Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Day of Tragedy

Tuesday was full of tragedy. Two events occurred that make the soul ache in remorse for displaced families. Two sweet families saw their houses fall away with painful finality, and it was my privilege to hurt with them for a time.

The first such event was the closing of a church in Fate, TX that I really wanted to succeed. Like Woodcreek Bible Church, it too was a conservative/contemporary outpost for the missio Dei to advance in our community. It was pastored by my friend Clint, who, in my brief interaction with him before then, was a real pleasure to be around. We seemed to share similar passions for reaching the City of Fate with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We also had similar philosophies of ministry. I so enjoyed talking to others about a like-minded church being right downtown Fate. When Clint contacted me to inform of their closing, I was not pleased at all. In addition, he generously donated to our church a great deal of the materials they formerly used in ministry. Nearly six hours was spent in moving furniture, equipment and materials from his building to ours. The donation of such a cache was pleasing, but the circumstances were sobering. It represented a great loss to the community that one less church such as Clint's is operating here.

How tragic a thing it is to see a church close. How epically wrong to watch the work of God seemingly suffer a "setback." For reasons which seem good to Him, God allows such unnatural evils to befall a community. A church closes down. Families are displaced. No more singing in glorifying praise will emanate from that location for now. The preaching of the Word of God will not resonate within its walls (unless another church were to come use it). Lives may go on, but the collective life that happened in this place is gone.

Immediately after taking the last load of stuff from Clint's building (which once housed East Lake Fellowship), my pager went off. A house fire in eastern Rockwall County was summoning several local fire departments (including Fate Fire Rescue - for which I am Chaplain). When I heard on the pager that a house fire was in progress, it was likely a family needed ministering to. I was right. After stopping by my house to change and grab my gear, I proceeded to the fire scene. The house was fully engulfed in flames. Five fire departments were present with my Chief in command. I asked a Rockwall County Sheriff deputy nearby where the family was. When he pointed them out, I approached them to try to be of some comfort. As their whole family and friends gathered around, I prayed for them and the tragic loss they will have to trust God through.

Oh God, how tragic a thing it is to watch a home burn down. What a hideous evil wrought upon the world when a family suffers such a setback. For reasons which are only clear to Him, God allows such sufferings to befall people. A house burns down. A family is displaced. No more birthday parties, Christmas mornings, family dinners or fun games will occur at that location for quite some time (even if they rebuild in the same location). Mementos that enshrined family memories are burned up or melted away. Theirs lives will go on, but all the things that facilitated living there before are gone.

Fate Fire & Rescue cleared the scene (meaning we all left) at 2 a.m. A tragic day that started the pain of loss at around 3 in the afternoon, ended at 2 in the morning. The parallels between a church closing and a house burning will haunt me for a while. Amazing that I witnessed them both, up close, back to back like that.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Flying among clouds

Yesterday I went skydiving. What else is there to say? I stepped out of an airplane that was working perfectly well, to descend 5,000 feet in about 35 seconds. I then drifted gracefully the next 5,000 feet to the ground where we landed gently on our feet. The instructor "Rick" was very, very competent, inducing confidence in the safety of the whole process. He gave specific instructions that were easy to follow. We practiced body position, exiting the aircraft and discussed what to expect from the experience long before we climbed into the small Cessna.

The ride to the 10,000 foot high drop zone was a little cramped and was 20 minutes long. It was during that time when the gravity of the situation (pun intended) sunk in. At about 9,000 feet Rick informed me, "In just a moment they'll open the door. You'll feel a cold blast of wind, so don't let it freak you out." With his warning, I mentally prepared. Even with that preparation though, I have no doubt that I must have had a look of surprise on my face when the door flew open. The blast of cold wind was indeed surprising, and the realization that I was about perform this act finally settled in my gut.

The other jumpers (Cameron with his attached instructor George) went first. When they exited, there was a very brief yet surreal moment in which I imagined a conversation occurring over a radio like this:

"Tower to Cessna niner zero bravo - how many passengers are you carrying?"
"Cessna niner zero bravo to tower - besides the pilot we were carrying four...we now have two."
"Tower to Cessna niner zero bravo - where are the other two passengers?"
"Cessna niner zero bravo to tower - they left."

It occurred to me that I was now having an experience in which it was perfectly natural for half of the passengers to simply exit the aircraft at 10,000 feet in the air. Following the exit of the other team, Rick instructed me to "scoot" forward into our position. Latched tightly together, Rick and I got into position in the exact manner we had practiced on the ground. Any fears that might have dissuaded me from going through with this had long since become irrelevant. With both feet on the landing gear strut, I peered out into the sky. Rocking in a 1-2-3 fashion, Rick and I stepped away from the airplane and into the deep.

