God the Gardener

12 October 2018

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who took seeds from a rebellious province and planted them in his garden. Under his care, they grew larger and more fruitful in his garden than they had grown anywhere else. And people came from the north, south, east and west to see what the plants had become, and taste their fruit.

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Spiritual Healing is a Thing

5 October 2018

I grew up in a church where “spiritual healing,” to the extent that it was discussed at all, was understood to be talking about healing the rift between us and God in a conversion-at-a-revival-meeting kind of way. (For those of you who know the theological language, that meant spiritual healing = justification by faith, and that was all there was to it.) I vividly remember the day I realized there was more to it than that. I was in a course on healing prayer, and our teacher pointed out that Jesus Himself said that He came to heal the brokenhearted. And then one of the facilitators began to tell story after story of spiritual healings she had seen–her own, and others’.

I left class that day deeply discouraged. Does that surprise you?

I had already learned the hard way, at the age of 16, that knowing things wasn’t enough–I actually had to forgive the people I had grudges against. Hard as it had been, I had done that (until I reached the point where I was totally unable, and then God worked a miracle–but that’s a story for another time.)

I had been taught (not explicitly, but by implication) that once I had given forgiveness, I would grow automatically through mastering the doctrine–the religious ideology of our tradition. I had given myself to that task, and I had been successful. I was a fair-haired son of our tradition, a rising young theologian.

But forgiveness is not healing, and studying is not healing. Forgiveness lays the necessary groundwork for healing. Studying can bolster your faith that God can heal. But laying the groundwork and believing that it’s possible is not all there is to it. The initial act, the sin against me, was like getting a splinter shoved into my skin. Holding a grudge was like letting it stay there and fester. Forgiveness was like pulling the splinter out and cleaning out the pus. But that does not magically close the wound — there’s still the actual healing to be done. It’s not automatic, or at least, it wasn’t for me.

I hadn’t healed. I was still carrying significant wounds, and suddenly I knew it. As far as I could tell, I still had a long, long road ahead of me. I hated it. I wanted so bad to just be done, and I wasn’t. I wanted to leave that healing prayer class, and never come back. I wanted to pretend I didn’t know.

But I stayed, and I asked God to work. He did. The road was not easy, but neither was it as long and grueling as I’d feared, because God is gracious. When we are injured, He gives back to us. But that’s a tale for another time.


“Above All Your Name”

28 September 2018

Over time I have noticed a trend in my understanding of Scripture. I can’t figure out what a passage means. It seems odd, or an odd way of saying something. Then one day, I see God do the thing that the passage is talking about, and suddenly it couldn’t be any clearer — it’s exactly the right way of describing what happened.

So Psalm 138 has baffled me for years. What could it possibly mean to say to God, “You have magnified Your word above all Your name”?

Let’s look at the whole first movement of the psalm:

I will praise You with my whole heart;

Before the gods I will sing praises to You.

I will worship toward Your holy temple,

And praise Your name

For Your lovingkindness and Your truth

For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.

In the day when I cried out, You answered me,

And made me bold with strength in my soul.

The speaker is in a foreign land. He sings the praises of Yahweh in front of the demonic powers of that place. Think Daniel, praying toward Jerusalem in Babylon.

So what does it mean in this foreign sojourn that God has magnified His word above His name? I didn’t know until I saw it happen: pagans following the word of God, not out of obedience to Him but because it’s good advice and their lives are better off when they do it. They may have encountered the principle — Sabbath rest, tithing, generosity, what have you — as a word of advice from a friend, or as a principle from inner witness, or whatever. They don’t attribute it to God because they don’t know it came from Him.

Because He has magnified His word above His name. He is willing for people to know what to do without Him getting immediate credit for it. More people know how to live than know that He is the source of direction — that is what it means to have the law written on your heart.

The second half of Psalm 138 says

All the kings of the earth shall praise You, O Yahweh,

When they hear the words of Your mouth.

Yes, they shall sing of the ways of Yahweh,

For Yahweh’s glory is great.

