Friday, June 5, 2015

What is God's Will for My Life?

How do I know what God wants for my life? How do I determine His will for me?

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question. I’m sure there are plenty of pastoral answers that one could receive, and most of them are good. Let me break down a few simple rules that may help you get started. The bottom line is this: determining God’s will is a very personal process in which we draw near to God.

Those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior have a definite starting point.

Some people are Christians, some people aren’t. Some say they are, but they really aren’t. See my post about ontological truth earlier on this blog.

The plain Biblical truth is that every person who has ever lived has to make a decision whether or not they will live in faith and trust in God as Savior, and Lord. When we say “Savior” we mean the ultimate Judge and Redeemer of humanity for all of eternity. When we trust Jesus to remove the stain of sin from our lives, we trust that God Himself will welcome us into eternal life with Him. When we say “Lord,” we mean that we submit to God in the here and now, and for all eternity, as the supreme leader and director of our lives.

Those without faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord can be sure that God’s ultimate will for their lives, the way He is trying to direct them, starts with such faith. So if a non-believer asks me the question, “What does God want for my life?” The answer is simple, “He wants all of it. He wants to redeem it, protect it, and guide it for all of eternity. God wants you to come to a place of faith in Him.”

Believers have freedom in Christ.

It is important to note that while God directs our path, He is not constrained by our sin or hard headedness. There is nothing that we can do to thwart God’s ultimate plan. Those who have fought hard against God, even those people of faith, wind up playing right into His hand. Ultimately, we are free to obey, or not. Surely discipline follows disobedience (for God loves us), but we cannot manipulate God in a bid to control our futures. This is really good news for those Christians who constantly question their own motives, or find themselves in a constant feedback loop of thinking without acting.

This is not to say that we don’t have input. Far from it. God loves our input, and there is plenty of Biblical evidence of someone pleading with God, and God granting a request. Moses on Mount Saini is a good example, David in the caves, Solomon at the temple, and the Apostles in Acts: all tell the story of human input changing God’s immediate courses of action. There are plenty of stories wherein God does not grant a request though, because He knows everything and knows it is not a good idea. Most famously, God denies Jesus’ request to escape crucifixion. He denies Paul’s pleading to remove his “thorn,” whatever it was. Hebrews 11 tells of people who never lost faith though torn in pieces, utterly destitute, and never delivered by God.

And all of this rests on the foundational principle that God runs the entire universe, and cares so much about you and I that He carefully directs our every step: God can be trusted. If God can be trusted, we surely can live a life of freedom. We don’t have to fear that some of our actions, if completed with a desire to serve and obey, are not exactly what God wants.

Starting in a direction is a sure way forward.

Using our freedom in Christ to get going in a direction is a great way to start determining God’s will for your life. Start serving somewhere: at a shelter, in your church, a small group, coaching, or whatever. Just go for it. Sometimes you find that some service is better suited to you, or perhaps you find out that you have a passion you were unaware of.

As I started to “just go for it” I found myself doing all kinds of things. Mostly, I found myself serving in whatever local church I was attending. I used to be in the military, so I moved around a lot. I always found myself serving in a local church in some way. I helped run a junior high ministry, I led worship, I taught bible studies, and I taught Sunday school. I did all kinds of things. The ones that really stuck with me, and I was most passionate about always revolved around teaching.

Over time, I became aware of various patterns that emerged. I was always drawn to small congregations, I loved getting to know people, I loved engaging in Scriptural studies and teaching. Also, I found out that I not only loved it, I was good at it. This time when I was in the military, just trying to determine what God wanted with my life, developed my realization of a pastoral calling.

One more example: my buddy is a great administrator, and is passionate about high level strategy. He just started serving in various capacities wherever he felt the urge. He just went for it. After serving for a while ministering to international students through a church program, he found himself being approached by a non-profit organization that wanted to do social development in third world countries. He went for it. He knows that God is not calling him to be a pastor serving a small congregation, and he also knows that he is using his gifts, talents, and passions to serve in a capacity that the Kingdom of God desperately needs. It is challenging and fulfilling for him.

Of course, it needs to be said, both of these examples never would have happened if we were not jumping into service (even in places that we didn’t really like). If you want to know what God’s will for you is, start in a direction with faith that God will guide you.

God calls us to people, not to institutions.

You may think at this point, “Well great. I have to find some institution that I can serve at.” True, but not really. While you probably will find yourself in an existing organization, the care of the organization is not the primary call. You and I are called to people, real people. So sometimes we have to find ourselves in an institution; like a church, or the YMCA, or whatever; but God always calls us to serve people.

And so our helpful organizations do not solely hold the key to you finding out God’s will for your life. Sometimes He will just give you a family, or a person, or a group of people, and say, “Care for them.” And many times that’s how it all gets started. Mother Theresa is a good example. She found God’s will for her by falling in love with destitute people that God wanted her to care for.

So let me give you a litmus test for God’s will for your life: is it about caring for people? If yes, then you are in the right direction. If no, then you have to think about changing up your attitude about what God wants from you.

One caveat here: some people find there service helps in an indirect way. I know a guy who loves to clean things. You turn him loose on a bathroom, and he will make it shine. But his pleasure is in caring for people by cleaning up messes. That is awesome. He would not fail the litmus test. But if he ever got to a place where he was cursing people for messing up his clean bathroom; I’d say it’s time for an attitude adjustment.

God calls us to people. One more hint; it’s usually by name. Usually God gives us individuals to care about, not just “humanity” in general.

Hard heartedness is different than vice.

So, how free of sin do you have to be to enjoy hearing God’s voice? Well, it’s a trick question, as you might have guessed from the section title. Struggling against sin does not prohibit you from hearing God’s voice, or allowing Him to speak into your life. There is a sin that seems to drown God’s voice out, but it’s not because He refuses to speak, but we refuse to listen. We call it “hard heartedness.” It’s when you hear God, but don’t care. You actually know what He is saying, but you refuse to obey.

