There is No “I” in Pastor…

I have a problem.  It’s my ego…

I never really noticed the problem as a youth pastor.  I never considered myself to be much of a ladder climber.  I was content to be a youth pastor.  I never took attendance on Wednesday nights.  I just loved doing ministry.

Then I turned to the dark side.  That’s what we youth pastors would say to all our friends who became senior pastors.  We accused them of turning to the dark side.  I thought it was a joke, but in some ways maybe it wasn’t.

When I became a Sr. Pastor, all of a sudden I seemed to be constantly evaluated by the size of my congregation.  I had to turn in my numbers every month.  All of the sudden, I had to be concerned about the offerings.  We had to make sure the bills were paid.  Our denomination has an assembly every year where we report.  There is a book that contains the stats of all of the churches in it, including attendance and finances.  It seems like we are always being measured by a business model that measures success by numbers and revenue.  Honestly, it messed with me a little.

I began to realize that my ego was heavily tied to my ministry.  I was turning to the dark side, literally.  And I don’t think I am alone.

I’ll never forget when one of our members asked me the question, “How come God never seems to call pastors to smaller churches?”  I really didn’t have an answer for him.  It seems that many of us pastor types have bought into a business model that says we are more successful if we are pastoring a large congregation.

This week, we lost an amazing member of our church.  She battled cancer for 5 years valiantly and inspired my entire congregation along the way.  I was actually in Puerto Rico when I got the news.  We had to wait a day before we could fly home.  I didn’t want to be in Puerto Rico anymore.  I wanted to be home, mourning with the family and my church family.

I am beginning to realize that there is something special about being in ministry for the long haul.  It means something to celebrate with people when their kids graduate from high school, and to mourn with them when they lose a loved one.  There is something important about being there to marry people, dedicate their children, and bury their grandparent.  There’s something about walking the journey together, taking communion together, placing ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, baptizing them, and sending some of them out as ministers of the gospel.

The picture below is a picture of some kids from my church at Tyler’s 3rd birthday party.

IMG_0803 Next summer, most of these kids will go to NYC in Louisville with our church.  Someday, I will watch them get married, and perhaps perform some of those ceremonies.  There is something very healthy about long-term pastorates.

I’ve decided that I am sticking with these people.  The church may grow, it may not.  I will preach the Word.  I will administer the sacraments.  I will laugh with these people.  I will cry with them.  But more than anything, we will go through it together.

You see, the ministry isn’t really about me.  It is about being willing to sweat and bleed for a group of people the way Christ was willing to sweat and bleed for me.  I believe our church will grow, but I will not allow a number on a page to define me.  I will be defined by the way I care for those I have been entrusted to serve!

Anything else isn’t ministry, it’s self-serving…

Just a thought,

n8

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Why I am a Nazarene…

I was recently asked to give an answer to the question, “Why am I a Nazarene?”

If I am honest, part of why I am a Nazarene is my pedigree.  Both my grandparents were Nazarene ministers at some point in their life. My dad was a Nazarene youth pastor.  In other words, if I would have ended up as something else, someone had failed miserably…

But there comes a point in a person’s life when he has to own his faith.  I was in my 20s when I fell in love with Nazarene theology.  It was because of our “Theology of Love” that I fell in love with the church that I was born into.

We believe that God is a God of Love and God extends that love to EVERYONE.  We aren’t predetermined, we have a choice.  Real love always includes a choice to love and be loved.

But more than that, we believe the love God does more than just cover up our sin, we believe this Love of God transforms us into the image of Christ.

What that says to me is that NO ONE is beyond the transforming Love of God.  Even the person who is most hostile to religion.  The gospel is good news to everyone.  There is hope for all of us.  None of us is too far gone.  Jesus modeled this when he walked upon the earth.  He went to people that others had given up on.  He was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners.  Everywhere Jesus went, his transforming love changed people.  From religious leaders like Nicodemus to tax collectors, adulterers, and lepers.

