Category: Ministry


Watch Your Step

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Psalm 1

[1] Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
[2] but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

[3] He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
[4] The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

[5] Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
[6] for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (ESV)

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the psalms lately. A friend of mine mentioned a couple months back that one year he set a goal of writing out the psalms as a spiritual discipline, and for some reason, that stuck out to me. I’m not doing it on a daily basis, but the first thing I do when I get into my office is sit down and write out at least a part of a psalm. Sometimes, the psalm is long, so I spend a couple of days on it.

It’s been a good practice for me so far this year.  It helps bring some focus to my day as I start my work, and, more importantly, it gives me an opportunity to slow down and listen for God’s voice.

I recently started reading Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson.  I can’t seem to get enough of his writing, having read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction last year.  It’s deep.  It’s challenging.  It makes me stop and think about my role as a pastor, and my role as a follower of Christ.

In Working the Angles, Peterson makes the case that the psalms were the most important part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that we have treated them more like an optional add-on. In the psalms we see worship. We see anger.  We see joy.  We see sorrow.  The psalms run the gamut of human emotions, and they show us that worship is not all about good feelings, happiness and joy.  It’s about being our true selves before the Lord, and allowing God to work in, and sometimes in spite of, us.  It is when we spend the time meditating in the psalms that we see this.

One of the most important roles that I have as a pastor is to be the one who is intentional about hearing from God on a regular basis.  Some people may say that it’s nice that I’m writing out these psalms, but I’m not getting any work done while doing it.  I would argue that I’m getting the most important work done.

Psalm 1 tells us that the blessed man is the one who is rooted in the law of the Lord. His righteousness comes from where he spends his time. His time is not spent walking, standing or sitting with those who have no interest in the Lord. He is firmly planted in the Word, and the Lord is with him.  Now this doesn’t mean that his life is going to be smooth sailing either.

Many of the, especially early, psalms have a similar theme of the wicked and the righteous.  And, often, it seems as though the wicked are doing quite well for themselves. But the psalmist reminds us again and again that the Lord is with the righteous.  And then we come across this in Psalm 37:

[23] The steps of a man are established by the LORD,
when he delights in his way;
[24] though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the LORD upholds his hand. (Psalm 37:23-24, ESV)

The language here is reminiscent of Psalm 1, but here is the part that stuck out to me the most: “though he fall…”  The righteous, whose ways are known by the Lord (Ps 1:6), will still fall along the way – even when his steps are established by the Lord.  Righteous does not mean perfect.  It means that the Lord is with them.

As a pastor who, at times, struggles with perfectionist tendencies that can lead to paralysis for fear of making the wrong decision or doing things the wrong way, these are freeing words.  It doesn’t mean that one has a license to fall, or that one shouldn’t be intentional about avoiding said fall, but that when the fall happens, it will not serve to destroy, and one will not be alone “for the Lord uphold his hand” (Ps 37:24)

Who establishes your steps?  With whom do you walk?  Do the important work of meditating on the Word of God, and allow him to establish your steps.

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What are you afraid of?  People are afraid of many different things; some seem to be afraid of nothing, others… of everything.  In no particular order, some of the more common fears that people have: public speaking, crowds, spiders/snakes, clowns, heights.

For me in particular, I have a few years as well.  I know, I know, that may come as a shock to most people who think I’m completely fearless.  In a rare moment of self-revelation, what I want to do right now is share a couple of my fears with you, how they have affected me as a pastor, and what I’m doing about it.

I used to be a major perfectionist.  I would work and work and work to make sure that everything was perfect.  I was unhappy with myself for missing a few questions on a quiz or test.  I once pulled an all-nighter in college to finish a rough draft, and then, when I got a copy back from the professor, I saw that he would give me an A- if that was the final draft of the paper.  I went to his office and argued with him that it was a terribly incomplete paper and there was a lot more left to do on it.  He said, “So do it.”

Now, being a perfectionist is not always a bad thing.  It can cause me to be more intentional about thinking through the details of projects.  I can be very thorough, or, surprisingly, it can cause the complete opposite to happen.  I can become so overwhelmed by trying to get all the details in place that I never get around to actually doing the thing that needs to be done.  It’s called paralysis by analysis, and it’s a very real thing.