Now, we need a word here on addiction. Most people struggle with an addictive sin in their life. It’s that thing you do that you don’t want to do, but wind up doing anyway. You seem powerless against it, even though you know God wants you to stop. Addiction can oftentimes be linked to hard heartedness, but not always.

Here’s my recommendation. If you want to know what God wants from you, and how you fit into His plan; but you struggle with an addiction that you know God wants you to stop—try practicing soft heartedness. That’s when you admit your failings to God, and ask for Him to help you in your fight against sin; and admit your disobedience in the matter. It might sound like this:

“God, I can’t put this sin down. You have told me not to do it, and I hear you, but I feel like I can’t obey. Please help me. Please give me the power over sin that I need. Please speak to me and give me some ways to practice obedience to You.”

You don’t have to be free of sin to hear God, but you do have to be ready and willing submit yourself to His Spirit.

Community is key.

Anyone who has been human for very long can tell you that other people seem to know stuff about an individual that the individual seems totally blind to. It’s just a fact. You can also see things that are true about someone else that they probably can’t see themselves.

Jesus says that the hypocrite tries to remove the speck from the brother’s eye, without paying attention to the log in their own eye. He’s right. And we can use this very concept to our advantage. The book of Proverbs calls it the rebuke of a friend, and tells us that we are to cherish such rebuke.

Gathering the people who care about you, and inviting them to speak truth to you about what God may be calling you to will have great benefits: even though they will probably tell you what you don’t want to hear.

A friend of mine was absolutely convinced God was calling them to be a pastor. They thought highly of their own pastoring ideas, and their ability to preach (in particular). This person never asked any of those who cared about them, never said, “Hey guys, what do you think?” Had they, we would have affirmed that God was indeed calling them to something, but it sure wasn’t being a pastor. It would probably have given offense, but if heeded, would also surely have saved that person from terrible suffering, and a future string of congregations a lot of suffering too.

When trying to tease out the possibilities that God might have tailored for you; a community is an essential sounding board.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Evangelical reclaiming penance

Penance for Evangelicals.

I became aware of the idea of “penance” when I was studying for my 4 year degree. I was in a religion course that made good Evangelicals, like me, aware of other theological systems in Christianity. The idea of penance was almost laughable to me then; I thought of it as trying to earn forgiveness for sins. Every good Evangelical knows that is a stain upon the gospel. Jesus doesn’t require our good works in order to forgive us. Think “Thief on the cross.”

I was very unaware of how little I knew or understood, much less appreciated, theological reflection. I knew the right answers, and they came quick and easy. Such is the life of an inexperienced 19 year old. I thought penance was an old and stupid idea for people who weren’t satisfied with the Gospel truth that Jesus died for all sin, once and for all, and invites all humanity into a relationship with Him; forgiving all sins for those who accept it.

Little did I know, one day I would be pastoring a church. And when you pastor a church, certain truths are not so easy to dismiss or glaze over. To tell the truth, I now firmly believe in penance as a regular spiritual practice for those who have accepted the Gospel.

So what is penance? Is it really trying to earn salvation?

No. Actually, penance has less to do with earning what God is offering to us, and more to do with us accepting what is already there. In its proper place, penance allows us to stop wrestling with our sin, and start wrestling with our forgiveness. It usually is a task given to us by an ecclesial authority, formal or informal. It could be anything from saying prayers, or fasting, or a pilgrimage, or even completing some manual labor that benefits others. The tasks are supposed to be helpful, but mostly they are supposed to give us time to meditate on—and work out—this incredibly great forgiveness and life in Christ that we have been given.

A vignette of penance in the modern evangelical church.

A guy I know and love struggles with sexual addiction. I can tell you that any addiction, but sexual addiction in particular, is a seriously difficult problem to deal with on a spiritual level.

There is always a problem with the sexual stuff. It is sin that is very rarely resolved easily. It's stubborn.

Part of the problem is the root of past sin. My buddy was sexually exploited as a child, and so the normative sexual appetites a man can expect have been broken. He has never experienced sexual normalcy. This is not his own failing. Sin has a way of victimizing people, whether we admit it or not. Furthermore, our culture (more than our churches, in my opinion) makes sexuality a shameful thing; by exploiting its intrigue to sell stuff. Our churches say “sex cements” (and they mean that it’s proper place is to bond people and lives together in the sacredness of marriage), but our culture says, “sex sells.”

My buddy had been thrown into a world where he had been sold… yes… but he had been unwillingly and unwittingly cemented to deep shame and reproach. The work of being set free by Jesus Christ is just that: work. And while I do believe we should shy away from any boasting that salvation can be earned; I think we, the evangelical church, have forgotten to work that salvation out.

And so, sadly, my buddy got virtually no help from his Christian community. Pastors seemed to only have one line, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” His response was always, “I believe! But this sin is killing me!” The pastor could offer no other help. And when my buddy’s sin problem became an embarrassment to the church, he stopped receiving even that one line. Pastors seemed to say to him, “If one time forgiveness doesn’t work, you got to change. If you can’t change, then you need better help than I can give. Here’s the number to a good counselor that I know.” No offense to all my friends in the world of counseling and psycho-analytics; but I think we pastors have forgotten an age old pastoral tradition: penance.

So I invited my buddy on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is simple, you just walk with each other all day, for days on end. I asked each participant (Wait. No. no. Let’s call them “pilgrims,” shall we?) to identify spiritual goals that God was inviting them too. The goals were different for each pilgrim. One wanted to find God’s peace, another wanted to find spiritual strength, a non-Christian came to see what Christians were like while walking together, and of course, one man wanted to be set free from his sexual addiction.