What I love about my church is that even in its inception the goal was to make “outsiders” into “insiders”.  The buildings were plain because we wanted to poorest of the poor to feel at home.  In choosing the name Nazarene, we were identifying with those who have been given up on.  Nathaniel asked Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)  To be a Nazarene was to be an outcast.  We are the church for the outcasts.

When we are honest with ourselves, we are all outcasts at some point.  We all are the woman caught in the act of adultery.  We all are the tax collector. We all are the Pharisee.  In short, we all long for and need an encounter with the transforming Love of God that is found in Christ Jesus and born in our heart by the Holy Spirit.

Honestly, at times our church has gotten away from our identity.  But what organization hasn’t?  What I am encouraged by is the fact that all across the North American Church I see churches that are getting back to our roots.

Why am I a Nazarene?

Because I believe in the transforming Love of God, that brings hope to places that are hopeless.  There is no place that is too far gone. God specializes in making something beautiful out of “Nazarenes” like you and me.

Just a thought,

Nate

A Case of the Mondays…

I know that most people hate Mondays.  It is the day when the bliss of the weekend that was collides into the rat-race of the week that will be.  It proves for a difficult transition for most of us.

As a pastor, Mondays are different.  There have been times that I have had Mondays off.  You might think that being off on Monday would be easier.  Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.

You see Monday can be an awesome day for those of us in the ministry, or it can be an awful day.  (There are jokes pastors make about driving by the church on a Monday morning and throwing a brick through the window of the church with a resignation letter attached to it… No lie!)

I think the reason our Mondays seem to be bi-polar is because you never know what a Sunday will bring.  One week, it will feel like God is moving, the seats are filled, the music goes off without a hitch, and the sermon really resonates with people.  The next week, the projector goes out,  the pastor gets approached with an “issue” just before walking on stage, and the pastor isn’t sure if anyone is even awake during the service.

On the weeks when nothing goes right, Sunday night and Monday can be some of the darkest days in ministry.  Over the years I have spoken to other pastors and it seems to be a shared phenomenon, as the joke about throwing the brick the window seems to validate.

Yesterday I had a case of the Mondays…

I have found that for me, there are only a couple ways to deal with them.  First, I always remember the day I had a real sense that God was calling me to preach.  That is the bedrock that keeps me doing what I do in the “Mondays” of my life.

The second, and I think this one applies to all of us, I try to turn my focus away from WHO I AM, and back to WHO GOD IS…  It is amazing to me that when I focus on God and WHO HE IS, I begin to realize that he is more than enough.  If I am held in God’s hand, I am secure.  I have all that I need.  The result of this realization is peace.

So on this Tuesday I pick up my text for next week and find these words from Matthew 6:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Every day has enough trouble, especially Mondays, but when we learn to seek the Kingdom and rest in God’s goodness, we find God to even be enough for the “Mondays” we all walk through.

Just a thought,

Nate

More than just great plans…

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a million times…

“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…  It is a great verse.  It does tell us something about God.  But it is part of something bigger.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

The first thing I notice is that Jeremiah 29:11 wasn’t written to me specifically.  It was a message for Israel.  It was a message of hope that exile would not be the end for Israel.  Even after their time in Babylon, God had good plans.

I think there is definitely something that transfers to our day from this scripture.  Namely, God has our best interest in mind.  He loves us.  His plans for our lives are good.

In fact, his plans are better than the American Dream.  Sometimes it seems like the things that we want from God are eerily similar to the aforementioned American Dream.  We use this verse to assure ourselves that God will bring all those good things into our lives.

But what if God is wanting to give us more than just good things?

It seems that very few people continue on to verse 12- 14 – “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord…”

What if the better thing than good plans and blessings is to find God Himself?

I know it can make us antsy when we talk about finding God when we are seeking God with all our heart.  It can almost feel like OUR effort is what is making the difference.  We know that life in God is a life of grace.  We know that God seeks us, we don’t seek him.

