Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fulfillment in Ministry

A couple of years ago, when I was participating in a Spiritual Formation group at Dallas Theological Seminary, I completed a project whose value I didn't fully detect at the time. The project was to construct a "ministry vision" for myself. In essence, I was to perform a probability assessment of what God might do with me in the future based on what he has done with me already. It was to take into account my experiences, training, passions and goals. The project was also to be presented to my SF group so that they could assess its accuracy based on what they new of me so far. This is helpful, because if a man says that he has no natural leadership ability, hates public speaking and would rather keep to himself, yet wants to be the next Chuck Swindoll, then the others in the groups can point out that perhaps his "vision" needs tweaking to more closely approximate reality. Likewise, if a man maintains a healthy level of Attention Deficit Disorder, hates spending hours studying alone with attention to detail, then the group can help him see that pursuing a career as a New Testament textual critic is fraught with problems. At the time I didn't fully appreciate the value of the project, but now I perceive it much more.

One of the things that came out of that project was what I call my "servant's stool." It was a graphic of a short stool that had three legs. These legs represented the threefold aspect of the ministry I believe God was fashioning me for. These "legs" were research, teaching and mentoring. The reason for these "legs" were my natural curiosity about knowledge that informs the beliefs we hold and the decisions we make, my enthusiasm for sharing that knowledge to groups of people in any context (church or classrooms), and my mandate for relationships that help me and others grow to be more like and in love with Christ. I saw this three-legged stool as the manner in which God has called me to serve people throughout my life.

At the time, I primarily saw this as being fulfilled in academic settings as a professor. The above mentioned "stool" is very representative of the lifestyle of a teacher/professor. However, over the past couple of months I've had an opportunity to reflect on the "stool," realizing that it could be placed in a variety of places. God still may have me "do the professor thing" someday. I have no idea. However, right now he has me sitting on that "stool" as a pastor. I didn't originally see myself as playing out that vision as a pastor, but now I can see that the ministry "vision" constructed for my SF group a couple of years ago fits very well with the role I have now as a pastor.

This has been surprising, but it also explains why I'm finding it so fulfilling. I've not had to conjure up any fulfillment for pastoral ministry, it's occurring naturally. Moments ago, sitting here in the coffee shop at DTS, a classmate asked me, "How's pastoring going?" I smile and replied, "It's good times." If there had been time to explain, I would have told what I'm now learning about fulfillment, and why God is so good in supplying it this way.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Philosophy of Celebration (revisited)

As Easter approaches, the philosophy of celebration that our family adopted years ago (that celebrations and the elements in them should point toward worthy historical markers deserving of remembrance) is tested again. This philosophy has, of course, by governing how we celebrate, altered some celebrations for us common to our culture. In some cases, this philosophy has added new celebrations (Reformation Day). In other cases, it has eliminated some altogether (Halloween). It seems, though, that this philosophy is sufficiently counter-cultural that whenever a cultural celebration comes around this conviction gets tested anew.

Examples abound. For Christmas, while we sought to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in a festive and jubilant manner (even remembering St. Nicolas of Myra), the Santa Claus of "Polar Express" doesn't get a seat on our bus. This Easter finds another test approaching. For the life of me, I have never been able to identify a legitimate link between bunnies, eggs and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oh I understand that churches have used "resurrection eggs" as teaching tools for children's Sunday school. Where did the idea for the eggs come from? Some event in church history? A celebrated theologian from the patristic era or the Reformation that used eggs in his issue-defining treatise? Are fertility symbols appropriate teaching props for the resurrection of the Son of God? Can Yahweh be worshiped with statuettes of Baal?

Admittedly, this conviction can be carried too far, so that one thinks a brand of piano should not be used in church because the same brand was played by Liberace. On the other hand though, this conviction can be conceded too far, so that it is assumed that appropriate Christian training (worship, education, sacraments, etc.) can be supplied with tools from any and all corners of a world that also expresses depravity with gusto as well. Wisdom must be employed, but wisdom is also very difficult.