And so we started each day with a meditation on Psalm 1, and Genesis 15. Then we walked, and walked and walked. We ended each day with a small fire, and another meditation. Then we’d get up and do it again. We prayed that every mile would get us closer to grasping God’s work in our lives, ever step a victorious step in sanctification, and every mountain an opportunity to struggle towards God.

I spent time with each pilgrim, as time allowed, praying for them, and talking through whatever God was doing in their lives.

“Rev. Shivers just went up my spine. Maybe God is going to set me free. Maybe this trip is going to allow me to finally lay down this burden.” My buddy said to me.

“Well, let’s walk it out. And pray.”

If the story ended with me telling you that the pilgrimage was a great one-time cure for my buddy, and that convinced you to try it out; you would be missing the whole point of this article.

The miraculous healing we wanted is not what God gave. Penance is never about manipulating God into doing what we want. But penance, in and of itself, is a grace that God gives to us to work out our salvation. That pilgrimage, for all intents and purposes, is the temporal answer to our struggle with God’s great salvation: Christians walking with each other, praying for each other, encouraging each other, and trusting God to do the work.

As such, the evangelical model of penance promotes the very antidote that Jesus established for serious, addictive, soul-crushing sin: A Christian community that continually (and oftentimes physically) brings one another to the Great Regenerator of Humanity—Jesus Christ.

This is how we get better. We walk it out with one another. The spiritual discipline of penance demands that the evangelical response to sin is not only, “That’s between you and God. Pray this prayer and you should be good.” But also, “Welcome to the inheritance of the saints! You belong here, and your struggle with sin does not disqualify you. We want to be reconciled to God, which while we still walk this Earth, is a never ending process we help each other with.”

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pastor with PTSD

I awoke this morning from another night of war.

Last night, in my dreams, I fought hand to hand with the enemy; I got blown up by an IED; and I had to take command of a hopelessly scattered and confused unit while under fire. Such dreams for me are both exhilarating and terrifying. Though I came home from Iraq in December of 2008, the hauntings of my stay there still ambush me every now and again.

God has placed a huge burden on my heart to reach out to combat veterans, and their loved ones. Reintegrating into society can be confusing and difficult, and occasionally overwhelming.

I’m a combat veteran. I’m a pastor. I went from Captain Palmer, to Reverend Palmer. I’m not an expert on the psychological effects of war, just a survivor who lives with them. I am also a trained pastoral counselor, and a firm believer in the power of Jesus. I hope this post will be helpful to everyone who wants to know a bit more about what PTSD is like, and how (I have found) to live with it.

Be assured, no matter our war experience, we can find peace with God; and ourselves. I’ll break it into six easy parts.

1. The Causes of PTSD are Different for Each Person

PTSD is caused by trauma. Everyone has their own threshold for what their mind can tolerate. I saw no less than 3 soldiers, in my unit, go legit crazy before deployment. For them, the terror of the unknown deployment was just too much to handle. For some, it’s the 12-15 months of knowing you could die at any moment. Others have an actual event; like seeing a friend die violently, getting blown up, getting shot, shooting someone, or other harrowing events.

For me, one event that has never left the old brain pan was a night when we got rocket/mortar attacked. I can still remember hearing the explosions just a few seconds apart, and realizing that the shells were coming in on the Forward Operating Base. I sprang off the bed, snatched my rifle off the wall, screamed, “Let’s go Gunny!” (My roommate) and shot out the door into a bunker.

Fast as lightning.

I was the first to the bunker and so screamed, “INCOMING!” So that everyone would know to get into a bunker quick. The hair on the back of my neck was raised, I was breathing hard, and started helping yank other soldiers into that dark bunker. I was waiting for the inevitable explosion that would end my life.

I well remember my platoon sergeant scolding another platoon sergeant for using a flashlight to check for her troops. I laughed so hard when I found out he wasn’t worried so much about light discipline, it was because he had his pants off when the rockets came screaming in. He was in the bunker, using the darkness to cover his tighty-whiteys.

Thing is, nobody knows what their threshold is until they get past it. Nobody picks the way their body and mind will react to the trauma.  

2. PTSD Manifests Differently for each Person

When all is said and done, PTSD is the inappropriate application of emotion. Some people feel numbness when they know they should be deeply moved. Some people intensely weep for no apparent reason. Some feel an uncontainable rage. Some are triggered into fight mode. Some, flight mode.  There seems to be only one unifying emotion for us: shame.

Imagine with me for a moment.

During all those days of deployment you take hope in that magical moment of being reunited with your family. You have a sort of Disney picture in your mind. When it actually happens, you can imagine why you would feel shame—as you hold your kids for the first time in a long time; and can’t feel anything. You look into your wife’s eyes, as she weeps for joy at seeing you. You don’t feel anything for her.

Imagine driving your family to church. You hit a little gridlock, and start a stream of angry profanity because you feel an intense sense of danger. You can’t help this onslaught of feelings, it is totally overwhelming. The look of disappointment on your wife’s face, the fearful glances of your kids in the back seat; it makes you feel ashamed.

Imagine being in a fancy restaurant on a big date with your wife. You’re all dressed up, and so is she. Outside, the exhaust of a passing car backfires. The sound makes you dive onto the floor, dishes clattering after you. Your wife is embarrassed, everyone is looking in shock. Shame.

Perhaps most importantly, is that many combat veterans do not recognize the manifestations of PTSD. They believe that something is wrong with them. The belief is they have something to be ashamed of. PTSD is their fault.

3. There Seem to be a lot of Fakers

Don’t get me started. I can’t tell you how many people I have met who love to throw around the PTSD label to excuse crazy behavior. The behavior that’s crazy isn’t the stuff I’ve just discussed.

They won’t get a job because they have PTSD. They won’t take a bath because they have PTSD.  They love to tell wild lies about their war experience (if they even had any) to gullible kids because they have PTSD. They can’t be held accountable for anything in their life because they have PTSD.

I can’t stand those people. God help me.

