Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bumper Sticker Faith

 "I would like you to know that I quoted you today in a conversation I had about why I believe in God. So, I thank you Mr. Blanton for your words of wisdom. :) "
This was the last thing I read last night before I went to bed.  A young lady who was one of my teens at Smithton posted on my Facebook wall, and I just happened to read it right before crawling into bed.  I have to say, it was a pretty good way to end the day!
Now, I was never a perfect youth minister.  Heck, I may not have even been a good youth minister!  But one thing I have always refused to do with teenagers, and now for the last 6 years as a Pastor in the pulpit, is to allow people to simply accept what I call "bumper sticker faith." 

You know the kind, right?  "The Bible says it so it has to be true."  An honest assessment of just about everything the Bible says reveals that it is almost never as simple as we pretend.  When we make statements like that, especially to teenagers, we create the impression that its not OK to ask the Bible, or the God behind the Bible, questions.  That kind of approach creates a very small faith, that isn't able to stand when it leaves the comforts of home and the youth group.  I have always made an intentional effort (did you hear that word Dr. Steibel!) to encourage my youth, and now my congregations, to grapple with the word.  To ask it questions.  To challenge the things that we have ALWAYS been told.  To "work out their faith with fear and trembling."  I have always said that the greatest thing about teenagers is that they don't think they are supposed to already know everything, so they aren't afraid to ask the tough, honest questions. Those questions create a faith that is deep and lasting, and able to face a world that will certainly challenge us as believers.  Now, I don't know how many of my former youth will read this blog, but if you agree/disagree with the above statement, let me know!

Now, giving credit where it is due, I didn't land here on my own.  I was so blessed to go to Gardner Webb, where we were challenged to "unpack our suitcases" and examine our theological baggage.  We were intentionally placed alongside an ecumenical group of fellow students from different backgrounds and then challenged to test our faith.  It taught me that genuine, good, Godly people can simply disagree about something and still be equally genuine, good, and Godly!

I remember a discussion in one of Dr. C's classes about the movie the Apostle.  The question was, "was He (Robert Duval's character) a good minister?"  Someone said, "yes, he is getting people saved!"  Dr. C asked, in a way only she could, "saved to what?"  I have never forgotten that moment, and I quote that question constantly from the pulpit.

I remember sitting in Greek 202.  The number of us who advanced that far was so small we met upstairs in the cafeteria at GWU.  We sat around the table and actually read from the Greek New Testament!  I don't remember the particular verse, but I remember Dr. Stacy proclaiming, "IF YOUR TRANSLATION SAYS THAT, CLOSE IT, PUT IT ON THE SHELF, ITS WRONG WRONG WRONG!"  At that moment, though I couldn't name it at the time, I felt like I was no longer listening to the great "conversation" of theology that began with the very first believers, I was actually A PART of the conversation!  I was allowed to ask the Bible questions, and I was even becoming equipped to answer some of them.

I remember Dr. Williams assigning me a paper on all of the miracles in Luke, and how difficult it was to figure a common motivation for them.  Then I realized that THAT was the point!

I remember Dr. Canoy's explanation of election vs. free will, by talking about the differing perspectives of the different sides of eternity.

I remember debates about the Iraq war.  Real life theology in action.

No professor that ever had me would call me exceptional.  None would say I was a "great" student.  I certainly was never the smartest person in any room.  But I have always been willing to ask the question, and I hope that those I serve will learn to do the same.

I know that kind of faith won't make me "the next big thing."  It seems that many are more interested in a church that dispenses answers that lead to an end, rather than a pastor that dispenses more questions that are part of a journey.  I'm ok with that, and I would be naive to think that the only thing keeping me from being the next Billy Graham was my questioning nature.  Still I'm proud to have served youth, and now churches, willing to ask the questions with me rather than demand I answer them.

I am indebted to so many, and I am feeling grateful today.  That little expression of gratitude by a teenager caused an explosion of gratitude in me.  Thank you!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Turkey Sandwiches

Yes, that is a picture of my lunch, and NO you may not have a bite.

This Friday, Jennifer and I decided to cook one of the two turkeys that we have had in our freezer, and invite friends over for a little dinner.  Nothing fancy, just two couples and two kids, some side dishes, and one fantastically delicious turkey.  I mean really, Jenn outdid herself with this bird.  Stuffed with oranges and rosemary, glazed with a balsamic glaze.  Oh my!

