Pastor Appreciation Month

It is nice to know that you are appreciated.

I forget how much thoughtful cards, purposeful comments, and “just because” gifts mean to the one receiving them.  A few years ago, ESPN did a feature on Peyton Manning’s letters.  Apparently he regularly sends out hand-written notes to fellow players and others in his life.  Recipients of his letters took turns reading portions of them for the interviewer and their emotions were readily apparent.  They were genuinely and deeply touched both by the contents of the letters as well as the thought and time that went in to writing them.

Two weeks ago I walked into our regularly scheduled “Birthdays and Anniversaries Breakfast.”  Typically I’ll stick my head in to the overly-crowded room, say hi, then return to the sanctuary (I don’t usually eat breakfast before church – too many “pre-game jitters” I suppose).  This particular Sunday, however, I stuck around a little longer because the family preparing the breakfast had made a delicious pumpkin dish and paired it with my favorite cider.  As I was munching away, I was greeted with a basket full of cards and another filled with baked goods.  I had forgotten that it was Pastor Appreciation Month.

It is nice to know I am appreciated.

The cards, comments, and gifts meant so much to me.  The past few weeks have been a mixed bag of joys and sorrows.  Their surprise came just when I needed it.  Their love – and, by extension, God’s – is a fountain of encouragement for me.  I am so blessed to serve here, especially for my first full-time appointment.

There are many instances when the Bible talks about encouragement, but this one from 1 Thessalonians 5 sticks out to me:

“Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

The folks here at Otterbein UMC are encouraging and building me up.  This week I am challenged to do the same.  Perhaps you will be too?

Who can you write a hand-written letter to?  Who has impacted your life and yet might not be aware of how they’ve shaped your life?  In an age of texts, facebook messages, and emails, a hand-written note goes a long way.  Set aside time today to write a note.  Get out that pad of paper, sharpen that pencil or click that pen, peal out an envelope and stamp, and send out a letter of encouragement.  Setting aside time for such an activity reminds me of the word “holy” – the setting apart of something/someone for God.  Indeed, perhaps such letters of appreciation are works of holiness.  Perhaps they are extensions of God.

Grace and peace my friends.


A Renewing Interest?

Last week I was able to attend Duke Divinity School’s annual Pastors’ Conference.  This year’s theme was centered around Resident Aliens – a book co-authored by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon.  This year is the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary, and provided a good time to reflect on their work, its impact, and what has happened in the meantime.  I enjoyed being back in the Duke environment, revisiting my sacred spaces around the Divinity School, and reconnecting with fellow classmates.  While there is much to reflect and comment on, I was struck most by a pervading sense of optimism for the “times” in which we live.  Perhaps this will surprise others who attended the conference, as well as my Christian brothers and sisters – particularly United Methodists.

Christendom in the United States is over.  American is no longer a “Christian nation.”  While this is news to some, it shouldn’t be to people my age.  Most of my peers do not regularly attend any religious services – Christian or otherwise.  Many who have grown up attending church, no longer consider themselves Christian.  Quite a few of my friends and contemporaries are disenchanted with Christian language espoused by warring presidents, “pro-life” politicians who simultaneously favor death penalties and reduced gun control laws, and the disconnect between the “anti-gay” Christian going through his/her third divorce.  They are tired of it all, disenchanted with religiosity, and their lives are reflective of the flavorless faith too many profess.  The “times in which we live” are increasingly secular, non-Christian.  The “American Christian Nation” is no more.  Christendom is over.

So what is to be done?  Continue complaining and lamenting our cultural and denominational demises?  Go on pretending “it is well” with our souls without the difficult work of introspection and accountability?

Is there a way forward?  Is there hope?  Is there something to be optimistic about?

Willimon told a story – as he is wont to do – of a student he once conversed with while serving as Duke’s Dean of the Chapel.  For the student, going to church was an act of rebellion.  It was an act of rebellion that told his world, “I don’t want your future.”  It was an act of rebellion against a university that was trying to “un-Christian” him (Willimon reassured us that Duke wasn’t just targeting Christians, but Jews, Muslims, and anyone else of any particular faith).  Purposefully so or not isn’t the issue.  The issue is that it happens – and not just at the university.

This notion of “un-Christianing” is not the narrative of misconceived Christian persecution, but rather witnesses to the American melting pot’s proclivity to mold us into “one nation under (the intentionally ambiguously named) god” – thereby obfuscating our particularities, or what makes us interesting.

The young man was stopped in his hall one day by a fellow student who asked if he thought he was better than everyone else because he went to church.  Moreover, he wondered how a person as intelligent as his fellow Duke colleague should be could ever believe in something as archaic and antiquated as Christianity.

Going to church as an act of rebellion against a culture bent toward domesticating the Gospel.

How novel.  How…interesting.

Stated by both Hauerwas and Willimon, the world is making being Christian interesting again.  The world has restored the wonder of worship’s oddity.

