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I still have some vivid mental images of that night.  It was a Wednesday night in January of 1991.  We had our weekly youth meeting but it just so happened to be the same night our country started bombing raids in Baghdad.  We were in the basement of the education wing of the church my Dad was pastoring.  I don’t remember all that happened during the meeting but at the end my youth pastor gave a very simple invitation that anyone who wanted to make a decision for Christ could just step across the hall and pray with one of the youth sponsors.  I knew.  I just knew.  This was it.  Feeling as though some outside force was propelling me, I walked across the hall.  She was sitting in the far corner of the room and I simply walked straight towards her.  I don’t remember much after that other than both of us praying.

That night was actually the end of a struggle that had been going on for months.  I believe I first became aware of it the summer before at youth camp.  I can remember feeling like I was having a dialogue with God during some of the services, particularly the end of the services during the “altar calls”.  I would feel some kind of tug as though I was supposed to do something but it didn’t feel right.  If I could sum up into one word the feeling of what I felt like I was supposed to do, it would be “surrender”.  But I didn’t.  I just white-knuckled it through the entire week.  The struggle continued through the next few months.  I even went to a big youth convention where close to 10,000 people attended.  The struggle continued but I stood my ground.

I find it interesting that my decision was made during a very simple youth meeting.  I withstood the emotional experiences of youth camp and a youth convention.  For some reason, that night just seemed like it was time to give in.  So on that night, I gave in.  A simple decision with profound ramifications was made.  At 14 years old, I made the life-altering decision to…..

NOT GO TO HELL, BABYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!

(insert noise of a record abruptly stopping)

Oh, what?  Were you expecting something more profound?  Something with a little more depth?  Sorry, but I was 14 years old and, for all I knew, World War III had just started.  I had no idea what was going to happen.  I just knew that I believed in Hell and I most definitely did NOT want to spend eternity there.  Where youth camp and conference speakers had failed (despite their “what if” scenarios about impending death), George Herbert Walker Bush and Saddam Hussein had succeeded.

I’m not trying to make light of what happened that night, but I’m still not sure what actually DID happen.  I’ve read many differing opinions from different theologies about how my standing with God changed or my heart changed but I’ve never been fully convinced of any of them.  The only thing I know that changed was that I stopped cussing at school.  I was a pretty foul-mouthed 8th grader while at school who would supernaturally change into a very well-behaved pastor’s son once I got off the bus.  I can’t remember consciously making a decision to stop cussing, but somehow I just stopped (only to start again once I got into my 30’s).

That being said, I don’t know that I actually changed.  Other than my speech, nothing about my behavior really improved and in some ways it actually got worse (I was a 14 year-old male.  Use your imagination).  Was I a Christian?  I guess by most people’s standard I was.  I had prayed the prayer deemed necessary to be one and, thus, go to Heaven.  I read the Bible (occasionally).  I was active in church activities (all. the. time).  I knew the right answers.  I looked the part.  But I don’t know what exactly had been made new inside of me.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the description of myself could also be a description of a Pharisee.  They had all the appearances of being holy and godly and yet Jesus described them as “whitewashed tombs”.  They were still dead inside because they clung to their ability to do all the right things themselves instead of trusting God to actually make them right.  They knew nothing of what Jesus was offering: eternal life.

I think I’ve misunderstood eternal life and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone.  I thought it was what happened when I died, but if you read what Jesus has to say about it, then I couldn’t possibly be right.  In John 5, Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”  Notice he didn’t use the future tense.  He said “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life”.

Later on in the same chapter Jesus is talking to Jewish leader and says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.  These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  Again, he’s using present tense as though eternal life is something he can give us now.  Over and over again, Jesus uses the present tense when telling people about eternal life:

“…whoever believes has eternal life

give them eternal life…”

“And this is eternal life”

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life….”

Dallas Willard was the one who opened my eyes to the fact that eternal life was not something to simply look forward to, it is something to be had now and was actually the state in which we were always intended to live.  In fact, Willard claims in his book Renovation of the Heart that “the first task of Jesus in his earthly ministry was to proclaim God: to inform those around him of the availability of eternal life from God through himself.  He made it clear that by placing their confidence in himself, ‘believing on him,’ they could immediately enter into the eternal life enjoyed by those in ‘the kingdom of the heavens.'”

Jesus actually defines eternal life for us in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” How amazingly simple is that?  Eternal life is just knowing God and knowing Jesus.  No tricks.  No formulas.  No multi-step processes.  Jesus lays it out and tells us that if we know him, we have eternal life.

I have to confess that I’m a formula junkie.  In my mind, there’s always an explanation for something that happens and it always involves a process, no matter how complex or simple.  I tend to apply this to spiritual things as well, especially in regards to what is termed “spiritual growth” or “spiritual formation”.  God wants us to have eternal life and not just when we die, but here and now.  He wants us to live in the way he had originally planned for us before everything went wrong in the world and he didn’t make that way to be some ridiculous, complex formula.  The way is simply knowing Jesus.

How have we made it so hard?  How have we made it about going to Heaven and avoiding Hell?  How have we made it about doing certain things and not doing other things?  How have we made it about praying a prayer and just mentally agreeing that Jesus was God and can save us from our sins?  It is no wonder that American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.  We have done the same thing that Jesus condemned the Pharisees and teachers of the law for: we have added to the simple message of God and made it less accessible.

Jesus’ message wasn’t about spiritual growth or going to Heaven.  His message was that eternal life, the life God originally imagined for us, is available through Him.  If we know Him, we have that life.  We have peace.  We have hope.  We have all that God desires for us.

To be honest, I still very much struggle with knowing Jesus.  I know a lot about Him.  I’ve studied Him, preached and taught about Him, sung songs about Him, but I feel as though I’ve just scratched the surface of really knowing Him.  I believe I’ll always feel that way though.  After all, if God is really God how could we possibly understand everything about Him?  But I believe God loves our seeking.  He loves our searching.  He loves us coming to Him and asking, “What are you like?”  When Jesus taught about prayer in Luke 11, he told his disciples to ask, seek and knock.  When children were around, he encouraged them to come to him, despite the objections of the adults.  He wants us to audaciously, boldly come to him with curious minds and open hearts, just like a child; leaving behind our pre-conceived notions of who we expect him to be and just being content to be with him.  In this knowing and being known is eternal life.

I believe what awaits us after death is simply a continuation of the state of our souls.  I have known some who, for them, death simply meant being able to see with their eyes what their hearts had known.  I don’t think it was much of a transition for them because eternal life was a way of life already.  They had taken Jesus up on his offer and communed with him deeply.  It was not just that they spent time praying and reading their Bible.  It was so much more.  It was as though Jesus had truly taken up residence in them and was an ever-present reality.

Back in 1991, I had no clue that God’s offer was a returning to what should have always been: intimate relationship with our Creator.  I was only concerned about my eternal salvation from a place but salvation and eternity is not about where we go.  It is about who we are with.

