Losing My Heroes

Part of growing up for me has been a painful process of losing most of my heroes. And I don’t mean they are dying off. I mean one by one they are falling off their pedestals. I’ve always been a cynic (which I’m not proud of) so have never had very many heroes anyway. But this process has been a big drag nevertheless.

I’m convinced from my struggles with being a minister that most people have a need to believe that somebody, somewhere has arrived — that their pastor, Sunday school teacher, or that guy on the radio, are really living a life of faith the way it’s supposed to be lived. I used to believe this myself. Until I became a minister. For me to land a job as a pastor was all it took to blow away my perception that to be a minister is to have really gotten somewhere. One day I was at a record store with a name tag on saying, “Can I help you?” The next day people were calling me “pastor.” During my record store days, my biggest accomplishment was guessing that an unnamed, poorly-described song a person was looking for was by a one-hit wonder called “Jive-bunny and the mixmasters.” Suddenly I’m in the ministry and find that I am venerated. There are people who insist on calling me “pastor” even when I ask them to stop. It’s no longer safe to swear around me. I guess people are afraid I’ll explode. And when people find out I am both a minister AND a licensed counselor, forget about it. That combination is the social equivalent of leprosy. “He knows I’m a sinner. Or maybe he knows I’m crazy.”

The truth is that I don’t know much of anything. Anybody got a problem with that? Anybody else care to admit it? See, I’m a preacher, which means I’m good at talking for long periods of time. This may give some the impression that life is a perfect circle for me — that the edges always meet up, that there are no loose ends. The reality is exactly opposite. Life, from where I stand, looks like a big jungle of loose ends. All I have is confidence that when those ends are someday put together they will spell the name of God.

There are times when my own brokenness and fallenness nearly drives me nuts, and I scream out, “God, you have pretty much set this up so that I can’t win no matter what I do!!” And in those times I can almost hear God retort, “Now you’re starting to get it.” The truth is that even my desire to be godly is in part an ungodly desire, because it’s based in large part on my need to be able to say, with great pride, “You have arrived. Good for you.” I do not fully desire to be holy for God’s sake, I desire it in large part for my own.

This is what drives me crazy about so much of the Christian community. There seems to be this need to act as if we measure up to a standard we can’t even begin to understand much less live out. I’m with Brennan Manning — often my cheese is falling off my cracker. I know it BELONGS on the cracker, and I try hard to keep it there, but often can’t seem to do so. This doesn’t mean I spend my life in a flurry of obvious sin. It just means that I, like most others, spend my life in a flurry of not-so-obvious sin.

I am aware of the judgmental remarks I make — especially the ones I direct so viciously against judgmental people. I don’t hurt people, I just judge them. I am aware when I get to thinking I’m doing well spiritually. I don’t brag, I just get a “big, warm, sweet, interior glowing.” I am aware when I let my temper fly and it hurts the person nearest to me — my wife, one of my girls, my boss. I don’t hit people — I just skewer them.

These flaws are constant companions, and my very awareness of them makes it nearly impossible for me to tolerate veneration. God loves me, and God’s grace extends to every one of my flaws, but no more so than anyone else’s flaws. I do not mind that I have been called to lead, for a leader leads despite moments of self-doubt. I will boldy declare that I have been called to lead the church, and will even ask others to follow me. I do not want these rants to sound as if I disdain my call to leadership. I do not. I disdain whatever it is in people that causes us to need to objectify others. My hero is Billy Graham. I say out loud that I know he’s human, but I’ll bet I’d be disappointed if I knew him personally. How could I not be? He’s a media figure to me, not a man. Heck, Billy deserves accolades simply for being willing to live out his faith so publicly. He doesn’t seem to be tormented the way I often am. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I find him refreshing. Oh the hell on earth of being my wife and having to live with me for even one day.

But she’s the reason I stay in ministry. She sees my flaws — she knows them to a letter — she bears the burdens of them all — yet she still sees something in me that drives her to want to be better. I do not know what that thing is, but I know it’s a quality of leadership. As long as she continues to see that thing, I will take seriously my call to lead. With or without heroes of my own.

Sunday Comes Every Week

I haven’t put up a new post in a very long time.  Even as it sit typing this one now, I’m doing it to avoid getting down to business with prepping a sermon for Sunday.

