thegoodenoughpastor

Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Stepping into the name

This past week I was asked about The Good Enough Pastor twice in separate, unrelated contexts. Funny, while others had taken notice of my blog, I’d nearly forgotten.

I’d like to pass it off as being busy, adapting to a new pastoral position, and the expected adjustment period that any life-change brings. I just haven’t created my new normal.

Then I looked at my site. My last entry was over five months ago.

That feels like a long adjustment stage.

A premise I hold to (and challenge those I counsel) is, “We cannot not communicate.” Everything we do and say conveys a message. As does what we choose not to say.

And, what we avoid doing.

Applying this to my lapse in blogging, the question arose, “What does my absence of writing say? What’s the story behind that?”

The obvious: I’m busy focusing on pastoral tasks. It’s a time- and energy-consuming calling.

Legitimate reasons.

But also superficial.

As I explore more deeply, I acknowledge it has more to do with my anxiety.

Where do I come off with the audacity to think I have anything meaningful to say? Who do I think I am to presume to have original thoughts? Who wants to read what I have to offer?

In short, I’m not good enough.

Hmm. The irony.

Anxiety is pretty sneaky.

In Mark 6, there’s the story of Jesus walking on the water. His disciples are in the boat, struggling to navigate through waves and wind. When the guys see Jesus, they scream out in fear.

“It’s a ghost!”

It’s interesting how distorted their perception is at this point. A ghost is menacing, scary, evil. About as far from the character of Jesus as one can get.

Anxiety does this to us. It’s quite convincing, too.

We become stuck, paralyzed, when in the clutches of anxiety. Inactivity and avoidance are logical strategies to placate our apprehensions.

I recognize it’s not a good idea to diagnose myself, but I’m pretty sure this is why I haven’t posted since November.

At the risk of this going the way of New Year’s resolutions, my goal is to step back into The Good Enough Pastor, and start writing again.

Celebrating the rest of the story

Last Sunday I spoke on Jesus choosing Levi to be one of his disciples.

Prior to his encounter with Jesus, Levi is identified as “Levi, the tax collector.” More than an occupation, the addendum defines Levi. It’s a moral statement.

Tax collectors in Jesus’ era are dishonest, cheats and traitors. Levi is a real low-down, dirty rotten scoundrel.

Levi goes to work in the morning with one name, Levi the Tax Collector. He leaves work with a brand new name, Levi the Chosen. Levi the Follower of Jesus. Levi the Forgiven.

However, as is often the case in the New Testament, we don’t know the rest of the story.

What was Levi like the next day? Or the day after that?

Did Levi ever struggle with lying or cheating after Jesus chose him? Did the self-serving nature that drove him to collect taxes for the Romans ever surface in his interactions with the other disciples? Did he ever come across as unlikable?

My hunch is that the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Changing Levi’s name was just the beginning of his transformation.

I’ve long observed that the church world focuses on event-centered ministry. We celebrate the dramatic conversion, perhaps starting way back with the Apostle Paul. We count the numbers and use them to validate ministries. The bigger the numbers, the more successful we are.

This puts much pressure on pastors. By and large, misplaced pressure.

Pastoral ministry isn’t nearly so much about an event as it is a process. The real work of pastoring is walking with the Levi’s as they unlearn their old-name patterns and learn to live with their new names.

It’s a long process.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

It’s often messy.

It can be discouraging.

But each step of growth, each milestone of transformation, is a miracle to celebrate.

A fraudulent vocation

I recently attended a pastors retreat where the speaker stated, “Ours is a fraudulent vocation.”

That was eye-popping statement. If the speaker didn’t have my attention before, he certainly had me now.

He went on to explain that our fraudulent vocation is rooted in the fact that vocational ministry is always in crisis. We constantly feel the friction of lack of resources, not enough dependable leaders, and people who struggle with their commitments.

Going deeper, our vocational crisis stems from our faith being based on crises. This is true in a general sense. Christ came to save sinners. That’s crisis enough.

But a deeper level, we pastors know our personal faith is a faith of crises. We know our own sin (hopefully we are honest about that). We know our inconsistencies and hypocrisies. We know our inadequacies when it comes to leadership.

I spent substantial portions of my first pastorate fearing people would eventually figure out I was a fraud–that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I wasn’t trying to deceive people by covering up some heinous sin. Rather I was keenly aware I didn’t know how to fix the problems and challenges presented to me in pastoral ministry.

