Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gideon's Bible...

First, let me say I am a big supporter of Gideons International. I think they do some great work, but this blog isn't about the organization. It's about the man himself, Gideon.

I know I have read his story before, more than once, but something popped out at me this morning while I was reading it again. You can find his story in the Book of Judges beginning in chapter 6. We assume Gideon was the prophet that God sent to the people of Israel after they cried out to God from beneath Midianite oppression, but it doesn't actually say. When we meet Gideon, he is sitting under a tree threshing wheat. Not very glamorous, but ok.

(Cue the angel)

"The Lord is with you, mighty warrior." I can picture Gideon looking around, over his shoulders, trying to figure out who this guy is talking about. He couldn't have been talking to Gideon because Gideon was wallowing in self pity. No one was listening to him. Some mighty warrior, eh? You can get the skinny on the details by checking out Chapter 6, we're going to move on down the story a bit. God has abandoned us, yada, yada, yada. Gideon didn't think he could do what the angel told him to do, yada, yada, yada. Hey angel, if I'm the one show me a sign, yada, yada, yada. How many times is that story repeated in the scriptures? Or in our stories?

The cool stuff is still a few verses away. Finally Gideon is convinced that he can do this, mainly because he has an army of tens of thousands of men. But wait...there's more...God said, "Gideon, your army is too big. I'm going to thin it down a bit." So God sends home 22,000 men who admit they are scared, leaving Gideon with 10,000. "Gideon," God says, "Still too many. I'm going to thin it down some more." When God gets down, Gideon is left with 300 fighting men. That's right, folks, 300. That is down from over 30,000 if my math is correct.

Here's where the story gets good. God told him one night to get up, head down into the Midian camp, and take them. God was giving them into his hands, the bible says so, but God also said something like this, "If you're scared, take your right hand man, slip down into the camp and listen to what they are saying." AND HE DID IT!

God had already told him that he was going to win, but he was still scared. Hmm, what was that Jamie? Yeah, God told him that he was going to win the battle, but he was still scared enough that he took God's plan B and went with it. That's right folks, even Gideon wasn't sure.

So, why do we beat ourselves up when we have moments of uncertainty? All of us, at some point, are asked to do something by God that we don't think we can do. I think that I have forgotten that. In my profession it's very easy to get cocky and arrogant. It's easy to see some growth in the church and think, "Look at what I have done." On the other hand, it's very humbling to have a task set before you and realize that there is no way on earth you can do it by yourself.

300 men routed the entire Midianite army, and then came back and cleaned up the leftovers? Yep, 300 men...and God. That's good enough for me.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown...

(photo from www.pastordanvera.com)
No, I haven't reverted back to my pre-"new traditional" self and started speaking in King James english. I haven't fallen and hit my head, or suffered a temporary fit of amnesia, thereby allowing me to forget everything I have discovered in the last few years about the creation I am. I'm still very much in favor of ditching those traditions and ways of thinking that keep the church forever locked in the grasp of 1952, however...every now and then something from the church's history hits me hard...

...and there it is: "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown."

It has been hailed as one of Charles Wesley's greatest hymns (Charles was probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hymnist in the history of the church). That being said, I find it a little humorous, and not just a little sad, that I was 40 years old when I heard it for the first time. Wait, I still haven't actually "heard" it, but I did accidentally run across it while I was looking through the hymnal one day. (Oh give me a break, I am a worship planner after all)

It's a long song...a really long song...and would definitely be one of those "First, second, and last" songs that we sing in church. But the story it tells is absolutely beautiful...

Come, O thou traveler unknown
whom still I hold but cannot see;
my company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee.
With thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.

Tis all in vain to hold thy tongue
or touch the hollow of my thigh;
though every sinew be unstrung
out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
wrestling I will not let thee go,
Till I thy name, thy nature, know.

