Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Future of Ministry

John the Evangelist had a revelation while serving a sentence of exile on the Patmos.

I think I just had mine in the parking lot behind Marvin's in Greencastle.

I just got off the phone with a former mentor of mine, Rex McDaniel, a Presbyterian minister who is on the cusp of retiring and "near the promised land" as I joked with him.  After a bit of catching up, I asked Rex how ministry was going.

His description of his church's position and his own floored me with its relevance for my own life.

Rex has been in ministry since the mid 70's sensing a call to love others in the name of Jesus when the Church in American still believed it's best years were ahead of it.  He grew up as a pastor out on the East Coast in the 1980's and early 90's, watching his congregation and his family grow with the suburbs surrounding them.  Then, in the late 90's he returned home to Southern California where he has been the pastor for Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena for over fifteen years now.  He came as a wise and experienced minister; the kind of man aptly capable of steering the ship of a large Presbyterian congregation that had enjoyed decades of life as a congregation.  The narthex of the church is lined with the pictures of former ministers - all men - who have stood in that same pulpit before Rex, like mighty captains overseeing and steering the vessel of the church:  sitting on committees, preaching on Sundays, visiting the sick, launching new programs, being the public face of the church in the community.

That role of being pastor to the flock and minister in the community is a role that Rex has enjoyed.  He wouldn't say this about himself, but I can:  he's done well in his role.  Calvary Presbyterian Church has been blessed by his ministry.  And, as Rex himself said, the church has been very good to him as well.  By that he means not just that specific congregation in South Pasadena.  He means too the overall mother Church and our denomination.  Because Rex was able to minister at least in the waning days of Christendom, he's been able to enjoy the benefits of having cultural relevance.  He's been asked to join Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis meetings in each place he's served.  He's been granted special discounts from time to time.  And, most importantly for a man on the cusp of retirement, he's been blessed with a pension and retirement plan that far exceeds what most Americans can expect these days, not to mention an incredible condo facing the idyllic scenery of the Rose Bowl of all places.  Rex, true to his name's sake, has a regal future in front of him, and he knows it.

But, he also knows this.

It's not going to be this way for me or for those in my generation.

The game is ending.

Time is running out.

And here is how Rex knows this is true.

For several years, Calvary Presbyterian Church has been running a preschool on its campus.  This preschool is a shining light in the community.  It has a waiting list and families in the area are eager to get their kids into it.  For years, though, very few of the families who have children in the preschool actually come to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Sunday.  That's nothing new.  But, this is.
During the week, Rex and the rest of the ministry team at Calvary hosts a mid-week chapel service for the preschool.  In the past, it's just always been there, and nothing much was made of it.  But, as Rex said, in the last few years, more and more parents are insisting that their kids not go to the chapel service.  They're afraid that their children will be force-fed some type of doctrine.  They are convinced that the church will be bad for their children.

And this is the change.

It's been happening so subtly, it's hard to really believe it's true.

But here we are.

There was a time when church life served as a type of center for American families along with the local school, sports teams, and civic life.  Back in those days, in the 1960's even up until the 1980's, if you were a middle class family, church was likely a part of your weekly rhythm.

"Now," Rex admitted to me, "the idea of a Lord's Day worship rhythm for families isn't even something they are considering."  It's not even on their radar.

Not that Rex and Calvary haven't tried to make it more appealing.  They, like so many other churches, have tried to make the packaging more appealing to the customer.  They first tried a blended style of worship and brought in the guitars and more expressive means of worship.  They then went full bore and completely contemporary, a move that has helped bring some passion back to the congregation that is already there.  Only problem is it hasn't actually brought in anyone else from the wider community.

No matter how attractive and appealing Rex and Calvary try to make Sunday morning, it's just not something many people in Southern California are interested in.


