culture

Why I quit Twitter

1 Timothy 4:16a says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (ESV). IMG_0106Another translation renders it, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (NIV).

Like most of you reading this post, Timothy was a church leader. So Paul’s admonition applies especially to pastors and others who lead and teach God’s people. We have to pay particular attention to what’s going on internally: our motivations, fears, idols, secret sins, stress points, and such.

So one of the things I’ve struggled with internally for a long time is Twitter. For me, Twitter does little but create stress. It stirs up feelings of competition, jealousy, and judgment. Perhaps you love Twitter and find it to be a means of sharing and pondering ideas that inspire and stimulate. Perhaps when you read the clever insights of others you think kind thoughts and become a better person. No doubt, there are many people who can tweet with joy and integrity.

But as for me…when I’m on Twitter I think things like, “Everybody knows that!” “What makes him think he’s so great?” “Why didn’t I say that?” “I’m such a loser.” “I wish I had as many followers as that person.” And on and on.

I know. The problem is not Twitter or those who post on Twitter. The problem is me. I’m insecure and weak. The “old me” that wants to control the real me is still very strong and stubborn. Like Paul says in Romans 7, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Twitter teases out that “old me,” awakens the sleeping giant of sin in my heart, and seduces me with promises of glory and fame that cannot satisfy.

So goodbye, Twitter. I need to keep a close watch on my heart, and you are not good for me. Maybe when I become a holier, more loving person I’ll come back to you.

But don’t hold your breath.

Ministry is not efficient

A tragedy has unfolded in my neighborhood.

Some months ago, the county in which I live contracted with a new residential garbage collection service. They got every homeowner these enormous, new trash cans–one for recyclables and another for household garbage. The new cans are on wheels and they’re very nice. We load ourtrash-truck2 cans with trash and, once a week, we roll them down to the street to be picked up by the garbage service. All the guy in the driver’s seat has to do is operate a mechanical arm that reaches out, grabs the trash can, lifts it high in the air, turns it upside down, and whoosh–out spills the trash into the truck. The mechanical arm then lowers the can, places it back where it was on the street, and lickety split, off the truck goes to the next set of garbage cans.

It’s all very efficient and clean and wonderful.

The only thing is, something very precious has been lost in the process.

You see, before the county went with this fancy new garbage service, trash was collected the old fashioned way. A big, loud truck with a driver and a couple guys hanging off the back would lumber down the street, one house at a time. I often watched. It was laborious, thankless work. Sometimes trash was not in cans, and it would take the men a while to pick up the various bottles, boxes, and bags strewn by the road. Sometimes they would pause to talk to a homeowner on his driveway. They were not in a hurry.

There’s this family about five doors down from me. They have two little preschool-age girls. They knew that every Tuesday and Friday was trash pick-up day. So at about 9:00 a.m., when I would be heading out the door, I saw those two little girls standing with their mom at the end of their driveway. Waiting. Waiting for the garbage men. And it was the sweetest sight. When the truck drove up they would wave at the man behind the wheel. Then the two big guys on the back would hop off, walk over to the children, and say a few kind words. Sometimes the little girls would hand them an empty milk carton or cereal box. The men would pick up the cans, empty the garbage, pull the lever, and head off to the next house. The girls would giggle with glee and run back into the house with their mom.

A little encounter that took a couple of minutes but made lifelong memories for those little girls. I know, because I did the same thing when I was a kid.

But alas, no more. Garbage collection in my neighborhood has entered the 21st century. Those two little girls need to stay inside and get ready for school. It’s time they grew up. The mechanical arm doesn’t talk to little girls. The man behind the wheel sits behind a glass and pushes buttons. Nobody stands on the back of the truck.

It’s efficient, and clean, and wonderful. And sad.

So what’s this got to do with pastoral ministry? Everything. People want us pastors to get with it, to enter the 21st century and be more efficient and productive. They say there’s nothing worse than a lazy pastor who spends all his time reading and studying and praying and visiting and talking to people. Even our own hearts will often lie to us and say, “C’mon preacher, you’re moving too slowly. This church is too small! There’s got to be an easier way to do your job. You’re spending too much time on your sermons. You care too much about people’s aches and pains and sorrows. Get out there and build the church!”

