Staying at the Table with Enemies: Rejection and Reconciliation

(This is Pastor Mark’s Maundy Thursday meditation for March 29, 2018)

We live in a time of division and polarization. Our natural, albeit sinful, reaction is often to demonize those who are different and withdraw our friendship, which can make things very uncomfortable when we see each other at church. But church is the place where we are called to transcend our differences and work together to declare the good news that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, and to accomplish his mission of making more and better disciples for the transformation of the world in love. As we study the teachings of Jesus we see that there is no Christ without a cross, no resurrection without death, no discipleship without sacrifice, no salvation without suffering. We slow down during Holy Week to acknowledge these difficult truths, lest we run too quickly to the empty tomb and distort the gospel into another story of human triumphalism.

What’s surprising is that I am still surprised when people betray me, when people misrepresent my ideas or intentions, say hurtful things, push me away, write me off, or try to hurt me. This is especially true when the person is a close Christian friend. I am still surprised by the divisions around me and the division within. But when I return to the teachings of Jesus, I feel naïve because he told me to expect it.

Jesus knew that our struggle with division and disappointment was part of being human, part of journey of salvation, part of discipleship, part of sharing life together in community. Speaking to the early Christians, the author of Mark narrates Jesus saying:

You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (13:9-13)

Again, in Matthew 24:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom . . . . Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

 Again, in John 15:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.

While these words were written to first century Christians undergoing persecution in the Roman Empire, they disclose the corruptibility of the human heart. Consequently, Jesus says, “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) This applies to all of us, regardless of the period of history in which we live, and experience teaches us that sometimes our cross comes in the form of betrayal.

Which raises an important question: How do we respond to people who disappoint and betray us? How do we handle being rejected, mistreated, abused, deceived, or even persecuted? Jesus helps us answer this question when he stays at the table with those who will betray him. The most obvious example is Judas. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but he still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, and gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. Peter was there too, the one who said he would never deny Jesus but did so three times. Knowing this, Jesus still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. But it wasn’t just Judas and Peter who would walk away from Jesus. According to the synoptic gospels, as Jesus made his way to the cross all his disciples abandoned him. Only the women remain. Knowing that his friends would fearfully run into the shadows, Jesus still invited them all to the Last Supper, taught them about the new covenant, and gave them the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation.

And not only this, but Jesus also washed their feet. He humbly surrendered his position and power as their Lord, took on the role of a slave, and in an unimaginable act of lowly, intimate, vulnerable service, Jesus washed their feet. Why? To set an example of how to treat others, even others that will break our hearts. In this way, Jesus’ actions at the end of his life embody what he taught all along.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48)

None of this makes sense in a world where we are told to hit back, holler back, and hate back; to reject, push away, disown people who hurt us. But Jesus is teaching another way. Knowing that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, rejection begets rejection, Jesus gives us a way out of the vicious cycle of destruction—love. As he makes clear in his teaching, as he makes clear at the Lord’s table, as he makes clear in the cross—the whole point of the gospel is reconciliation, and if reconciliation is always the goal then the only way to get there is love made real through forgiveness.

This does not mean having a close and trusting relationship with everyone. When people violate our trust, we sometimes redefine the nature of the relationship and draw new boundaries. After a major betrayal, things may never be the same again. Forgiveness is not pretending that the wrong never happened and blindly going back to the way things were before the violation. There should be natural consequences for bad actions. However, this is very different from striking back in kind with an angry or vengeful heart. In contrast, Christian discipleship requires us to relinquish our right to take revenge, to balance the scales with a tit-for-tat retaliation, or to harbor hatred in our hearts. We are called to forgive our enemies and to show them the love of God. Why? Because we cannot overcome evil with evil; we can only overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

So how do we respond to those who disappoint and betray us? We must eventually, with God’s help, find a way to forgive them. We must show them the love of God in the very least by being respectful and kind, even when they don’t deserve it—especially when they don’t deserve it. This is the only real hope we have for their conversation from hatred to love, from an enemy to a friend.

This is why Christians regularly gather around the Lord’s table to share Holy Communion, to declare and live these difficult truths. As we reenact the Last Supper in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to us in a special way, a sacramental way, to forgive our sins so that we will have the power to forgive the sins of others, to heal our wounds so that we can be agents of healing in the lives of others, to reconcile us in love to God so that we can be agents of reconciliation to others—especially our enemies and betrayers. At the end of the day, this is what should distinguish Christians from everyone else.

How does this apply in your life? What does it mean for you to share a table with your enemies, to stay at the Lord’s table with people who have disappointed or betrayed you? This is certainly something worth pondering as we move from Holy Thursday to Good Friday in the holiest of weeks. Let us do unto others as God has done unto us.