Though Yahweh is on high,

He still regards the lowly;

But He knows the proud from afar.

God will not allow His word to forever remain anonymous. Because He is humble and He loves us, He is willing for people to say, “Wow! That’s a great idea!” and not know, at first, where it came from.

But as it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, so it is the glory of kings to search it out. Kings want to know where the good ideas come from, because where there’s one, often there’s more. As they investigate, they will find Yahweh, because whoever seeks Yahweh (knowingly or not) will find Him. And when they do, they will praise Him.


Triple Triangle

21 September 2018

Christian decision-making can be difficult. It’s simple enough to ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” But the disciples who walked with Him for three years and knew Him best had a hard time predicting what He would do. How are we supposed to do it?

One way of approaching this is to remember who Jesus is: our High Priest, our King, and God’s Prophet during His earthly ministry. There were plenty of priests, kings, and prophets in the Old Testament, but Jesus fulfills all three roles perfectly–and then He calls us to follow Him.

So let’s look at what that might look like…

TripleTriangle(1)

Suppose Hollywood makes some grandly offensive movie about Jesus. What is our response?

The first question is, “Who am I dealing with: God, God’s people, or the world?” This is a problem in our relationship with the world, so it’s outward-facing.

The second question is, “What would each role do in this situation?” A kingly response is to go to war: boycott the film and the studio, publish scathing op/ed pieces that decry Hollywood’s war on Christianity, and so on (sound familiar?). A prophetic response might look like calling the people involved in the film to repent, which is very different from the angry op/ed piece: one is punishing them for what they did, and the other is offering them a way to get right with God again. A priestly response might be directly approaching the producers of the film and asking how you can bless them and pray for them. Being cursed, we bless, remember? (By the way, there’s a ministry in Hollywood that does exactly that, and they enjoy quite a bit of success.)

The third question is, “Which response are you called to?” Walk with God and see. Different parts of the Body may be called to different things.


The Shape of Ministry

14 September 2018

This is a speech I imagine giving at a seminary chapel. Nobody — for reasons that will become obvious — has invited me to actually give this address, so I’m gonna just publish it as a blog post.

As I look out across this auditorium, I see eager, bright people. I see the makings of a corps of intelligent, upwardly-mobile ministry professionals. And I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you. I have some good news for you too, but unfortunately the bad news has to come first. If you will stick with me through the bad news, then the good news will be — for some of you, at least — profoundly liberating.

So, the bad news. Secure corporate jobs are a thing of the past. It’s a gig economy now, and it really shows no signs of changing anytime soon. What does that have to do with you? Well, the same thing is true in the ministry world, albeit for slightly different reasons. The pool of ministry jobs that pay a decent full-time salary is shrinking. There are tons of bright, motivated, qualified people who — despite papering the country with their resumes — haven’t even gotten so much as a call back in the last year. There’s a bunch more who have done a ton of interviews, but someone always just seems like a slightly better fit.

Some of you — a very few of you — will land good ministry jobs out of school, and stay in that world for your entire careers. I wish you well, and you can probably tune me out now, because the rest of what I have to say won’t really apply to you.

The problem is, most of you who think I just gave you permission to tune me out — you’re wrong. You will spend at least some — and maybe most or all — of your career outside that glorious, enchanted, nigh-mythical land that is paying full-time ministry. So unless you have a crystal ball telling you otherwise, just assume that at some point, what I’m about to say will be relevant to you.

So much for the bad news. Let’s move on to the good news, which is that you don’t need the permission of some paycheck-issuing body to do ministry. I know a bunch of folks in the full-time, fully-paid ministry world, but let me tell you about the other folks I know for a minute.

Gabe started a handful of drop-in youth centers around Denver, and supports himself by working at a brewery. Heather runs a cafe, which she uses as the site for a very fruitful ministry. Dave started a day center for the homeless. He’s also the world’s leading expert on Victorian trade cards — you don’t know what that is, and I’m not going to try to explain it now, but he’s written a half-dozen books on the subject, edited a magazine for the field, and supports himself buying and selling these things on eBay. Bob is a full-time missionary now, but for years he supported his ministry projects by working 10 days a month for a marketing firm. Jenny is an itinerant prayer warrior who splits her time between here and Africa; she supports herself as a massage therapist.

