Struggles of a 3 Year-Old Pastor and What’s Been Learned So Far: PART II – Choosing a Better Story

One of the best-selling and most influential Christian books of the past decade, Blue Like Jazz, is a book that is ultimately about the power of story.  The work’s author, Donald Miller, while himself not a proponent of the emergent church in America, is recognized by the emergent church as a revolutionary thinker and visionary leader.  Works like his are a big part of the reason that much of the sermonizing that goes on on Sunday mornings in America has become one story after another after another – a string of stories that essentially make a point (i.e. present a universal, doctrinal truth) without ever coming out and overtly stating the point.  The idea is that in a postmodern world where most don’t like the idea of universal truth, when you wrap the truth in one of these engaging stories, it’s culturally much easier for the modern majority to embrace than merely saying, “Thus Sayeth the Lord.”

If you read Donald Miller, you’ll undoubtedly see his distinct style immediately.  He writes in sort of a punctuated and insightful, stream-of-consciousness fashion.  He uses the experiences of his life to communicate general biblical messages without really referencing the Bible.  This is an approach that, while there might be some natural and legitimate reservations, probably has some merit in the 21st century.  It’s essentially the difference between sharing the story of Jesus’ love, mercy, and forgiveness with someone through tangible illustration rather than shouting John 3:16 in their face.  And it’s probably also important to remember that while Jesus frequently quoted the Old Testament, he also frequently taught spiritual truths by means of illustration that the Bible calls “parables,” so the method itself even has some biblical precedent.

While Donald Miller has undoubtedly received massive success in his heightening American Christianity’s awareness of “the power of story,” there’s one narrower point that he makes that has really changed the way I look at life and ministry.  That point is the fact that my life, and your life, is also a story.  Now that might seem either rather obvious or a bit overly romanticized, but it has profound implications when you dig deeper.

People love good stories.  The movie Titanic, for instance, could have been just a 2 ½ hours of a screen displaying the words “Young love is powerful and passionate, will make you do crazy things, and is hard to let go of.”  That’s the truth it spoke.  However, no one would have paid their hard-earned money to see it.  Instead, James Cameron spent several hundred million dollars on fast-paced, larger-than-life, beautiful imagery showing us this truth.  You could say the same thing about much of what you see in Hollywood.  And most people will opt for a good story over an ideological aphorism most of the time.

Christians are no different.  The decisions we make are often subconscious expressions to improve our own personal story.  As I look back at my own life, I think it’s probably true most of the time.  As I mentioned last week, in my teen years I struggled with some anxiety and depression.  Prior to that, I would have told you there was absolutely no chance I was ever going to be a pastor.  My brother was a pastor.  I attended a high school where the curriculum was designed for training pastors.  I was expected to become a pastor.  That seemed very, very boring to me – to follow in footsteps where I was intended to walk.  However, after having gone through depression, I was on a feverish pursuit to better understand who I was, who God was, and what our relationship was supposed to be.  I did a 180 and thought the best route for me to find those answers was to attend a pastoral school where I’d be pursuing spiritual truth non-stop.  That’s a better story.  I opted for it.

I could probably list a thousand decisions I’ve made in life, big and small, that were opting for the better story.  Now I didn’t consciously think about seeing my life through a movie director’s lens at the time, but nonetheless, in retrospect, it was clearly what happened much of the time.

My guess is that most people’s lives are like this – trying to create a better story.  In fact, when people’s lives are filled with the pursuits of meaningless, worldly things, they are often saddened and depressed by how boring their story is.  If your life revolves around a nice house, a new car, a special title on your name badge, or the location of your next vacation…..sorry, but that’s a boring story.  Now, it’s all fine and good to save up for your next Toyota.  It’s a worthwhile and safe pursuit.  However, no one would pay to see that.  No one’s life is getting touched or re-routed as a result of that.

