Power and Purpose…

The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”

Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:

Jesus, keep me near the cross;

There a precious fountain,

Free to all a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.

Famous Last Words

First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.

Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:

25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)

As I read these words, I make two discoveries.

The Power of a Passionate Love

The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.

Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.

Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.

A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.

He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.

Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.

Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.

The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”

This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.

The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.

The Power of an Incredible Purpose

The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.

Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:

33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).

We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!

I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”

“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.

“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.

The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”

Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”

“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.

God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!

Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.

Until next time, keep looking up…

#gc2019–The Monster Trucks Arrived Early…

…or at least, that’s what it felt like. It felt like everyone had been run over by a truck when General Conference 2019 ended yesterday. No one was celebrating. There was nothing to celebrate. Everyone was tired. Everyone was emotional. Everyone was grieving. Everyone!

I’ll only give a brief recap of what happened. For a fuller recap, you can click here, and here and here. Professionals do a much better job of recapping than I do.

Here’s a summary as I understand it:

  • The Traditional Plan (which retains the current language of the Discipline & attempts to strengthen enforcement) passed the General Conference.
  • A “Disaffiliation” petition (basically a “gracious exit” plan) passed the General Conference.
  • Addressed some pension issues requested by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits in case clergy or churches leave the denomination.

That’s pretty much it, and all it took was four days, and all it cost was nearly $4 million dollars. We got our money’s worth in weariness and brokenness.

Of course, everything that was done was referred to the Judicial Council for review, so it remains to be seen if anything at all was accomplished. Some parts will be ruled constitutional. Others will not. Only after the Judicial Council rules will we know for sure. In a nutshell, what was done may end up being purely symbolic with nothing practical (except the pension resolutions) resulting.

Was the symbolism worth it? Probably not, except to quantify on record the divisions that exist within the UMC. That division could have been quantified at General Conference 2016, but the General Conference chose to delay it.

My heart hurts this morning for the United Methodist Church. My heart hurts for those in the LGBTQI+ community who feel threatened or harmed by the actions of the General Conference. My heart hurts for the clergy and lay persons who are in ministry to the entire hurting church, who themselves are hurting. My heart hurts for the many, many long-time relationships that seem so horribly broken in this moment. My heart hurts for these leaders in the UMC that now return to their local congregations and must interpret what happened while focusing on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. My heart hurts that we are not of one mind as the body of Christ.

All week long, and in the week’s leading up to the gathering in St. Louis, we heard a lot about the Holy Spirit doing a new thing among the people called Methodist. The different groups within the UMC continued to call upon one another to listen for the Holy Spirit, surely it would be the Spirit who would unite us. We prayed. We fasted. We worshiped. We prayed some more. Yet, nobody moved. The percentages were pretty much the same as they were in 2016.

Were none of us attentive to the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the Holy Spirit really is wanting to do a new thing among people called Methodist. Perhaps nobody heard the Holy Spirit because we were praying for the wrong thing. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us all along that the unity we were seeking goes far beyond a denominational label…that the unity we seek is found in Jesus Christ alone…and that unity goes far beyond the denominational boundary of United Methodism. Perhaps, all along the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us that it’s time for a new birth of the Wesleyan movement, and the only way that can occur is through death and resurrection. Well, it is for certain that you do have to have a death before you can have a resurrection.

Please don’t take that sentiment as advocacy for a denominational split, but it is an admission that something new may be given life out of this desperate brokenness. Already, there are some in the UMC who are calling for a new expression of Methodism that is open and inclusive. Perhaps that’s what the Holy Spirit was after all along, and we had to come to the end of ourselves before we could realize the fact. It’s only when we’ve come to the end of ourselves that we’re able to meet Jesus. It’s only when we’ve come to the end of ourselves that Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to transform us into His likeness.

I was up early this morning, praying and drinking coffee (those two go together, by the way). In my reflections this morning, I attempted to recall an experience that I disliked more than I disliked this General Conference. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was not the worst experience of my life, but it is close. The time in St. Louis was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting (and I am a supporter of the Traditional Plan). I can only imagine how supporters of the other plans must feel.

