Small Acts Done with Great Love

I found myself sitting in my hotel room watching Seinfeld as a distraction.  My wife was downstairs in the car.  I was angry.  She was angry.  Rarely do Paula and I get to the point where we don’t even want to be in the same room, but that is where we were.  The cause of our anger was plain and simple.

I was being a jerk.

I had been a jerk to her from the moment we had begun loading up the car to head to Tulsa to watch our oldest play basketball and all throughout the day.  We had both hoped for a nice getaway to Tulsa for just the two of us, and I had ruined any chance of such an evening.

We decided to go for a 5 mile walk and talk things out.  I didn’t want to talk at first.  Like I said, I was angry.  She was angry too.  The first mile of our walk was an awkward dance of conversation, but as the miles passed by the truth came out.

The truth was I was lonely.  The truth was, that outside of the people who had to love me (God, my wife, the boys), I felt completely alone.  Anyone who has been in ministry for any time at all can tell you that the ministry can be a lonely place.

Maybe I was tired from the constant decision making of a building program I didn’t sign up for.  For those of you who don’t know my story as of late, our church was set on fire by some young people in our community last October.  The entire building has been gutted to the studs and we are in the middle of rebuilding.  Honestly I don’t really care if the shingles on the roof are slate or charcoal, and I can’t tell the difference between “mysterious” grey and “hazy” grey.  It’s all grey to me.  Maybe the constant demands of a building project were wearing on me.

Maybe my melancholy mood was due to the fact that I had been wading through some tough issues with some people, and it seemed like I was always giving.  It seemed like people only wanted what they could get out of me- advice, encouragement, support.  It wasn’t like I had been a hermit and secluded myself.  Maybe I just wanted someone to sit with me over coffee and just let me be Nate.  Not a problem fixer or a means of support.  Maybe I just wanted someone to just let me be me for a change.

Or maybe I was missing my best friend.  Every June, I am reminded of the best friend I ever had, Simon.  From the third grade on, we were best buds.  He was the most magnetic person I have ever been around.  We were inseparable through grade school and middle school.  In high school we drifted apart a bit because of different interests.  I was in basketball and band, he was in choir, but we were those types of friends who always picked right back up where we left off.  When we were young he used to play the Disney record (I’m dating myself here) of The Fox and the Hound and make me say it with him: “And we’ll always be friends forever, won’t we?”  And I would respond, “Yeah forever.”

FullSizeRender-1 FullSizeRender

In the last conversation I had with Simon, he told me that he still considered me his best friend, even though we hadn’t seen each other very often after high school.  I concurred.  Outside of my wife, he was the best friend I have ever had.  On June 6th, 1994, he disappeared while backpacking in Hawaii and has never been found to this day.  Maybe it was June again and I was missing the kind of friendship I had with Simon.

Whatever it was, I was hurting and I took it out on Paula.  I have often used the phrase “hurting people hurt people” to describe the actions of others, but this time it was me who was doing the hurting.  After walking a few more miles, I was finally able to verbalize the fact that I was taking my frustration out on my wife.  We celebrated by doing what we do best- eating Mexican food!  We settled into the patio at Los Cabos and enjoyed a live band and lots of chips and queso.  (We had earned eating that Mexican food with our 5 mile walk right?)

One week later (this past weekend) I celebrated my birthday.  Through Facebook posts, texts, and getting together with family and friends I was reminded of the wealth of relationships that God has given me.  On my saner days (the days when I am not singing songs about eating worms) I realize that I have been blessed with so many great relationships.  I have some pastor friends that I meet with on a regular basis to just “be Nate” and share life and ministry together.  I have friends who I have celebrated birthdays with like we were family for over 20 years now.  My relationship with my parents and my brother is as good as it has ever been in my lifetime.  My immediate family (Paula and the boys) are a constant source of joy.  The list could go on and on.

This weekend, I had the privilege of spending the weekend with my mom and her husband Bill.  We went to Top Golf, played cards, tried our hand at cornhole, grilled out, and just generally had a great time together.  My family surprised me with some awesome gifts including tickets to see Coldplay.  Then I opened up my Facebook to see that a couple hundred people had wished me a happy birthday.  What a testament to all the great relationships that God has blessed me with down through the years.

Then Saturday night, something caught me off guard.  I remember going to a haunted house as a kid and when we had finished walking through the haunted house, we walked out an open door into the night.  We began talking about how scary the house was as we walked back to the car.  All of a sudden, a guy jumps out from behind a tree with a chainsaw buzzing and we all shot out of there like a cannon.  It was easily the scariest part of the entire house because we had let our guard down.

That, in essence, is what happened to me on Saturday night.  My birthday was over and I was preparing to preach another Sunday.  Paula and I had gone to the church to straighten some things up for in the morning and our youngest son had asked us to bring his guitar by Cobey’s house.  You see, our youth have this habit of all getting together on Saturday night at Cobey’s and, at camp, they had talked about singing some worship songs together as part of the gathering.