In all honesty, I think this is perhaps a reason why many Christian youth act out and rebel.  Life is comfy and easy and boring.  So what do they do?  A good girl hooks herself up to a loser guy, because it’s exciting and maybe she can help change him.  Staying out late partying on weekends is much more exciting than waking up for another opportunity to feel like a hypocrite at a boring old church service on Sunday.  At least then I’ll have stories to tell and pictures to share on Facebook.  Getting lost for hours on end in video games, online virtual reality, and pornography, is considerably more exciting than going to school, getting a career, having 2.3 kids with a white picket fence, and falling into the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ lifestyle pattern that many do.  When your story is boring, unfulfilling, and lacking true meaning, you opt for something that at least seems more fun and more exciting.

But what would happen if Christians actually intentionally attached purposeful behavior to their lives that extended far beyond Sunday morning routine and monotone confessions of faith?  What if your family gave one of its two incomes to help provide water or housing or education for kids in a third world country?  What if you mentored a troubled youth who was headed for disaster and directed him/her to develop the skills that God poured into them?  What if you regularly served the hurt, dying, hungry, lonely, lost, hopeless, and broken in such a Christ-like way and then introduced them to the person who is the motivating force behind the love that you show and the one who rescued you from boring, meaningless life and ultimately death to an eternally gratifying life – your Lord and Savior Jesus.  That, my friends, is a story.  Contrary to most pursuits today, it won’t make your life more comfortable.  But it will make life more meaningful.  It would be a mirroring of the selfless love that Christ radiated into the world.  It’s a solid expression of a faith that says, “I know I’m a stranger here (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11) and heaven is my home (Philippians 3:20).” It’s a solid expression of the Christian truth that the life we live is no longer a life for ourselves, but a life for Jesus, who gave his life for us.  (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).  It would be closer to what Christian life was designed to be rather than what we see most Christians’ lives as.

The conclusion I’ve stumbled upon…

Jesus is the greatest story ever told.  Bar none.  In a cutthroat world that claims “survival of the fittest,” he was the fittest who humbly descended to help the unfit survive.  He’s a hero if there ever was one.  Due to a love so great that it’s really not known, understood, or often even believed in this world, he comes not from outer space, but from outside time and space, and he enters his own creation.  He comes as a lowly one and embraces the lowly and lays down his strength, comfort, praise, and finally his life all so that he could save both the oppressed and the oppressors.  He faces conflict after conflict, negative turn after negative turn, and finally, in the most depressing darkness, at the climax of his story – an undeserved death on an instrument of torture – he saves the entire world.  Beyond all logic and comprehension, he comes back to life, just as he promised, and his victory becomes celebration for all his people.  That’s a best-selling page-turner and an edge-of-your-seat blockbuster.  That’s as jaw-dropping of a story as it gets.

As Christian “little Christs,” we have a story that is best told when mirroring Jesus and pointing to Jesus.  He brings a significance that adds purpose to a rat race.  He brings vitality that excites bored lives.  He brings a peace that calms troubled hearts.  He brings love to a world that only ever seems to want to break our hearts.  Not only is Jesus the greatest story, but he also is the Christian’s best story.

So, my advice for others…In Christ, Make Your Story a Great One

The easiest way to tell if a character is a great protagonist or not is to see how much “good” the world would lose out on if that individual was lost.  In the past, I rarely thought about how much of Christ’s light or love I was shining into the world.  I think much more about it now.  Yeah, it’s true that it’s the “right thing” to do, but it also attaches meaning to my story, and that’s a much better way to understand the purpose of life on earth, i.e. significance in Christ.

As a Christian, you are a protagonist in a story with the most joyous of endings.  Heaven is the original “happily ever after.”  Like a Disney classic, you know where this thing is going – a glorious, breath-taking resolution.  With the words, “It is finished,” Jesus has already written the final scene.  However, from here to eternity, your story’s still being written.  It’s your call how meaningful and exciting you want it to be.  But I can assure you, if Jesus is at the heart of it, it will be a wonderful and worthwhile adventure.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

Struggles of a 3 Year-Old Pastor and What’s Been Learned So Far: PART I – I Hate Being a Hypocrite, but God Figures Out a Way to Overcome That

Any leader faces criticism. Anyone promoting morality could face the label of "hypocrite." Christians deal with this by repenting, humbly acknowledging their weaknesses, and pointing to their Savior's strength.

