Ode to the Flawed and Beautiful Church

beautifully-flawedI read this quote by Carlo Carretto this morning and thought it might be worth sharing with others who love and lead flawed churches:

How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!

You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.

You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.

Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face–and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!

No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.

Then too–where would I go?

To build another church?

But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.  And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.

No, I am old enough. I know better!  (Carlo Carretto, I Sought and I Found)

Occasionally I hear from people who have given up on the church.  I’m glad Jesus never has.  Somehow he sees beauty in our brokenness.

What say you?

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Tarnished Halos

I’m reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for a coming class.  Bonhoeffer wrote this Life Togetherbook while leading an underground seminary in Nazi Germany.  I remember starting to read this book either in seminary or in my early days of ministry and quickly setting it aside because I didn’t get it.  Now after 30 years of sharing life with God’s people, I think I’m finally starting to get it.

One of the things Bonhoeffer says in chapter one is that Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality.  What he means is that when we come into the church (which can take many different forms), we often have an idealized picture of what our life together should look like.  But before long we run headlong into disillusionment.  People don’t always act the way we think Christians should.  Spiritual leaders don’t always live up to their high calling.  Surely this isn’t what Jesus intended for his church to be!

But Bonhoeffer goes right after this notion of idealized Christian community:

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. … Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.  The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

I remember how I experienced this disillusionment soon after I accepted Christ as a teen.  Within the first year the pastor committed some indiscretions and was forced out of the church.  Within two years the youth leader (who I almost worshiped) took me aside and told me he was leaving his wife and baby daughter as well as the church.  Sometime in there I played on the church basketball team and got my feelings deeply hurt when I had to sit the bench nearly the whole game because I was such a poor player.  Somehow I imagined a church basketball team would be different.  Somehow I thought church as a whole would be different.  I was disheartened enough to leave, until a wise older pastor told me the church was filled with imperfect people and I needed to keep my eyes on Jesus.  I took his advice and stuck with the church.

Over the years I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of Christian fellowship.  That’s what happens when you have long pastoral tenures like I have.  You stay past the honeymoon and it’s not long until the warts start to show.  Some people are critical.  Some of them gossip.  Some of them are control freaks.  Some of them are shallow.  Some of them have a commitment level that never rises above personal convenience.  It’s enough to make me want to shake the dust off my feet and look for greener pastures, until the Lord reminds me that my warts are starting to show too.  We are all wearing tarnished halos.

I’ve noticed a common trend in church life.  On a fairly regular basis, people have come to the churches I pastor from another church.  They are unhappy or wounded by something that happened at the other church and they have decided to find a new one.  At first they are excited about what they experience in our services and our ministries.  The people, they often say, are so much friendlier than at the other church.  I’m such a better preacher, they sometimes say.  I’m a better shepherd of the flock — that other pastor didn’t care about people.  Believe me, my ego soaks up those positive strokes.

But then it often happens that those happy newcomers start to see the flaws, both in me and the congregation.  Suddenly this church starts to look an awful lot like that last church they left.  At this point some of those people realize that there is no such thing as an ideal church and stick it out through the disillusionment.  Others leave unhappy and continue their search for the church that matches their expectations.  Some people make this search for the church-as-Jesus-meant-it-to-be a lifelong quest.

Now I know that some church problems can’t be ignored, and sometimes there are legitimate reasons to leave a church.  I’m thinking of problems like pastoral abuse, a toxic spiritual environment, or serious doctrinal differences.  It’s kind of like marriage.  Serious problems in a marriage shouldn’t be ignored, and sometimes there are legitimate reasons to leave a marriage.  But those legitimate reasons, wouldn’t you agree, are few?  Most of the problems in marriage aren’t intended to be run from, but to be worked through.  Isn’t it the same with the church?

Here’s what Bonhoeffer says to me.  Church community is messy.  That’s because we all carry around this treasure of Christ’s transforming presence in cracked pots (see II Corinthians 4:7).  We are all flawed.  Every last one of God’s saints wears a tarnished halo.  But (again, as in marriage) we don’t grow by abandoning our relationships with imperfect people, but by learning how to live and love our way through the warts.  This is my concern for the American church.  We don’t know how to work our way through our disillusionment.  We don’t know how to “bear with each other in love” (Ephesians 4:2).  So often we would rather go looking for the church as we want it to be.

