Torn And Frayed: A Devotional For The Third Week In Lent

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 
– Exodus 3:1

When we pick up the story of Moses here in Exodus chapter 3, he’s been on the run for some time. Born a Hebrew child and adopted into the Pharaoh’s family, he grew up in a powerful and privileged home. He seems to have known his heritage, however, and in an emotional moment he took the life of an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. 

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son,
always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, 
when I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head a cry. 

– Johnny Cash

The writer says that Moses was working as a shepherd “beyond the wilderness.” It’s a subtle phrase that comes with deep imagery. The wilderness is an image often used in the Bible for the experiences of trial and testing, of temptation and refinement. Think: Jesus praying in the wilderness for 40 days or Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years or Noah in the ark for 40 days (and nights). It’s a thing, this number 40. And in many cases, like our story today, it has a double-meaning: Moses really had fled the more civilized region for the solitude of obscurity that comes with life in the wilderness, and, he also was in the middle of remaking his life after such a moment of rage and failure. 

Then Moses thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh.
– Exodus 2:14-15

It is here in Moses’ new world that God reaches out, and in the strangest of ways: God speaks from within a fire that was surrounding a bush, and yet the bush remained intact and unscathed. It’s no surprise that Moses thought, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” (Exodus 3:3) The reason for God’s call was to ask Moses to lead the fight to free the Hebrew people who were living as slaves in Egypt, to which Moses predictably tries to let God down easy with his own perceived unworthiness and lack of leadership capability and so forth. Typical dodge in these call stories, especially if you’re riddled with guilt and shame. 

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? 
– Exodus 3:11

We can’t miss the power in this scene. Moses was living in an exile of sorts – “beyond the wilderness” – and it was there that God reached out. And not just to check-in on Moses, but to call him back into the flow of God’s work in the world. When Moses felt extracted, God showed up with a plan for re-entry. (And I must note how God never once addressed Moses’ sins or wrongdoings or bad decisions; he simply came to the door of Moses’ hiding place with an invitation to come back outside and carry on.)

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
– The Beatles

Lent is a wilderness season. We go intentionally into a 40-day journey to look closely at both Jesus and ourselves, and to point to the things in our lives that need repair and mending. Each of us has lived in the wilderness (or beyond) at one time or another; it is a normal part of being human. It’s usually in those wilderness spaces that we imagine God having moved on to someone more qualified, someone less torn and frayed. But somewhere in those wilderness spaces is a bush that’s on fire, and the voice from within is not a voice of judgment, but a voice of invitation.

The power of God (the fire) does not overtake the frailty of humanity (the bush). The voice of God in our wanderings is not to be feared. He never brings up our past. He comes instead with a map for the days ahead. 

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. 
– 1 John 4:18 

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. 
– Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent

Grace and peace, 
Derek

Lord, Have Mercy. A Devotional For The Second Week In Lent.

How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you are not willing.
– Jesus, Luke 13:34

Jesus spoke these words as a lament over the spiritual and religious confusion that had overtaken so many in Jerusalem. When we dig further into the story, we find a growing distrust of Jesus in the minds of both his own people and also those in power. Just a few verses earlier we find a few Pharisees telling Jesus to leave town because Herod “wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31)

Though he knows this is his destiny, Jesus still laments the situation as it is. He is injured by the rejection from his own people. His hope and prayer was that his people would have seen what God was doing in and through him, but many did not. In a matter of days they would collude with the power structures to have him arrested and put on trial, and ultimately sentenced to death.

Lord, have mercy. 

This familiar phrase anchors many of the call-and-response prayers that we work through on Sunday mornings. “Lord, have mercy” is spoken when we pray about things that feel too big and daunting, like war and disease and suffering. It is not an “amen” but a request for God to step into those spaces where we are confused and scared and helpless. It is also an acknowledgement that we need God’s mercy. “Lord, have mercy” is an admission of need, of guilt, even. 

What’s remarkable about Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is that his words are infused with mercy. Though he knows the outcome of his life, he still speaks words of hope. He desires to “gather” his people and to protect them and shepherd them, even if they don’t know it. 

How often is our struggle to see the need for mercy in our lives. It is easier to judge others for their failings and missteps than it is to recognize the cracks that line our lives. Self-justification and self-righteousness are effective smokescreens for the realities of our own struggles. We must be mindful.

Lord, have mercy. 

May you hear and see the call to receive the mercy of God today. May you find the courage to “cease striving” (Psalm 46:10) and allow God’s merciful presence to overtake you. And may you know that even if you go your own way, Jesus remains merciful. 

Grace and peace.

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen. 
– Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent

Why We Observe Ash Wednesday

A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in an interview about Independent Christian Churches who observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. The facilitator, Laura Hicks Hardy of Emmanuel Christian Seminary (Johnson City, TN), asked some great questions of each of us, portions of which were quoted in her subsequent article here. I have posted the full, unedited conversation below.

How long has your church been holding Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent? 

Since 2012, I think. This will be our tenth year coming up.

Why did you decide to do this? 

We decided the year before that we would follow the church calendar and its seasons, and also hold services to mark these special days. We took our cue from other liturgical churches on these services, and did what we could to honor the traditions within our own parish community. 

What is the value of observing this season for your congregation? 

Well, this is a hard question! Each year seems to have its own set of cultural and spiritual variables, all of which can inform and give shape to Lent. As a general rule, Lent is in place to help the church remember its own humanness, and its reluctant grounding in its own brokenness. We are not as untouchable by suffering and death as we often imagine ourselves to be, but we are, instead, participants in this deadly mystery we call life. As Jim Morrison of The Doors sang, “No one here gets out alive.” When we brush the ashes across the heads of our people, they hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a somber beginning. This is the meaning behind the forty-days that mark the season. In the Biblical story, that number is often found in stories of hard experiences and difficult transitions. In these forty-day trials, we are able to be honest with ourselves, about ourselves. At least that’s the hope. The point here is to remain grounded in our own humanness and all the conditions therein, and Lent is a tool for doing so. 