This blog thing sometimes drifts from research-based Church history to Christian cultural commentary to defining big Christian concepts, and it’s all based on my personal study and experience.  You know….stuff the Lord has allowed me to go through, learn from, and by his grace given me the strength to grow as a result of.  No single topic sprang about in a vacuum.  It’s mostly all based on “problems” I’ve faced at some point in time.  Some of you have let me know that you prefer some topics more than others.  That’s cool.  For instance, some of you stopped reading this a sentence ago.  That’s cool too.  Your prerogative.  But I can only write about that which I know, so that’s what you get.  I think most would agree that listening to people who don’t know what they’re talking about is one of the more painful experiences.

With that in mind, as I’m now officially at 3 years in ministry, I wanted to write something of a personal reflection of what I’ve learned thus far.

When I was studying to be a pastor, one of the ideas of becoming a pastor that I despised most was the “living in a glass house” thing that I’d heard about.  Interestingly, and on a much larger scale, I recently heard an interview with President Obama in which he said that was the thing about presidency that he disliked the most.  Apparently we humans don’t like being evaluated and judged by our peers, partially because those judgments are often unfair and inaccurate.  Perhaps even more so because sometimes they’re very accurate.  In any case, we all realize that we’re not perfect and we’re scared to death that someone else might figure that out about us too.

Anyways, in the upcoming weeks, I’m hoping to spray some Windex on that glass house.  Maybe somebody will learn something.

PART I: I Hate Being a Hypocrite, but God Figures Out a Way to Overcome That

Growing up, for the most part, I was a pretty good kid.  I did a lot of homework.  I didn’t hit girls.  My stance on drugs was that “users were losers.”  That kind of stuff.  In fact, looking back at high school, I probably could have gotten a scholarship to an Ivy League Pharisee school if such a thing existed.

Early on in the teen years, I cared quite a bit about God and what God thought of me.  However, I didn’t care all that much about other people, outside of what they thought about me.  I thought life was much more about accomplishment and admiration than love and relationship, and consequently, an effort that was less than perfect was always disappointing, sometimes devastating to me.  As a human, and therefore a sinner, you can imagine that I was frustrated with myself around the clock.  In fact, I couldn’t stand my imperfect self most of the time.  This led to a tremendous amount of personal anxiety and even depression.  And I really didn’t have anyone to blame but myself.  Despite that and despite my mistakes, for which I’ve repented, God used this all to draw me closer to him, so praise be to God.

When I got to college I came to the realization that my perfectionist tendencies might be contributing to my anxieties.  So I came to the illogical and quite frankly, unchristian, conclusion that perhaps I should intentionally be imperfect.  Now, if a perfectionist sinner making concerted efforts to be less-than-perfect sounds a little weird to you, it was.  “Stupid” is probably a better way to put it.  But if you’ve ever struggled with depression, you know the desperate things you’ll do to try to never go back “there.”  In my efforts to become a lesser person, my grades slipped, my language became more sailorly than pastoral, and my jokes became more locker room than sanctuary.  In general, I think I took a fairly large swig of poisonous secularism that, fortunately and by God’s grace, didn’t kill me.

Now, before I paint myself as Hitler or Howard Stern (although I certainly didn’t deserve God’s love any more than they do), it’s true that many young Christians struggle with a transition to college (and adulthood in general, with its new freedoms and responsibilities).  I probably was no different in that regard.  Nonetheless, I believe there was a real pendulum swing for me from unrelenting perfectionism to, at times, careless and totally inappropriate imperfection.  Once again, at times, I couldn’t stand my imperfect self.  Not surprisingly, much like it had done earlier in my life, this all led to a tremendous amount of anxiety and sadness  too.  When God’s children either A) don’t trust God’s promises or B) don’t follow his will for their lives, it rather naturally leads to some anxiety.  It should.  And, much like my recent wise decision to get cavity fillings minus a shot of novocaine,  God’s correction in this way can be at the same time a healthy yet eye-wateringly painful procedure.