There is no sensation of falling. It's simply windy. Falling is experienced when there are visual stationary reference points to give the "falling" imagery. In this case, there are no such reference points. The Earth is even too far away to served that role. One configures their body for the desired aerodynamics, and then simply enjoys the windy environment that creates the odd experience of having the clouds to the left and right instead of up. For 30 to 40 seconds, this "windy" environment allows one to "fly." Yes, I'm aware that "fly" is not an accurate description as "flying" is defined in the technical sense (also as it is demonstrated by birds, bugs and aircraft under propulsion). However, in the absence of a falling sensation, another more appropriate verb is hard to find that describes what one "feels" in skydiving. To be among the clouds, unattached from propulsion and flight machinery, gazing laterally into the sky "feels" a great deal like flying.

At about 5,000 feet, Rick deployed our parachute and told me to relax. In this I was happy to oblige. The windy noise was now gone, and only the peaceful glide remained. I felt led into what I could only describe as "spatial peace." Achieved in a mere few minutes was that relaxed elation that otherwise might require several days on a cabin porch. This also was reflective of the purposeful pursuit of Sabbath preached on a few weeks ago in our church. A quick and concentrated dose of "rest" was achieved in those few short minutes of floating back to the Earth.

Reflecting on how the mind, body and soul are such an integrated complexity, it's not hard to imagine how one would be attracted to regular jumps as a means of meditative "rest" for the soul. A prayerful component could not help but invade this thrill. Certainly an adrenaline junkie would seek this out for the thrill of it, but there lies in skydiving an altogether different attraction as well: the complete setting aside of one's self into an environment where real "rest" is achievable. "Spatial peace" is, to my mind, a good way to describe the effects of the jump; and financial means allowing, I will experience this again someday.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gay Marriage

What an awkward position the government can put the Church in. For those ways in which morality and legality can be equated, what is the Church to do with Massachusetts and California's rulings to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples?

This is not a good time to be from California.

The Church is now in the uncomfortable position of directly opposing the state. By this I mean, that a biblical definition of marriage clearly arrives at the union between two of the opposite sex. This definition simply is. It cannot be altered or amended by a court ruling. There most certainly is, according to state law, a supreme court of California. However, this court is infinitely inferior to the Word of God. As a result, the Church is charged with continuing to proclaim a definition of marriage that is sourced in God's Word, but directly opposes a ruling of the state.

The State might say, "You two (men or women) are now married," but then the Church is obligated to say, "No you're not."

I call this "awkward" because the Church wants to simultaneously demonstrate love toward people who need a Savior, but cannot compromise aspects of divine revelation that speak to constructive or destructive behavior, namely homosexuality (being the latter).

Much of the problem lies with the common confusion between "acceptance" and "endorsement." The language of acceptance may be used by one group, but it means something very different when used by another group. A Christian may speak of "accepting" people just as they are (since all need Jesus Christ for salvation from sin; some are just more obvious about it than others), but the homosexual will not believe they are accepted until their behavior is endorsed (believing that their behavior is "right" for them). A Christian may say that they "accept" the homosexual, but do not "endorse" the homosexual behavior, believing it to be destructive to the homosexual. However, because the homosexual ties their behavior to their identity, withholding endorsement of their behavior is tantamount to denying acceptance of them as a person. This is unfortunate since Christians, throughout time, have always been a people that must simultaneously maintain two complimentary beliefs: (1) sin is destructive to the human body and soul, calling for its repudiation, and (2) Christ's saving work rescues people from the curse of sin for eternity and addiction to sin in the present. This is the reality behind the often misunderstood saying, "Love the sinner - hate the sin."

If my daughter were to develop a self-destructive addiction to methamphetamine, no one would question if I still loved my daughter while I grew a fierce hatred for the drugs destroying her. If anything, people would understand that it is out of my intense love for my daughter that my hatred of methamphetamine grows. If a child of mine was on a self-destructive path, and asked me to simply "accept" them the way they are, no one would question my love of my child for withholding my endorsement of their drug addiction. I would (and you would) love the child...hate the drug. Or "love the addict - hate the addiction."

Churches that seek to remain missional, that will break out of the barriers of previous generations to the spread of the gospel, will wrestle with the issue of gay marriage. They will wrestle a great deal with this. What will the church do when a lesbian couple, with three kids, visits the church to hear the gospel? What will the church do when two gay men wander in hoping to find "acceptance." What will they find? Will they find a Christian able to explain the difference between "acceptance" and "endorsement"? Or will they find angry disgust not shown from Jesus in the Gospels?