Let me tell you about how this has worked out for me. I got hired out of seminary to teach. I was half-time as an adjunct faculty member, and half-time associate pastor at a local church. After a year, the seminary brought me on full-time. I quit the pastor gig, but then got another, very part-time gig with a little church plant (that turned out to be a counter-cult exit ministry disguised as a church plant, but that’s a story for another time.) I was full-time at the seminary for four years. That was the last time I had a stable, full-time paycheck from ministry — more than 10 years ago now.

You know what? I really liked being a professional geek. But life’s been a lot more interesting since I got dynamited out of that comfortable gig.  Since then, I’ve worked for another seminary part-time, and a couple more churches. I’ve started a nonprofit, done youth work, written Bible curriculum, driven a school bus. Presently, I’m a pastor-at-large ministering in the gaps between churches. I’ve baptized people in the Platte and served communion in shot glasses off the tailgate of my car. I’m also a massage therapist, because pastor-at-large is not the sort of job that comes with a fat paycheck.

Or any paycheck, most of the time.

You may not want this kind of life for yourself. You’re investing in a good education, and why shouldn’t you have a solid career, just like if you went into medicine, finance, education, or some other well-educated profession?

By way of an answer to that, let me tell you about another guy. He was a professional theologian; good education, pretty secure gig, and then he got mugged by spiritual reality. He spent the next 14 years trying to figure out what happened to him. After that, he traveled around sharing with anybody who would listen. Sometimes he planted churches. Sometimes he was fully supported; other times he supported himself while he did the work. He even wrote a few books, but they weren’t really theology books. They were mostly compilations of good pastoral advice to other people who had been mugged by the same spiritual realities, teaching them how to live with what had happened to them. For those of you who haven’t caught on, I’m describing Saint Paul. If he wasn’t too good to support himself, then what makes you so special?

God has a destiny for you, and if you step into it, He will supply what you need. You certainly will have needs, and here are some of them.

  • You need a useful trade. If you have no marketable skills, I advise you to get some, and soon.
  • You need a team. Anything really worth doing is big enough that it won’t be sustainable to tackle it by yourself. And we’re Christians — we’re the image of the Trinity; we’re not meant to do anything alone.
  • You need oversight. It is not healthy to have nobody who can tell you no. You need open-minded, experienced people who believe in what you’re doing — even if they don’t quite understand it — and are willing to help you do it. That last bit is important. Don’t trust people who are not invested in your success to give you directional guidance.
  • You need excellent self-care skills. That means you need a regular sabbath, you need retreat time, you need to clear margin for your relationships, and build a good support network.
  • You need to be able to say no without feeling guilty. The more you divide your time between different places, the more people will feel that it’s reasonable for you to give them just a little more — and you can’t give “just a couple more hours” to 4 different places in the same week.

If this sounds daunting, it is, but remember the examples we’re following. Paul faced some daunting prospects himself: go out into an overwhelmingly pagan world with virtually no support and plant churches. (And be quick, because you’re going to have to skip town before they kill you.) The good news, again, is that you do not need anybody’s permission to have a powerful and fulfilling ministry. If you are willing to go outside the shiny, professional box, it’s a big world out there, and the opportunities really are endless. I wish you well. 


A Cautionary Letter

7 September 2018

The Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi
Horus Street
Pithom, Egypt

Aaron ben-Amram
Goshen, Egypt

Dear Mr. ben-Amram,

We thank you for notifying us about the practices in which you and your brother Moses are engaged. In these turbulent times, many people have grown confused about the worship of the Most High. The Discernment Committee exists to educate Israel about the proper worship of the Almighty, and to expose the many pagan practices that have infiltrated the congregation of Israel.

