Covering Grace

17 November 2017

It’s not possible to learn a craft—-any craft—without messing up. Whether it’s shoe-shining or surgery, you’re going to make mistakes. And how! So what do you do when you’re in ministry? You’re elbow-deep in people’s lives, at the moments when they’re in deepest pain. You represent God. When you make a mistake, people get hurt — badly. They get a false view of God and other people that can impact them for years to come. You can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes. Right?

Wrong. That is a lie from the enemy, designed to paralyze you into inaction.

God knows better than anyone that you can’t learn anything without making some mistakes. And He has planned, from eternity past, for your mistakes. He loves the people you work with and minister to, just as much as He loves you. He’s got them, just like He’s got you. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy or a reason to shortcut your preparation. Your diligence is definitely required, or you won’t get better at your craft.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. Don’t refuse to practice your craft because you’re afraid. Get out there. Do your work. Rest on the grace of God that covers you. Trust Him. He’s got you, and everyone around you. Trust and obey.

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A Reading Milestone

17 November 2017

Every year I set a reading goal. This year, it was only 25 books, split between the professionally relevant, the devotional, and fun. For me, that’s a remarkably unambitious goal, and it reflects the fact that I spent the year finishing school and launching a business, which left me precious little time for reading. But I hit my goal last night, finishing the 25th book with 6 weeks to spare. So I’ll probably hit 30 before the end of the year.

Which was my favorite? That’s a complicated question. How do you compare a spirituality of midlife change to a romp through a fictional, Manhattan landscape featuring parkour and dragons, or either of them to a careful appraisal of C. S. Lewis’ philosophical differences with his longtime friend Owen Barfield?

You can’t, on any but wildly subjective criteria.

So let me speak subjectively: overall, for sheer joy of reading, my favorite was probably Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart, a fictional discussion between a wide variety of specialists meditating together on the nature of reality and human consciousness. If it sounds heady, it was — but I’m a geek to the bone. Reading Worlds Apart was like being in a room with a bunch of people brighter than me, and just barely managing to keep up with their discussion. It was a great deal of fun, even if I did have to read some parts a few times to catch up. I read a good deal by (and about) Barfield in the past year, including a number of his essays and introductions to others’ works, but this one was my favorite. He’ll be changing my thought for many years to come.

More sensible comparisions would be within major categories of books: spiritual, healing, martial arts, philosophy, and so on. So here’s some of that.

Among the spiritual works, the clear standout was Hierotheos Vlachos’ magisterial work Orthodox Psychotherapy. Entertaining it ain’t, but when I was able to carve out the time to read a decent chunk at once, I found a depth and breadth of spiritual insight and compassionate understanding of the human condition that is rare in any tradition. It was helpful to me, and it will be helpful again when I read it next year–which I certainly will.

Among the healing works, Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light was a clear standout. It’s a classic for a reason. And I have to make mention of Cyndi Dale’s Subtle Energy Techniques. While I widely disagree with Dale in spots, her reflections on her life’s work are well worth reading, and she is a master of her craft.

Among the martial works, I’ve gotta say, Maija Soderholm’s The Liar, The Cheat, and the Thief is a classic. I will read it again. And again. Her subject is sword duelling, which is only of peripheral interest to me, but her insights into the human condition along the way make it valuable for anybody — and again, she is a master of her craft.

Steven Pressfield’s wonderfully readable Turning Pro and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t changed the way I practice my profession for the better, as did Sam Altman’s Startup Playbook. Reading Greg Gutfeld and Vox Day on rhetoric and political strategy may have made me a little spicier, not that I needed any help in that department.

I read fiction by Lee Child, Kel McDonald, Dan Millman, Tony Hillerman, Doug Wilson, and others — and if you have’t read Wilson’s Flags Out Front, you’re missing out — but for sheer entertainment value, Seanan McGuire’s Midnight Blue-Light Special was the most fun.

I’m still in process on a handful of books — when am I not? — but that’s the lineup for most of this year.