Ministry could get real messy in a hurry. Is the church ready to stay on-mission in a largely post-Christian America? Are we ready to be "missionaries" in our own homeland?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tough Business

The Church of Jesus Christ is the most amazing creation of God. Nothing else that has been created in the world can compare to the ongoing testimony of God's redemption through the substitutionary atonement performed by Christ when he died on the cross, and then rose bodily from the grave the third day. The stars, the planets, mountains, lakes, flowers and even the complexity of the human body cannot compare to the glory of God's redemption in Christ Jesus. Therefore, the chief display of that redemption (namely The Church) is the pinnacle of creation. Pursuing its mission is the highest of human endeavors. Gathering in its ranks is the highest of human associations. Worshiping together is the highest of human expressions.

As a result, it naturally follows that it would be among the most difficult of human tasks. People who engage in the mission of the Church are constantly participating in a fundamentally impossible task; for they are applying their human energies to what is wholly a work of God. I've discussed before about how the incarnation of Jesus Christ gives us our ministry paradigm. He was fully human and fully God. In like manner, the church is people working AND God working. These are simultaneous realities.

I say that to say this: the work of the ministry is tough business.

This does NOT apply merely to those paid to do it. In fact, the vast majority of those working diligently in the Church around the world are not paid for what they do. This applies to anyone who gives of their energy, time, talents, creativity and heart-felt passion to the work of the Church. The work that is being performed takes all that is in a person. On top of that comes the awareness that God uses it to perform far more that one humanly can. This knowledge is both exhilarating and draining. Burn out among ministers (again do not confuse this as applying mainly to paid ministers) is rather frequent. The full extent of human reserves have been spent, leaving the minister with "drained batteries" that are not easily recharged. Vacations or hobbies that help ministers put out of their mind the intense foci of ministry can be vital to longevity. I struggled for the first few months as a pastor with what would be my refreshing hobby; then God granted the necessary rest through my purchasing (and riding frequently) a motorcycle.

For others it's not as simple as taking a ride through east Texas and the mountains of Arkansas. It sometimes means completely pulling away. This is especially true when a new pastor comes in to lead a congregation, the previous one typically steps out of the picture altogether. This often is not due to any conflict between the two. The incoming and outgoing pastors may actually get along very well. However, simultaneous with the incoming pastor developing new instincts, the outgoing one must suspend or shut down instincts developed through years of service. This is necessary for him to rest from the labor to which he had applied himself (in many cases rather diligently). The formerly exhilarating (and draining) work of ministry now calls for a rest, and the environment that once developed the pastoral instincts is not conducive to suspending them.

This is part of the human aspect of the Church that is tough business. Because the Church is God's work, we can sometimes expect that human dynamics will not come so much into play. We must always remember that the Spirit works with human nature and he may even redeem human nature, but he seldomly suspends human nature. The Church is a divine activity AND a human activity. We must not be caught off guard when human needs influence the work of God. It is not tragic when God calls a pastor to a season of rest; as though a great sin had derailed the work of the minister (which can happen at times, but is NOT the subject of this entry). In like manner that God "called" the minister into service, so also God will "call" a pastor to rest for awhile.

What makes it "tough business" is, again, the human component of attachments and relationships that are painful to set aside. The pastor knows that this is (though not desired) potentially part of his reality. God uses him as He wants, and moves him where He wants. The pastor must develop genuine affection for people, knowing that God may call him to another place where he'll have to develop authentic relationships there as well. Ministry is tough business.

It's also painful for those who "say goodbye" to the outgoing pastor. Deep affection is often developed for the pastor, and their exit may sting like losing a family member. At times, the pastor has been so integral to the seasons of families' lives that his leaving is quite excruciating. They may question why they gather in their local church if the one who formerly embodied the "family feel" there is now missing. Like a die applied to a stream so that hydrologists can observe which way the water flows, so also the pain of a pastor's exit can filter into all those places where people had let him in. Even when leaving on generally good terms, the exit of a pastor can be agonizing. Ministry is tough business.

For Woodcreek Bible Church, we presently have these things to wrestle with. Because the former pastor and I got along so well, and he appeared so willing to serve in a supportive capacity, many of us (me included) thought he would not feel the need to exit. As a result, even though most congregations "say goodbye" and mourn the exit of the outgoing leader at the front end, our congregation had come to believe that no such "goodbye" would ever be necessary. We thought that we might be the glorious exception to the rule. Not to be too critical, but we may have been falsely marginalizing the human nature of ministry through this assumption. To assume that God was so much at work among us that the (quite normal) set of human dynamics described above did not apply to us is uncomplimentary to our foresight, and wisdom concerning God's design of people.

