Monday, January 21, 2013

for pastors only: my top 5 things pastors should stop pretending to be

This week I read Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 6 to “obey your parents” based on his referencing Exodus 20:12 regarding honoring your parents. Interestingly, Paul paraphrases the commandment with a significant change that could have huge interpretational ramifications. He parenthetically writes that this is the only commandment with a promise, but he changes the wording of the promise, from “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you,” to “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” I’d never caught that before.

The reason this is significant is because it reflects a view that N.T. Wright has offered in his reading of Romans 4:13 in which Paul again changes the wording of a passage in Genesis. Instead of the promise to Abraham of the land of Israel, Paul expands that to a larger vision: the whole world is the inheritance of the family of Abraham, which now includes Gentiles. Paul says in his Galatian letter that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek and that if we belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring and “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Of course this would have significant implications in how we consider the current land of Israel and how we interpret the scope of those covenantal promises. Wright has a lot to say about that; he and others have stirred up no small controversy. But I had never before noticed the same theme being subtly expressed in Ephesians 6:1-3: an expansion from the land of Israel to the whole earth.

But none of this is really my point.

My point is that these inferences require a substantial amount of study, and I have to admit that my time is not limited to simply studying theological stances because frankly, I’m a pastor. And the pastor’s main duty is making sure the mission of the local church is carried out, and primarily that’s finding lost people and shepherding them through the process of seekers to servants. And so we have to lean into the expertise of theologians and biblical scholars we’ve learned to trust. It doesn’t mean that we don’t study; it simply means there are people who only and solely do that as a vocation for the purpose of schooling pastors like me. In many ways, a pastor has to be a generalist. We should best be able to pass on creedal basics and lead and shepherd the local church.

So here are my Top 5 Things Pastors Should Stop Pretending to Be:

1.  Bible Scholar.

Face it: we’re not. Anytime I hear the average pastor or TV preacher say, “A better translation in the Hebrew would be…” or “The Greek verb really means…”, I get nervous. I’ve done my own fair share of hacking Hebrew and Greek based solely on a commentary, concordance, century-old Edersheim material and “Follow The Rabbi”-type websites…and it ain’t pretty. And had people who are intensely schooled in dead languages and Koine Greek call me out. As they should.

While pastors must and should study the Bible, it’s not a full-time vocation for us. We should of course know doctrine, understand the canon and its origins, and be able to disciple people through scripture. But we don’t really have the luxury of spending most of our waking hours studying texts because, remember?—we’re pastors. So let’s stop pretending to be Bible scholars. We can read their work, we can quote them, we should know a few, but we’re not them because we can’t hole up in libraries for hours a day and because we have to be with our people in order to lead them.

2.  Theologian.

The Cliff Notes version is this: Bible scholars study text, theologians study what different voices believe about the text. Trees versus forest. And don’t get me started on Biblical theology or systematic theology. But it requires inordinate amounts of time to recognize the nuances and roots of various theological themes. Not for the faint-hearted.

But the argument is the same as #1. Enough said.

3.  Professional Counselor.

I believe in Christian counseling with all my heart. I’ve been to some. It’s like the old joke: Q. “Do you believe in infant baptism?” A. “Heck yeah! I’ve actually seen it!”

But it’s a black hole for pastors. And here’s why: it will suck the leadership and pastoral life out of you. For one, most pastors don’t have enough serious clinical counseling training and, second, most of us suffer from acute messianic complexes—we think if we try hard enough we can fix anything. But people are complex cocktails of spiritual, emotional, relational, neurological and chemical challenges. And I can guarantee the psyche-vampires will find you out and want to meet with you. Endlessly. And drain the pastoral blood out of you.

Sure, we can do generalized Biblical counseling; we can even cast out a few demons. But take it from me: beyond one or two introductory meetings, you’re probably in over your head. If you really enjoy counseling people—and many pastors do—just make sure you get continuing education and training, network with professional counselors in your area, and realize that your leadership of the church and evangelistic thrust will take a backseat. You’ll have great stories for sermons (uh, if you’re discreet and wait two years before you tell any “anonymous” story), but have less time mentoring and modeling for leaders.

There’s a reason why we do our support and recovery work in the context of groups at the Vineyard…and refer intense one-on-ones out to professionals.

Plus, people seem to get better faster when they pay for it.

4.  The Smartest Guy in the Room.

This is more internal with respect to staff/volunteer/leaders meetings. If you’re the lead pastor, people will naturally turn to you when a decision needs to be made or a confirming or counterpoint view requires expression. That’s your job. But just because you have the position and are potentially the decider, it doesn’t make you the sharpest crayon in the box…and the sooner you realize that, the better. What pastors can be is this: expert generalists. You can and should know a little bit about most things (such as these five roles), but you’re not the expert of any one of them.