Wanting to Want

I don’t want a relationship with God.  There.  I said it.  Actually, let me clarify: Most of the time, I don’t want a relationship with God.  This space seems to be somewhat of a confessional booth for me, so I’m confessing that the times I actually want a relationship with God are disturbingly low.  Do I want to go to Heaven?  Most definitely.  Do I want to feel secure in the fact that I am loved and accepted?  No doubt.  Do I want to have the responsibility of investing myself in a relationship that demands giving all of myself to?  Nope.  Isn’t that kind of selfish?  It is not kind of selfish.  It is totally selfish.

I know every person in this world is selfish, it’s really just a matter of where we are on the selfishness continuum.  Let’s say the average person is a 5 on the selfishness continuum.  The average toddler is a 9.5.  My wife is probably a 2.  When she makes New Year’s Resolutions (perhaps one of the more acceptable self-focused practices for the average American), she makes hers about how she’s going to help others.  She had the privilege of marrying someone who was about an 8 or 9.  Fortunately, through rapid maturity and vibrant spiritual growth, her husband has progressed into a solid 7 in the short span of 14 years.

I didn’t learn to be self-absorbed.  Part of my selfishness is just natural.  We all want things and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Desire is a good thing.  Where it goes wrong for me and everyone else is the object of our desires and how important those objects are.  Usually the things I want most are either things that aren’t good for me or are ONLY for me.  I’m like a toddler, just more sophisticated.

I think this is the main problem for me when it comes to my opening statement.  I want the good things that intimacy with God provides.  I just don’t want the intimacy.  Intimacy requires giving, sacrifice, focusing on someone else and putting in the time to truly know someone else and allowing them to truly know you.  Full disclosure: not a big fan of those things.  (At this point you may be asking “How are you still married?”  Please refer to paragraph two where I stated where my wife is on the selfishness continuum.)

But that’s the deal.  The Almighty offers love, intimacy, acceptance, hope, purpose and life to the full.  He risked everything to give us those things.  So what does he ask of us?  Everything and nothing.  Everything in that he wants us to be willing to give up all we hold dear: acceptance, control, power and comfort.  Nothing in that those things are actually of relatively no value in comparison to Him and actually can’t be found in their entirety apart from Him.

The game I play with myself is attempting to create peace by trying to obtain more comfort, more acceptance, more control.  By doing it on my own, I don’t have to go through the trouble of abiding in a relationship.  It would be a pretty funny game if it didn’t bring such horrific consequences for me and those close to me.  That game always ends badly.

Sometimes the best I can do is to want to want Him.  Most of the time my desire for God is practically non-existent.  I have a hard time agreeing with the psalmist when he says, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants after you.”  Do I believe that intimacy with God is what my soul desperately needs?  My mind knows this is true.  Of course it’s true.  I’ve known this as long as I can remember.  Ah, but my will and heart resist.

So what do you do if you’re in the same boat?  What do you do if you want the things of God but don’t want Him?  Well, I’ve got some incredibly deep and profound advice for you:

Get over it.

Seriously.  That’s what I have to tell myself.  Part of being a functioning adult is doing things that we don’t want to do or feel like doing but we do them anyways because they’re the right thing to do.  Most days I don’t want to read the Bible or invest time in prayer.  There are spurts where I want to but they’re usually short-lived.

This is where I have to go back to a quote from John Ortberg in Soulkeeping: “Habits eat willpower for breakfast.”  I have to go back to this piece of wisdom time and time again and it rings true 100% of the time.  My willpower to do the hard things that are necessary to produce the outcomes I want in my life is pretty low.  That’s why the right habits are so crucial for me.  Sometimes the most spiritual thing I can do is to follow through on a plan to get up and to read or pray even if I don’t feel like it (I usually don’t).

“But shouldn’t it be deeper than that, Matt?  Shouldn’t there be some theological truths that would make you want to have more intimacy with God?”  Of course there are and I’ve known them and sung them for years.  But mentally assenting to those things hasn’t done much in the way of creating some craving for Jesus.  I’ve read and been told that it should but maybe I’m more messed up than most or maybe more knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to more desire.

I think the feelings and desire follow the action, not the other way around.  This seems illogical in many ways but the human mind and soul often are  (How else does whipping and nae naeing become popular?).

I think I’m like George Costanza in the episode of Seinfeld where he only experiences success when he starts doing the opposite of what he would normally do.  His instinct is all wrong.  Doing what his instinct tells him to do has only resulted in continual disappointment and failure.  The stuff I normally want to do tends to be selfish and short-sighted.  Unfortunately, I have to work at thinking of others and making decisions that will be best in the long-term.

So that’s what I’m trying to do.  I’m working to grow in my intimacy with God.  I set my alarm for earlier than I want to and I make the time.  I don’t leap out of bed, anxious to commune with my precious Lord and Savior.  Nope.  My most significant act of worship during the day is slowly rolling out of bed after hitting the snooze at least once, shuffling down the hall and praying, writing and reading through bleary eyes.  My prayers are far from eloquent and sometimes they consist of little more than the phrases “help me”, “help them”, “thank you” and “I want to want you”.  It may sound overly simple to you, but simple is exactly what I need at this point.

I don’t need to think any deeper about God.  I don’t need any more theology than what I’ve already learned.  I don’t need any more books trying to explain Him.  I just need Him.  That’s all I’m after and that’s what I want.

Sometimes.

 

 

When the PK isn’t OK

I was recently talking with a couple that I’ve known for 20 years.  Their kids are grown now but 20 years ago their kids were around the same age mine are now.  I told them how I was able to get glimpses of how they parented their kids and I always admired how they did it.  At some point in the conversation, the husband talked about how he tried to parent and live with his funeral in mind.  He said, “I just wanted people to say, ‘He loved God.  He loved his wife.  He loved his kids.’  If that was all they said about me, then that would be enough.”  I’m not sure what compelled me to speak so candidly at that point, but I immediately told him that that had never been enough for me.  I’ll explain why.

I just finished reading a book by Barnabas Piper (son of John Piper) entitled “The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity”.  It is based on his own experiences growing up in a pastor’s family but also includes conversations he’s had with scores of other “PKs”.  Pastor’s kids are prone to struggle in finding their own identity for reasons that are, in part, somewhat unique from other kids.  The expectations for a PK are usually different than the peers we grow up with.  We’re supposed to be the examples of good behavior.  We’re supposed to be there every time anything is happening at the church.  We’re supposed to know the answers in Sunday School.  We’re the ones everyone looks to whenever someone asks, “Who would like to pray?”  We’re supposed to adhere to and fully support the extra-biblical rules set up by our particular denominations.