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For Christ’s Sake: A Pastor’s Response to the Parkland School Shooting

(Below is a revised manuscript of a message Pastor Mark delivered at First United Methodist Church Cocoa Beach on February 18, 2018.)

 Introduction

I want to begin by apologizing for not mentioning the Parkland school shooting during our Ash Wednesday service. As a parent of four kids, I just didn’t want to admit to myself that this had happened again. But as I read the names and ages of the victims this week, grief and anger washed over me, and I would be derelict in my duties as a pastor if I failed to say something about it.

Honestly, I’m a little anxious. While pastors are called by God to teach people how to apply the values of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life, many of us are reluctant to speak out when shootings happen because the surrounding issues are so politicized. Nevertheless, being a leader entails a willingness to speak from the heart, letting the chips fall where they may. This is especially true for pastors who follow a Jewish rabbi that was crucified by religious and political leaders for speaking truth to power.

I want to begin by honestly acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. Although I have extensive training in interpreting the gospel and applying it to Christian life, I’m not infallible. I can only speak the truth as I understand it, humbly acknowledging that my perspective has limits and blind spots, just like yours. Second, I must admit that I sometimes fail to practice what I preach. I’ve encountered people with different opinions and reacted in ways that fall short of the ideals I long to espouse. However, if the precondition for casting moral vision is moral perfection, we are all in serious trouble!

The Problem: Everything is Politicized and Polarized

From my perspective, the biggest problem we face today is the inability to talk to each other and collaborate to solve our most urgent problems. Everything has been politicized and polarized.

Some of our most influential leaders are professional politicians, and their jobs largely depend on two things: pleasing their financial donors and maintaining the support of their political base. To protect these things, some sacrifice their own personal identity for their tribe. Both political parties develop their platform, which is the framework for thinking, speaking, and problem solving. Staying within this framework is a sign of loyalty, and loyalty to the tribe promises funding and political protection.

The boundaries of this framework are clearly delineated by professional speech writers, who carefully craft talking points on every issue that could potentially alienate the political base or financial donors. When engaged in public discourse, politicians often protect themselves by parroting these talking points over, and over, and over again. It’s rare when a politician finds the courage to deviate from the party line and speak from their heart, and when they do it often results in marginalization and political attack. In this way, heart to heart conversations and collaborative problem solving are actively discouraged.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not the only ones who have this problem. The Bible says that human beings are fallen creatures, and one implication is our penchant for tribalism. Instead of embracing God’s vision of unity, peace, love, cooperation, and community, we try to secure ourselves by forming exclusive associations with people who look, think, believe, and act like us. Instead of crossing dividing lines to unify people around a common vision of compassion (which is what Jesus did), we fearfully double-down on those dividing lines to protect ourselves from people who are different. In this context, we tend to gravitate toward black and white thinking in which the world is divided-up into insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies, which gives us a sense of belonging, clarity, and purpose.

Knowing that we all have a penchant toward tribalism, politicians on both sides leverage this to their political advantage. They welcome us into their tribe and, working through their spokespersons on cable news networks, train us how to properly respond to any given issue. Again, being a valued member of the tribe means staying within the boundaries of the party platform and repeating the approved talking points. Arming ourselves with memorized soundbites and treating those who disagree as enemies to be defeated plays right into our sinful nature.

All of this comes together to create a hostile environment in which everything is politicized and polarized. The name of the game is divide and conquer, and winner takes all. Conceding anything to the other side, even the smallest point in an argument, is a cardinal sin punishable by exclusion.

Tragically, when we can’t talk to each other, we start thinking that there are no solutions to our problems, which tempts us to capitulate to the status quo—even when the status quo involves repetitive and increasing violence. Since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, when Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders and 6 adults, there have been 239 school shootings in the US, which resulted in 438 wounded and 138 killed. So, the most recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, is simply one of many school shootings. In fact, studies show that going back to January 2014 there have been an average of five school shootings per month. (Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018)

Working Toward Solutions

As complicated as this issue might be, we cannot accept this as the new normal, and the very suggestion that there is nothing we can do about it should make us all mad as hell. There are things we can do, and to throw our hands in the air as helpless victims is nothing short of sin. We can and must act. As an American, as a Christian, as a parent, as a human being with a conscience, I believe that we should do everything in our power to curtail this madness. And while we cannot place all responsibility on the shoulders of our elected officials, they do have an important role to play as law makers. Everyone agrees, even Libertarians, that the most important job of government is to protect its citizens, and if our elected officials are not willing or able to set aside tribal politics to better protect our kids from gun violence, then we should throw them out of office and elect principled leaders who will.

Many argue that passing more restrictive gun laws will not eradicate school shootings. Pivoting away from the public policy debate, they say that gun violence is a “heart problem.” Since parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children good morals, the solution is for parents to raise healthy and responsible kids.

