Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Forgiving Yourself

Sometimes the hardest person for you to forgive … is you.

People tend to be quite gracious toward others, but incredibly hard on ourselves. Guilt, self-punishment, and second guessing one’s own actions are enormous burdens to try to carry through life. And often we can carry them around for years and years.

Why is learning how to forgive one’s self so difficult? Why does it seem to be so much easier to forgive others than ourselves? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Dr. Joretta Marshall, professor of pastoral care at the Eden Theological Seminary says, “I think people often try to forgive themselves for the wrong things. We think we ought to forgive ourselves for being human and making human mistakes. People don't have to forgive themselves for being who they are.” (

In other words, it may be hard to forgive ourselves because it is hard to separate our identity from our actions. If you do something that harms another person, and you realize it, it is your action that needs forgiveness, not your identity. Learning how to forgive the action will often help release the burden on the self, and lead to healthier actions down the road.

Forgiveness does not condone your act; quite the opposite - forgiveness acknowledges that the act was wrong. And forgiveness does not altogether eliminate the consequences of your act; those consequences likely must still be faced, and forgiveness is what empowers you to face them.

To forgive yourself, then, is actually quite a selfless move to make. You acknowledge that you were wrong, begin to atone with those you harmed, and address the consequences unencumbered with guilt or self-loathing. It may be very difficult, but ultimately it makes a world of difference.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Yes, You May Move The Table

Last Sunday morning, one of the tables in Fellowship Hall was about ten feet out of place. Before worship as I walked by, I heard the people sitting at the table talking about it. They weren’t really griping, just having a good time. “Somebody moved our table!” they moaned.

In that “hardee har har” style of Sunday morning conversation that happens so often, they were discussing the possible reasons their table may have been moved, who may have moved it, and the inconvenience caused by the mysterious shifting furniture.

I couldn’t stop myself from chiming in, “You know, you could just sit there and complain about it; or you could hush up and move it back!”

It was light hearted and all in good fun, but I’ve been thinking about it for the past couple of days, and it has become something of a metaphor. I wonder: how often do people in the church think they need someone’s explicit permission to “move the table?” And moreover, how often do people in the church sit there and complain about the fact that “the table has been moved” instead of just getting up and moving it back? Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Once I was talking with the evangelism team of one of the churches I have served. I told them that I’d like to hear some ideas from them about ways they could equip the congregation to reach out into the community. “Like what?” they asked. I suggested something simple and common, like printing business-type cards for people to hand out to others.

There was a dramatic pause. And then the response, “We can DO that?”

Yes, church. You can do that. Move the table. Print the cards. Share the love. Do the stuff the church does. You do not need explicit permission to do the stuff that you should be doing anyway.

Occasionally I have noticed Communion servers standing there in the front after their section has all been served, and I’d swear they are looking directly at that person sitting in the wheelchair waiting for the bread and juice, but they absolutely will not go serve them until someone says specifically, “Will you please go serve them?” They know the person needs to be served, and they know that it is their job to serve them, but they need it stated explicitly. They need to be given permission.

Now, I understand where that comes from, to a point. People mostly like to know what the rules are, and mostly like to follow them. People don’t like to think they are doing something “wrong.” And so we can overcompensate, and not do anything at all. And then complain about how nothing is being done.

On the other hand, it is an absolutely JOY to see people who are doing church with focus, energy, and a sense of calling. Such people do not need the pastor to give them permission to do something, because the mission of the church has already given them permission. When ecclesiology shifts from maintenance of institutional structure to the people on God’s mission, it is a thing of beauty to behold. The Holy Spirit has given them the vision and energy, and the church itself has equipped them to engage in ministry that is powerful, fruitful, and meaningful.

There’s nothing a pastor likes more than to stand up and cheer for the church being the church. If you are a pastor who is doing it right, you discover things being done by your congregation rather than having to initiate everything yourself. What I would love is for every single person in the church to know with certainty that, if it supports the mission of the church, they have permission to do it. I would much rather have to help people dial it back a bit instead of having to crank it up in the first place, you know what I mean?