We had a great time eating with our friends, stuffing our faces, and then getting simultaneously sleepy from our OD of tryptophan, but the greatest part of eating turkey is turkey leftovers!  We've had turkey sandwiches, turkey on a plate, and I'm pretty sure we are going to have turkey tetrazzini in the next couple days!  Turkey leftovers are just the best!  But why?  Why is it turkey leftovers are different from other leftovers?  I doubt I would be so excited about eating chicken for 6 meals straight, or even hamburgers, so what makes turkey so different?

I think its the rarity.  I mean, how often do we usually cook a turkey?  Once a year during Thanksgiving?  Maybe twice for some?  So the rarity of the treat, and the sheer goodness makes it worth coming back to over and over.  It makes it worth re-imagining ways to approach the leftovers.  It makes it worth cooking the bones into stock, using the drippings for gravy, and eating 100 different turkey dishes to squeeze every last bit of goodness out.

So is my point here just to make you hungry?  No, although I am now watching the clock and waiting until I can call it "lunch time" here in my office!  My point is to make a comparison.  If turkey is a rare treat, how much more precious is the Word of God?  How much more important?  Unfortunately, when it comes to the rarest treat, we have decided there is only one way to eat - our way!  Or, more likely the way our parents or preacher has told us.  In some people's world, there is only one way to cook that turkey, only one way to eat.  Forget coming back over and over.  Forget trying new recipes to see what's good.  Forget sucking every last bit of goodness out.  Too often we approach God's word with only one goal in mind - "how do I use this to confirm the things about life/God/the world that I already believe?"

This isn't another Rob Bell blog.  This isn't another conservative vs. liberal blog.  This is simply a plea from a pastor to whoever may be reading.  Be willing to go back for leftovers.  Be willing to try new dishes.  Be willing to see which recipes work.  Read outside of your comfort zone.  Taste and see.

Will it all be good?  Of course not!  Sometimes what you read will be like Turkey Ice Cream with relish topping!  But sometimes you'll find that those things that you "knew" about God, about faith, and about church may not be as sure as you thought.  And you know what?  That's ok!

Yesterday I asked this question in church, and I'll end this blog with it:  What is important?  Is it what we believe about theology?  (heaven, hell, election, etc.)  Or is it what we believe about Jesus?  OR, is it what we DO about what we believe about Jesus?  Taste and see for yourself.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Weeds



Jennifer and I were proud last August 24, when we signed the papers and became first time home owners.  We were so proud, in fact, that we went back to that empty house and sat in the floor of the living room, ordered chinese takeout, and just basked in the idea that this place was, officially, "ours."

Fast forward 6 months, and the joys and pains of home-ownership have hit full bloom.  There is trouble with the toilet in the 80's (our downstairs bathroom, thus named because of the wallpaper - you have to see it to understand!).  I found a couple fence boards where the contractor had failed to nail the bottom rung.  I've already had to fix a drippy tub in our master bath.  But, beyond all of this, we have weeds.

Over the weekend, I decided that the previous owners felt like maybe we didn't pay as much as they would have liked for the house, so they sabotaged us by planting the most onerous weeds possible in the flower beds.  I spent about 4 hours on the front flower bed alone this Saturday.  That doesn't even compare to the woods!  i'm trying to clear the woods that are inside our fence in the back yard so they will be ready for Evan when he is ready for them.  We have about 1/4 acre of woods, and they are thick with underbrush, particularly briars!  Some of the briars are so big, I half expect them to come alive like the hedges in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!  Certainly He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is the only person evil enough to conjure such an abomination!

So here I sit on Monday morning - tired, arms scratched up and itchy from the dark forest, and pretty much hating the idea that I'm not even close to being finished.  But I'm also quite proud.  Proud of they way the flower bed out front looks.  Proud that I got a good start on making the yard safe for my son.  Mostly, proud of the feeling that I did the hard work of cleaning some of our junk.

And that, folks, is what Lent is about.  You knew I'd have to make this preachery, didn't you!  Lent is about doing the little things to clean the accumulated junk in our lives.  Its about taking notice, and not just shrugging and saying "I can't do any better," but actually doing the work to improve ourselves.  When we give up something, no matter how small, and stay disciplined, we develop the kinds of habits that lead us incrementally closer to being the people God wants us to be.  Living for Jesus isn't just about paying attention to my own junk, but sometimes we won't be free to love others freely until we get the weeds out of our own lives.