One final warning by Bonhoeffer: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.“  Father, help me to love your people as they are, not as I wish they would be.

Your thoughts?

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One of the realities of modern-day ministry is the presence of critics.  Pastors face no shortage of people who want to impose their agendas, share their frustrations, and in some cases, make public their complaints about the church and its leadership.  In some cases the criticism has merit, but often it is leveled in unhealthy and divisive ways.  It’s eindexnough to make a church leader look for a safer career.

In the Psalms, King David had another label for these kinds of critics.  He called them his “enemies.”  They were people who whispered behind his back.  Impugned his motives.  Set traps to publicly undermine his leadership.  I’m amazed at how often this theme appears in the psalms attributed to David.

I encountered one of those writings this morning: Psalm 40.  David cries out to God for rescue from the enemies who are trying to bring him down.  But how was God going to do that?  Would he just wipe out David’s opponents?  (What leader doesn’t in his or her weaker moments wish for that?)  But no, David prays for something else.  Not destruction of his enemies, but preservation of his soul.

In verse 11, David asks God for two things: “Let your lovingkindness and truth continually preserve me.“  I hear him praying something like this: “Lord, in the midst of the unjust accusations being hurled my direction, may my soul be deeply anchored in your steadfast love.  May I know at the core of my being just how much you love me and accept me, shortcomings and all.  May your love hold me steady when the winds of opposition are howling.”

Then he cries, “Lord, in the midst of the misrepresentations of my character that are being spread abroad, may your truth preserve my soul.  Help me to know what you know about me, and may that truth ground my inner self when the enemy seeks to infiltrate my heart with his false accusations.  May your truth define my life more than the limited perceptions of others.”

These aren’t easy days to be in ministry.  Disgruntled people seem to be more prevalent in the church, and leaders are easy targets.  It seems to me that now more than ever, we need to immerse our inner beings deeply in the Lord’s lovingkindess and truth.  Intimacy with Christ is the one thing that will preserve our souls in the fiercest of battles.  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us” (Romans 8:37).

Your thoughts?

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Leading When You Don’t Feel Like It

piling onYesterday was one of those bad news days for me as a leader.  Without going into the details, I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and anger along with a good dose of self-pity.  The incident came in the middle of some other tough things I’m dealing with.  I feel like the football player at the bottom of the mound of tacklers — it seems like people keep piling on.  At times like this, my default response is to withdraw into self-protective mode.

Thankfully, the Lord came to my rescue this morning through His Word.  In II Samuel 18, King David has just received the news that his rebellious son Absalom was slain in battle.  Overcome with grief and regret, David withdraws into his royal chamber yet weeps so loudly he can be heard for blocks away: “O my son, Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!“  The army that has just squelched Absalom’s attempted coup steals quietly into the city, unsure what their emotional leader is going to do next.

Enter David’s military commander Joab.  He goes to the king and says, “You have humiliated the men who put their lives on the line for you.  While you are grieving the loss of your son, it appears to them that you care more about your enemy than your own people.  If you stay in withdrawal mode, your army will quickly abandon you.  You’re the leader, even if you don’t feel like leading right now.  Get up and go encourage your men.” David accepts Joab’s wise counsel: “So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway (the visible position of authority). When the men were told, ‘The king is sitting in the gateway,’ they all came before him.”

What an important lesson for those of us God has called into leadership.  There is no question that things are going to affect us deeply.  When I face threatening pastoral challenges, I want to flee to some isolation chamber.   But here’s what I learn from David’s story: leaders need to keep on leading, even when they don’t feel like it.  Regardless of the internal pain I may feel, there are people looking to me for guidance, comfort, instruction, or challenge.  At those times I need to get up from my isolation chamber and “take my seat in the gateway.”

Leaders don’t just lead when they feel up to the task.  The best ones know how to lead precisely when they don’t feel up to the task.  I need to remember not to exhaust too much of my emotional resources on my “enemies” — there are many more people waiting to be led than there are resisting my leadership.   So today I choose to get up in the strength of God’s Spirit and take my seat in the gateway.

Your thoughts?