Think about the guys in Luke 5 who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing. Finding the doorway blocked with a crowd of people, they carried him up onto the roof and lowered him down through the ceiling, right in the middle of the crowd.

Notice, they did not ask anyone’s permission to do so. Their “mission” was to get that guy close to Jesus, and they were going to do whatever it took to accomplish that mission, even if that meant a highly … shall we say “unconventional” approach.

I wonder, if I was their pastor, would I have cheered for those men or would I have cringed at their approach?

Standing in that crowd, craning my neck for a glimpse of Jesus, would I have thought, “What the heck are those guys doing up there? They’re probably going to get in trouble for this! I’m sure the Board of Trustees has not approved this course of action!”

Or maybe, “Crud, I wish I had thought of that! Now let’s see, how could I finagle it so that I get the credit for this idea?”

Or, if I was those guys’ pastor, would I have been able to cheer for them, encouraging their commitment to the mission, affirming their unwavering focus on their friend’s need, and highlighting them so that others in the congregation would be edified by their example?

I want to be a pastor who doesn’t have to say, “Yes, church you may ‘move the table.’” Every single time. Just go ahead! You may. A thousand times you may.

Church, you have permission to be the church, and let me tell you, it doesn’t come from me.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Baby D, You Are Beautiful

Hey Baby D, I’ve got some stuff to tell you. You’re going back home tomorrow and so before you go I just want to make sure that you know some stuff. I might not get a chance to tell you this later on, so I’m going to tell you now, okay?

First of all, I love you very much. So does Mommy Erin and Cori and Wes and G-man. We love you so, so much. We think you are absolutely beautiful, in every sense! We’ve loved you ever since you were two days old, the day that we first met you and you came to stay with us for a little while. Now you are six months old, and we love you more than ever! And remember, we will love you for your whole life, no matter what.

And also, your Mommy and Daddy love you very much. They always have, and they always will. They had some really important stuff they needed to take care of before you could go to live with them, and now they’ve taken care of all that stuff and they are ready for you! Isn’t that great! They’ve seen you every single week of your life, and every visit they’ve loved you more.

Wow! You have so many people who love you. What a lucky boy you are!

Hey D, people are going to tell you that you look just like your Mommy. The first time I met her, I told her so. It’s true - you are your Mommy’s little boy, through and through. She’s kind of quiet and shy, but I get the feeling that she’s really strong, too. And beautiful, just like you! I know that she’s going to do her very best for you, and that you will learn a whole lot from her. She’s going to take care of you all the time now, so you be really nice to her, okay? Help her out.

Try not to spit up on her as much as you spit up on us. You are a very spitty baby. We tried and tried to figure out how to make you not spit up so much, but you were having none of it. At seemingly random times, and most often when there was no bib or burp rag available, and frequently all over a brand new shirt or pair of pants. It’s almost as if you planned your spit-ups for the most (least?) opportune moments. Not your most beautiful moments, perhaps.

You’re a strong little turkey, that’s for sure. You can hold your own weight on your legs; if you could figure out the balance thing you’d be standing on your own! You’re just about able to sit up by yourself, but we keep pillows behind you to catch you when you fall over. And hey, you can roll over now, every now and then, but it kind of makes you mad when you end up on your tummy and then you don’t know where to go from there.

Then there’s your hair, which tends to stick straight up. Look, I’m really sorry about that. At first, Mommy Erin thought it was cute so after your baths she made sure she dried it all sticking up crazy like that. And now even when we try to brush it down it just goes “boing” up in the air all over the place. I must confess though, it actually pretty cute. Beautiful, in fact. And it perfectly matches your personality. So maybe I’m not quite as sorry as I said before.

One thing that I hope never changes, Baby D, is your smile. When you smile your mouth opens so wide it looks like you are going to start singing! Your eyes twinkle and you’ve got this wonderful dimple in your cheek and your whole body sort of shakes and flails out of control. Feet, hands, head - you smile with your whole entire body, and it makes everyone who sees it really, really happy. It may be your most beautiful thing!