I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. I know I’m not the only one. If you happen to be in the St. Louis airport this morning and you see a bunch of people with tread marks on their clothes, they’re United Methodists. Those monster trucks that were supposed to follow us in the Dome at America’s Center, well…they apparently arrived early.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

“MORE” Reality…

I resolved to make 2019 the “Year of More.” In all the resolutions I made…

  • More stillness
  • More service
  • More exercise
  • More writing
  • More love
  • More sleep

…there’s one very important “more” that I overlooked, and that is to be more Christ-like. Isn’t that the “more” that matters most? I must confess there are many days I fall far short of the goal, yet I am reminded of Jesus’ own words to his disciples:

13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them. (John 13: 13 – 17 NLT)

The Apostle Paul’s words also remind me that my calling (please read this as “our” calling) is to become like Jesus:

29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8: 29 NLT)

How might I become “more” Christ-like in 2019?

MORE CENTERED

Jesus centered his life in Scripture. He answered the temptations of Satan by the power of Scripture, and he began his earthly ministry moving out of Galilee into Capernaum in fulfillment of Scripture. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus life and words pointed to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Scripture is at the heart of spiritual growth. If we desire to hear God’s voice clearest and loudest, it will be through God’s Word, the Bible. We can live a more centered in Scripture as we worship, participate in group Bible studies, and spend personal devotional time with the Bible.

Of course, being more centered will cause me to be still more, which was my first resolution, so maybe I’m on the right track after all.

MORE CHANGED

Jesus began his earthly ministry with a call to repentance. Repentance is a call to change our minds about sin—literally to do a 180. I’m not sure my greatest sin is pride, but it’s up there on the list. Probably topping the list is selfishness. Every other challenge to my desire to be more Christ-like flows out of that innate proclivity for wanting my own way.

Repentance that is meaningful repentance is more than a changed mind. I think it is a changed mind that leads to changed actions. I also think it not a one-time thing. Repentance is an on-going process…at least it is in my life.

MORE CONNECTED

Jesus invited his first disciples to be connected to him, and to one another. We are connected to Christ most fully when we are connected to his body, the Church. And, we become more Christ-like the more we are connected to his body.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for pastors to make friends in the body. Ron Edmondson has written about that here. It doesn’t change the fact that I need more connection.

MORE COMMITTED

I think about Jesus’ first disciples who, when called by Jesus, left their nets and their tax-collecting table immediately and followed him. Am I as committed as those first disciples? Am I willing to drop everything…even the pastorate (the source of my livelihood)…to follow his calling?

Seriously, what would I do if Jesus walked into my office today and said, “Come, follow me”? I’d probably say, “I thought I was following you.” Just the idea of that conversation frightens me and causes me to reflect on my commitment of Jesus.

One of the most challenging books I’ve read recently (or ever) is Francis Chan’s Letters to the Church. Here’s a video describing the book’s premise. Chan’s book caused me to question so many assumptions about “church,” but it also helped renew my commitment to it…and to Jesus.

MORE CONSECRATED

To be consecrated is to be “set apart for special service.” Jesus consecrated his life for preaching, teaching and healing knowing that it would lead ultimately to the cross. His consecration led to his sacrifice. How is my life set apart for greater sacrifice? What sacrifice is God calling me to in order to be more consecrated to his purpose?

I earnestly desire to be more Christ-like, but this “Year of More” is looking MORE difficult by the day. Perhaps I should have been LESS bold in proclaiming it so.

Where is God challenging you to be more Christ-like? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Until next time, keep looking up…

What About Us, Jesus?

Of all the names/titles given to Jesus, i.e., Lord, Savior etc., this name “Healer” is perhaps the most challenging for us in the 21st century. What do we mean when we say “Jesus is Healer?”jesus-is-2

We survey the ministry of Jesus and depending on how one classifies the event, there are between 30 and 40 healing events in the four Gospels alone. We read a passage like Luke 4:40 that says, “As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one.

So, what gives? After all, we pray for healing all the time, but far too often, the healing we seek never comes. If Jesus is Healer, where do we see this healing happening in our world today?