Lent is also a time for the church to consider quite deeply the possibilities Christ brings to us, and how “other” and alternative these possibilities are. The season invites us to re-engage with God’s grace and forgiveness as we follow Jesus to his death, burial, and resurrection. One outcome would be that we might rediscover God’s love and mercy over us as we struggle along the Lenten road, with all its fasts and services and other things that are (really) in place as tripwires in the season, there to remind us that we often fail and fall. Because Lent is often built around these rituals of fasting from things (or adding to, as some traditions go), I would say that Lent has become for us a season to remember that our human efforts at righteousness are not really successful. We have a saying around here that goes: “No one wins Lent. Losing is perhaps the point.” 

Lent’s value tends to take on different meanings in connection to the very real-world experiences that are happening in the lives of our people. During the deepest days of COVID – which began during Lent 2020 – the leap from the joys of Epiphany to the sufferings of Lent was not hard. So I would say that Lent comes with a built-in malleability, able to speak and give shape to whatever the cultural state is at that time.  

What was the process of incorporating this into your congregation life like? 

This is actually a funny thing for us. When we moved to the church calendar, we never told our people. We just did it. As a staff, we had been struggling through ministry paradigm meetings for years, wondering whether the sermon series model was best for congregational formation, etc. Along the way we each picked up the habit of reading and praying the Daily Office, but just on our own. We all had the Book of Common Prayer hidden away somewhere. We were studying and processing. When we finally decided to place our church into the currents of the calendar and its seasons, only our staff and elders knew. We wanted a year to test it out and see how things went, and also to see if anyone even noticed. But when it came to things like Ash Wednesday services, we had to show our cards a little during that first year. I’m sure I said something like, “We’re going to join other traditions this year and hold an Ash Wednesday service to help us kick off Lent.” So, to answer your question, we kind of slipped it in on people. (I don’t recommend this method anymore, by the way!)

How do you structure your Ash Wednesday services, and where do you find your resources for Lent? 

We follow the order of service in the Book Of Common Prayer.

Can you briefly walk me through what each Sunday in Lent looks like for your church (how you build on themes from Ash Wednesday and previous weeks, how you prepare for Easter)?

Yes, for sure! For starters, the weekly themes are inspired primarily by the Gospel readings for each Sunday. In our planning process, that’s where we always begin; we always look at those and listen to what the texts are saying, and we allow those stories to shape our services and sermons. We also use the weekly Collects to help us along in our thematic planning – these prayers are great summaries of what each Sunday is focused on, and so we use those quite a bit when we’re piecing together our services. 

Here are the themes we’ve found for this coming Lent: 

Ash Wednesday We are human, with all its limitations and struggles. 

First Sunday of Lent – This first Sunday is tied to Ash Wednesday’s focus, that we are often surprised at how human we truly are, especially when we are up against “temptations” that can draw us too far inward. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent is always the wilderness story with Jesus, and how he succeeds where the rest of us experience failure. (We also get to see that Jesus participated in the human story, and this is a nice theme, too.) 

Second Sunday of Lent – In this week’s reading (Luke 13:31-35) we find Jesus lamenting a world that exists on its own and without the knowledge of God and his ways in the world. This one is a hard week to preach, as the tendency would be to pile on more law than grace, so we have to be careful in how this one comes across. 

Third Sunday of Lent – This one (Luke 13:1-9) has an Advent feel with its themes of staying awake and remaining conscious of your life in a world that is often marred in tragedy and suffering. Like in Advent, repentance makes an appearance here, and that’s worth talking about. (The Collect for this week is my favorite in the season: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil though which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”) 

Fourth Sunday of Lent – The fourth week is always a reprieve from all the darkness, and we get a glimpse of the grace of God over us. The story for this Sunday is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), marked with the theme of “coming home.” 

Fifth Sunday of Lent – The Lectionary shifts from Luke to John on this Sunday, taking us into the house of Mary and Martha where Jesus is anointed – and then rebuked – before his death. The story is cryptic, with Jesus saying, “but you do not always have me.” Even though we know where Lent is headed, we are now getting a clearer view of that image. 

Palm Sunday: The Sixth Sunday of Lent – Triumphal Entry is this week’s focus, and truly the beginning of Holy Week, the season within the season.

What have you found to be some of the most interesting or surprising things that have come out of this practice? 

How much pastoral counseling you end up doing during Lent! The season opens itself to such discussions of struggle, fear, shame, and so on, and so we tend to prepare for that as we enter the season. I would also say that Easter Sunday (and its full season) is appreciated more due to the groundwork of Lent. This seems small, but years ago we adopted the tradition of never singing a worship song during Lent that has the word hallelujah in it, saving that for the opening song on Easter morning. Pretty powerful, if you’re paying attention. 

Lastly, can you share a few words on the value of following the church calendar for your congregation? What are some of the other liturgical seasons you observe, and how have they enriched your congregational life, worship, and practice?

It has allowed us to extend our Christian life to other types of churches, and to develop a liturgical fluency with our neighbors in other traditions. I know that the Stone-Campbell movement has many facets and layers, but I have found that in adopting these more traditional church practices we have actually widened our reach and relationships with churches unlike us. It has also given a better and more healthy shape to our spiritual formation process. This is actually one of the primary reasons we went to the church calendar: we needed and desired a better system and structure for congregational formation. And with the three-year cycle of the Lectionary, it never gets old! 