This difficulty is shown when churches engage the community around them. The community has no great motivation to honor Christ with all elements of its celebrations. Even if the community is "culturally Christian," it has no mandate to reduce its practices down to that which celebrates Christ and his Church. Therefore, the community at large will often hold celebrations that do not conform to a distinctly Christian philosophy of celebration. What is the church to do that wants to "incarnate" into the community, but also has convictions that would seem worthy of maintaining?

As with many practices, attitudes and aspects of the Church, the incarnation of Jesus Christ offers the paradigmatic framework through which to view the problem. Christ was/is both fully God and fully man; fully human and fully divine. None of his deity was sacrificed to take on full humanity, and none of his humanity was marginalized by his deity. Both realities existed fully in him. No contradiction. No blending. No confusion of the natures. He was/is fully God and fully human.

The Church must follow Christ is this way. It is a organism of believers, built by Christ with the "bricks and mortar" that consists of worshipers that the Father seeks. It is fully dedicated to God, and fully dedicated to the world God has created and loves. It is a fully divine institution, and a fully human institution. It is the "body of Christ." Therefore, the Church must execute celebrations that demonstrate its dedication to fidelity to God, but also ones that demonstrate its dedication to the world around. In this way, if the Church does NOT replace its distinctly Christian celebrations with more culturally relevant ones, but engages in both, then perhaps it is more closely following the Christological model. If the church does not replace its distinctly Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ with bunnies and eggs, but engages the surrounding culture when it holds an Easter egg hunt, not only might that work pragmatically for ministry effectiveness, but it actually might be more conforming to the missio Dei.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What a Badge Symbolizes

I'm someone who can be pleased with rather simple things. What others find part of a routine function I will instead, find strangely and abnormally uplifting. The taste of good chocolate, a cool breeze that offers a waft of crisp air, cozy jackets and my children's giggling all are "joy bombs" thrown into my bunker (or what Thomas Kinkade calls "glow points"). For this reason, I often will contemplate how one thing symbolizes even greater joys. Others may not be aware that I'm so elated by such symbols when they observe me, but it's true. I'm bust'n my buttons.

A few weeks ago, as part of his routine distribution of insignia and supplies, the Fate Fire department member in charge of such things (Scott Miller), handed me my new badge as Fire Department Chaplain. I thanked him, and accepted it as a symbol of my duties to the department. However, as I have glanced at the badge from time to time, I feel the joys welling up again as I realize that it symbolizes not only my duties for the department, but also my participation in the community. In a sense, it symbolizes my duties to the community, materializing my calling as a pastor into a gold shield.

Throughout history sacred relics have emerged as a symbols of greater realities. As Protestants, we rightly applaud the Reformation for seeking the destruction of relics as a means of divine favor, yet we must allow that relics can remind us of divine favor. Relics do not contain blessing, but relics can symbolize blessing. They do not conduit God's favor, but can remind the relic holder of God's favor. A badge is a relic that an archaeologist, 3,000 years from now, will dig up from a "postmodern" stratigraphic layer and suggest that it symbolized the official duties of a community servant. When I stare at the badge handed me, I imagine that it symbolizes God's calling of me to the land and the community in which we live and serve. Just like the slogan for the Fate Fire Department goes:
our community - our citizens - our department.

From an archaeological perspective, the badge handed to me represents someone's future discovery that this community was served in this way. I don't know if all professions that carry badges look at their symbols in this way. But if they do, there's a lot of people out there who, whether they know it or not, are walking around very grateful for God including them in his benevolent care of a community... a nation... a world.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cloverfield: on the problem of evil

This last Saturday I went to the movies with a friend. We saw the new motion picture "Cloverfield." It's very different from what you might expect from big budget monster movies. The camera work is constantly unsettling. There is no music score. The actors are not recognizable. It was anything but a typical adventure movie.

What was especially interesting though was the perspective of the film. It never offered a panoramic view of the whole city of Manhattan. It never offered establishing shots, wide angle pull backs or explanatory views that helped you make sense of what you saw. Since it was, supposedly, shot only from the camcorder of a character in the film, the movie only offered the view of the drama unfolding that the character himself would have while experiencing the events. Like I told some friends afterward, image someone making a film that was half "Godzilla" and half "The Blair Witch Project."

