Sunday, May 31, 2015

Blog Hiatus: Please Stand By

Did you know that I have written and published two books? I’ve had a great experience with both of them. The first book entitled, “My Life in a Blog: Real Thoughts from a Real Pastor in the Real World” was just a book of random thoughts through the eyes of a pastor. My next book, “Mutiny Aboard The Good Old Gospel Ship,” talked about the dysfunctions I have seen inside the institutional church. Both books are available for purchase today on Amazon and have lead to some great speaking engagements at large Christian music festivals and churches. On occasion I even receive a random deposit from Amazon for book sales! With all that said, I have been inspired to write again and will be focusing my attention on this new book for the rest of the summer.

Unfortunately, that means I won’t be blogging for the next few months so I can be totally focused on this project. This book is coming from my deep and seemingly contradictory inner feelings of blessing and feeling like God has deserted me all-together. Sounds crazy doesn't it? Well, I’ve come to find out that I am in good company with many people found in Scripture. It is a book of transparent feelings and I hope it will prove to be a blessing to all who read it. No doubt it will be available in paperback and Kindle as well. 

It is humbling to know that this blog receives over 2,000 reads per month. That alone is great motivation for me to keep going once the book is done. People from all around the world read and comment on my ramblings. Believe it or not, but the most viewed blog is one I wrote recently regarding how much a pastor should charge to officiate a wedding. What is even more impressive is that most comments are not from pastors but rather from couples who are getting married and don't know what to pay the minister. 

My blog is undoubtedly a menagerie of thoughts that cover a wide range of topics. I look forward to getting back to it after this book project is done. Please stand by...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My Ministry is Better Than Your Ministry!

This week, I witnessed some Christians doing some things that got me a bit disgruntled. I didn't say anything to them about it because I don't really like it when people offer unsolicited opinions in social networking land. However, upon further reflection I think this is something that should be discussed. The situation in question involved a person who posted a picture of a Christian event they were attending. The caption read, "This is what I did...what did you do?" This rubbed me the wrong way because I believe there is an underlying pride and snootiness amongst some Christians in regards to what they do or which church they attend. Perhaps it is one Christian talking about what their church did only to be met by another saying, "That's so nice! This is what we did..." While it would be great if believers could simply share the good things they are a part of, things like this usually turn into a contest over who's steeple is bigger. 

This can also happen in regards to Christian rallies. I have even dealt with this first hand when working with missionaries. Somehow holding a dodgeball tournament for teens in Istanbul is better than offering the same tournament for teens in the gym down the road. World missions is fantastic and very much needed, but not at the expense of reaching out to our own communities. One isn't better than the other. Telling everyone about your group's rallies can be a good thing and really fire up a community, but it's all about the heart and motivation behind it. All too often the message being sent is: "Because we prayed louder and with a larger crowd we are better than you and doing more for God." Honestly, I have always wondered how large prayer events in public places reconcile themselves to Matthew 6:5 which states, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full." But, I digress. My concern is that when we, as churches or individuals, make these kind of boastful statements, we minimize what other believers are doing. 

I love Christian music...or should I say "did" love Christian music. Over the last decade and especially over the past few years there has been a heavy and unspoken competition between Christian singers and bands. I believe this has been brought on by the Christian music scene having a "Top 20 Countdown" each week on the radio and is further encouraged by the Christian publications that promote this as well. This kind of competition within the body of Christ can be very harmful and may even discourage some people from ever trying anything at all. People are left feeling like they could never measure up to the supposed greatness they see around them. To them, their efforts seem worthless. This is not the case at all! 

Colossians 3:23 states, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters." Churches should never compare or compete with each other. This is also true on an individual level. What you do for God should never be used as a weapon against someone else. You not only diminish what you are doing but also discourage other believers from stepping out as well. Turning living a life that is pleasing to a God into a means of placing yourself above other people is not only foolish, it stops you from doing the very thing you set out to do in the first place. So what had I been doing that day the person posted a picture of themselves at a big church event? I spent one-on-one time with my spouse. I suppose it's not something people would usually brag about, but I think the Lord smiled on that just as much. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Caesarean Sections, Wrestling, Extra Weight and the Game of Life (Not necessarily in that order)!

