A Slave Driver Called Pettiness

Toilet Paper Wars

 

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

Ah, yes.

Yes, and ouch.

I wake daily to a battle: the fight to silence my inner voice of pettiness. Left to myself, I boast, I whine, I complain, I scorn, I judge. Most of it is in my head. Some of it spills my lips. I resolve to be better, but can lapse into small-mindedness with hardly a demur. I mask it with coy phrases: “I know I’m not perfect, but….” The “but” constitutes an account of someone else’s imperfections, glaring and outlandish (the way I tell it), against which my flaws seem almost like virtues (the way I tell it).

Here’s another symptom of my pettiness: my heart’s captivity to trifles. I can fret over the smallest things – a chip in the windshield, a delay in my plane schedule, a mistake in my food order – and be oblivious to things that actually matter – the horrors suffered by Christians at the hands of ISIS, the plight of many First Nations people, the struggle of the homeless.

I commit many crimes of apathy.

Sometimes my wife, who’s the least petty person I know, looks askance at all this. “Honey…,” she says.

“Well,” I say, “if this is all you have to complain about me, you’re lucky.”

Then that look of infinite pity: “Honey, if that was all I had to complain about you, I would be lucky.”

Yes, and ouch.

I don’t know what the Apostle Paul’s thorn in his side was. But I know one of mine: the will to be a slave to my own pettiness.

Sometimes entire churches fall prey to this temptation. Pettiness becomes their governing principle. Their ethos. The results aren’t so much disastrous as ridiculous: the church start making decisions and embracing practices that are blatantly self-serving, and they stop being the fragrance and presence of Christ. Which, actually, is a disaster.

A pastor friend of mind told me about an argument that erupted in his church. The issue? The “right” way to load toilet paper on a dispenser – over, or under? It was dividing the church. The board resolved the issue by installing two roles in each stall, one for each preference.

What?

This is not a joke. It may be a caricature, but it’s not a joke: a church actually did this.

Most churches don’t descend quite to this level of silliness. Actually, often it’s worse: their pettiness is, not silly, but vicious. But all of us know of churches deeply damaged, and sometimes split, over squabbles about things that should never have even risen to the level of discussion. Someone should have had the wit and wisdom to dismiss the issue before it ever saw light of day. Simply, those of us called to be ambassadors of reconciliation should not squander a single breath on debating trivialities. We have better work to do.

I think the Apostle Paul may have been dealing with this issue in his letter to the Philippians – not toilet paper, but pettiness. Near the end of that letter, he addresses two women, Euodia and Synthyche, whose friendship had turned bitter. He pleads with them to resolve it, and for others in the church to help (Philippians 4:2-3).

That actual incident adds poignancy to what Paul says earlier in the letter:

 

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain (Philippians 2:14-16).

 

So much depends on our not being slaves to our own pettiness. Heschel may be right, that nothing is as hard to suppress as this.

But for the sake of the gospel, nothing is as urgent.

We have better work to do.

Bless me too, Father

Jacob means wily. He was aptly named. He had, from the womb, both a vise grip and light fingers, a tenacity for laying hold and not letting go, and a skill for taking other people’s stuff. He rode into this world, literally, on the heels of his twin sibling Esau, and then spent his early years getting the upper hand on him – tricking and tempting his poor dull brother out of his birthright and then, most grievously, his blessing.
After Jacob, by posing as Esau, steals the blessing, this:

After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”
“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”
Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”
Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?”
Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.
His father Isaac answered him,

“Your dwelling will be
away from the earth’s richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck” (Genesis 27:30-40).

Bless me – me too, father!
That’s the heart cry of every man and every woman throughout the ages. Bless me – me too, father! We long to hear our own fathers speak words like those Isaac spoke over Jacob:

May God give you dew from heaven and make your fields fertile! May he give you plenty of grain and wine! May nations be your servants, and may peoples bow down before you. May you rule over all your relatives, and may your mother’s descendants bow down before you. May those who curse you be cursed, and may those who bless you be blessed (Genesis 27:28-29).