Sometimes I like to put my nose on your cheek, right by your ear. Then I wuffle my face back and forth and gently nibble on your neck. This never fails to crack you up. I try not to do it too often, and give you plenty of breaks. But you have to realize, it’s all for the sake of seeing you smile. I’m going to miss that smile.

Smile at your Mommy and Daddy a lot, okay? It will make them really happy, too.

Listen, I know that it is going to be kind of confusing right at the start. You’re going to wonder where we are and not have any idea even how to ask the question. That might make you kind of nervous or anxious at first, while you’re still getting used to living with your Mommy and Daddy all the time.

I think you’ll especially wonder where G-man is. And he’ll wonder the same thing about you. You’ve shared a room for the last six months, after all. That’s your whole entire life, and one quarter of his! He’s your best buddy.

G loves you so much, and even though you can’t say it yet, it is obvious that you love him. You two boys play with each other all the time, on the living room floor, on our bed, in your room. He calls you “Koka,” and he tries to give you your binky when you don’t really want it, and the throws toys at you sometimes, and he likes to pat your head which often knocks you over, and he lies down beside you on the floor and looks at your face and laughs, which then makes you laugh and that makes him laugh even more. You adore him. Quite often just as we are calling out to G to tell him he’s being too rough with you, that’s just when you laugh with delight. Oh well.

The G-man is going to miss you, Baby D.

But here’s something. Your Mommy says that she wants us to come and visit you sometimes, and maybe you can come visit us, too. We will try to stay in touch with her, so she can call us whenever she wants to.

Yeah, I know. It’s not going to be the same. But that’s how it goes, isn’t it? Here’s something I really want you to know: Things change. That’s what happens when you live; people grow, people change, people learn, people move, people leave. We can never keep things just like they are; that’s not really living, is it? Whatever happens, we’ll still love you, though. That’s a promise.

Sometimes people tell us that they could never be foster parents because they’d love the kids too much to let them go. What they don’t understand is that the number one reason that we’re “letting you go” is exactly because we love you so much. Loving another person means that you want what is best for them, even if it makes you kind of sad. Even if it breaks your heart, in fact.

And so we’re not really “letting you go.” We’re sending you home, to live with your Mommy and Daddy, because that’s where you need to be. We will always, always, always be here for you if you need us. And we love you forever, no matter what.

You are beautiful.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Some Marital Thoughts

I have been following a public conversation here in Springfield that has been rekindled by the proposal to amend the city’s anti-discrimination stance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In many ways the conversation has been a reiteration of the same arguments we’ve been having for years and years. And so I’ve been content to let the conversation play out without comment.

But something I read this morning snagged my attention, and I think that it is noteworthy. Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, wrote a letter to the editor that appeared this morning. It is unremarkable for what it says, in that it essentially restates the basic anti-gay marriage arguments, adding nothing new to the conversation.

However, it is remarkable for what it omits. I have read the letter a half a dozen times, and I cannot find any mention of procreation anywhere.

For years and years it has been one of the core arguments of the anti-gay marriage position that marriage must be a heterosexual relationship because the fundamental purpose is procreation. Why would Dr. Wood omit it from his public contribution to the current discussion? In fact he goes so far as to list off Genesis 1:26 and 1:27 to lend support to his position, but omits 1:28, which is the “be fruitful and multiply” verse.

Dr. Wood offers the following as his definition of marriage: “God creates and commends marriage as the sexual union of a man and a woman.” In this new definition of marriage, Dr. Wood leaves in the sex but doesn’t mention the babies. Perhaps he has done so as a concession to heterosexual couples who cannot or choose not to have children.

For the record, I strongly disagree with the definition of marriage as merely a “sexual union.” My definition includes the ideas of covenant and partnership and mutual respect and love. I define marriage as a life-long, covenant relationship between two adults who have promised one another to care for each other with mutual love and respect for ever and ever, no matter what happens. I simply cannot concur with the thought that marriage is all and only about sex.

I’m doubtful that anything else new will come out of this latest public discourse on the issues surrounding homosexuality, but I’ll keep my ears open. If I do hear anything else noteworthy, I’ll most likely have a comment or two to add. 

