I Am Not Exceptional

I've noticed a trend with a lot of nonfiction books.  I'm talking about the ones that are considered resource books for your particular field, be it business, church leadership, sports, etc.  Have you ever noticed what most of them do?  The author will relate these fascinating (but possibly exaggerated) true stories of success, and then from those stories and observations the author will put forth a model or framework that all of us should adopt in order to be successful as well.  The trouble is, these fascinating stories are in fact the exceptions to the rule.  Within these success stories, there is often an unacknowledged complex web of circumstances that came together to make it happen.  So you can take these fascinating exceptions in life and create a model or framework around them and you can become a published author. But we your readers are likely just going to come away more frustrated.  Why?  Because we're in the majority.  We're somewhere in that big, fat lump of the bell curve, and we don't measure up to the exceptional.   And if you're in the "religion business" like me, it's even worse.  The authors in my field do the same thing with these exceptions to the rule but then imply that God is more powerfully at work in their setting, making the rest of us feel like spiritual failures.

I most recently encountered this in a book called Walk Out, Walk On by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.  I have to say it was a very interesting read.  It communicates, in narrative form, concepts found in another influential book I've read called Cultivating Communities of Practice. The authors of Walk Out, Walk On write about their journeys to communities around the world - in places like Zimbabwe, India, and Mexico - and their experience with communities that are breaking the mold and finding very creative, group-based solutions to problems without the help of imperialistic, bureaucratic solutions from the West. These people have "walked out" of the systems that aren't working and have "walked on" to help create their own future and solutions. The book contains actual pictures of the places/people the authors encountered. The point of the book is that these kinds of community-based, creative solutions come about organically and are not imposed or transplanted. The authors spend a good portion of the book criticizing the West for being a know-it-all and importing solutions into other countries and communities that have ended up causing more harm (e.g., the Green Revolution). Their point is argued convincingly, albeit condescendingly, and I totally agree that we in the West are often very arrogant that our way is the best way and that we fail to take context into account.  But the authors seem to miss the point that the communities about which they write represent the exceptions; a tiny minority. They relate these stories and then create a whole new, over-arching model or framework for the rest of us to follow from these exceptions. In this case, the authors witness these fascinating, community-based solutions in different spots of the world, and then conclude that every community can be just as innovative. Look at what these people did!  But the vast majority of communities have NOT come up with their own solutions nor do they always seem motivated or able to do so.

It's the same thing when I read about something a pastor did in his or her (but usually "his") church that got them growing like weeds, and he or she writes a book that is supposed to "encourage" other pastors.  It doesn't.  It promulgates this idea that we can all be exceptional, that we will all come up with some earth-shattering idea or strategy.  I doubt I will.  The odds are against me.  I fall somewhere in the large hump of the bell curve.  Pastor and blogger Morgan Guyton touched on this very honestly and eloquently in an August 21 blog post:
"I enjoy everything about being a pastor except the pressure to be 'successful'...I love sitting down with people one-on-one to talk about their lives and their questions about God. I love the challenge of wrestling with God’s mysteries and sharing the epiphanies God reveals to me when I preach. I love the entrepreneurial process of spinning out new ministries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But I feel like a failure because those damn numbers won’t go up no matter how many cards I send out to people, no matter how many times I 'like' their Facebook photos, no matter how many 'I’m not calling to nag about your coming back to church; just to see how you’re doing' phone calls that I make."
That's why I like the Bible - we try to idealize its people and stories, but they're all very messy - the way they're supposed to be if they're true.  And In many different ways, the writers of the Bible try to tell all of us that being exceptional in God's sight has nothing to do with being on the far end of the bell curve.  God has gifted each of us to do certain things.  And even that doesn't mean that we're going to be "exceptional" or revered for the gifts we have.  It merely means that all of us are going to be passionate about something.  Not the best at it, but passionate about it.  God implanted in all of us a drum to which we march, a default to which we return, something that makes us tick.  In religious circles we use the phrase "spiritual gifts."  The apostle Paul mentions them on several occasions.  In the following passage from Romans 12, Paul gently puts us in our place and then tells us to 'get out there and use our gifts!'
"For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:3-8)
These spiritual gifts, Paul reminds us, are not just given to us willy-nilly with no particular purpose in mind, but are meant to be used in service to God and others (Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 14:12, Rom 14:19)