May you be a winner. Spectacular. May every thing you touch flourish, and everyone you meet be wowed. You have what it takes. Go!
This entire story is echoed in a famous New Testament passage, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That story has been misnamed for years. It’s not mostly about the young rascal with his bent for hard drugs and fast women; it’s about the older brother, with his dour piety and rigid sense of duty. And, especially, it’s about his seething resentment over his younger brother stealing the blessing.
After the young hellion returns, only to be given more, to be met by a weeping, laughing, dancing father whose first impulse is to throw a lavish “Welcome Home” party, the older son’s bitterness erupts. His cry isn’t, “Bless me too, father.” It’s a scathing accusation: “You’ve never blessed me.” Thus:

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours…” (Luke 15:28-31).

You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
This is subversive. This changes everything. Before Jesus, blessing was scarce. It was meted out. It was rationed carefully, sparingly, grudgingly. There was generally one blessing per household: miss it, you get the dregs.

But now “out of the fullness of [Christ’s] grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another” (John 1:16; GNT).

You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

The words the Father speaks over his Son Jesus are in one sense for him alone. But in another sense, everything he has is yours. And so it is right and fitting that you, right here, right now, hear the voice of the Father say this to you, directly, personally  (adjust the gender as called for):

You are my son, whom I love, whom I have chosen. With you I am well pleased. Everyone, listen to him (Mark 1:11 & Luke 9:35).

Whether or not your earthly father has ever spoken such blessing over you, your heavenly Father says it, again and again.
Out of his fullness, he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another. Everything he has is yours.

Jesus’ Favourite Disguises

DSC_1524 DSC_1809 DSC_2071 DSC_2103Jesus has two favorite disguises: the least of these, and the servant.

It’s hard to say which he likes or uses more. Sometimes he combines them, appearing as the lowly servant, the slave in rags. Is he here to help or be helped?

Yes.

The funny thing is, he tells us plainly these are his two most common disguises, and yet we often miss him anyhow. We keep looking for that lantern-jawed hero, and he keeps showing up as the chinless beggar or the shuffling cleaning lady. We want spectacle. He prefers hiddenness. We want miracle. He deals mostly in cups of cold water. We look for a man in fine clothes. He shows up, unnervingly, with none at all.

But we can’t claim he didn’t warn us:

“…I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35-40).

I wear, he says, the disguise of the least of these.

And I wear the disguise of the servant:

…Christ Jesus,

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8).

 

I tell you that to tell you this: I had several sightings of Jesus last week. Cheryl and I were the guests of World Vision Canada on a tour of some of World Vision’s projects in northeast Brazil. I have been on several ministry-related trips before, and I anticipated this would be like those.

It was and it wasn’t. I saw, as I have on every trip like this I’ve been on, remarkable work being done by dedicated people. I witnessed, as I have each time, the gospel in motion: being lived, and breathed, and declared in word and deed.

But what was different this time was how often I caught sight of Jesus himself, in one of his disguises, or both together.

One story to serve for dozens.

In a shanty-town – in South America, they’re called favelas – we met Paulo. He looks like an ex-bouncer, and maybe is. He wore a shirt of the brightest pink I’ve ever seen. If Plato’s right, and everything on earth is only a dim reflection of a heavenly prototype, that shirt is the prototype for pink.

As we walked through the favela with Paulo, it quickly became clear that he was a local hero: children ran to him, teens high-fived him, adults rushed up to shake his hand. At first I didn’t know why, but as the day unfolded, and we heard Paulo’s story, it all became clear.

Paulo is Jesus. He makes the word flesh and moves into the neighborhood. He has, in his own words, two goals: to keep children from all that would destroy them – drugs, crime, prostitution, no education, no dream – and to rescue those who have already fallen prey to these things.

He’s succeeding beyond anything I could ask or imagine. We heard the testimony of three of his boys. All had been drug dealers. All had done prison time. One had killed others. Everyone had given up on them.

But not Paulo. He loved them, and called them to Christ and his kingdom, and stuck with them, and poured into them. And slow, slow, each came. They found hope, and healing, and a life worth living. They found Christ.

And now they go and do likewise.

All because one man was so available to Christ that Christ could fully inhabit and does his work through him. At first, I didn’t see it, it was so cleverly disguised. But once I did, I could see nothing else.

But it makes me wonder: how often am I missing Jesus right in my midst?

