One Size (Doesn’t) Fit All

Greetings to you from the foreign country known as Te-Xas.

I joked on twitter yesterday that I felt like a foreigner walking to my destination here in Dallas. And for being Asian. Though, currently at this Starbucks, there are a lot more Asians here (and Koreans at that; and fobby Koreans at that! — where the heck am I?) than any other ethnicity.

On the way to this Asian invaded Starbucks, I was flipping around the radio station presets of my father in-law's car, when I came across a preacher sharing his thoughts. This pastor was touching on all the controversial topics from gay marriage to sexuality to Hobby Lobby to Obamacare in a 6 minute segment.

Of course, his POV ended up being God's POV on these matters.

I didn't mind what this pastor was saying. I heard it all before. What bothered me was how adamant he was that his thoughts were not only aligned with God's, but that these were God's thoughts as well.

Therefore, if I did not agree with him, I was going against God.

I didn't (don't) agree with him. And I don't find myself going against God.

The issues of sexuality is simply not black and white. The Bible is far more complex than we like them to be. As uncomfortable as it may make us, our world is more complex than black and white thinking and is full of gray.

I know I'm guilty of this too, but it's amazing how we try to make God/faith/religion/Christianity a one-size-fits-all thing. It's not. It's next to impossible, for we all bring our own lens; baggage; worldview; into how we approach God and the Bible. Yes, we're all made in the image of God, but everyone one of us has somewhat made God into our own image also.

That's why God's a Redskins fan (but not a fan of the franchise's name). That's why I believe God to disdain the Lakers. God views the Yankees the way he views any empire: unholy.

But the real tragedy is that we don't give room for (loving) debates and discussions. Discussions about the differences of theologies ends up devolving to a my-way-or-the-highway conversation. We're flustered and frustrated that our (seemingly) one-size-fits-all theology doesn't fit them. So, we conclude that it doesn't fit them because they're wrong. And we'll condescendingly tell them that we'll pray for them so that they'll be enlightened like us.

What happens, then, is that Christianity becomes primarily about what we know and what we believe. We're more concerned with right thinking — or everyone thinking like me. There's no room for differences, because we are right.

But as Paul tells us, knowledge puffs up.

And that's one of the tragedies with American Christianity. We're too puffed up on what we think we know and we find ourselves more of a bully than a servant to those who don't know as much as we do or think differently than we would like.

But knowing is easy. Believing is easy.

If I told you I believe in ghosts, so what? I know the starting 11 defense for the '94 49ers. So what? How's can that be redeeming or serve a greater cost? (Unless I find myself on a game show and the million dollar question is “Name the starting 11 of the 49ers '94 championship team.”)

And believing you're right is even easier.

We're too concerned about what we know and not concerned enough about what we do.

Jesus instructions after the Good Samaritan story was “go and do likewise.”

James instructs us to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (not argue over what it says until everyone hates each other).

(He also instructs us that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry — something we don't do very well).

I think it's Shane Claiborne who wrote that we should be more concerned with right living than right thinking.

In the end, I believe God to be less concerned with what we know and more concerned with how we lived. After all, the story Jesus told in Matthew 25, the King did not ask the sheep and goat what they believed; what issues did they picketed or stood up for; how many bible verses they memorized. Rather, the King judged them on what they did (or did not do).

It's okay if you and I don't agree on theology or interpret the Bible the same way. It's okay if we find ourselves on the opposite side of certain issues. God is bigger than our one-size-fits-all thinking.

But God's love, I believe, is a one-size-fits-all type of love that is available for anyone and everyone. And the way we embody God's love, grace, and hope through our actions — that can reach the heart of anyone. For no one can really debate with acts done in and through unconditional and sacrificial love.

But that has less to do with what we know and believe and more about what we do and how we live and love. After all, that well known song says they will know we are Christians by our love — not by what we know.

So, less talk. Less arguing. Less of “this is what God says!” And more grace. More justice. More mercy. More love. More walking humbly with God. And may it begin with me.