The thing is, if I’ve learned anything as a pastor, ministry is mainly about relationships. People need to know, trust, and love you. You need to know your church members, love them, listen to them, and spend unhurried time with them. To borrow from Eugene Peterson’s book, The Contemplative Pastor, it’s actually the busy pastor who is the lazy one. Peterson writes,

…the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

God help us not to be busy pastors. Because ministry is not efficient. It’s “a long obedience in the same direction,” to again quote Eugene Peterson. Ministry is slow, arduous, laborious–just like garbage collection in the old days. But the result is depth, meaning, connection, roots, fruit, perpetuity, permanence. I’m convinced that’s what people long for in this too-busy world of ours.

Don’t let the world, the flesh, and the devil tell you to hurry up and work harder, faster, smarter. Go for depth. Sure, we need to redeem the time, for the days are evil (Eph 5:16). But being a pastor is not efficient, and should not be.

The Greatest

A certain well-known mega-church pastor is quoted as saying that his church “is the greatest church in the world.”

I can’t imagine saying that.

I love my church and all, but it’s not the greatest church in the world. It’s pretty messed up, actually. We make mistakes, we don’t love the Lord as much as we should, we don’t love one another or people in our community as much as we should. I can imagine lots of greater churches than mine.

One of my church’s biggest problems is right here: I’m one of its pastors. I have a long way to go. I don’t have it all together, and neither do my fellow pastors. Elders, deacons, small group leaders, etc.: we’re all “weak and wounded, sick and sore,” as hymnwriter Joseph Hart said.

Look, if we’re going to ‘survive ministry,’ one of the things we pastors need to stop doing is evaluating ourselves, our churches, and each other by things like buildings, attendance, money, programs, music, geographical location, and such. The arrogance! My goodness, churches aren’t competing against each other! We’re competing against the idols of the day, all the things that capture people’s hearts and draw them away from the living God.

Every church where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are administered, and discipline is practiced is a dearly-loved, blood-bought manifestation of the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Statements like “my church is the greatest church in the world” only serve to discourage faithful ministers of the gospel and stoke the pride of people whose trust is in the wrong place.

OK, so maybe this pastor was simply trying to rally the troops or encourage his congregation. Still, it repulses me. If he’d said, “The church of Jesus Christ is the greatest church in the world,” I could get behind that. But neither a pastor nor his congregation can sustain the pressure of being “the greatest church in the world.” One of these days, the truth will seep out. Someone will fall. Then what?

Perhaps then that pastor will announce, “Jesus is the greatest Savior in the world.”

Speaking to the Senselessness

I woke up this morning to more horrible news of injustice in America. Five Dallas police officers were murdered and six more wounded by a sniper who reportedly was upset about recent killiDepressed womanngs of African Americans by white policemen. 

Sadness, anger, and worry for our nation are growing in my soul day by day. I got physically ill watching a video of one of the killings that have been posted online. I live in Orlando, Florida, where on June 12 of this year the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history took place. Fifty people (including the murderer) died and 53 were injured in a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. That same weekend, a singer-songwriter was shot to death while signing autographs at an Orlando concert venue. A few days later a child was killed by an alligator at one of the Disney parks. Our city has been shaken to the core.

What’s a pastor supposed to do when overcome by the senseless violence of the world? He should speak to and for his congregation. But what should he say? Here is what I wrote in our weekly e-newsletter that went out today:

I am reading the book of Amos in my daily Bible time. The prophet Amos warned sinful Israel that because they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted”…because they “oppress the poor [and] crush the needy”…because they “trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end”…in short, because they “have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray,”…therefore God would punish Israel with destruction by foreign enemies and exile. God cares too much for human beings—made just “a little lower than angels” (Psa 8:5)—to sit by and allow his image to be defaced and violence to prevail.

The hatred and oppression that characterized Israel in Amos’ day seemingly rule the streets of our cities today. From Orlando to Istanbul to Baghdad to Bangladesh to Baton Rouge to St. Paul and now to Dallas, the sin of Cain is uglier and more pervasive than ever. There are things we don’t know about the killings this week in Minnesota and Louisiana. Still, think of the families that will never be the same, the cities that will be inflamed with racial strife, and the attitudes that will harden into self-righteous hostility toward people who are “not like me.”

On top of these things is all the acrimony related to the upcoming election, the floods in West Virginia, the drama surrounding Brexit, the curse of human trafficking, and the continuing assault upon human rights in general.

I wanted to affirm how much all this hurts and sucks and infuriates and depresses us. We feel the prayer of the psalmist, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46).