And even more: Am I Jesus in disguise for anyone?

A Sweet Tooth for Black Diamonds

Whistler - Black Tusk

I’ve never snowboarded, but I’ve skied most my entire life.

 

My first time, age 12, I fell off the T-bar half way up the track, which forced me to the backside of the mountain: a jagged edge of wild and dangerous steepness, thickly hummocked with moguls. The run was ranked, in the parlance of ski hills, black diamond. Experts only. Too stupid to walk to base, I hurled myself down that slope headlong, skis crisscrossing, poles windmilling. It was pure slapstick. It was a burlesque of pratfalls and face-plants.

 

I lived to tell the story, and ever after have had a sweet tooth for black diamonds.

 

But, as I said, I’ve never snowboarded. I watched, 25 or so years back, as the first few boarders appeared on ski hills, timid and klutzy. I watched as their numbers doubled, quadrupled, exploded, and their skill grew. Now half the mountain teems with them, swooping and soaring.

 

Though the sport bears a rough resemblance to skiing – both involve strapping your feet to a thin slippery blades, standing on some frozen wind-scoured pinnacle, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell it’s very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance. Different as riding a motorcycle is from driving a car. Different as rowing a boat is from paddling a kayak.

 

Different as pastoring is from professoring.

 

Which is my real point. I finished, in early December, my first semester of professoring (I made that word up) after 24 years of pastoring. Though the two vocations bear rough resemblance to each other – both involve strapping your heart to some burning concern, standing on some rickety lonely perch, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell you they’re very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance.

 

A 3-hour lecture, for instance, has little in common with a 35-minute sermon (other than, when you’re off your game, your listeners experience both as eternal drudgery and existential misery). The lecture is expansive, the sermon distilled. The lecture aims for breadth, the sermon conciseness. The lecture seeks to range over wide ground, the sermon to get to the point. In a lecture, you pace yourself. In a sermon, you uncork yourself.

 

But more than that, the rhythms of the two vocations are vastly different. In the pastorate, there is no natural beginning or end. Everything flows into everything else, world without end. There is a beauty to this: stay long enough, and the child you dedicate becomes the young woman whose marriage you perform who becomes the young mother whose child you dedicate, and so on. The academy, on the other hand, has a very precise timetable of beginnings and endings – classes start this date, run these weeks, end that day. You have an intense relationship with a small clutch of people for a short stretch of time. Then it’s done. You stop, breathe, re-gather, and start again.

 

It has been difficult to make the transition – it’s been embarrassing and frustrating at times to go from something I’d attained some mastery of to something I’m a rank and clumsy novice at.

 

But the challenge has also been invigorating. I loved my first term. I love this new sport. It’s snapped me out of a trance of repetition, pulled me out of a rut of complacency. It’s stirred in me fresh hunger to learn. It’s awakened instincts and muscles never used or long dormant.

 

It’s forced me to the backside of the mountain.

 

And there I’ve discovered, I still have a sweet tooth for black diamonds.

In This Town There’s a Church…

This Sunday is Father’s Day. Auspiciously, or ironically, it is also my last Sunday at the church I’ve pastored for 17 years, New life Church in Duncan, British Columbia.

17 years, 7.5 months, to be exact.

I run a gauntlet of emotions: sadness, thankfulness, anxiousness, fretfulness, anticipation, just to name the more obvious ones. All come wheeling toward me without warning. One minute I bask in peace, the next I churn with dread

It’s a weighty thing, to have given nearly two decades of my life to a work that, at 1 PM June 16, I must relinquish entirely. Though I’ve not once doubted the rightness of my decision to leave pastoral ministry in order to teach pastoral ministry, I’ve many times tasted the wild sorrow of that decision.

This Sunday, I deliver my last sermon at the church. I hope I have a calm heart and a clear mind to do it. I hope it’s a word in season, and a word that lingers. I hope it honors God.
I hope it blesses people.

But how do I sum up a ministry of 17 years? On what do note do I end it?

With a verse. An unlikely one. 1 Samuel 9:6:

But the servant replied, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.”

The context: Saul (later to be king of Israel) and his servant are on an errand to find Saul’s father’s stray donkeys. They’re having no luck. It’s worse than a wild goose chase: it’s a stubborn donkey chase. Most of us can relate.