The pressure of those expectations affect pastor’s kids differently, but how we react to it ends up defining us.  As Piper puts it, “The PK’s identity becomes defined by trying to be something we are not or trying not to be something demanded of us.”  He details a few of the ways PK’s react to this kind of pressure, but the one that I seemed to most identify with was one he called “The Onion”.  Onions have layers, so what you see on the outside is probably not a good indicator of what is going on inside.  His description of himself as an adolescent and young adult rings true of me from the same time in my life:

“Few people can do hypocrisy more smoothly than a PK.  On the outside he is devout, polite, and involved.  On the inside he is cold, angry, and detached.  Or maybe he is simply confused.  Either way, he is not as he presents himself.  He doesn’t know what he is, but he knows what he is supposed to be, so that’s the face you see.”

Can I just reintepret that last line for myself?  I had no idea who I really was.  I didn’t know what I truly liked, what I didn’t like or what made me come alive.  I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.  But I knew what was expected of me.  I knew what got me praise.  I knew what made me feel like I was important and that I mattered.  I knew what made people smile and give me compliments.  Getting that kind of affirmation mattered so much to me that I just became the person that I thought everyone wanted me to be.  That affirmation was like a drug and I needed my fix on a regular basis.  If I starting jonesing for it, then all I had to do was say something really smart or spiritual in class or sing a solo in a service.  I was able to get my fix anytime the church doors were open.

I knew what would play well no matter the situation and was able to live up to it most of the time.  I could be patient and angelic when an older member would tell me about some physical malady.  I could answer most any question in Children’s Church or Youth Group (clearly I was more spiritual than those poor saps who were stumped if the answer wasn’t “Jesus” or “Satan”).  Given the kind of strange world and expectations of the PK, it is hardly surprising that so many of us struggle to come to a healthy place in terms of forming our own identity.

Let me say a few things now before moving on.  One, not every PK works through this the same way. Kids can react to the same conditions in very different ways.  Second, I’m not blaming any select few people for this.  It was simply the environment and culture I was raised in.  How I reacted to that environment is the sum of my innate wiring and choices I made.  Thirdly, I have always had a propensity for inflating the expectations that others have had for me.  When I speak of “expectations”, I am only speaking of how that looked in my mind, not necessarily what was really true.

Here is the part where it gets really twisted.  For the first 20-25 years of my life, there was a consistent theme I heard from those around me: I would do something great for the Church/Kingdom of God.  I was told I was smart.  I was told I was talented.  I was told I had the “gifts and graces”.  The people who told me this were and are wonderful people who love God and I’m sure wanted only what was good for me.  But they didn’t know me.  Not really.  They knew only what I allowed them to see and I had grown to quite adept at not letting people in to know who I really was.  However, I began to see their vision of me as my identity.  This was who I was and this would be my role to play.  It felt good to have the approval of those whom I looked up to, the elders of my tribe so to speak.

People knew what I could do, but they did not know who I was.  But neither did I.  I believed that who I was was not the most important thing anyways.  As long as I could keep up the outward appearance of agreed upon behaviors and developed whatever gifts I had, then that was good enough.  So that’s what I focused on.

During my freshman year of college, I felt I should pursue vocational ministry as a pastor.  Due to my family (both sides of my family were relatively well known in my denomination) and my involvement in all sorts of denominational activities, I was well-known of.  I was not well known though.  If I had been well known, the red flags would have been obvious: highly insecure, deceitful, undisciplined, lazy, lustful, no real hunger or desire for intimacy with God, ambition to serve myself, not others, etc.  Every young person seeking to go into ministry has issues to be dealt with, but mine were not so easily visible and were not dealt with.  After all, I had the pedigree and I had learned how to impress.

Perhaps I believed that success would happen simply because of what everyone had told me I was.  I wouldn’t have to do things that made me uncomfortable.  I wouldn’t have to develop accountability for doing the hard work of developing relationships, reaching out and planning.  It seems like childish and selfish arrogance now, but somehow I felt that the consequences of not doing those things didn’t apply to me.  I was special and I was going to do great things.

It should come as no surprise that I was done with vocational ministry less than 10 years after starting it.  Some of that time was great and I look back and can see how God worked.  Some of it was filled with fun and deeply meaningful relationships.  Some of it was a struggle.  Some of it was just downright terrible, and if I’m honest, I share much of the blame for that.

I haven’t been in vocational ministry for over 7 years.  You know what’s strange?  I still feel embarrassed by that.  I’m 39 years old, have moved on to other career opportunities, have been involved in other churches and ministries and still feel as though I’ve disappointed people because I have not done something “great” for God’s Kingdom.  That’s sick.  I’ll let you in on another secret: I still want to be known of by people of influence in the church world.  The desire is not as strong as it used to be, but it’s still there, like a smoldering ember left over from a huge bonfire.  Every time I feel it, it’s a reminder of what I “should” have become.

I think what I’ve just written is really a tale about a boy who grew into a man and essentially ignored his own soul all along the way.  He grew up like the house I sang about in Sunday School.  The one who had a foundation built on sand.  “The rains came down and the floods came up and the house on the sand went SPLAT!”  That’s what it looks like when your life is built on the affirmation of others and, for whatever reason, the applause dies.  When that happens you are left with only the part of yourself that will never go away: your soul.

In my case, my soul was seriously neglected.  You see, no one will give you a pat on the back for paying attention to and caring for your soul.  No one will tell you, “Matt, you did such a great job honestly confessing your fears and failures when you prayed in private.”  In fact, if I had really been paying attention to my soul and actively working to care for it, it may have meant doing things that raised eyebrows in my circle.  It would have meant more honesty and less pat answers.  It would have meant making sure I had time away from people and perhaps not being there every time something was going on at church (I can’t tell you how shocked I was when I tested as in introvert in college).  It would have meant more freedom to work through all manner of unhealthy behavior instead of hiding it.  Caring for your own soul is hard work that garners no attention and fanfare so I didn’t do it.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, when I admit that a loving relationship with God and loving and serving my family hasn’t been enough to satisfy the deepest yearnings of my soul.  The soul is malleable and will twist and contort itself in an effort to drink from the source that it craves.  I fear my soul is still badly misshapen from all the years of craving the things that will never satisfy.  It is with great sadness that I confess that I still don’t have a deep affection for God.  My fear is that I may never have it, but my hope is that God is patient.

We should not be surprised.  Outraged?  Yes.  Disgusted?  Definitely.  Grieved?  By all means.  But we should not be surprised.  To be surprised by what happened in Charleston on Wednesday night is to be surprised that an apple tree comes from an apple seed.

Sowing and reaping is a truth older than, well, sowing and reaping.  We harvest what we plant.  There is no magic that allows us to do otherwise.  It is one of the simplest and most understood principles on this earth, and yet, we are sometimes flummoxed that it happens, especially when what we end up harvesting is hard or painful.