So I walked up to the door with Tyler’s guitar in hand.  I made a joke to Paula about just barging in to make sure our boys were behaving themselves.  She knocked on the door anyway.  When the door opened, I was pelted with balloons, there were streamers hung up, and I was greeted with a big hearty SURPRISE!  Now I am a hard person to surprise, but I was completely blindsided like the time at that haunted house.  I was blindsided by their surprise, but more than that I was blindsided by the love that a group of teenagers had for their pastor.  They had put the whole party together by themselves.  Hot dogs, chips, drinks, balloons, streamers, the works!  It was a simple act, but a huge one to me personally.

13528587_1230978093588626_895672076959812632_o

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”  The youth of our church had no idea about the events of my week.  My own boys had no idea that I had treated their mom like a jerk a week earlier.  They had no idea of the loneliness I had felt.  They just did a small thing that was a huge thing to their pastor.

It served as a good reminder to me that we never know what a person is going through and what a small act of kindness might mean!

Just a thought,

n8

Advertisements

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

The Kind of Faith I Want…

Every once in a while, I run into someone who is not happy with the theology department at our local Nazarene University.  Usually their complaint boils down to a story about a friend or a loved one who went to school to study theology and came home not sure if they believed anything at all.  The friends and or family of these students feel like the university has failed them. I would argue that it didn’t.

I would argue that the university was doing its due diligence in training up godly pastors and leaders.

You see, long before I ever took a real theology class, (my undergrad was in chemistry) I noticed something about the faith, and scripture in particular.  I noticed that the more a person reads and studies scripture, the less they seem to know about scripture.

Sure, when a person hasn’t deeply engaged scripture, it is easy to spout off a bunch of “bible promises” or single verses that “support” our faith.  But it doesn’t take a very thorough examination of scripture to begin to come across questions. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more you study scripture, the more the questions surface.  This is what happens to the theology majors mentioned above.  They are forced to wrestle with questions they have never encountered before.  Up until that point, most of them have lived on the faith of their parents or have developed a faith of nice, easy cliches.

The longer I live, the more I am worn out by the cliches and the faith that goes along with them.  I would never want someone to pastor my congregation who had never wrestled with the tough questions of the faith.  I would hope that my pastor was still wrestling.

That’s the universities job.  To send out pastors who have been willing to wrestle.

Have you ever read the book of Joshua?  What are we supposed to do with passages that seem to indicate that Yahweh instructs Israel to wipe out entire nations of people?  What do with do with this genocide that seems to be mandated by God?  Were the writers attributing something to God that was not of God as some would suggest?  How do we handle such texts?  There are no cliches to answer these types of questions.  Do we really believe serpents talked as we are told in Genesis 3?  What do we do with talking serpents?  Sometimes different passages of scripture seem to be in direct opposition.  How do we reconcile stories that flat out seem to contradict each other? Like I said, the deeper we get into scripture, the more questions arise…

I think a lot of times we believe that our faith has to be like a fortress.  We build up our fortress with passages like John 3:16, Romans 6:23, or Philippians 4:13.  We have the little family of Christian fish on our minivans and bumper stickers that say “God answers knee mail.”  We are poised to “defend our faith.”  We don’t want to get too deep into the questions because we might not have answers, and then the armor of our faith would have a chink in it.

Have you listened to the songs on Christian radio lately?  Yeah, me either…  But today I found myself listening to a Christian station in the car, and it was like every song had the same five cliches about grace, or being set on fire, or the like.  Not a lot of REAL music.  Not much of it spoke about the messiness of our existence.

The kind of faith I want looks a lot more like Jacob than K-LOVE. (The local Christian station)  Remember Jacob?  He spent an entire night wresting with God.  He grabbed on tight and wouldn’t let go.  Jacob’s hip even got wrenched in the process, but he still wouldn’t let go until The Lord blessed him.

Today, we were talking in my Hebrew class about the actual Hebrew verb in story of Moses and the burning bush.  God says that his name is “I AM that I AM.”  The actual Hebrew verb that is used there is the verb for “I will be.”  So one way to read it would be, “I will be what I will be!”

There is no way for us to reduce God to a bunch of simple answers, catch phrases, or even “bible promises.”  God will be who God will be!

I want the kind of faith that dives into the mystery of God and holds on for dear life like Jacob as he wrestled.  I want to wrestle with questions and trust God even when there seem to be no answers.  After all, isn’t faith really about trusting even when we can’t see the answer?

In other words, I don’t want the faith of some sort of shallow, self-help religion.  I want to dive deep into the mystery of God.  I want to be so deep in the mystery of God that I am way in over my head. And there, in the midst of my questions, I want to place my hand in the hand of the One whose name is “I will be what I will be…”

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