There is some truth in this argument. Christians believe that children are a gift from God, and part of our responsibility as parents is to teach our kids about love, compassion, and respect for all people, including those who are rejected, outcast, or ostracized. We should teach them how to identify and process painful emotions like rejection, loneliness, grief, and disappointment. We should have ongoing conversations with our kids about bullying and conflict resolution and cultivate trust in the family so kids feel safe asking questions and sharing what’s on their mind. We should be attentive to red flags in their mood and behavior, which means limiting their privacy. We need to know their friends and the parents of their friends. We need to know what they’re doing on their electronic devices: what apps they are using; what they’re texting, snapchatting, and instant messaging; what they are posting on social media sites; what videos they are watching, songs they are listening to, and video games they are playing. Do any of these things normalize, encourage, or glorify violence and killing? Do any of these things violate our Christian values? If so, we have a responsibility to restrict their access and talk to them about our values. Parents also need to recognize signs of abuse, mental illness, and emotional trauma, getting their kids professional help when needed. And parents are wise to surround their kids with other spiritually and emotionally healthy adults who can have a positive influence.

However, simply focusing on better parenting will not solve the problem. We also need to make changes in our education system. Those who spend the most time with kids other than their parents are teachers. Since many school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed students (or former students), part of the solution will involve shifting our priorities in public education and better resourcing our teachers and schools. Many educators will tell us that the state has become so focused on standardized testing that they have little if any time to teach the kids anything other than what’s anticipated on the next test. But teachers need time for other important things.

They need time to share best practices on how to recognize signs of isolation, bullying, grief, anger, and mental illness in their students. They need smaller class-sizes, so they can get to know their students on a more personal level and better spot red flags. All schools need an efficient referral system and enough school psychologists on staff to triage and assess troubled students. Schools need resources and opportunities for effective bullying prevention programs, diversity training, conflict resolution, and character development. I also think that every middle-school and high school should have a resource officer on campus to deal with more serious problems.

But even this is not enough. Whether we like it or not, there are important public policy concerns regarding mass shootings.

Take for example mental health. Everyone agrees that when we see something we should say something. When someone notices a child exhibiting strange behavior or signs of abuse, trauma, or mental illness, they should try to get that child help. But counseling and therapy are not free. So, if we are going to talk about treating mentally ill or troubled children, then we must also talk about healthcare. It makes no sense to say, “Mental illness is a big part of the problem,” if mentally ill people don’t have access to treatment. It makes no sense for parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults to look for red flags, unless the family of the child can afford to get them help. So part of the solution is to make sure that every child in our country has access to behavioral health services (which means talking about health insurance). No child in this country who is struggling mentally or emotionally should be excluded from treatment because of money.

Finally, we must find ways to put aside our tribal politics so we can have rational discussions about improving our gun laws to curtail gun violence. I hesitate to even say “gun control” because most people assume they know exactly what the phrase means and compulsively start parroting the prescribed talking points of their political party. But when we resist this knee jerk reaction and create space for genuine dialogue, we see a broad range of agreement in our country about specific policy changes that would help reduce mass shootings. Recent studies show that almost 90% of both Republicans and Democrats agree that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns. Over 80% of both parties agree that people who are on no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists should not be able to buy guns. Almost 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree on universal background checks (which would include closing the loopholes in personal and gun show sales), and a large majority of Americans agree on banning assault rifles and outlawing bump stocks. Still others agree we should limit the size of magazines and clips. (Ryan Struyk, “Here Are the Gun Control Policies That Majorities in Both Parties Support,” CNN, Updated November 6, 2017.) With these broad agreements between a clear majority of Americans, we should be able to revise our gun laws to make it more difficult for bad people to get guns and commit mass murder.

Are gun laws a panacea? No. Will stricter gun control prevent all gun violence? No. But this is no reason to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, then, there’s nothing law makers can do about it!” That’s like saying, “If I can’t lose 50 pounds on my diet by tomorrow then what’s the point in trying to lose weight?” There are things our lawmakers can do to help to help reduce the death toll and they have a moral responsibility to do so.

As you can see, people on both sides have part of the solution, but these parts by themselves are not adequate for lasting change. We need people on both sides of the political aisle to bring their part of the solution so we can put all the pieces together for comprehensive reform. However, this will not be possible if money and tribalism render us morally bankrupt and destroy the possibility of collaboration.

 What About God?