I really don’t want to be crazy. I don’t want people to think I’m crazy. I just want to have a normal life. Most combat veterans I know, the ones who really went through hell, do their best to be well-adjusted, responsible people. They certainly don’t want to be identified with the Fakers. Neither do most veterans. They’d rather just be left alone.

4. Making Sense of What Once was Good Soldiering

Ever heard from your loved one, “You wouldn’t understand, you weren’t there!”

The comment is designed to push you out. Believe me. I’ve had these conversations, and I reply, “Yes. Yes I have.” The very next move of my conversation partner is usually to compare notes with me, and find some way in which his (or her) experience was different from mine. Then repeat, “You wouldn’t understand.”

The trouble isn’t that friends and family can’t make sense of what happened to the combat vet. The trouble is that the combat vet can’t make sense of what happened. PTSD is an emotional misapplication, not a logical one. It doesn’t make sense. So the veteran assumes that the real problem is outward, and not inward.

If everyone in the world understood exactly what the veteran went through, PTSD would still be disorienting to the veteran; because they can’t make sense of it themselves. If you are a loved one, just be patient with your veteran. Keep gently trying. Don’t expect your veteran will just open up once, have a good cry, and then be over it. It takes a lifetime of support, but it does get better.

And if you’re the veteran: talk. Talk about good and bad experiences as much as you can, and when you can. It really doesn’t matter if someone else experienced what you did. Talk.

What we call PTSD in civilian life, we called “Being a Damn Good Soldier” in military life. Each of the above “over reactions” in #2 of this blog, would have saved lives and gotten the mission completed.

The inability to feel is an amazing gift from God on the battlefield. Hollywood gets it wrong on all those war movies; nobody is sitting in a corner crying about their friend being shot. Not till later. A Good Soldier doesn’t let personal feelings get in the way of getting the job done.

You’re muting out that junk and trying to do your job. Good Soldier.

You noticed the blocked route and started communicating with all the other members of your team. You were loud and forceful about it. Had it been in war, and not the route to church, your commanding officer would have had the time necessary to get an alternate route. Good Soldier.

While everyone else is craning their neck around, looking for the source of the backfire, you were on the ground. Good Soldier. You would be alive, they would be dead, had that been the start of an ambush. You would have had time to react while bullets were flying above your head. Good Soldier.

Being a good Soldier doesn’t go away overnight. It takes a while to allow your emotional ability to grow back into Father, Husband, Co-worker mode. Don’t worry.

5. Trigger Happy

I’ll give you the top two things I discovered that revolutionized the way I handle PTSD.

First, I learned what my triggers are. For instance: someone jumping from around the corner and yelling “BOO!” isn’t fun for me. It also isn’t fun for the person getting punched in the face, either. I don’t do haunted houses, or stuff like that. Being unbearably hot is not good for me. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in my Kevlar kit, SAPPI plates and all, just waiting to get shot. Summer months are indoors, in the AC, or at the river. I don’t watch much UFC anymore; it tends to give me violent dreams. Staying away from triggers, or at least knowing what they are, and then mitigating them; is the first step.

Second, I realized that caffeine and alcohol are big contributors to sensitizing me to those triggers. Many veterans actually try to use these substances to help them. Caffeine amps up feeling something when feelings are numb, and alcohol numbs feelings when they’re overwhelming.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with coffee or beer. In fact, they are some of the more delicious treats in my life. But, it turns out that medication, at best, helps to cover up symptoms. It can’t solve the problem. Understanding when PTSD is manifesting, and using self-control is the only way (I have found) towards mastery. Caffeine and alcohol actually lower self-control.

6. The Terror of War can Lead to Peace with God

You’ve gotten my perspective as a former Soldier. Now get my perspective as a pastor:

When dealing with the disorientation and embarrassment of PTSD, we can anchor our souls into the love and truth of God. We are assured that God understands. He is the designer of our bodies and minds, God knows what we need.

Mostly, we need a mental shelter; a home for our souls. I take great refuge being lost in worship music, music that praises and adores God for being God. When my own reality is warped, twisted, full of anger or fear, or awash in shame; I can always look to God and be lost in His steady and unchanging grace. Most people don’t even know that I struggle with PTSD. Worship lets me cope.

What a medicine! God doesn’t need me to be whole in order to be God. He doesn’t need me to have all my wounds healed to love me. God’s grace has been poured out, and I can let go of terror, even when I’m triggered, and trust in Him.

My message to fellow veterans, friends, and family alike, is that the love of Christ is not fake. It is not a crutch. There is real healing for those who want it. There is redemption for those filled with shame. God’s love through the person of Jesus Christ actually walks us through the darkest time. If you are lost, or in addiction, and need to mend the wounds of war: I invite you to taste the true Medicine.

For we who are left without a guiding presence in our lives, without an anchor in the storm, without a covered place in the dust storm: God is the only real answer.

Consider this passage of Scripture, if you will:

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
                                -Psalm 23

Prayer turns something on. It changes something. Talking with God about the stuff in our hearts, in our past, and in our future actually changes who we are. Prayer itself is effective for us, but we are assured that our prayers are actually heard by God. He listens, and our prayers cause Him to respond with care and grace towards us. This is perhaps the very best, and most sure-fire way a family can be supportive of their veteran.

God’s peace on you and your families,

Reverend Palmer

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rocky Path to Christian Maturity

Challenges of Life

Occasionally I find myself challenged by something in life. The Bible calls such challenges, “trials.” On such occasions, I like to think of myself as the kind of guy who rises to the challenge, overcoming adversity and problems by strength of character and will.

Sadly, the way I like to think of myself is hardly the truth. Truth is, I try to wiggle out of the challenge first and foremost. Show me the problem; and I’ll show you how a true professional escapes the reality of having to deal with it. Denial and busyness help me to avoid most every trial.