Have you ever noticed that a change in your life's circumstances tend to make you look at the world differently? Even if it is a good change, our circumstances can still color our perspective. If someone were to win the lottery, their life would never be the same again. Soldiers coming home from their latest tour of duty have also faced life changing circumstances. While defending our freedom, they may have suffered a debilitating injury or at the very least seen some terrible things they will probably never forget. While there is a great sense of purpose to what they did, the reality of dealing with a physical, mental, or emotional wound is something they must face on a daily basis. 

This reminds me of countless stories from Scripture, but I’ll stick to three. First, I think of Jacob wrestling an angel in Genesis 32. Jacob had struggled with his identity his entire life. He was born hanging onto his brother Esau’s heel and eventually we see Jacob steal his brother’s birthright. When Jacob wrestles with the angel, he says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (v. 26) The angel responds with, “…What is your name?” (v. 27) It is at that point that he responds with, “I am Jacob.” (v. 27) This was the moment Jacob claimed his identity and finally got comfortable in his own skin. While it was a glorious and dramatic event, Jacob left that altercation with a permanent limp. He was forever changed by that wrestling match with the angel. 

Next, look at Job. Scripture states in Job 1:8 that he was, “Blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Yet his life was not without trouble. Far from it! Everything was taken from Job but it was restored back to him at the end of his story. This is a difficult situation to wrap our minds around because on the one hand, you want to praise God and are pleased that Job has his health and wealth restored, but the fact remains that he still had ten graves with his children buried in them. One does not forget burying their child (let alone ten). Those events inevitably changed Job and the way he saw his life and the world. 

Lastly, look at Jesus at the tomb of his dear friend, Lazarus. Scripture tells us that “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) Yes, Lazarus was brought back to life but he also had to die again, though we do not know when. There is no doubt that there was sadness again after that second death. 

The takeaway message? Life hands us great blessings but the results may be something we just are not comfortable with. Every limp and every scar have a story behind them. I say all of this because I deal with wounded people almost every day. While this next thought may seem off-topic, I truly believe it isn’t. It makes me sad to see young mothers trying to lose their “baby weight” right after giving birth because they don’t like it or their significant other doesn’t find it attractive. I have even heard them talk about how ugly their c-section scar is! So many women want to go back to how they looked before they had their baby. Sometimes that just isn’t possible. The fact is that life moves on and things change. As we jump over the hurdles that come our way, we quickly find that things are never how they were yesterday or ten years ago. Being blessed with a baby is a beautiful thing! After a person goes through something major there is always a story, a scar, a limp, or as I like to put it...a badge of honor. It is so important for mothers to understand that the after-effects of having a baby is nothing to be ashamed of. My wife and I have not yet been blessed with the opportunity to have children naturally (we are proud adoptive parents). If we ever are given that chance, I don’t want my wife to have those fears or anxieties. I have often told her that I, as her husband, would always see her c-section scar, baby weight, or whatever as a badge of honor. She will always be beautiful in my eyes. I don’t think this should ever be something a woman is ashamed of. Sure, there are some women who are able to lose the weight quickly. And of course there are the celebrities who spring right back after having a baby, but that is with the help of an entire team of nutritionists, trainers, and who knows who else. 

1 Samuel 16:7 is a reminder of how we ought to view ourselves and how our significant others should view us: “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” We must learn to look beyond what is seen and instead focus on the heart. If you are a mother and have a “badge of honor,” know that you only have it because God has blessed you immensely. Let it serve as a reminder of the gift that has been given to you. Sure you can look back at how your life was before…that’s what memories are for! However, don’t look back and lament what you have lost. Instead, think about the honor that has been placed upon you and rejoice knowing that you brought life into this world. Your child and others owe you a multitude of thanks. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Weddings or Funerals?