I think I mentioned this hymn in a blog a week or so ago, I don't remember, but it has hit me again this week. The story it refers to is the story of Jacob wrestling on the banks of the Jabbok River, all night long, with an unknown opponent. In Genesis 32, the author says that the man Jacob wrestled with could not overpower him, so he touched his hip and threw it out. Still...the wrestling match went on until daybreak. Jacob yelled, "I will not let you go until you bless me!"

The man asked his name (as if he didn't already know) and said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome." Evidently Jacob wasn't content with just being blessed, he wanted to know who this man was. "Tell me your name." We, on the other hand...well...

I have learned over the last few months that blessings are born out of struggles, a lot more often than I had thought. I think that's pretty cool.

Yesterday, I posted a sermon clip from Matt Chandler titled, "Following God may end badly," and in that clip Matt reminds us that sometimes serving leads to a blessing, and sometimes it just leads to more struggles. Even though I know that following God may end badly, I have decided that I'm not letting go. If I come away limping...well, limping more...I'm cool with that. Why? Because even in the struggles, with God or with humans, I'm blessed.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sea Cruise...

(photo from www.onlineusanews.com)
I saw a sign once, actually in the shop where I got my last tattoo, and it said something like this: "If you are looking for a deal or a fight, if you are drunk or high, ticked off, or just generally in a bad mood, come back when you're not." That be the disclaimer I lay out this morning before I start typing. I set out not to tick people off first thing in the morning, nor do I just look for ways to offend, but this morning something hit me and I need to write about it. So, if you are looking for an argument or if you are just waiting for someone to say something that offends you, stop reading now. Of course, having said that I have effectively just turned today's blog into a train wreck that you might not want to read, but can't turn away from. You absolutely have the right to disagree, but I reserve the right to delete any ugly comments.

This morning I ran across a video that a friend of mine posted. It was a message by a guy named Michael Lukaszewski. I've never met him, and have no clue who he really is. I don't know where he pastors or even what city he's in, but he said something that made me perk up. It was an analogy, or maybe not, since he was saying that something was not like something else, but what he said struck a chord with me. He was a guest evangelist in this particular worship service, so he could say what needed to be said without having to worry about cleaning up the mess later, and he made some valid points.

One of the things he said was this: "The church is not a cruise ship." Now, I've never been on a cruise, and not real sure that I care anything about going on one, but I know enough folks who have been to understand what this guy was saying, and he even mentioned it in his message. A cruise ship is designed for one purpose; to make its passengers happy and provide a space where they can have a good time. Everything on that ship is designed for the sole purpose of helping folks relax and enjoy a few days reprieve from their work-a-day life. Actually, come to think of it, maybe I do need to take a cruise. I digress.

After Michael said that, I started thinking back through my ministry and realized that every single problem or difficulty I have encountered in the life of the body and bride of Christ, without fail, no exceptions, is due to the fact that folks have decided they are cruising aboard the S.S. Jesus. He nailed it, and I know that I have just raised eyebrows...and that I may get into trouble over this...but he nailed it. Every situation that I have faced in my career as a pastor, and that has caused me sleepless nights or unbelievable stress, has happened because someone in the church thought that our mission was to make them happy.

When they become unhappy, the first thing they want, or feel the need, to do is let someone know just how unhappy they are (usually through a series of clandestine parking lot meetings, late night phone calls, or secret facebook messages). The second thing they do is start watching for other things that make them unhappy and begin taking notes. The third thing they do is create a spirit of dissention among their fellow cruisers, and finally, after the waitstaff has continually failed to make them happy, they jump ship to board another one.

(If you're still reading, cool. This next section is a rant. I own that.) For twelve years I have worried about making the people I serve happy, and here's why. If they are happy they'll come to church. If they come to church, the numbers will be solid, the budget will be met, and we can pay our apportionments. If we do all of that, I will be seen as a very effective pastor in the eyes of the conference. So, if they didn't like what I was doing, I stopped doing it. If they didn't like the way I dressed, I dressed differently. If they thought I needed to do more of this or less of that, I did. But this morning, I have to ask myself, who am I really wanting to please? Is my task to please the people, or the God that called me to discipleship?