I’m proud to be an American (cue the Lee Greenwood song). Our country was founded by people willing to risk everything in the pursuit of freedom, whether it be religious, financial or political.  We formed a government for the people and by the people.  We have been an example of what can be achieved when people are free to form their own destinies rather than have them dictated to them by authoritarian rule.  We have achieved unprecedented prosperity for such a large and diverse population.  I’m proud to be an American, but I can also admit that I am not proud of much of how we have arrived where  we are today.  Our progress has come at a price.

We are a nation that has been built on the subjugation and domination of races and cultures that either stood in our way or were a necessary means to our ends.  This vast and beautiful land, full of natural resources that has helped us become a world power, once was inhabited by only Native Americans.  The more we saw of the land, the more we wanted.  We promised peace to those who were already here and broke virtually every promise we made with them.  We killed, we took and we killed and took even more.  Why?  Because we could.  We were stronger, more “civilized” and it had been granted to us by God as our “destiny“.

Part of why we needed this land was so that we could grow crops.  Not just to feed us, but to make us money.  Rice, tobacco and other cash crops helped make some of our ancestors very rich and fueled our early economy.  But those crops weren’t going to plant and pick themselves.  We needed labor and we needed it cheap.  No problem.  The resources needed were across the ocean but if you were willing to pay, you could purchase all the labor you needed.  Was it legal?  Absolutely.  Was it right?  Sure.  There was plenty of scripture to support it.  When we finally freed slaves (at the low price of about 600,000 soldiers’ lives), we still kept African-Americans unequal in the eyes of the law for 100 more years in some parts of our country.  It is still no wonder that African-Americans are still poorer, less educated, more incarcerated and are generally less “well off” by every statistical measure than White Americans.  We kept them as either slaves or a lower class of citizens for about 300 years.  There is no magic wand to wave that will take away the effects of that kind of subjugation and disenfranchisement in one generation.

We are a nation that has also been built on violence.  We waged a war to gain our independence.  We waged a war amongst ourselves, claiming over 600,000 lives.  More recently, we have waged war, in the opinion of some, more for financial reasons than moral ones.  Domestically, we are number one in the world in guns per capita.  Among industrialized countries, we trail only Chile, Russia, Mexico and Brazil in homicide rates.  Starting on July 20, 2012, when James Holmes killed 12 and injured 58 in an Aurora, CO movie theatre, there have been 9 more mass shootings (where at least 5 were killed or injured) in this country alone.  That’s 10 in less than 3 years.

We have sowed racial injustice and violence for generations.  We should not be surprised that the demon love child of those two things is what we are still reaping.  We make it far too easy on ourselves when we explain away the actions of Dylann Roof as something caused by mental illness, loose gun control laws, irresponsible parents, etc.  He is an American.  He’s one of us.  He is the mirror being held up to our faces.  Take a good look, America.  Like it or not, you are Dylann Roof.

You see, countries are more than just pieces of land with unseen borders.  They are more than just a collection of citizens.  They are organic, living things that have souls.  We love to say “we” when we do something great.  “We” liberated Europe.  I know the soldiers were the ones risking the most, but WWII would have been radically different without this entire country involving themselves in the war effort.  “We” went to the moon.  Of course Neil Armstrong was the first to step foot on the lunar surface, but it was this country’s collective effort, support and imagination that helped put him there.  “We” all played a part in all the great things that have been done for our country.  I believe us Americans to be connected in some fashion that goes beyond just where we call home.  I believe this connection includes those who came before and those who will come after.  We have inherited much from the generations that preceded us and we will pass on much of who we are to the following generations.

If this is true, if you and I are part of a “we” that extends back hundreds of years and will extend for years to come, then “we” also killed those 9 precious souls in that church on Wednesday night.  I know we are all saddened and angry about what happened there and we should be.  But to blame this solely on one 21 year old man does injustice to those murdered.  To write this off as the actions of a troubled and deranged individual so that we can ignore the parts of our society that allowed and even encouraged him down his path is to delude ourselves.  I am convinced that part of the reason Facebook and Twitter were so full of our expressions of outrage and sadness is so that we can convince ourselves of just how different we are from Dylann Roof.  We “doth protest too much”.  He is we.

Our American false gospel of hyper-individualism will only pacify us as we think about this.  It will dismiss this as a disgraceful individual act.  An outlier.  It will be what we use to protect ourselves from doing the necessary soul searching.  Deep down, we know better.  This was not a random act.  It was a small portion of the bitter and disgusting harvest reaped from what we planted.

After the legendary coach Dean Smith passed away a few months ago, one of the most poignant pieces written about him was by Charles Pierce for Grantland (He also wrote a great article for Esquire about the Charleston massacre).  In reference to Smith’s willingness to racially integrate his high-profile basketball program, he wrote: “The fact is that, when this country was finally forced through blood and witness to confront the great moral crisis that grew out of its original sin, Smith was a winter soldier of the first rank.”  Months later, I am able to quote that sentence almost verbatim for three reasons.  1. It is, quite simply, one of the most well written sentences I’ve ever read.  2. It was about someone I admired greatly.  3. It introduced the concept that racial injustice and slavery was the original sin of this country.  I posted on social media that if these things are our original sins, then it will take nothing less than God’s grace and justice to root it out.

Do you know what God’s grace and justice looks like?  It looks like repentance. It looks like people repenting of the sins of our forefathers.  It looks like people repenting of the deeply held prejudices in our hearts that we would be ashamed and embarrassed of if people really knew about them.  We may not even know why they are there, but if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that they affect the way we look and judge others who are different than us.  It looks like entire denominations of churches expressing sorrow and regret and asking for forgiveness for staying silent during the 60’s while our African-American brothers and sisters were being hosed down, beaten with clubs, jailed and killed for working for equal rights.  It looks like you, my White brothers and sisters, and me admitting that racial strife is more prevalent than we may care to admit.

I don’t know all the steps necessary for a way forward from this, but I know that we must move from sadness and anger to repentance and repentance is not passive.  If we want a different harvest we must sow a different seed.

Pain is an inevitability in this world and, yet, it is treated as an alien, as if it does not belong here.  We numb it through all manner of proper and improper means.  We spend ungodly amounts of money, time and energy on discovering ways in which to avoid it and medicate it.  We increasingly hover over our children in hopes that we will protect them from it.  We are shaken to our core when we see it working in a seemingly random and widespread fashion.

I can still remember my college Apologetics teacher (probably referring to something C.S. Lewis had written) telling the class that pain and suffering is perhaps our biggest clue that something is not right with the world.  If you tend to be more of the self-focused persuasion (and I most certainly am), personal pain is the biggest clue that something is not right in my world.  It doesn’t matter if the pain is physical or emotional, when I’m in pain, I know that something is not right and, in my world, when something isn’t right I get angry.