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Sputtering On Fumes

I recently read The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American the-great-evangelical-recession-6-factors-that-will-crash-the-american-churchand-how-to-prepareChurch and How to Prepare by John Dickerson (Baker, 2013).  Overall, I found it to be a worthwhile investment of time.  Here’s why . . .

Why I picked it up:  I saw a description of the book online and the subject intrigued me.  Plus, some of the endorsements are from writers (Gabe Lyons, Cal Thomas) I respect.

What I liked about it: Mr. Dickerson doesn’t pull any punches in telling the truth about the evangelical church in America.  We are (in his words) inflated, hated, splitting, bankrupt, bleeding, and sputtering.  In short, we are in a state of steady erosion and we better wake up to that fact before we have waited too long.  As an award-winning journalist and pastor, he backs up his concerns with solid quantifiable evidence.  But Dickerson doesn’t just launch an alarmist diatribe.  He spends the second half of his book talking about six solutions for recovery that are helpful and hopeful.

What I didn’t like about it: The author didn’t seem to acknowledge other valid expressions of the church in the U.S (for instance, mainline and Catholic).  I was left with the feeling that if the evangelical church doesn’t survive, the Christian faith in America won’t either.  But history testifies over and over again that Jesus will build his church . . . even if one particular institutional form of his church passes away.

Questions it left me with:  I agreed with some of his proposed solutions, but how do I as a pastor reverse the course where I minister?  For instance, how do I turn the Christian consumers in my congregation into servants and givers?  How do I lead what often seems to be a staff-dependent church into a more biblical model where every person is a minister?  And how do I launch a discipling movement in a congregation where people don’t have time for the relational investment it requires?  I struggle with the logistical applications — but that doesn’t mean the struggle isn’t worth the effort.

Who I might recommend this book to: I definitely think every pastor and leader in the evangelical movement should read this book and wrestle with its implications.  The future it describes is already upon us.


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A Happy Introvert

Some conversations this week have caused me to think about what it’s like to be an introverted person who has been thrust by God into a role of leadership.  “Introverted pastor” sounds like an oxymoron in a culture that prizes outgoing, charismatic leaders.  But no matter how hard I try to be different — and believe me, I’ve tried many times over the past 29 years — I’m a dyed-in-the-wool introvert.

Perhaps it wasn’t by pure coincidence that this week I ran into the list below that compares extroverts and introverts.  It reminds me that while “extros” have certain advantages in people’s eyes,”intros” possess qualities that, while largely hidden, lend themselves well to deep and rich ministry.  So primarily as a way of encouraging my fellow introverted leaders, I invite you to read and rejoice in the way God made you:

Extroverts talk first, and think later….Introverts think first, and talk later

Extroverts are skilled at talking…Introverts are skilled at listening

Extroverts are energized by other people….Introverts are drained by other people

Extroverts talk out their thoughts….Introverts ponder their thoughts

Extroverts are easy to read….Introverts are hard to read

Extroverts are friends with everyone….Introverts are friends with a select few

Extroverts share their “business” with everyone….Introverts share their “business” with hardly anyone

Extroverts express themselves best by talking….Introverts express themselves best by writing

Extroverts enjoy casual conversation….Introverts enjoy deep conversation

Extroverts are good at multi-tasking….Introverts prefer to delve into one task at a time

Extoverts shine in group settings….Introverts shine in one-on-one settings

Extroverts enjoy the limelight….Introverts try to avoid the limelight

So what do you think?  How can introverts be effective leaders in an extroverted church culture? 

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From Lesbian to Pastor’s Wife

I just finished reading The Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield (Crown & Covenant Publications, 2012).  Here are my thoughts about the book:

Why I picked it up: I recently heard an online interview with Rosaria.  She is a former English professor at Syracuse University.  She also lived a lesbian lifestyle and taught gay and lesbian studies . . . before embracing Christianity.   I wanted to read her story because according to our culture one doesn’t abandon a life of homosexuality for Christ unless they are (1) hopelessly ignorant or (2) brainwashed by some religious group.  Rosaria’s story helps to challenge  those paradigms.

What I liked about it: I liked how Rosaria tells her story with such raw (sometimes shocking) transparency.  I also appreciated some of her very unique descriptions of her conversion from lesbianism to faith in Christ, such as how “the word of God got to be bigger inside me than me,” “conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos,”  and lesbianism as “a case of mistaken identity.”  Her book renewed my confidence in the power of Christ to transform lives and also reminded me of just how revolutionary conversion can (and should be) in a person’s life.  What an incredible irony that Rosaria is now married to a Presbyterian pastor!