I'm writing a paper for a class reviewing this film from a theological point of view, and I'll not redundantly offer all of that analysis here. Suffice it to say, that the film, if the monster is allowed to personify "evil," seems to give a perspective of the problem of evil in the world from those who have not, by faith, accepted a biblical explanation for the existence of evil in the world.

In the film, the characters never get an explanation for the appearance of the monster, never see the big picture as to what is the full scope of its threat, can't hide from it, are pursued by it into every nook and cranny of the city, and have almost no hope of escape. This seems to parallel a lost view of evil in the world, even to the extent that evil is a monster (outside of me, not inside of me). The film, through a theological lens, is a view of the world broken and rampaged by sin, without the luxury of any explanation for its presence. It is, in essence, the experience of the lost. Seen from this perspective, such a story can heighten one's passion for reaching lost people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I recommend you see it this weekend.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Drained Out

Last Saturday's embarrassing failure with the Fate Fire Department's physical agility test was also very instructive. I try to learn from such significant events and this one was no exception. After all the drama was over and I was up, walking around, drinking Gatorade and appearing much more functional, I learned a new term. According to those at the time who can recognize the symptoms, I has apparently become slightly "hypovolemic." This has to do with the "volume" of oxygen being taking to all parts of the body by the blood supply. I needed to rest, suck some oxygen and drink some Gatorade in order to quickly replenish what my body was frantically pulling from my blood supply. In other words, I was drained out - dangerously so.

"Hypovolemia" is a new term I learned as a result of that episode. It got me thinking not only about ways to avoid such a condition in the future, but also other applications for this new insight about the body. For example, can a "body" of believers in Jesus Christ become hypovolemic? Can a believer become spiritual hypovolemic if they have burned more energy than has be replenished? Can a church exert energy in a way that exceeds its ability to take in nourishment? Can a church become "drained out"?

How does this coincide with the exhortation in Ephesians 5:18 to "be filled with the Spirit"? Can spiritual hypovolemia result from straining to be like Christ in a way that the life of Christ has not already empowered one to perform? Can a church body do more than it's supposed to do proportional to how nourished it is and what shape it is in, and thus suffer hypovolemic shock? What would be the symptoms of a church body suffering from spiritual "hypovolemic" shock (analogous to physical symptoms such as when the patient feels dizzy, faint, nauseated, or very thirsty).

I have been very, very proud of my church for the manner in which it has embraced change and the challenge to engage the community to which we have been called - Rockwall County, TX. However, in some areas we shows signs of being slightly "hypovolemic" in terms of spiritual well being. It is true that we, as a body, are to strive to be in better shape and should seek spiritual nourishment that replenishes what is burned. On the other hand, it is a duty of pastors to examine the health of the body and determine if "over-exertion" has occurred. This is difficult to imagine that I, who so often champions intensive training, would propose any rest at this stage of the game. Nevertheless, it is no different than what I have always said to students in kung fu, "pay attention to your body. If the body breaks down because of over-exertion, then training cannot continue." Likewise, if the church body breaks down because of over-exertion, where will the service be? And who will be left to worship the risen Lord? If the arms are two tired to be raised, how with hands be lifted in praise?

Monday, January 14, 2008

A second car

This weekend Naomi was given a four door car from her grandmother, who she was visiting in Houston. This now brings us to a 2-car family instead of the one-car family we have always been. Interestingly, this represents a procedural and cultural change for our family as well. It's not simply the convenience of an extra car, but the new habits that are possible with both drivers able to head off in different directions at the same time. Even this morning I had errands to run, but waiting until Naomi returned from hers before going. Amusingly, I could have left anytime. I had a vehicle at my disposal, but instead followed my instinct to wait until she returned.

I hope this does not produce new instincts though, that of separation of family practices. I suppose this is somewhat inevitable, with kids developing new interests to which they need transportation, all the while with me needing to jet around to various meetings. But what I hope we can avoid is the drive-by family that so many households seem to have become. A second car should be a blessing; not a curse.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Limits of the Will

Today I failed the physical agility test administered to determine my participation in operations with the Fate Fire Department. I can train and prepare over the next couple of weeks to take it again, and the department has graciously encouraged me to do so. However, the disappointment I felt in coming up short cut deeply. The course consisted of several exercises in quick succession that simulated a sampling of the physical tasks one should expect to perform in the execution of their duties in firefighting.