Nothing makes me want to punch cushions or pillows more than stubbing my toe.  Immediately upon unintentionally striking my toe against a solid object, my instinct is to yell and curse and hit something.  Anyone in my family can attest to this because this has been my reaction since I was a child.  This may raise some questions from you, such as “Does this somehow make the pain go away?”  Absolutely not.  “Does this make you look like a wuss?”  Most definitely.  “Will your kids perhaps need therapy later on in life because of how you acted after you stubbed your toe?”  Decent chance.  The only way I can explain it is that something is happening in my world that shouldn’t be.  It isn’t fair or just and has no beneficial purpose.  It just hurts and it makes me angry and if anyone from my family asked me a question within 10-15 seconds of stubbing my toe, my tone would be anything but loving, tender or even what one could consider to be sane.

This is precisely the problem, then, when we choose to stay hurt.  At this point, I’m talking specifically about emotional pain.  Pain is our body’s way of alerting us that there is a problem and we should probably stop everything else and focus on taking care of the problem.  Pain forces us to be focused on ourselves, but when the pain lingers longer than it should then we stay in a mode of self-focus that becomes very twisted.  We’re not made to stay focused on ourselves for long periods of time and when we do that because of pain it taints every interaction.  We’re like a body of water whose tributary is a polluted stream.  That body of water becomes very toxic very quickly and anything released from it is affected by the toxicity.

We will all go through painful experiences.  Some will be very minor while some will be devastating.  We live in a broken world filled with broken people.  The selfishness and stupidity of people and the fact that everything in this world has an expiration date means that pain will be a frequent visitor.  But sometimes the pain, no matter the source, is the only thing we feel we have to hold onto or it gives us a false sense of superiority or security when there may be little else of value that we believe we still have.  For some of us, the pain and the way it came into our life ends up defining us for years.  It becomes the reason we shield ourselves from intimate relationships.  It becomes our excuse for never taking another risk.  It becomes the chip on our shoulder that we dare the world to knock off so that we can unleash the built-up fury that comes from harboring pain for so long.

I would venture to say that most of the jerks you’ve come across in your life were people who were in pain and they were looking for an outlet to show just how hurt they were.  Lord knows I’ve been that jerk.  It’s possible that if you’re reading this that you’ve been on the receiving end of me venting my anger and frustration from my own hurt.  It may have been thinly veiled as me trying to show you how wrong you were about church, theology, sports or a current event.  Our current age and technological advances have allowed so many angry and wounded people to use their knowledge and supposed intelligence to lash out and to guise it as “I’m just being honest” or (my personal favorite) “truth in love” to make it sound noble.  (This is why theology students can sometimes just be the worst.  They’ve just been given a whole new arsenal of weapons and they’re itching to use them.)  I’ve been so guilty of this and I sincerely apologize if I’ve done it to you.  I’ve been an ass at some points due, in large part, to the fact that I’ve held on to pain that I should have done away with long ago.

Thinking about all of this has brought me to thinking about grace and the Gospel (which is pretty much where I’m brought to a lot these days).  If grace is real then it means I don’t get to hang on to my pain for any longer than it is useful for.  It strips away the security blanket that I’ve made it into.  Ultimate security is in knowing that I’m accepted by God out of his great love and mercy, knowing that I can never deserve it.  It strips away any false sense of superiority because you can’t feel superior to anyone else when you know that you are just as much in need of grace as everyone else.  Fact is, Jesus completely obliterated any possible reason we have to hold on to our pain as a way of either comforting ourselves or hurting others.

He is making us an offer.  It is an obscenely unfair one, but God doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of fairness.  His offer is that we allow Him access to the wounds that have made us resentful, bitter and angry and let Him do whatever it is He wants to do with them.  I don’t know exactly what that will be for you.  For me, I think He wants me to expose them.  Not just to Him, but to others.  My wounds have been minor compared to a lot of folks, but they were still painful nonetheless.  I think He wants me to be honest about them and to talk about them.  I couldn’t have anticipated the response I received from my previous post about my depression, but it let me know a couple of things: 1.) There’s a lot of people who are hurting who need to hear about real, everyday struggle and that there is still hope in the midst of it.  2.) God can take the worst of your life and make it into something more beautiful and useful than you could imagine.  As I accept God’s offer of giving Him access to my wounds, He does what He wants with them and, in the process, heals them.  In that way, the wounds become part of the story, not the ending of it.

I have dealt with depression on and off for most of my adult life and I know of three specific times where it lasted for at least several months.  The following is mostly about my latest bout with it.  Writing and putting this out for all to see feels very risky because I’m telling you about my story and it’s a story that is painful to tell.  I’m writing it for one reason: catharsis.  I’m posting for another: to help.  I apologize in advance for the length, but I believe it may be well worth it for some of you.  Here we go:

Let me tell you something about depression.  Actually, let me tell you something about my depression.  It’s torture.  More specifically, it is mental, emotional and spiritual torture.  To be even more specific, it is mental, emotional and spiritual torture and the person who is doing the torturing is me.

If you’ve seen the movie “Inception” then try to picture how that movie portrays the mind: as its own world.  So imagine a world where there is no light.  It is utter darkness.  There is nothing to be seen.  But there are things to be heard.  So many things to be heard.  And they are loud.  Deafening at times.  And the noise is not just some kind of non-specific ambient noise.  It’s words.  Horrible words.  Words from voices that sound so similar to your own but sometimes you can hardly believe that you would say the things that are being said to you.  They can range from something as benign as “You should probably be doing better at being a Father” to something as awful as “Your family would definitely be better off if you weren’t around.”  They’re opportunistic.  Seizing upon every opportunity and action and turning it into something that you can be accused of and damned by.

You hear the voices and, at first, they shock you because what they’re saying is just not true.  You know it’s not true.  Nevertheless, the voices persist.  They just keep talking and, at some point, what they say no longer shocks you.  You’re desensitized to what they’ve said because you’ve heard it so many times already.  Eventually, you begin to believe what they’re saying and once that happens, well, that’s when things go really bad.  You’re in real trouble at that point for there is no longer any steady or solid footing from which to push back against them.

That’s one of the things depression does.  It strips you of your foundation and bearings.  Things you used to know to be true about yourself, your relationships, your world are no longer dependable.  You question everything.  You are like a plane running on fumes in the middle of the night that has lost use of all of its navigational equipment.  You desperately need to land somewhere but taking the risk of coming down to land is frightening because what if it’s the wrong place?  So you’re stuck.  Suspended in mid-air.  Frozen by fear.  Paralyzed by the never-ending activity taking place in your mind.  It is, in a word, exhausting.  I can understand why some people choose to end their life.  For some, the lure of a mind and soul that is finally at rest is just too much to resist.