If the wiggling doesn't work, I get frustrated by the problem, and perhaps anyone else standing around. Why me? Why now? Not fair! This is all your fault! (And yes, I mean you.) I let myself believe that God isn't letting me go through a trial; He’s trying to tell me that my location isn't ideal. I don’t need to change [cough!], the problem is environmental. I’m not the problem, everything around me is. Perhaps a change of scenery will help me around the actual trial.

If I finally realize, despite my best efforts, that I have to address the problem, and that the problem is in me; I quickly get overwhelmed by the task at hand. I just don’t think that I can do it. It’s too hard. I’m too tired. I got better things to do. You know the drill.

Then I decide to fix it. I face the music. Finally, I come to the end of myself. I make the decision. I’m gonna change.

I don’t actually do anything about it, I just decide that I’m ready to fix this thing, and then go take a metaphorical nap. (Yep, I’m going to start working out again. There, that feels better. Now, to catch up on some Facebook…)

The last stage is to actually fix the problem, address the issue, or grow up. And, instead of waltzing my way through; I find myself grotesquely lurching from pothole to pothole, falling into every pit along the way, and generally making a mess of everything.

Sometimes, I see the thing through; solely on the grace of God.

As I look behind me, I can see the road of my life littered with countless failures. I can see the ruined opportunities, the half-successes, and the occasional still-standing monuments to vain striving. I can see the giant holes in the ground that I have nearly broken my neck falling into, and perhaps pieces of me are still lying around at the bottom. Unfortunately, there are also people I hurt along the way, as I desperately tried to claw my way out.

Trials! Are you Crazy!

You could see why a guy like me would question the sanity of God, when He decides to put me through a trial. God, is my struggling and stumbling just that enjoyable for You?

I commiserate with any reader who grids their teeth a little as James 1:2 is read: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds...” It feels like most of my testing just makes me look like an idiot. Yipee.

I think we have the right to ask of God, “Why would you put me through something that we all know I’m not very good at?”

Could it be that God’s primary aim is not making me look good?

Changing the Picture

If we read just another verse, a new picture begins to form. “Count it all joy, by brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing.(James 1:2-4)”

The undisciplined Christian life is not a Christian life at all.

“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7)”

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.(James 1:12)” As it turns out, the trials make us people of endurance; steadfast and unmoved by storms.

Trials indeed are a pit. It seems that God has pushed us headlong into them. But, when a pit is filled with His grace, it becomes a bathing place. We are washed over by His Spirit, grace, and unending love and peace. Not a bad place to be. Honestly, I’d rather be in a warm bath than walking around.

Occasionally, God brings someone else along and into the same pit, and we have the opportunity to help them see that it isn't a pit at all, it’s a Grace-bath.

The trials aren't about God getting mad at our behavior, and trying to bring correction; they are about moving through really hard situations with us. Perhaps James 4:7-8 says it best, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”

I think our trials are less about getting stronger (though certainly they can do that), and more about getting closer to God, and further from evil. I’m only stumbling around from pothole to pothole, pit to pit, because I forget that Jesus is next to me all along. In remembering that; I am able to walk with Him. Perhaps He is lurching alongside me, laughing at how crazy we both must look: me for the wobbly knees, and He for matching me step for step, insisting that I lean on Him. The hard trial is seen through by the extra closeness of Christ.

No trials, no desperate need for Jesus. Simple as that.

If we indeed desire God earnestly, then we find joy in the hard places of life: they give a deeper intimacy with God. God is not a meanie. He is not looking to lay us low out of spite. He is looking to create hard situations that we walk through together. He gives more grace, not less. While my past may be littered with failures, it is also flooded with the grace of God, and the strength of Christ. When I get stuck in a pit of trouble, He is sure to pour in His grace until I am floating in it.

And There’s the Key

The actual maturation process that God calls us to is not something that can be accomplished. It isn't something to check off a list. Wait. Let me repeat.

Christian maturity is not something we can do.

Christian maturity is something that we discover in the process of succeeding and failing, as long as we are doing it with Jesus. Christian maturity isn't so much about how good we are at life; how good we are at not sinning, or how easily we walk along life’s road. It’s more about clinging to Jesus Christ. The trials God puts in our life are not to make us better at doing hard things, they are to make us closer with Him. When we get closer to Him, and rely on Him more; we certainly get better at doing hard things.

Now I think we can come to the same conclusion: failure isn't failure when you do it with God. Success isn't success if you do it without Him. Trials are for needing God more, not needing Him less. So, we consider the discipline of growing up a real pleasure, as it brings us closer to Christ’s grace and peace. And for goodness sake, if you are stuck in a pit of trouble, pray (and have others pray) that God would turn it into a Grace bath.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Designer Christianity

What’s wrong with Evangelical America?

Brothers and sisters, we live in a world where the Christian faith has been trying to keep up with “what’s hot right now” for perhaps 100 years. We live in the age of Designer Christianity. Do what feels good, and what you want. Church is what you make it.

This, of course, seems to be restricted to the Protestant arm of the universal Church. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic ministers don’t seem to spend much time trying to convince their congregations about rules of faith, and why they ought to be maintained. Protestants have been faithfully reinventing themselves for so long we are now in danger of witnessing, in our generation, the catastrophic failure of the Evangelical church.

The Protestant church is virtually dead in Europe, where it began, and the trends continue to follow here in America. Being Americans, who are part of the Protestant story, it is important that we wake up and realize that our precious faith will soon be gone. Most experts agree that there may be nothing to do, it’s just a reality. I think this is because Protestants have relied more and more upon mass cultural appeal, continuously reinventing themselves in order to “capture the next generation,” or “be relevant.” With every evolution, we look less and less like the Church; so that we might reach more and more people.

A Flabby Faith?

