Posted in pastoral care, reflections

Garbage can mad

clean-your-garbage-canNazarene preacher and publisher Bob Benson was the epitome of gentleness. In his winsome, softspoken way, he told the story of a time when he got angry, or “mad,” as he called it. What pushed him over the edge is unclear, but on that day, Benson stormed out of the house to bring in from the curb the empty family garbage can. With deadpan humor, he confessed:

I don’t even know how the garbage can lid got up on the roof!

After that, his children ranked his occasional moodiness. They’d whisper to each other: “Is he mad?” “Yes, he’s mad.” “But is he garbage can mad?”

The Advent season notwithstanding, a time of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” many are garbage can mad. Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California – like the flame of a Bunsen burner in a high school chemistry lab – are heating things up, stoking collective anger. Can explosive reactions be far behind?

The Apostle Paul knew how destructive unchecked anger could be. He was determined to throw water on the fire, not gasoline. What is unclear in English but apparent in the original Greek of Ephesians 4:26-27 is that Paul addresses not an individual but a group, the church:

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil”(NRSV).

Anger is a perfectly human emotion. No state of grace exempts us from it. The only question is: How will we together channel it, negatively or positively? Will we as the followers of Jesus Christ allow evil events to heat us up so much that we explode in sinful actions? Here’s the disastrous formula:

Anger ——– >>> sin (v. 26)  = the devil wins (v. 27)

rudyOn September 11, 2001, jetliners became missiles. The Twin Towers in New York City plumetted to the ground. Nearly 3,000 individuals lost their lives, including Americans, Japanese, Brits and Dominicans. In his book Leadership (Little, Brown, 2002), NYC Mayor Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani recounts the events of that day, but especially how he and his team in the aftermath swung into action. They did their best to channel their anger not destructively but productively, coordinating the rescue efforts of thousands of police officers and firefighters, setting up venues where families devastated by the loss of loved ones received a wide range of services from government agencies and private charities. Their mission was not to stoke the hot coals of anger but to help people cope and recover.

As Mayor, people looked to him to set the tone. Giuliani realized that many would be tempted to take out their anger on those who shared the same religious background as the handful of hijackers.  Part of his leadership responsibility  was to temper the flame of angry response. Guiliani writes (p. 360, italics added):

At the same time, I was trying to dampen the concept of group blame. Prejudice is largely about that. It’s about taking the perceived wrongdoing of one or a few people, which can be either real or imagined, then applying it to an entire group. I asked people on both sides not to do that. America is built on equal treatment.

That was 2001. Fast forward to 2015. We cannot control what politicians say, the fearmongering that passes for political discourse. Yet God calls us as followers of Christ to a higher path, to be different. Ours is to march to the beat of a better drummer. Shall we let our anger result in sin? Will we join in the misguided scapegoating, spreading via social media fears, half-truths and reactionary propaganda? Jesus taught us the Golden Rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31, NRSV).

This is not an option for the one who bears the name of Jesus; it’s a directive. What will obedience to this command look like for us? What it doesn’t look should be obvious. It’s not about registering individuals who belong to minority religious groups or rounding up those who we perceive to be an internal threat, as the U.S. government wrongly did with 127,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during the second World War. On the other hand, the Jesus kind of love – the kind that loves one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31) – may mean welcoming a religious minority family to the neighborhood, introducing yourself with a smile and a plate of homebaked cookies. It could be as simple as offering to help newcomers rake their leaves or tell them where the most affordable grocery store is located, the best family doctor or dentist. Would we want someone to do that for us?

There’s a lot of garbage can anger festering these days. Like for Bob Benson, so for the People of God, anger can quickly overcome us, leading us to impulsive actions that we’ll later regret. Those of other faith traditions are watching to see if Jesus really makes a positive difference. What will they see? In our anger, let us not sin. Let’s not give the devil a victory. Instead, this Advent season and always, let’s model a love that overcomes evil.


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cover of Giuliani book:


Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Direction: 3 questions every church must answer

compassMy younger son, Brad, and I were having lots of trouble on our canoe trip. I would pull my paddle in one direction and he would pull his in another. Instead of making forward progress, we just turned around in circles. It was great fun for others to watch, but super frustrating for us. Finally, the two of us started communicating about the direction we wanted to go, coordinating our efforts. The circling stopped; slowly, we moved downriver then with greater speed as we got the hang of it, working together instead of at cross-purposes. After a few hours, we had finished the river float – success!

What is true for canoeing is true for churches. There are three questions regarding direction that every church must answer:

1) What is our destination?

2) What must we do to get there?

3) How will we know when we’ve arrived?

Let’s look at these questions one at a time.

What is our destination?

I love  the “Horatio Hornblower” series. In dramatic fashion, Captain Hornblower would announce the heading of the ship, and everyone replied: “Aye, sir!”

Some seem to think the church is a Navy vessel. The Captain (Pastor) gives the orders, and everyone obeys. But things are changing, even in the West. We have moved to a collaborative model, much closer to the villagers in rural Africa gathered under the mango tree. From oldest to youngest, everyone has a word to say and direction emerges based on consensus. In the digital age, the “mango tree” can be a FaceBook page where everyone is encouraged to speak up. Either way – whether in person or through social media – listening happens, making it more likely that we move forward together, in common purpose.