Distractions seem like a blessing at times.  Being able to listen to other noises besides the voices that accuse and demean are a welcome respite.  What I’ve found is that the distractions are really just numbing agents.  They allow you to not feel for a while.  After you’ve been in constant mental torture for a while, not feeling allows you to rest, which you desperately need.  The problem with numbing yourself is that it doesn’t actually fix anything.  As Josh LeRoy said in his book Deeper Than Your Pain: “…when given the choice, always choose pain over numbness.  Pain holds the possibility of life and restoration, but numbness is just numbness.”  (I highly recommend this book as a resource for depression.  It is a very short and descriptive read that has truly helped me.)

I realize that the description of my own depression is very dark, but the reason I detail it is for two purposes. One, so that those who have never really dealt with depression can hopefully grasp what is going on inside the mind of someone who has or does.  Two, so that those who have dealt with or are currently dealing with depression can know that they are not alone.  I realize that no two people are alike so no two people who are depressed will have it work in them the same way, but if you’re reading this and you have ever been through depression or are currently going through it, I’m sure you’ll find some of my description to sound familiar.

I would say that I was in a depressed state for the majority of 2014 and over the last few months, I have gradually been brought out of the pit that I was in.  Even as I write this, I will admit that the thoughts and voices are never too far away and I tend to have to confront them on an almost daily basis.  For now, this is where I’m at.  It’s not great, but it’s better than where I was a few months ago.

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering what the “fix” was for me.  Honestly, I’m not sure.  I’m somewhat confident in what it wasn’t.  It wasn’t medication.  I tried a couple of medications for a short amount of time last year.  They didn’t help.  I believe my depression was not chemical or biological.  It was spiritual.

That being said, the fix wasn’t more church attendance.  Sometimes, going to church seemed to make it worse.  One of the things that always goes along with my depression is the doubting of my faith in God.  At some points last year, if you would have made me answer “yes” or “no” to the question “Is the God of the Bible real?”, I would have said “No.”  I refer you back to a few paragraphs ago where depression can make you question everything.  If you’re a person who is sincerely questioning his/her faith, church can often be a very isolating experience.  In most of our church services we express unquestioning adoration and worship of the Almighty.  The songs we sing are about a God who passionately loves us and how we passionately love Him back.  When you’re depressed, you avoid passion for you dare not risk believing in something that would evoke too much emotion.  Emotion, to the depressed soul, is like the school bully.  You never want to see him walking around the corner because your interactions are always painful.  The sermons preached can often boil down to what you need to do better, or at least that’s how I was interpreting it.  It is hard for me to put into words the rage in which I would sometimes leave church because I felt as though an unbearable burden had just been put on me and I was already far too burdened.  I know that is not what was intended and it probably had more to do with how the words were interpreted by my very sick and wounded mind.  Nevertheless, I usually left feeling more hopeless and more alone than I did when I came because, in my mind, I knew that no one there was suffering as I was.

The only thing I can point to as a “turning point” was a conversation with someone I had never spoken to before face-to-face.  I had lunch with the Campus Pastor of my church.  The best way I can explain what happened is that I had been like a vehicle stuck in sand.  My wheels were spinning but I wasn’t moving forward.  If anything, I was slipping down lower.  Something happened in that conversation and it was as though my wheels finally caught on something more solid.  It didn’t propel me forward automatically, but it stopped me from sinking further.  Gradually I began to gain momentum and light began to slowly creep into my mind.  I could finally begin to glimpse that the darkness wasn’t as real as the light.  The darkness was a world I had created but when you’re as deep in as I was, you don’t even have the ability to see that.  For several weeks and months, my world was still dark but I had momentum.  I began to read.  I began to pray, even though the only prayer I could sometimes utter was, “Help”.

I also have no doubt that the prayers of those who knew that I was going through this were being answered as well.  My wife had to bear so much more than she should’ve had to for far too long.  In a figurative sense, she was a single parent for much of this time.  I still went to work.  I still did a few of the household duties.  I still was physically present, but much of the time I was little more than that.  It took me a while to even realize that’s what I was, but once I did, it became easier to entertain the thoughts that my family would be better off with a different husband and father.

Because I’m no expert on depression in general, I hesitate to be too prescriptive here but I’ll venture to give a bit of advice here.  If you are close to someone who is depressed or is prone to be, please know this: their depression is no reflection of you or your ability to love them.  Please do not feel guilt about what you should be doing or should have done differently.  My pain was self-inflicted.  That doesn’t mean that it had no correlation to outside events.  I believe that dissatisfaction with my job played a part in my depression, but it wasn’t the root cause.  For someone like me, advice wasn’t going to help.  As I said before, I don’t know exactly what turned it around for me.  I know when it felt like it did, but I’m sure there was more than one thing that helped.  I do believe that people who are depressed desperately need real and true community, even if they feel as though the last thing they want to do is be around people.

If you are depressed or have experienced it in the past, you need to know that when you’re depressed, what you think is reality, isn’t.  It is a twisted view of reality that is, perhaps, one of your own construction.  If so, I couldn’t tell you why you’ve done it, but I can tell you that this reality wants nothing good for you.  Like a parasite, it sucks everything good from you and either hides it from you or twists it into a weapon to hurt you with.  Do not trust this reality!  Doubt it with the same vigor you doubt what you once held on to.  I know that sometimes you feel as though you have no energy to fight and may wonder if there’s anything to fight for, but fight nonetheless.  Don’t go numb.  Don’t distract yourself from what’s going on in you.  Whatever light there is in your life, as small as it may be, run towards it.

As I’m gaining more perspective on this, I keep coming back to one thing: grace.  I was convinced that I was worthless, hopeless and a disappointment to everyone who loved me.  Grace brought me out of that and it was delivered in many different ways.  It was through a wife who kept on loving me even though she was physically and emotionally spent.  It was through books written by people who have no idea who I am.  It was through conversations and insightful words from a pastor.  It was through the many prayers offered on my behalf.  It was through my children who still wanted to spend time with me.  It was through some kind of peace coming over me when all I could pray was, “Help.”  Most importantly, it was through gently being reminded of the good news of God’s love.  That, even in my most pitiful state, I was more loved and accepted than I could imagine and I could do nothing to earn it or take it away.  When my soul needed some kind of relief, that was what soothed it.  I didn’t have to achieve or succeed.  I didn’t have to have it all together.  I needed to know that I was accepted despite all the ugliness inside of me.  That’s grace.  That’s love.  That’s peace.  And peace is what a tortured soul longs for more than anything.

There Are No Easy Answers…Kind Of

Like many Americans, I’ve been unable to keep my thoughts far away from Friday’s horrific events that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I can’t remember a national event that has shaken me as this one has and that includes 9/11.  Perhaps it’s because I am now the parent of a 1st grader and this has made it much less hard to imagine something similar happening at any place in America, including Franklin, TN.  My wife and I have watched coverage whenever we can, which means we quickly turn the channel if our young children come into the room.  My mind’s yearning to know “why” has made me far too distracted and melancholy through the weekend.