Who needs Obamacare? There certainly wasn’t much of a problem with healthcare with Jesus around. The folks in 1st century Israel called their health care plan Jesuscare! Got a backache? Go see Jesus! Got the flu? Go see Jesus. Surgery? Who needs surgery? Just go see Jesus! One touch is all you need. Must have been nice, and no increase in premiums. It sure would have been nice to get in on some of those healings. Makes us want to ask: When did Jesus go out of the healing business? Don’t we rate as much as the folks back then? What about my friend with cancer? What about us, Jesus?

FAITH HEALING

I’m going to challenge us for one moment to take all the pre-conceived ideas of “faith-healing” out of our minds. Don’t think about Benny Hinn, and let your memories of Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts fade. But still it leaves us to wonder why we don’t just go down to the local hospitals and clear the places out in Jesus name.

Boy, I wish I had the power to heal! There are folks in the world who say that I simply don’t have enough faith, or that those who are sick don’t have enough faith to be healed. Just believe a little more—faith of a mustard seed and all that, right? Hey? That’s the kind of faith four friends had one day when they brought their friend to Jesus (see Luke 5: 17 – 26).

Luke tells us when Jesus saw “their faith,” his healing power went into action. Notice, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the paralyzed man’s faith. Perhaps he had no faith at all, certainly none that was expressed in this episode. Yes, faith is often present when it comes to healing, but whose faith is most important?

Or more, the same people who would say today that I don’t have enough faith would also say the problem must be un-confessed sin. That’s part of the issue on the day Jesus was healing this paralyzed man. Jesus knew the Pharisees and scribes, who were a sect in Judaism who had a strong belief in the idea that if someone was sick or blind, there must be some sin in their life that caused it, were watching. Paralyzed? What did you do to deserve that? Confess your sin and perhaps you can get well. That was their attitude.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus didn’t address the physical ailment first. He first addressed the spiritual reality, and man, that set the Pharisees off. “Who but God can forgive sins?” The Pharisees question and Jesus’ response might help us understand what was happening then, and what is happening now.

Jesus looked at the Pharisees and said, “Just so you know, I’ve got authority to forgive sins on earth, I’ll say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” At Jesus’ word, the young man jumped up, took his bed and ran out of the house. Jesus’ healing power was a sign.

Here’s an important point to understand those 30 – 40 healing accounts in the Gospels—the healings were signs designed to point to the eternal blessings Jesus was bringing, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was bringing to earth. These healings pointed ahead to the ultimate healing that Jesus was in the process of accomplishing, and that ultimate healing was not limited to the folks back then. No, it is for all of us, too. Yes, every one of us here today–Jesus loves you and me as much as he loved those folks back then. We are at no disadvantage to the people who were healed in his ministry.

So, here’s the deal, as I see it—Jesus is still in the healing business, just not necessarily in the same manner now as then. What do I mean?

MIRACLES AND MORE

First, let me acknowledge that sometimes, for unexplained reasons, God chooses to miraculously heal someone. A tumor is present on one visit to the doctor, and the next scan shows no trace of a tumor. Poof! Just like that, and there’s no other explanation for it but that God did it. All we can say is God surprises us with His mercy, and in those times all we can say is, “Praise the Lord!”

Second, let’s also acknowledge the healing power of medicine. Advances in health care are astounding compared to the first century. There were physicians in the first century. Luke, the Gospel writer, was one. People who were sick sought out physicians for their maladies. Recall the woman with the flow of blood. Luke tells her story, too (chapter 8). She’d spend twelve years going to doctors, but none of them could heal her. The health care advances of just the last 25 years would likely have led to her healing. The Lord uses doctors and medicines to promote healing today in ways never known before. Medical care is a great gift that promotes healing, and we are right to view it that way.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, knew the importance of health care. He even penned a volume that was required reading for his assistants. Wesley’s Primitive Physick was the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller. It went through twenty-three printings and was used well into the 1880’s, decades after Wesley’s death. In that volume, Wesley encouraged the use of doctors, and even promoted the idea that his preachers should offer health care to those in their charge, thus his volume of remedies and advice on health and healing.

