April 2, 2015

In Which I Avoid Sleeping Through Holy Week

“This week is kind of like your superbowl, right?”



A friend said this to me the other day after she’d asked about what my week is like this week. I’m a worship pastor, and this is Holy Week, the busiest time of the year for me. But the metaphor felt funny, like someone handing me a gardening glove when I’m about to get a chicken out of the oven. I’m not a sports guy, for one, but aside from that, the goal of this week isn’t about a competition; the “win” is providing space for people to engage the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, Son of God. The goal is giving God space to give new life to our congregation.

But how many of us begin this week already tired? I know I did. There are so many things to do this week - multiple rehearsals, arranging parts, finishing tasks I’d forgotten about or that had gotten buried, planning for things that come AFTER Easter, extra worship gatherings … there are so many things. And in the midst of it all, normal life stuff with family, finances, and maybe, just maybe, eeking out some time for myself so that I don’t go completely insane from stress.

And in the midst of all of the tasks, the stress, the WORK, it’s easy to get caught sleeping. Oh I don’t mean that I’m actually asleep - though I could stand for a few more hours of rest every night - but the tasks and the stress themselves can be like sleeping on the job for a pastor. It’s easy to forget - especially in this season - that I am first and foremost a child of God. While my responsibilities include creating space for other people to engage the story of God, to find their place in it, to worship together, what often happens is that I forget to create space for myself to do the same. 

It’s a bit like a restless, fitful, tense sleep from which I wake up more tired than before. When we fail to create that space in weeks like this - especially in weeks like this - we are very much the worse for wear, and our leadership reflects that. When we do not take the time to wrestle with the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection - in this week, of all weeks - we do ourselves and our congregations a disservice.

This time, of all times, can provide evidence of just that: incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. It starts out so innocently, a job for which we were built and which we love - an incarnation. But then the tasks start piling up - the extra hours away from our families and extra services and the anxiety of wanting to get it just right for our guests and church families - and we end up drained, lifeless, entombed … crucified. Our resurrection might come a little too late, after Easter’s already come and gone, and our families or churches have to slap a little life back into our drained, listless forms.


Or.

We take the time now to die to ourselves and let God breathe life anew.

I’ve been reading the book of Ezekiel every morning. I don’t know why I chose it, other than the fact that I wanted to read something I’d not read much before, and I’d remembered some pretty interesting imagery about spinning wheels and angels with four faces. When I got around to chapter 37, this (slightly) more familiar story popped up:
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.’” 
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet — a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Maybe this week your bones are dry and weary, your hope feels dead and buried. Maybe there’s more going on in your life than just the exhaustion of holy week and all that it can bring. Maybe this week you identify a little too much with the valley of dry bones, or with Jesus being whipped by the cat of nine-tails or hanging on the cross. Maybe all you want is to lay in a tomb so that it’ll all just be over. If that’s the case, it’s time for you to put down the to-do lists, the meetings, the tasks, the rehearsals, the work, even your bible for just a few minutes. Take some time to

pause

and

just 

breathe.

God’s got this. Let Him breathe new life into your dry bones, and wake you up before this season is over. May your resurrection come now, that God may do through you amazing things in all of the events and the people you lead.

March 24, 2015

The Transient Home

One of the things I’ve learned about ministry in the last year is that all ministry is transitional; every position is temporary; all jobs are for a time;

every Call will end.

A little over a year ago, I left my job of a little over 3 years. It wasn’t something I wanted or would have chosen for myself, but nonetheless, it happened. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the change over this last year, asking why, asking what next, asking what wasn’t my fault, asking what I could have done better … asking how to make the hard stuff never happen again. And through my ponderings, the words of a friend and colleague have rung true: all ministry is transitional. It wasn’t just THAT job, and it wasn’t just the transitional role I currently occupy; we’re all preparing our ministry for the next person to lead it. Nothing is permanent; even if your stay in your role for 25 years, eventually somebody else will take your place to work with whatever you’ve left behind; and you won’t know it will last 25 years until you’ve been there that long.

You can imagine how this has messed with me, especially since my dream right now is to have a job that’s not interim/transitional/transient. Having moved fourteen times in the last ten years, my family and I desperately want to live somewhere - *really live there* - for a long time. We have all sorts of ideas about what “ideal” might look like, but beyond all the little preferences, we want to be able to invest in the community and put down roots. We want the safety and relative security of a house. We want to get to know our kids’ school principle and teachers, to get to know neighbors. We want our kids to have friends to play with next door, a yard to call their own.

But the transience of our culture and of employment these days feels like it doesn’t allow for that. Transience means that at some point - whenever that might be - we’ll have to leave, and so instead of investing in the people around us, instead of allowing them into our hearts and lives, it feels far, far safer to have superficial surface-ish flat relationships, to do a job, to check the boxes on a list and move on. Investing in a community in a transient world means that eventually, it will be torn, ripped, wrenched away. Investment eventually will mean suffering and pain and loss; at some point, we will be taken away from familiarity, from things we have grown to love - friends, a house, schools, a favorite restaurant, even family.