What is it that we want to accomplish together? This is another way of articulating the question of destination. Once we have listened to each other and consensus on direction has emerged, it is time to sum it up in a single sentence. Here’s an example of a guiding statement:

“Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.”

We’ll talk about that statement more below.

What must we do to get there?

Sometimes in evangelical circles we have thought that we must first believe, then we can belong. In fact, most have experienced the opposite. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (Abingdon, 2000, 2010). George Hunter III maintains that “belonging comes before believing” (location 795).  Share stories with each other. How did you come to be committed to the church and to Christ? Every activity of the church must foster that sense of belonging, that each of us are loved and that this community of faith has a place for me. If an activity (or program) does nothing to help build that sense of community – the belonging preliminary to believing – then it is not leading you toward your goal as a church. It is a paddle in the water steering the canoe in the wrong direction.

How will we know when we’ve arrived?

The five words I love most from my GPS are these:

“You have reached your destination.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if church work were so clear cut, to know that we have “reached our destination”? In fact, it is rarely so obvious. Still, there are indicators that we are heading in the right direction.

Let’s take a look again at the guiding statement, “Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.” What are some of the key words?

“building” – This speaks of the atmosphere of a church. Do we encourage each other, building one another up, celebrating our strengths and graciously forbearing the weaknesses of others, as they put up with ours? People have plenty of chances to be torn down by the words of others outside the church. Inside, each of us needs affirmation that we are a person of worth and deeply loved by God and others. Our pastor has fostered what I call the “holy hug,” a variation of the “holy kiss” Paul talks about in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20 and elsewhere.

“deep” – Churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition sometimes speak of the “deeper life.” We recognize that the decision to follow Christ is only the first step in a lifelong journey of discipleship. The Holy Spirit can cleanse us at a deep level, filling us with God’s love and a desire to serve Him.

“community” – To be in community is to do life together. Is is the spirit of Ubuntu, to recognize that “I am because we are.” In our disconnected day-and-age, to foster connectedness is one of the key strengths that the church offers. Former General Superintendent Nina Gunter once said:

In the church, there are only two categories of people: participants and critics.

Communities grow stronger and more united when members of the community are given service opportunities, using their God-given talents. Those who are fenced-off from meaningful service will either speak up (criticizing) or will leave.

“faith” – As important as the value of connectedness is, unity in the church goes deeper than the connectedness created in clubs based upon common interests only, such as bicycling or photography. Our unity is based upon Christian faith, our common confession that Christ died, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. We believe that life has purpose because we – as the People of God – are part of a larger Story, the Story of God, and that story is life-changing. The preaching of the Word and the observance of the Sacraments (Eucharist and Baptism) are ways that we tell the Story.

“500 strong” – The Book of Acts reports that following Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41). Likewise, Jesus tells the parable of 100 sheep and how the shepherd cared for all 100, both the 99 that he left safely behind and the one he searched for in the wilderness (Luke 15:1-7). Well has it been said: “We count people because people count.”

Though some are qualitative and some quantitative, each of these words in the guiding statement can to a degree be assessed. Are we a church that encourages each other? Are we going deeper in our faith, nurturing each other in the life of discipleship? Do those who attend feel like they belong, finding a place of meaningful service? Do we point our people back to the Story of faith that holds us together? Finally, have we set growth goals that are realistic, realizing that numbers – while not the only measure of our impact – are one important indicator of a church’s health?

The three questions of destination, how to get there, and knowing when we’ve arrived are crucial to the success of the church. Guiding statements – developed not unilaterally but collaboratively – help everyone know where the “canoe” is headed. With a Spirit-inspired vision clearly in-mind, we can joyously pull together, making progress toward where God wants us to go.


Image creditNexus Mods

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

What will your contribution be?

Dan Ketchum gives an excellent summary of team leadership principles from John Maxwell. The key line? It takes teamwork to make the dream work.

Of the five principles given, the one that grabbed my attention was the “law of the niche.” Like on a football team, each person has a position where he or she plays best.

When I was pastoring, “Susan” (not her real name) was one of our most committed church members. At the time, we had a Caravan program (like Scouting) that was effectively serving our community. Susan admitted that working with children wasn’t her strong point, but she was willing, so she accepted the “Guide’s” book and reported for duty. Three months later on a Sunday night before the service, she came to me with tears in her eyes. “Pastor,” she said,  laying the guide book down, “I just can’t do this anymore. I tried, but I can’t.”

What had happened? Susan was a player playing in the wrong position. Later, she got involved in the women’s ministry program and did an excellent job. She had found her “niche.”

In “The Emperor’s Club,” Mr. Hundert knew about how important it was for people to find their niche, the place where they could most effectively serve. He teaches ancient history in an all-boys school. He mocks an arrogant and violent conqueror who later becomes a virtual unknown. Then he asks the wide-eyed students this haunting question:

“What will your contribution be?”

It’s a big world, and God needs world Christians. The question is: What is your niche? What will your contribution be?


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