We observe all the seasons on the church calendar, along with the following special days and services: Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, All Saints Day, and Christmas Eve (Nativity Of Our Lord).

Top 5 Mistakes I Made In Youth Ministry

For 13 years I worked as a youth pastor in the local church. That’s 13 graduations. It was more than enough time to have learned all sorts of things about youth ministry, and about myself. When I look back on those years, my memories are mostly positive. But there are also memories of things I wish I had done differently, memories around mistakes I made. Here are my top five:

One: Confusing Involvement With Faith Trajectory

I think we all make this mistake, the tricky allure of attendance patterns among students. In its most simplest form, it goes like this: if a student is really involved in my programming, they will continue to be involved in the life of the church and faith following graduation. This is, of course, not always true. Attendance patterns have more to do with parental involvement than anything else. Yes, there are the outliers who drive themselves to youth group every week without any support from their parents, but this is not the norm. Show me a youth group of 50 kids and I’ll show you the parents who encourage their involvement. There are also parents who force their kids to attend, and these students are even less likely to stick around once they are on their own. Just because a student is there every time the doors are open doesn’t always mean that church is in their future. I saw the opposite happen quite often, where kids who were almost never around went on to really develop their faith and involvement in a church well after graduation.

Application: Try your best not to read the attendance trends as indicators of faith maturity. They really aren’t. And I recognize that in many churches this can be a hard stance to take, as leadership may want to see a better sense of consistency among students within the youth group. But it’s really out of your hands. It’s more important to allow students to come and go as they please, and to maintain a culture of acceptance in which there is never a tone of insider versus outsider based on attendance. Every student, regardless of involvement, needs a chair at the table. I wish I had practiced this more.

Two: Misreading Growth As A Sign Of Health

Somewhat related to the first, this second mistake involves the misread of growth as an indicator of health. It’s not uncommon for pastors of all types to make the connection between church health and numerical growth. The belief that God is “working” because there is numerical momentum is not always the case, and youth pastors should be cautious to frequently draw that conclusion. In most youth groups there are stretches of growth and decline, and both are not indicators of either God’s presence or absence. But again, I recognize that this perspective can stand at odds with a leadership that not only desires growth, but one that connects it to overall health. But it’s important to understand this dynamic of ministry and to seek out a wiser perspective. I remember Doug Fields (Saddleback Church Youth Pastor) addressing this very issue, saying, “You don’t talk about your family in this way. ‘How’s your family?’ ‘Oh they’re good, there are 6 of us.'” I’ll never forget that story. It saved me from this never-ending pursuit of something larger and greater, but I didn’t realize it until I was almost done with my career in youth ministry.

Application: The health of a youth group is measured by more metrics than just growth, so it’s crucial to know what those are. I would also recommend seeing growth as an unexpected grace instead of the result of your levels of leadership and spirituality. So much of this is not in your hands. And keep your eyes on percentages as well. Youth group numbers tends to fall within a percentage of the overall the church family (it was around 10% when I was in the role). The pursuit of numbers can also edge out your touch with students who already are within your care, many of whom need attention and help and love. And if you’re focused too much on the next level of growth, people start to get lost.

Three: Neglecting To Build More Space For Doubt

This one was surprising to me as I am someone who approaches faith from the place of doubt. I come at the Bible with questions. I’ve been this way for most of my faith experience. And yet, when I look back on my leadership as a youth pastor, I did not build enough space for the doubts that many students carried into the building. I didn’t shut doubts down, necessarily, I just rarely gave them the attention and the grace they needed. One of the pitfalls I’ve seen is when youth pastors take questions of doubt in a youth group setting and then set out to answer them. It’s not that trying to answer any and all doubts is bad, it’s not; the greater danger is in how many of us were afraid to say, “I don’t really know” to some of the questions. Apologetics as a practice can be somewhat creepy because it gives the impression of a faith without cracks, which isn’t possible. We struggle to be honest with students regarding our own doubts (or simply things that we just don’t know) and we end up accidentally constructing a culture of certainty. And in a culture of certainty, the questions will soon disappear because they learn they are not always welcome.

Application: Learn to leave room for questions. I would recommend learning how to leave lessons open-ended. Allow students to leave with more confusion than certainty, giving them the freedom to wrestle with these things on their own. This seems obvious, but I also recommend learning to hear their questions and doubts with grace. Also, be willing to say, “I don’t really know, and to be honest with you, the long history of Christian tradition has struggled with this question, too.” Perhaps host regular forums for questions and discussion. And in those settings, resist the need to always provide a precise answer, especially when none exists. And remember this: the resurrection announcement from the women disciples to the men was not received with faith, but with doubt; it was confusion that caused the men to run to the tomb, not certainty. Let the kids run.

Four: Trying To Build A Church Within A Church

This one is so easy to do because the youth group does function like a small congregation. There are classes, small groups, worship settings, retreats, and so on. Structurally, it can live as a church within a church. But it is crucial for the youth pastor to be hyper-aware of the implications of such a model. The obvious risks are separation and otherness. If the youth pastor is unaware, the group will drift into its own world and cease to be connected to the larger body in any meaningful way. I ended up in this place many times. When I pastored a larger youth group, it was easy for me to build a mini-church of my own: we had a student band, lots of small groups, our own missions programs, worship settings where I “preached”, and so on. Many times I failed to remember the importance of generational fusion as an ecclesial value. While I saw (and still see) the benefits of students having their own settings to work out their faith, I missed some opportunities to integrate students into the larger church.

Application: Find ways to get students involved beyond youth group. Trim back some of your programming in order to make room for more integration. When you think of serving environments for your students, include the overall church in those plans. Work it out so that students can be greeters, band members, nursery and kids workers. Can the sound guy train a tech-inclined student to run the board? Of course they can! All of this requires intention. Sit down with your team and ask the question: “How do we keep from becoming isolated from the rest of the church?”