What I didn’t like about it: I got bogged down in the second half of the book as Rosaria spent a lot of time getting sidetracked (I thought) with thorny issues such as why Christians should only sing psalms in church and with lengthy descriptions of her and her husband’s wedding, adoptions, and homeschooling.  But on the other hand, the second half of her book shows just how dramatically Christ has changed her life.

A question it left me with:  What softened Rosaria’s hostility toward all things Christian was the friendship and hospitality of an elderly pastor and his wife.  I wonder why we Christians today don’t show similar hospitality and love toward those outside the faith.  We/I don’t do a very good job of following Jesus’ example of being “a friend to sinners.”  We seem to be more threatened by them than we are confident in the power of Christ’s love to change their hearts.  (Editorial comment added later:  If Jesus, who never sinned, could be a friend of sinners, why do we who are sinners ourselves have such a difficult time loving our fellow sinners?  Also, our friendship should never be conditioned on whether or not the person ever responds to Christ.  It should rather be a natural expression of Jesus’ love for all people)

Who I might recommend this book to:  A gay person who is struggling with issues of identity and meaning at the core of his/her life.  A skeptic who thinks that a homosexual who converts to Christ faces a life sentence of pleasureless misery.  And a Christian who would rather avoid and condemn gay people than love them.

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Misreading Scripture

I’m going to try something new with my blog.  I read books quite a bit — I aim at one a week, though I often fall short of that goal.  I find it to be a valuable discipline in trying to keep myself from growing mentally and spiritually flabby.

Perhaps you might find it helpful to know what I’m reading in case a certain book piques your interest.  I’m not going to give a book review, so to speak.  I don’t have the intellectual prowess for that.  Instead, I’m going to tell you why I picked up that particular book, what I liked about it, what I didn’t like about it, any questions that I’m dealing with after reading it, and the kind of person I might recommend it to.  So here goes:

The book: Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (IVP Books, 2012)

Why I picked it up: I found the title compelling.  I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking over the last year or so about how we as American Christians interpret certain passages in the Bible and I’ve had this growing concern that we’re getting some things wrong.  So this book scratched where I was itching.

What I liked about it: A lot.  It dealt with the issue of how we bring our cultural biases (often unconsciously) to our reading of scripture, which can lead to wrong and sometimes dangerous misinterpretations.  I especially found the authors’ discussions of cultural mores, language, individualism/collectivism, and rules and relationships to be quite helpful.

What I didn’t like about it: While I appreciated how Richards and O’Brien exposed the cultural biases behind American Christians’ interpretation of scripture, sometimes it seemed that they failed to acknowledge the biases that also lie behind other cultures’ understanding of the Bible.  I don’t think it always has to be either/or.  For instance, I think there is a place for an individualistic interpretation of many passages — sometimes the “yous” of scripture can be addressed to an individual as well as, or instead of, a community.

A question it left me with:  I found myself wondering about certain passages that we in the West find offensive . . . especially Paul’s words about wives submitting to their husbands.  Could it be that Middle Eastern and Asian cultures don’t find this offensive at all, and instead our attitude reflects a perspective of cultural arrogance (that we know so much more than those poor unenlightened people)?

Who I might recommend this book to: Definitely someone who preaches or teaches the Word of God to others, or anyone who is interested in interpreting scripture accurately as they read.

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Crucified, Dead, and Buried

Keeping Company with Jesus     During Holy Week

Saturday, March 30, 2013

 Today’s Bible reading will focus on the day following Jesus’ crucifixion.  I encourage you to take some quiet, undistracted moments today to read or listen to the scripture passage, reflect on its meaning, and pray to the one who took this journey for you. 

 Read today’s scripture passage – Mark 15:42-47 (To read or listen to this passage online, go to  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%2015:42-47&version=NIV)

ReflectJesus was dead.

