Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Something Else

You can't make this stuff up.  A colleague's church participates in a church softball league.  At risk of making the understatement of the year, I am not athletic.  Sure, I can walk great distances, but that is the extent of my athletic prowess.  Yet, a church softball league ought to be a safe haven...a place where even the likes of me can find a place on the team.  A church softball league ought to be a place where competition is not a significant source of motivation.  A church softball league ought to be a place that welcomes the least of these and gives them a jersey.

My colleague uncovered some uncomfortable truths about the church softball team.  First, a majority of the players were not church members...and, yes, I know that perhaps these lost souls could come to know Jesus by the crack of a bat, but they weren't recruited as a form of evangelism.  They were recruited for their abilities and the 'edge' that they could give the team.  Their "edge" came at the expense of younger church members who were relegated to the bench because "this game is too aggressive."  Really?  If church softball is too aggressive, then please don't call it "church."  "Real World" softball, maybe.  Dog eats dog softball.  Ratrace softball.  Win at all costs softball.  Look out for number one softball.  But, not "church" softball.

This story set something off in me - competition and rivalry are not healthy operating guidelines for the church.  But, how quickly they sink in...and not  just in softball.  We take votes on major decisions - immediately setting up winners and losers.  Some churches vote for church leadership - potential deacons running against each other - setting the stage for hurt feelings.  We have preaching awards, lists of "most influential men or women" in religion, top ten churches in evangelism awards, and numerous opportunities for recognition as the brightest and the best.  Christian leaders keep track of their numbers ("How big is your congregation?" is a frequent pastoral question).  Christian writers track their rankings on Amazon.  We pay attention to those identified as "someone to watch" and we look for leaders who are "going places."

Sometimes, I think that with the mindset of competition and rivalry, the church world could be a reality show - let's shoot for a perfect score every time and let's hope somebody else gets voted off.

But, what if we just stopped?  What if we stopped pursuing the world's trophies?  What if we measured our success by our relationships and not our numbers?  Better  yet, what if we threw away the desire to be "successful" and gave deeper consideration to the desire to be faithful?  What if we started gladly warming the bench and even preferring the bench over rivalry?  What if we recognized competition as a dangerous in the life of faith?  Sure, some people can handle it gracefully, but most of us get too invested in the win.

Or, maybe I'm just projecting my own mid-life crisis on the church!  However, it does seem to me that the call of Christ leads us deeper...not higher.  All of our recognitions and awards and medals can lead us to crave these things and to feel self-satisfied when we achieve them.  These days, Jesus is inviting me to something else - something that does not insist on perfection - something that does insist on cooling my heels and on taking it all in with a glad and generous heart.  Honestly, I don't know exactly what that "something" is.   But, I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve a blue ribbon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ten Years!

On Sunday, I celebrated my tenth anniversary as pastor of Wilson's Mills Christian Church.  The actual anniversary date is May 22, but given that May 22 also kicks off a holiday weekend, we celebrated last Sunday!

I was not prepared to make a speech at our luncheon, but nevertheless, I was called upon to make a few remarks.

This is what I wish I had said.

When I accepted the call to Wilson's Mills Christian Church, I most wanted to be a good preacher.  I had visions of grandeur!  Delivering sermons to a packed sanctuary!  Starting an immediate capital campaign to finance the building of a LARGER sanctuary!  Purchasing additional chairs to accommodate all the students attending Bible studies!  Writing books and being featured on Oprah!  Writing a blog that would have worldwide impact!  Publishing articles in Christian Century!  I wanted to be a leader - a fresh, young voice in Christianity.

Well,..when I recently purchased reading glasses, I realized my dream of being a fresh YOUNG voice was gone!  But, I am also realizing that my dreams of grandeur were nothing more than buy-in to the definition of success with which the world tries to seduce me.  Go big!  Bigger congregation! Bigger classes!  Bigger influence!  Bigger budget!

But, that's not what I want at all.  I don't want my ministry to be defined by numbers.  I don't want to be motivated by numbers.  I don't want my passion for ministry to be driven by a desire to have more members than the church down the street.  In other words, I don't want what I'm used to wanting - the A+ and the bonus points for excellence.

The truth is that I do love to preach.  I love putting words together and bringing a biblical story to life in 2015.  The truth is I like to teach spiritual formation.  I love experiencing different approaches to prayer on retreats and in groups.  I do like being a preacher and teacher.  But, striving for perfection in those areas is dangerous territory for me because it tempts me to assess how well my ministry reflects me instead of how well it reflects (albeit imperfectly)  God.

The truth is that the part of ministry that most fulfills me is the part that can't be measured and quantified.  Fulfillment comes in those moments that most scare me - those moments that the congregation has entrusted to me in their vulnerability...at the time birth when new life is welcomed into the world.  At the time of marriage when lifelong vows are made in front of God.  At the time of death when words may fail but the Holy Spirit does not.  Those are the moments when I pray the deepest, "Thank you, God."  Of course, the "thank you" only comes after a desperate "Help me!"

All of that to say that my ideas of ministry have changed so much in the last ten years.  Today, I am grateful to be in this church that we affectionately refer to as "small but mighty."  I am grateful to serve in a congregation that knows me well enough to appreciate my affinity for pandas.  I am grateful to be not a fresh young voice in the world of Christianity but a welcoming voice in our neighborhood.  I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue faithfulness instead of chasing after high marks.  I am grateful for another day to live this unique life God has given to me.

Here's to the next decade....whatever it may bring.