The Stranger in Our Midst

The Stranger in Our Midst

Virtually every church I know, if asked to describe itself, would use words like friendly, caring and welcoming. Not every new person who comes their way would use those same words. While churches are not hostile to newcomers, many of them are unaware of the coolness that belies our intended warmth toward the stranger in our midst. While churches want to be friendly, they often lack the intentionality required to generate that reality. When I started seminary, my family and I moved to a new city, and thus, to a new congregation. There was a church less than a half mile from our home. How convenient. On seventeen (17) different Sundays we participated in Sunday School and worship. We enjoyed the sermons, the music, the opportunities for our elementary aged children, and we had a good SS teacher. Hardly anyone spoke to us. No one in SS ever called us by name, though we worked to learn theirs. We introduced ourselves to the pastor all 17 Sundays. He seemed to never recall who we were. After five months of feeling ignored, we decided to try to find a new church home. We ventured downtown to a much larger church and quickly made the assumption that we might be ‘swallowed up’ in such a big congregation. As we left worship that day, the pastor was greeting folks at the door. When we got there, he knelt down to talk with our children. Impressive. After a time, he stood and greeted us. On Wednesday, a hand-written note from the pastor arrived in the mail. We went back the next Sunday, and...
The Ministry of Words

The Ministry of Words

I stood in a hospital room crowded with family members of one who, without a single word, had summoned us all together. She was ready, after almost 94 years, to leave this life. So that is what she did. She left a hushed silence unable to muffle the emotion of time spent, joys remembered, and sorrows borne. Hospitals are places of healing. For those who work there it must be wonderful to take part in someone’s battle for life and equally devastating when healing does not occur. These caregivers are on the front-line, walking alongside people on the road toward wholeness. Sometimes, after a visit to see a parishioner, I would imagine my life as a physician, instead of a pastor. That happened most often on Monday mornings, discouraged by a Sunday that was, at least by chosen metrics, showing signs of failing health, if not impending death. Pastors put tremendous pressure on themselves, especially when it comes to the sermon. After all, pastors are purveyors of words, trained in seminary to craft powerful, life-giving words, as they lead Sunday morning worship. No wonder that on most weeks pastors feel weak in the knees as they ascend the steps to the pulpit. No pressure. Hear me when I say that corporate worship on Sundays can and should be life-giving and healthy. The words proclaimed from the pulpit both in sermon and song should be dynamic and relevant, worthy of dedicated study and preparation. But the truth is the pastoral call to ministry transcends the Sunday experience. Corporate worship can’t be all there is to a healthy church.  Sunday morning...
Why I Love the Church

Why I Love the Church

My mother-in-law died twenty-five years ago.  One of my wife’s brothers, also a pastor, preached the eulogy.  His title for his message was, “How the Church Saved My Family.”  In it he described his mother’s home life as a child.  He held nothing back as he explained his grandfather was an alcoholic who abused his wife and two daughters, one of which was his mother.  It was a bleak description. But he also told of a small neighborhood church that loved his mother and nurtured her through her teenage years.  Did they know what went on in that house?   No one knows.  But they did love her and provided a sense of family and normalcy that she didn’t find in her own home.  When she married my father-in-law, it was after morning worship.  Following the benediction, everyone sat down, the pianist played the bridal march and my mother-in-law walked down the aisle, dressed in white.  All the members of the church family were the guests. My brother-in-law explained how that little church saved his mother by their love.  They didn’t simply talk about God’s love; they lived it.  And because my mother-in-law experienced true love, she was able to provide a stable family life for my wife and her two brothers. I still think it was the most profound funeral messages I’ve ever heard.  I’ve thought about it many times and reflected on how it applied it to my life.   My mother died when I was six.  We lived a couple hundred miles from family and my father could not raise my sister and me by himself.  The family...
The Power of Shared Story

The Power of Shared Story

So the other day I got a notification on Facebook that said “Larry has tagged a photo of you.”  Larry was my date to my senior prom.  He was a good friend from my church youth group who went to another high school.  Plus – he had a GREAT car.  A brand new anniversary edition Mustang convertible.  I knew we’d have about 30 minute drive to dinner and I was looking forward to going in that sweet ride.  But I had forgotten about something really, really important.  When I was in high school it was all the rage for girls to wear hoop skirt formals to the prom.  You know – the big southern belle kind of dresses where you are basically wearing a lampshade.   Well – imagine, if you will, riding in a convertible with the top down in that get up.  I spent the entire ride trying to keep my dress in the car.  But I loved that car, so every time he’d look over and see me frantically shoving my billowing dress back into the car and say do you need me to put the top up I’d say “No, no it s fine really.”  When Larry posted our prom picture on Facebook – with him standing three feet away from me and my hoops – he commented on it – “Remember we saw a shooting star that night?”  I thought – “What shooting star? All I remember was trying to keep myself from taking off out of the car with my skirt as a parachute.” Good times… Virtual communities like Facebook and Instagram are an...
Belonging and Believing – Healthy Churches and Healthy Dialogue

Belonging and Believing – Healthy Churches and Healthy Dialogue

A Continuing Fragmented Reality During my days in seminary, I passionately uttered the following phrase in the middle of an evening class on collegiate ministry. “Do we really want to proliferate sectarianism in a postmodern society?” My friend Matt still mocks the wordiness of the way I phrased my question. Regardless of the way it’s phrased, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the sentiment I expressed that night. New hot button issues emerge frequently that plague sincere people of deep faith. The rise of the “Nones” is further proof that postmodernity is here to stay (which is not a bad thing). As churches, we are at a crossroads – just as we always have been. It is not a new phenomenon. A history of church division, outraged piety, innocent heresy, and theological debate serve to remind us that the life of the church in the world is one that will be marked by a differing of opinions and approaches. An Opportunity in Our Midst In the midst of this milieu, churches are given a great opportunity. In the living rooms of parishioners, television sets may be turned to the ranting of ideologues who preach with venomous certainty, but in our houses of worship, we have the opportunity to cultivate and hold space for a community that can live life together in the midst of disagreement. It will take work to worship even while we disagree, but as we are able to intentionally be churches that are comfortable with holding space for differing opinions, three beautiful things will begin to occur. God as the Essential First, our communal life...

More Wednesdays, Fewer Thursdays

How quickly our conversations can go from theoretical to all-too-real. On Wednesday, I spent a rewarding day in Tennessee on a retreat with 45 ministers and staff members thinking through the unique and profound pressures of ministry in the 21st century. We agreed that, while it is not an easy task, it is unquestionably a delight to be used by God for the good of the kingdom. We talked about self-care and pledged to be good stewards of our lives and ministries together. 24 hours later, on Thursday, I got the devastating phone call that a friend and fellow pastor in another church in another state had taken his life. What was theory and marginally important to one group in one setting became primary and haunting to an entire congregation and family in another. My own grief was intense. Watching from afar as an entire community agonized together and tried to make sense of the unthinkable was dark and sad beyond words. Ministers get a significant amount of attention these days when people discuss difficult leadership roles. They should. While everyone wrestles with some degree of career frustration, clergy are increasingly identified as especially prone to struggle. Earlier this year, Forbes magazine ranked the role of clergy as #5 in their annual list of toughest leadership roles. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/02/25/ranking-the-9-toughest-leadership-roles/) The sources of this increasing stress are numerous. I usually start by referring to two pressing realities for most clergy, one internal and one external. First, the vast majority of ministers serve in a down cycle of congregational metrics. Congregational attendance and giving is trending lower for nearly 90% of churches...