But I wonder if there is a principle of seeking and finding here.  Could it be that when we seek God, we put ourselves in a position to hear and respond to God?  Could it be that God has been seeking us all along, but we were just oblivious?

I have been to 25 years worth of youth camps.  One thing that amazes me is that God always seems to show up at youth camp.  Could it be that when we set aside a week dedicated to hearing God, when we put away the cell phones and PS4’s and all the other distractions, we actually are able to hear and respond to the God who has been seeking us all along?

But when we seek God half-heartedly, when we live distracted and running from one place to the next, God seems strangely absent.  I think this is what it means to seek God and find God when we seek with all our hearts.

So the next time you hear someone quote Jeremiah 29:11, remember God has something much better than plans for you…

God wants to give you Himself!

Just a thought,

Nate

Exegeting Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

The other day our family was driving down the road in the car listening to Christmas music.  Thanks to Paula, we are that family that starts listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving.  (Truth be known, I love Christmas music too so I don’t mind…)  While we were  headed home, the song “Do they know it’s Christmas?” came on the radio for the 5th time that day.

I had finally had enough…

I started screaming at the radio.  Really?? Have you listened to the words of this song?

“At Christmastime
It’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears”

Really?  It’s hard, but while you are having fun and stuffing your face with Christmas goodies, just take a moment to think about someone other than yourself.  I know that will be difficult.  Really?  Paula, can you believe the words to this song.  I mean, the whole tone of this song is so USA centered.  It’s the most horrible way to do charity.  Really,” It’s hard, but when you’re having fun?”  Really?

By this point my family thinks I have lost it.  And then came the most awful line of all…

“Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”

Now I am worked up into a good self-righteous lather.  

Can you believe this stuff?  This is what happens when Rock and Rollers try to do charity.  I really, really hope this line is sarcastic Paula.  If it’s not sarcasm this is one of the worst lines in a song of ALL TIME!  And it’s Bono!  One of my heroes.  It surely has to be sarcastic.

At this point I think my family has gone from being amazed at my rant to tuning me out.  This is just one more example of dad over-thinking things…

But then the other day it dawned on me how much the world has changed in the last 30 years.  When the original song was written, our world was much smaller than it is now.  There was no public internet.  Not many people carried around cell phones.  (The people who did were called doctors)  Cable television was not a necessity.  News channels like CNN and Fox news were just becoming a thing and weren’t staples of everyday life.  There was no DVR.  No twitter feeds or Facebook posts.  No bloggers everywhere writing about current events.

In 1984, the main way people knew about the events of the world was through the newspaper or the national news media at 6PM.  Most of us 80’s children never wanted to read a newspaper, we were too busy playing Atari.  The 6 O’clock world news always seemed pretty boring as well, because it was about a lot of places we’d never heard of, seen, or visited.

The truth is, in 1984 it wasn’t easy to see the “world outside your window” that the song talks about.  You had to make an effort.  The lyric had it right, It was hard.  Maybe the Band Aid song was the only way that young people in America were going to be informed that people in Africa were starving.

I think all this has a lot to do with our problem with scripture.  The Band Aid song is 30 years old.  Scripture is thousands.  We read it as Americans living in a technology driven age and sometimes, like the Band Aid song, it leaves us scratching our heads.  We see the violence in the Old Testament and fail to recognize the violence in the world of the writers.  Maybe people writing in violent times write more violent stories?  At times we miss the nuances of the genres in scripture.  We treat proverbs like promises when maybe they are more like fortune cookies.  We miss the sarcasm in the text, and it hits us like the lyric “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you…”

One of the things we preachers are taught to do is exegesis.  Exegesis is an uncovering.  It is like peeling back the layers of an onion.  Have you ever noticed that the more you look into scripture, the more layers you find.  Maybe my problem with the Band Aid song was that I wasn’t doing proper exegesis.  I took the “text” and separated it from the culture in which it was written.