You see, being a recovering perfectionist has given me a fear of failure.  I don’t like failing.  I went 0-4 in softball last night and was really mad at myself.  It a rec league softball game.  It’s sole purpose is for me to have fun, get to know some people better and get some exercise.  At the end of the year, whatever happens in this league will not affect my life whatsoever, and yet, I focus on the “failure” of going 0-4.

As a pastor, failure is a very real and ever-present reality… depending on what you define as a failure.  I think part of the struggles that I have had in ministry is that I think not being able to implement something or having something not work would be a failure in my own eyes.  And I don’t want to fail.  So, I get caught up in the details and experience the dreaded analysis paralysis.

But, lately, I’ve been thinking about an even bigger fear – irrelevance.  Here’s what I mean by that – not that I need to the be the cool, hip pastor in town (let’s face it, that’s not going to happen), but that, when I look back at the end of my days, I don’t want to think that I have just wasted my life, pursuing meaningless things.  It’s really easy to get caught up in the weekly tasks and lose sight of the bigger picture.  It’s also easy to get so caught up in the big picture that you never notice the little things that you’ve accomplished along the way.  I don’t want to look back with regret, saying, “I wish I had…”  I want to make a difference in people’s lives for the glory of God.

In the last month, I’ve started being more intentional about my development as a leader.  I’ve always been interested in reading and listening on leadership, but putting it into action has been a whole different enchilada.  So, I’m seeing a counselor to remove some of the mental roadblocks that I’ve put up through the years.  I’m meeting with a coach to help me with specific things relating to ministry.  And I’m trying to be more intentional about getting together with ministry peers to talk about ministry on a level that you just can’t with anybody else.

And I’m reminded of the words in Joshua 1.  Joshua was selected to lead the Israelites after the death of Moses.  How do you follow Moses?!?  I imagine it was a daunting task.  And then he hears these words:

[5] No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. [6] Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. [7] Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. [8] This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. [9] Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5-9 ESV)

Be strong and courageous.  Three times, God says this to Joshua.  And there is a promise, that as long as they stay focused on God, they will be successful.  God is with them wherever they go, just stay focused on the Word of the Lord.  And the Israelites prove God’s word to be true.  As long as they rely on Him, things go well.  It’s when they don’t that things start going down the drain.

And so, let those words encourage you today as well.  Be strong and courageous for God is with us.

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One of the great joys of having a little one is spending time at the sink washing bottles.  Has anybody come up with a sarcasm font yet?  I feel like it should be comic sans.  Yes, comic sans for sarcasm!  Anyhoo…

I still wash Hannah’s bottles by hand.  We put them in the dishwasher once, but didn’t really like how they came out, and so, we’ve been washing them by hand ever since.  Maybe that says more about my psyche than I should let on, but it is what it is.

As I was washing them the other night, something struck me – call it inspiration, boredom because I was standing at the sink washing bottles, whatever.  The bottles that were rinsed after they were used were a LOT easier to clean than those that weren’t.  I know, no-brainer, right?  Anybody that has “found” a bottle or sippy cup of milk after a couple of days could tell you the same thing.  But, then, I made the logical leap –

PREPARATION IS MORE BENEFICIAL THAN PERSPIRATION

Sure, I can work extra hard in the moment to wash the bottles OR I can do a little work ahead of time and ease the stress (and smell) of the need for a deeper cleaning.  It’s like that with so many things, isn’t it?

  • We can avoid cleaning the house until people are coming over OR we can spend 20 minutes doing a little every day.
  • We can wait until the last day to start working on our annual reports OR we can keep good records over the course of the year.
  • We can write a 20,000 word paper by pulling an all-nighter OR we can write 1,000 words each day for three weeks.

You see where I’m going with this, right?  Preparation is so important, but it is often at the bottom of our list.  So, how can we prepare better?

  1. Monthly, weekly, daily planning – Do you have a calendar?  Of course you do.  Everybody has a calendar.  Whether it is paper and small enough to carry with you or the one that came on your smartphone, we all have access to a calendar.  Having a calendar is not the issue.  Using it is.  So, do you want to prepare better? USE YOUR CALENDAR!  Calendars are awesome because they can give you a quick glance at your schedule, whether it is for the day, week, month, or even year.  Using the calendar helps get things off our minds (ever had the nagging feeling that you forgot what you forgot, but know that you did forget something?), helps us block out our time (it’s hard to double book when you already know that you have something going on – not impossible, but more difficult) and helps, you guessed it, prepare us for upcoming events.
  2. Write it down – On thing that has helped me immensely is having a To Do list.  It helps me get things done because it keeps the things that need getting done right in front of me.  Right now, I am using Wunderlist.  It took a little bit of time, but I have set up a recurring weekly To Do list.  Some weeks, I don’t need to do something on the list – that’s fine, I just check it off like it is already done.  There are many sounds much sweeter than the *ding* that comes alongside checking off an item in Wunderlist, but it’s a pretty sweet sound itself; the sound of victory!
  3. Set big goals, as well as small ones – Here is where I struggle the most.  But, by setting big goals, and then backing it into segments of little goals, we can better prepare ourselves to succeeding in the bigger things.