“Weddings or funerals? Which do you prefer to officiate?” As a pastor, this is a question I get asked on occasion. Pastors have the privilege to do both quite often. I have personally officiated almost 40 weddings. It wasn't until I moved to Waupaca in 2004 that I began to officiate many funerals. One of the local mortuaries actually keeps my name and phone number on hand in case someone with no religious affiliation passes away and the family needs someone who is easy to work with and would make them feel comfortable. That is a high compliment indeed.

Back to the question at hand. Would I rather officiate a wedding or a funeral? I suppose if you were to focus on the “fun factor” I may have to go with weddings. However, the whole “bridezilla” thing is very real and some weddings aren’t as fun as they should be. Let’s just leave it at that. But for the most part, weddings are a pleasure to be a part of. They are celebrations of love, joy, and promise after all! I especially love officiating weddings when a wedding planner has been hired. People may not realize this, but when there isn’t an official wedding planner the pastor generally takes on the duties of organizing the ceremony’s events when he shows up for the rehearsal. This is why I personally charge a fee to officiate a wedding (you can read that blog by clicking here). 

Are weddings a great opportunity for ministry? Sometimes. This may be considered old fashioned but I make couples go through pre-marital counseling before I agree to officiate their wedding. This is when I can have the biggest impact as a pastor. When the big day arrives (and certainly by time the reception begins) half of the wedding party is buzzed and the rest of the night becomes a blur for them. Also, the pastor is usually friends with the couple and will remain their pastor for many years. This changes the dynamics of the situation. Likewise, let’s be honest: the pastor is often just viewed as a means to an end. The pastor provides the signature necessary to make the marriage license official. I have had people find me on Facebook a few weeks before their wedding date and ask if I would officiate their wedding. Not surprisingly, they “unfriend” me the moment they get back from the honeymoon. Of course I do have the chance to coach the couples during their counseling sessions, talk to people at the ceremony, and offer advice when asked, but I find that most people are focused on the party and not the religious aspects of the event.

What about funerals? The opportunity for ministry is much more prevalent when officiating a funeral. People's hearts are so soft and open to encouraging words and life changing or thought provoking questions when they are dealing with grief. Now, I suppose there are times when the pastor is again simply seen as a means to an end. The family feels bad about just burying Aunt Ruth “who had a beard and it felt weird” (Sorry for the “Veggietales” moment) so they ask the local pastor to say a few kind words, read the Lord's prayer, and give her a proper send off on a day that’s convenient for them. The coldest funeral I have ever officiated was when the parents of the deceased stayed in the car while I did the graveside service. Thankfully, those situations are few and far between. From a ministry perspective, the conversations with the families and lessons learned during this time of hurt are invaluable. Unfortunately, like weddings, once the funeral is over the “unfriending” on Facebook or in person begins. That is why I take whatever opportunity I get, short as it may be, to make an impact on the people who ask me to officiate their ceremony. 

At the end of the day there are ministry opportunities at both weddings and funerals. My answer when asked which I prefer? Funerals. I find that I’m able to have a bigger impact on the people I interact with as they grieve a lost loved one than when I’m working with a happy couple with stars in their eyes. As much as it warms my heart to see couples get married, I am much more moved by the chance to heal a broken heart. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy though. Being a pastor is my vocation. Regardless of what you do for a living, it’s easy to imagine how it might feel to form a friendship with a person when planning their wedding or arranging for a funeral only to be tossed aside after providing my service. It doesn’t feel good to be used for my credentials. 

I’m sure there are many of you out there who have never thought about this before. That’s not surprising since it’s not commonly talked about. This feeling is no different than any other situation when a photographer, doctor, or even insurance agent are being manipulated by the people they think are their friends. The realization that the friendship is based only on what service they can offer is tough. It’s not fun to realize that a bond you thought was real and genuine ends up to be “strictly business.” Yet, we keep on keeping on because there is still a large group of people who are genuinely blessed by the ceremonies we officiate. At times like these, the pastor is just as blessed as the people being tended to. Real bonds, real relationships, and real impact. That’s what life should be about.