I had 14 funerals. Most of the people had lived long and full lives, but that does not diminish the amount of grief that our community has experienced over the last year. It is such a privilege to be invited into the midst of such uncertainty in people’s lives, but it is also incredibly difficult. I spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for every funeral because I believe in the incredible importance of celebrating every life, death, and resurrection.

6.       Trust Happens

Over the last two years I have lost track of how many times I have heard someone say, “You’re the first person I’ve ever shared that with.” It happens on a regular basis that an individual will come to my office, share a vulnerable story, and then slowly realize that they had never shared that with anyone. Regardless of what I say of Sunday mornings, or even how I pray, people trust the office of pastor. There is an acceptance of confidentiality and a comfort of confession that takes place in my office that I am rarely prepared for. Trust happens all the time and it is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others.

7.       Change Happens

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Just because something worked the first year, it doesn’t mean that it will work the second. And just because something failed the first year, it doesn’t mean that it won’t succeed during the second. For example: During my first Good Friday I carried a cross on my shoulder through the greater Staunton community and received almost no response. People avoided me on the streets, averted their eyes, and acted as if I was invisible. This year I did the same thing on Good Friday and people would not stop talking to me! People wanted to know what I was doing, offered to pray with me, and I even shared the story of Jesus with a woman who started crying when she saw me on the street. Change happens in ministry and that is a good thing! If doing church was just about maintaining the status quo year after year, we would cease to be fruitful for God’s kingdom.

8.       I Am My Own Worst Enemy

I know of few vocations where someone has to produce something on such a regular basis and is met with immediate feedback. In two years I have written and preached more than 104 sermons. Every Sunday, within 30 minutes of preaching, everyone lines up to shake my hand and tell me what they thought. I have discovered that the sermons I worried about the most are the ones that were the most life-giving to the congregation, and the sermons I was most confident about meant very little to the gathered body. I am my own harshest critic when it comes to ministerial responsibilities and I have to constantly remind myself of who I am, and whose I am. If I put too much weight on my inner-monologue, I neglect to remember that I am working for the kingdom, and not for myself.

9.       Numbers Are Important [And Dangerous]

Every week churches in United Methodism are required to log their statistical data and send it along to the conference. Though I actively worry about how the measuring of statistical data is negatively affecting God’s church, it is important because numbers represent people. Whether we like to admit it or not, Jesus commanded his disciples to “go and make disciples.” If we are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones to welcome people into our church and help to grow the kingdom. However, even though numbers are important, they are also dangerous. I have caught myself, on a number of Sunday mornings, counting the number of heads in worship before the opening hymn. And sometimes I let that number have too much of an impact of what takes place after the opening hymn (both positively and negatively). Doing ministry is about living in the tension between growing the vineyard, and nurturing the vines. Numbers are important, but they are also dangerous.

10.   I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Stanley Hauerwas once said that “doing ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” There are days in ministry that affirm his comment, but most of the time it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

What Is Love? (Jesus Don’t Hurt Me) – Sermon on 1 John 3.16-24

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater that our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

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1 John is a letter written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are new and young to the faith by addressing the challenges of discipleship. What we have read this morning encompasses John’s understanding of love, Christ’s love, and the need for Christians to find this same love in their lives. Now, to be clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader, with years of experience to rely upon. I cannot pull from the wisdom of leading churches throughout the decades to help those who are struggling. I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place.

Yet, knowing I am not qualified, I decided to write my own letter this week as if I were John to our contemporary church…

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Dear St. John’s,

What is love? Do you ever find yourself asking that very question? Love seems to be one of those things, those words, that we tend to just throw around without really thinking about what it means. I love your outfit! I love what you’ve done with the place! I love eating frozen Kit Kats! I love you!

Love, as a word, has the power to mean everything and nothing. For instance: when we start dating and we grow closer and closer to someone else and they say for the first time: “I love you” it can mean everything in the world. Time can slow down and we can remember the way we felt when we heard it for the first time. However, years later, “love” can become routine, that word we use to end conversations rather than to declare how we feel in our heart of hearts. Love becomes a filler rather than a feeling.

What is love? Is it something that we can only experience in a romantic way? Can we love our friends and family? Can we love our church? Can we love the Lord?

This is how we know what love is: that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to do the same for one another. Now, stay with me if you can, I know that as you read this letter you might already start to grow weary of this thing called love. How willing are we to really lay down our lives for other people? Frankly, most of us will never have to come that far, we will never be martyred for our faith. For as much as we talk about lifting up our cross to follow Christ, it is unlikely that we will ever find ourselves hanging on that cross for what we believe.

Yet, as Christians, this is how we know what love looks like. That a man, fully God and fully human, delivered himself to die for us even when we did not deserve it.

St. John’s, how can the Lord’s love abide in us when we are filled with the world’s goods, but we refuse to help our brothers and sisters in need? Is it possible to love without sacrifice?

Most of us want to love and be loved so long as it doesn’t hurt. We want to know all about love, and we are ready to follow the Lord’s commands so long as it won’t cost us anything.