Here’s the thing: all of these suggestions (and I’m sure there are more you could add to the list) take some time.  Preparation always takes time on the front end.  There’s no way around it.  Actually, the way around it is to not prepare, and constantly be dealing with the stress of being unprepared – that doesn’t seem like a viable alternative to me.

Several coaches are credited with saying something along these lines (Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi among them), but in Indiana, you have to go with Bobby Knight:

The key is not the will to win… everybody has that.  It is the will to prepare to win that is important.

Games are not won on the floor, in the field, on the diamond.  Games are won in the meeting room, in the gym, on the practice field.  You practice how you play.  Some athletes may disagree with me here.  Great ones, even the good ones, and their coaches, will not.  Ultimately, they do have to go out on the floor, field or diamond to win the game, but if they go out there with the confidence that comes from solid preparation, they already have the upper hand.

Washing bottles may be a chore, but rinsing them beforehand makes it less so.

Rocky Road

One of the things I enjoy doing, but don’t do nearly enough, is hiking.  There’s just something about going for a walk in the woods.  It’s peaceful.  It can be quite a workout.  It’s just fun to do.  Twenty years and 100 pounds ago, I would look for the trails on the map that were marked “very rugged” and challenge myself to take them.  It was exhausting, but it was always a good time.

I remember one time I went to Turkey Run State Park with some friends.  We went after the “very rugged” trail that goes through a place called “Boulder Canyon”.  It is not misnamed.  That section of the park is basically a collection of big rocks.  Coming out of the canyon can be pretty tricky.  As you can imagine – because it’s a canyon – you basically have to climb out of the canyon.  And this particular canyon is made up of – you guessed it – large rocks.  There is no clearly defined trail on the way up and out – at least there wasn’t back then, things may have changed since.  At one point, on our way out, we began to wonder if we were even on the trail at all.

Life as a disciple of Jesus Christ is a lot like that at times.  There are times when the trail is difficult.  You are trying your best to follow Jesus, but you aren’t even sure if you are going the right way.  It can be exhausting, physically demanding, draining.  There may be times when you consider that it might just be easier to go back the way you came.  It may not be much better terrain, but at least you know you could do it.

And that’s the choice you have – go forward or go back.

When we went hiking, we had a map with us.  It helped instill at least a little bit of confidence that we were moving in the right direction, even though we couldn’t necessarily see the trail that we were on.  But, we trusted in the map, and kept moving forward.  You know what?  We eventually made it out of Boulder Canyon, and back to our car, and back home.  We didn’t give up.  We didn’t sit still.  We kept moving.

So, let me encourage you today.  When it comes to your spiritual life, keep moving.  Even when the road ahead looks scary.  Even when you aren’t really sure.  Keeping following Jesus.  Trust your guide to take you where you need to be.

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Well, that’s an awful title…

Maybe I should entitle this: Why Your Wedding Doesn’t Matter As Much, or Why Your Wedding Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think.  Meh, too late, I’ll just stick with that title.  It got you this far, didn’t it?

One of the great joys that I have as a pastor is being able to walk with a couple for one of the most important events in their lives.  To date, I have had the privilege and honor of officiating 11 weddings, with three more on the calendar over the next year and a half or so.

Weddings have become big business in today’s American society.  The wedding industry generates an estimated $40 BILLION in revenues every year, and some believe that number will only go up with the legalization of gay marriage in the United States.  The average wedding costs around $28,000.  That’s insane, right?

At the same time we live in a society where it is not uncommon to hear about a divorce rate hovering around 50%.  There seems to be some indication that the 50% is a gross over-generalization, and that the divorce rate is actually on it’s way down over previous decades.  This is good news.