Five: Taking Graduation Too Seriously

A mistake all youth pastors make is believing that they must lead students through a checklist of spiritual milestones before graduation. They are convinced that a student’s future in faith is dependent upon a set of spiritual objectives and goals that exist within a ministry system. I found myself making this mistake often. My programming reflected it. We tried to build certain tracks that students would take over the course of their time with us, ensuring that by graduation they would be “ready” for life beyond youth group. What I learned, however, was much different. There really isn’t any way of knowing what a student’s faith looks like after graduation, and worrying about how a ministry system takes students to that point may not be as important as we think. We all know that faith takes many turns in a person’s lifetime, and faith is rarely a straight line for anyone. Discipleship moves forward, backwards, and sideways. Some students walk away from it altogether. Putting all of our programming hopes on where a student might be come graduation is a weight we don’t need to carry.

Application: Hang a picture of yourself in your office from when you were 18 years old. Remember how in-process you were then, and how much you still had to learn. Chart all the changes in your faith since high school. Remember your own evolutions along the way. Remind your volunteer teams of their own faith process and how no one is ever really finished with this. It takes a lifetime to be a disciple. Stay away from language about college being a testing ground and how your students could lose their faith if they don’t get serious about it while they’re still in high school. While it is true that many students experience this shift in college, it isn’t our job to scare them with such a prospect. And more importantly, who are we to say that such a time isn’t beneficial to a faith in the long run? If there is anything you want your students to remember upon leaving high school, it is this: they are loved, they are never discounted, and there is always room at Jesus’ table.

What are some of yours?

The Pastor As Expert: A Cautionary Tale

How much do we as pastors really know about the things we’re teaching our people?

When I see a 25 year old doing a sermon series on marriage and family, I roll my eyes. That’s only because I’ve been married since 1995 and I feel superior (or vintage) being much further down the road. There’s no way this kid has traveled enough relational terrain to bring anything of substance to this conversation. But I imagine I get same response from the couple who got married in 1975, sitting there listening to me yammer on about balancing work and family, or making time for your spouse, or whatever else I feel I can offer the couples in the room.

I think about those in the pew who are in their 80s, who listen to me with grace as I speak of faith or enduring hardship or some other realm they already know quite well. I sense they are like God, knowing what is ahead while watching me speak with confidence of a future I don’t yet know. The poet makes sense when he writes, “He who sits in heaven laughs.” (Psalm 2:4)

There’s a real tendency for us pastors to play the expert on a host of life’s issues. A quick glance at an annual sermon series catalog will show this to be true, with message after message offering help and advice on anything from marriage to raising kids to overcoming obstacles to finances to dating to surviving depression and anxiety to navigating some social event of the day.

The “pastor as expert” can be the result of a couple of things:

No. 1 – The Feeling Of Being Watched & Assessed

There is a real pressure that exists around the pastor to have their shit together. All of it. Especially the parts that people see. Keep smiling, keep serving, keep loving your family, keep forgiving, keep living below your means, keep raising good kids, keep making good leadership decisions, keep running the organization successfully, keep properly managing your money, and on and on it goes.

Now, the truth is, most people in the pew aren’t paying attention to these things as much as we’d like to think, though there are some. It’s the perception of such watchfulness, however, that can lead us to dress up in the clothing of the expert on so many of life’s issues and dealings. It’s that feeling of being watched and assessed that can drive us towards presenting ourselves as well-rounded and knowledgable in all these areas.

Questions to consider:

  1. Does my own fear of coming across as a person and leader who is well put together drive how I craft my teachings?
  2. Do I in fact serve in a church environment that actually does hold me to an unfair standard of living, and if so, how has this shaped my teachings?
  3. Am I afraid to admit ignorance or scared to say “I don’t know” when it comes some of life’s biggest realities?

No. 2 – A Twisted View Of Calling

This has to do with control. There are pastors who see it as their calling to control the behavior of their people, though they wound’t necessarily use that word to describe what they’re doing with their sermons. But the truth is, many have drifted into a twisted view of their calling, seen in their tendency to want to control the ways that people live their lives. The pastor finds himself writing sermons as a way to shape peoples’ lives in very particular ways, and he does so out of a conscious or unconscious need to control the parish and her daily behaviors.

The worst iteration of this is the pastor’s own conviction that his life is the primary model by which his parish should fashion their own daily lives. This one is subtle, but you can hear it in the illustrations and in the advice-giving, how he offers up wisdom only from his own life. If you watch closely, this type of pastor is often quite disconnected from his people. It may be because he doesn’t listen to the stories of struggle from his own parish, or that he is listening but only through the grid of his own perceived expertise and experience.

Questions to consider:

  1. Do I think too much about certain people in my church who are living in ways that I find unhealthy and even destructive?
  2. When I write sermons, am I consistently thinking about how this message will convict people to change their behaviors?
  3. When I write sermons, do I ever say, “I hope [insert name] shows up to hear this”?

The truth is, we may in fact know a lot about a lot of things that life hands us. We may actually have some good wisdom to offer people when it comes to navigating certain aspects of daily life. And, there may even be times when our own experiences are helpful for our people. But the stories of our successes rarely do what we think they do; rather, it is the confessions of our own commonness that end up being the most helpful in the life of the congregation.

For me, this has been a career-long lesson. I would give myself a D+ in this area. I understand from experience the tendency towards being something of an expert on life’s dealings. The last several years, though, have been years of grace, years of listening to God’s voice and what God has to say about the things I get up and say on Sunday mornings, and how God has reminded me that I have not been installed here to be the local know-it-all. I have been reminded of life’s complexities, and of how layered and storied each person in my parish truly is, and the things I say in moments of influence are best when they are said with humility and honesty.

