Archive for October, 2011

A Needed Change in Thinking: The Kingdom is Upside Down

Hang in There!

I was talking to a pastor this week who is in the trenches of the mission, trying so hard to move his community from maintenance to missional.  He and his wife are struggling…filled with hope and doubt and fear.  Mostly hope, but to not acknowledge the truth of the other would invalidate their struggle. They have been where they are for four years now, and left a large comfortable suburban church and pastorate to take on a church in need of restarting.  They took a huge pay cut and had to change their lives radically in order to be faithful to what they felt was their call from Christ.  They now struggle to keep their home, struggle to figure out where the next dollar is going to come from to put food on their table, struggle to see hope in a church that is simply struggling to survive at this point.  This guy is somebody who could easily be a denominational adjudicatory or regional minister…in days past, he probably should have been…indeed would have been.  He and his wife are gifted, warm, and highly educated. They are the real deal.  In an old paradigm, they would have been moving up a career ladder.  And though they are very much in the battle every day, they sometimes stop and wonder what happened.  Why are they struggling at this point in their lives and careers in an urban ministry in a small congregation that is struggling to survive? Well, I think I know at least part of why. God needs them there. And they are, first and foremost, obedient.

Please, listen to this for a minute.  God needs them there. God needs their passion, education and their experience there in that place.  It is so much harder to help a struggling church move to healthy and then missional and then thriving then it is to pastor a church that is already thriving.  It takes resourcefulness, adaptability, toughness, a very broad skill set, and a maturity of faith to take the stones and arrows of transformation. And to do it in the face of professional bigotry from within our own structures and from without, with no tangible help from anywhere but above, and in the face of tremendous financial hardship with no end in sight makes it seem crazy to take it on. No one in their right mind would want to do this kind of ministry at the peak of their professional lives. Doing this kind of ministry means the sacrifice of security…it is career suicide. It takes a devastating physical, mental, and spiritual toll.   Even our own denominational leaders often look down on “small church” pastors.  They don’t listen to them with the same seriousness that they listen to the “flagship church” pastors.  The underlying assumption among even denominational leaders is that competence is found at the top, not at the bottom.  That, my friends, is not our problem.  That is THEIR problem.

These struggling churches are where the greatest skills are needed.  We don’t need more talented regional ministers or competent mega-church pastors.  We need them. Heaven knows, we need them! But we don’t need more of them. We don’t need more six-figure salaried pastors. If that’s where you are, God bless you.  You, too, are where God needs you to be.  But that isn’t where we should all be aiming to be one day.  That should not be the “ideal” of our profession.  We need more crazy and gifted Christ-followers willing to fall on their career sword to work with hopeful and courageous groups of people who want to live their lives in the mission with Jesus Christ.  I know this makes no sense.  I know this makes it hard on our families.  I know the cost. My wife and my children know the cost.  But I also know the ministry…what it takes…what it exacts…what is required.  I know this kind of ministry and mission will cost you and me everything.  We will likely live and die in financial uncertainty.  But so will most of the people on this earth.  This is where the grass truly grows and where fruit for the Kingdom is born from seed every day.  And denominational change and renewal aren’t going to come from the top down.  They are going to come from the grassroots up. Renewal will ride in on a donkey, not in a Mercedes. The Kingdom of God is upside down.

Change agents need to be laboring at the cutting edge in the trenches in the places that make the least professional sense. We shouldn’t be grooming our most experienced pastors for the big pulpits in the healthy and established churches.  We should be grooming our most seasoned and experienced people to go into the darkest and hardest places that are most in need of redemption and new life.  Our denominations need to be looking for ways to encourage and enable that to happen.  Big churches with big budgets should be enabling that to happen.  If this is where you labor, keep your eyes on Christ.  I know that the sea is roaring all around you, threatening to swallow you and your ministry up. I know that the next dollar and the next saved soul and life are one miracle away. I know what it is to rely on miracles because God’s miracles are all you have to work with.  Hang in there!  You are where Christ needs you to be.  Help from the Christ who sends you is close at hand…and one day, you will see the fruit of the sacrifice.  I know that right now it is so hard to hang in there. Discouragement comes at you from every direction. I know the frustrations and the pain and the doubts.  But I am so grateful to God to know that I am sharing the journey with such faithful, courageous people. That knowledge is truly, truly humbling. Hang in there. Help is coming. You are where God needs you to be.