That’s right, 3:29 on Friday and still no sermon.  Nothing even started.  To every person in every church on every Sunday morning who feels like they don’t want to be there, know this — the man (or woman) up front is often fighting the same battles.  We get discouraged too.  We get exhausted. We feel we have nothing to say, nothing to share, and nothing to give.  We often feel the tension between what we profess and how we live.

But Sunday comes every week and none of the above will suffice for not having something ready to say.  And nothing should.  One of the best (though not one of the funnest) things about being a pastor is that we are reminded, by necessity, that sometimes the best we can do is simply show up.

I understand not wanting to get up and go to church.   I understand staying up too late on a Saturday and just wanting to sleep in, or not wanting to be around a big group of people in the morning.  I understand struggling with prayer.  I understand being in a place in your life where, sometimes, for long periods of time, you don’t even care, and feeling like no one could ever identify with how bad you feel or how hopeless things seem.  Every pastor understands those things.  Some might not admit it.  Some might prefer to let you think they are super-human, but that just means that they’re one day going to have farther to fall.

Sunday comes every week.  And there’s a fine line between being a hypocrite on one hand, and simply acknowledging on the other that with the spiritual life — as with so many things — showing up is more than half the battle.  So I’ll sit here right now writing about how hard this is going to be.  After I stop writing this post I’ll probably still spend several more hours agonizing over what I’m going to say and how I’ll say it.  But I promise you that between now and Sunday, I will write a sermon.  And when I get up there Sunday morning, it’s not going to sound like I’m phoning it in — like I just threw some drivel together because I didn’t care.  If you come to be encouraged, you might find encouragement.  If you come to be challenged, you might be challenged.  If you come simply because your husband or wife dragged your sorry butt-end out of bed and you’re not looking for anything at all, well — know that on some days the only difference between us is that getting up there and being prepared is what I get paid for.

But the thing is — that doesn’t for one second mean I don’t mean every word I say, that it’s not full of truth.  All it means is that the messenger sometimes struggles not to get lost before the message reaches you.  Actually, the message is all the more powerful in contrast to the frailty and weakness of the messenger.

The passage below is adapted from plural to singular.

2 Corinthians 4:7-9; 16-18 (MSG)
7 If you only look at me, you might well miss the brightness. I carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pot of my ordinary life.  That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with me.

8 As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that I’m not much to look at. I’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but I’m not demoralized (at least not right now!); I’m not sure what to do, 9 but I know that God knows what to do; I’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left my side; I’ve been thrown down, but I haven’t broken.

16 So I’m not giving up. How could I! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on me, on the inside, where God is making new life, [I know that] not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.
17 These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for [all of] us.
18 There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

That’s a future promise, but this is present reality.  Here and now, times are tough.  Hearts break, people live without love.  Many rarely know joy.  We struggle to let others know us and even harder to let them love us.  We run out of money, life loses its gloss, and we grind out some of our hours by sheer resolve and force of will.  That is part of life in a broken world.  Parts of all of our lives, of all of our days, are broken.  Even Sundays find themselves among the broken pieces of the world and we can be sure that — on those days too — we will sometimes feel the loneliness and pain, or the apathy, of our brokenness.

Still, Sunday comes every week.  We show up not because life is perfect.  We show up not because we are not broken or bleeding.  We show up not because we are good.  No, we show up because life is full of struggle.  We often show up broken and bloody.  We show up not because we are good, but because we need to be reminded that God is good.

It’s the farthest thing from hypocrisy, my friends.  No one knows when you’re at church how much you had to overcome just to get there that day, how many excuses you had to shoot in the head and lay to rest, how much apathy or fear or suspicion you had to wade through.  No one knows, that is, except  God.

I hope to see you Sunday, to shake your hand, look you in the eye, and exchange a knowing glance with you.  If that happens, I’ll know you read this post, and you’ll know that I may have more in common with you than you had ever imagined.  Showing up is more than half the battle.