Now please understand that I'm not trying to be rebellious. I'm not upset about anything. I love my job, and the people I serve with my whole being. I would lay down in front of a train for any member of my flock. However, the realization hit me this morning that I've not been making disciples. Like Michael said, I have become a cruise director. I think it's time I returned to the task I was called to in the first place. I'm not real sure how to go about it without coming across as a jerk, but I'm pretty sure it can be done. I'm not going to jump off on some new direction, snapping, and barking orders to get my folks to follow, because I know that wouldn't work.

But...what I can, and will, do is to gently remind in love that this journey we are on is not aboard the S.S. Jesus. The Church does not exist to make us happy. Our task, our very reason for existence, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. My prayer is that, in every message I bring, every meeting I'm a part of, every small group discussion, every Sunday School class meeting... in every thing we do, everything we are, everything we ever hope to become, we never forget the task before us.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ides of March...

Ok, I have just now had an epiphany. I mean, seriously, just a few minutes ago. I love it when that happens, and when I'm not being too thick headed to recognize it.

Today is March 15, 2011...aka...The Ides of March. I love Shakespeare, really. In high school, when my junior English class (Or maybe it was Freshman English) read Romeo and Juliet, I was going to get the part of Romeo or be damned...and I got to read Romeo. I wish I could remember who read for Juliet, but that's ok.

This morning, I posted "Beware the Ides of March" on my facebook profile, just like I did last year, and the year before. I don't know why. The 15th of March just kind of stuck with me. It doesn't really mean anything to me, I mean, Shakespeare has been dead for how many years? And Caesar has been dead for how many more? But for some reason that one line in that one play has always stuck with me.

In celebration of the Ides of March, or maybe in observation, I pulled up Julius Caesar on the internet, and there it is, right there in scene II, the soothsayer telling Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March." Of course Caesar didn't really understand...but that's not the epiphany I had. Here is where the epiphany began; The website I found was a parallel version of Julius Caesar, you know like our parallel versions of the bible...KJV (I wish it would just go away) on one side and NRSV or NIV on the other.

This website had the original language on the left, and a modern translation on the right. (Hold on a second while a put a foot on Shakespeare to slow the spin.) IT WAS TERRIBLE! Antonio is no longer Antonio, but Antony (If you are named Antony, I promise that I mean no disrespect). When Brutus says, "Cassius, do not be deceived, if I have veil'd my look..." becomes "Cassius, if I don't have my usual face..." Holy editing, Batman...who committed this travesty?

Now, I'm all about modernization, and I have been a champion of the "new traditional" movement in the church just about as long as I've been in the ministry, but this morning I have learned that some things just are not to be messed with.

You may be asking, "Ok wiseguy, do you preach from the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic?" No, no I do not, because I can't read Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Then you may say, "So if we can translate scripture, why not Shakespeare?" And I'd say, I don't know, but it just feels wrong.

So, here is my epiphany...I do not personally like the KJV as a once modern translation of an ancient text, but I will not condemn or criticize anyone for using it from now on. I do not believe it was the bible Jesus meant for us to read (like I have been told by well meaning church members), instead, I personally feel it was translated under diress. My epiphany continued...I do not necessarily enjoy the old hymns we sing in the church, but I will defend to the death your right to enjoy them and sing them as loudly as you want. I have just recently discovered, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown," and will stop trying to find a way to make that old hymn new. I will read Shakespeare in the original language but if I get hung up on an Elizabethan quote I will peak at the modern translation just long enough to see if I can make sense of it, while not condemning someone for trying to make Shakespeare more accesible.

I will teach, while I continue to learn, that the old and the new can live side by side...somehow, and that one is not necessarily "good" and the other necessarily "bad."

What will this mean down the road for me, or for the work to which I have been called? I have no clue, but now I'll close with a benediction from Anthony and Cleopatra: "The elements be kind to thee, and make thy spirits all of comfort." I don't know what it really says in modern English, but it sounded pretty.