Of the eight exercises, I successfully completed six of them. The seventh exercise, however, was a great surprise. A fully charged (with water pressure) 3 inch hose was laid out in straight line away from the engine. The task was to, holding the hose and nozzle on my shoulder, swing the line 180 degrees and advance the line in the opposition direction to a predetermined point passed the engine. I listened carefully to instructions given regarding the proper technique to swinging the hose around and carrying it. When I began, I made the turn successfully and had advanced the line to a point even with the engine, but then a nightmarish experience overtook me. Strength seemed to escape my body like air from a released balloon. Determined as I was to complete the exercise and reach the cone, fatigue dominated my legs and migrated upwards. Forward progress was halted, so I jerked and ranked hoping to inch the hose a little more. Then I turned around and kept yanking on the hose, hoping that it might miraculously become suddenly lighter. In the end, I was reduced to simply holding the nozzle and falling backward. The last couple of inches were gained with this method, and I reached the cone; however, I had exceeded the allotted time for the exercise, and was so drained of spark that the test was aborted as I lay barely conscious on the concrete, occasionally moving the oxygen mask from my face in order to throw up. "Humiliating," as a word, doesn't quite capture it.

There are many valuable lessons that can be gleaned from today's failure. One of these came in the midst of my physical breakdown. As the strength dropped off sharply, I made the determination not to give up no matter what. I had set my will to complete the course successfully and advance toward joining the department in their firefighting duties, in addition to those I perform as chaplain. What was quite shocking was the degree and speed with which my will could become irrelevant. Determination and willpower mean nothing when the body has performed all of that which it is capable and will go no further. Try as I did, the hose reached the goal too late, and the test had to be aborted in light of my potential hospital visit. Thankfully, I recovered enough at the scene to render an ambulance ride unnecessary. Nevertheless, the will did not have the last word. Capability was the final factor, not the will.

This last week, I completed an intensive one week course on the nature of humanity and the effects of sin on our condition. How helpful today's failure was in clarifying some of the class's issues. In Romans 7, Paul expresses frustration on the limits of the will when it comes to living righteously. While I would not seek to fully unpack Paul's argument here, some of that frustration was pictured for me today. The will may be noble, desiring to reach the goal of righteousness through tasks that appear simple enough (though not necessarily easy). However, the limits of the will are reached and we discover that the human condition is simply not capable of reaching the goal, not matter what "the will" desires. The will has become irrelevant, and capability is revealed to be quite lacking.

This would seem the essence of the gospel, that righteousness by "will" is doomed to failure because it's not a question of the will. It's a question of capability. Humanity is incapable of reaching the goal of righteousness. Trying, therefore, would appear insulting to a Savior who has carried the hose (or cross) for you already. I imagine that my pathetic attempts at righteousness to impress God end similarly, with the Spirit huddled over me, offering the oxygen mask after I've lost both consciousness and my cookies. Christ is holding up his nail-scarred hand seeing if I can follow his finger with my eyes, with the Father admonishing me to rest easy and adds, "here's some water for you. Oh, and I'll be driving you back to the station."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Today in class a music video was shown that bothered me a great deal. The lyrics of the song were really rather profound, but the video contained material that I found unhelpful to good reflection. I hope that the feedback I offered my professor was found to be respectful and constructive. Nevertheless, the song itself was profitable for reflection. I wish he had offered the text of the lyrics on powerpoint slides, as is often his practice. The song was entitled “Rockstar,” and is performed by Nickelback.

The song itself (minus the video) displays our depraved desire to be the center of attention, to be insanely popular, to have people seek us out just to have some of the magic rub off of us onto them, in essence to be a “rockstar.” What I found so arresting about the song was that even tough I may never pick up a guitar, perform on a stage or wear flamboyant clothes in front of thousands of screaming college girls throwing their underwear on the platform, I still want to be a “rockstar.”