ADDENDUM
It is now 10:11 pm.  The sermon is finished.  I am exhausted, having sat here for the past seven hours either procrastinating, writing, or both.  But I love what I have here, and am excited about sharing it Sunday.  I may be tired, I may not even want to get up Sunday morning, but once I get up there and spread my notes out, I’ll be engaged.  No phoning it in.  We don’t have to want to do things, but we might as well do well whatever we have chosen to do.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Some who read my last post might be tempted to think, “Dude, what’s up with the raw emotion there? You obviously had some crappy experiences.” And anyone who thinks that would be right.

All of us are going through life reacting to early experiences; in school, with our parents, with friends, (Freud would say with potty training), and with church. Of course I am reacting to early experiences. And to later ones, for that matter. Unless you grew up in the church, you cannot understand exactly what’s happening here.

The church embraces and espouses some of the most noble messages on earth. Love, refusal to judge, dignity for every person — those are great universal themes that appear in the Bible and in many other religious books. Every Christian church will feature sermons on these themes. But when it comes to actual practice, many churches carry on as if they have never even read the Bible at all. Others are strict literalists about things like getting tattoos, but seem to be unfamiliar with passages about love. Some can break their understanding of sin down into minute detail, but have such a narrow understanding of grace that it can no longer even serve as the “cure” for sin that the New Testament suggests.

To grow up in this environment, where these great themes are taught, but so often not practiced, creates massive dissonance for many people. So many of the people who come to Wildwind report incredible cases of abuse — pastors and teachers who said unconscionable things to them when they were at vulnerable places in their spiritual journeys. Where in God’s name have churches and spiritual leaders gotten off in treating people (the people Christ loved and – we believe – gave his life for) with such irreverance?

So yes, this experience does create a kind of post-traumatic stress for some people. It certainly has for me. Some decide the whole enterprise is bogus and just walk out. Others remain but become cynics. Still others work desperately to be honest about where the church has gone wrong and lovingly (although firmly) get it back on track. That is what we are trying to do at Wildwind. We are not perfect, but we are trying to keep ‘the main thing the main thing.”

Trust me — this only appears simple. But if it were, all churches would be doing it. And those of us trying to do it would be doing it better.

Shalom

The Hebrew word translated “peace” is “shalom.” But “shalom” does not mean “peace” in the way Americans think of peace. We tend to think of peace as simply the absence of conflict. When America is not at war, we say we are at peace.

This is not what God means when he says “Peace.” When God says “peace” (pretty much anytime you encounter the word “peace” in the Old Testament), what it actually means is a state of complete wholeness — that all the various pieces and parts of your life fit together well, and are in unison with each other.

Over and over again in the book of Isaiah, God says he wants the Hebrews to have shalom (wholeness and deep well-being). The problem is that they’re content (for a while) with just having peace (absence of conflict). The worst problems I have seen in the 13 years I have been pastoring and counseling are from the efforts people make to have peace and avoid shalom. We’re content (for a while) in our marriages and work relationships just to have an absence of conflict. As long as we’re not fighting, we’ll inch along day by day. We’re content with peace in our lives and don’t pursue or pray for shalom.

But even when we find peace, we still sense something is missing. Because God created us to crave wholeness and unity and deep well-being. You are created for shalom. Your spirit needs it. You were not created in half, you were created whole! And you will never rest content until you stop taking the easy way of peace and start the hard work of shalom, which always means facing the truth. Truth is the way of shalom. It could never be otherwise.

President Bush is talking about bringing peace to the Middle East. When he says that, what does he mean? Yep. A permanent cessation to fighting and violence. Forget about shalom, we’ll just settle for peace. Is this how low our standards are? We’re okay squeaking by with cessation of violence, when God stands waiting to start a massive plague of love? We’re okay joining protests for peace when God invites us to join him in the worldwide revolution he began thousands of years ago and still continues today? You say, “Dave, this isn’t a Christian country – it’s not a Christian world, peace is the best we can do.”