God, in his ever-patient way, hung with me through all this though.  I can’t think of any reason why, other than that he chooses for his own reasons to love me as his child.  Despite my mistakes, for which I’ve repented, God used this time to draw me closer to him in the end, so praise be to God.

Years later, while I’ve learned a ton from my mistakes, I haven’t yet figured out how to not be a sinner.  That reality leads to one of the more painful aspects of the work that I’m in – a certain amount of hypocrisy.  Without being a parent, I recognize the difficulty of parents to enforce standards and discipline in their houses when they themselves haven’t perfectly met those standards.  I’ve been on both sides of the fence – self-righteousness and despair over sin.  I think most Christians probably have at some point.  Both are ugly.  Both need forgiveness.  And to speak to people (in either a public or private forum) on a regular basis and, at times, call them out on making mistakes that you yourself perhaps have made can lead to a very hypocritical feeling.  Nonetheless, you can’t be a Christian leader (in your family, group of friends, church, or otherwise) without doing it.

The conclusion I’ve stumbled upon…

I hate the fact that I’m a sinner.  I love the reality of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.  This leads me to… other people, yet hate the fact that they too are sinners.  This can make pastoral work an exhausting experience.

Just listen to words the Apostle Paul writes to the Roman Christians he’s guiding in Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:15, 18-19)  Doesn’t that sound like a conflicted and tormented dude?  That’s a Christian leader struggling with the fact that he himself is a sinner trying to guide sinners…and feeling like a hypocrite in the process.  So what does Paul do to calm his troubled heart?  He goes on to say, “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?  Thank God!  The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Rom 7:24-25 NLT)  Paul is honest about his struggles with his own sinfulness, but he’s also honest about himself not being the solution to the problem.  Rather, he points to Jesus.

Morality is a great thing.  It’s a very important thing, in fact.  But it’s not the most important thing in life, nor is it finally what life is about.  Our physical time on earth is ultimately about spiritual life or death, not about how good we’ve been.  I know this because the Bible is very clear that even the most moral of people won’t enter the gates of paradise unless they’ve been “born again” through faith in Jesus.  And conversely, even the most immoral of people, assuming they truly repent of their wickedness and turn to Christ, will receive God’s kingdom.

Jesus is the only one moral enough to deserve heaven.  And his substitutionary payment for our sins on the cross is the only way we receive life (both eternal life and truly meaningful life here on earth).  That is what our years here on earth are really about.  Therefore, if you’re competent to point people to Jesus as their Savior, you’re probably competent to, in some capacity, lead Christians.  Now, there are some practical considerations when it comes to things like public ministry (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13), but by and large, if you can testify that Jesus has saved you from your sins, you are actually MORE qualified to be a Christian leader than if you had lived a perfectly righteous life.  Seems a little ironic, but it’s true.  Christianity is MUCH more about God’s grace than it is about human righteousness.

So, my advice for others…Don’t Shy Away from Roles of Christian Responsibility and Leadership

Whether we’re talking about official or unofficial positions amongst your family, friends, co-workers, or in your church, recognizing that God has called you to certain Christian responsibilities and leadership roles can be a major blessing if you embrace those roles.

By myself, I am far from perfect.  In fact I’m only perfect in Jesus.  But I sincerely believe that God has used my entrance into public ministry to help me become a better Bible student, better husband, better friend, better man.  A large deal of how he did that was by leading me to despair of myself and to desire to be filled instead with him.

