Whereas Real Love Happens in the Middle of the Storms

Last weekend, I had the privilege of a fun evening with a family in our church, where we took advantage of their new Karaoke Channel on Uverse. Unfortunately, my “privilege” was everyone else’s pain. I definitely have a chorus voice

My old friend and I turned back to a song from that oh-so-classic 80s group, New Edition (feel free to pause your reading for a laugh). Yes, we selected the timeless classic, “Can You Stand the Rain?” Please forgive the excessive 80s references here and take note of these lyrics:

Sunny days,

Everybody loves them,

But tell me baby,

Can you stand the rain?

Okay, so it’s a cheesy 80s pop/r&b song. And it’s a lot more Bobby Brown than U2 (if you don’t know who Bobby Brown is, then you may be too young to read blogs. And if you don’t know U2, get to Google ASAP). In spite of my inability to find a musical point of reference beyond 1989, those lyrics struck a strange theological chord in me.

Churches thrive on telling people what a loving group of people they are. Quite often, this might be true…IF things are going well. What happens when the storms come and it’s pouring down rain? How much do we love one another when the challenges of being a 21st Century church are pouring onto our hearts and minds?

Is our love strong enough to move us when we are called to love others as we love ourselves?

If you walk into most churches on a Sunday, you will encounter people who love one another. Oh, they may not love YOU right away (at least not until you fill out a visitor card), but they will exchange conversation and prayers and hugs and Christian concern. Our family attends a church where an outpouring of love is obvious.

But how much do we love others when we get down to the hard work of making decisions and discerning what the Lord wants us to do, and the very hard work of being Christian?

It’s very easy to talk the language of faith, love, unity and diversity. What happens when we are called to put those values into practice tells the truth about who we are and how real our love is, both for Christ and one another.

Faithfulness is simple when it only demands a couple of hours of our Sunday. As long as we don’t change the music too much and the preacher keeps us ahead of the Methodists at the buffet, we can keep that loving, caring atmosphere. We can love everybody, as long as most everybody looks like we do.

What happens when He says, “Pick up your cross and follow me?” Or give up our earthly wealth? Or wash the feet of others? And yes, Jesus commands all of that in the Bible, so take it up with him if it’s a problem.

FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE is a calling that pierces our heart. Can we–WILL we–continue to love even as we are called to be and do more in Christ?

Here’s the thing: Christians all over this country are facing crucial decisions about the future of the church. We are learning that Christianity is dirty and messy and difficult. The future of church demands the hard work of discipleship.

We are called to decide if we’re willing to put in the hard work of being disciples. And the only guaranteed “Return on Investment” is that things are going to look very different from the church we once knew.

We are now dealing with the fact that we cannot sustain our big, beautiful church buildings, much less utilize them to further the Kingdom of God. We can’t drive from our safe, suburban sanctuaries down to the inner city to get a dose of diversity, or wait until our summer mission trip to encounter people of color or the struggle of poverty.

Diversity is now sitting on our doorstep, and joining us in the pews. We are being called to engage with people who are not like us, and loving them just as we love one another in Christ.

We can choose to close our hearts and close our doors, protecting our particular brand of love just for those that we select. Or we can realize that Christianity was never supposed to be easy or white or managed or controlled. We can let Christ lead us to love even when the path He shows us is littered with challenges.

Please do not take this as some arrogant, self-righteous rant. There are days when I am chomping at the bit to race towards this new kind of Christianity. Then there are days when I encounter people and problems that make me say, “Really? This again?” I have plenty of times when I long to simply preach and teach and visit and love on people without the challenge of letting Christ radically change my heart.

 But those days are gone. The true test of our love for one another is our willingness to seek the way of the Lord and the leadership of the Spirit beyond ourselves. ANY church that will do this has a chance to continue a legacy of faithful ministry. If we close our doors and our hearts, the Holy Spirit will move past us.

There is one singular hope for the church in the midst of this identity crisis. You know what it is before I even say it, and it may even come across as a corny cliché. But the unity of spirit is only possible with a singular focus on the Living Christ.

We are being called to decide if we love the Lord enough to love one another as we are called to abandon our personal comfort zone of what church is supposed to be. And we must ask ourselves: If we can only love when there is no challenge, is it really Christ’s love that brought us together in the first place?

The true test of our faith is the ability to keep our heart focused and unified in Christ even when the waters are the roughest. Or, in the cheesy words of New Edition: Can we stand the rain?