Yep. Quite a predicament we’re in, isn’t it? We are so short-sighted. And so naive. That’s why every effort we make to find peace in our days on this twisted, broken planet amounts to nothing and leaves us empty. You need shalom, and God can bring it. Nations need shalom and God can, and one day will, bring it. Until then, you must choose for yourself. Been married once, twice, three times? I’ll bet every time you married, you did it hoping for peace. And I’ll bet every time you divorced (if you have), you (or your partner!) did it hoping for peace. And then when you remarried, you were hoping for peace. Meanwhile, your spirit craves shalom and always will. God says shalom comes from recognizing the sacredness of marriage and learning to keep moving forward in it. But shalom is harder than peace, isn’t it? Because shalom requires truth. Got an addiction? When you gamble, or drink, or shoot up, it’s shalom you actually crave. Peace is always temporary, isn’t it? Anger problem? It’s not peace you need, it’s shalom. Tired of how hard it sometimes seems to live the Christian life? It’s not peace you need, it’s shalom. Shalom only comes from (here we go…) facing truth and conforming your life to it in every way, and then learning God’s laws for your life and committing to follow them at any cost.

If we think we’ve nailed that down because we go to church and small group, we’re in for a big surprise. If that was how to find shalom, why are marriages still on the rocks? That’s not shalom. Why are finances dreadful? That’s not shalom. Why are kids feeling neglected by their parents? That’s not shalom. Why do people whine and complain and criticize? That’s not shalom. All you who read this right now and are about to make a decision simply because you’re tired of the way things are and you want a change – that may be the way of peace, but it is not the way of shalom. You will soon find yourself empty again.

Praying shalom to you.

Pastor Svengali

“We’re on a mission from God.”

Funny in a Blues Brothers movie. Not so funny when pastors and church leaders radiate that vibe. A friend called me from another state last night. She has recently been asked to take a staff position at her church. She has a strong, valid list of reasons why this is probably a bad idea. The problem is, she was having anxieties about going into the pastor’s office and turning down the offer. After all, he’s the pastor. He claims that this is what she should do and that this is a “God thing.” (Maybe I’ll blog later on how much I hate it when people say something is a “God thing.”) When someone says, “God told me thus and such,” how does a person respond to that? Isn’t that a great way to shut down opposition before it begins, the religious version of a preemptive strike using shock and awe?

I affirmed her reasons for not wanting to pursue this. I also told her I’d love to see her go into this meeting with confidence. Yes, her pastor is her pastor, and she should respect him. But does God stamp all the opinions of every pastor with his personal approval? My experience of pastoring is having a lot of moments of uncertainty. Isn’t that just part of life, even religious life? It’s certainly part of leadership, which can be defined as bringing clarity out of chaos. So what kind of person would I become if I started to think that all my opinions and all the directions I pursue in ministry came right from the hand of God? That hardly puts my congregation in a place where they have to take their own relationship with God seriously. After all, if I’m that close to God, if I know that much, if my opinions matter that much, then I can just tell them how to live and they can go out and live accordingly. It makes things simpler.

But in kind of an abusive, or at least exploitive, way. Is a hamburger more blessed if I say grace over it than if someone in my church does? Is someone in the hospital more likely to get well if I pray for them than if a layperson does? Are my opinions more likely to be stamped with God’s approval than the opinions of those in my congregation? Though I hope to listen to God, and learn what God sounds like, and though I hope God is redeeming my wisdom and judgment along with everything else in this world that is subject to him, certaintly I must remain open to what God is doing in others, mustn’t I? Do I have a right to simply tell someone what God’s will is for him or her? [Once upon a time a man did that. His name was Jim Jones. Of course there is never a shortage of Svengali‘s in the world, religious and otherwise]

I believe to do so is the height of arrogance (and I am not saying this pastor is necessarily doing that with my friend) and presumption. It cheapens God’s desire for closeness to individuals other than myself. It robs people of dignity, since it assumes that God will speak to someone else more directly about their life than he will speak to them.

In a sense, we pastors are on a mission from God. But so is everyone who seeks to please Him. A pastor’s job is to help identify and affirm the mysterious work God is doing inside every individual. We are never to presume we know what God is doing, or should do, inside another person, or to make someone else feel like we have the inside track on God’s plan for his/her life. God save me, save all of us pastors and spiritual leaders, from this kind of arrogance.

To my friend out of state, walk into that man’s office with confidence, give him your reasons, and know that if you both claim to be hearing from God, and yet you disagree with one another, it’s likely not God you’re hearing from at all. Perhaps God has chosen to let you make this decision on your own. Perhaps that happens more often than most Christians think. But whatever may be the case, remember this: Your pastor is on a mission from God. So are you.