Because I love you, I want to tell you that you’re not perfect either.  Yes, you are totally incapable of carrying out important roles by yourself.  Yes, you’ll need Jesus’ help.  But if you realize that, you are a wonderful candidate to lead others in a powerful way.  And part of the excitement and enjoyment is in knowing that whatever the situation may be that God calls you into, when you turn to him for forgiveness and guidance, he will strengthen you to carry out that role, perhaps in ways you never thought possible.  And when God uses you to make a (not to oversell it here) “eternal” difference in someone’s life, you will become addicted to that.  It feels that good. You’ll realize it’s that important.  You’ll make mistakes.  You’ll need to repent.  But God will use that all to draw you (and maybe others) closer to him in the end, so praise be to God.

It’s Not The Problem. I’m The Problem.

While preparing for a sermon on Genesis 3 several weeks ago, a thought grabbed me that hadn’t really been an issue before.  The thought was this: the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t really bad fruit.  While I’d probably processed that intellectually before, I hadn’t really thought of the bigger, concrete ramifications of that.

I guess I grew up under the impression that the fruit from that tree in the center of the Garden of Eden was sort of like the poisoned apple in Snow White.  The old woman then obviously sort of steps into the role of the serpent.  But I think that’s more of Brothers Grimm theology than actual biblical truth.  In reality, I believe the fruit itself (whether apple or otherwise) was as healthy and nourishing as any other fruit in the perfect garden, possessing the same poison-free chemical composition.  And if that’s true, I’m guessing that many have had the same misunderstanding that I’ve had much of my life.

One indicator I have that many might think the fruit Adam and Eve ate was tainted was a hymn that we sang in worship the same weekend I was preparing this sermon, the hymn titled “The Tree of Life” by Stephen P. Starke.  I actually like the hymn a lot and think it does a nice job of telling the narrative of what happens in Genesis 3.  However, my guess is that when people sang “Oh, day of sadness when the breath, Of fear and darkness, doubt and death, Its awful poison first displayed, Within the world so newly made,” a good percentage of those people probably assumed that the poison spoken of here was in the apple, not the general poison of sin.  And I’m guessing many of those same people might miss the important application point I’d like to share with you here today.

To begin, we probably should determine with some certainty whether or not the fruit was indeed poisoned if we’re going to make a bigger point out of it.  Obviously, I now believe that the fruit wasn’t poisoned.  There are several reasons why.  First, we’d naturally assume that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was created on the 3rd day of Creation, part of the vegetation that God brought forth from the dry land.   When God created all of this, like all the other days, he described it as “good” – perfect, holy, and faultless in every way.  “Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.’  And it was so.  The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.” (Genesis 1:11-13)

Second, when God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he designates it as unique, he designates eating from it as “not good,” but he doesn’t designate the tree itself as inherently “not good.”  The disobedience against God’s command is what would usher in death, not likely the chemicals consumed in the fruit.  “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

Finally, when Satan tempts the woman to eat from the fruit of the tree, we’re told that she sees the food as healthy for consumption in addition to being (as Satan suggested) a way to gain knowledge that God possessed that she and Adam didn’t yet have.  In other words, her analysis of the fruit of the tree was the same analysis that God himself had made when he created it on the 3rd day, i.e. that it was “good.”  “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6)

I hope you’re now convinced that this fruit was good stuff.  Everything that God created was good stuff.  However, he did have specific intentions for how we were to use this good stuff.  And maybe now you’re also already understanding the bigger application point here.

Sometimes Christians fall into the trap of thinking that “the fruit” is the problem.  The Christian church, for instance, in history and by different branches has for many years labeled good things as “evil.”  Middle Age monasticism perceived society as evil.  Some mendicant church orders have perceived money as evil.  Occasionally Pietists, Puritans, and others have made statements implying a perception that sex is evil.  A Methodist by the name of Thomas Bramwell Welch popularized something called “grape juice” in the late 19th century because alcohol, for the most part, had been perceived by his church as evil and they wanted to continue celebrating the Lord’s Supper without consuming wine.  Many Southern Baptist communities in our country have done a pretty decent job of outlawing tobacco, dancing, and gambling and other card games because they are perceived as evil.