Not That Simple

10 November 2017

I was talking recently with a friend about the differences between the way I used to prepare people for ministry (back when I was working in a seminary) versus the way I do it now. The biggest difference by far is the degree of experiential learning I insist on. We aren’t just going to learn about the Lordship of Christ; we’re going to put it to work by seeking to hear what He has to say to us and obeying, by praying for the world to come into submission to His will, by sending demons packing.

That focus on experiential learning does many things. It weeds out the people who want to be hearers, but not doers. It inculcates a great reverence for the truth, because we see it set us and others free in practice. But it also forces us to come to grips with the messy business of real application, which is frequently a lot harder than discussions in seminary classrooms make it sound.

 

In the seminary classroom, the prevailing questions would be “What is right?” or “What is true?” — both outstanding questions for a Christian to ask. But for many students, there was also a prevailing assumption that once those questions were properly answered, the proper course of action would be obvious. Well…not so much. Other students had a persistent case of the what-ifs: they could spin out endless scenarios that impossibly complicated any discussion of application. For both these problems, the solution is actual application to a particular situation.

For example, several years ago I was involved in an online forum for survivors of a particularly abusive group of churches. Many of these survivors posted anonymously because they were terrified of reprisals against themselves and their families. Meanwhile, active members of the churches in question would periodically come on the forum to defend their pastors, and would routinely challenge the anonymous posters to approach the pastors directly in line with the guidelines of Mt. 18, to identify themselves, and so on.

How are we to think about this?

In a way, the church members were obviously right. The Matthew 18 guidelines for conflict resolution must be adhered to; they are not merely a suggestion. And how about the golden rule? Would the anonymous posters want someone to post anonymous accusations about them on a public forum for the whole internet-connected world to read?

Moreover, there is no biblical precedent at all for anonymous accusations, and why would there be? The whole point is to bring about resolution of the conflict, and that can’t happen as long as the accuser remains anonymous, can it?

So that settles it, yes?

Not so fast…

First of all, for a number of these anonymous folks, the Matthew 18 standards had been tried. When they approached the pastor about his transgressions alone, he abused them and then lied to others about the conversation. He had his congregation so fooled, or so cowed, that for the most part nobody was willing to accompany the offended party to confront him a second time. As for telling it to the church…forget it.

Secondly, let’s look at the Golden Rule again. Suppose you had been brutalized by such a pastor, and suppose, broken and battered, you spoke up about it, only to incur further abuse and reprisals. Suppose you discover an internet forum where you can talk with fellow victims, receive some help and validation, and begin to heal, a place where you can speak freely without reprisal, because nobody would know who you were. Would you want that chance? Thought so. So why would you deny it to someone else?

Let us not forget, too, that there is a biblical example of speaking publicly to this sort of failure and abuse in a pastor’s ministry — III John. John the Apostle is more than willing to speak frankly in his letter about Diotrephes’ character, and also promises to address the problem more directly when he comes in person.

So the whole picture is a bit more complicated. Of course it is true that reconciliation can only happen if both parties are at the table, and neither one is hiding behind a cloak of online anonymity. And of course it is true that reconciliation is desirable. But reconciliation is not the only thing at stake here. Battered sheep need wound care. They need time in the spiritual hospital. That healing cannot happen in silence. The wounds need to be addressed in community with fellow believers.

What this means in practice is that the anonymous party will probably end up telling his story more than once. As a battered sheep who is simply trying to heal, he can share it anonymously and get some help. As he recovers and becomes, not just a battered sheep, but a Christian soldier prepared to do battle with wolves, he will tell the story again — but this time he will identify himself, give specific names and dates, and handle the reprisals as the cost of doing business. The goal with a battered sheep is to grow him into a Christian warrior. But growth takes time, and we have to start him from where he is — which is what God does with us.