 

Church People Say The Darndest Things Pt. 4

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.  

So I know my wonderful church folks say this because they care for us and are looking out for us.

But I can’t help but thing what a really weird thing it is to hear.

Ever since we’ve introduced the Little Dude (formerly known as Nate Dogg) to our loving congregation, many of the folks “warned” us by saying different versions of “Don’t get too attached.”

And we look at each other on the way home and ask, “How can we not get attached?”

It’s not like we’re just house mates where we may bump into each other here or there and might have one or two casual conversations.
We have to take care of him. Love him. Nurture him. Help him. Guide him. Teach him. As far as we’re concerned, he’s our kid until he is not.

Now of course, they’re saying this for the inevitable day when we have to say good-bye. They don’t want us to be too hurt or too sad by the departure of the Little Dude. But it’s what we’ve signed up for. We know what we’re getting into. We know that the day will come when he has to go to his parents. And we are looking forward to that, for LD’s sake. Because, ideally, the best place for him to be is with his parents.

And I want to return him better than I found him, if you will. And in order to do that, we’ll have to pour our selves out into him. You can’t not get attached by doing that. There’s no cold way to do that. There’s no way you can do it with detachment. You’re all in. You’re investing it all.

Besides, we get attached to much smaller and insignificant things as human beings.
I legitimately get sad when I lose my favorite hat. For days. I think about it. I wish I could wear it. I miss the way it feels with the years of sweat and dirt on the brim that makes it an oh-so-perfect fit.

We get attached to our first cars. Our homes. Our rooms. Our dorm room. Our high school campus.

I even witnessed one man get so attached to a volleyball with a red hand print that he cried – bawled – when he lost it.

We get attached to our pets.
So how can you not expect to get attached to a human being that you feed, change, bathe, and care for?

We’re human beings. Not human doings. We’re not going to just do-do-do-do (hahaha doodoo) and then send him packing on his way. No, we’re gonna be with him the best way we can.
We want to make sure that he gets healthy when he’s with us while his parents are getting healthy so that they can be the healthiest versions of themselves when they’re finally united.

That’s going to take a lot of effort, strength, and time.
And because we’re sharing our lives together, getting attached to the Little Dude is bound to happen.

That’s okay. It’s a risk that we’ve took on. Because love always comes with a risk.

 

 

The Preacher is Tired

Cover of "Reallivepreacher.com"

A while ago, a church member dropped off a bunch of books that she thought I’d be interested in.
One of the books were a collection of blog entries from Gordon Atkinson titled, RealLivePreacher.com because (get this) he blogged at reallivepreacher.com (I don’t think he updates the site anymore).
Today (I usually write days before the posts go live), before my trek home from the office, I decided to read a couple of entries (chapters?) to see what this guy was about. And for some reason, and I can’t exactly explain why, the entry “The Preacher is Tired” really stuck out and I was glad to have kept reading to get to this entry.

The entry just resonated with me. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. Maybe it was his language and honesty, and the fact that how we all, as preachers, have felt that way. But it made me smile. And it made me think — though nothing in particular. On Sundays. Ministry. On why this post really resonated with me. It may sound like he’s complaining. Or just burnt out. But, I didn’t see it that way. Just someone who was particularly tired from (maybe a particularly) the Sunday morning. I don’t know.

I do know, though, that sharing this entry of his helps me keep a commitment I made to myself to keep this blog updated at least once a week.

Anyway, here’s the entry for The Preacher is Tired and just note, I’m quoting the entire chapter, including words that are not very “Christian-friendly.”

Sundays can be a bitch.

I get up way before daylight and head for church. I open up the joint. I putter around and straighten hymnals. I make ready. I preach the sermon three or four times. I talk to myself. I talk to God out loud. I light candles and pray. Sometimes I throw a nerf football around the sanctuary while I get my mind straight. You should try that sometime if you can find a church that will let you get away with it.

 

None of this is what makes Sunday hard.