My vanity knows no bounds. I want an influential ministry that results in publishing several books that not only become best sellers, they get a merchandise line that buries the end-cap at Life Way. I want to be in demand as a speaker in a way that fills up the calendar. I want people to call me doctor “so and so” and be impressed with my opinion because it carries the wait of some arbitrary credential. I want all this, but it must be accompanied with the validating praise (particularly to be prized in a Christian sub-culture) of being called “humble and unassuming.” I want the ministry success of Rick Warren, the publishing contract of Charles Swindoll, the degrees of Darrell Bock and the reputation of Billy Graham. In other words, I want to be a rockstar. As I said, my vanity knows no bounds.

What’s worse? My depravity is so out of control that I probably, when speaking to you face to face, will say that I didn’t really mean the above paragraph. Oh yes I did. Deep down I don’t really want to be like Jesus, because being like Jesus runs contrary to everything I am. Being a Christian (“little Christ”) isn’t difficult, it’s impossible. I wish I wanted to be like Christ, but I don’t. I even sing in church that I want to be like Jesus, but that’s really not true. If I were truthful in singing, I’d sing something like “I want to want to be like Jesus.” I instead want to be a rockstar.

God please save me from my drive to be a "rockstar." Please God save me from that depraved delusion that thinks I could glorify You that way, and protect people around me who hear me spew that delusion too. Especially please save me from the hardness of heart that would ever prevent me from admitting that I want to be a rockstar.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Everything is broken

This week is being spent in a class on anthropology and hamartiology (humanity and sin). A discussion on angels and demons will ensue at sometime during the week, but most of the speculation about these is unsupportable from Scripture and unhelpful to Christian doctrine. Anyway, the bulk of lecture is spent on the nature of the human condition, experience, origins and outcome. Basically, the big human questions seek to understand why things are the way things are.

The reason that a course like this can be so important is that humans are, by nature, self-deceptive. Without good reflection, we can quickly fool ourselves into believing that we’re basically good, able to produce good results. However, this is not the case at all. On the contrary, we are essentially and unchangeably bad apart from divine grace (Article IV “Man, Created and Fallen”, DTS doctrinal statement). What is necessary, then, is an examination of the extent to which this we are not as “good” as we were created to be.

We must confess that what God created was “good” because God declared it to be so in opening of the Bible (Genesis 1). So the knowledge that we are not presently “good” requires a follow up inquiry into how it is we differ from that which we ought to be. Such is the study of the human condition and our sinful state. To what extent into the human experience is our sin invasive?

I know for me, I find the fallen factor invading into every aspect of my experience as a man. I don’t like to own the statement given in the DTS doctrinal statement. I can confess that about “people” all day long, but I really don’t like to confess that I am “essentially and unchangeably bad apart from divine grace.” I’d much rather think this about everyone else; the faceless “they” are all depraved, fallen and sinful, unable to produce good results. No. I am among the broken. I do not have a “sin nature” like I also have a dog. I am sinful and depraved, though redeemed and indwelled by the Spirit. The mystery of redemption is that God uses people as broken as I am. My prayer is that he will continue to use such broken things as me until I am no longer broken after the resurrection.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Child-like Surprise

I was reflecting on this last Christmas, and on what is the nature of the pleasure derived by parents in giving gifts to their children. It is often been observed that the concept of the “self-less” act is an illusion because everyone derives some benefit from their actions, otherwise they would not perform them. The question is not, “is this act self-less?” It is instead, “is the reason for this act acceptable?” Therefore, parents giving gifts to children falls under the category of (not “self-less” motivation) but acceptable motivation.

What then is that “acceptable” motivation? I’d like to posit a guess. It is the pleasure derived for the giver from observing the pleasure of the receiver. The look of surprise on the face of the child when the gift is revealed makes all other motivations shrink to insignificance. It is an acceptable motivation for the giver to admit the great joy they will receive as a result of the pleasure of the receiver. Can anything compare to the look of glee on the face of your child when the wrapping is torn off and the toy is out of the box?