Besides, all of us have probably worked for different bosses in different contexts. Did you ever seriously think they were the smartest person in the room? Really? And why would you think differently now that you’re in the first chair?

5. Prophet.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be prophetic. And I mean the whole range of the prophetic: from classic foretelling to forth-telling, from proclamations about direction…to encouragement…to exposing justice-oriented issues often overlooked.

It’s just that typically prophets don’t make great pastors. They can have an edge that counteracts invitation. A church led by a prophet will typically end up being a small group of spiritual Rambos. And those who lean into a prophetic-stance can be susceptible to becoming authoritative and controlling, copping a my-way-or-the-highway style. Interestingly, church people will easily give authority to a prophetic personality, but when they’re discontent they’ll more-than-likely pull out the “God-card” as to why they’re leaving the church because that’s the style that’s been modeled for them. A dangerous “less-than-transparent and false-authenticity” church culture can quickly develop.

Prophesy, but circumspectly and humbly. And be on guard for spiritual abuse; we can easily fall prey to it.

That’s it, pastors. Now go do your real job.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

let's talk about guns

I don’t have a clue how the gun debate will shake out. All one has to do is read the comments after any news post about the latest shooting to learn there are intensely polarized and volatile opinions…and rudeness. And then you have the myriad of “lies, damned lies and statistics”, as Twain put it, as both sides parade their best numbers and argue on their behalf.

All tangled up in this is a founding constitution that protects gun rights, an über-violent entertainment-obsessed culture, a broken-down mental healthcare system, and, let’s be honest, a firearms industry flourishing in our free-market society. Wal-Mart is the largest munitions seller in the country—I’m pretty sure it’s not philosophical for them.

But I don’t want to get into the political arguments here. Frankly, I’m not smart enough. And I have no idea what defines a semi-automatic assault weapon.

I just want to talk to my fellow Jesus-followers. The rest of you can stop reading.

I know Americans have rights. I get that. But I want to have a conversation with people who are Kingdom-people before they are Americans. Because in the end, I’m fairly confident when the sheep and goats are separated, my passport won’t mean a lot. Apparently, what matters in that particular instance is answering a few questions: Did you feed Me? Did you clothe Me? Did you visit Me? I’m going to struggle enough with those. And in that particular passage, those are asked before theological correctness.

But there’s more to it at a deeper level. It’s what I would call a “Philippians 2-incarnational Christianity”-issue. It’s when Paul describes Jesus with a cosmic scope and writes:

He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever… 
Philippians 2:6-9 (The Message)

He had all the power, all the privilege, and yet didn’t claim his rights or cling to his advantages. He was God…and let go of it all. That tells me more about Christianity than just about anything. And Paul writes that we are to have that same attitude. Selfless. It’s not about my rights.

That’s difficult for me to hear…and not just about this particular issue. And this isn’t even specifically about pacifism.

I want to go beyond that. When we are ambassadors of another Kingdom, we have to think hard about how we present ourselves and our Kingdom message to a very confused, violent and lost world, a planet under the sway of a malevolent power the Bible personifies as Satan. So my questions are as follows:

Why does it often seem that American evangelical Christians are the first to lobby for no-holds-barred gun rights, and oftentimes the first to vote for war, and yet say we are representatives of the Prince of Peace, the One who said plainly to not return evil for evil and to put away the sword, who never retaliated against violent men, and whose first followers laid down their lives rather that mount a bloody last stand à la Masada? Do we really think Jesus would fight for His right to pack heat? Shouldn’t we at least be the last ones—instead of the first—to jump on the violence-for-violence bandwagon…or at least be just a little more circumspect? Is this really the best Kingdom representation we have to offer? Even if we believe it’s our right as Americans to own whatever firepower we want, is that really a hill Biblical Christians want to die on and be known for?

I understand the nationalistic argument and I get the ramifications. And I could probably have a dog in that fight…if I didn’t have to first think hard about the optics: how do people outside the camp view my Kingdom citizenship? And shouldn’t I think twice about my Kingdom responsibilities before I respond about my American rights? Am I more interested in getting my way, making my point, winning my argument before I truly take the time to be just a little more reflective about how I express the “Jesus in me”?

I’m the only letter they’ll read. So what’s my loudest message?

Please hear me: this isn’t about “taking anyone’s rights away”. This is about being prudent enough to consider what others hear most stridently from us…and our responsibility as Kingdom-citizens before our rights as Americans.

Perhaps those outside of the faith can argue the other points. And believe me: they will.

“The thing you should want most is God’s kingdom and doing what God wants. Then all these other things you need will be given to you.”  Matthew 6:33 (New Century Version)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

new year, new hope

On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you rate the hope factor in your life?