For all that healthcare does for our healing, we still face the question, “Why not everyone?” I remind us that Jesus did heal this paralyzed man, and he would heal many others, too, but I also remind us that every one of these persons he healed would later die. Their physical healing was only temporary. Was Jesus’ faith not strong enough? There must be an expiration date on miracles!

ULTIMATE HEALING

We come to Jesus seeking a cure for what ails us, and there is no cure for death…there is only healing. When we proclaim Jesus is Healer, it is a statement that reaches beyond the physical. We go beyond the temporal to acknowledge, even as Jesus did, that healing is first a spiritual process before it is a physical one. Curing the body is a physical process. Healing the soul is a spiritual one. Curing the body is temporal, but healing the soul is eternal. We come to Jesus as healer seeking a cure for something physical. What Jesus as healer offers is something eternal.

Jesus gains the ultimate healing for us, the eternal healing, by dealing with the root problem of sin. Sin. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a particular disease or illness can be traced to a particular sin. That would be simplistic and wrong. There are a lot of unrepentant sinners who are perfectly healthy, and there are a lot of good, faithful Christians who are afflicted with chronic illness and pain.

I’m speaking, rather, of the general sinful condition that pervades this fallen world, ever since the time of Adam, and the sinful nature that we all inherit from Adam and pass down to our children is the root problem that results in all the damage and disease and misery that afflicts the human family. And to fix this, Jesus had to get to the bottom of it.

And, Jesus did so by carrying our sins in his body to the cross. When Jesus sheds his blood for the sins of the world, that my friends, is big medicine! As Isaiah 53:4-5 says,

“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
 But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.”

Do we know that? Do we know that it was our sins for which Jesus died? Yes, our sins–of not loving God, of not hearing and heeding his Word. Our sins of wanting to be our own god, to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong. Our sins of lack of love for our neighbor. Of being jealous of our neighbor’s success. Of grumbling about those the Lord has placed in our life. Of gossip and greed. Of selfishness and un-forgiveness. Yes, those are our sins that Jesus is bearing, bleeding on the cross.

The fact that Jesus is bearing our sins, that Jesus is shedding his blood for them–Jesus on the cross is purchasing our healing. Sins forgiven means curse lifted. Resurrection ahead. Healing ahead. For you. For me. Forever. It’s as good as Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. It’s ours, through faith in him. He shares his gifts with us.

Don’t misunderstand–death is not the ultimate healing as some have proclaimed. Resurrection is! Resurrection is the gift of healing that Christ offers us all.

How does this gift get delivered to our door, with our name on it? Two words—Word and Sacrament. The ongoing ministry of the church is God’s means of delivering the gift Christ won for you and me on the cross. Word and Sacrament are not clichés. They are God’s delivery system for life and salvation, for healing of the soul, and, yes, healing of the body, too.

God is not just interested in saving our soul. He has also promised to redeem our body. God is committed to restoring creation, and that includes our bodies. God is going to raise up our bodies on the last day. We believe in exactly what God has promised: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In the Word preached, the Gospel is heard with our ears and taken into the heart with gladness. In baptism, water is applied to these physical bodies, and in communion, the bread and wine represent the body and blood, and we receive the elements—we eat, we drink—and in so doing we receive Christ. Physical elements for physical people, yet working out an eternal healing that redeems both body and soul because Jesus is Healer. And, because Jesus is Healer, we pray—we pray for healing in the body and in the soul.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Not Enough Hours in the Day (And Other Rambling Thoughts)…

clergy burnoutI belong to a private Facebook group for clergy, and one of my colleagues posted a question about work hours to the group. The person pastors a growing church and was concerned about the number of hours worked in a typical week. The person was asking the members of the group to respond with their own typical hours. It made for some interesting responses, and prompted me to consider (or reconsider) “work” hours for myself and others.

First, a disclaimer: I write as one who went through a period of clergy burnout, so my responses may be colored by that fact. Don’t hold it against me, please. Here’s a helpful list of resources dealing with clergy burnout.

The person made the statement that he/she was working 48 – 60 hours per week, and wanted to know from others in the group is this was normal. My response? Uh…YEAH! Especially if the church you pastor is experiencing any growth. Of course, this raises the question of overwork for pastors (keep the lazy preacher jokes to yourself–and also the jokes about only working one day per week).