Children of Hagar and the Reformation Settlement

31 October 2017

On this day 500 years ago, the sound of a hammer rang through the streets of Wittenburg. An Augustinian friar, a nobody named Brother Martin, was posting a set of statements on the church door for debate. Although written in Latin, intended for scholarly debate, they were a raw challenge to some of the Church’s worst excesses. Brother Martin was calling the (then desperately corrupt) Church to repent, and he was doing it with style.

Someone translated Brother Martin’s work into German, and—as we would now say—it went viral. Suddenly everybody wanted to know (for example): if the Pope could pardon your sins for an exorbitant fee, why wouldn’t he just pardon everybody’s sins for free, out of simple Christian charity? (Answer: basilicas don’t build themselves, you know.

Brother Martin never intended to start some sort of alt-Christianity in Europe. He just wanted his beloved Church to reform. But there were really only two options with reformers, back in the day. Either the Pope would bless the reformer to start a new monastic order (thereby getting him out of everyone’s hair), or they’d burn him at the stake. With Brother Martin, they tried pretty hard to exercise option B, but a powerful prince objected, and one thing kind of led to another. 

A bunch of churches wanted to be part of the reformation that Brother Martin was hoping for, but the organizational headquarters in Rome wasn’t having any of it. The result was a church split, and next thing you know, a bunch of churches were having to figure out what it meant to be the Church and follow Jesus Christ without fitting into the organizational structure that everybody had been accustomed to for the last 500 years. The Reformation settlement was that Word and sacrament were the marks of a true church, with discipline following closely behind to maintain the first two.

That settlement has persisted for 500 years, and on paper, it still stands. In reality, though, there’s been quite a bit of drift, not because of theological discussion, but due to financial convenience and cultural expectation. Today in America, the marks of a church are corporate papers, a 501(c)(3) exemption, and a charismatic talking haircut with preternaturally straight teeth down front, in the spotlight. 

It’s time to revisit the Reformation settlement. First, we need to allow it to critique where we have come. Are corporate papers essential? Do we really need a charismatic talking haircut with a blinding smile to lead us? Does the 501(c)(3) exemption compromise the independence of the pulpit? How would our reformational fathers see where we have come? What would they say? Would they be right?

Second, we need to take a critical look at the Reformation settlement. We are not looking for perfection, but is it true, is it adequate, to conclude that Word, sacrament, and discipline alone distinguish a church from other types of organizations? Have not these very things been used and abused to quench the Spirit in our midst? Is it possible to have Word, sacrament, and discipline, and nonetheless be a sort of religious country club rather than a church? 

I know spiritually aware, awake, lively followers of Jesus whose leaders have clubbed them with the Word, denied them the sacraments, and driven them out through the discipline of the church. The Pharisees did this very thing with the man born blind, for the twin crimes of being healed and telling the truth about how it happened; do we think we are immune?

I know many more children of the Church who—never formally driven out—nonetheless found no place for themselves in the churches. Their gifts were not acknowledged, their discernment was ignored, their calling was trivialized (or, as in my case, cursed outright). God handcrafted them for a destiny that the church deemed unwelcome or unimportant. Denied their rightful place in the churches, they have gone out into the world, bearing the church’s reproach, taking shelter where best they can. They have been called by God. Drawn by Him, they are seeking His embrace, and they are seeking it outside the church because they did not find it there. 

The guardians of the institutional church call them rebellious; they are the furthest thing from it. Like Hagar, they did what they were told, and they were blessed with fruit that the lady of the house was unwilling to accept. But God-Who-Sees loves them, seeks them in the wilderness, and will yet make of them a great nation. Despite the separation, through Christ He offers them entry into the family of promise. He has raised up David’s fallen tabernacle, and through the Spirit we are all welcome to come and worship together. But what will it look like for us to honor this spiritual reality that God has already accomplished?

It is my belief that in addition to Word, sacrament, and discipline, we need two further things. We need liveliness — the living presence of the Spirit working supernaturally among us — and we need real, functioning discernment. Not doctrinal screening —nothing wrong with that, but that’s just table stakes here — but discernment, the actual ability to tell one spirit from another, to recognize good and evil even when (as God often does) it defies our expectations.