In the meantime, I'd like to ask a question. Do you consider marriage to be a "sexual union?" Feel free to answer either in the comments or on Facebook.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Church Membership: Part 3 - "Fight the Power"

Personally, I blame the Baby Boomers.

Though that statement works for any number of topics, I apply it in this case to the degradation of church membership. No offense. Don’t take it personally, and all that jazz.

Those who were in their teens and twenties during the 1960s developed a pretty substantial anti-institutional attitude. It was all “fight the power” and “stick it to the man” and so on. Then they became forty and fifty year olds in the 1990s, and began assuming leadership roles, including in the church.

The movement of the boomer generation back to church in the late 80s and 1990s is fairly well documented. A part of that movement brought with it the residual distrust of institutional structure. This created a tension within and around the church. How do people who are geared to “stick it to the man” talk about being a part of something like the church? What does “membership” mean anymore?

Many have dismissed “membership” altogether, reasoning that it is not necessary to support an institution by joining it in order to be a follower of Jesus. This sentiment is expressed vividly with slogans like “Spiritual but not religious” or “I love Jesus but I hate the church.”

Congregations compensated by minimizing their denominational connections, sometimes quite dramatically. The denomination logo is on the sign, but it’s tucked away down in the corner where you have to squint to find it.

Many creative, innovative, and vibrant expressions of church have emerged as a result of the rejection of the institution. From cowboy church to hip hop worship services, unique, independent faith communities popped up with amazing energy, and it was a wonderful thing to witness. In many ways, the definition of church has been forever altered, and I applaud the change.

I’d like to think we live in a “post-anti-institutional” time. (Aren’t I cool? I put the word “post” in front of a term. Hipster me.) In other words, I believe we’ve moved beyond the animosity of “I love Jesus but hate the church.” We’ve realized how na├»ve that viewpoint is, I think. I hope.

To be sure, there are still those who value the institution of the church over the mission. These tend to be status quo kinds of people who are reticent to change. And at the same time, there are still those who tilt at the windmill of the institution, though that battle really doesn’t need to be fought any more.

I say that because I believe it.

It isn’t attractive to “stick it to the man” when “the man” is a dysfunctional, antiquated, irrelevant hairball of bureaucracy that means next to nothing in the world today. Anyone who pays any attention to the General Conference and Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church should be aware of that. And every denomination has its own parallel, I’m sure. Railing against the institution at this point is almost bullying.

All that is to say that I’m trying to reclaim “membership” as an idea that is helpful, healthy, and conducive to helping people become followers of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake. Remember? The mission? Being a member of a church isn’t about supporting the institution. If it ever was, it shouldn’t have been. Being a member of a church is about confessing the need for support and accountability in our corporate Christian discipleship.

On Sunday, a lifelong church member came to me and asked about the congregation’s budget. I told him that the document was available if he wanted to take a look. No, he said, I don’t need to see it, I was just wondering “if the church needed me to give some more to support the budget.”

Old school. Notice the ecclesiology - I’m not a part of the church; the church is an external group that needs me to support it. Being a member to this older member still means institutional support.

I told him, “We don’t talk about giving in terms of supporting a budget. Our gift is a proportional response to God’s gifts to us.” He got it. And I think that makes sense to people, once it sinks in. The transformation does take some time, however.

Any time you gather a group of people together, it gets messy. But gathering together sure beats trying to go it on your own. It’s hard to follow Jesus all by yourself. Lacking support, one tends to burn out. Lacking accountability, one tends to wander aimlessly. People gather together to become church to avoid those pitfalls. Will there be conflict? Yes. Will there be struggle? Of course. Will personalities clash? Yep. It is inevitable, in just about any group that gathers.

Why would I encourage anyone to join a church? Honestly, I wouldn’t. My mission is to encourage people to follow Jesus, and the support and accountability that church membership provides seems to me like the best way to do that. When church membership is done well, it is a truly beautiful relationship to behold. 

(This is Part 3 of a 3 part series on church membership. Part 1 is called "Support and Accountability" and Part 2 is called "Why Bother.")