While all the things mentioned above are important for addressing gun violence in America, there will be no lasting solutions with God. Human beings are not only physical and mental creatures, we are also spiritual beings. We are created in the image of God, and God desires an intimate relationship with each of us. It’s through this personal relationship with the divine that we find forgiveness and the overcoming of guilt; reconciliation and the overcoming of estrangement; joy and the overcoming of despair; peace and the overcoming of anxiety; unity and the overcoming of tribalism. It’s where we find healing and gain our true purpose in life beyond politics. It is where we learn how to love ourselves and others the way that God loves us. It is where we learn the true meaning of community and how to talk to each other and resolve conflict in healthy ways. It’s where the sacraments of baptism and communion erase all dividing lines and unite us under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The church has an important role to play by creating communities of belonging, love, compassion, justice, and peace. Many people who perpetrate acts of violence feel misunderstood, isolated, and outcast. They don’t believe that anyone cares about them or that their voice really matters. If the church will create communities of love where people feel genuinely accepted and heard, a place where they can honestly share what’s on the hearts and minds, without judgment or ridicule, then it can play a unique role in healing some of the pain that drives people to kill. When considering school shootings, this is particularly true for our children and youth programs.

Going even further in this regard, the church could help by refocusing on the teachings of Jesus regarding compassion for the lonely, outcast, and rejected. Jesus calls his disciples to reach out in love to these people and offer good news of forgiveness, healing, love, and friendship.

Finally, as United Methodist Bishop, Ken Carter, suggests, we can repent from our participation in a culture of death, grieve with those who are suffering, and pray for the families of the victims. But as important as it is to repent, grieve, and pray, we must not neglect to act. For Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, we must act.

Call to Action

Bishop Carter is inviting all United Methodists to write letters to our government officials, state and national, to insist that they prioritize the safety of our children amidst repetitive and escalating violence. You can find their names and contact information online by doing a Google search for “Florida Elected Officials.” If members will write letters and place them in addressed envelopes, our churches will cover the cost of postage and put them in the mail. The Bishop’s vision is for United Methodist Churches across the state of Florida to collect and send 5000 letters.

(Access the sermon on YouTube and iTunes)

Further Reading:

Bishop Ken Carter’s statement on Florida school shootings.

United Methodist Book of Resolutions, “Our Call the End Gun Violence.”

Pastor Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

Surfing, Yoga, Discipleship

Being an older surfer in Cocoa Beach can be challenging. While we sometimes get good swells, we also suffer through days, even weeks, when it’s flat. This means that you can’t rely on surfing alone to stay in good surfing shape.

Although I enjoy playing sports, I’ve never enjoyed exercising. I’ve tried weightlifting, jogging, and even “surfing workouts” in the gym, but eventually I lose interest and stop. When a good swell rolls through, I struggle to find my rhythm in the water because I’m out of shape. Winded paddling out, slow to pop-up, and sore to the bone after a two-hour session, I tell myself, “You’ve got to get back in the gym.”

Not too long ago, I remembered a conversation with an older surfer at The Longboard House. He said that, after turning forty, the best thing he did to improve his surfing was take-up yoga. While I tried yoga in college, it didn’t stick. But now I needed to do something to stay in shape between swells, and it seemed better than repping-out squats next to a guy flexing in a mirror while drinking water out of a gallon jug. So I started going to Infinity Yoga with my friend, Dan.

My initial logic was simple: Dan does yoga, and Dan rips. Maybe if I do yoga, I will rip too.

While I’m not as consistent in my practice as I want to be, I’m doing yoga more often and experiencing some real benefits, both physical and spiritual.

Before going to class today, I read Psalm 106:1-5 during morning prayer, which led me to meditate on mercy. When I got to yoga, the instructor (as usual) led us through some deep breathing, reminded us of the importance of remaining open and compassionate, and invited us to “set an intention” for the class. After silently saying the Jesus prayer in cadence with my breathing, I set my intention on what I had already been pondering, mercy.

As in all meditation, the mind wanders. In the middle of class, when twisted in a challenging pose, the instructor, Martha, said, “Notice in your body what feels good, and focus on that.” While this initially brought my attention to physical sensations that I would have otherwise missed, it also got me thinking about life. About how we often feel comfort and discomfort at the same time, and how we have a choice about where to focus our attention. It got me thinking about the benefits of to learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions, and how to relax under stress.

My wandering mind came back to the room when Martha reminded us to return to our breathing and refocus on our intention. After a couple of deep breaths, it suddenly struck me, “I’m praying.” In addition to exercising, my time on the mat was turning into an extension of my time with God in morning prayer. It also occurred to me that throughout the class my awareness of others waxed and waned. I noticed an inward and outward movement of attention; a rhythm of going inward to pray alone, followed by a going outward to pray with others. Which led to another realization: yoga is a kind of worship experience.

This was a joyful discovery because, as a pastor, I often feel like my responsibilities for leading weekly services leave me with little time to sink into the presence of God with others in corporate worship. But this is exactly what was happening on the mat today, and it’s exactly what I needed.

At the end of class, the instructor offered positive, loving, and encouraging words. She reminded us that we are full of light and that we should share that light with others. This warmed my heart because light has long been one of my favorite mediation images. While meditating during my devotional time, I often imagine breathing in light until my heart glows and then breathing out light as my whole body is illuminated. (Check out Matthew 5:16.) So the final words at the end of practice felt like one of many little confirmations that I’m on the right path in this season of my life.