The Bible suggests that God derives a similar pleasure from watching our reactions to his grace and love as well. Out of his love for us it would appear that he receives great pleasure from observing our joy over his gifts. It’s not that we over anthropomorphize the Father when we ascribe to him attributes of a loving early father (deriving joy from his child’s righteous pleasure). It is quite possibly more accurate to suggest that we rightly “theo-morphize” good fathers who are pleased by their children’s joy. We are not wrongly seeing God as like us in this fatherly dynamic. We are instead rightly seeing man as having received this dynamic of good fathering from the Father.

Therefore, the subject of prayer, and specifically the answer to prayer, is better understood in the context of this fatherly understanding. I suspect that God invites us to pray and ask him to meet our needs because of the pleasure he will derive from observing our response of child-like surprise.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Power of Prayer

Prayer is such a difficult subject to write, comment or teach on. There have been times in my life when I went through a season of very disciplined and regular prayer, born of an intense desire to commune with my God over matters needing his direction or intervention. I've read several books on prayer, heard their formulas and tried their systems. Ultimately, it always came down to the cries of my heart to the God that carried my life in his hands. I've seen God act in response to prayer in ways that clearly represented his attentive answer. I've also seen God change me in ways that came through the prayerful times of agony, joy, thankfulness or desperation.

It's the discipline of regular prayer that has been the most illusive. The power of prayer to connect me with the heart of God is never in question. If anything, you'd think that I'd been more consistent considering how I've seen prayer work in my life. Perhaps it is that the power of prayer is such that its consistent practice cannot be tolerated by all that is against my having a healthy prayer life. It may very well be that the world, the Devil and my own depraved flesh are so opposed to a healthy prayer life that they will act in concert to suppress it. That would seem to attest to prayer's power also though. Is the potency of prayer to me gaged by its opposition?

My experience in prayer, as well as the diverse scriptural examples given about great biblical characters, renders most formulaic approaches to prayer insulting. And the next person who suggests to me that some unpreferable circumstance in my life is a result of deviating from a secret formula of prayer may suffer violence at my hands. For the most part, I've seen in Scripture aspects of prayer that are very beneficial to remember when I approach God intimately, such as remembering his gracious acts, praising his goodness and asking for ability to serve him. Confession of my failures (also called "sin") is a must as well. But these are all parts of deep communication between God and me. The power of prayer is such that I can tell when I've been remiss in being alone with God very much, and I can also tell when I have enjoyed regular communion with him. Imagine what power is possible in a community of believers communing in prayer together. That's got to be off the charts!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hockey Fever

On Christmas Day, our family played street hockey on the church parking lot. On New Year's Day, we stayed glued to the NHL Winter Classic. When a hockey game is on television, out comes the gloves and stick to try getting the tennis by passed our dog Nyute. He's a ball hungry lab mix who has the reflexes of goalie Marty Turco. Some may be amused by such a display of enthusiasm, but what they may not understand is how new to me is the who feeling of being a sports enthusiast at all.

Prior to moving to Texas, I was not a sports enthusiast. Basketball, soccer and others all flew well below my radar. At times I enjoyed watching football on television, but was never so committed to it to actually purchase something with a team logo on it (in Seattle this would have been the Seahawks). We did go to a few Mariner's games, enjoying the ballpark experience. However, this fan connection was quite tepid at best.

Some type of forcefield must have been breach though when we drove across the Red River when moving to Dallas in summer or 2003. Perhaps their is a "sports virus" in the Ogallala aquifer that has infected the Lone Star State. In any case, I have definitely developed a sports compartment of my brain that resonates with the excitement, competition, suspense and connection to local teams that is that human condition known as "sports enthusiasm." However, this condition has not translated into enjoyment of all sports. I enjoy watching football, might watch the Mavericks if they make the finals again, and even attempt to watch World Cup Soccer just to say I have broader tastes. But none of those are arresting my attention like hockey has begun to do. It's a new feeling of enjoyment, adrenalin and vicarious struggles on the ice.

For this reason, it's fun to being collecting hockey gear, playing it in the house, in the street or in the yard. Dallas Stars memorabilia is showing up all over the house. Naomi and I are even starting to learn some of the rules in order to follow the game. I even enjoy listening to the Stars game of the radio. It's a whole new wide world of sports, and I've got hockey fever.