  • I had no magical answers that would take away the pain of a couple’s deteriorating marriage.
  • I didn’t have any  proven formulas to give parents dealing with rebellious kids.
  • As much as I prayed, I never found effective strategies to reach un-churched people in our community, most of whom had zero interest in our catchy vision statement or ministry slogan.
  • While counseling and encouraging parishioners to live victorious Christian lives, I found I struggled with a lot of the same temptations and challenges as they. I experienced relapses  my thought-life, struggled with basing my sense of worth by my bank account, and had teenage children who bucked my authority and slept through church.

The reality of the fraudulent vocation still nips at my heels. My anxiety surrounding my inadequacy spikes at times.

I am learning to accept that this is the norm, both of ministry vocation and the Christian life in general. Author Jamie Blaine observes, “What people claim corporately and believe privately are two very different things. Everybody’s wrecked behind the scenes. We’re all struggling and faking it somewhere along the way, praying no one finds out how messed up we truly are.”

Furthermore, this is a tenet of New Testament faith. Jesus was clear that he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. Paul wasn’t shy in acknowledging that he was chief among sinners. It’s in our weakness that God’s grace and power are at their strongest.

I wonder how much I believe this.

I catch myself measuring my value, worth and meritocracy on how well I behave–how good of a job I do in getting my act together. I grade my pastoral legitimacy on how creatively hip my messages are and how seamless my organizational skills appear.

I find myself resisting my need to rely on grace. While Paul’s words, “I will boast about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” inspire me, as does Henri Nouwen’s phrase “wounded healer,” actually being weak and wounded chafes my ego.

Perhaps that’s the real fraud of how we do our Christian life in general, and ministry in particular.

When nothing is happening

I love the movie, Boyhood. It chronicles the life of Mason as he grows from early childhood to entering college.

The movie was filmed over a 12-year span, with all the same actors. We literally watch each character grow and age as the story unfolds on the screen.

Truly a brilliant production.

It’s a movie where nothing happens, yet everything happens.

The film serves as a metaphor of pastoral ministry.

Most of the models of ministry I was exposed to in my formative years were event-oriented. Sunday worship services were the main event, a production.

The expectation (translated “pressure”) focused on producing measurable and quantifiable results. The more immediate and dramatic, the better. How many attended, how many were saved, how many came to the altar, how high on the excitement scale did we reach.

All that and do it again next week. Only better.

My Bible college paraded those who succeeded in this model. They spoke in our chapel services. Their churches, which apparently never had a boring service, were our models. We applauded their glowing reports of conversions and miracles. We were groomed to covet and compete for their success.

The message, both overt and covert, was clear–if you weren’t producing results, you were missing God and not filled with the Spirit. The real message: you were a failure.

It didn’t take long in ministry to face the angst that such models create.

Unlike the success models, hardly anyone responded to altar calls. People stared blankly during worship. Some yawned and dozed during the sermon.

It rocked my confidence and made me question my calling. Could I make the cut? I had my fair share of critics asking the same.

Over time, my ministry paradigm began to shift. As I continued to pastor the congregation, I noticed people (me included) gradually begin to reflect the work of Christ in their lives.

I’ve learned that pastoral ministry is much more a process than a production. It’s the day-in-day-out presence with people as they walk their journey of life and faith.

Most of it is rather mundane.

But it’s in the consistent work of ministry–praying, worshiping, preaching/teaching, sharing the sacraments, counseling and guiding, being present in times of celebration and grief, developing friendship–that spiritual formation takes shape. The Holy Spirit is faithful to develop enduring disciples.

Like Boyhood, pastoral ministry often feels like nothing is happening, yet everything is happening.

Eugene Peterson reminds us what one of his mentors taught him, “A lot is going on when you don’t think anything is going on.”

 

Firing myself from a useless job

I came across a compelling statement the other day, “God does not need our protection or perfect understanding.”

One of the challenges I’ve faced in ministry is the pressure, external and internal, to protect God. I assumed one of the primary charges of the Christian faith, and ministry in particular, is to conduct PR work for God. It is primarily found in the efforts to explain God in light of life events.

I apparently bought into the premise that God has a fragile ego, and I must protect his image at all costs.

I’m realizing that my efforts to protect God’s reputation are more about me and my own image. I want to prove I’m right and that I’m on the right team.

Therefore, God better look good and right. There better not be any uncomfortable slip-ups in the universe. No embarrassing ambiguities and complexities in theology. No mysteries that we can’t explain and justify.

I can’t afford theological egg on my face.

It’s much clearer now that my efforts to protect God and his public image are much more about my own anxiety. It’s an attempt to protect myself.

In recent years I’ve come to realize that God is quite fine on his own. I’m learning that God is quite capable of standing on his own two feet. He was doing it long before I joined his team. And he’ll be doing it long after I exit this earth.