What better way to stay in shape than to practice a form of meditative exercise that will not only improve my surfing but also make me a better human being.

Who knows, maybe this is a form of exercise that I will finally stick with, even if it doesn’t make me rip like Dan.

The Burden of Light

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I recently heard these familiar words of Jesus at a clergy retreat, but in a radically new way that continues to gnaw at me.

In the past, when considering this passage, I understood Jesus to be saying, “If you stick with me, I’ll help you with your problems and make life more bearable.” Commentators explain that Jesus may have been referring to a double yoke in which two animals walk side by side, pulling the same load. The analogy seems clear: Jesus walks beside you, helping bear your burdens. This is a comforting message for people feeling burned out and worn down. Most of us need rest, and not just rest for our bodies, but also for our souls.

So, I thought I knew what this passage meant. But God has a way of breaking through familiarity and turning what we think we know upside down. Hear the words again:

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“In the beginning was the Word . . . . in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 4-5)

“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

With a flash of insight, I heard a still small voice, “My burden is being light in a dark world.”

Followers of Jesus bear the burden of light. In a world where people can no longer distinguish the truth from a lie, we are called to honesty. In a world that venerates the arrogant, we are called to humility. In a world that worships the wealthy, we are called to love the poor. In a world where people sell their souls for power, we are called to take up a cross.

And this is exactly why Jesus was killed. Evil empires operate in darkness and Jesus is light. As the powers of this world nailed him to a cross, what they were really saying is, “Turn off that light!”

Not much has changed in this present darkness, and for those trying to follow Jesus as light in a dark world, it can feel like a heavy burden:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves . . . . they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me . . . . you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22)

If we embrace the alternative lifestyle of radical love, we will experience ridicule, rejection, and even abuse.

However, in the presence of Jesus we are promised that this burden will become light.

The burden is light because it’s a way of life characterized by surrender. Instead of constant grasping, striving, and achieving, Jesus says, “Let go.” Let go of control. Let go of expectations. Let go of trying to be good enough. Find ways to relax into the presence of God, to just be—be who you are and where you are, knowing that you are accepted by unconditional love.

This is where we find rest for our souls. This is where the burden is made light. This is where we become light.

But, paradoxically, surrender may be the hardest thing we ever have to do.

Learning to let go, to relax into the presence of God and just be, seems to run contrary to our very nature. The shift from a willful to a willing spirit is the very heart of conversion, and it cannot be accomplished by what often passes for prayer today—words carefully crafted to convince ourselves or others of what we already believe to be true. (Or, even worse, long, syrupy, cliché monologues intended to solicit approval from other churchy people.) No, a true renovation of the heart requires the kind of prayer that goes beyond words, the kind of prayer that helps us awaken to the presence of God, so we can relax into that presence and just be—be ourselves and be with God. A kind of prayer that puts us in touch with our soul, so we can listen in stillness, solitude, and quiet. Indeed, a difficult kind of prayer for frenetic hearts navigating a frenetic world.

So, while Jesus’ yoke might be easy, insofar as he helps us carry our burdens, the burden itself—being light in a dark world—is, paradoxically, heavy and light, hard and easy. And I’m not sure exactly what to do with that right now, except let it continue to gnaw at me.

Why Culture Is More Important Than Programs When Trying to Grow Your Church

If you want your church to grow, you need to focus less on programs and more on culture.

Effective marketing, strategic preaching, and good online ministries can help get people through the door. If newcomers experience warm hospitality and some of their needs are met in worship, they might even stick around for a few months. But if people don’t develop a sense of belonging in the larger community within the first three months of attending, they will likely go looking somewhere else. Most people crave life-giving friendships in a genuine community of love, and this is the main reason why people stay at a church.

This is why the first part of our mission statement at First UMC Cocoa Beach is so important to me. It reads, “Our mission is to learn and practice the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love . . .” In many churches, first, you are expected to believe certain things. Second, you are expected to behave in certain ways. Third, you finally get to belong, which is typically formalized in official church membership. However, if you are trying to grow your church, these priorities must be reversed. First, you should accept people where they are, so that from the beginning they experience a sense of belonging. Second, you should model how followers of Jesus treat each other when cultivating a community of love. Third, you should offer a lifegiving theology that can sustain and support deep spiritual transformation in the real world.

In growing churches, believe—behave—belong gets switched to belong—behave—believe.

The important point is that if people do not experience a sense of belonging in a community of love, then your odds of keeping them in your church will drastically decrease. And if you can’t keep them around, you will never change their beliefs or behavior.

 Communities of Love

What distinguishes a community of love has everything to do with the way that people treat each other. The New Testament is instructive.