That same Paul, human just like the rest of us, expresses his vulnerability and feelings of inferiority in a very interesting way near the end of his second letter to the Corinthians.  The people of that church had apparently come to admire and shift allegiance to a group of "super apostles" (as Paul derogatorily calls them) who were much more charismatic and better at public speaking than Paul was.  Paul brings out in the open what some are saying about him:  "For some say, 'His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.'” (2 Corinthians 10:10).  These "super apostles" were apparently doing some effective one-upmanship on Paul in the eyes of the people.  Maybe they had more converts.  Maybe they were rich.  Maybe they had planted more churches.  Clearly they were skilled in areas that endeared them to the church at Corinth.  Paul is clearly self-conscious, and though he recognizes that he shouldn't stoop to their level and boast about himself, he submits to the urge and does so anyway:
"Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.  Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again." (2 Cor 11:21-23).
This is where Paul mentions his "thorn in the flesh" (scholars still debate what this was referring to) and says that he had asked God to take it away.  The answer he felt from God is a well-known verse:  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9).  Paul comes to a place of acknowledging that even one's weaknesses - areas in which we are not gifted - can be seen as a gift from God, an opportunity for God's glory to be revealed:  "That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor 12:10).

Perhaps the problem is that we forget that we're not the ones doing this.  We forget that we are not the movers and shakers but that we are like clay in the potter's hands (Jer 18:1-6), mere vessels used by God for His work (2 Cor 4:7).  I'm reminded of something that Warren Wiersbe wrote in his little book On Being a Servant of God.  It has stuck with me ever since I first heard it in college.  "The trouble with too many of us is that we think God called us to be manufacturers when He really called us to be distributors.  He alone has the resources to meet human needs; all we can do is receive His riches and share them with others" (p.5).

So, am I exceptional?  It depends on what you mean.  I buckle under the pressure to "succeed," always be innovative, or stay ahead of the curve.  But I am "fearfully and wonderfully made."  (Psalm 139:14).


How to Encourage a Young Pastor

I have been blessed, not only as a full-time pastor but for most of life so far, to have had many compliments and encouraging remarks from adults I look up to.  Much of the credit for my self-confidence and my clarity about my calling is owed to all of those who have encouraged me.  Even though full-time ministry has its challenges and is not for the faint of heart, I currently serve a congregation full of awesome people who never hesitate to tell me how much I am appreciated and what I have done well.  Not only does it continually help me clarify where my gifts are and where to focus, but it also just plain feels good!  I don't remember to return the favor often enough.

But every once in a while, mixed in with those compliments and affirmations are comments that may be meant as an encouragement but are a little disconcerting for a young pastor.  Before I name some of the compliments and affirmations that have meant so much to me as a young and inexperienced pastor, let me first mention those few comments that rub the wrong way and that I would suggest avoiding if you have your own young pastor to help and affirm.

How NOT to Encourage a Young Pastor:
  • "You have a lot of great things ahead of you" or "You're going to go places."  We appreciate the sentiment and know that it means you think we're talented, but we want you to know that we are pouring our heart and soul into our current ministry; we're not just career building.  This comment sometimes makes me wonder if you think I value you and this current setting.  You're not a step on my ladder, and I want you to think we're doing "big things" now, together.
  • "You're getting lots of good experience/practice."  This kind of makes us feel like we're in a lab still getting ready for the "real thing."  What is it we're practicing for?  We know that we're still learning and getting better at what we do, but we also want to feel that you accept us as a real pastor with valuable things to offer, inexperience notwithstanding.  We "practiced" in seminary with our peers, professors, and internship supervisors.  How long until we get to do the real thing?
  • "You're going to have your own church someday."  This is said to young associate pastors on multi-staff churches with senior pastors.  Again, I know it's well-meaning, but this one doesn't work well either. To imply that any pastor has any kind of ownership of the church makes us think that you haven't been listening to our practice sermons. But this is also another that can make us feel like we're in a lab and that we don't "count."
Now on to the good stuff.