Here are my thoughts on pastoral work hours, and only a little rationale underlying why I think what I think. Please be gracious with any responses. Pastors have feelings, too!

I begin each week with the expectation that I’m going to “work” 50 hours per week. I also begin each week knowing the week is unpredictable, and there is no legitimate way to know how many hours I may work. I do anticipate that 50 will be the minimum. If there is a funeral or a wedding (or two, or three funerals…), then that number will stretch to nearer 60. This is my own expectation, not one anyone has placed upon me. Actually, if you look in the United Methodist Book of Discipline at the “job description” of a clergy, it would take closer to 90 hours a week, but that’s another discussion. Dr. Thom Rainer found that if you add up all the hours  for the congregational expectations for the various tasks clergy perform in a week, it would total 110 hours per week.

Here’s my rationale for my 50-hour work week. My average congregational member will work a 40-hour week. Then, I (as a pastor) expect the most committed member to offer ministry and participation to the local congregation, and if that most committed member offers 8 hours per week (including worship attendance, Sunday school, bible study, servant leadership, etc.), then that person has “worked” 48 hours per week. Why in the world would I ask any member to do more than I am willing to do myself? Aren’t we to lead by example? A subsequent question I ask is: Where does my “vocation” as a pastor end, and my calling as a “disciple” begin? There is a fine (very fine), gray line between the two.

Here’s a typical week for me:

  • Office hours 20 hours/week
  • Sermon preparation 12 – 20 hours/week (depending upon whether I’ve preached a particular passage before)
  • Hospital visitation 2 hours/week
  • Committee and Administrative meetings 4 hours/week
  • Denominational meetings and expectations 2 hours/week
  • Worship 4 hours/week (yes, leading worship is work! Try it sometime and see!)
  • Bible Study preparation (seasonal) 4 – 12 hours/week (depending on the resources utilized in prepartion)

Yes, I know the list totals more than 50 hours, but not every week includes everything on the list. There are some weeks when there are no denominational meetings or expectations, but then there are weeks when those expectations demand far more than two hours per week. The same with administrative meetings at the church, and also with hospital visitations. Throw in a single funeral, and we can add 6 – 8 hours of additional preparation time.

Please don’t misunderstand me. None of this is complaining! In one regard, I’m trying to figure out how my colleagues in ministry can possibly work less than 40 hours a week, or even limit ministry to 40 hours a week. They must be better at time management than I am! Of course, I’m the first to admit that I’m no good at time management.clergy chill

The real question for me (and this is a matter of boundaries, I suppose) is this: How much of what I do, do I do because I’m a pastor, and how much do I do because I’m a disciple? Therein lies the struggle for me. How much of what I do as a pastor would I do because I’m a disciple first? Yes, I know. There would be no sermon prep nor office hours, but I would be doing office hours somewhere, and I would be putting together projects or making sales calls, or doing whatever my chosen profession expected of me to be successful, so it would all balance out. I just figure if I haven’t invested 50 hours a week I probably haven’t done as much as my most committed member. I should do as much as my most committed member.

One of the great benefits of being a pastor is flexibility in scheduling work. With the exception of Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, we can flex our schedules relatively easily. That is definitely a benefit. This week might demand 60 hours, but next week might demand only 45, and I can greatly influence how I order those 45. There may even be the odd week that offers me the freedom to work less than 40 (those are rare, but they do happen) hours. God usually sends those at just the right time.

None of this is to say that overwork can’t be a problem. We should always observe a Sabbath. Sabbath rest is a biblical principle, and as congregational leaders (and disciples) we should lead by example. Since my burnout in 2008 I have pretty much honored my Sabbath. Yes, sometimes, funerals, special events, and unforeseen circumstances prevent it, but that’s where flexibility of scheduling becomes the benefit. We must take our Sabbath rest…must! The greatest problem many of us clergy have is getting past our own need to be needed. Take the Sabbath rest. The work will still be there when we get back. Perhaps we need the Sabbath rest to wrestle with the question, “Why do I need to be needed?” The greatest lesson I’ve learned as a pastor (a little hyperbole, folks) is that if something happens to me, there’ll be another pastor right behind me to take my place (especially in our United Methodist system of appointment). That’s also a humbling lesson. I’m not indispensable.