This is exactly how we have found ourselves in a place where the Bible cannot speak to our current circumstances. We are not sure what God teaches about homosexuality, suffering and patience, or even the coming return of Jesus. The Bible seems to stand opposed to what our culture tells us. In the age of Designer Christianity, surely we can be mature enough [cough! cough! sarcasm] to reinterpret such passages. After all, we don't want to turn our society off to the Gospel.

Sadly enough, I have even heard earnest Christians debating about what the “Gospel” really is (in the context of what can be changed, in order to gain mass cultural appeal). Can we say that God the core of the Gospel is God's regeneration of the world? Could we say that recycling, reducing carbon footprint, and eating organic is then participation in the Gospel? Could we say that the core of the Gospel is "Christ's ruling over the world?" Could we then say that passing laws that reflect Christian values is participation in the Gospel?

How can the Gospel be up for evolving? Will such an evolution save the Church, ensuring it's survival?

No. I don't think so. That's not what our observations are telling us. Our observations are telling us that the evolution of Christianity, when morphed by the passions of surrounding culture, actually ensures irrelevance.

Our culture no longer values the traditional and Scriptural stances of the past Church. In the process of reinvention—in order to be relevant—the church has ceased to be the Church. We have lost our identity. We have given in to the constant demand to change or die, to be relevant, to capture the next generation. We have agreed with the larger culture, and thrown out the previous generations “version” of Christianity. By constantly seeking to make Christianity our own, we have thrown out sacred item after sacred item, tradition after tradition, and method after method. And now, here we are, with a church that isn't strong. We are flabby.

It turns out the wide and paved road, and not the hard and narrow road, is killing the Faith. In our modern era, the Evangelical Church cannot compete with the pleasures and pastimes found only on easy street. An extra day of work, a day at the lake, a day on the ski slopes, a sporting event, or just “busyness,” are the nails in the coffin of Christianity.

By reinventing ourselves, we have lost ourselves.

What’s a shepherd to do?

I believe that God has called me to shepherd a congregation that does not rely on the cultural appeal that churches in Evangelical America have come to rely upon. We ought to turn back to the practices that have stood the test of Scripture, scrutiny, value, and the test of time. We ought to take seriously the things that have worked for the countless generation of Christ followers that have come before us. 

Namely, that our congregational worship would be about ministering to God, together. That the sermons we preach would be well founded in the Word of God, aimed at the spiritual growth and maturity of our congregations. Our mission must be that of the Gospel.

Our ministries would not be about hoarding resources or people, admiration or applause, but about keeping the lamps at the ready, wicks trimmed and oil full; the dispensing of grace, love, and Spirit.
It is ludicrous to believe that someone else will be doing this in our churches—if we are not. Pastors are the leaders in such things.

What are these things?

Believe it or not, I think the road to strong faith lies with true pastoring, which reaches beyond good programs and sermons; into the homes and workplaces of struggling believers. Pastors have to lead the way in utilizing better tools. I was surprised when I found out that even the most mature believers in my church did not know what the Apostle’s Creed was. So I began teaching it immediately. I also began teaching about what sacraments are, because (surprise!) nobody knew what the word meant. They also didn't know how we came to receive and protect the Scripture. The reformers had it right, I think, that the laity absolutely must know what the sacred things are; and that only comes from teaching and experiencing.

I think we must fight the notion that the "priesthood of all believers" means that nobody really does anything. Those then set apart, through ordination (or your equivalent), ought to lead the way in being priests. Then we must teach others how to do the same.

Sometimes these methods go misunderstood by the ignorant, misguided, or unbelievers. Undoubtedly, our larger culture will call us regressive, backwards, and extremist. They will eventually work up the courage to call us evil. Probably, they will one day seek to repress our understanding of Truth.

But, God did not ever call us to make people happy with our faith. We have to stand on something that can survive and thrive in an evil world full of lusts, pleasures, distractions, amusements, money, and eventually the persecution of all who oppose the world.

The only thing it will cost us in the current economy is our public dignity. All that we must suffer is the rolling of eyes, and the general frustration that comes with being a people who are not of this world. I believe we must now lead the way in being such a laughingstock; that when we die (for we all will), or Christ returns (which He will), we will be well pleasing to Him.

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Love/Hate Relationship with the Nothingmores

The study of ultimate truth, and the unyielding quest for human significance and meaning-making is the most profound journey one can undertake. For me, being a pastor is about taking that journey very seriously and candidly, while also helping other people to engage in the same journey. Unfortunately, in an effort to help people get going, we pastors sometimes make the mistake of becoming nothingmores.

I have spent years (literally) trying to wrap my mind, my heart, my soul, around truths like “Trinity,” the “God-Man,” the nature of “canon,” and employment of “Sacrament.” The struggle to understand, to grasp, to experience; has been a struggle yielding much reward, and joy. I’m still reaping a rich harvest in the grain-field of basic Christian understanding.

One of the problems with Christianity is the paradoxical nature of the most basic truths. They are difficult to grasp. How could God love a creation so deeply flawed, when He can’t stand imperfections? How could Jesus be the very enemy of sin and evil— yet love evil, sinful people so much that He volunteered to die in a rescue attempt? How could such a loving and powerful Being, once victorious, entrust the rescue of the world to people like Peter, Paul, you, and me?

The answers to these questions need to really be considered. They require spiritual fitness. A life lived in the presence of God is not for the weak or faint of heart.

Pastors, however, tend the flock of God. The flock of God is full of weak and fainthearted people. How do we help such people to endure their struggle with deep and profound truth? Unfortunately, sometimes we turn to the easy way: the doctrine of nothingmore.

The doctrine of nothingmore is how we make deep things a bit shallower. It’s how we make mind-blowing truth more digestible. After all, you won’t get a scared child into the lake without telling them, “Sweetie, the lake is nothingmore than your splash pool at home. It’s just a bit bigger.” And truthfully, while the child’s fears may be but at ease, and they may approach the lapping shore more confidently; the nothingmore actually makes the lake much more dangerous to the child. The child actually thinks the lake is as tame as splash pool.