So how do we decide what the "weeds" are in our lives?  I worked on a tomato farm when I was a teenager, and the farmer had a pretty wise saying.  A weed is any plant that is growing that isn't what you wanted to grow.  So if you're trying to grow tomatoes, and a corn stalk pops up, its a weed!  Those things that pop up in our lives that distract, divide, and destroy our purpose under God are weeds!

Loving others as we love ourselves requires that we, first, love ourselves!  And part of that love is taking some time to cut the weeds.  Just as spring days give reason for yard work, let this lenten season be your reason to prepare yourself for His service.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pressure


For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. - Jeremiah 29:11

There is an old axiom that basketball coaches use:  There are two kinds of pressure, the kind you feel and the kind you apply."

I am going to make an open confession to you blog-readers, the very same confession I made to God just last night as I lay in bed.  I feel a lot of pressure these days.  Most of the pressure is felt AND applied by me, which is something that really doesn't happen in sports, but it happens all the time in life.

I feel a great deal of pressure to take care of my family.  Our family, just like most of you all, is far from wealthy, and I feel a great deal of pressure to make right choices for our future.

Then there is my job.  Part of the family pressure, of course, leaks into my job.  If I do a lousy job as Pastor at Grace Crossing, then there won't be a job, and my family and I will have to go live out in the woods somewhere.  Its hard enough to baby-proof our living room, I can't imagine how hard it would be to baby proof a forest!

People don't just invest money in churches, they invest their lives.  We recently did a video where I asked our members, "What Does Grace Crossing Mean to You?"  The answers were deep and personal, and showed just how committed this church is to one another, and to our core mission.

These wonderful people felt compelled by God to call me here, to take on the task of "re-planting" them for the future, and when I look out on their expectant faces, I feel the pressure of their hopes and dreams for our future.  I feel a great deal of pressure to make right choices for our church, and I have always personalized everything that happens at every one of my congregations.  Heck, I still feel a sense of responsibility for my previous church, and they just called a new pastor (praise God!).

So there it is, my true confession.  Now, I know many of you are already saying to your computer screen what I said to myself as I lay there, "Its not up to you, God is in control."  As I lay in bed last night, my brain kept saying that, and my heart kept saying, "yeah, but..."  That is the tension I find myself living in, the tension between allowing God to be in control, but realizing that part of my call is to be the instrument by which he activates His plans in this congregation.

Make no mistake, He is already at work.  We will be moving our Wednesday services and our offices in to Hickory Grove UMC, (another blog for another day!) in order to save the money we need so that we can begin building our building.  We are deep into Easter plans.  We are starting some wonderful small groups next month.  We've seen more visitors already in 2011 than we saw in all of 2010, and its only March! 

Still, I feel the pressure to do more, better, and more often.

Don't feel sorry for me, that isn't what this is about.  It isn't a complaint, or event a cry for help.

This isn't a blog for sympathy, simply confession, which is, in fact, good for the soul.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

#Winning

Thanks to good ol' Charlie Sheen, the newest meme sweeping the nation is "winning."  I think if you could put irony on a scale, it would have exploded when Charlie uttered that phrase on national TV.

Today has been a great day, capping off a great weekend, and I wanted to pour a little cold water on what, I agree, is a funny little fad.  Today, I got to see what winning really looks like.

No, this isn't about another comeback victory by the Tar Heels.  And no, I didn't finally beat Jenn arm wrestling.  Today, I got to go and watch Special Olympics Basketball.  As I sat there, watching these men and women compete, all I could think was, "everybody in this building is winning."

I felt like I had won just getting to see the pure joy of a game that sometimes we all take too seriously.  I got to see dedicated volunteers give up their Saturday to referee, organize, drive, and feed the competitors, and I could see in their eyes they were felt like winners too. 

Of course, the greatest winners were the athletes.  Every basket scored - win!  Every dribble, steal, pass - win!  No arguing with refs, no showboating, no obnoxious fans, just winning.