I have to admit in years past I’ve viewed the virtue of hope as a kind of weaker brother to faith. I’ve thought of hope as in: I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow...or I hope my boss isn’t mad at me...or I hope I have the winning raffle ticket...or whatever. In the end, it didn’t seem very practical to me; more like “wishful-thinking” than a hard-as-nails virtue.

The apostle Paul—in juxtaposing temporal and eternal issues in life—refers to three factors in the universe that will absolutely last forever: faith, hope and love. He must have thought more highly of hope than I have. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered this: there is a unique power in the human heart that hope creates, a vital ingredient for emotional and spiritual health.

Fairly often I meet with people who have lost their sense of hope. That’s a dangerous state of mind and heart. It can happen circumstantially: a marriage fails, death visits a family, an overwhelming crisis occurs, a personal failure, a rejection or betrayal, a job loss. Something that shakes you to the core…and the struggle to go on seems not worth the effort of dealing with the problem at hand. When taking a next step in life feels more difficult than our emotional capacity, we can say that we have lost hope. Our “hope tank” is empty.

When the apostle John was an old man, he was exiled on an island for being a Jesus freak. While there he had a vision that offers a radical picture of heaven coming to earth. He writes:

I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” 

John transcribed this vision in a letter to churches in Asia who were undergoing terrific persecution and martyrdom. He knows it’s easy to lose hope when circumstances are unbearably difficult. And so John was infusing them with the virtue of hope. Hope whispers, “All is not finished, there’s more to come.”

For the cynics among us who believe that hope is only wishful thinking, it’s not wishful thinking if it’s true. And it depends what the object of your hope is. If you hope that one day your lost dog will come home, that’s possible if you have a lost dog. But if you hope that one day your lost dog will come home—and you don’t have a dog—chances are pretty sure the dog won’t come home. It really depends on what the preceding reality was.

For those who have surrendered their life to God, they’ve experienced His reality. That is, they’re hope is based on His reality. They’ve tasted and seen that God is good, as Psalm 34 says. They have experienced a truth to base their hope for the future on. Author and pastor Tim Keller describes hope like this (and I’m going to really paraphrase this):

Suppose two guys are hired at a factory and given a job of screwing on caps on bottles on a conveyor belt, one after the other, ten hours a day, every day, seven days a week. The boss says to the first guy, “Work at this for a year, and at the end of the year I’ll give you five-thousand dollars.”

But to the second guy, the boss says, “Work at this for a year, and at the end of that time I’ll give you five-million dollars.”

Who do you think is going to handle that job the best? Yeah, right. The guy making five-thousand dollars is going to give up after a few weeks and say, “This isn’t worth it! This place sucks! This isn’t even minimum wage! I’d rather quit than keep doing this over and over, day after day, 365 days a year.”

But what do you think the guy making five-million dollars will do? How do think he’s going to handle that emotionally? Yeah, he’s whistling while he works, he’s skipping his lunch break, he’s screwing a gazillion caps on a day and he’s smiling. He only has to do this for a year!—for five million dollars!

Interesting thought, eh?

The intellectual and former atheist C. S. Lewis—who became a Christian late in life—once described how suffering can be used by God to shape our character and correct some of the ways that we might avoid God. It can be used to discipline us. That sounded barbaric to Lewis at one time. And then he thought about it and wrote:

“If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place for correction and it's not so bad. Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end. The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.” ~C.S. LEWIS; GOD IN THE DOCK: ESSAYS ON THEOLOGY AND ETHICS, PG.52

The reality of this world being made new in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God should cause us all to see Christmas—and the ensuing new year—in a different light. The True King has come into the world as one of us, to save as many of us as will surrender to His Kingship, in order that we might bring others along with us to work the works of the Kingdom: setting people free, healing broken people, loving the outcasts, expressing the heart of the King in tangible ways, thereby offering a picture of what is to come.

So let me ask one question: If you knew there was more coming tomorrow, how would you live today? And I don’t just mean “wishful thinking”…I mean really knew there was more than this. It was before Israel was subjugated, exiled to Babylon, and circumstances went completely south, that God said to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” JEREMIAH 29:11

The Hebrew word used for hope in that verse is tiqvâh, normally translated as hope, but literally a rope. It’s the same word that was used in the story centuries earlier of the Hebrew spies slipping into Jericho. The prostitute Rahab risked her life to safely hide them, asking only that they spare her family’s life.

Before they left, the men told her, “We can guarantee your safety only if you leave this scarlet rope (tiqvâh) hanging from the window.

When you think about it, hope is really just a rope anchored to the future.

On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you rate the rope factor in your life?