The answer to the “why” question is simple: The world is broken.  It’s sick.  For those of us who live in the parts of it that afford comfortable lives, it’s easy to forget that fact.  And then the world has a seizure, like it did on Friday, and we’re reminded that not all is well.

But the simple answer is one that’s been true for as long as we’ve been here.  The difficult answers are the ones more applicable to the here and now.  If you’ve watched the coverage or spoken with others about it or paid attention to social media, then there are many espousing their answers as to how to prevent something like this from happening again. We make it sound so simple: stricter gun control laws, arming teachers, more help for our mentally ill citizens, allowing prayer in public schools, etc.  As if any of these on their own is the answer.  They’re not.  The bitter pill to swallow is that an infinite amount of actions and decisions led to what happened on Friday.

I’ve heard some say that what happened is because we’ve become a more secular nation and have “banned” God from our schools.  If that’s the case, then why does America, which is still one of the most Christian nations in terms of religious identification, have 31 school shootings since Columbine and the rest of the world has 14?  Why does America have a murder rate (4.2 per 100,000 per year) that far exceeds all of Western and Northern Europe, which include nations that are far more secular than ours?  It would thrill me if the solution was as simple as ushering prayer back into schools, but it just isn’t so.

As I watched President Obama’s address to the residents of Newtown, he posed a version of a question that I’ve been asking myself over the past 24 hours: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”  We’re going to have to have similar discussions to what we had after 9/11.  We’re going to have to decide what freedoms we’re going to give up (i.e. The Patriot Act) in order to prevent something like this from happening again.

I can’t even begin to predict what we’ll do and I don’t even know what we should or shouldn’t do…except for arming teachers.  Pretty sure that’s a bad idea.  I just know that the answers aren’t easy and that reducing this to one or two issues is lazy, divisive and dishonors the hundreds of people, many of them children, who have lost their lives in mass shootings over the past 20 years.

My hope is that we somehow find the resolve of previous generations to see this through and do what is right and not what is convenient or was simply reposted on Facebook.

Why I’m not an Apple guy

I’m not an Apple guy.  I’m a PC guy.  Do I like Apple products?  Absolutely.  I could spend hours in an Apple store at the mall.  I covet an iPad and a Macbook and an iPod Touch.  The products they make are fantastic and superior to most everything else in terms of what most people use them for.  But apart from my 3 year old iPod Nano, I don’t own a single Apple product.

Why, might you ask?  Two reasons:

1. The initial cost is much higher than similar products.  I can get an MP3 player at Walmart for a fraction of the cost of an iPod.  I can get a decent laptop for much cheaper than I could a Macbook.  Now you could say that the overall cost will be the same or less since Apple products perform better and last longer, but the fact is, for someone like me who doesn’t have the type of upfront money it takes to purchase the more expensive version, even if it is better, Apple products are just too much.

2. I’m annoyed by “Apple people”.  You know who I’m talking about.  I’m not talking about every person who owns an Apple product.  I’m talking about the people who almost pee their pants every time Steve Jobs makes an announcement about a new Apple product.  I’m talking about the person who talks disdainfully about all PCs and considers all PC owners to be deceived.  I’m talking about the person who makes fun of “PC people” with all their other Apple buddies.  I’m not cynical of people who think Apple products are better, I’m cynical of the person who comes off like they’re a superior person due to the fact that they have those products and who try to convert PC people because they want more people on the Apple team, not because they actually want to help them.  I love Apple products, but there’s something inside me that makes me not want to buy them because I don’t want to be associated with “Apple people” and I just don’t want to become an “Apple guy”.

I think people have similar thoughts about Christianity.  They like the product (Jesus), but they don’t like the upfront cost or the people they have to be associated with if they buy in.  I think we require too much of people when they express interest in following Jesus.  We require them to talk differently, think differently, spend their time differently, change out their friends, attend Church at least once a week, become a Republican, etc. (that last one was a slight exaggeration…..slight).  What we should do is ask them to keep tight relationships with other Christians, read Scripture, and try to listen to the Holy Spirit.  That doesn’t seem like such a huge deal to begin with in comparison with making a lot of exterior changes.  Yet, asking those simple things is far more effective in creating a disciple of Jesus.

The other stumbling block we create is the way we, as Christians, treat those who don’t believe as we do.  We have a terrible history of judging them, isolating them or isolating ourselves from them, belittling them and generally making ourselves come off as superior.  We also have a history of treating them as projects and targets instead of people.  The result is that many rational people would never want to be associated with Christians.  This should not be.  Jesus, who was far superior than every other human who has lived, humbled himself to the point of death on a cross.  Sadly, many of his followers haven’t done a very good job of emulating him.

So, Apple person, instead of making fun of someone’s malfunctioning PC, empathize with them and gently tell them of the blissful experience that could be had by owning an Apple product and remember that you were once a PC person too.  Christian, instead of disdaining your godless neighbor or coworker, show yourself as humble and gracious towards them and remember that you were once godless as well.

Something’s Gotta Give (Part 5)

In terms of quality of Part fives, I’m hoping this post will fall somewhere between Rocky V (many Rocky fans pretend this one was never made) and The Empire Strikes Back (the consensus pick as the best of the Star Wards series amongst true fans). If this is the first post you’ve read, you probably want to go back and read previous ones (1, 2, 3, and 4) to get some context on what I’m talking about.   Without further ado, here’s three more ideas on how we can do a better job of training ministers to be leaders of a disciple-making movement.

5.  Seriously look at the concept of ordination and how we use it and determine if it is biblically sound.  There’s no doubt that the NT talks about church leadership and some ways in which to go about developing and empowering it.  From my observations, the way we currently do this (the ordination process), doesn’t seem to parallel very well with what we find in the New Testament.  In fact, the way we do it almost seems to match up more with the Old Testament than the New.  We say we believe in the “priesthood of all believers”, but I don’t see our actions match that.  Every Christian is commissioned by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the work of a minister.  Sadly, the Church has taken on the identity of an institution rather than a movement.  This means that priority #1 is to protect the institution.  The way you do that is create structures and systems that focus on maintaining uniformity, which means you give away power to a small number people and you only give it to those who have been thoroughly educated in what is deemed important to maintaining the institution.

I don’t think our denomination has intentionally done this, but, nevertheless, this is where we find ourselves.  By creating such a large gap in the level of training and education between ordained ministers and those who make up their congregations, we have inadvertently set pastors up as the experts, which means that they are seen as the primary conduits through which God speaks and works in the local church. Learning goes through them.  Ministering to the body goes through them.  New ministry efforts and strategies go through them.  Pastors have complained for years about the lack of ministry involvement by their people.  The problem is that we have trained them to do this.  We have created an extremely definable separation between clergy and laity that I do not believe can be supported by the New Testament.

So what do we do about it?  I think some of the ideas I mentioned in Part 4 would help this.  Again, make ordination more focused on character and fruitfulness, which would have to include the ability to equip others to do ministry.  This is actually the main role of leadership in the Church, but because we have an institutional mindset, we are leery of giving away ministry to those who are untrained.  Perhaps we shouldn’t ordain someone who can’t point to multiple examples of being able to equip people. 