Saul’s freaking out, worried about his father being worried about him. Worrying about other people’s worry is worry squared. So the servant suggests they consult the Prophet-Judge, Samuel. Samuel’s reputation proceeds him. He is known for his godliness, his respectability, his truthfulness, his wisdom. Evidently, he’s also known for his humility and approachability: he’s someone who is not high and mighty that he minds dealing with commonplace practical matters – runaway barnyard animals, and the like. The man of God is no cave-dwelling mystic: he cares about ordinary people and their everyday problems.

With a little tweaking, this verse could serve as compelling vision statement for New Life:

The people of the Cowichan Valley say, “Look, in this town there is a church of God; it is highly respected, and everything they say is true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps they will tell us what way to take.”

In the years I’ve been at New Life, I have watched this church grow into exactly this reputation. I have watched the community turn increasingly to us, asking our help in practical matters, wanting us to speak a word of truth in love, seeking our counsel about what way to take.

With a church like that in town, there’s no telling how many stubborn donkeys will find their way home.

Being Your Own Truancy Officer

My life is defined by irony.classroom

I’ve spent the last quarter century, minus a year, in a role that no one, least not I, ever would have predicted or chosen for me: the pastorate. Before Jesus accosted me at age 21, I never really knew such creatures existed, and to the extent I did they seemed odd to me, eccentric, fusty, otherworldly. After my conversion, pastors still struck me as a breed apart, though now I saw them as oracular, unerring, heavenly, but still odd. They were sages chastened with holiness, saints burdened with searing vision.

Then I became one. And I found out an awkward truth: most of us are chronically ordinary. Pastors are the lepers who find bread, and have just enough wit or altruism to announce it to the city (see 2 Kings 7:3-16). But otherwise, we battle all the same emotions and temptations everyone else does, but do it in a kind of glass house, which mostly makes it worse and sometimes makes it better. We struggle with anger, fear, loneliness, insecurity. We want to eat too much, sleep too late, be praised beyond what’s wise or warranted. Criticism stings us, and too much embitters us. We feel weak a lot, sometimes theologically sketchy, often spiritually shallow. We don’t pray enough, exercise enough, study enough. We long for God, but we also long for comfort, and salt, and a good night’s sleep, and find the two longings at odds, and often the latter one winning.

One thing’s helped (well, dozens of things have helped, but I’ll speak of one): pushing myself to engage further training. I found that if I wasn’t the champion of this, no one would be: not the elders, not the congregation, not the staff, not my friends. In the pastorate, no one but you worries about your ongoing education. I’m not saying no one notices it: many complain about your deficiencies and inefficiencies. They lament your poor sermons, weak administration, inept leadership, questionable doctrine. They wish you were smarter or faster or deeper. It’s just that no one will send you back to school as the remedy – and if they do, it’s probably a last ditch effort before they fire you.

But this is true of everyone: in most things, we’re the only ones who require excellence of ourselves. Everyone else tolerates our mediocrity, until they don’t. But by then it’s too late.

So I learned to send myself back to school. I learned to be my own Truancy Officer, to grab myself by the ear and march myself back to the classroom. Over the years, I’ve taken online courses and community-college courses; I’ve attended pastors’ conferences, worship seminars, preaching workshops. I’ve taken summer classes, covering everything from theology to philosophy to psychology to history to poetry to art to literature to leadership. The curriculum’s been eclectic; I’ve been omnivorous.

This morning, for instance, I was looking at Regent College’s Summer School for 2013. It’s got me drooling, and scheming how to fit at least one course in. What especially caught my eye is their list of Art & Faith courses – a course on J.R.R. Tolkien, one on the power of documentary film, another on Christian themes in Hollywood movies, and more. This is the sort of thing that, through the years, has stretched me, helped me stay fresh, and kept me just off-balance enough to make me moderately interesting. Check it out at www.regent-college.edu/summer.

Or I’d love to see you in class at my new digs at Ambrose College University this fall or winter.

Just decide to become your own Truancy Officer. No one else will do it for you.