I think some of what we have seen in a society with a booming wedding industry, and the proliferation of Pinterest-inspired insanity, is that for some, the focus is so much on the wedding that the marriage is put on the back burner.  And here’s where I come back to the title of this post, and this is something that I want to emphasis to the couples that I walk with during this time in their lives, your wedding is a great occasion.  It is a beautiful day.  It will be memorable, and it will be a ton of fun.  But… it’s only one day.  It’s an important day.  But it’s only the start to your marriage.  The wedding is not the endgame; it’s the beginning of something more.  In the grand scheme of life, your wedding doesn’t matter… nearly as much as your marriage.

As I work with couples and we plan the ceremony, one thing I tell them is that something will probably go wrong.  You may stutter when you speak.  You may feel like you are shaking from the nerves.  You may say the wrong words, or forget what you were supposed to say.  The reception hall may burn down (or, as happened last summer, a giant tree may fall down on the outside of the reception hall).  But…

At the end of the day, no matter what goes wrong, when everybody goes home, or stumbles to their hotel room, when all the decorations are down, when all the food and drink are consumed, no matter what went wrong, at the end of the day, the couple will still be married.  Husband and wife, embarking together on one of life’s greatest adventures.  And that’s what is really important.

When I meet with couples about their wedding, we only spend a couple of hours planning the ceremony itself.  We spend a lot of time talking about their history, handling conflicts, managing finances, hopes and dreams for the future because those are the important things.  Those are the details that make or break a marriage.

When it comes time for the dress rehearsal, I have three rules for the wedding party:

  1. Anybody that is under the influence of anything – drugs or alcohol – may not take part in the ceremony.  They do, however, get to tell the bride why they thought the drugs or alcohol were more important than her on her wedding day.  If somebody can’t hold off on drinking for a few hours before the wedding, then they have a problem that needs to be addressed.  Also, if it’s the bride or groom, there’s no wedding.  I can’t legally marry a couple when one or both are under the influence.
  2. If anybody besides the bride or groom have an idea of how the ceremony can be better, they should write it down and come talk to me about it on the following Monday in my office.  You may be surprised to hear that I haven’t had a lot of well-meaning, meddling people disrupt the flow of a ceremony that has already been planned with the bride and groom.
  3. From this point forward, what the bride and groom need more than anything is support from their family and friends.  Marriage is hard enough as it is.  There need not be any outside forces making the relationship more difficult.  If you have a problem with their relationship, keep it to yourself.  Nobody cares what you think.

That third rule is really the most important one.  The wedding is one day.  The marriage is for the rest of their life.

What if we paid as much attention to detail in our marriages as we did on the wedding plans?  What would the landscape of marriage in the United States look like?  What if we emphasized the relationship more than the event?  Because at the end of the day, one is far more important than the other.

It could be, when we focus on the relationship and not the event, some people would discover they only wanted the big party, and not the work that comes with the relationship.  That’s fine.  Throw a big, expensive party.  Don’t get married.

It could be, when they really think about it, that marriage isn’t the right next step in the relationship.  And that’s okay as well.  Don’t marry somebody because you feel stuck in a relationship, or because you are too scared to go out on your own once again, or because you think that’s what you should do.  Some relationships go as far as they can, and it becomes clear that marriage isn’t necessarily the next right thing to do.  If that’s the case, don’t get married.

In order to make a wedding work, people will pour hours and hours into the details of the wedding over a certain period of time.  In order to make a marriage work, people need to put that same kind of focus and attention to detail into everyday life with their spouse.

Your wedding doesn’t matter as much as your marriage.  So put the time, effort and resources into what really matters.

 

I’ve been working on some sermon prep this week on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Consequently, it’s been on my mind quite a bit this week.  There are a lot of directions to go with this passage, and they are all good.

We could talk about the question “who is my neighbor?”  That’s a key question in the passage from Luke 10:25-37.  It’s the question that sparks the parable in the first place.

We could talk about what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor.  There’s a lot of rich material in it.

We could talk about the importance of breaking down barriers, of being aware of the barriers that we have in our lives in the first place.

But, for whatever reason, Jesus’ emphasis on action is what caught my eye this time around.  “Go and do likewise.”  That’s the charge that he gives to his audience.  The charge to go and show mercy to those in need.  You see, the lawyer that asked the question in the first place wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  He wants to spend eternity in the kingdom of God.  Who doesn’t, right?