Love is never really love unless it has the power to harm us.

Discipleship is never holy unless we are willing to sacrifice and be deeply honest with ourselves and others. Trust is never fully possible until we know what’s its like to have our trust broken. Love is what it is because it can both build us up and tear us down.

We might never have to die for somebody else like Jesus did for us, but to love others implies a willingness to lay down our needs and desires for someone else’s needs and desires. What is love if not a willingness to be vulnerable with another?

So, if we want to love, let us do so not with words or speeches, but in truth and action. Anybody can say “I love you”; it is far harder for our lives to match our words. Do we practice what we preach? Are our feet and tongues in alignment? Do our actions match our professions?

Love is hard. It requires dedication and commitment, vulnerability and sacrifice, honesty and attention. We would rather love with our words because we do not have the strength to love with our actions. This is why we pray; We pray for the Lord to give us the strength to love the unlovable because we cannot do it on our own.

Have you ever noticed the covenants made at a wedding? The couple consents and promises to love one another in the sight of God and witnesses, but then the entire congregation makes a promise to nurture that couple in love. Romantic love and a promise between two people is not enough to sustain a life-long marriage. We need others to hold us accountable to the promises of love, and in particular to the love between partners.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in fact many times, the Lord does not answer our prayers? Or at least not the way we would want to the Lord to answer them? We know that the Lord is greater than our fickle hearts and that he answers our prayers, but sometimes we ask for the wrong things.

How often do we pray for the Lord to fix this or that, to make our children better, to rid us of our sickness when we could be praying for the Lord to give us the strength to address our own problems, the courage to be honest with our kids, and the endurance to bear the pain?

The Lord is greater than all of our selfish desires and trite fixations. The Lord’s love knows no bounds and continues to seek us out even when we turn away. This is the truth of the Good News, that God’s love remains steadfast even as ours falters. We will never be able to love others in the exact same way that God does, but our challenges is to strive for it nonetheless.

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St. John’s, our church needs some encouragement so despair will not take root. We need to love and feel loved. We need to lift one another up with this sacrificial love so that we might know and experience God’s love right now through each other.

If we fail in our own eyes, if we feel that we have been a disappointment, be assured that God knows our hearts better than we do. We might look in the mirror every morning and see regrets, failures, and short-comings, but the Lord sees hope, beauty, and wonder. We might replay in our minds the hateful words that have been shouted at us by our bosses, friends, and spouses, but the Lord wants us to hear only one thing: you are loved.

Do we know that we are loved? Do we feel it in our lives on a regular basis? Do we experience a feeling of worth from the Lord through others?

The Lord has given us a worthy commandment: we should believe in the power of his Son Jesus Christ, and we should love one another. 

I asked the children of our preschool about love and they were able to describe it in a way that many of us forget by the time we grow up. They want to love because it makes them happy, they feel love through hugs and snuggles and time well spent. Yet, when I asked one particular boy if he feels loved, this is what he said: “I feel loved by my mommy and daddy whenever they hug me and sit with me. But I don’t know why they love me.

It is so sad that we believe love can only exist when it is deserved or warranted. We live in such a commodified society, that we expect that love only accompanies good behavior.

God’s love is unconditional, and ours should be to.

You might not know it, or even believe it, but I have seen this love made real and tangible through the people in our pews.

When we learned about the needs of a community in West Virginia, men from our church volunteered to shave their faces just so we could raise money for the mission trip. They literally put their faces on the line for God’s kingdom. At the same time, everyone that contributed financially sacrificed from their lives so that we might bless and love on others in need. We responded in love not because of what people deserve, but simply as a reaction to need.

When we learn about someone’s recent diagnosis or loss of a loved one, we gather together to nurture them and surround them with care. We write cards and offer prayers, we drive to homes and cemeteries, we sit and we listen. We respond in love not because they once did the same for us and we believe that we owe it to them, but we do so because living by loving is the only way that makes sense as Christians.

If love is real, there is no “why?”

What is love? God is. We love others because God loves us. God was willing to humble himself to the form of flesh, to know what we know and feel. God was willing to walk among the people and listen to their needs and hopes, to lift them up and offer them worth. God was willing to carry death on his back and hang there for all to see. God was willing to die for you and the world. God was willing to love us, and continues to through every moment of our lives.

Do you know that you are loved? Whenever you look at a cross, remember that Jesus died on one for you. Whenever you look at a loaf of bread, remember that Christ’s body was given so that you could live. Whenever you look at another person, remember that Christ died for them just as much as he died for you. 

When we love we abide in the Lord and he abides in us. Loving others is the closest we can ever get to really being Christ’s body for the world. When we love with our actions we allow the Holy Spirit to live and move through us. Whether we love with a hug or a letter, a smile or a sacrifice, a commitment or a vow, we are abiding in the Lord.

St. John’s, loving is the greatest thing in the world, but it can also be the hardest. Love can build us up and break us down. Love can inspire majesty and travesty. Love can bring us closer to God and drive us away.

Love is hard, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it. Amen.