What’s hard about Sunday is that I don’t matter on this day. Sunday is for the folks who come to church. It’s their day and not mine. I must be “up” when everyone arrives. I must be emotionally ready.

 

Anyone who has children understands what I’m talking about. If you are a daddy, you always make the left turn and take your paycheck and yourself home to your kids. One day you may feel like turning right and leaving town, but you don’t. How you feel on one given day is not really the issue.

 

I believe love is primarily a choice and only sometimes a feeling. If you want to feel love, choose to love and be patient.

 

Okay, so when I made a commitment to shepherd these people, I made a conscious decision to love them. That commitment is more important than how I feel on Sunday morning. I will be there early. I will set things up. I will do the early morning candle/praying/nerf thing. I will be ready.

I do this every single Sunday. I do this when I am sad. I do this when I am depressed. I do this when I am hurting inside.

I do this many Sundays when I don’t believe in God.

 

On those days I stare at the door to the church in the dark. The silence of the building is reminiscent of the silence of God. I say, “fuck it” and go on in. I do the candle/prayer/nerf thing. I make ready. I will be glad to see them. I will love the children. I will stop for a moment and talk to the woman who needs too much. I will preach, one more time.

 

Fidelity to commitment in the face of doubts and fears is a very spiritual thing. I don’t suggest it for the weak of heart or if you are in a hurry. An old preacher once said, “Until you’ve stood at the door for years and knocked until your knuckles bleed, you don’t know what prayer is.”

I’d like to have met that preacher.

 

I wonder how much longer I’ll do this? I have no idea. I live week to week.

 

On Sunday after church I feel numb all over. I mean that literally. I AM NUMB. I got nothin’ left for nobody.

The Preacher lives for Sunday night. Sunday night is when I matter. On Sunday night I sing the Song of Myself. I pop in the latest thing from Netflix, drink too much diet coke, and eat more than I should. I settle into the couch and take care of myself.

 

I do this every Sunday night except I didn’t tonight. Tonight I wrote this. And the Preacher feels better. And the Preacher is going to bed.

The Preacher

Pastor Dress Code (Cont.)

note: this originally appears on Ministry Matters. Go there to join in the conversation that already has started, or come and start a new one here. As always, thanks for reading and your time.

One of the most read posts on my blog deals with the “dress code” of clergy.

What is the appropriate attire that a pastor should wear on Sunday mornings? And, is it really that important? Apparently, the issue is much, much bigger than I had ever thought it would be.

I, for one, don't wear a robe on Sunday mornings. I don't want to. I don't plan to. I don't think I need to. I don't think it changes who I am on Sundays. People have told me it was about separating (or differentiating) myself from the parishioners. But, I don't want to do differentiate myself from my church members. I don't want to be known as “holier” than the people I'm preaching to. In fact, I don't even like standing behind a pulpit when I preach. I want to be relatable. And I think the robe gets in the way of that for me. And I'm not out there wearing inappropriate things or even blue jeans. I also don't want to be different on Sundays. Sunday is a special day, but so is Monday- Saturday because those are the days that the Lord has made. Not just Sundays.
But at the end of the day, isn't this more about personal preference than about God and what God desires?

On his blog, Jason Micheli wrote about the Sunday where he didn't wear a robe and a parishioner anonymously left a note in the offering plate on an offering envelope (!?!?!!) that said:

Dennis (Jason's senior pastor) —
Have Jason put on his robe in 11:15 service. We deserve that respect.

And isn't that what the dress code boils down to? What we feel is respectful for us. What we feel is right for us. What we feel is holy for us.

On the comments on my blog, people have tried to say that it's what God wants. It's about respecting God (with the tired argument, “If you were to meet the President of the United States, you would wear your best clothes. Doesn't God deserve even more?”). One commenter argued that Jesus wore the best priestly clothes available, which doesn't seem to exist in my Bible.

I get that many people want their pastors in their robes. For them, church isn't church unless everyone who is part of the service is wearing robes and albs and stoles and all that other good stuff. But what gets me is when they use the argument that that's what God would want.