How TO Encourage a Young Pastor:
  • "You really encouraged/inspired me (and/or) made me think."  We love knowing that we're having some kind of an effect. To put a cherry on top, tell us why. You may actually find that I will follow this compliment up by asking "Why?" or "How so?" The times I've felt like a million bucks is when someone calls, emails, or comes to the office and tells me something specific and concrete that I have taught them or encouraged them to do. It doesn't happen often.  I'm not going to complain about the generic "good job" comment, but I love knowing what lasting effect it will have.  It's why we're in this business.
  • "I really appreciated the way you..."  Again, specific and concrete is very helpful to us. Tell me what I'm doing right so that I can do more of it. Also, your specific feedback gives me insight into how I'm coming across, and can teach me a lot about myself as well as you.
  • "I disagreed with you because..."  You probably weren't expecting that one, and some of my colleagues dread it. But if you come to me after a sermon, Bible study, or meeting and tell me what you disagreed with and why, you show me that you were listening and give me a chance to respond. Often, you simply misunderstood me and I can clarify. Please, do this instead of taking it to the hallway where I can't do anything about it or learn from you. This goes for any kind of constructive criticism. Pastors worth their salt can take it.  Just avoid doing it in front of others or behind our backs. Come and talk to me one on one, face to face.  I will thank you for it.  (On the way out the door on Sunday morning doesn't count. We pastors call that a "jab" and quickly dismiss it).
Of course, too many compliments aren't good either.  Jordan Easley was probably right when he wrote this to young pastors:
"The scariest thing about experiencing success happens when young pastors start believing the compliments they receive and begin thinking they're more impressive than they really are. If God is blessing your ministry, He's blessing it despite you. Stay humble if you want to continue experiencing His favor, because He makes it pretty clear in 1 Peter 5:5 that he opposes the proud. You don't want that."
So, if you're a layperson reading this, what does this look like in reverse? What are the most helpful ways that a pastor can encourage YOU, and what do we say or do that is unhelpful?


On Grieving, Preaching and Being

Despite my A-game of theology and philosophy, one of the reasons I'm in ministry is because I seek to know how it all translates on the ground.  One of my passions in ministry has to do with funeral times and grieving.  I believe that everyone deserves a well-done funeral.  If there's ever a time that a minister should put in extra hours and effort, it's funeral time. Also, I know that grieving families have needs that are unknown or misunderstood.  They often get a lot of well-meaning but unhelpful messages and gestures from others.  My hope is that the following reflection will connect with you in some meaningful way and provide another lens through which to understand grief - either yours or someone else's.

Today I had the hard experience of attending (not officiating) the funeral of a 3-year-old boy.  It is every parent's nightmare and something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  As Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" began to play and the family was escorted in, the flood that then entered the room was enough to knock me over.  The mother's heart-wrenching sobs, the father's grief-sick face, the siblings' look of bewilderment and fear.  In fact, the entire family looked as if they had just taken 39 lashes and were having to use every ounce of energy they had just to walk on two feet.  Just trying to imagine what they're going through makes me sick to my stomach.

When I attend a funeral at which I'm not officiating, a prayer for the family flashes through my brain as the minister stands up to speak.  Not just because they are grieving and in pain, but also because I've heard too many bad funerals.  Some are drawn out and exhausting.  Some sound like they were purchased from "Funeral Sermons R Us," or at least it's clear that the last person got roughly the same thing.  Others are more or less a 40-60 minute anxiety mitigation session for the minister or others speaking.  I've left some funerals wondering who we were gathered to remember, having heard little about the deceased.  And then, worst of all, some funerals feature a minister with an agenda, a message to preach, and he or she is determined to exploit a family's time of pain and loss for the sermon he or she thinks all these people need to hear.  After all, some of them are in a pew for the first time in a while.

I was relieved.  My prayer for the family was answered.  I didn't know this minister from Adam, but he did a fantastic job.  He offered no empty platitudes and he did not come to preach.  Instead, he gave a powerful and biblical voice to the family's pain.  He affirmed that he cannot begin to imagine what the family is going through.  He quoted from some of the psalms in which the writer screams in anger at God and beats His chest saying, "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1)  'Why, God, why?'  He told the family that their confusion and anger with God is not only understandable but justified (like what Job affirms, Job 10:1-2 for example), and that God is big enough to handle it.  He gave them space to offer whatever emotions they have as a sacrifice of worship at the throne of God.  He told heart-warming and descriptive stories of the deceased boy, enough that I almost felt like I had met him by the time I left.  His prayers did not sound like a speech to or about God but he brought the family with him to God, praying on their behalf, asking God, as the psalmists do, to "look upon their pain" and "be merciful" to them.  His use of scripture was very appropriate.  He read the words of hope from Isaiah about the new heaven and new earth: "Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child..." (Isaiah 65:20).