I am learning what it means to preach “with” and not “to”, and how the sermon is not a lesson but a rediscovery of what is already happening (and has happened) in our midst.

Embrace your unknowing.

Unforeseen Lessons, Part 2: The Anxiety and Depression Cocktail

Today's post is from a chapter I wrote for a book titled, Ten Count (2016), a collaborative work from pastors across the country sharing their stories of failure and defeat. The title of this chapter is: "When The Levee Breaks", and it is one of my many stories of dealing with anxiety and depression in ministry.

You can read the first post in this "Unforeseen Lessons" series here.

If it keeps on raining, the levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on raining, the levee’s goin’ to break
And when the levee breaks,

I’ll have no place to stay

“When The Levee Breaks” by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie (1929)

She talked, I listened.

That’s about all you can do when someone is leaving the church. These conversations don’t come with reversals, only endings. People don’t usually go in a fit of rage. Some do, yes. But most don’t. Most go slowly, over time. For weeks or months or even years, they work up the courage to cut loose. It’s a slow fade. It’s the worst kind of breakup. And the whole time she was giving me the reasons why she and her family were moving on, all I could think about was how in the hell I was going to get into their home to get my INXS cassette tape back. “Live Baby, Live, 1991.” Gone forever.

I left the office for the rest of the day after that phone call. We’re a small shop. We all work in the same room. I didn’t want to be consoled, or fixed, or made to feel guilty with some quote from Galatians about pleasing God over people. I wanted to drink. A lot. But I don’t drink. Not anymore. So I went home. I stood there and stared at the Jerry Garcia poster on our kitchen wall, happy that my wife is the kind who lets that kind of thing hang on our wall. Jerry is gone. Died in 1995. I’m still around. So I had that going for me.

I don’t mean to sound flippant. I’m not. It’s just that that kind of shit had been rolling in at a steady pace for so long that it had become the kind of thing I had grown to expect. Two weeks after that phone call, I got another one from our landlord (we lease our space) who told me we had 60 days to get out. The property had been sold, and the developers wanted to get started straightaway. It’s one thing to move a family in two months. It’s another to move a congregation. Two weeks after that? I had to let a part- time staff member go.

I was on the ropes.

That’s the phrase for when you’re cornered and unable to get clear of what’s happening to you. It’s that feeling of being trapped in a blur of opposition, and with no foreseeable escape. You can’t move out of the way of the hits, and the hits keep coming. In boxing, it’s a literal station. You’re pressed up against the ropes that frame the ring, and your competitor has you contained, hitting you over and over and over again. You’ve seen it before. The guy on the ropes just covers his head and tries to lean far enough forward to change the situation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes he goes down.

There had been times over the last year when I just wanted to fall to the floor. That way the hits would have stopped, at least long enough for me to crawl out of the way. But when you’re on the ropes, you can’t go anywhere.

I had tried to quit.

Twice.

Two churches reached out to me, and I applied to them both. In the end, they both said no. From the start I wasn’t really interested in going. Those were just short-term opportunities to feel needed, in control, and to escape my current situation, if only in my mind. But a rejection is still a rejection. And nothing makes your current situation seem worse than when your potential way out closes up.

Those rejections temporarily escalated my awareness of everything that was falling apart on my watch. Attendance was dropping. The finances weren’t improving. People were leaving. Small groups were folding. Marriages were breaking. People weren’t singing. Preaching was flattening. Classes weren’t getting off the ground. Events weren’t connecting. And I was more aware than ever of how our baptistery, like those empty and hollowed out cisterns at the wedding at Cana, just sat there, invisible like, and unused (except for hiding guitar cases on Sunday). It got to the point where I would walk in on Monday fully expecting to chart another loss by Friday.

I was on the ropes.

Depression is not an easy thing. It takes over in weird ways. I kept showering, and I didn’t stop eating. But I did disappear a lot. I would tell my staff team that I was headed home to work for the rest of the day, to work in quiet on my sermon or something. It was all a lie. I would go home mid-morning and sleep for the rest of the day. Sometimes two or three times a week this would happen.

I met with a pastor in another city. We both teach a course at the same university. He had become a friend of trust and encouragement. He had also been through all this himself. He was older. That’s key. Two pastors who are the same age are almost useless in mutual counseling. You need someone ahead of you, someone with scars from cuts that you’re only just receiving. He asked me if I was sleeping all day. I said I was. He asked if I was tired of living. I said no. He asked if I was seeing a counselor. I said it had a been awhile. He stared at me. I said I would make the phone call. I said that I just needed a win, for something to go in the right direction.

The weird thing was this: despite all that was going in the wrong direction, there were things going in the right direction. Yes, it was a long season of watching people move on, of things not working out financially, of ministry initiatives not getting off the ground, all of which led to a feeling of scarcity among the staff and leaders. But in the midst of all that, there were continuous displays of God’s presence among us, and of His dedicated work in and through us.

It helps when you take a rotation in serving the communion. In our services everyone comes forward to receive the bread and the cup. We speak to those who are served, “The body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, poured out for you.” If we know their names, we add those in: “Janet, the body of Christ, broken for you.” To say those words while looking into the eyes of someone has done more for me than I can explain here. To say those words to the addict, the divorcee, the couple that’s on the brink, the childless, the depressed, the guilt-ridden, the scared, the doubtful, the agnostic, and the people who never seem to wander from the Lord…it’s all too much to take in in 5 minutes. I often cry as a server of the communion, but just enough that I can still speak, still smile, and still hold up the line while I hug the person.