Does God really care over what someone wears to church?

Does God not count worship if people are wearing jeans?

Is it not a sermon if the pastor is wearing business casual clothing? Or God forbid, jeans and an Ed Hardy shirt? (Although, to be fair, Ed Hardy shirts are… well… never mind.)

We're told that when God anointed David as king, he didn't look at the physical aspects of David, but at David's heart. We're told that perhaps God would rather have justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream instead of the noise of our songs and the melody of our harps.

Of course, there's no “right” answer to this (at least I don't think there is.) There are many arguments that support both sides. John the Baptist wore clothes made out of camel hair and he's the one that baptized Jesus. If it makes someone stumble, I shouldn't engage in that behavior, etc.

While this may be a big issue for those of us who are in church, I like to think that it isn't a big deal with God as it is with us.

But I could be wrong.

What do you think? Does it make a difference what pastors wear? Why or why not?

 

Moving Together

Here is my post that is on Ministry Matters:

As part of the Lewis Fellows Program, we got to visit Jacob’s Well church in Kansas and spent a couple of hours talking to the founding pastor Tim Keel. He went on to tell us about the Four Movements of Change that can occur in a church community.

The first, and easiest thing to change, is knowledge. The second, a bit harder than the first, is attitude. The third, more difficult, is an individual’s behavior. And the most difficult movement of change is group behavior, or the culture of the church.

While it may sound like common sense, I was struck by how much I (and other clergy) operate from the Fourth Level (changing culture) and sort of expect our people to be on the same level with us.

I think a lot of miscommunication and frustration take place because the majority of the church is still on the first movement or second movement of change, while we leaders expect everyone to be on the same level as us, the fourth—especially if we are new to the church. We want to change the culture of the church (fix all the bad habits, incorporate good ones, eliminate some ministries, start new ministries, etc) first and foremost.

The truth is, not everyone within our church is a church geek. And not everyone obsesses over the overall ministry of the church as much as we may. Not everyone knows who Rob Bell or Andy Stanley or Adam Hamilton or Mike Slaughter are. Not everyone cares about the great things that are happening in an urban church in Chicago while you’re located in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Not everyone spends their time reading about ministry, new sermon ideas, church blogs, bible study material, leadership materials, etc. Though you or your church leadership send lesson plans ahead of time, the small group leaders may not “study” it the way we intend them to or want them to. It is very likely that they are catching up on the lesson plans as they are waiting for the small group members to trickle in and begin. And that’s okay.

What I learned is that we need to move through the movement of change together. As a leader, I can’t be where I expect us to be as a church, and expect everyone to catch up to where I am. It just simply doesn’t work. Instead, we may have humble ourselves and start from the very beginning, which is where majority of the church may be. You know where God is calling the church. You cast the vision. You work with key members for the plan. But you have to be taking the first step with them; lead them to the pool and go in the water with them—if you will—instead of being in the pool waiting for them to jump into your arms.

I’ve learned that, as a leader, sometimes you have to spend your time in front of the church, guiding their way—leading them to the “promised land.” Other times, you have to be at the back of the group to make sure they’re moving along, giving them a gracefully stern nudge to keep them going. And other times, you have to move along next to them, being that cheerleader, encouraging them on.

The point is, we need to move together. Yes, we may know what the first step is, and yes, we may have already taken it. But we may be the only ones taking that first step. I am learning that it doesn’t often help for the pastor to say “This is what we’re going to do and please catch up to where I know we need to be.”

Is a leader truly a leader if nobody is following?

I believe it strengthens the church body when we move together; decide together; discern together; vision together; and most importantly, pray together. And in the process, we just may learn that God, in fact, had a different vision/dream/idea for our church than the one we thought was perfect for it.

