Monday, February 25, 2013

Things I've learned…part 2

After my first year as a pastor, I wrote an article for a publication that was meant to be a funny commentary on the things I learned that I never expected to learn in parish ministry…things like the incredible large-ness of cows….and the exquisite quality of food at a church potluck dinner.

While most people enjoyed the article, some even re-published it, and one group even thought it good enough to give an award, a few didn't like it at all. Some, in fact, were angry with me for writing it and I was told that it was "inappropriate."  What I learned from that experience was to keep my mouth shut, particularly when it came to my feelings about the church and the people in it. It was a matter of survival for me in that situation.  In the end, I learned that it didn't matter what I said or didn't say.  And I learned that honesty, while often costly, is rarely a mistake.

Now that I've been a pastor for over 5 years, I've learned even more things I never expected to learn.  I've learned, above all, that no matter what I say or don't say, do or don't do, someone will choose to take offense. So, for you who choose to be offended, please accept my heartfelt apology in advance. Nothing I say is intended to hurt or insult.  Mostly, I just try to be honest and, sometimes, even funny.

Here are some things I have learned in my 5 years in ministry, and hope to pass on to future pastors (without scaring them off)...

Seminary is wonderful and fun and filled with a community that loves God, worships joyfully, and shares deep faith... and it bears very little resemblance to actual congregational ministry.  Similar to parenthood, you will have no idea the joy and the heartache of parish ministry until you are gut-deep into it.

A pastor's first year in a church is pure bliss…a honeymoon, to be sure. He/she glides on silvery butterfly wings.  The second year, folks have no problem wadding up the butterflies and throwing them at you.

People can be incredibly kind and thoughtful and will say or do things completely unexpectedly that will bring you to tears.

People can be incredibly mean and insensitive and will say or do things completely unexpectedly that will bring you to tears.

Even when you have preached every week for 50 weeks in a row and are sick of the sound of the organ, the choir, and especially your own voice, the Spirit of God still has something to say.  

Your congregation will have no idea the things you give up to be their pastor. In fact, you have no idea the things you will give up to be a pastor.  Things like: your privacy, your personal space, frequently your opinion, and ultimately your life, to be perfectly honest. There's no way around it.  And you will learn to give up your need for recognition, acknowledgment, appreciation, and even self, at times.

You will have a love/hate relationship with your cell phone. Often you will feel like throwing it across the room…but you won't…because someone from church might call or text….

The positive side of the challenges is that you will find God in places you never expected to find Him.  You will be amazed at how much God can do with little and how often God intervenes to make something beautiful out of something you were ready to throw away.  And He will be faithful to the promises He has made to you.  Always. 

You will find yourself laughing with seminary friends, after about 2 years in ministry, about what you THOUGHT it was going to be…and then again at 5 years...that is, if any of you are still serving in ministry after 5 years…chances are good many won't be.

Parish ministry is a lonely vocation. You'll try to explain it, but no one will really understand except another pastor.

If you're single….yeah, you're staying that way.  

Hopefully, if you're married and you work really hard at it, you will also stay that way.  

Speaking God's truth is harder than it looks. Folks may not like it and God isn't in the room to take the hits….you are. 

Even when people aren't nice, they depend on you to be their pastor.  It is an unbelievable privilege and equally unbelievable responsibility to be the shepherd of a congregation.  The pastor does not have the luxury of choosing not to love anyone in the congregation. Regular folks get to choose who they will love and get to choose to stop loving people who hurt them if they want to. The pastor must love everyone God has placed in his/her congregation, all the time.  Even when he/she has been hurt by them. Especially when he/she has been hurt by them.

As a pastor and as a Christian, my greatest desire is obedience to God.  I have learned that not everyone shares that desire.  

Yoga helps. Good friends are crucial. And, for the love of Pete, take a vacation now and then.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Wilderness and temptation...

Based on John 4

Often, the temptations that are placed before us don’t look anything like evil.  Often, they look like things that will be good for us or for our community. Evil is not always easily recognizable…because it is based on distortions and lies.  In order to be tempted, it is much easier for the enemy to present something familiar to us and offer us that rather than something new and unfamiliar…temptation appeals to our comfort and security even more than it appeals to  glamour and power.  Unfortunately, evil also distorts what we know of God and the world.