Here's the analogy that helps me conceptualize what is happening:

When I was growing up, I used to eat all kinds of sugary-cereal.  Coco-puffs.  Lucky Charms.  Fruity Pebbles.  You name it, I probably had it.  And every time I went to the grocery store, that's where I wanted to go.  I wanted to see Count Chocula and Tony the Tiger.

Now, when my wife takes the kids to the grocery store, they hardly even set foot in that aisle.  My wife bee-lines it to the value boxes of Raisin Bran or Grape Nuts, picks up the goods and gets out of their as quick as she can.  Or, she doesn't even make it that far.  She goes to the new organic section and picks up something that is healthier.

She knows that those "other" cereals are not good for our kids, or at least not as good as they could be.  So, she chooses not to expose them to what she calls the sugar of "white death" or tries to expose them to healthier dietary options.

Don't you see this is precisely the same shift that has occurred in how our culture views Christianity these days?

I doubt there are many here in our community who believe that Christianity is an out-and-out danger to their children, but I can assure you there are some.

But, even if that isn't the case, there are many more here in our community who might feel like what the Christian faith has to offer may be good ... it's just not as valuable as ... well ... developing those skills that will make your child attractive to a good college, becoming an honor student at school, or developing some musical or athletic potential.  Besides, there is something to the whole realm of faith that can be a bit too fanatical, as we've been rudely reminded of in recent weeks with the onslaught of visiting "street preachers."

Far more important to most parents these days is whether or not their kids get into a preschool like Calvary's got than finding a church community like what Calvary offers.


There's more.

There's another reason why Rex isn't so sure guys like me will be able to go the distance like he has in ministry.

In this modern reality that Rex is seeing so clearly, the question isn't, "How can we get people to come to our church?"  It's "How can we equip our members to go out and be church where they are?"

For so long, big, mainline churches like the Presbyterian Church have operated on the assumption that if they just open up their doors, people will eventually find their way to their parking lot and into their pews.

Those days are long gone.

The problem, though, is that big, mainline denominations don't make the transition from "come-to-us" to "go-to-you" easily.  In fact, they often don't make it all.  And that's precisely the tension Rex feels as he prepares to bless his congregation for the last time and ventures into retirement.  He's not sure Calvary Presbyterian is going to make it.

He can see that promised land where the church has to be willing to give up its very identity, but the church still has a lot of core members who aren't ready to admit that.  That core group is still chasing a fantasy ... an illusion ... a memory.  They still harbor the prospect of getting back to "1962 Calvary" as Rex describes it.

So there's this impasse.  Maybe there's a reason why Moses and his generation couldn't make that trip on into the Promised Land.  The transition is too severe.  The death and rebirth too demanding.

Churches like Calvary and Greencastle Presbyterian are not going to find their way by going backwards in time.

But, it takes a type of rebirth entirely to give away that image in favor of going out to be in the midst of the wider community.

It takes becoming a culture of Christian missionaries living as a minority within a dominant secular America.

And for me and my generation of ministers, it's going to mean giving up on a lot of those assumed cultural privileges that Rex readily admits are nice but never guaranteed for those who walk by faith.  That nice pension may not be there.  The prospect of watching a church grow through the decades with the minister is highly unlikely.

More likely, the time will come ... and perhaps not very long from now ... when I will have to find a way to return to the ways of Paul, to become a tent-maker of sorts and find another occupation, to find a means of supporting myself so that my work isn't about helping navigate a large, mainline vessel of a church.  Instead, my work will become a means of earning what is necessary to support my family, to live in a place, and to do the work of Jesus Christ in a more incarnational way.


And all that from one phone call in a parking lot from behind Marvin's.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

This Year's Remodel

There are three significant challenges that invoke fear and trepidation in the souls of human beings.

The first is to scale the heights of Mt. Everest.

The second is crawl through that secret, bug-soaked passage way Indiana Jones had to traverse in The Temple of Doom.

The third is for a married couple to try to build a house together.