There’s much more I could write on this subject, but the simple fact is that I’ve already invested too much time this morning writing this blog, and I didn’t include writing this blog in figuring my hourly work load, so I’ve totally messed up my week. But, is this blog work, or is it discipleship, or is it for fun? I wonder? See how gray the line gets?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Story Matters Here…

amc-logoThe cable network AMC has a wonderful tag line that says “Story Matters Here.” Shows on the network include Mad MenThe Walking Dead, and one I’ve recently begun to watch, Breaking Bad.

Here’s the premise of Breaking Bad:

Walter White’s story begins with Walter standing in the middle of the New Mexico desert without his pants on. It’s quite dramatic, and the viewer is wondering how in the world he got there. The next scene flashes back to three weeks earlier to tell us how Walter made it to that desert. We learn in the first episode of the first season that Walter is a high school chemistry teacher with a wife, a special needs son, and a baby on the way. He’s lived a rather average life. Living on a teacher’s salary is not always easy, so Walter takes a second job at the local car wash to make ends meet. One day, he begins to struggle with a nagging cough, passes out at his car wash job and ends up at the hospital where a battery of tests are run. The discovery is made that he has terminal cancer. Fearing that he’s made no provision for his family, he turns to making drugs to make fast money. I know, not a great story line for a somewhat Christian blog, but AMC does a masterful job telling Walter’s story. Each episode of the series begins at the end of the story, and then goes back to tell the story.BreakingBad

I can’t think of the tag line “Story Matters Here” without thinking about the Bible. The Bible is God’s story, and there is no greater story in the world, nor is there a story that matters more. The Bible tells some amazing stories, too. The bible tells stories of incredibly normal people who do some pretty incredible things.  Makes me think there’s hope for me yet.

One of the great stories is the story of Joseph.  Let me review it briefly. Joseph story begins in Genesis 37, and is the 11th son of Jacob, the great patriarch of the Hebrew nation, but he’s the first son of Jacob’s treasured wife Rachel, and that makes Joseph very special in his father’s eyes. Not so in the eyes of his 10 older brothers. They see him as the spoiled, tattle tale younger brother. Of course, their father hasn’t helped matters much. He did give Joseph a “coat of many colors” to signify their special relationship with each other. It wasn’t necessarily the coat that sealed the deal for his brothers, but the fact that Joseph had a couple of dreams, and he thought it necessary to share the content of the dreams with his brothers. Long story short—both dreams showed his ten brothers and his father bowing down to him.

The rest of the story goes something like this:

  • Older brothers get mad at Joseph and sell him into slavery.
  • Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold again to Potiphar, a captain in Pharaoh’s palace guard.
  • Joseph excels in Potiphar’s house and becomes chief steward.
  • Potiphar’s wife takes a shine (if you know what I mean?) to Joseph.
  • Joseph resists, and is eventually charged with rape.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison. Languishes in prison for two years.
  • Pharaoh has a dream. Only Joseph is able to interpret the dream. Wins his release from prison.
  • Pharaoh elevates Joseph to Prime Minister in Egypt.
  • Famine hits the region.
  • Joseph’s brothers show up hunting food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them.

So, Joseph decides to have a little fun at their expense.

“You’re a bunch of spies!” he exclaims.

“No, way, my Lord. We’re brothers and honest men (ha! Ha! Ha! Joseph thinks). We just came to buy food.

“No, you’re spies!” he persists.

“No,” his brothers respond. “There are twelve of us. Our youngest brother remains at home with our father, and one brother is no more among us.”

Joseph says, “Prove it to me. One of you go get your younger brother and bring him here. I’ll keep nine of you in prison here (probably the same prison he was imprisoned in—oh, the irony!), while one of you goes back to Canaan to fetch the youngest.”