Ostrich Chronicles: What You DON’T Know about the Pastor

A couple of months ago, I read some really interesting articles about the nature of being a pastor, and what many in the congregation would like to see or hear from their pastor.  It had some really valid points, and I think that author Rachel Held Evans would legitimately like to hear those things from a pastor.

In an effort to see the other side–as she usually does–she posted some comments from pastors Eric Atcheson and Jeremy Serrano about what pastors would like to hear from the CONGREGATION.

Numerous times, I’ve re-read and considered the posts and the comments below them. This has led me to give some heavy thought to this:  What is your pastor thinking and not telling you?

Pastors would love to be more genuine:  What makes Evans’ perspective so refreshing, and at the same time naïve, is that she’s advocating what some people want. Evans advocates genuineness, honesty, transparency and “real” from the pastor.

But genuineness and openness are often scary and intimidating, and not everyone wants that. Some want the pastor to have on her or his “Preacher Costume” all the time. It’s tough to be genuine when you have to minister to Aunt Bessie, who isn’t used to seeing the pastor at the hospital without a coat and tie, as well as to those ever-elusive Millenials.

Speaking of Aunt Bessie…

You can’t “cherry-pick” your congregationHere’s the thing:  When you’re dealing with a congregation, you are called to deal with ALL of the congregation.

Hey, we GET it. Things need to change. We need to do it different. We need fresh ideas. But remember that you called us to minister to Aunt Bessie and Uncle Odell, not just Bessie and Odell’s grandchildren who left the church five years ago.

And let us never forget that Jesus loves Aunt Bessie and Uncle Odell; therefore, we are called to minister to them, not just work around them. Their faithfulness and perspective deserves as much consideration as anyone else.

We might be as smart as Rick WarrenNothing is more frustrating to a pastor than someone coming up to say, “You know, I read this” or “I heard that” or “Pastor Y said this in his sermon last week”. ESPECIALLY when the pastor has been preaching the same thing since last April.

It may also help to keep in mind that “Pastor Y” is at a 15,000-member church in a huge city in Southern California, not a 100-member church in a small town or a rural area. Some general principles may apply, but it’s not exactly apples-to-apples.

Something else occurs to me about a lot of these voices from “outside the box”: They left. They may have had good reasons to leave, but they still left. They decided to consult or write or speak. We’re still here. Why is it that our voice is sometimes the last one to be heard?

Please don’t stop reading or listening, but hear your pastor as well as your favorite blogger.

Our families and livelihoood ARE at stakeTechnically, we don’t work for you. But you do pay our salary. I’d love to be noble enough to say that doesn’t matter, but the stack of bills on our counter says otherwise. Pardon me if I think before I speak when some of these things are on the line.

Most of us do our dead-level best to speak the truth as the Holy Spirit leads, but we also don’t have the resources to just “run over” people without regard to their spiritual health or our personal well-being.

We lose sleep over youWe don’t always get all the tasks accomplished, but believe me when I tell you that we toss and turn thinking about you. We agonize over what’s happening at church, what needs to happen, and how the Spirit is leading us to facilitate it. There is rarely a moment when you and/or the church are not on our mind.

We need friendsBeing a pastor is extremely lonely. No matter how nice and loving the congregation is, pastors often feel alone. And hanging out with other pastors—who have the same problems, gripes and complaints as me—is not the only solution.

While I’ve served in many churches, I’ve only pastored two. Both were extremely friendly & loving (can’t imagine what it’s like for pastors who don’t have that).

But the best things they ever did for me? One taught me to hunt, the other invited me to play fantasy football. I’m terrible at both (I almost shot a guy’s four-wheeler once), but both made me feel like I was truly a part of the community. That’s something ALL of us need.

We want YOU to be real, too: I serve at Augusta Heights, a wonderful place with a group of people that I never thought I’d find (and one of the few that is willing to put up with me as pastor).

To say that there is a lack of pretense at our church is an understatement; in fact, sometimes I worry that we’re a little too laid-back! I would also say that this is the exception rather than the rule, and I still sense that we have more work to do to be a truly open community.

Maybe all pastors don’t feel this way, but I think most of us don’t want you to hide your beer in the “Baptist Drawer” when we come by the house. (If you don’t know, that’s where you can cover it up with the fruits and vegetables at the bottom of the fridge—thanks to Kim McMillin for sharing that term with me!).

Just as some of you want us to be real and honest and admit what we don’t know, we want you to do the same. We don’t want you to be afraid to ask questions or disagree with us on a sermon. We’d MUCH prefer that you come to the office and talk to us rather than talking to everyone else about us. If you feel led to walk the aisle and pray, we want to create an environment where you do that without fear of judgment.