In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul writes: “Let no one look down on you for your youth, but set the an example for believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

The word for “example” here is typos (τύπος), a word that describes the aftermath of opposition. It means the “mark” of a hit or cut. Thomas used the same word when he announced his disbelief in the resurrection, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the typos of the nails, and place my hand into his side,
I will never believe.” (John 20:25)

Timothy wanted to walk away from his pastoral work in Ephesus. Paul wanted him to stay. There was still work to be done, and Timothy needed to sit tight and work it through. He was apparently under a great deal of stress, and it was coming from his own people, the result of his own work. I appreciate that Paul didn’t impose a possible leadership issue on Timothy’s part, but rather a call to consider what ministry was doing to him, not for him, or for his church.

Ministry will always leave a mark. It’s not possible to go through this unscathed. Scars, and the stories behind them, are to be expected. Even embraced. But it seems that we have the choice in the kind of mark ministry leaves on us. Look at that list again: the mark of speech, of conduct, of love, of faith, of purity. (And can we just agree on the genius of the sequence of this list? Isn’t it always the case that when we’re under a lot of negative pressure that the first thing to go is our speech? Which can open the door to destructive conduct. Which can erode our love. Which can bring conflict into our faith. Which can erase our calling to be set apart.)

We have the choice of the kind of mark ministry will leave on us.

Ministry is a sobering vocation, and must be embraced as such. Its leader is to stand on his own two feet, tall in the midst of whatever comes his way, unwilling to bury and hide the troubles underneath escapist behaviors. Ministry must be allowed to hit, and to hit hard. The velocity of suffering and pain and anger and doubt and confusion and insecurity is enough to leave one in the valley of the shadow of death, stunned and uncertain. But do not run.

Stand still.
Encircled.
Afraid.
Desperate.
Inadequate.

It is here reliance emerges. The Lord again becomes the guide, the way through, and the way out. Resurrection begins with death, not life.


Epilogue: Leading With Depression & Anxiety

Depression and anxiety have been in my life for a long time, and my career as a pastor has been one in which I’ve had to learn to deal with, and work alongside, both. So in a kind of follow-up to my story above, I want to let you in on several practices I keep sacred. Perhaps these may be of help to you.

Transparency

Being upfront with my congregation about the breakage in my life has done a lot for me (and I suppose for them, too), not least the assurance that I don’t need to steal away and hide behind some made-up story of a life of togetherness. It’s best to be an honest leader. My congregation knows that I’ve been to counseling. It knows that I take medication. It knows that worry can follow me around. It knows that I can disappear in certain situations. While I recognize this sort of thing could be a potential occupational hazard for some of you, I really hope you have people in your congregation who will allow you to unravel in front of them, and who will walk with you in your honesty and openness.

Awareness

It’s been good for me to know, and almost make a list of, various scenarios and experiences that often impose extra stress into my life. This is not so that I may avoid them when they come. That’s not very helpful. It’s so that I may be conscious of what it is that may be causing me to feel certain things – often negative – about myself. Sit down and make a list of particular conversations or leadership situations or pastoral offices that cause stress and anxiety for you. Then build scripts to get through those, and reactions you may try in the future. Better yet, have your closest co- leaders (staff, elders, etc.) make the list for you. Trust me, they already know!

Support

Our church funds the value of counseling. When a member of our church desires to go, we help pay the bill if needed. It’s also a “perk” of being on my staff. Everyone has that at their disposal. Sitting down with someone who is an expert on mental and emotional dynamics has been a necessary thing for both me and all of my staff. Sometimes they say, “You’re fine. Let it go.” Other times they say, “Let’s do some work on this.” Find a counseling center nearby and build that bridge.

I’m sure you already know this, but leadership doesn’t fix internal weakness. It irritates it. It draws it out. And simply “holding it together” in order to come across tidy and stable won’t do. Self-deception flows away from community, and the distance will only increase. As my wife says: “Crazy don’t hide for too long.”

Do what you can to stay healthy!

And email me if you need to at derek@atlantachristianchurch.org

Next Post: Distrust and Fear

Unforeseen Lessons, Part 1: The Friendship Vacuum

Unforeseen Lessons is a four-part series on certain realities of pastoral life that often come as a surprise to the leader, and what steps they can take to better walk through such things.  

Back in my undergrad days a professor of church leadership said to us, “Never trust the person who picks you up at the airport for your interview.” He was a man of southern heritage teaching in a midwestern university, so his words fell across the room to varied understandings. Some took it literally, some in jest, others in confusion. I heard it through my own southern filter – with ears trained in nuance and ad-hoc idioms – and what I heard was the description of a character in a story that I should keep an eye on, a reminder that intentions aren’t always as they seem.

Friendships with people in the church is not an easy venture for pastors. There are all sorts of underlying issues that make inner church friendships difficult, not least the issue of trust. Every pastor wonders if they’ll find the kind of relational safety that they themselves are working hard to create within the church community at large. What is often the case, however, is that the pastor remains somewhat outside of those circles.

From the outside looking in, many have the impression that we are rich in friendships, that we are well loved, and that we have many on whom we can call and rely. But the reality is less positive: most of us can feel separated and alone, without people who will be with us, who will listen (without judgment) to our struggles and fears, and who will stand beside us as a friend. Research continues to show that we can end up quite lonely and isolated, despite being surrounded by so many people. We may be encircled by a thriving and healthy community and yet still stand alone.

It’s like that line from “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” by the Counting Crows, where the singer mourns: “I never know anyone at the party and I’m always the host.”

A few insights and tips for navigating this issue:

Insight #1 – The output to input ratio is the silent killer, so pay attention

Most of what we do for our people will never be returned to us.