Anna and I are not quite ready for the Everest of home building.  So, we're taking smaller and smaller steps towards our dream, inching our way towards it.  We're starting with smaller peaks, something more in line with a 14,000 footer out in Colorado.

One room at a time.  That's been our motto so far, and it's served us okay in this old farmhouse.  We've made some improvements, and haven't died in the process.  Neither have we strangled one another. 

First the kitchen.  That was probably five years ago.  The guy we call Builder Bob helped us do that remodel.  Okay, he pretty much did it all, and I managed to botch the mudding and sanding job.  But, it's better.  And the roof has only leaked twice when it has rained.  But those were really heavy rains!

Sometime last year, we started on the front entryway room to our house, and this time my father-in-law helped me frame up everything.  I even did a pretty good job of putting up the drywall and applying the first coat of mud last fall.  I even sanded the mud a few times, but - as Joe has told me many times - sanding is a fine art.  Too much and you're back to square one.  Too little and you've got the imperfections equivalent to bad teenage acne.  I have yet to learn the finer stroke required of a true craftsman.

Nonetheless, I really did intend to paint the room - imperfections and all.

Well, winter moved into town, and more pressing things took over:  gathering and splitting firewood, swim season,

Undeterred, Anna and I were determined to continue on with our home improvement projects.  This summer, we had one clear goal:  do all that was truly necessary to turn the backroom into a fully functioning bedroom for Wyatt, motivated as we were by the recurring bloody-scratches on my son's arms and wailing pleas of help from my daughter as my son struck back in retaliation.  Apparently, the ages of 9 and 7 are the limit for how long a brother and sister can stand being in the same room together.

Are we going to tackle the backroom? Anna and I would ask each other.

Yes, we have to, right?  Checking each other to see how long we could dance around fully committing.

But, no, we had to.  We just had to.  There's just something wrong about putting your first born child in a room that routinely grows frost on the windows in the winter.  And that's the good season.  I won't tell you what grew in there during the summer.

So I thought we were together ... all up until the point when I was 3/4 of the way into the demolition of the room, and Anna came with her mother to assess the job and to conference about our next steps.  It was clear enough to me.  We were going to do all the walls, tear the whole place apart and gut the ceiling before putting insulation back in.

But, as I started to explain this to Anna's mom, Anna said, "Are we sure?"

I may have looked at Anna with a furrowed brow, which she must have seen because she went on:

"Well, I'm just saying our track record for getting things done isn't all that great.  I mean we still haven't finished the front room."

What was this?!  A chink in our collective marital armor?  A frayed edge in our loving and tight bond?


Thankfully, fools rush in.

We're getting closer.  I won't jinx ourselves by saying that we're done.  But, definitely we're closer.

Tonight we bought carpet for his room that will hopefully be delivered and installed sometime next week.

After Anna's moment of probably justified pessimism, we did go on and tear the whole thing back to studs.  I put in all of the insulation in the walls and the roof.  Drew and Joe helped us hang the drywall from floor to ceiling, and I even managed to at least sure up the outside wall for the time being without making things look too bad.  Okay, the cedar trim boards are definitely a bit askew.  Shoot, though, who honestly looks at the back of our house.

Plus, we've finally figured out that I'm never going to actually finish a drywall job.  I swallowed my ego and called up some other guys to come do it.  Lo and behold, they've even got the first coat on everything, and all while not muttering too much about how it's so hard to do a job once some poor sap like me starts it out wrong.

Maybe we can even say that we've managed to make it up the Pike's Peak of home remodels? 

That's something, right?

Tell me that's something.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pressing & Receiving

What a gift vacation was!  It's hard for me to receive such obvious gifts of grace, which in large part was exactly what this vacation was.  By my mom and Denny's generosity, my family was able to go on a trip that we wouldn't have otherwise taken:  seven full days down in a wonderfully spacious and beautiful home overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on St. George Island.  The word "bestowed" seems appropriate for the time we had.  Denny and my mom's generosity bestowed on me opportunities to rest and play in God's incredible creation.  Denny and my mom's generosity bestowed on me opportunities to be fully attentive to my children.  Denny and my mom's generosity bestowed on me quiet mornings on third level decks sitting in beach chairs drinking coffee and reading the Gospel of John.