The enemy presents wants as needs, falsehoods as truths, distrust as faith.  Where in our world do we hear these distortions? Advertising?  Politics? Gossip? We are trained to distrust our own feelings and experiences,  and trust those of other folks with agendas other than the glory of God, agendas to boost their own esteem, or worse, to diminish our faith and trust in our God…to make us believe lies about who we are and what we need instead of relying on our knowledge of whose we are and that our true need is to rely on Him.  In this testing in the wilderness, the devil tries to do the same with Jesus.  He tries to make him believe lies-like that he has been given all authority over the world.  That’s a lie.  Jesus does not fall for that lie because he knows who he is and who his father is and that his father has all authority in the universe.

The devil tries to persuade Jesus that discomfort is not part of the journey of faithful obedience.  If he wants to act like the son of God (as he says he is) he should just go ahead and make the stones into bread so he won’t be hungry anymore.  But Jesus knows his Father and he knows what real faith is.  Real faith is trusting God even in the harsh wilderness…even when it would be much easier and more comfortable to just turn the rock into a stone and eat it and stop being hungry.  How often do we find ourselves in the wilderness for extended periods of time spending every moment trying to find ways out…or ways to make the harsh realities of our situations more palatable and comfortable rather than trusting in God who promises to see us through?

It’s so much easier to deal with hardship when we can find ways to lessen the discomfort, right?  But all too often, that’s exactly the lie the enemy puts before us.  If the Spirit of God has led us to a place of harshness and discomfort, we must believe there is a reason for it and that he will be faithful to take us through it in His time and in His way.  When we believe the lie that we must rely on our own strategies and understanding and take the temptations to make the ride a little less painful, we allow God’s message to us to be distorted and in so doing, we miss the purpose God has for the journey.  We get so busy trying to fix things and make them more tolerable and we forget that there is a purpose to the time in the desert…to prepare us and to shape us and to focus our attention on the one who truly provides.

So many of the most important leaders in the Bible were led into the desert or wilderness before they were able to do the tremendous things God had for them to do.  God told Moses to lead ALL the people of Israel into the desert to escape slavery…and not just for 40 days bur for 40 YEARS.  The people did the natural thing, they complained about it.  They talked about how much better it was back in Egypt when they were slaves.  They tried to collect manna and save it so they would have some sense of security.  They made a golden calf to have something tangible to worship. Moses himself never saw the promised land..he died before they arrived in Israel and there had to be times when Moses thought to himself, “what have we gotten ourselves into? This can’t possibly be what God has promised.”  And then, when God was ready, he led them to Israel where, might I add, things were not always rosy either.  Not even the promised land is going to be always easy and comfortable.

John the Baptist spent months in the desert before he began his ministry.  He ate locusts to survive.  And he had a huge role to play in the ministry of Jesus.  And now Jesus himself is led into the desert before he begins the work God has for him.  There is often, in God’s Kingdom, a time for quiet preparation, a time for sitting in the wilderness and waiting for God.

We all experience time in the wilderness. We become uncomfortable with some of the realities we are facing.   We want to believe the distortions the enemy puts in front of us…that doing nothing  is preferable to change that could bring us into closer obedience or that we must find a quick fix for our difficulties right away and get back to our comfortable way of being.  It is so hard to sit patiently in the desert and wait on God. I think it’s the hardest thing we are asked to do as Christians in this world.  Some of us will scramble to find ways to make the desert more comfortable…fashioning pillows out of rocks and trying to turn stones into bread.  We might believe the lie that tells us that if we are a bit more at ease, we are doing better and that is God’s plan.  But when we look to Jesus, if we look to Jesus, we see that he did not do this.  He refused to accept anything that changed his circumstances, even allowing himself to be hungry rather than turn just one little stone into a piece of bread, until God himself led him to the next thing.

Perhaps instead of focusing on the hardship around us we might choose, instead to focus on what we know of our God.  How have we experienced God’s faithfulness in our own wilderness?  How is our relationship with God being transformed? How strong are our temptations to return to old ways—ways of relying on ourselves—and how is God helping us to turn instead to his ways?

Even Jesus had a tough time in the wilderness.  The Holy Spirit himself had to take him there because, I suspect, like us, he might not have chosen it for himself.  But upon closer look we see that the Holy Spirit did not just drop Jesus off in the desert and leave him there to fend for himself…he stayed with him and was in him as the temptations came.  With the Holy Spirit, Jesus turned to God’s Word in times of temptations and refuted the promises and lies of evil.  And so it is with us.  The Spirit will lead us into  times of wilderness testing.  We will be tempted to bounce around and try to make it more comfortable, but he will not abandoned us there.  He will stay with us and point us to God’s Word, who is Christ, so that we will endure and overcome and we will be ready when the Holy Spirit takes us out again to do great things.