So, I’ve fired myself from the job of being God’s PR manager.

I’m learning to sit with mystery. I’m more comfortable with unanswerable questions. I don’t have to pretend to like everything that happens in the world–or happens to me, for that matter.

An interesting result has emerged through this process. I find the less I have to defend and protect God, the more room I have to be with others, allow them to be their authentic selves, and love them unconditionally. My sense of self does not rise and fall on whether they agree with me.

 

 

Stepping back in

After a 7 year hiatus, I’ve stepped back into the role of senior pastor. My wife and I planted a church in 1988, and I pastored it for 20 years. Like all church plants and pastoral tenures, we experienced ups and downs, setbacks and celebrations.

We weathered the strains of that work, and with much prayer and thought I stepped out of that pastorate to pursue other ministry expressions.

The next several years witnessed unfulfilled dreams, failures and a general crisis of faith. I tasted plenty of confusion, shame, self-doubt and God-doubt.

But I also experienced loads of grace.

Interesting how the two often coincide.

Over the last year-and-a-half, a growing conviction began developing in my heart of hearts. I’m wired for pastoral work. I’ve always known it, but for a variety of reasons struggled to own it.

With a host of self-doubts still whispering in the far corners of my soul, I decided to lean into faith and own my calling. Graciously, I was extended the call to pastor the church my family has been involved in throughout my journey of the last seven years.

Yesterday was my first day back in the saddle of preaching/teaching on a regular basis.

On the way to church, my wife asked me how I was doing.

“I’m nervous.”

“Why?” she asked.

I paused, then decided to name my anxiety.

“I hope they like me.”

I’m sure that, somewhere, behind that anxiety is the anxiety of having the audacity to trust the grace of God.

I’m determined to do so.

I’m stepping back in.

The “Whosoever” Gospel

Probably the most familiar verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Christians crow about how this verse contains the entire message of the Gospel in one succinct statement.

Perhaps its real fame, though, has come through the unlikely source of televised sports. Who hasn’t seen the “3:16” sign as extra points sail through goalposts, free throws swish through nets and batters take a third strike?

One of the key words in the verse is “whosoever.” It seems to be a pretty inclusive term.

Over the years, however, I recognize my propensity to read “whosoever” as meaning me and those I like.

We can only read John 3:16, well by reading the the rest of the story that it’s placed in. It’s part of the commentary that John adds to a conversation that Jesus has been having with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, we’re told, is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council (3:1). The religious system that framed Nicodemus’ understanding of acceptability and inclusion in God’s kingdom focused on strict adherence to the Law of Moses and ceremonial purity.

Much of the traditions and rituals focused on Temple worship.

Richard Rohr notes that in this system of Temple worship, the acceptance and availability of God were clearly defined by the very design of the Temple.

At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter, and he only once a year.

Next was the court of the priests and Levites. This space was reserved for the religious elite.

Outside this court was the court of the circumcised Jews. It’s pretty obvious who had access here and who didn’t.

Then came the outer court where Jewish women were allowed. However, because of purity laws surrounding menstruation, birthing and ritual purity, they rarely had access.

Outside this court was a sign warning non-Jews not to enter or be punished by death. (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation)

This paradigm was about as opposite of “whosoever” as we can get.

Jesus had been preaching his “whosoever” message all along. He broke through the walls of exclusion by eating with tax collectors, touching lepers, interacting with women, laying hands on dead people, and intermingling with foreigners, including Gentiles and Roman soldiers.

Jesus’ love and acceptance had no boundaries. It was a value he was willing to die for.

I tend to create my own set of rules to determine which circle I belong in. I have my own purity laws I use to my acceptability to God. “The better i perform my duties and control my sinful impulses, the closer to the inner circle I get.”

I also have my circles I place others in. I assume I get to determine their level of belonging.

Like Nicodemus, I need to hear the gospel of “whosoever.”

And like Nicodemus, I will wrestle with its implications.

The Ninety-nine

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story about a farmer who has 100 sheep. Somehow one gets lost, and the farmer is faced with a dilemma.

What does he do?

The obvious answer, it seems, is to leave the 99 and search the land over until the stray is found.

It seems like shady math to me, but I’m not telling the story.

That lost sheep is pretty darn lucky.

But I wonder about the 99. What keeps them in the fold? How is it that they don’t wander?

Jesus never addresses this. It’s obviously not the point of his story. It’s all about finding the lost sheep.

I’ve always assumed that the 99 had played their cards right. They must have had their act together. It’s to their credit that they hadn’t strayed.