For one week, in other words, I lived as if grace truly mattered and in the awareness of love and benevolence.

So ... I return to work yesterday ... and once again I am pressing.  Actually, it started even before that.  I figured this would happen, and it did.  By early evening on Sunday, I was beginning to stress.  For one entire week, my mind would casually drift into the evening, laughing and playing card games with family.  Sleep came easily.  Then Sunday night came.  At 2:00 am in the morning, sleep was no longer a gift.  It was a necessity that was relentlessly outdistancing me. 

My mind was astir.  Now that I was to return to work, I was falling into an old trap I've fallen into so often as a young pastor:  the trap of what Parker Palmer calls functional atheism.  For one full week, I had lived in the awareness of grace and blessing.  But, now it was time to return and prove to others that I am capable of doing my job.  More than capable.  I want to prove that I'm successful.  I want others to see that I'm worth their investment.  I need to demonstrate to others that I'm not just some sorry sack of a pastor.  Gosh dang it, I'm a Management Fellow from DePauw University.  I've been trained to justify my worth.

In other words, it only took a mere six hours for this sin-sick soul to completely forsake the reality of grace and to step full-heartedly and foolishly right back into the strictures of the Law. 


Almost ten years into ministry now, and you would think I'd have figured this out.  But like the old Caedmon's Call song, I'm right back at the first day of school.  The very thing that so fully won me over to Christ - the incredible freedom that is ours in his name - is the very first thing I leave as I step out the door to do ministry in Christ's name.  Foolish man that I am!  Who will save me from this endless backsliding into the need to perform and justify?


There's a little book Jonathan Carroll once gave me when I first started in ministry down in Owensboro, Kentucky.  It's called The Art of Pastoring by William C. Martin, and it - like the vacation from my mom and Denny - is a gift.  I consider it a gift "bestowed."  At the end of this gem of wisdom, Martin writes this about pastoral work:

"Yours is a difficult, impossible, frustrating, and spirit-killing profession if practiced without simplicity and freedom.

"Practiced with simplicity and freedom it is a noble, rewarding, delightful dance with the Spirit of God and with the souls of people.  I pray for all pastors, everywhere.  You are so deeply needed in our world. 

"Be yourself.  Be gentle.  Be happy." 

How true those words are!  And how strong those two currents rush within me as I enter back into pastoral work! 

No sooner do I set foot back on the land of our home than I find a river trying to pull me away from simplicity and freedom.  And so I step into my work with a stiff back and depressed vision of the world before me.  Perceived slights and spirit-killing attitudes of judgment seep into my heart and thereby poison my attitude.  So, I miss the joy of a community right around me that is alive and God-blessed and unique and holy.  I feel drawn to go down the road called blame, and to linger in back-alleys named resentment and envy.

But, by God's grace, I do feel that other stream.  Perhaps not as strong at first.  Maybe not a rushing river.  Maybe it's more like a gentle stream leading on into the overgrowth and the shadows of the woods.  "Come to the water," the voice of this stream calls.  "Let mercy and gentleness lead.  Don't worry about performing or controlling or protecting.  Dance.  Listen.  Love the world around you as if it were God's holy place.  For it is.  The Word has become flesh and dwells among you.  So be yourself.  Be fully yourself even when doing so feels woefully inadequate in worldly terms.  Be yourself even if in your simplicity you look the fool.  Be yourself even when that noisy rush of competition and performance threaten to drown out love and peace.

Life is not something to be mastered.

It is a gift.

It is bestowed.