All the counsel we’ve offered
All the prayers we’ve prayed
All the listening we’ve done
All the hospitals we’ve been in
All the games we’ve watched
All the recitals we’ve endured
All the weddings we’ve performed
All the people we’ve buried
All the notes we’ve written
All the criticisms we’ve taken
All the times we’ve been gracious
All the sermons we’ve spoken
All the late nights we’ve given to people

None of these things come back to us in equal measure. They’re not supposed to. They can’t, really. It’s not how churches work, and it’s not why we got into this. But if we don’t know this from the start, we can end up serving our way into a bitter and angry existence.

TIP: Never read any opportunity to care for your people as a doorway into a friendship. Take away that expectation and simply offer yourself as an agent of care in that moment, for that person. Just because people at the reception tell you how much they loved your wedding homily and how they need to come visit your church doesn’t mean they will. They almost never do. Whether you’re at the hospital or the wedding chapel or the graveside, you’re there to serve a particular need, and that need has nothing to do with a potential friendship.

Insight #2 – Most people see their pastors through a performative lens, so choose carefully

Whether we like it or not, as paid leaders of the organization we are viewed mostly through the lens of evaluation. Because we have certain dedicated responsibilities, and because we are called upon to lead, it is hard – if not nearly impossible – for our churches to separate us from our jobs. Most people stay at churches because they like how things are going. This is not just true for pastors, but for all leaders of organizations, as people tend to keep their distance from those “in charge.”

TIP: Find someone in your church who doesn’t give a damn about how well you do your job. They’re out there, trust me. Every church has someone who was designed to be your support, a friend who is removed from your performance. I have them. Sure, they think my sermons are fine and that the church is cool and all, but what they really want to do is hang out, talk about music, share a beer, and play golf. For the last 10 years I have gone to countless concerts with a friend from church and not once did we ever talk about church on those outings. It’s like free therapy when there’s an absence of ministry. Find these people who will provide such a service to you.

TIP #2: Be sure to cultivate friendships that you don’t rely on for the ongoing work of your ministry. This doesn’t mean you won’t have friends who also serve in your respective ministries. You will. It’s not a hard and fast rule. But try to never see any new or developing friendships as recruiting opportunities.

Insight #3 – The pastoral life is all-consuming, so live another life, too

The pastor’s total life can end up being bound to the church. There is little to no separation between realms of friendships, faith, service, and vocation. It’s all in one place, within a single community. And if you are married with kids, they’re included, too. When we quit our jobs, we don’t just leave our vocation, we leave everything (and everyone) our life was tied to. And very rarely do those people keep in touch. (There’s usually a reason we leave.) Again, if you have a family, they will also experience the losses of a move.

TIP: Be sure to build a relational life outside of church. Meet your neighbors. Volunteer at the school. Do you run? Join the local track club. Do something that doesn’t depend on your pastoral and theological training. And here’s the hard part: be okay with having friends that you’ll never invite to church. Everyone we meet doesn’t have to come our to churches. In fact, I don’t recommend it. There are plenty of churches to go around, and secondly, we need friends who don’t also watch us work. And finally, become friends with other pastors from other churches. Talking “shop” with removed pastors is quite easy on the soul, and there’s a greater sense of community that happens to us when we do.

Grace and peace,
DS

ENDNOTE: I have also found this to be especially acute in the lives of those who are hired from within the church to work for the church. What these pastors initially loved about their church – community – is the very thing they end up wrestling with in a big way. If you’re hiring someone from within the church, be more than aware of this reality.

Next Post: Navigating Anxiety & Depression

Maundy Thursday Resource

Today is Maundy Thursday. It is a day when Christians across the world remember the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before he died, a last supper among friends. We have prepared a simple resource to be used in an at-home communion setting. Simply gather together some bread and wine or juice, listen to the audio devotional, and take communion.

Maundy Thursday: A Litany | Narrated by Joel Mooneyhan
Music: “As Warm As Tears” by Phil Keaggy, 1991

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

– Collect for Maundy Thursday (Book of Common Prayer, p.221)

The Easter sermon struggle. Some ideas.

Easter is coming. And this year, like every year before it, will have its share of stress and pressure hanging over the pastor’s desk as she struggles to build a capable sermon for the most holiest of days on the Christian calendar. Above all else, Christianity is a resurrection movement. When we speak about the empty tomb, we’re casting out our story of origin; this is not an aside, but the very heart of our faith. We want to get this one right. (Those who come only on Easter are at some advantage, as this is the only story they’ll hear. If all anyone knows of Christianity is something about the resurrection, that’s a good start.)

I have some ideas to share, but first, the top two mistakes we make with our Easter sermons.

Mistake #1 – Trying Too Hard To Stay Something New

There’s a real pull to the fringes of the Easter story where we might find something fresh and yet-to-be-known, but just so you know: there’s nothing there. You’ll say things, of course, that will sound new and foreign to some of your listeners, but the information won’t actually be unprecedented. Don’t put stress on the story to give away more than it has to give or to stretch it beyond its own limits of history and theology. This just creates confusion. You’ll also sound weird and desperate.

Mistake #2 – Trying To Prove The Resurrection

Follow this story back to its origins and what you run into is testimony. That’s it. The whole of the Christian faith is based entirely on the testimonies of people who said they saw Jesus alive when he should have still been dead. Are those testimonies true? I believe so, but setting out to prove them in a sermon is beyond confident. I tried this one Easter by interviewing my brother in place of the sermon. Between his PhD and my Masters Degree, we figured we could offer an academically compelling case for the resurrection, but the number one word of feedback we got from that morning was, “That was interesting.” And when I think about something like a resurrection, “interesting” is a bit of a downgrade.

The balance seems to be in simply retelling the story as it reads, and doing so with a genuine pastoral sense of how the resurrection becomes a filter of hope through which we see and engage the current realities of the world we all share. This allows us to tell the “old, old story” from an immediate perspective; it is a chance to overlay the implications of the resurrection on the worlds we each inhabit, it’s resurrection as a way of being in the world.