To my colleagues who think that funerals are a time to preach a revival, give this some thought: if God's best and most effective sermon to us was in the incarnation - when he "took on flesh" - wouldn't your best opportunity be to show some solidarity with these people and be present to them, rather than to your ego or your stock message?  When it comes to be your time, don't you want to be remembered for who YOU are, instead of who the minister is?

After the service, the family and their friends gathered at my church where we had made a room available for them.  As it normally happens, especially with a tragedy like this, the immediate family was flooded with hugs and condolences.  One woman was literally hanging around the mother's neck as she was trying to talk to someone else.  In any case, you couldn't always tell who was having to support and console who.  The mother was overwhelmed with offers to help, hang out, etc.  But there is a tragedy and irony to all of it:  nearly everyone in this crowd will have dispersed and gone back to their normal lives when the pain of this loss hits the family the hardest.  It's how it always happens, and as a pastor I find myself wishing I could change it.  People are flooded at the beginning - at funeral time - when they are often still very numb and have to concentrate on details and logistics.  The real pain of the death of a loved one hits weeks later when you are running out of things to keep you busy, and grieving families often find themselves alone and unconsoled in the stage of deep depression.

As I spoke with the deceased boy's maternal grandfather, he said something that struck me.  "You know, I hear a lot of people utter the words 'it's not fair' when talking about things like a parking ticket or losing a game.  But let me tell you: THIS is not fair."  Indeed.  As people grieve, it's not that they don't need to know the hope and grace of God, but they have to come to it in their own time.  Many well-meaning people try to rush people through their grief, largely because it makes them uncomfortable.  But grief  must run its course, and what many of us don't like to hear is that grieving families must accept the blow and face the pain.  You can delay it (by "keeping busy"), but there's no way around it.  Mini-sermons about how God is with them and that the deceased person is "in a better place" are not helpful if that's not where they are emotionally at the time.  Let them be the first to say it.  One way or another, they will have to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death," (Psalm 23:4) and it's important to hear what that boy's grandfather said:  "It's not fair."  No, it's not.  It sucks.  It's awful and unthinkable.  We must leave room for that to express itself.  I was once the giver of the platitudes myself.  If you've done it too, don't beat yourself up.  I meant well, you meant well, and the family probably knew you meant well.  It's understandable, because what is needed feels too simple but is so powerful - your presence, your loving support, a hug saying "I'm so sorry," and perhaps most importantly, space and a listening ear for whatever they're feeling and wherever they are right now.

Now, at the risk of making you think I was eavesdropping the whole time, I have to share one more overheard conversation.  It was when members of my church who had lost a child themselves went up to the mother to greet her.  There was an immediate look of relief on the mother's face when Annie (names have been changed) told her that she too had lost a child.  The mother said, "Oh my gosh, so you understand.  I keep having people come up to me and say, 'I know how you feel,' but I'm sorry, they don't."   I remember a few years ago talking to Annie's husband George, shortly after the loss of their son Anthony.  I had given him a book called Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff, in which he writes about his own experience of losing a son.  George had thanked me for the book and said that it was very powerful to read.  Without much thought, I simply said, "You're welcome, I hope it has helped."  I'll never forget George's response:  "Nothing helps."

Sometimes people ask me what to do or say for grieving people.  They ask, "What do they want or need?"  Especially in the case of this family who lost a 3-year-old, the answer to that question is simple:  they want him back.  As obvious as that may seem, I think that fact escapes us, and remembering it might help us realize that there is nothing we can say or do to fix it, make things better, or take away the pain.  It can be both demoralizing and empowering to realize this, but all we have the power to do is walk with them and love them through it.

I was especially touched by something Annie mentioned to me today:  "I think many people were afraid to mention Anthony after he died for fear that they would open old wounds.  But it was really the opposite.  We loved it when people talked about him because it helped us to know that people had not forgotten him and that they loved him."

I want to recognize the colleagues and teachers that have helped me learn to be a minister to people in their time of loss. I am deeply grateful to all those people, including grieving families themselves, who have helped me understand and have shared their life with me in their time of deepest need.

May we love and provide space for each other when our time of loss comes.  And as the officiating minister prayed today, I say for that family of the 3-year-old boy, "Lord, look upon their pain, and have mercy on them."