Our present "goodbye" to the former pastor (now having served faithfully as "Associate Pastor" for nine months) is painful, but quite normal. He's a pastor. In his heart, he has been knit together as a shepherd of people. The season of rest that God is "calling" him to now will not be accomplished in familiar church surroundings. I support his wisdom in acknowledging the necessity for such a difficult decision. Many in our church will agonize over it. But in the end, God has not suspended human nature, but will use it to inaugurate a new season of life for that pastor, his family and the church the tearfully releases him.

Ministry is tough business.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Stretching and Rest is part of Training

For me, the great bulk of my ministerial instincts were cultivated and developed while teaching kung fu in the various locations that I have taught. Temple Kung Fu of the northwest, North Valley Kung Fu in California or at the churches I taught at in Everett, WA or Royse City, TX all reinforced my intuitive set of skills as a trainer of people. These are the dominant lessons that have informed my leadership style as a pastor. In some regards, this "kung fu pastor" persona has accounted for the intensity that I bring to the ministry. However, having just as short an attention span as the next man (maybe shorter), I had forgotten that the lessons gained from teaching the Art call for periods of stretching and rest as integral to sound training as well. To simply maintain the intensity all the time ignores vital aspects of training that I used to always make sure were present in Skill Class. I had forgotten my own lesson. How set aside wisdom you normally know.

I had the chance to discuss leadership principles with a trusted friend who reminded me of this. Even as he was uttering words such as "the trainer sees to the whole person" (paraphrased), my mind was flooded with wisdom that God had shown me before, but that I had set aside for a time. I wonder if the distant look on my face was easily readable, or puzzling to my friend. At a point late in the conversation I recalled those truths taught to me by the Spirit so many years ago: that people, who generally desire to train, need the trainer to remain mindful of their holistic needs.

If the trainee is in need of more work, the trainer will admonish them to exert themselves more. If the trainee is in need of better fuel, the trainer will advise them to eat better, smoke less and drink plenty of fluids after working out. Likewise, if the trainee is in need of rest, the trainer will direct them to stretch lightly in the corner, be seated for a moment or even go lie down to recuperate. All of these things I performed as a trainer and teacher of the Art. Regrettably, I had forgotten how parallel the roles of teaching the Art and pastoring continue proving to be.

Our church has been training intensely for some time now. It's not too dissimilar to the first 25 minutes of a Skill Class. The intensity can seem overwhelming; the pace surprising; the noise shocking; the sweat flowing. Our church has been in "work out" mode since last Fall. However, in Skill Class, usually about 25 minutes after the hour, I'd finish the workout on a high note and begin a time of stretching. Stretching included soft breathing, slow movements and speaking more peacefully to the class. Same instructor - different phase of the class.

I'd forgotten what my friend helped me remember: that a church that's been in a "workout" also will need to be led through "stretching and rest" by the exact same instructor that was yelling so loudly at them moments before. Different instructors did not perform these tasks. It was the duty of the same instructor that had been pushing the class to slow them down and see to their "slower" training as well. I performed this transition through phases of a class hundreds of times in the temple, yet somehow the applicability of this to the church has eluded me for a time. Apologies to those who think I was never going to let up.

My church has some who have needed to hear "Faster! Lower! Louder!" But it also now has many who need to hear "Slower. Breathe easy. Relax." All these words come from the same teacher. God spoke through my friend to remind me of this, and it is glorious to remember and re-learn it all over again.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Ride

What a refreshing and wonderful experience!

I just took a long ride over the past few days with two other friends. We traveling through parts of northwest Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and northeast Louisiana. It was a long ride that was originally planned for two days. However, when unexpected delays arose, the trip extended into a third day. We rode "hard," meaning that we traveled a great distance each day and pushed ourselves to test our skills with each winding road.

We saw buffalo next to the highway in Oklahoma, rode through a cloud on a scenic ridge road in Ouachita National Forest, climbed the snaking switch-backs of Mt. Nebo and cruised around swampy lakes of Louisiana and Texas. The sights were breathtaking. No only that, but I learned a great deal about "touring" on a motorcycle, and feel that I'm wiser about the bike that before. It developed in me a passion to pursue this even further, accessorizing to make a passenger comfortable riding with me.