Take for example Colossians 3-4. The author instructs followers of Jesus to die to self (ego), and to resist anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive or critical language (3:8, CEB). He also tells them not to lie to each other (3:9).

After explaining what must be eradicated, the author goes on to say that we should treat each other with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (3:12). Followers of Jesus are called to clothe themselves in love, exercise tolerance, practice forgiveness, and be united in peace (3:13-14). Our attitude should be characterized by gratitude (4:2), our speech should be gracious (4:6), and everything we do should honor Jesus (3:17).

Likewise, the author of 1 Thessalonians says that we should live in peace with one another, respect each other, and build each other up (5:11-12, CEB).

Organizational Culture

How we treat each other over time creates a unique culture. Organizational culture can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is like the water in which fish swim. Healthy culture is like clean water in which wildlife thrive, and unhealthy culture is like toxic water that destroys an ecosystem. Another helpful metaphor is that of eyeglasses. Healthy culture is like a good prescription that helps us see our relationships accurately, and unhealthy culture is like a prescription that distorts how we see ourselves and others.

If we are not intentional about eradicating attitudes and behaviors that destroy loving community, then our church culture will be dysfunctional and toxic. Paul describes the kinds of things that characterize toxic culture: hostility, strife, jealousy, envy, conceit, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and competition (Gal. 5:19-21). However, if we are serious about following Jesus, we can cultivate a healthy culture supportive of communities characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:19-26)

Drawing from passages such as these, we can clearly distinguish between healthy and toxic organizational cultures.

COMMUNITIES OF LOVE COMMUNITIES OF DESTRUCTION
Positive Negative
Hopeful Despairing and Cynical
Optimistic Pessimistic
Joyful Disagreeable
Generous Withholding and Critical
Gracious Demanding
Gentle Harsh
Kind Dismissive or Nasty
Courteous Rude and Crass
Forgiving Unrelenting
Respectful Demeaning
Flexible Rigid
Helpful Obstructive
Compassionate Judgmental
Humble Arrogant
Patient Compulsive and Reactionary
Thankful Unappreciative
Builds-Up Tears-Down
Self-Sacrificial Self-Serving
Open to Feedback Defensive and Blaming
Direct, Respectful Communication Gossip and Backbiting
Peace Conflict and Anger
Unified Divided
Accountability Anything Goes

Who in their right mind would want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the right-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors will run-off every single newcomer who has a modicum of emotional health. This kind of culture literally repels people.

In contrast, who in their right mind would not want to invest in a community characterized by the qualities in the left-hand column? A culture built around these kinds of attitudes and behaviors attracts people, because it creates safe environments where people can learn, grow, and change.

 Leaders as Cultural Architects

So, how do you grow a healthy culture? It starts with your leaders. The number one predictor of organizational culture is the way leaders treat each other and those they serve. If your leaders do not understand and seek to embody attitudes and behaviors that reflect the value system of the Kingdom of God, then you will probably never cultivate a culture in which communities of love can grow and flourish.

Consequently, if you want your church to grow then your number one priority should be discipleship. The pastor, staff, and leaders must seek to follow Jesus daily and be transformed in ways that make them more loving. Remember, you can’t share what you don’t have. If the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are not willing to treat everyone in ways that reflect the teachings of Jesus, your church will not grow. It’s that simple.

This means that a handful of people at the top who are left unaccountable to the gospel can poison your entire culture and keep the church from fulfilling its mission. The reason is because the attitudes and behaviors of your leaders are contagious and will create an invisible but pervasive presence that will either feel emotionally safe or dangerous. The former will attract and the latter will repel.

Since change is difficult, if you are working within an unhealthy culture you will need to do at least three things with your staff and leaders to accomplish lasting change: (1) clearly communicate the attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, (2) put effective accountability systems in place, and (3) regularly and consistently apply these accountability systems until the culture changes and you have the right people in place. (Not to discourage you, but some studies show that creating lasting culture change can take up to seven years.) Leaders must be firm and gracious, remembering that none of us follows Jesus perfectly. However, we should cast God-sized goals for our relationships, and when we fall short of our goal it should lead to repentance and renewed effort.

Culture > Programs / Maturity > Execution of Skill

The upshot of all this, is that churches should focus less on programs and events and more on developing a healthy, loving culture reflective of the values lived and taught by Jesus. In terms of hiring, managing, and disciplining staff, supervisors should focus less on talent and execution of skill and more on attitude, commitment, and spiritual/emotional maturity. This means that the primary job of the pastor is not to be a manager of ministries, but a spiritual leader making disciples that make more disciples. So, the order of importance in evaluating staff and leaders should be: (1) faithfulness in discipleship, (2) commitment to working cooperatively to accomplish the mission of Jesus, and (3) execution of skill and accomplishing mutually agreed upon performance goals.