6.  Assess those who are still relatively new in ministry to help them know where they are most gifted and what roles might be best for them.  The basic education requirements we currently have in place for ordination are heavily weighted towards pastoral ministry.  As I mentioned in Part 3, God has gifted leadership in a variety of ways, and those who are pastors are just one part of that equation.  If you’re gifted to be a pastor, or perhaps a teacher, you’re in luck.  If you’re gifted to be an apostle, evangelist, prophet, or something else, then it’s not so easy for you.  You’ll learn very little about how to function in those roles within the local church in our current education format.

So how about intentionally assessing people who are committed to ministry as they’re doing ministry?  A spiritual gifts inventory can be helpful, but, in my opinion, direct observation from others tends to be more valuable in assessing giftedness and strengths.  This would mean doing ministry under and with someone who’s committed to mentoring someone who’s not as experienced or educated.  Once a good assessment has been done, every effort should be made to partner them with someone of a similar gift set that has been able to successfully function in that role so that they can be mentored even further.

What about adding more options into the education requirements that don’t make it quite so uniform?  Perhaps keep the same amount of hours needed for ordination, but add more flexibility in terms of what classes to take based on your giftedness.  After all, how important is a class about how to do Christian Education in a local church to someone who’s going to be doing the work of an apostle?  I’m not saying there is no value in it, but learning about how to evaluate a culture in order to plant a church is more valuable to someone like that.

7. Decrease the role our colleges and universities play in the ordination process and find more experiential and cheaper ways of educating.  This goes hand in hand with some of the other solutions I’ve laid out.  I think this wasn’t a viable possibility 50, 20, or even 10 years ago.  Now that information is so much more accessible due to the internet and other telecommunications advances, we no longer have to physically move to a certain location in order to receive the benefit of it.  Education is much more flexible than it used to be, which is a good thing.  However, Wesleyan schools are extremely expensive, as are pretty much every other private school and they’re only getting more expensive.  I don’t see how scholarship money will be able to keep up with the rise in tuition over the next few years, which means students will have to keep going into more and more debt in order to get the education requirements needed for ordination.  We need to adjust our ordination requirements to start allowing for education that is not received through the traditional means.  The access to information we currently have is unprecedented and that access is rapidly expanding.  Requiring classes in the traditional sense, even if they’re done online, doesn’t leave room for the way in which education is changing.  The system needs to be rigid in its principles but flexible in its methods.

As I’ve been working on this series of posts, I think about other issues or ideas, but I think this is a good enough place for me to stop and let those of you reading step in.  I didn’t start this series so that people could know what I thought.  I started it in the hopes of beginning a conversation that might actually lead to something.  I really, really want to hear from anyone who reads this.  Let me know what you agree or don’t agree with.  What are your own ideas and thoughts about this?  What might be some practical first steps in making some changes that you think need to be made?

Something’s Gotta Give (Part 4)

I could go on about some other issues I see related to this whole subject, but I think I’ve had enough of it and want to move on to some solutions.  As a disclaimer, these aren’t intended to be things that I think have to happen, but simply some ideas about how we can address the issues I’ve written about in Parts 1, 2, and 3.

1.  Require less coursework before ordination and require more after ordination.  I find it interesting that you have to take so many classes to become ordained and then not have to do anything to continue your education once you are ordained.  I think you should have to take fewer classes to be ordained, but be required to still take classes once you are ordained.  Since you don’t have to physically move to the school you take classes from anymore thanks to online options, you don’t have to drop everything to go to school.  You can still continue whatever you’re doing wherever you’re doing it at.  This gets into some other questions about college degree programs.  While I have some thoughts about this, it’s way too big to tackle at this point.

2.  Encourage potential ministers to become marketable in another profession while providing training for how to be an effective bi-vocational minister. As I alluded to in Part 1, I think there is a financial crunch coming for local churches.  The generations that generally give more are dying out and younger generations seem less likely to give.  Also, while giving financially to those who are a spiritual blessing to you and others is a biblical concept, there’s not much evidence that having a lot of people who are totally supported by churches is something we should even expect.  Even Paul had to have a marketable skill (tentmaking) to support himself.  We can’t expect our current way of spending money at a local level (majority going to salaries and property) to continue if we’re going to be at all effective.

3. Make entrance into a ministerial training program based more on results (or fruitfulness if you want to sound spiritual) and less on willingness. Does a baseball franchise draft someone because they want to be a baseball player?  Does the military put someone in an officer training program because they showed up at a recruiting office and said they wanted to be one?  Then why do we put someone on track to ordination simply because they say they want to be a pastor?  At some point, we have to actually look at this person’s life and see if they’re actually doing ministry that produces anything, and I’m not talking about numbers.  I’m talking about seeing if there are people who can say that this person has blessed them in a specific way.  Is there evidence that God is already using them in the lives of others?  Have they proven that they can lead anything?  If you can’t show any of that, then why should we invest time, money, and resources to equip them to do something they’ve shown no ability to do?  Before beginning the ordination program, one should have to have multiple references about what they’ve already been doing to minister to others.

4.  Ordain those who have demonstrated character and fruitfulness, not those who can simply pass classes, get hired, and show potential. This goes along with #3, but takes it a bit further.  At this point, you can be ordained if you take and pass the classes, stay employed at a church for 2 years, and don’t get caught doing anything really bad.  Is it any wonder that anybody who’s been a pastor for long can easily name five or more pastors who have no business being pastors without really having to think hard?  When referring to leadership, the New Testament seems to put emphasis on character and fruitfulness rather than education and potential.  So why aren’t we doing the same?  If I trust you with my money and my wife and you’re obviously blessing others, I want you on my team, even if you can’t recite the Apostle’s Creed or tell me what transubstantiation is.  If you’ve shown the ability to persevere through tough situations and equip others, I want you on my team, even if you don’t feel comfortable exegeting Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer or know who Augustine is.  Let’s change the questions we ask of potential ordinands to reflect the stuff that we should see early on.  The knowledge can come later.  Character and fruitfulness normally doesn’t.

I’ve got a couple more I’m still working on, but I’ll save them for another post.  Honest confession time: If what I’ve laid out had been in place 15 years ago, I don’t know if I would’ve ever been ordained.  I think that’s a good thing.  My experience working in the local church as a paid minister was not a good one overall for me or for the people in those churches.  I think part of it was being misplaced in terms of my gifts (which I’ll get to in the next part), but some of it was getting the green light by the powers that be based on me being smart, somewhat likeable, and known.  That shouldn’t be.  A world that is dying to hear the good news of the Gospel will not be reached by a Church being led by people with those qualifications.

I’d love to get some discussion and feedback on this.  Please chime in.