Here are some ideas based on the texts:

Gospel of Matthew – I like Matthew’s earthquake, which doesn’t show up in the other Gospel accounts. And with Matthew’s penchant for Old Testament imagery, I imagine this earthquake has its place in the story as a metaphor for the change the resurrection has wrought. The resurrection has upended creation, it has changed the landscape of the world we were once familiar with, and we must learn to walk this earth on new pathways. Everything about what was once known has been rearranged. We are walking atop a new landscape, an altered creation.

Gospel of Mark – I like ending this one at 16:8, most often seen as the original, older ending of the story (the remaining verses appear to have been added later). Verse 8 has the resurrection story ending not in joy, but in fear. The two Marys and Salome are commissioned to tell the disciples what they had seen, but Mark indicates that because of fear (trauma?) they hold off on sharing the news. Could Mark be baiting us to decide what we would do in that situation? Could he be irritating our own doubts and fears surrounding the resurrection? How might we finish this unfinished scene?

Gospel of Luke – All four Gospel accounts place the women at the forefront of the Easter moment, yes, but for some reason I’m drawn to this part of the story in Luke’s version. (You could go this route with any of the resurrection accounts.) The origin of the Christian movement was in the voice of women, a bold and subversive move on the part of God. Whatever the resurrection will come to ultimately mean, we see here in the first moments that we’re dealing with major reversals.

Gospel of John – I like that John is telling a new creation story through the life of Jesus, introducing us to his story with the words, “In the beginning.” (Jn 1:1) John also wants us to count the “signs” that Jesus performs, numbering the first two for us as motivation to follow along (Jn 2:11, 4:54). Each sign could be seen as another “day” of creation. But the resurrection appears to be an eighth sign, throwing off the “seven-day creation” story. Or does it? Justo Gonzalez explains it this way:

“Christians, as well as Jews, did not believe that the repetitive cycle of a new week, following another, and a new year following another, would be endless. There would be a day when that cycle would be broken, and a new age would dawn. This would be a final Sabbath, an eternal day of joy and rest. Given their observance of the Lord’s resurrection on the first day of the week, and the manner they related that day with the first day of creation, Christians would soon point out that the first day of the week was also the eighth, and that therefore what they celebrated on that day, besides the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of a new creation, was also the promise of the eighth, the beginning of eternity.” (A Brief History of Sunday, p.29)

The eighth sign in John’s Gospel is the resurrection, which happened in a garden, at the start of a new week; and a garden is where the world began. This is about something new.

Grace and peace,

DS.

The church has a PR problem and there’s (almost) nothing you can do about it

First, a confession: I know almost nothing about the QAnon community. I know it’s a conspiratorial group that, among other things, appropriates Jesus within its organizational ethos, but that’s about all I know. Will I take the time to learn more about it? Probably not. Why? Three reasons: (1) there are already too many religio-political groups in our world to be familiar with; (2) they are fringy and most communities of this kind eventually, to borrow from the wisdom of Def Leppard, “burn out or fade away”; (3) most importantly, even if I were to become overly informed about QAnon, it would only increase my ability to critique them but not to change them.

You have to pick your battles.

Second, another confession: Groups and movements like these are embarrassing. As a pastor, it’s hard to watch people take the name of Jesus captive for motives beyond the intentions of the Incarnation.

I picture that scene where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.

Third, yet another confession: The American church can also be embarrassing. The stories of toxic spirituality and abusive leadership are almost too much to bear. (I say “can” because the church has the potential for both embarrassment and beauty. More on this below.)

I find that pastors can end up quite overwhelmed with changing the perceptions people have of the American church. Many have made it their entire goal is shatter such perceptions. They take up the fight to shame and disavow every negative and harmful iteration of Christianity that’s out there. We have all said things like, “That’s not who we are”, to delineate ourselves from the fringes.

It’s a noble task, but the important question remains: “Does it work?”

Three things to consider:

Honesty and humility will lead us to ourselves, and to our own mishaps with leadership and church governance. We, too, are complicit in the failures of the church, and we must own this truth. We are human and when humans assume leadership (think: power), the potential for damage and fallout goes way up. Remember that story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the Temple, and how the Pharisee told God that he was glad he wasn’t like the Tax Collector? The story feels like a trap. As listeners we hear it and think, “Well, thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!” We all fall victim to the same human instinct to rise morally above the rest. It can be hard to swallow, but we have to see the ways we have also participated in the worsening of the church’s image. Though I have tried my hardest to never be the type of pastor who upset or hurt people, I recognize and lament those time when I did. There is healing in the pain of recognition. We cannot change what we do not name, so it is healthy for us to reflect on our own failures, name them, and then begin to chart a different course going forward.

We cannot change what other churches do. If we are embarrassed and ashamed by the ways other churches or Christian communities behave, it’s healthy for us to realize that we have little to no influence over such annoyances. I wish my words and ideas and retorts and mic drop social media posts carried more influence for change, but they don’t.

Finally, and this comes from a lesson I learned in elementary school when the teacher would say something like: “Worry about yourself.” Such advice was usually given when I was too concerned with the behavior of others. No one likes a tattletale, especially teachers. But there’s a wisdom to those words, too. Think: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) We have enough on our own plates to repair and heal. In the end, as a pastor, all I can really hope to manage are my own ministry environments, not someone else’s. The best any of us can do is ensure that our own congregations are the healthiest they can be, and that our own reputations as churches in our communities are defined by grace and mercy and patience and beauty. Beyond these are impossible notions of ability and influence.

May you find peace in the work that is ever before you.

Grace and peace,

-Derek