I don't have any preacher quotes, or blocks of scripture to leave.  Its not necessary, God speaks well enough through the lives of His children.  #Winning.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Committee Day

 I know that I'm going to offend some people with this post, and probably cause many others to scream "you're an idiot!" at their computer screen, so just bear with me. 

Yesterday, we had our first organized committee day since I've been Pastor at Grace Crossing.  Its something that we did every year at my previous church, and something this church has done in the past as well.  And you know what, despite what you may be thinking - it was a GREAT day for our church.

There is a pithy new saying among some church leaders, "God never gave a vision to a committee."  I think it came from one of George Barna's books, and quite honestly, I find that statement baffling.  I love Mr. Barna, and think his service to the church has been tremendous, but I have to completely disagree with the line of thinking that says "God only gives vision to a very powerful leader within a congregation."

What about the Sanhedrin?  Sure, they aren't as sexy as Moses or Elijah, but weren't they charged with keeping and exercising God's vision for the daily life of Israel?  During the time of the Judges, God continually warned Israel, through Samuel, of the danger of concentrating power in a single leader.  How about the Apostles?  Weren't they the original committee?  Didn't they then create a subcommittee called "deacons" to function for a specific purpose in the local church?  As far as we can tell, most of the very first churches weren't led by super special called pastors at all, but a rotation of men and women who taught and fought to make sure they spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ person by person.

Are committees messy, inefficient, and slow sometimes?  Absolutely!  In fact, I think they are the worst way to run a church - except for all the other ways.  If we believe what we say we believe, which is the idea that the church is the sum total of the people, the "Priesthood of the Believer," then we should make sure that the entire priesthood has a say in how the church works, what it does, and what it decides to stop doing. 

Will leaders emerge?  Of course they will!  Doesn't the Pastor have a special calling as a "visionary?"  I should hope so!  But this pastor believes that God's vision can come through the voice of a "layperson" in a simple committee meeting just as easy as it can come from a burning bush.  

So sure, it may make me "uncool" to say so, and it may make some folks cringe at the thought of having to be part of the day to day operation of a church, but I'm proud of our committees and the work they do.  I'm proud of our church that takes seriously their responsibility to "be" the church, rather that just attend a church.  Most of all, I'm proud to be a part of a church that believes everybody plays a part.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Greener Pastures

I have a confession to make.  Its something that may make me seem even more strange than you already think me to be (if that is possible!).  Its something that few people know about me, and frankly, I don't know what will happen when I share it, but here goes:  I love mowing the lawn.

There.  I said it, and its out there for all the world to see. (well, when I hit "Publish")  I mean, who wouldn't love takin' this beauty for a ride...



You have no doubt heard the expression "the grass is always greener on the other side."  Usually, its a cautionary saying, and attempt to understand the natural human tendency to covet what we don't have at the expense of what we do.  But I'm gonna take that statement in another direction today.

Sometimes, the grass IS greener on the other side, and the reason its greener is that other guy has worked very hard to make it so!  We have a new daily routine of walking Evan in and around our neighborhood, and for the last couple days I've been forced to walk by a house along the way with one of the greenest, most beautiful yards I've ever seen.  That's right, in early March, this guys lawn looks like a golf course!

Now it didn't get that way by accident, or everyone else would have a  yard that looked great.  It probably took time, energy, fertilizer, sacrifice, and knowledge of how to best use those things.  In other words, the guy didn't just get out and putter around on his mower, hoping the grass would look good.  No, he put in the hard work of preparing his yard, then reaped the benefit.  And I'll bet its a blast to mow!

So what does that mean for us?  Well, it means if we want the best life possible, we can't just do the "fun" parts of life.  We can't even limit ourselves to the "fun" parts of a Christian life.  If your whole Christian experience is a weekly worship service, you're not gonna be the greenest lawn.  If all you do is show up on Christmas and Easter (Chreasters!) you're not going to grow.  If we as a church decide that all we have to do is a routine "ride-around," without putting in the hard work of planting new seeds, we're going to have bald spots and erosion.

Have I pushed the analogy far enough yet?  Finally, we must realize that God must be at work in our work! 

There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. - 1 Corinthians 12:5,6


Far too often, we ask ourselves, "why isn't our church growing?" when we should be asking a totally different question, "what can we do to plant the seeds of God's Kingdom in this world.."  God will take care of the growing if we'll do the planting and the watering!