Perhaps an example would be helpful. I've heard it taught before (I've even been guilty of it): “Baptism is nothingmore than a public declaration of a personal faith. Nothingmore than a sign of the work of God.”


Or again: “The book of Revelation is nothingmore than an ancient apostle having a vision of the future, and trying to describe to his ancient audience the incredible technology that he sees.”

Nothingmore? Nothingmore!

We, who steward the Word and Sacrament of God, perhaps have allowed the doctrine of nothingmore to drain the sacred Cup of its mysterious wine; stale the Bread of its sweet body; and vacuum out the Breath of scripture.

I think we should be aware that our reductionism is lending itself towards robbery. Not only are we robbing ourselves of a fuller understanding of the mysteries of God, but we rob the weak and fainthearted an opportunity to bravely plunge into the depths of His Presence.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Children's Ministry

The following is written by a good buddy of mine, Ed Pagh. His insight into pastoring the whole flock, and the whole family, is an inspiration to a rookie pastor like me. It is posted with his permission.

As you read, you will understand why his unofficial moniker is "Well-Said Ed."

Thanks Ed.

Children’s Ministry Principles for Lead Pastors
by Ed Pagh

Very few senior/lead pastors have Children's Ministry experience. What's even more interesting, if we're to be completely candid, is that many pastors are scared of Children's Ministry and would rather have a root canal than speak at a kids' service or teach a class of 2nd and 3rd graders. So we find volunteers, hire professionals, and coerce people into serving in the trenches where few pastors dare to tread. Or maybe we just feel as though Children's Ministry is not what we're paid to concern ourselves with. Our job as a senior/lead pastor is to lead adults, and if I as a leader can ensure that the kids who attend on Sundays and mid-week are safe and have fun, then the parents are happy and we can focus our time and effort on church business and ministry. News Flash: in a healthy church children should comprise from 18-25% of your weekly attendance. Does it not strike anyone else as odd that a leader would be so uninformed and personally uninvolved in the lives and spiritual formation of nearly one-quarter of those they lead? Does a good shepherd ignore the lambs and focus only on the rams and ewes?

It is true that many senior/lead pastors do have student ministries experience, but ministry to children is very different from ministry to teens. Yes, both groups are minors, attend school, and have parental authority in their lives, but there are many huge dissimilarities. Unlike teens, children are typically mental sponges and open to teaching, relationally trusting, intellectually cognitive thinkers and processors, and socially inclusive. They want to learn, want to please, and want to experience God. There are always exceptions to these developmental generalities, but the point is that past experience as a youth pastor does not automatically translate as experience with and knowledge of Children's Ministry.

What follows are seven key Children's Ministry principles for senior/lead pastors that will hopefully serve to create value and purpose for Children's Ministry in today's church. In an effort to keep this as brief as possible, what is presented are the core concepts, many of which need to be unpacked and expanded upon in more detail. Think of what follows as the executive summary of a much larger discussion.

Principle #1
Children are the church of today; the church of tomorrow’s leaders.

Often times children are thought of, even if only subconsciously, as the church of tomorrow. I can see why. They are not adults so they cannot participate and contribute like adults. They cannot think abstractly, cannot teach, are not independent, and are unskilled, so their contributions are limited. But does the fact that children are limited in the ways they can be involved in church life mean that they are not or should not be an active part of church life to the fullest extent possible?  Sequestered to classes or Children's Church, kids never hear their pastor's voice, so they do not develop a relationship with him or her. They never get to observe full worship, watch their parents model worship, or even serve alongside their parents.

This limited thinking on our part as pastors may cause us to inadvertently fall into one of two traps. The first trap is to defer children's involvement until they are in their late twenties or married. Until then, Children's Ministry is a de facto child care during church. But I believe when Jesus said to allow the children to come and spend time with him that he meant children should have equal access to him and be included not excluded, incorporated not isolated. Thus, Children’s Ministry is not childcare while the adults do “real” ministry. Rather, it is a way to include and incorporate children into the life of the church and should be designed as such. The second trap is to use children as a tool "grow the church" (i.e. to get to the parents). I hear this a lot. If you want your church to grow (more adults), have a great Children's Ministry. While this may be an effective short-term strategy, I believe we need to have a great Children's Ministry for the long-term sake of the kids and our future. The moms and dads that attend as a result are a bonus, not the goal.

Although the level of children's involvement is limited to the level of their development, children have much to contribute to church life. Consider ways to include them as much as possible in church life: worship, serving, teaching, sharing, helping, etc. Also, think long-term. Prepare/teach children for college, not for Jr. High. Find ways to connect Children's Ministry with church life and family life, as well as forging a partnership with the parents to nurture spiritual formation in children. And without question, provide sufficient resources to accomplish the goal.

Principle #2
Children are the largest marginalized (peripheral) and powerless group
in our church and we should serve them as such.

Have you ever considered children in this light? Think about it. Children cannot serve themselves. They cannot fund themselves. They cannot lead themselves. They are dependent on adults for virtually everything. This makes them dependent and powerless, which puts them on the margins of society as a whole. This doesn't mean we don't value children. We do. But socially we value them less than adults and more than the family pet. Consider, for example, where children often sit at a large Thanksgiving family the children's table. Yes, there are parents whose lives seem to revolve around their kids, but by and large adults value adults more than children.