Joseph has them all put in prison for three days to let them think it over. They lament this is all happening because of what they did to Joseph about 17 years earlier.  A guilty conscience hangs around for a long time. The brothers hadn’t dealt with the guilt of what they had done to Joseph. That’s what guilt does to us. It eats at us until we deal with it in a healthy way. Edgar Allan Poe’s epic short story The Tell-tale Heart reflects the depths to which unresolved guilt can lead us. Poe’s narrator has murdered an old man and hidden his body under the floor boards of his home. The police come, and all the narrator can hear is the beating of the old man’s heart. Louder and louder it grows, ringing only in his ears, until he breaks down and confesses to the police. That’s where Joseph’s brothers find themselves.

The brothers eventually bring not only their younger brother, but their father and all their families to settle in the Egyptian area of Goshen. Joseph reveals himself to them all. They have a grand family reunion, and Jacob and all his progeny flourish under Joseph’s watchful care. Then, Jacob dies.

Returning from the funeral, the brothers fear that Joseph will now take his revenge. Though they’ve been living in Egypt for 17 years, and Joseph has cared for them, the brothers believe the bad blood still exists. Joseph had forgiven them. Seventeen years earlier, the brothers stood before him and he revealed who he was and said, “Don’t worry. God sent me here to save you and many others. Don’t be mad at yourselves for selling me into slavery. It’s all good. It’s a God thing” (Genesis 45 paraphrase). The problem was they couldn’t forgive themselves. Their guilt kept them from receiving the very thing that would reconcile them to Joseph. Guilt kept them from accepting their own forgiveness. Guilt kept them from experiencing grace, and grace is the only thing that can break bad blood.

Forgiveness is a gift that must be both extended and received. Joseph’s story foreshadows the story of Jesus Christ, who came to extend God’s forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is grace, and as such, can never be earned. It is a gift from the heart of God, and it must be a gift from us to others. The situation doesn’t demand it, the world doesn’t expect it, and the guilty don’t deserve it, but we do it anyway. Because that’s what Christ has done for us. But, there is also the matter of receiving the gift of forgiveness. We have to believe we’re really forgiven. Until we come to the point that we accept forgiveness, we’ll run away from that which will give us peace—and that’s our reconciliation to Christ. Rick McCarley tells the story of an attorney, who after studying on several scriptures, decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that owed him money for more than six months. He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its biblical basis and sent 17 debt-canceling letters by certified mail. Sixteen of the seventeen letters were returned, unsigned and undelivered. Why? Because the clients refused to sign for them and open the envelopes. They were afraid the attorney was suing them for their debts. In their fear, they ended up running away from his forgiveness.

May I offer two challenges to consider: First, we need to check our list. What list, you ask? The list we keep with the names of those we have yet to forgive. We all keep one, right? There’s bad blood, and the only thing that will break the bad blood is forgiveness. Joseph didn’t keep a list. He let it go because he saw God working even in the bad parts of life, and that takes grace. What list needs offering to the Lord? Who do we need to go to and offer our forgiveness?

Second, we need to accept forgiveness. Some of us need to accept the fact that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ, and others need to accept the forgiveness that someone else has attempted to extend, but for whatever reason, whether we can’t forgive ourselves, or we can’t get past the pain, we’ve not accepted the gift that’s been offered. So, the bad blood festers, and it will eventually destroy us. Is it so hard to believe that God loves us unconditionally? For 17 years, Joseph’s brothers couldn’t believe they’d been forgiven. How long have you been holding out accepting your own acceptance?

Joseph’s is a compelling story…and…story matters here. Mine matters…and…your’s matters. May both our stories be a story of forgiveness…both receiving and extending.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Value in Growing Smaller…

A phrase kept going through my mind: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Like a song gets stuck in your head, I simply could not put those words out of my mind. I finally got up at 3:30 a.m., and wrote them down.

tape measureAt first, the phrase didn’t make sense to me, especially in light of the fact that I’m supposed to be “growing” a church. That was my first connection to the phrase, but for some reason, that left too much undefined. So, what did I do? I went to Facebook (isn’t that what we always do these days?). I posted the phrase with two companion sentences: Reduction is a strategic endeavor. Some things must grow smaller before growing larger. Some things get better by being smaller. I asked for comments. Yes, I got quite a few (and no, there were no snide comments about reducing my waistline), but they all helped bring some clarity to the idea that “reduction is a strategic endeavor.”