But is it?

Some of us stay in the fold more out of fear than virtue. We aren’t convinced that if we venture out of the safety zones of life that there’s enough love in the Father’s heart to come find us if we happen to get lost.

Fear becomes the fence that pens us in.

There’s something to say for those who dare to risk, to live life fully.

Being secure in the Father’s love and grace provides us the courage to fully express ourselves. We can leave the confines of the familiar and predictable and discover life beyond.

It’s risky.

It’s dangerous.

Sometimes we get lost.

We’ll need a shepherd to search and find us.

Jesus is clear on this point. He will do just that.

And it’s the lost sheep who gets the party.

Leading by presence

This week I presented a parenting workshop for an area church. The group was comprised primarily of parents of teens.

In my preparation I was again impressed with the impact and genius of the incarnation.

As parents, particularly parents of teens, we know we’re in over our heads. We’re desperate for answers. We want to believe there is a formula, some technique, that will solve our problems, relieve our fears, answer our questions and guarantee desired results.

We demand it.

This confirms our infatuation with knowledge. We assume effective living is a matter of getting the right information and mastering the right techniques. Knowing guarantees success.

I’m sure most parents attend workshops like mine hoping to find that missing piece of information that will seal the deal for them. Surely one more seminar will turn the key.

Seasoned parents discover parenting isn’t primarily about knowledge. While information can be quite helpful, information alone doesn’t equate to effectiveness.

Parenting is primarily about presence. Who we are as people, as parents, carries far greater impact than what we know.

We are the greatest asset we can offer our kids. (Unfortunately, if we don’t learn to manage ourselves well, we can be a great liability instead.)

The same is true in ministry.

Our impact on others is rooted in our presence.

We see this in the incarnation. God manifests himself not by sending information. Salvation, in its multi-layered richness, is not accomplished by formulas.

God accomplishes it through the incarnation–God becoming flesh and living among us.

He is present.

Parenting, ministry and any relationship is about incarnation. God is alive and present in us. We in turn are present with others.

Our primary and most significant impact on others isn’t in what we know. It doesn’t come by transferring information.

Our greatest impact is our presence–being present and accounted for.

 

 

New way of praying

When I was younger and new in the faith, I despised written prayers. They were for the lukewarm, those not alive in the Spirit.

Well, “when I was a child, I talked as a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child” (1 Corinthians 13:11a). My arrogance embarrasses me now. I trust I’m becoming a man and putting those childish ways behind me (v. 11b).

As I’ve moved half-way through my 50’s, I’m finding that my early form of praying now seems hollow and shallow. I need words that reach into my soul with sustenance and substance. I need words that transform.

My words don’t seem to cut it anymore. I get tired hearing me repeat familiar pleas. I find a good deal of my words sound like I’m counseling God, as if he lacks wisdom.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by meaningless and vain repetition.

My prayer life now consists laregely of silence. Once in a while I’ll come across a well-crafted written prayer that nails the yearning of my soul. Both are rather refreshing.

Once such written prayer deals with the current military conflicts occurring in the world. Crafted by Sister Joan Chittister, it petitions our Father in this way:

Great God, who has told us “Vengeance is Mine,”

save us from ourselves,

save us from the vengeance in our hearts

and the acid in our souls.

Save us from the desire to hurt as we have been hurt,

to punish as we have been punished,

to terrorize as we have been terrorized.

Give us the strength it takes

to listen rather than to judge,

to trust rather than to fear,

to try again and again to make peace even when peace eludes us.

We ask, O God, for the grace

to be our best selves.

We ask for the vision

to be builders of the human community

rather than its destroyers.

We ask for the humility as a people

to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.

We ask for the love it takes

to bequeath to the children of the world to come

more than the failures of our own making.

We ask for the heart it takes

to care for all the peoples of

Afghanistan and Iraq, of Palestine and Israel (we can add U.S. inner cities, minorities, the person next door)

as well as for ourselves.

Give us the depth of soul, O God,

to constrain our might,

to resist the temptation of power

to refuse to attack the attackable,

to understand

that vengeance begets violence

and to bring peace–not war–everywhere we go.

For you, O God, have been merciful to us.

For you, O God, have been patient with us.

For you, O God, have been gracious to us.

And so may we be merciful,

and patient,

and gracious,

and trusting

with these whom you also love.

This we ask through Jesus,

the one without vengeance in his heart.

This we ask forever and ever. Amen.

These are powerful words.

Penetrative.

Transformative.

I need to hear myself pray these words.

As C.S. Lewis would say, prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes me.

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