In recent weeks I've been blessed with a challenging personal question, followed a few weeks later by an opportunity for some rest and reflection, where the question kept struggling to the surface. The question in this instance was what I considered to be my greatest weakness as a practitioner of the pastoral arts. The way it usually works is that a burning personal question appears in one form or another, followed by some brief attention and then a dive deep back into the next thing, resulting in not only forgetting the response, but eventually also the original question. Ironic because my answer to this particular question was my difficulty in slowing down, backing off, and resting.
For twenty four years I've lived and breathed "church". Although there are some in the world convinced that I only work 30 minutes a week during my preaching and teaching opportunities, multiplied where multiple weekend services are involved and an occasional wedding or funeral, those closest to the inner cirlce know that it never stops for me, as is the case for most in my calling. Since answering this call it has consumed my life. If I were honest, most of my waking moments somehow are drawn back to church. I haven't been able to really enjoy and embrace time away. Hobbies get shuffled off to a better time when I can focus on them, which is rarely to never. My ability to be focused and in the moment often gets sacrificed to thinking about "church". I'm trying to figure it out, diagnose it, make it more meaningful, more attractive, more relevant, more involved. How do we get people to come? How do we get people to stay? How do we get people to grow, to serve, to give, to study? How, how, how, how? Now that I've moved from an established church to launching a new one it has only gotten more intense and seemingly more urgent.
Over the years I have led countless studies, begun countless programs, created countless preaching series and continually felt depressed when people didn't come. Where are they? Why wouldn't they want to learn this? Was I that terrible? How could they possibly have better things to do? Why can't I go to the beach, the mountains, skiing, soccer, baseball? Why aren't they here? Where's their faith? Don't they know I'm killing myself for this? ...
And it's occurred to me now ... the "this" that I've been killing myself for, sacrificing moments that can never be reclaimed for, giving my heart and soul for ... that "this" is not the person of Jesus, it's the entity of church. I've spent the majority of my ministry years trying to win people to the church before introducing them to a life giving, life changing, life sustaining relationship with Jesus. Many people, by God's grace and ability to deal with our shortcomings, have come to understand and place their faith in Him. In all of it though, I never really fully grasped the concept of "resting in Jesus". I think that I realized this somewhat a few years back as we entered in to this journey of birthing a new ... wait for it ..... church. I knew in my heart going in that it was about Jesus first. I knew from the biblical accounts of the birth of the church that it was about Jesus first and then a community formed organically through a mutual and communal faith that supernaturally drew the most unlikely of members into community. I knew this, and yet, true to form I quickly fell into trying to figure out "church". Sure we tried to do it differently, more relational, more missional, more blah, blah, blah. Why wouldn't they come? Why wouldn't they stay? Why wouldn't they serve, give, study? Same circus just different monkeys. Others certainly had influence in this, with expectations and commonly held imagery of how and when and what, but I must own the outcome. It could just be that a church could emerge in the neighborhood with Jesus still so very distant.
I guess you could judge this confession of sorts. You might be disillusioned with any imagery of a pastor that you may have held. But I'm pretty sure if you were honest .... leader or lay person ... you'd find some hard truth in this. It might hit uncomfortably close to home. Most of the amazing well meaning people of faith that I've ever had the privilege of knowing are somewhat complicit. Let's face it, when talk comes of "leading people" or "introducing people" to Jesus, the most widely recognized mechanism is to get them to church. Invite them or market them in. Inside the church, most of our time, effort, and resources are expended in getting them in and keeping them in "the church". Sure Jesus is around somewhere, but he's become an accessory. We have long forgotten that people were first introduced to Jesus and then a community formed. We have changed it to forming community first and then introductions to Jesus can take place. As a result, I'm afraid, so many church communities in the neighborhoods and Jesus still so very distant. And so it goes ... welcome, song, song, prayer, sermon, communion, song, announcements, blessing, hope you saw, heard or felt Jesus ... if not, come back next week and we will try to do better.
Not for me, I'd rather rest.
Friday, May 13, 2016
Every time I find myself heading back to the West on these same highways, I imagine life before these asphalt trails and the unimaginable effort it took to navigate this treacherous and desolate terrain. I attempt to imagine the unimaginable and it always leads to "Why?" in so many contexts. Why would you leave the relative comfort of what you knew? Why risk for something that you didn't need to risk for? Why, when staring into the void of another endless plain, or another towering mountain range, would you continue on towards something that you had never seen? Why continue on, after reaching the first, second, third, or thirtieth relatively safe and sustainable place, for weeks or months on end to find another?
I once asked this very question to a period actor at the High Desert Museum near Bend, Oregon who was stationed at a diorama depicting a westward traveling wagon family. "That's easy" he offered without hesitation. "It's because of the stories". he said like it was current day, which to him it was. "Stories?, I wondered". "The stories that came back from those who had gone on before and made it" he clarified. It sounded like a simple and yet profound answer. In fact it satisfied me for the next few years ... sort of. I've begun to think a bit more deeply on the matter lately. What kind of stories must they have been to lure those people on? It sounds fairly heroic looking at it 150 years after the fact. But what about back then, in the midst of it, on a day when the snows are coming, your family is sick and your wagon wheel disintegrates half way up a boulder laden, poor excuse of a trail? How powerful did those stories have to be to get you to climb down into a nearly frozen mudhole to wrestle on a new one and continue on? How many times did real suffering cause you to call BS on some story passed down about what may or may not lay beyond? How many mornings did you wake up wondering whether or not to push on toward the "stories" of the West or turn back toward your experience of the East. And what about those who were the actual story tellers? ... those who made the trails ... those who succeeded ... those who never made it but died trying?
My point, and I do have one, is simply this .... We have been conditioned to only consider the story teller. They are the ones with their names in the books. They have the monuments, plaques, and festivals named after them. They are heroes to be sure, I don't want to negate that. But lets be honest, they were also anomalies ... the unusual few born with a few screws loose, some version of wanderlust, adult ADD and possibly even a death wish. They blazed the trail, got bloodied and bruised in the quest to show us something beyond. They and their kind are unquestionably necessary. The real heroes though, in my opinion, were now and continue to be those who got up every morning and pushed on through the unimaginable to get to what could only be imagined. It struck me one time as we stopped along the path of the Oregon Trail, to see the ruts of the old wagon trains still visible, that it wasn't the first wagon through that created the rut ... it was the successive wagons, one after another, all following stories, that eventually created a permanent trail to a new reality. They were the heroes and the real changemakers. It may be true that we need the ones to blaze the trail ... but without those who follow, the trail will soon only be a memory.