It is, therefore, to be received.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer 2015

Several years ago, we posted a picture of our new family dog on our family blog.  Her name is Ada, a hulking English Mastiff, weighing no less than 80 pounds when we first took her in.  As soon as we posted Ada's picture, one of my friends posted a comment on that photo, "Nice looking dog, but are you guys crazy?"

Apparently we were.  Or, at least a bit naive.  Okay.  Very naive. 

Four years into being Ada's owners, we have learned just how naive we were.  But, maybe we are just the type to learn our limitations by audacity.  Besides, isn't that the American way?  Go big or go home.  Shoot for the moon.  Buy an 80 pound English Mastiff.

It's not that we've completely failed Ada.  She's got a good enough home with us.  We keep her outside now most days, and she has free reign of our property - instinctively barking off most intruders real or imagined.  She still greets us when we come home from a day in town by galloping towards the woods - barking for all the world to know that this is her home.  Her protectiveness of us has been a good thing on occasion, but we should have known it was just a matter of time before her zealousness got her in trouble.

Just before Memorial Day last summer, Ada decided our postal carrier needed to be chased off our property.  Her bravery led her to hurtle out of our yard into the street, her barrel-chested mass bounding towards the old white Jeep.  The Jeep won of course, trapping Ada's rear left paw beneath its front wheel and causing a significant gash in Ada's foot.  Anna and I were mortified, and - of course - filled with pangs of guilt and shame.  Ada's foot stood as immediate confirmation of how inadequate we are as dog owners.  With our emotional tail between our own legs, we limped into town with our bleeding she-beast of a dog, watching the blood collect on the front mats of my truck and Ada's maple brown eyes softly saying nothing.

It's been over a year now since Ada's foot was mangled in an instant only to be tenderly treated for months.  People still ask us often, "How's Ada?"  We pass off some story about how she's doing better, and in a way she is.  I had my doubts she would be able to keep the leg, let alone be able to walk again.  She does walk, runs even.  But, the wound is still there, and not just as a visible scar.  No, the tender parts are still pink.  We do our best to treat it still. 

It's not just that we let our dog get hurt.  It's that Ada's injury serves as a symbol of everything we've tried to do here ... on our farm ... in this place ... as a pastor ... as parents.  I could go on.

Of course we were idealistic when we moved here, but time has also proved that we weren't just naive about what it takes to raise and care for an 80 pound dog.

If you would have asked me seven years ago what I would imagine our life would "look" like here, my mental image would have been far different, far rosier. 

I would have pictured a nicely painted home, a well-kept yard, a garden that flourished in the summertime, and something along the lines of - oh, you know - the grounds of Versailles.  Okay, so maybe that was being a bit too optimistic.  But, certainly I thought the clean, orderliness of suburbia was what we were headed for.  It was, after all, what I was accustomed to.

If I were to snap a photo right now of our place, clean and orderly would be the last two adjectives you would choose to describe the photo.  The heat, humidity and rains of June have turned our yard and garden into a endless explosion of weeds.  The front of our house is already weather-worn and badly in need of a new coat of paint.

We used to walk by several homes south of our little apartment in Pasadena that were picturesque and beautiful.  There was one not far from us that was a smaller, one-story ranch house with the front and back yards landscaped in an Asian style.  A very nice looking older gentleman was often out in the yard, trimming his hedges or tiding up his landscape.  I think I imagined something like that, but I never accounted for - oh, you know - raising my children, pastoring a congregation, and still wanting to maintain an active lifestyle of fitness and recreation.  One of those things alone would have been sufficient to occupy even my best efforts.  But, for better or worse, Anna and I aim big.  And when you aim big, you get weedy gardens and mistakes and setbacks.

But, it's good.  Even as the weeds steadily reclaim our gravel driveway and the forest threatens to pull our barn back down to the earth:  it's good.  If my idealism has taken a few serious blows to the chin, so has my pride and that is no doubt a good thing.  Besides, in the failures and setbacks, I've begun to realize that life is still okay, even when it isn't perfect, even when it is messy.  Maybe most importantly, I've got a deeper sense of what the "good life" looks like - the kind that was woven mysteriously into this God-given creation, not just the one the type that is marketed by lawn fertilizers and home improvement stores.