Church, let us continue to pray and love and lament and forgive and heal and repent and listen and make disciples. Despite the growing secularism around us, people are open and searching. Let us love our neighbors, hear their pain, and fear the Lord. Let us pray for our law enforcement community. In our congregation are at least one police officer, a firefighter, and several nurses, physician assistants, counselors, and EMT personnel. Thank them for their service and hold them up before the Lord.

And let us hope! In the final chapter of Amos, God promises that a day of restoration is coming. Even Edom—the nation descended from Esau and the constant antagonist of Israel—would receive God’s mercy. God says through Amos, “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). The coming of Jesus Christ into this dark world was the initial fulfillment of that promise. Every day, as we get closer and closer to the end of time, God is at work repairing the breaches that sin has caused. The Bible promises that God will win the battle with evil. The reign of God is growing, despite appearances. So hang onto that hope and don’t let go.

Pastor Mike

What pastors face today

The work of leading God’s people has always been, and by definition always will be, challenging. But today’s pastors face unique pressures. If you’re a church leader sinking under the weight of these pressures, Barnabas Ministries can help.

Barnabas Ministries is a network of people and resources that exists to “connect, encourage, inspire, and enable pastors” in their calling. Check out what they have to offer hpastoral-pressuresere.

On the Barnabas Ministries website is this helpful graphic taken from Pastors at Greater Risk by H. B. London. It gives you a sense of some of the daunting challenges pastors face today. To this list I would add:

– The celebrity culture in which we live, that denies the glory of the ordinary;

– The pastor’s own insecurities and need for approval;

– The financial problems plaguing our nation and members of the congregation;

– Opposition by Satan, who despises God, the church, church members and church leaders;

– And the increasing suspicion and hostility of the world, which is by nature allergic to God.

All these pressures, and more, demand that we be people who keep in step with the Spirit, fight the good fight of faith, have a set of close friends on whom we can rely, and live out of the Savior’s great love for us in the gospel.

The ordinary

We used to have a little dog named Dabo. We named him after Dabo Swinney, the head coach of the Clemson Tigers football team. Dabo (the dog) was a Bichon Frise. Not a yapper, thankfully, and lots of fun. He never met a stranger, and he especially adored kids. We ended up “adopting” him out to our daughter’s family in Mississippi. They’re fans of Florida State so, as you may guess, they renamed our dog Jimbo (after Jimbo Fisher). Yes, Jimbo’s the head coach of the FSU football team. At least our dog is still in the ACC.

Dabo regularly taught me lessons. One was not to be in a hurry. Whenever I took him outside to go to the bathroom, he would just kind of wander aimlessly around the yard, taking his fool time, smelling everything, chasing lizards, looking around, and sniffing the air. Finally he would get down to business.

From Dabo I learned enjoyment of the ordinary. On sunny afternoons I would go outside with Dabo and he would find a spot in the backyard and just…sit. I’d say, “Let’s go over here, Dabo.” And he’d glance at me, turn away, and…lie down in the grass. It’s like he was saying, “Umm, I don’t think so. Why are you in a hurry? Don’t you want to just stay here a few minutes and feel the sunshine?” I couldn’t resist. So I’d walk over, plop myself down next to Dabo, stroke his back, and enjoy the ordinary.

I hate to confess this, but I apparently needed a dog to teach me this lesson. Otherwise I don’t know if I’d ever stop and feel the sunshine on my face.

I’m reading Zack Eswine’s book for pastors, titled Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being. It’s a wonderful but convicting book about enjoying the ordinary. He says we ministers are, generally speaking, driven people. We are always hankering after some “significant” work, chasing some “God-sized” dream, trying to change the world, thinking that we have to move on to some exotic place where we can “make a difference.” Problem is, we are not God, though we secretly fancy ourselves to be. We are not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. We are actually pretty much…a mess. And anyway, God usually chooses to work through ordinary people in ordinary places.

He who called you to where you are declares that you needn’t repent of being in one place at one time. You needn’t repent of doing only a long, small work in an extraordinary but unknown place. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.

I wish I’d read Eswine’s book years ago when, as a young pastor, I felt “called” away from my small, rural church to a city I knew nothing about but where, I thought, I would really make a difference for the kingdom. I don’t know, maybe I was called there. But looking back from Dabo’s perspective, maybe I was in too much of a hurry.

The prophet Jeremiah told his friend and secretary Baruch, “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).

That’s what I heard Dabo saying to me in the backyard on sunny afternoons. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.