He knows the right answer.  He knows that one must love God and love one’s neighbor in order to inherit eternal life.  I guess he is one of those people that asks questions even when he is already confident of the answer.  But then he goes one more step; a step he probably regrets by the end of the story.  He wants to know, “who is my neighbor?”  That’s when Jesus hits us with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Needless to say, the lawyer was a little less enthusiastic about Jesus’ response when the Samaritan turns out to be the good guy in the story.  And then he throws down the challenge to “go and do likewise.”

Faith is more than just right thinking.  It’s not just about knowing correct theology.  It’s about doing the right thing.  It’s about living out that faith that we like to keep tucked away in our heads and hearts.  It’s about living it out.  And that’s the hard thing about this story.

The Good Samaritan did the right thing.  He didn’t just think, “Ah, man, somebody should help that guy.”  He got down off his donkey (or whatever his mode of transportation was) and helped the guy.  And he did so at great personal risk.

It could have been a trap.  The man on the side of the road could have just been waiting for some poor sucker to stop and try to help, and then his buddies would jump out from behind the rocks, beat the tar out of him and take everything he had.  But that didn’t deter the Samaritan.  He stopped and helped a man who was in need.

And the truth is, I think most people want to be like the Samaritan in this story.  We want to help people.  We want to do the right thing.  But we don’t want to be too inconvenienced by it.  We don’t want it to mess with our schedules, our plans.  We want to help people, but we want to do it on our own terms.

When you watch the news at night, read the paper in the morning, or catch up on what’s going on in the world via social media, do you sit back, shake your head and wonder, “What is this world coming to?  Somebody should do something about this.”  What if that somebody is you, but you don’t want to get up and do anything about it?  What if we went from thinking that somebody should do something to actually getting up and doing something?

I think this is something we struggle with in the church.  Churches are full of people that want to help somebody, but think that somebody else should be taking care of the bigger issues.  Churches do a great job of collecting things.  Just this year at Smith Valley UMC, we have collected groceries for the food pantry, combs for health kits at Annual Conference, and we are currently collecting school supplies for kids in Johnson County.  And these are all good great things!  They are things that need to be done in order to help support those in need.  It’s one way that we can give back from what God has given us.  It’s one way that we can be involved.  But is it enough?

What if churches started addressing the societal structures that cause the need for food pantries?  What if we took seriously the need to look at economic inequality in our society?  What if we began to address issues of poverty from a structural level?  What if we began to work on issues of fair wage, unemployment, job training, financial responsibility?  What if, instead of collecting items for health kits – or, rather, in addition to collecting these items – what if we sent a team of people to help those in need directly?  I mean, really, do the people in West Virginia who have lost everything in flooding want a comb or help rebuilding their home?

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no clue how to go about addressing such issues.  I don’t know what organizations are already doing something like this.  I don’t know how to get involved and help on a very practical level.  And so, I go to Target, buy a few extra groceries, combs or school supplies, put them in a collection box and make sure they get to where they need to go.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing this.  It’s is an entry level way to help those in need.  But, sometimes, I think that we think it is enough.  It’s easy.  It doesn’t challenge us.  It fits into our schedules and comfortable lives.

Are we imitating the Good Samaritan with this type of thinking?  Or are we settling for being the Good Enough Samaritan?  Again, I don’t have all the answers.  I just have some questions that I’m wrestling with, and an invitation for you to join me in the ring.

I want to begin this post by sharing what I wrote in Smith Valley’s weekly newsletter this afternoon, and then go a little further down the road with the discussion.

In many ways, this has been a very difficult week.  As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, members of the United Methodist Church from all over the world have been meeting in Portland, OR for General Conference, the meeting that is held once every four years to determine the doctrine and polity of the United Methodist Church.  Hundreds of petitions have been discussed – some have passed, some have been altered, some have been set aside.

Every time General Conference rolls around, we see demonstrations from people on one end of the theological spectrum who are hoping to change the position that the UMC has held regarding human sexuality, in particular, it’s official stance regarding homosexuality.  By the end of the General Conference, most of their fights and demonstrations result in no fruit, and the UMC has retained its stance.

This week, the topic once again came up.  It has been increasingly clear that the far left and the far right are not going to budge.  There is no desire to find a way to meet in the middle, and it seems as though this is the General Conference where everything has come to a head.