And - I have to say - I kinda like this good life:  the fireflies that float like soft sparks above the grass as the birds sing their final anthem for the day, the yarrow that bursts with color, this hay and clover that overtake the eastern edge of our property where the deer cross.  I like its abundance and its messiness; I like the way that life always comes back in this place.  What else is grace, after all, but the repairing of our mistakes and the healing of our wounds by the emergence of new life?

At night now, Ada comes walking towards me in the early cool of the evening, still as regal and majestic as ever, even if she does carry a visible wound.  She lays down in the grass.  She stretches out her front legs and crosses her paws, and lays there - her head erect, her eyes scanning the horizon.  In the twilight she is beautiful, even if she isn't perfect.  Yup, she's very much our dog.  The good Lord willing, she will be for sometime.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ashes to Ashes

It is a fiercely cold day with a northerly wind howling through the pine trees outside this window.  A long spell of frigid temperatures is moving in tonight, so - naturally - some archaic instinct is pulsing strong in my mind, and I have been hard at work cutting, gathering, and splitting enough wood to make it one more week.  That has become my rhythm:  one week of heat at a time, a dangerous game I'm playing - driven both by my desire to be done with winter and with my unpreparedness for it in the first place.  

Motivated by the promise of heat streaming out of the floor vents, I took my chainsaw back into the in-law's woods today where a massive section of red oak had fallen to the ground across a hiking path.  And, nearby, lay another nice section of cherry.  The work of earlier fierce winds had done their tasks, pulling from the trees these key pieces.  They lay half buried beneath leaves, the presence of fungi on their bark the evidence of earth's decay already at work.  Despite a few soft spots, though, these were valuable finds.  One full tank of gas and about an hour in the woods with Ada gave me more than enough wood to try and carry out.  The cherry alone nearly filled up the back of my truck's bed, and - besides - I'm still holding out hope this will be the last of the truly frigid weather.

Cutting, gathering, and splitting wood always tears my body down.  Invariably, I take two or three Tylenol after it's all done, and tonight is no different, the muscles in my lower and mid back protesting from their overexertion and my poor lifting technique.  Yesterday, it was the same as I tried to split the rest of what was a small pile of wood in our yard.  They were large chunks, and many required not just the splitting maul, but also a wedge.  It was hard work, which explains why I quickly got rid of my jacket, placing it on top of the wood burner.  I didn't imagine the job taking that long, but dusk quickly turned to night, and I was still pounding away on the logs before me.  Thoroughly exhausted and ready for a few of those Tylenol, I went back to the wood burner to retrieve my coat.  Strangely, as I lifted it from the top, I noticed a bright orange glowing within it, mystified for a few brief seconds.  Then, it hit me.  My coat was on fire.  I dropped it on the ground and proceeded to stomp on it with my heavy boots, thinking it just a small ember.  But, still the glowing orange persisted.  I stomped for several more seconds, picked up the coat, and noticed a rim of burning, bright orange now with an even larger diameter.  That was that.  The fire was pretty much out, but the damage was extensive, a hole the size of a softball on the back left shoulder.  It isn't my nicest coat, but it is my best one for doing work outside.  

Joe and Lisa dropped by later on this afternoon to pass along some Valentine's candy for the kids.  They stayed in their Jeep as we told them the story of the coat incident near Ada's doghouse - myself wrapped only by a thick Patagonia fleece in the place of my more trustworthy field jacket.  Joe wondered if Lisa remembered that time when all they found of a coat was the zipper!  Apparently, I've still got something to salvage.  

We've got enough to get by ... for now ... unless it gets truly cold.  But, that's how I tend to operate in this season of winter:  eeking by and always looking for when I can put the winter coat away for good.