In the gospels we find that Jesus spends much of his time ministering to the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick, women, and others who, in his day, were powerless and dependent and living on the margins of society. We, the church, are called to care for and minister to, like Jesus, those on the margins in our culture. So we develop compassion and benevolence ministries like food closets and helping with the homeless, the widow, and the orphan. But we don't ever list serving our church kids with this group. Why not? They are just as powerless and dependent. I contend that as a marginalized, powerless people group, children represent those in the margins of society who are also powerless and dependent. Wait a minute, you say, children have their parents to care for them. Sure, but not during church they don't, and that's the point. As churches have become more life-stage based in approach, children have been pushed farther and farther to the margins, so much so that in many churches today they are considered a disruption and distraction in the adult worship service. How do we change this attitude? We serve the children. In fact, I believe that if we can learn to serve children, we can learn to serve anyone. It's time to re-value our children, to excise the idea of childcare, and to serve and love children as a way to learn to serve and love our neighbor.

Principle #3
When we capture a child’s imagination we can capture their hearts.

Jesus was a master at capturing the imaginations and hearts of his audience. How? He taught in parables and metaphors, many times drawing from the rich supply of his teaching environment: animals, birds, flowers, people, etc. But parables and metaphors require abstract thinking, which makes them interesting for adults, but difficult for kids who tend to be concrete thinkers. Children, though, do have vivid imaginations that stimulate learning. Creative and imaginative play is their way of learning and practicing social behaviors, responsibility, relationships, etc. This is why toys, crafts, and other hands on stimuli are important for learning and development. Children's Church and Sunday School usually do not have a supply of Bible-based toys with which to teach and play, but we can create an environment through decor, paint, furniture, and staging that can stimulate the imaginative and learning centers of their brain. Visit any children's museum or learning center and you will find colorful, tactile, and inspiring environments. When we do this in our churches, we open the door to the child's imaginative learning, which is a gateway to their head and heart through which we share the love of Jesus and the gospel story. We should be willing to invest sufficient resources to make Children's Ministry spaces beautiful and engaging learning environments.

Principle #4
Adults can tolerate children’s environments better than
children can tolerate adult environments.

The interior designs of most churches are not kid-friendly environments. Instead they are bare, white, sterile rooms with a minimum of color and decor. The thinking behind these bland environments is usually functional in nature. To get the most out of our facilities, our rooms are multi-use, multipurpose. Since many groups, departments, events, and age groups share the space, we leave our rooms plain and drab, decorating only when the women's ministries closet is graciously opened. Children do not tolerate drab well. They get bored with it. White-walled rooms are antithetical to learning for kids. As a result, I believe we should cater to the children when it comes to room decor. Strike a balance, if need be, but adults can tolerate colorful walls, murals, even high-end tactile set design for the sake of kids better than kids can tolerate dull white walls.

Principle #5
The purpose of Children's Ministry is to prepare children, not protect children.

Hang on. Don't think this means that safety is not important. It is. Safety (physical, emotional, relational, spiritual) in Children’s Ministry is paramount and should be incorporated into everything that is done: environment, activities, leaders, check-in/out, peers, etc. However, safety is not the primary goal of Children’s ministry; rather it is a primary responsibility as we minister to our children. There is a difference. Let's place the emphasis on discipleship while simultaneously being safe and secure. Children's Ministry is not the babysitter. They have a God-given mission to reach and teach children for Christ.

Principle #6
Adults find they are called to Children's Ministry
after they become involved, not before.

I have met very few adults who have told me they felt called to serve children before they ever tried serving children. Almost every called, committed Children's Ministry worker I've known has been coerced, begged, or bribed into serving children, then fell in love and felt called to continue to serve children. In part this is because Children's Ministry is, for the most part, invisible to the adults except for the few minutes a parent is picking up or dropping off a child. This is also partly because adults do not understand what it means to serve in Children's Ministry. Many of them have the misconception that serving children is like playground duty during a lunchtime recess or refereeing a soccer game of 6 year old girls. Lead pastors need to be aware that simply asking people to serve where they feel called will likely not produce many children's workers. The lead pastor can do three things to publically help with Children’s Ministry: 1) connect serving children as a gateway to other serving ministries, 2) help adults see the connected value of Children’s Ministry with the life of the church, and 3) have a personal passion and enthusiasm (value) for Children's Ministry. The attitude and perspective of the lead pastor towards Children's Ministry will set the tone for how the rest of the adults in the church will perceive Children's Ministry. The kids cannot advocate for themselves, and you as the lead pastor are the most influential voice in the church.

One long-term effective way of grooming adults to love and serve children is to implement a way for youth to serve children. This is a ministry in itself which will need supervision, support, resources, etc., but over the long run can raise up adults who appreciate the importance and need for an effective and well-resourced ministry to children.

Principle #7
The primary children’s pastors in your church are the parents.

Even if we have the best Children's Ministry environment, workers, curriculum, etc., the reality is that we only get to spend two hours a week with the kids. In reality, we get less time because of sports events, sickness, vacations, adult attendance rhythms, etc. Our influence in the spiritual formation of the children that attend our churches is minimal. It's the parents who are the primary people responsible for the spiritual formation of their children. This is why when the nation of Israel is told to love God with their whole being, the very next command connected to this idea is to pass this love of God along to their children as they experience life together. Therefore, the more our parents transform into Christlikeness, the more effectively children will be discipled.

Part of an effective Children's Ministry will have a parenting component. This can take many forms and be approached in many ways: classes, involvement, preaching, outings, events, etc. The key is to help parents both understand and embrace their own spiritual growth for the sake of their children. Tensions between parents and children are generally not resolved by fixing the child or new discipline techniques, but by the parents taking responsibility to transform and mature spiritually.

One last note: As pastors we are concerned that people attend worship on Sundays, and rightly so. But this presents a challenge for churches with only one service. If we can't release parents and others from worship to serve our children, we have a conflict of values that needs resolved. Why is it that we think that Sunday morning is the only time our sheep get a shot at the trough? I propose we release people into ministry and let people serve and miss hearing the sermon on Sunday (perhaps on a rotation basis?). Then we need to get creative and take advantage of social media, bible studies, small groups, and other ways to help people grow in the Word. Truth be told, most people grow more when serving and teaching than just passively listening to even the best of sermons.