Yesterday, after some very intense debate, a motion to hold off on any discussions on human sexuality and refer it to a special commission to be formed by the Council of Bishops, and to call a special session of the General Conference in 2-3 years to find a way forward for the denomination, finally passed (after a similar motion failed just a couple hours before).

What does all of this mean for Smith Valley?  Frankly, right now, it doesn’t mean anything.  It means that some serious discussions and recommendations are going to be made, but nothing of substance will change for the next few years.  And, as I said last week, regardless of what happens, we will still be here, the Church in the Valley, welcoming, following and changing lives and the world.

I couldn’t help but think, as I watched all of the proceedings unfold, that somehow the United Methodist Church was looking a whole lot like the United States of America.  People, who stand on polar opposite sides on issues, bickering and fighting to get their way.  Laying out ultimatums, convinced about how right they are.  Whether they are trying to “Make America Great” or “Feel[ing] the Bern” or… whatever Hillary’s slogan is, people feel very passionately about “their” candidate.  I think the violence and protests at some of the Trump rallies have put that on display for us quite well.  Passion, when unchecked, can easily boil over into something else entirely.  In the same way, people, who are very passionate about their perspective, seem willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that their point of view becomes/stays the dominant point of view – to the point that they aren’t very Christian about it.

One thing I have noticed about the Council of Bishop’s proposal which finally did pass is that there are a lot of people who aren’t certain.  I’ve seen people on the left and people on the right express some trepidation, which tells me that it was perhaps the right move to make.  Any time you can get both sides to express some uncertainty, then perhaps there is a way to move forward.  And, I guess we’ll find out.

What does the future of the United Methodist Church hold?  Honestly, I have no clue.  It’s possible that there would be a way forward that would focus on the unity of the Church – sure, everybody may get upset by it, but maybe that’s a good thing.  Because one thing that I have seen over and over again is people saying things like, “my church wouldn’t…” or “my church would…” and I think we’ve lost an important perspective – it’s not “my” church; it’s God’s.

Two Languages

When I was in high school one of the language options was Chinese.  I ended up taking it for two years… for no particular reason (other than the fact it sounded better than German or French).  To be honest, I don’t remember most of it.  I do remember that it is the only class I ever fell asleep in while I was in high school.  (To be fair, who has you listen to a boring audio tape right after lunch!)  One thing that is interesting about Chinese is that there are actually two major dialects – Mandarin and Cantonese.  Note: there are many other dialects, but those tend to be the two most common; with literally billions of people, there are bound to be various dialects.

From what I have read, Mandarin is the dialect that has been getting the most notoriety, mainly because it is the language that is being pushed by the Chinese government.  It is also the easier of the two to learn.  Both are tonal languages, meaning tone and inflection are important in speaking the language, but Mandarin has four tones, whereas Cantonese has between six and nine different tones.  Let’s put a pin in this part of the discussion.  Don’t worry, we’ll come back to it.  I know, riveting.

This week, delegates from all over the world descended upon Portland, Oregon for the quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church (#UMCGC if you’re interested in checking it out on the Tweeter… er, um, I mean, Twitter).  The main focus, if you listen to the media, of this event is to decide the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality.  Now, of course, there should be much more than that going on, but it’s the only story that you’re going to hear for the most part.

The official stance of the United Methodist Church is that homosexuality is incompatible with the witness of Scripture, and, as a result, “practicing, self-avowed homosexuals” are not to be ordained, and UM churches and pastors are not permitted to participate in same-sex marriages.  Maintaining or changing this stance has been the primary function (so it seems) of General Conference for quite some time.  In fact, it’s an argument that has come up every four years since the inception of the UMC in 1968.

The left claims it is a justice issue.  The right claims it is a matter a faithfulness to the witness of Scripture.  Both are right, and the other is pig-headed in their insistence on maintaining their stance.  In the end, the loudest voice doesn’t necessarily get their way, but the majority voice does.  Then we hit the reset button, and start it all over again.  They are both speaking English, but two very different dialects.

There is Mandarin.  There is Cantonese.  Each one wants to speak their own dialect.  Are they willing to learn the other, and become fluent in both?  I guess that remains to be seen.

Strategery

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I watched a little bit of the Cardinal broadcast this afternoon, and the announcers were talking about how the new clubhouse game in the Cardinal locker room is chess.  The World Chess Hall of Fame is located in St. Louis, the game is a favorite of Cardinal manager Mike Matheny, and apparently the team has gotten into it as well.  One of the announcers mentioned that there were at least three games going on earlier in the day.  I love this on so many levels.