Success and Ministry

Cross & Clouds

Quick. Name the most successful pastor you know.
Was it a pastor from a large, large church? Like Rick Warren? Bill Hybels? Rob Bell? Adam Hamiltion? Joel Osteen? To name a few. Or a pastor who have written best sellers? Like… the pastors I just mentioned…

Let’s face it. When push comes to shove, we tend to base success on numbers. The bigger the church, the more successful we think the pastor is.

The dirty secret is, numbers are a the driving force of “success” in my denomination.
Of course, we say it isn’t. But numbers (membership and giving, particularly apportionments) can help or hurt the pastor’s tenure at the local church.
That’s why you see pastors fudge numbers here and there, making their churches look larger on paper when they report to the Annual Conference.
Or, you hear stories of how churches, if they don’t like their pastor, would stop attending and stop giving so that the numbers decrease making their point of asking for a new pastor more valid to the District Superintendent. 

When talking to people about the churches they attend to, the size of its membership comes up. And, if you were to ask any United Methodist church person about the size of their church, they’ll most likely tell you how many members are at that church. But if you ask them what’s the average attendance, more often than not, you’ll get a fairly different (usually lower) number.

It’s just easier to identify a successful church with numbers. Attendance, giving, etc.
Success is an “intangible” thing, so we try to define with tangible things; things that everyone can see.
Big houses. Fancy cars. Expensive clothes and accessories.
… Well, perhaps not in ministry. Or, perhaps in ministry, also.

But, really: what is a successful pastor? What does it mean to be successful in ministry?

All of us in ministry have one time or another (or continually) fallen into the bigger is better mindset.
I mean, let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t want a church that is big and growing? Who wouldn’t want to pastor a church with a huge and accommodating campus?

But we play a dangerous game when we make numbers the goal and focus of our ministry.

Jesus had a different definition of success, when it came to ministry.
My dad told me about an article a pastor in Korea wrote. The article talked about the last phrase Jesus uttered on the cross, “It is finished.”

The phrase “It is finished” wasn’t some resignation or said in defeat, but a triumphant declaration, It is finished!

It’s the phrase of mission accomplished; goal achieved; a phrase of success.

And Jesus said those words on a cross. On that Friday, there was not a single human soul watching Jesus and thinking he succeeded. Even back then, that’s not what success looked like.

Having a big church is great and a blessing.
So is having a small church.
In fact, just being a pastor is great and a curse blessing.

Being a “successful” should go beyond the size of the church s/he is pastoring.

I don’t think Jesus cared about numbers.
He saw people who followed him.
He saw many who walked away from him.
But, his goal, I believe, wasn’t trying to get as many followers as he possibly could.
His goal was to show the people that God was with them. Right here, right now. And that God loved them.

And that goal led him to the cross, to which Jesus triumphantly said, “It is finished.”

Shameless Plug/Self-Promotion

So, this is availabletoday on Amazon.Practical Prayer
It’s a 4-session Bible study for the Converge Bible Studies.
Shane Raynor (from Ministry Matters) contacted me a while ago with Converge Bible Studies and asked if I wanted to be part of it. Without hesitating, I said “yes.”
Then came choosing the topic. I had no idea. So I picked prayer, because I figured it wouldn’t be too hard. Boy did I figure wrong.
I sent many emails to Shane stemming from my insecurity. It didn’t help that he sent me studies from other people who were far more talented than I am. I mean, he sent it to help me and have it serve as a guideline to help me along, but I became more neurotic.
By the grace of God, it’s done. And it was a fun journey. I am honored and humbled to be part of the Converge series and grateful that Shane, for reason unbeknownst to me, decided to ask me to be part of this.

There are great bible studies in the Converge series. Check those out, too like:
Our Common Sins
Who You Are in Christ
Kingdom Building
And more that are coming out later this year.
Also, check out Ministry Matters, as well. It’s a great site for resources for ministry.

So, swing by Amazon and pick up a copy of my bible study. :)
Thanks for letting me shamelessly promote myself.