Accountability Tools:

There are two resources that I have found helpful in discipling staff and leaders when trying to effect cultural change.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheets

Before a one-on-one staff meeting, I require everyone to complete a “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet.” The idea for this kind of worksheet came from Jorge Acevedo’s book, Vital. This is what we use at First UMC Cocoa Beach:

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness Accountability Sheet

Name: _____________________________

Date:   _______

  1. Faithfulness: How is it with your soul? Are you abiding with Jesus?

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).

  • How is your personal devotional life?
  • How have you denied Jesus this week?
  • How have you glorified Jesus this week?
  • How are your most important relationships?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how have you lived into the following biblical values:

______    I have been positive, optimistic, and hopeful

______    I have been flexible and open to feedback

______    I have been gracious, generous, compassionate, and forgiving

______    I have been humble, respectful, kind, and polite

______    I have been joyful, thankful, and content

______    I have directly shared concerns only with appropriate people (no gossip).

______    I ‘m pursuing excellence while being encouraging to those I serve.

______    I’m working cooperatively with others to accomplish the mission of the church.

  1. Fruitfulness: How is it with your ministry? Are you abounding with Jesus?

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

  • Program and Administrative Staff: Where are you in your long-range strategic planning? (You should develop 3, 6, and 12 month SMART goals that will help accomplish the mission of the larger church.)
  • All Staff: What progress have you made in your work plan?
  • What do you need to Stop? Start? Continue?
  • What challenges are you facing and what do you need to be successful in your specific area of ministry?
  • How are you serving, nurturing, discipling, training, developing, and resourcing your volunteers? How are you growing those in your care individually and as a team?
  • How can I hold you accountable for your area of ministry?

 ____________________________________________________________

The day before a meeting, I ask the staff person to spend some time praying and reflecting on the questions outlined in the worksheet, writing-in short responses. At the beginning of our meeting, they give the completed sheets to me and we spend about thirty minutes on each section (totaling one hour). Every three months, I give them feedback on how I think that they are doing, creating change plans where necessary. Honesty is very important in this process.  The supervisor must be willing to initiate difficult conversations, and the leaders must be willing to receive feedback without deflecting or blaming.

Social Covenants

A second tool that is helpful in creating cultural change is the social covenant, which I learned from Rev. David McEntire. After making sure that your leaders understand and embrace the church mission, go away on a retreat and work with them to develop agreements regarding how you will treat each other. Importantly, the pastor should not write a covenant (or borrow one from another church) and impose it on their team. Rather, the pastor leads a discussion using the four questions below, which empowers the leaders to develop something that belongs to them. Ownership is critical if the covenant is going to work.

  1. How does the leader want to be treated by the team?
  2. How does the team want to be treated by the leader?
  3. How are the members of the team going to treat each other?
  4. How is the team going to resolve conflict?

Once adequate brainstorming has happened in a group setting, a couple of people from the team who are skilled writers are delegated to organize, distill, and write a rough draft. The draft is then brought back to the team for final revisions. Once a final draft has been written, all leaders sign it around the margins of the first page, which is then copied and distributed. The first ten minutes of every meeting is used to silently reflect on the covenant and publicly self-rate on a scale of 1-10. No one rates anyone else, and no feedback is given (positive or negative) unless the person sharing explicitly asks for it. If the covenant is not used in this kind of way, it will become a useless piece of paper.

Conclusion

These tools are not perfect, and there are many others you can use. But the main idea is that if you want your church to grow then you must focus on cultivating spiritual and emotional maturity in your leaders. You must help them develop the attitudes and behaviors necessary to create and nurture communities of love. Don’t focus on programs, events, and hiring a superstar staff. Focus on discipleship, spiritual maturity, and cultivating a loving culture that models the values system of the kingdom of God.

Follow the Leader: Learning to Be Led

Have you ever tried to navigate a busy airport with two little kids?

Last Saturday, my middle son, Jackson, was flying into Tampa International Airport to visit for spring break. My two youngest children, Evie (4) and Isaac (6), were so excited to see him, so I invited them to come along to pick him up. Their eyes lit-up over the breakfast table as the chorus rang out, “Yaaaaaay!”

After getting everyone dressed and kissing mom goodbye, we piled into the car and set- out for the airport. I listened to a podcast of one of my favorite preachers, and the kids watched Teen Titians Go on the small screens mounted to the seatbacks in front of them. After about an hour (or “Three Teen Titians episodes” in kid talk) we arrived at the airport. The elevators from the parking garage to the ticketing counter opened to a zoo!

The kids’ eyes grew as wide as baseballs. With all the people and decorations, Evie and Isaac thought they had just entered an amusement park. There were so many novel sights and sounds competing for their attention, so many new places to explore and things to experience. In order to keep us all together, I instructed the kids to hold hands, forming a three-person chain, with Evie in the middle. Then I said, “Stay close together and follow me.”