How to Have a Beautiful Soul (or Avoid an Ugly One)

eyeI was rereading parts of Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground this past week. Dostoevsky – a 19th Century Russian writer – is among the pantheon of Great Authors whose works, though rooted deeply in time and place, transcend them. His massive sprawling novel The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the uncontested masterpieces of world literature. It is in my top five favorite novels.

Notes from Underground is something else entirely. It’s the jumbled confession of a jaded twisted man, immersed in his own torment and misery. It amounts to one of the bleakest portraits ever rendered of man alone, man without friend, without God, without hope. “I am a sick man,” the confession begins. “I am a spiteful man.” Thus launches a misanthropic tirade of burning resentment, choking self-pity, and vicious self-loathing.

The book proved prophetic. Increasingly, the nameless anti-hero of the Notes resembles us, or we him: a people longing for the admiration of others without the burden of them, wanting applause without having to earn it, bearing grudges for the slightest slights. A people who throw off God, thinking it’s liberation, and who only end up impoverished and enslaved, captive to our own dark selves.

Dostoevsky was a Christ-follower – a troubled one, to be sure, but with a deep grasp of God’s extravagant grace. His later works – The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, The Brothers K – are breath-taking testaments to the transforming and liberating power of the Christ who meets even the least of us in the most unlikely places.

The relationship in The Brothers K between the simple saintly Alyosha and the brilliant embittered – and rabidly atheistic – Ivan is alone worth the price of that book and the effort of reading it. Ivan’s logic is hard to refute, but Alyosha’s life is hard to resist. We find the atheist semi convincing, but the saint entirely compelling. Alyosha’s soul draws us with its beauty. Ivan’s soul repels us with its ugliness.

It strikes me, leafing through the Notes, that Dostoevsky was sketching all this out, and with it issuing a warning: that among the many horrors of rejecting Christ, not least is a soul that grows ugly.

Thus I begin my confession: I am a forgiven man. I am a thankful man.

My First Time Base Jumping!

I wrote this in my book Spiritual Rhythm a few years ago:base jump

The fastest growing sport in Norway is wingsuit jumping. It’s the pastime of lunatics, or it’s what warrior-knights do in an age without dragons. It requires steel nerves, a cool-head, a touch of madness. You must be able to look fast-approaching catastrophe in the face, and whoop.

I go onto to describe the equipment: a kind of giant flying squirrel bodysuit that turns the jumper, splayed wide open, into a human kite, sans string. The sport, also called base jumping, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

I did it last weekend.

Not literally. I’m neither brave nor crazy enough for that. I did it figuratively, except with all the same sensations I imagine base-jumpers experience – utmost dread, giddy anticipation, sheer terror, pure exhilaration, an urgent visceral sense that if I live through this it will be one of the most daring things I’ve ever attempted, and if I don’t live I will at least die with a certain flair.

Last weekend I resigned.

I have been in pastoral ministry nearly 24 years, and in my current post over 17. I’ve loved every day of it, except the days I haven’t (usually Mondays, when I nurse a post-sermon hangover and writhe in existential angst about, well, everything). The role has shaped me beyond measure. Being a pastor has done more in me than I have ever done being a pastor. I entered the role soon after my 29th birthday. I will step out of the role just past my 53rd. Between those two milestones lies a universe. I am not the same man. And yet, I am more myself than ever. The pastorate has been trial by ordeal and foretaste of heaven, often on the same day. I have failed miserably and succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I am loved, and I am despised. I have been a prophet, and a fool. I have poured myself out like a drink offering, and sometimes squandered myself like a cheap piñata. It has been awesome, and burdensome, glorious, and tedious, and altogether beautiful.

And last Sunday, I quit.

Well, not exactly. I announced to my congregation that I would be stepping down as their pastor on June 16. They were justly slightly more shocked than I was. I truly thought I’d be here until roll call.

I do have a landing spot (we’re back to the base jumping metaphor): Ambrose College in Calgary, Alberta – my birth town, now grown vast and rich, but no warmer come winter. I have been appointed Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary. I start August 1.

Maybe the letter I read my congregation last Sunday best explains all that. Please click this link to see that. Letter

I covet your prayers for me and my family, and also for New Life Church.

Pray we all land, if not softly, at least intact.