Chocolate Covered Poop – Style and Substance

A couple of weeks ago, writer and blogger Rachel Evans wrote a piece for CNN on why the millennials might be leaving the church. (Last week, she wrote another article for CNN on why the millennials need the church.)

One of her arguments was that substance is more important than style.

Which I fully agree.

Different music. Edgier liturgy (…whatever that really refers to…). Pastors in jeans. Light shows with praise. Coffee allowed in sanctuary. Those are all “style” things, to me.

But what's the point of doing “newer” things when at the heart of the church is something that they've been doing for decades?

What's the point of incorporating drums into our worship, yet we don't allow the people the freedom to think; to question; to challenge; to doubt?

What's the point of doing things “edgier” if we don't challenge people to think about their faith and instead of telling people what and how to believe from the pulpit?

What's the point of having cool coffee shops and a cool vibe in the sanctuary, if we're not open to people with different life styles and different life philosophies?

Changing the style of the church (and nothing more) and waiting for people to come isn't too much different from changing the color of the paint of the church. We've only changed the exterior.

One of the things that we have engaged in, as UMC, is the old bait and switch. Rethink church we say. What if church was a verb, we ask while we show video footage of kids skateboarding at a skate park. Really cool concepts, mind you. But, when we step into a random UMC local church, we'll more likely find something that's far from a community that's rethinking church.

Cool commerical. Cool advertisment. But, what's the point of spending millions of dollars on advertisement, but still have the same churches that have done the same thing over and over for years and years and hoping for different results?

It's another proverbial chocolate covered poop.

I think style is important. I experience God more in a drum and guitar style of worship than in an organ led worship.

But, changing only the style of the church is only addressing the tip of the iceburg.

We also need to think about addressing how we approach church, how we do church, and, most importantly, how we simply be church.

I don't have any answers. I know more of what I don't know. However, I do know that I'm tired of pastors (and Christians) telling me how to believe and what to believe. Or telling me their way is the best way of being a Christian. I also tire of not being able to doubt. Or not being able to challenge traditional doctrines and thoughts without being looked at like I'm a heretic. I tire of being promised a safe place to explore, but really, it's a more of a place to be indoctrined.

I love the church. I love the United Methodist Church (otherwise, I wouldn't have stuck around). But, we have to realize that our problems lie deeper than our outdated style.

Dear Churches, Don’t Do This

photoThis was an Easter flyer that a church left on our door (on both doors — front door and the door to the family room) during Holy Week to announce their Easter Worship.

There is no way that was an accident. I’ve tried to see how it may have “accidentally” flew from the screen door handle to where you see it now. You can’t. And it was highly annoying to try to fish it out. Then to turn around and see that there’s another one of the same flyer on the other door.

Why the church would do that is beyond me. And they expect me to come to the church after that?

New Sermon Series: Jacob’s Ladder


ladder

This Sunday, we begin a new sermon series: Jacob’s Ladder: Surely the LORD was in this place & I did not know it!

We’re going to be spending 5 weeks on the same passage (Genesis 28:10-18), but really focus on verse 16: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!” based on Lawrence Kushner’s book, God was in this Place & I, i did not know. 

Quite a few times, people have come up to me after church and say things like, “Boy, God was really here today!” (And I know I’m not the only pastor/church leader that gets that). Those thoughts always gets me thinking… Does that imply that God hasn’t been there the other times?
But those kind of thoughts happen outside of the church, too.

One day, after a long (long) hike, when I got to the top, I saw the beautiful surrounding site and I caught myself saying, “Wow. God’s really here at the top of this mountain!” Which made me pause and ask myself, “Wasn’t God with me on my hike up?”

So, for the next 5 weeks, we’ll be talking about what Jacob might’ve experienced that kept him from realizing God was in this place before he fell asleep and had his dream, and how we, as today’s readers of Jacob’s story, can learn from his experience and story. 

What is it that keeps us from being aware of God’s presence everywhere we go?

If you can’t join us at St. Mark on Sunday mornings in beautiful Santa Barbara, I invite you to come listen to us online on our website!