I should have known better! Isaac was so enthralled by everything swirling around him that he kept stepping out in front in attempts to pull the chain toward things he wanted to investigate.

I tried to turn us to the left, but Isaac pulled straight ahead . . .

“Isaac, you can’t lead, you have to follow me.”

“But I want to ride that” (pointing to the escalator).

“We can ride that later, but we have to get a ticket first.”

“Awwwww!”

As huge spaces with bright decorations opened in front of us, masses of people were moving in sync toward the ticketing counter. After one glimpse, I thought, “We will never make it through that line and get to the gate in time.” I learned a long time ago that you can skip the inside line and get an unaccompanied mirror pass at the curbside check-in. As I started walking toward the sliding glass doors that led outside, Isaac started pulling us in the direction of the crowd where the long line was forming.

“Isaac, you can’t lead, you have to follow me.”

As we stepped outside, the hustle and bustle became more chaotic as everyone crowded together on a narrow sidewalk. Once again, Isaac began to step out front in attempts to lead the way.

After saying repeatedly, “Isaac, you can’t lead right now, you have to follow me,” I finally pulled him aside, got down on one knee, and explained.

“Isaac, you have never been to this airport before and you don’t know where you are going. I have done this many times. I know where we are going and all the steps we have to take to get there. So if you want to see Jackson when he walks off the plane, I need you to follow me. Ok?”

“Ok.”

Once Isaac stopped trying to lead, we were able to get a pass, ride the escalator (a first for the kids), speed airside on the monorail, clear security, and walk to the gate before Jackson arrived. When he disembarked, the kids ran over to hug him and were filled with joy. Big brother is here! Mission accomplished.

Kids at Airport

Imagine how things would have been different if I had allowed Isaac to lead? There is no telling where we would have ended-up! All of this got me thinking about how often we step out in front of God and insist on leading our own lives. Shiny, exciting, and enticing things swirl around us, and we compulsively move in the direction of whatever happens to capture our attention. Often, we have no idea where we are going or what moving in that direction might do to us. Crowds of people surge in a particular direction and we get caught-up in the stream.

How often does God say, “You can’t lead right now, you have to follow me.” How often do we ignore this voice? How many of us have become deaf to this voice? The truth is, God knows where he’s going and what steps have to be taken to get there, and if we want to go where God is going then we have to follow. We have to resist the compulsion to step-out in front, to take charge, and to blaze our own trail. If we fail to do this, then there is no telling where we will end-up. In my own personal experience, it is usually not a very good place. We have to resist the compulsion to pursue everything that elicits our desire. We have to learn to stop, listen, discern, reflect, and follow.

One day Isaac will be a great leader. It’s in his DNA. But for now he has to listen, watch, and follow until he learns the ropes and knows where he is going. This applies to all of us. God intends to make us leaders, but before we can lead others we have to learn to be led.

If you like this post, then you might also like: “Meditating in the Presence of a Three Year Old.” 

The Death of a Pastor-Centered Church

Some churches assume that they pay their pastor to do all of the ministry. He (or she) is the employee and they are the paying customers. Performance is measured according to how the pastor is effectively meeting the expectations, needs, and demands of the membership. In this way, a church becomes pastor-centered and inwardly focused. It gets stuck in codependent caretaking and chronic people-pleasing, losing sight of its real mission: to make new and better disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Once the pastor loses the ability or desire to keep doing the vast majority of the ministry, the church stagnates, declines, and (if there isn’t a significant change in course) eventually dies.

To avoid this trap, both the pastor and the people must stop seeing the church as a place where paid staff offer a variety of free social and civic services, and start seeing it as a base of strategic mission that serves at the pleasure of Jesus Christ. The required shift is from a consumer mentality to a producer mentality. The central question is not, “What can the pastor or church do for me?” but “How can I serve the mission of Jesus Christ through the shared ministries of the church?” One of the most effective ways of creating this cultural shift is by emphasizing the importance of every member getting involved in shared ministry through small groups.

Small groups can be a powerful antidote to the slow drift into pastor-centeredness. Once this important shift happens, the people will start to understand that the vitality, growth, and longevity of a church does not rest squarely on the pastor’s performance, but on the people taking ownership of the mission that Jesus gives us to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

This message will encourage pastors of smaller churches on the brink of burn-out. It will also light a fire in the heart of the laity to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth and to start seeing themselves as ministers of the gospel!

This is message 5 in my most series, Wiser Together: The Gift of Christian Friendship. The other messages, which can be accessed on my YouTube channel, are as follows:

  1. Walking with the Wise: The Importance of Friendship
  2. Giving and Receiving Good Advice
  3. Friends as a Catalyst for Transformation
  4. Sharing from the Heart: Creating Safe Spaces