Mark’s gospel says that Jesus died on “the day of Preparation.”  The day of Preparation (Friday) was the day before the Sabbath (Saturday) on the weekly Jewish calendar — a day to get everything and everyone ready for the Sabbath day of worship and rest.  The Sabbath day actually started at sundown on Friday.  All work needed to be finished by the start of the Sabbath, especially the work of burying a crucified body, which would otherwise be left hanging until after the Sabbath was over.  So a man named Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin who had protested their unjust treatment of Jesus) hurried to governor Pilate and asked for permission to take Jesus’ corpse and give it a dignified burial.

Jesus was buried.

Joseph and whatever helpers he had wrapped Jesus’ body in linen cloth bandages, tucking in spices intended to slow the decaying process.  They placed his body on a stone slab inside the tomb Joseph had recently dug out of the rock, perhaps for his own future burial.  To keep thieves and animals out, they rolled a large stone in front of the entrance.  Matthew’s gospel also tells us the Jewish religious leaders insisted that Pilate put a Roman seal across the stone and post a garrison of Roman soldiers at the tomb.  They were concerned that Jesus’ disciples might come in the night, take Jesus’ body away, and then claim he had risen from the dead.

So as the sun rose on Saturday, Jesus was dead and buried.  Saturday was a day of grieving.  A day of crushed hopes.  A day of divine silence.  A day of waiting because there was nothing else for the disciples to do but wait.

Pray: Spend a few moments silently waiting in the Lord’s presence.  Waiting for what?  That’s up to him.  Let go of your need to control things, to “make things happen,” and simply release your life into the Lord’s hands.  Rest in that.

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The Unwanted King

Keeping Company with Jesus During Holy Week

Good Friday, March 29, 2013

Today’s Bible reading will focus on the hours leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion.  I encourage you to take some quiet, undistracted moments today to read or listen to the scripture passage, reflect on its meaning,  and pray to the one who took this journey for you. 

Read  today’s scripture passage – Mark 15:1-32 (To read or listen to this passage online, go to  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark%2015:1-32&version=NIV)

ReflectAfter Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, he was escorted to an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin (a council of prominent Jewish religious leaders).  There they charged him with high blasphemy for claiming to be God and sentenced him to death.  The only problem was that they had no power to execute anyone since they were under the political authority of the Roman government.  Somehow they had to convince Pilate, the governor of Judea, that Jesus had committed a capital crime worthy of the death sentence.  So Friday morning they dragged Jesus before Pilate and accused him of political treason by claiming to be King of the Jews.

Notice how that title, King of the Jews, appears repeatedly in Mark’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion:

1.  The silence of the King.  Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 2).  The only answer Jesus gives him is, “You have said so.”  In other words, you have already answered your own question.  Even though the charge against Jesus was technically correct, Pilate could not understand what kind of king Jesus was.  His kingdom was a spiritual, not a political, kingdom.  Jesus refused to say anything more.

2.  The rejection of the King.  Following his own Passover tradition of releasing a prisoner to the people, Pilate asked the assembled crowd, “Do you want me to set free for you the King of the Jews?” (v. 9).  Pilate was shocked when they chose a death-row murderer named Barabbas instead and clamored for Jesus to be crucified.  Remember how Jesus had been hailed as king when he rode into Jerusalem five days earlier?  When he failed to fulfill their expectations as a conquering hero, they had no more use for him.

3.  The humiliation of the King.  When Pilate gave in to the crowd’s demands, the Roman soldiers decided to have some fun with this would-be king.  They threw a purple robe over his shoulders, pressed a crown made of thorns into his head, and gave him a rod for his royal scepter that they proceeded to beat him with.  They knelt before this pathetic-looking figure and paid mocking homage: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (v. 18). There is no indication that Jesus resisted or even wiped their spit from his face.

4.  The epitaph of the King.  When the Romans crucified someone, they would post their crime above his head so those passing by would be warned not to make the same mistake.  Pilate told the soldiers to write “The King of the Jews” for Jesus’ final epitaph (v. 29).  The religious leaders taunted Jesus as he hung there dying: “If you’re really the King of Israel, come down from the cross right now and we’ll believe in you” (v. 32).  To the very end, Jesus failed to be the kind of king the people insisted that he be.

Pray: Gaze upon the cross with humble adoration.  Tell the one hanging there that you want him to reign over your life.  Kneel before him and worship him.  Surrender your entire life to the king who gave himself up for you.

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