Here’s what I’m thinking:

It’s a personal statement about de-cluttering one’s life. We must be strategic in eliminating the right things from our life to make margin for those endeavors that are fruitful and beneficial to helping us live healthy lives. There are a lot of things with which we can occupy our time. Most of them are good things, but not all of them are the best ways for us to grow as healthy persons and disciples. We must be strategic in eliminating the distractions, and focus on the things that matter most.

Okay, so it’s also personal, and can refer to my waistline. If we want to lose weight (and I can’t think of many people who don’t want to lose weight), we must develop a healthy strategy of exercise and diet. Without a strategy (and subsequent implementation) we’ll never take the first step in doing the necessary things to accomplish the goal. I might add, this is purely self-referential. I’m not casting a dispersion on anyone else and their waistline. Developing a strategy for healthy weight loss allows us to plan our work and then work our plan.

As I reflect, I understand that “reduction is a strategic endeavor” is also an intensely spiritual statement. I am reminded of John the Baptist’s words in John 3:30, “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” It is a statement about humility. We must be strategic in living lives of humility so that our mind becomes the mind of Christ. What are those things that keep me from humbling myself before Him? Is it my pride? How do I deal with that issue? Is it my arrogance? How do I deal with that? Is it my self-centeredness? How must I deal this that? Is it my laziness? Is it the fact that I rather enjoy having my own way? There are so many questions I ask myself that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to become less and less that He might become greater and greater. More than identifying them, how do I develop a strategy for dealing with them. Come Holy Spirit!

I discover the statement is also a professional statement. As I ponder this aspect of “reduction is a strategic endeavor,” I consider the “busy-ness” of many churches. We are busy with activity, but is the activity fruitful. Activities become the “end” for many churches rather than the “means.” We end up doing activity for activities sake, and that only serves to make the church more insular and stifles involvement in the community (where the people who need Jesus hang out). Thom Rainer did a great podcast on the subject recently, and made some very salient points:

  1. Activity is not biblical purpose.
  2. Busyness can take us away from connecting with other believers and non-believers.
  3. An activity-driven church often is not strategic in its ministries.
  4. A congregation that is too busy can hurt families.
  5. An activity-driven church often has no presence in the community.
  6. Activity-driven churches tend to have “siloed” ministries.
  7. Churches that focus on activities tend to practice poor stewardship.

As the body of Christ, we must be strategic in eliminating every activity that does not specifically address the mission of reaching others with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will probably get into some touchy areas, but without a strategy, we will continue to be busy, but not rather effective. What a shame!

I also reflected on “reduction is a strategic endeavor” for the church as a whole. It sounds counter-intuitive to us as we see “mega-churches” (and now, “giga-churches”) growing by leaps and bounds, and we know that growth is good, especially when others accept Christ as Lord and Savior. But, I was given pause as I considered the words of John 6:66, “At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Sometimes, discipleship is simply too hard. It’s easier to turn away from the challenges of being a disciple, and one reason the western church may be (and I’m only speculating here) in the state of decline is because we’ve had a lot of “cultural Christians”–those who were part of the body of Christ for the benefits that came from a religious affiliation. Perhaps (and again, I’m speculating) persecution is the Lord’s strategy for winnowing out His church.

Finally, there is another consideration on the phrase “reduction is a strategic endeavor” that I’ve pondered. It stems from my time as a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church. It’s painful, but it’s true, and I hesitate to even mention it here, but I feel compelled. There are many congregations in the UM Church that lack effectiveness (for a number of reasons). Those small congregations draw resources, energy and attention away from the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Is it a matter of stewardship to develop a strategy for dealing with those congregations, for developing a strategy for reducing the number of congregations that are not achieving the mission? That’s a challenging thought, and one for which I will receive much push back, but shouldn’t someone be asking the question?

There are probably many other considerations I should make, but that’s about where I am this morning. And, now, you know what I’m thinking (as though you even cared!).

Until next time, keep looking up…