It feels easier to just avoid the whole thing.

Introverted though I am, I crave a solid community, one that cares deeply for its members and for the world in which it finds itself. It turns out that I’m really just like everyone else - we all want that. It might look different for different people, but deep down what every person wants is a place to belong and a people to call their own. Though accepting the reality of this might be difficult, what I’ve come to realize is that the transient nature of our world doesn’t mean we can’t have those things.

What it means is that we must accept that those things, being so desirable, will cause us pain.

A great existential crisis grips my generation. We're masters of our electronics, but not of truth; priests of our own customized religions, but victims of our circumstances; over-educated and dangerously entitled. We're all Solomon, sitting in our palaces, surrounded by more than we could ever want (or afford), wondering why we're still so unhappy. And I think it’s because we’ve not yet learned how to handle pain. In fact, our whole first world economy is geared toward pain avoidance. That’s what it MEANS to have convenience - it means we can avoid all different kinds of pain;

The pain of doing something I don’t like …
The pain of waiting, of being alone with ourselves …
The pain of our bodies in injury or age and the realization of our own mortality …
The pain of wanting but not having …
The pain of not knowing something …
The pain of hunger or thirst …
The pain that comes from the consequences of our coping mechanisms in trying to deal with the other kinds pain …

Our economy and our culture say that we can buy our way to happiness, because to us, happiness means the state at which we are in the least amount of pain. Suffering from envy of your neighbor’s stuff? Take out a loan and buy that stuff yourself (no payments for a year)! Suffering from the pain of having to go to bed before the Oscars are over? Buy a DVR and cable and record it! Suffering from a growling stomach? Buy some drugs to stay thin AND full! Suffering from the pain of being left out? Buy a North Face jacket or an iPhone 6+ and feel included! Suffering from not knowing? Google is here for you!

But what if pain isn’t something to always avoid, but something to embrace? Pain leads to solidarity with others in pain; through that shared experience, a community can grow deeper, more aware, more willing to give of itself to others in pain. A community that doesn’t know pain will never empathize with the world around it because in the Kingdom of God, we’re not promised an irritant-free, pain-free, suffering-free life; we are promised that pain and suffering lead to something greater: 

resurrection.

We have a choice about how we will live. Home is, after all, what we make of it. So for me, home is where my wife and kids are, not where all my stuff is, not where I find myself with the least amount of pain. We may move to new jobs, change houses or apartments, move to new social circles, or lose family members. To really thrive, our safety and security - our faith - must be placed outside of our circumstances, beyond ourselves and our resources and our comfort zones. 

In the midst of good seasons, but especially in seasons of transience and pain and suffering, our faith should be put in the God who walks through the pain with us,

because our God is the God of the Resurrection.

March 17, 2015

Birds

I was on my way to work this morning when I noticed something curious as I was waiting at an intersection: birds kept landing in the middle of the road. And I kept thinking, “come on birds, get out of the way, some car is going to run you over!” But inevitably, at the last minute, they’d simply bounce into the air and avoid traffic. What struck me was how care-free they seemed. Nothing seemed to bother them as they pecked away at whatever interesting gunk they’d found glued to the pavement. I thought about how nice that might be, to not care about my own mortality, but to find sidewalk crap so interesting that I was oblivious to the dangers around me. I thought about how God takes care of the birds, how they don’t lack for food when they need it.
  
But then I thought no, some of them do die; some of them get hit by traffic; some of them starve; some of them get eaten by predators; some of them drown; some of them choke on sidewalk crap. And it suddenly felt cruel. But again, they never know the difference; they’re just birds, and their enviable oblivion of past or future has consequences too. 

It gives me a new appreciation for how I was created.
  
God loved us enough - He valued us so much - that He entrusted to us one of the very essences of His own character: choice. He didn’t make us automatons, because that would not be love. The very nature of choice requires an alternative, two options; if what existed in that space simply did as it was told without choice, it would be, in essence, simply an extension of God. To create us, God had to make a place that was NOT God - a huge act of humility, and if you think about it, a risk - so that something other than He could exist. Then, God created us with a say in the relationship, something He could not control.

In other words, the risk God took when creating us was rejection.

The question of evil is endlessly debated, about why God would permit so many horrible things to happen (to people). But I can’t help but wonder how many of the evils we blame on God are consequences of our choices. After all, one might reason that if it’s choice that causes bad things to happen - terrorism, murder, human trafficking, rape, abuse, etc. - then perhaps God ought not have created us with choice.

But therein lies the rub: choice, the very thing that has caused so many problems also gives us our ability to love God. Without the ability to choose, we cannot love, nor would we be able to do other things that make us uniquely human: discovery; creativity; innovation; recreation. It lets us love our spouse or kids or friends; it lets us love our neighbor, even our enemies.

We can choose life, too.

Choice places God at what is, essentially, a disadvantage. But that is part of what love is: the act of giving up control so that others may have the ability to flourish. Love is what it is precisely because of the risk involved. Instead of forcing Himself upon us, God invites us, persuades us, woos us, extends His hand to us, opens His arms to us, 

and we get to choose how we’ll answer.