I’m not at all trying to unload on certain faith traditions or periods in church history.  My point is that many, many Christian leaders throughout history have mislabeled good gifts from God as evil.  We really don’t have any right to label anything that God created naturally or that the Bible seems to give approval to as “evil.”  And just as damaging in all of this is that it reveals one of the real problems with mankind in a Post-Fall world, a problem that we see in Adam and Eve almost immediately after their sin: blame shifting.

It’s very important for us to be clear about what is good and what is evil.  Money is a gift from God.  Money is not sinful.  Believing that it gives me more control over this world than I actually have, however, is.  My sinful nature is perverse enough to use money in the realm of greed, pride, oppression, stinginess, hoarding, self-esteem, self-centeredness, etc.  Sex also is a gift from God.  Sex is not sinful.  Irresponsibly and selfishly using it as my unfettered pleasure toy, however, is.  Our sinful natures are weird and perverse enough that we humans get very creative in how we distort God’s design for this gift – premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, transexualism, pedophilia, masturbation, bestiality, polygamy, etc.  This is why Paul simply says to the Ephesians, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” (Ephesians 5:3).  He doesn’t list 100 violations of God’s gift of sex because he knows there’s some sick dude out there who will invent number 101 and think he’s getting away with something.  Adam and Eve also clearly understood this – that it was their sickness, not God’s good gifts that was the problem.  This is the very reason that after the fall into sin they covered their nakedness….they understood that they were now capable of taking God’s good gifts and distorting them for their own perversions.  You see, there is disobedience at the core of the sinful heart, not in God’s good gifts.

We could go on and on like this.  Alcohol isn’t evil.  It’s a gift.  It unfortunately often gets abused by sinners who are immaturely looking for artificial highs or who are self-medicating emotional wounds, both of whom are in reality only compounding their problems.  Dancing isn’t evil.  It’s a gift from God.  It unfortunately often gets abused by sinners who are desperate to validate themselves by getting some attention at the club or perhaps by some guys who are looking to take advantage of some sinners who are desperate to validate themselves by getting some attention at the club.  Society isn’t evil.  Cities need Christians injecting Christ into them, which is part of what makes the Christian exodus from urban centers, following the American dream of isolation from other people a little more disappointing.  Community is a gift from God.  Valuing community is essential to the health of a church.  Society and community are not bad things.  Society unfortunately sometimes gets abused by sinners through seemingly easier access to violence and rudeness though.  You get the point.

When we look at the world, we want to be sure that we’re making a distinction between things from God that are good and the sinners who are distorting these good creations.

The final point in this discussion is really also the climax of the Genesis 3 account.  Adam and Eve had abused God’s good gift (and yes, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was indeed a good gift.  It provided an opportunity for humans to express their love for God above their love for his creation through their obedience to his command.).  Despite our fall though, mankind’s weakness never trumps God’s strength.  Our rebellion and sin cannot overcome God’s grace.  And when Adam and Eve sinned, God came not with a heavy hand, but with more blessing – a Serpent Crushing deliverer whom we know as Jesus.

This Jesus cured Adam and Eve not by offering an antidote to the non-existent poison of the fruit, but an antidote to the poison of their disobedience.  He injected his own obedience to God’s commands.  And, like it did for Adam and Eve, Jesus’ imputed righteousness to us cures us of all of our misuses of God’s many, many good gifts of time, talent, money, sex, alcohol, gambling, card games, dice games, board games, video games, internet, facebook,  parties, music, dancing, clothing, books, magazines, coffee, food, desserts, chocolate, cable tv, network tv, public access tv, movies, Netflix, exercise, dieting, fishing, golfing, ultimate frisbeeing, vacationing, pets, sports, children, religion, etc.  I probably missed one.  The truth is that, YES, you and I are so twisted that we can take any good gift from God and abuse it by using it in a way that doesn’t glorify God.  And we’re also so delusional that sometimes we deny that we’re capable of such travesties.  Fortunately, the most important truth is that Jesus cures us from all of it.  While the evidence suggests that I’m the problem, it also suggests that Jesus is the perfect solution.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”  (Genesis 3:15)