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The Dilemma of the Ice Cream Cone

The Dilemma of the Ice Cream Cone

Have you ever eaten one of those ice cream cones that looks like it came out of a promotional magazine ad for Baskin-Robbins? You know what I mean.  There is nothing more tasty than an ice cream cone on a hot day.  It is to be savored and enjoyed and experienced as a thing of beauty and a blessing from God.  But let me rephrase the question.  Have you ever eaten an ice cream cone in front of child that wants one, but not only cannot afford one now, but may never be able to afford one?  Have you truly enjoyed that treat while a child looks at you eating it with a wish in her heart that is bigger than either of you are?  Would it even be possible to enjoy such a thing as it was meant to be enjoyed while you were being eyed longingly…and not even jealously…by a waif who can have no such blessing? Does that change the experience? Is true “enjoyment” even possible under those circumstances?

When faced with this dilemma, what do we do? I mean, we want to enjoy that ice cream cone, right? Enjoyment is the reason God created ice cream.  Well, that’s not ACTUALLY in the Bible, but no one had thought of ice cream at the time of the writing.  So what can we do?  As I see it, we have a couple of options.  We can go somewhere where that child cannot see us eating it.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We can lock ourselves in a closet where no one can see us and then we, existentially at least, don’t have a problem.  In that same vein, we can hire some security guards and build some fences and arrest any waifs who venture too close to our potential enjoyment.  We can make sure the bus line ends far away from the ice cream parlor. Or we can give the ice cream cone to that child and watch them eat it…but then, of course, WE don’t have an ice cream cone.  Or…we can share it.  Then not only do we get to enjoy some sugary bliss with a little less damage to our waist line, AND we get the added enjoyment of watching a child be blessed at the same time we are.  We even get to be the agent of that blessing, and THAT is a true joy.  So, what’s the best option?

We answer the question, but the dilemma continues because then comes those other nagging questions.  What about all the other children who can’t afford an ice cream cone?  What about them? Where does it end?  I mean should we even bother with one if we can’t give them all an ice cream cone?  We give this kid some, and what about the children in Ethiopia?  Rats! We might as well just eat the thing because we can’t fix a broken world.  But is there any enjoyment in that way of thinking? I doubt it.  There’s a look on the face of people who cope with this dilemma this way and it is anything but joyful.  It’s a scowl…a defensiveness. Somewhere in our psyches we logically know that if there are enough people without any hope of ever having ice cream, they will simply overwhelm our spheres of protection and take what we did not give them.  Waifs grow up to be thugs, don’t they? Scowls aren’t arrogant expressions.  They’re fearful expressions. There’s nothing really simple about the dilemma of the ice cream cone.

I guess the answers to these questions are really personal.  It isn’t about THE answer.  It’s about YOUR answer.  Where can YOU find a place of joy?

Of course, this post isn’t really about ice cream.  It’s about blessings and enjoyment…the visitation of joy upon us.  It’s about houses, and education, and spiritual growth, and cars, and clothes, and healthcare, and dental coverage, and food, and meaningful labor, and fun, and self-worth, and security, and choices, and the simple pleasures of this life.  Can we enjoy any of those as they were meant to be enjoyed while being watched by someone who cannot have them? What are our choices? We can cloister ourselves in smaller and smaller gated communities with more and more layers of security, and handle the problem existentially…sort of. We can make sure that the bus line ends at the county line.  Out of sight, out of mind, right? Or we can give everything away and have nothing ourselves.  Or we can share.  And where does that end? I don’t know. I have no idea where that ends.  Neither does anyone else, really.  But a better question that will actually lead to joy is not, “Where does this end?”  Rather it is, “Where does this begin?”  In the Kingdom of God, there is always enough if we share. Enjoy.