If I were to look at the song in light of the prevailing 1980’s culture, it stings a little more.  Because the truth is that the church in the 80s seemed to be more concerned about souls than bodies.  We wanted to save everyones souls and weren’t as worried about feeding people.  And here is the secular music industry raising money for people to eat.

Reminds me of a story Jesus tell about sheep and goats.  At the end of all things, the master is going to divide people up as sheep and goats.  The sheep are the good guys, the goats not so much.  He will welcome the sheep into his kingdom because they fed him, clothed him, visited him when he was sick and in prison, etc… They did stuff.  The goats didn’t feed him, clothe him, visit him, etc…

Both groups ask the master, When did we see you hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, etc… The master replies, Whatever you did (or did not do) for the least of these you did for me. 

After taking the song in context, I am a little embarrassed by my self-righteous rant.  The truth is, while we were singing hymns in church, the rock and roll world was feeding Jesus.

Excuse me while I take this plank out of my eye…

  

Just keep swimming…

Diana Nyad captured media headlines today by swimming from Cuba to Florida at age 64…

All I can say is WOW!

Her mantra was “Find a Way”.  She did.  Five attempts and 36 years later.  Talk about perseverance. She just kept swimming…

I was sharing the story of Diana with Paula tonight while she was running.  We decided it was the day for Paula to achieve one of her running goals.  She wanted to average a 10 minute pace for three miles.  We had already run a mile and a half and the first mile was at 10:30, which meant she had some catching up to do.

We started to pick up the pace and made it to the end of the second mile and the pace was 10:10.  So she was going to have to cut quite a bit off her third mile if she was going to make it.

She killed the third mile at 9:17. Putting her in under her goal of 30 minutes total.  She found a way.

All I could think of was the girl I married who had never run before in her life.  She wanted to run her first 5K just after we got married.  We went on our first run through the neighborhood and she couldn’t make it past the first stop sign.

Last Sunday morning, she ran 10 miles before church and then came and taught Sunday School.  She is training for her 2nd half marathon that she will run September 22nd, and is threatening to run a full in december. (I’ve never even run a half)

She just keeps running…

Here’s a picture of her run map from Sunday…

1176132_10153168133175542_1741400120_n

I think a lot of people like magic when it comes to life as well as faith.  We want a magic pill that will make us lose weight.  We want to get rich overnight.  We want to be able to run 26.2 miles without all the training.  In faith, we want to boil it all down to a trip to the altar.  We want magic at our youth camp to “fix” us for the rest of our lives.

In all areas of our lives, we don’t want to have to persevere.

But it seems to me that the life of faith is about learning to follow Jesus in the daily grind.  Like a runner getting up in the morning to lace up the tennis shoes, or a swimmer going to swim laps in the pool at 5:30 AM, a big part of the faith is learning the daily disciplines.  Fighting the tendency for magic cures, and doing the hard work of prayer.  Making time to meditate on God’s word.  Learning to believe when we don’t “feel” the spiritual high of a camp service.

We could say, “Just keep believing…”

Or maybe Journey said it best, “Don’t stop believin’…”

Come to think of it, if we viewed faith as more of a journey and less of a transaction, we might see the need for perseverance.

Please don’t get me wrong, the life of faith is a life of grace from first to last.  In fact, without the grace of God we have no hope.  But when we learn to persevere, we learn to “show up” everyday so that we are available to receive grace.  Jesus tells us to seek and we will find.

What all of us Christian folk could learn from Diana is what it means to never give up.  I have learned that from Paula as well.

Maybe you are walking through a difficult time in your life and God seems strangely absent in the middle of it.  You wish there was a magic prayer you could pray that would “fix” everything in your life.

To you I would say, “Don’t stop believin’…”

Determine that you will seek God today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, etc..  One day you will look up and realize you have reached your lifelong goal.  It will come with the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant…”

Just a thought,

n8