It was a long ride, but well worth it. Even the inconveniences that resulted in our delayed return were learning experiences that any seasoned rider will say are necessary to really develop a love of the road. If it could have been said that I had "the riding bug" before, it's ten times more so now.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Top Ten People I Refuse to Share Christ With

When we sing in church that "I want to be like Jesus," I don't know about anyone else, but I know I'm often lying when I sing that. Jesus had a lot of qualities and habits that I really don't want to adopt. Being like Jesus could really screw up a lot of areas of life that I've come to manage OK. Take for example Jesus' habit of associating with "sinners." Jesus was so certain of his mission from the Father, so certain of the power of the Spirit, and so certain of his deity that he brazenly dined with outcasts that more "religious" people of his day avoided. Let's face it, I too have groups that I avoid out of religious conditioning also. Jesus may love these people, but I certainly don't. At least right now. When I do ever develop a love for these people, I'll look very different than I do right now. In the meantime, until my heart radically changes, here's a top 10 list of those who challenge me the most, and reveal the extent to which I still don't want to be like Jesus.

Counting down (drum role please Paul):

#10 Kids - because it's so hard to explain my theological categories to them. So I'd rather not try.

#9 Teens - same as above, with the addition that I can't handle having to earn their respect.

#8 Business men/women - because I've never succeeded big at business. So I'm intimidated to speak, thinking I lack credibility.

#7 Needy people - because I like to hide in a busy lifestyle that can't carve out 10 frik'in minutes to listen to their problems. Plus, it's emotionally draining to care, so I don't (and don't enjoy faking it either).

#6 People with other religious backgrounds - because I hold them responsible for following a lie, and therefore undeserving of the truth I got for free.

#5 Waitresses/waiters - because I know that I've probably already lost credibility with them before now by acting very un-Christian at their restaurant on Sunday after church; I didn't tip them well or was too demanding. They'll know I'm a joke already.

#4 Neighbors - because they see me all the time; they know that I sometimes peel out of the driveway in anger, kick the kid's bike off the porch, waste lawn water or hang the Christmas lights wrong.

#3 Lesbians - because I'm a guy, an evangelical and a conservative Republican who thinks they're an attack on our "American" way of life. So I just can't handle that. Period.

#2 Gay men - same as above, with the addition that I'm insecure enough to think that homosexuality can be caught like a cold, and it wouldn't be long (after developing a discipling relationship) until I started showing signs of sensitivity, a stronger fashion sense and spoke of "brotherhood" without the aid of war analogies.

#1 Mexican immigrants - because I don't value people enough to learn any Spanish. In addition, as a conservative Republican I'm far more concerned about border security than I am about the missio Dei. I can't bring myself to view people who speak a different language, value immigration law differently than I do, listen to different music than I do, dress different than I do, and have different holidays than I do, as people made in God's image. My depravity likes to classify those who are that different from me as less human than me. I don't speak of this group as "people." As a good conservative I use terms like "illegals," or "workers," or "Latinos." I simply can't handle sharing Christ with those who challenge these beloved categories of mine. Instead of seeing a person needing the love of Christ like it do, I see something else.

I'm a hypocrite. I was born a hypocrite. I'd rather not be a hypocrite, but being one still gives me comfort, keeps me warm. Life is more simple within my little box. If I were honest, I'd sing "I want to want to be like Jesus." I'd like my affections reformed so that I want what Jesus wants. If I truly wanted what Jesus wants right now, the above list would be inaccurate. It's still sadly true though. I hope it's not true of you. If it is, maybe we can reform together, and eliminate the above list.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Still very Academic

One of the things that can be easily forgotten about my present lifestyle (with all that's happening in the pastoral sense) is how rigorous the academic pursuits continue to be while I'm still a seminary student. When I speak with people about my schedule, they hear about church work, about the fire dept and the city of Fate. Seldomly do I bring up the long hours I must spend studying and writing papers to complete my remaining courses at Dallas Theological Seminary. In truth, it still occupies the bulk of my time.

Over the summer, I'm taking two consecutive courses in translating, analyzing and interpreting Hebrew. These are monster courses, requiring focused attention and long hours. Yet it can be so difficult to prioritize it when it doesn't receive the same recognition as pastor duties. Some think pastoring can be a thankless job, but it certainly garners more recognition than Hebrew proficiency. It's far more likely that someone will walk up and say, "That was a moving service," or "that was a convicting sermon," or "that was a beautiful prayer" than it is likely that someone will approach me and say, "that was an thorough and competent exegetical analysis of that Hebrew passage."

So self-discipline is what comes into play because exterior motivators will be sparse. We'll see how it goes. It could be said that reliance on God to get through Hebrew is more of a reality than with most other pursuits, since it requires more discipline than with those other tasks, and I have yet to feel as though I'm a well-disciplined man.