For the young man, going to church was an act of rebellion.  Moreover, it was a practice -a way of living – that made him interesting to his colleagues.  He was different.  He was peculiar.  There was something different about him and how he lived.

There is something about the oddity of the Christian faith that offers an interesting alternative to the world.  An alternative to capitalism.  An alternative to isolation and loneliness.  An alternative to war.  An alternative to vengeance, grudges, and unforgiving hearts.  An alternative to genetically modified organisms, ozone depletion, puppy mills, and mass incarceration.

The Way of Jesus is profoundly interesting – even more so in a post-Christian nation.

How fun, and what an opportunity!  The world is making being Christian interesting again!  Perhaps our collective journey toward secularism is enabling us to rediscover – one again or, for many, the first time – what is actually good about the Good News!

The world is becoming increasingly bland.  What an opportunity to rediscover what makes our God so salty and flavorful.  What an opportunity to renew our own interest in the God who

emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2

Singing the Story

Having pastor friends can make for some pretty interesting Facebook conversations.  Well, interesting to me at least!  Recently some of these “interesting” conversations have revolved around Sunday morning worship, particularly music and singing.  Some are proponents of being band-led, others choir-led.  Some want modern songs, others want the old hymns, and a few are working on “contemporizing” old lyrics with new musical arrangements.

I’m most fond of the latter group, myself.  I like the ways in which hymns tell stories and the ways in which they remind me of the psalms.  I like the ways in which they allow me to acknowledge my pain and struggles.  I like the ways in which they re-tell me who God is, and of the hope I have because of Jesus. I like the ways in which they re-tell me the Story, as the hymn-writer says, “of Jesus and His love.”

Life has been very painful lately.  We have friends who have experienced horrific tragedies.  We have family members who are going through extremely difficult seasons in their lives. I learned yesterday of another evil that has occurred to one very dear to us.  It’s hard for us to see ones we love struggling so much.  We are angry, mad, upset, and heartbroken.

And so, I need to rehear the Story once more.  I need to be reminded again who God is.

In our United Methodist hymnal, on page 368, sits an old favorite of mine: My Hope Is Built.  Here are verses two and three:

When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace.  In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. 

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.

His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood.  When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.

Darkness has indeed veiled itself.  High and stormy gales abound.  The flood of current events threatens to drown us.  And yet.  And yet, the hymn-writer reminds me, God’s unchanging grace still abounds.  His oath, His covenant, and blood are secure, sure foundations to which I can anchor my life and hope.

This morning I sing the Story.  I sing with a sad and confused heart.  But I still sing – as a reminder and as an act of defiance.  I sing songs of hope against the evil that threatens to undo us.  I sing against the darkness songs of Light.  I sing against the brokenness and hate songs of love and assurance.  I sing against the confusion and pain songs of clarity, peace, and promise.

I sing.  I sing.  I sing.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.  Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain.  But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.  There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Unmet Expectations

Eugene Peterson is one of those people who is just plain gifted with words.  He’s a pastor, author, poet, and scholar, with over 30 published books.  F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying, “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say.”  Eugene Peterson has a lot to say, and most of what he says is just what I need to hear.

I recently came across an interview that asked Peterson what his advice to seminary students would be.  Here’s some of what he said:

“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.  

The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap.”

Soon after my friends and I graduated from seminary and began serving at our first appointments (as United Methodists, we pastors are ‘appointed’ to serve local churches), we set up weekly Skype conversations with each other.  I looked forward to these times every week to reconnect with my friends who were now spread throughout the country, but it was also good for us to share our joys and struggles with each other.  Some of our initial struggles, I think, can be traced back to unmet expectations.

Peterson talks about the ways in which some pastors, especially those new to full-time ministry, believe that having the “right” systems, programs, places, locations, and demographics will make ministry “easier.”  More people will be baptized, more will worship on Sunday mornings, youth groups will expand, lives will be changed, and more young families will attend.  Unrealistic, perhaps, and not entirely fair either.

As a young clergy person, I’ve been told in not-so-blasphemous ways that I am the “savior” of a particular church.  Every church, I was told, wants a young clergy family.  Many others told me, “Oh you’re young.  You’ll make that church grow!” as if my age possesses within it some magic magnetic pull that can reign in fellow twenty-somethings and parents with young children.

Perhaps I fell into the trap of believing that I was the “right” ingredient (young clergy person with a Duke degree, married with a growing family) that could be dropped into any church that would miraculously make it grow, “save” souls, and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land!

I wasn’t alone.  Many of my fellow seminarians were given similar expectations.  It’s tough for new and young pastors when they are met with the reality of Jesus-ministry.

Peterson is right, “ As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.”  As a pastor and, more fundamentally, as a Christian, I live with people where they are and – I pray – they live with me as I am.  We do this because Jesus did it and continues to do so today.

Jesus loves us exactly the way we are…but way too much to let us stay that way.  The expectation is for us to keep following after Him.  I’ll let Him be the Savior that He is, and I’ll just keep doing my best to invite people to be part of this Jesus-journey that is saving and healing the world, including people like me.