It is my hope that we can recognize each other for what we are and be united in our common ancestry. This is our eventual destiny, and God will accomplish it. When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, we will all be united. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today. 


Strong Magic Takes Blood

14 July 2017

My essay, “Strong Magic Takes Blood” was published at Theopolis Institute.  Take a look. 


Nobody Will Notice: A Love Letter

29 June 2017

“Pastor” means “shepherd,” but most of the people who have the word “pastor” on their business cards are not, in fact, shepherds. (This is okay; you can be a legit church leader without a shepherding gift. The Bible has other words for that — but that’s another post.)

Churches mostly don’t seek, interview for, or pay for shepherding. When it comes to the position we call “pastor,” churches mostly pay for the same things that any other corporation might pay for in a leader: visionaries, fundraisers, orators, administrators, technocrats — things that are visible or sexy (or preferably both), and relatively easy to track and measure.

Shepherds are hard to track.

The nature of effective shepherding is that if you don’t do it, nobody will notice. Injured sheep tend to hobble along with the rest of the flock as best they can, trying to look normal. They don’t want anyone to see. The whole group will join them in the pretense and be willfully blind to their wounds, because wounds make everyone uncomfortable. Lost sheep do not report themselves missing, and they don’t send up signal flares so you can find them. Nobody — not the missing or injured sheep, not the church leadership, and certainly not the rest of the flock — nobody actually wants a shepherd to do his or her job. Nobody wants the wound treated like it’s really there. Nobody wants to know why the lost sheep left.

You will be rewarded for following the crowd in their pretense that everything is fine. No one will complain. For the most part, even the lost and the wounded don’t expect you to help them. (In fact, “Why are you doing this?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter. The answer is always the same: “Because you’re worth it. Because Jesus would.” They don’t believe me at first, but that’s okay.)

If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, if you roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of fostering real healing, for the most part, no one will know except the people you help. You won’t announce to the world that you’re going to call Jack, who seems to be isolating himself, or that you think Madeline is not dealing with her mother’s death as well as she’s pretending. You will just call Jack and Madeline.

In most organizations, even those ostensibly devoted to healing, no one will assign you this job. If you resist the temptation to ignore the lost and wounded, about the best you can hope for is that nobody will notice. But honestly that’s not likely.

More likely, people will resent your shepherding without ever knowing what you are doing. Shepherding takes time, and you will always have other responsibilities. You will be encouraged to spend your time on visible, trackable things — managing programs, initiating a new social media marketing campaign, updating the website, promoting the building program, speaking, whatever. If you actually go and spend significant time with Jack and Madeline, your superiors are going to wonder why you’re not at your desk where you belong. What could you be doing, anyway, and why aren’t the TPS reports done?

(This is like wondering why a shepherd is out looking for a lost sheep instead of hanging around the sheepfold all day — but  good luck getting the board of your 501(c)(3) corporation to understand that.)

So you will initiate this work on your own, and in the teeth of your other responsibilities. You will just call a wounded sheep and say, “Hey, let’s get a cup of coffee.” Or you will swing by their house with a six-pack after work, sit on the patio, and drink and talk. You won’t just keep their secrets; you’ll keep it confidential that you even met, unless you want it blabbed all over church, or showing up as a sermon illustration. (Yeah, sorry, but that actually happens. Regularly.) It’s no one else’s business but theirs.

Maybe it’s one meeting. Maybe it’s two hours a week for a year. It doesn’t matter, because when you made that first phone call, you were signing up — to the best of your capacity — for whatever it takes. If you can’t help, you connect them with someone who can, but you usually don’t just get to drop it at that point. You check back in. You walk with them through it. Whatever it is — and it might be minor, or it might be literally the worst thing you’ve ever encountered in your life.

That’s the discipline.

That’s what good shepherds do.

If there’s a way of making a decent living at this, I certainly haven’t figured it out. But if Jesus called you to it…do it.


An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.