Chess is a game of strategy.  Sure, you can get lucky and win every now and then, but to consistently be good at chess, you need to sharpen your ability to think strategically.  Baseball is the same way.  A manager in baseball needs to be able to think ahead through the different possibilities and potential outcomes of every decision.  After all, there’s only 25 players on the roster, typically 12 pitchers (5 of whom are starters) and 13 position players (8 of whom start the game in the field, leaving just 5 for the bench).

Strategic thinking is the ability/skill to look ahead and anticipate what moves are necessary to accomplish a particular goal.  I say ability/skill because I believe strategic think is one part intuition, and one part learned.  Now, I’m far from an expert on the topic, but that is certainly where I am after reflecting on it in my own life.

Now, why am I talking about strategic thinking?  I am becoming increasingly convinced that strategic thinking is something that pastors need to be able to develop in order to effectively lead a congregation, and it is a skill I am trying to develop in myself.  Recently, I purchased a series of books called The Strategy Six Pack from Amazon.  Each volume is a collection of books (six, if you couldn’t figure that out by the name) that in some way address strategy.  I’m still working my way through the first collection, but so far, I’ve read The Art of War (Sun Tzu), the Gallic Wars (Julius Caesar), Life of Charlemagne, and I’m currently in the middle of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

In large part, I’m reading these books because I believe that strategic thinking involves a particular mindset.  I’m not just reading books, I’m studying the mindset of those who were writing them.

In ministry, you have to be able to look ahead.  You have to think about what’s coming up.  You have to be able to plan for things – even make backup plans that you may never need.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn when I first got started, and it’s a skill that I am continuing to develop as I grow as a pastor.

So, how have you worked to develop strategic thinking in your personal and professional life?  What lessons have you learned along the way?

I was working on my sermon this week, and I am going to share a story from my life that I haven’t really shared with a lot of people.  I thought it would be a good story to share here as well.  (So, if you read this before the sermon on Sunday… no spoilers…)

A couple years ago, a friend told me about the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program that is offered through Wabash College.  It sounded like a great program.  Pastors from across the state were selected to take part, and many of the sessions tackled practical issues that clergy have to deal with on a regular basis.  They brought in top-notch presenters and speakers, leaders in their field.  It also included a couple of trips – one national, one international.  She encouraged me to apply for it, and I decided to go for it.

I’m always looking for ways to improve myself as a pastor and leader, because I feel like I still have a long way to go.  I applied for the program.  A couple months later, I received a letter saying that they received a lot of great applications for the program, and unfortunately, I was not selected.  I read it: we got a lot of great applications, and we got yours as well.  I still struggle with self-esteem issues from time to time.

I was disappointed to say the least.  I wasn’t hinging all my hopes for the future on this program, but it would have been nice to be a part of it.  A couple of my friends are in it now, and I’ve heard more good things about it.  At the time, I just couldn’t understand why this particular opportunity was not going to be available to me.  I got over it quick though.  I’m happy for my friends who are taking part in it.

Then something unimaginable happened in my life: my wife was pregnant.  Now, those that know my story know that the pregnancy wasn’t the unimaginable part – we’ve already had four of those that ended in miscarriage.  The unimaginable part was that she continued to be pregnant.  To be honest, neither one of us was too excited when we first heard the news.  We were in the adoption process.  We hadn’t been selected by a birth mother yet, but we were on the list, and had been for several months at this point.  We decided to put the adoption on hold and focus on the pregnancy – which we were sure wasn’t going to last.  However, it did… for the most part.  Our little girl came along at 25 weeks and 4 days.  Just, you know, 14 weeks and 3 days early.  And that was after 12 days of hospitalized bed rest for my wife.

We spent 117 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), watching our baby girl grow strong and healthy, and finally brought her home on August 29, 2015 – just a couple weeks after her due date.  We went up to Castleton (a 45 minute drive) every single day during her 117-day stay.  And you know what never crossed my mind – the Wabash program.

During this time in the hospital, I would have had to leave home three or four times, including a week-long trip across the country.  I don’t know if I could have done it with my baby girl in the hospital.  In fact, it was a relief that I didn’t have to figure it out.  Turns out, not being accepted into the program was the best thing for me at that time in my life.

I guess that’s the benefit of hindsight.