Unfortunately the practices of your brother fall into this category. Upon review of our history, we find no precedent for any of the so-called “revelations” that your brother brings to the table. The God of Abraham spoke to Abraham face to face, as a man speaks to his friend, and to the other patriarchs in dreams. There is no precedent whatsoever for the Almighty speaking out of a burning bush, still less some paranormal bush that was “burning but not consumed,” whatever that means.

Moreover, the “miracles” that your brother brings to validate his “revelations” are the furthest thing from the sort of uplifting and worshipful miracles that might genuinely befit the Most High. These signs your brother brings — turning his hand leprous, turning water into blood—are disturbing, morbid, and frankly just bizarre. And again, there is just no precedent of the Almighty doing such things.

As to the matter of turning sticks into snakes, well…if I might be frank, a Levite of your education ought to know better. You know our troubled history with the serpent, and the very idea of validating some sort of connection with the Almighty by turning your walking stick into the symbol of Satan…well, surely you’re not that tone deaf. This is not the work of the God of Abraham.

Moreover, our research indicates that this snake-stick demonstration is a practice of the Egyptian sorcerers Jannes and Jambres, among other local occultists. These men are worshippers of a variety of false gods, entities that you and I know to be demonic in nature. Surely you can see that participating in such an occult practice opens a wide door to the demonic in your own life, and we would urge you to immediately repent of and renounce your involvement in this grave sin.

If you’ll forgive a personal note here, I knew your late father, may he rest in the bosom of Abraham, and he would be deeply grieved to see his sons carrying on in such a manner. Moses always was a bit impulsive, so perhaps it’s understandable. But for you, Aaron, to get caught up in this…I just don’t know what to say. You and your sister Miriam have always been the sensible ones. May the Most High forgive me for saying so, but I’m honestly glad your father didn’t live to see you getting carried away by Moses’ nonsense. Amram was always rightly proud of you, and this would have just broken his heart.

But recriminations won’t solve anything, and we need to find a way to move forward. I’m afraid the best-case scenario here is that your brother has serious mental health issues. Four decades alone in the desert would be a strain for anyone, and it’s not implausible that his frustrated lifelong desire to be the liberator of Israel finally caused a psychotic break. As awful as it sounds to say so, I sincerely hope this is the case. Our people have always made excellent psychiatrists, and there is some hope that with lengthy therapy, your brother could be delivered from his delusions and return to a somewhat normal life. If indeed they are delusions. I sincerely hope they are, because the alternative is to take your brother’s account at face value.

In that case, some entity known as “I am” spoke to your brother from a burning bush and induced him to perform these morbid and bizarre pagan practices. Given the pagan associations of these practices, we can only conclude that the entity known as “I am” is a demon, and for your own safety, we would urge you to have no further contact with your brother while he is under the influence of this unclean spirit.

We maintain a resource list of mental health professionals and exorcists for concerned families in your unfortunate situation. Please find it enclosed. I urge you to consult with one or more of them regarding next steps for your brother.

We pray that the Almighty’s mercy will cover you and your family during this very difficult time.

Sincerely,
Yochanan ben-Zacharias
Communications Director
Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi


Leaving Well

31 August 2018

I’ve been a ministry insider my whole life, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of departures. The ones caused by outside factors (job transfer, moving to be near aging parents, etc.) are relatively easy. The ones caused by differing convictions, firings, the many variations on poorly-disguised firings, and so on…those are much harder. There’s an art to leaving well. Here are some tips:

  • Care for the People
    • “A good man leaves a legacy to his children’s children.” Everything you ever did for anybody in that group will be seen through the lens of how you left. So leave well. You were there to help people; don’t hurt them on your way out the door.
    • Organizations are totally dispensable; they are vehicles that travel a certain distance in time and space, and then fall apart. Don’t feel at all bad about dropping or walking away from an organization.
    • People are another matter. People are eternal, and are of incalculable value. Don’t make the mistake of treating the people as gears in the organizational machine. Treat them as people. (Even when they’re treating you as a cog. Especially then–rebuke the bad by practicing the better.)
    • The above point applies doubly for the ones responsible for the separation. You don’t get to ignore the golden rule, even if they did. Show grace.
  • Tell the Truth
    • You and the other actors involved did what you did. Own your part of it, and let the others own theirs. If they canned you, say so. If they had good reason, admit it. If you think their reasons are nonsense, say that. If they never gave a reason, you can say that too.
    • Firings are frequently disguised as something else. Your pride will tempt you to go along with the pretense; it beats having to admit you were fired. Don’t give in to that temptation.
    • Hide nothing. Gossip thrives on secrecy and the appearance of secrecy. Defuse it with openness. Don’t hide your feelings either. If it’s painful, say so. If you’re kinda relieved, admit it. Don’t lie.
  • Fighting
    • Mostly, don’t. It will be sufficient to tell the truth about why you’re leaving.
    •  For most of us, it’s easier to be angry than sad, so it’s easier to go out fighting than to just go out wounded. Therefore, you will be tempted to find things to fight about on your way out the door.
    • Resist that temptation. It leads to massive collateral damage, and hugely hinders reconciliation. 
    • When you’re looking for a fight, you rarely pick the root issue.  You pick the fight you think you can win — or at least the one where you can do the most damage to your target. There is no surer road to irreconcilable differences than ignoring the real issues to fight about something else. 
    • Read Tale of Three Kings. Don’t be a Saul or an Absalom.
    • Understand that your (soon-to-be-former) organization may actually value and reward Saul/Absalom behavior. Determine ahead of time that you will not accept that from yourself, regardless. Membership in an organization is not worth your soul.
  • Severing Ties
    • You need not be hesitant about cutting ties to the parts of the thing that are no longer your business. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” can be your mantra…internally. Externally, there’s no need to be snarky about it. “I don’t work there anymore; you’d have to ask them” is a good all-purpose response.
    • The more professional the organization, the fewer loose ends you’re likely to have. If you come out of your meeting with HR to find the contents of your desk in a box and security standing by to escort you from the building, then you probably don’t have to worry much about loose ends.
    • In less formal situations, there will often be phone calls later — “Hey, where are the _____?” Or “How did you do _______?” When you get that phone call, don’t be a jerk.
    • That said, those calls can be painful. Try to set it up so you don’t have to deal with that later. Make a list and pass it on to someone responsible, then refer all inquiries to that person. 
  • Changing Relationships
    • Some of your relationships were built entirely on you representing the organization. Those relationships were not actually with you, and they will evaporate or transfer to the new organization representative.
    • You aren’t required to sever all ties, even if they want you to. Personal relationships don’t just evaporate because the organizational relationship has changed or ended. Keep your friendships.
    • You will be surprised at which friendships stay, and which ones evaporate. When a friendship you were counting on evaporates unexpectedly, it’s okay to be hurt — that’s completely natural. But don’t force it, and don’t go to war with the person that hurt you. It’s a waste of effort, and it won’t get you what you want. Take it as data, and move on.
    • The relationships that endure will change, because the rhythms of the relationship have changed. The transition changes when you see each other, in what context, how often, and so on. That will change the relationship, often in unpredictable ways.
  • Learning Lessons
    • Be willing to take a hard look at yourself. How did you contribute to the problem? Did you have a hand in escalating it? Were you seeking occasions for reconciliation, or were you looking for a fight? (Looking for a fight is not automatically wrong; there are things we should fight about. But own what’s yours. If you came in talking like Jeremiah, you shouldn’t be surprised when they treat you like Jeremiah.)
    • In the heat of the moment, we often learn the wrong lessons. Do your best, but when the dust has settled, be willing to revisit what you learned. You’ll often have a more complete picture later.
  • Unintended Consequences
    • Take a long look at what you’re being spared here. In what ways has the separation liberated you?
    • Don’t assume you know what the separation means for the future. Remember, Steve Jobs worked for Apple twice.