Is that kind of genuine humanity and Christianity between a pastor and congregation more difficult? No doubt! As we move forward in this crazy, postmodern world, we may find that such communities are both valuable and necessary. And the Millenials are not the only ones who need it.

10 Fascinating “Facts” about Canada

There have been many times that I’ve been glad to see home, thrilled to be in my own bed and see my kids and just be in my own house.

But the most vivid time is the last time. And that was last night.

After 14 hours of travel time both driving and flying, the combined mission team from Augusta Heights Baptist and Inman FBC hit home about 10:30 last night. And yes, it is good to be home!

This does not reflect at all on the kind of trip that we had. It was outstanding, enlightening, and in many ways fascinating. I’ve listed some “facts” about Canada here–and this is a loose use of that word. These “facts” are from my own observations as much as they are from any stat sheet.

Here are a few of the interesting things about Canada, including their particular “brand” of Christianity:

10.  Canada looks a lot like the United States. It’s not. Looks are a little deceiving. The people and the culture are very different in many ways, particularly in regards to the South.

9.  Canada has a bit of an inferiority complex. It shouldn’t. It’s just fine being what it is.

The people of Ottawa seem to feel inferior because they are not as big as Toronto. The people in Quebec seem to feel inferior because they are French. The people in Canada seem to feel inferior because they are not the United States. Some (not all, but some) felt the need to point out the flaws of America in our presence.

There really is no need for this. Canada is a wonderful place in and of itself, as are those individual locations within the country. This should be more than enough to make Canadian citizens proud.

8. Canadians speak French & English; but in Quebec, they speak ONLY French!  As soon as we crossed into Quebec, everything changed to straight French. French Canadians are still hanging on to some bitterness about being “conquered” by the English. Of course, we never hang on to history in the southern United States, do we???

7. Recycling is a mission: Our northern neighbors aren’t recycling out of mere obligation. It is a way of life for them. I felt pretty weak that I throw some paper and cans in a bin and call that recycling.

Canadians recycle everything, everywhere. Our rooms at Algonquin College had recycle bins. Every trash can in the city was accompanied by recycle bins. The city of Ottawa is now recycling food, napkins, etc. and reselling it as compost.

This is one thing that I would very much like to import from the north. Perhaps we could picket Disney, Wal-Mart and Target to put up recycle bins (hey, they’ve been picketed for everything else already…)

6.  Ottawa is about the size of Charlotte, but the people resemble New York City. The cultural diversity around Ottawa was staggering. It is not at all unusual to see varying nationalities and to hear a variety of languages spoken.

5.  The Canadian church has a lot of diversity:  Well, at least the one that we attended did.

It is often said that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. That’s certainly not the case at Bromley Road Baptist in Ottawa. We encountered many nationalities with many native languages, all worshipping and engaging in fellowship under the same roof.

Congratulations to Bromley Road and other Christians in Canada who have moved beyond some barriers that still hinder the church in America. (If you disagree, check this out:  http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20120730/NEWS/207300323/Crystal-Springs-pastor-Mississippi-church-storm-after-turning-away-black-couple-s-wedding).

Let’s also give credit where credit is due:  Some churches in America are making a serious effort to move beyond such issues. Check out the blog tomorrow for more on that.

4. Canadian churches are also struggling:  Much like American churches, the Christians in Canada are battling to discover what it means to be “church” in a postmodern world.

3. Canadians take Leviticus 19:33-34 to heart:  It says, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Matthew House is a Canadian ministry to refugees from other nations. We helped there every day of our trip. Can you believe that the community around Matthew House voted to host a ministry to refugees over a children’s ministry?

And this is an a supposedly “secular” nation.

2. Homelessness is a worldwide problem:  I wished that we had some homeless bags to hand out in Ottawa. The shelters were very close to the tourist areas, and it was obvious that this problem is much bigger than any nationality.

1. There is excellent work being done by CBF Missionaries in Canada.  We spent our week working with Mark and Kim Wyatt, who have been involved in starting Matthew House branches from Toronto to Montreal. Their method of doing missions and engaging people truly fits the nation where they are called to work and the postmodern generations that they are attempting to reach.

We are fortunate to support Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries with this kind of “clout” in Canada–and thanks to them for offering us a great week!

To learn more about the Matthew House mission and Christianity in Canada, check out these books:

-The Above Ground Railroad:  The Story of Matthew House by Joey Clifton

Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier

Both of these books will soon be available in the church library at Augusta Heights Baptist.