Theology for Grasshoppers

(For the uninitiated, “Theology for Grasshoppers” is my attempt to tell my story of faith to my grandkids.  I hope I’m around long enough to tell them personally. But just in case I reach the finish line before I get the opportunity, these letters will be the record of what I believe and why I believe it…in words and stories they can understand.)

Yo, Grasshoppers!

Boy, it has really been awhile since I last wrote to you guys.  So long, we’ve even added a new Farrasprout to the team. Welcome Tobias Allan Farra!

From what I hear, you’re going to be the last of the Farra tribe for a while, Toby.  I hope I’m still around when the next wave comes rolling through, but that decision is way above my pay grade.  You don’t know anything about pay grades yet, but you will soon enough…

I saw something on TV today, so I wanted to write this to you guys while it was still pretty fresh on my mind.

I wish this wasn’t true, but for the rest of your lives, you’re going to have to learn to deal with people who are mean, rude, thoughtless, arrogant, or just plain hurtful.  Most of the time, you won’t be able to do anything to stop them. That’s just the way they’re going to be.

The only thing you will ever have real control over is how you’re going to respond back to them.

Trust me, you’re gonna want to get mad, hold a grudge, put up a wall, talk about them behind their backs, avoid them, or even be “fake nice” to their faces (when you’re really mad enough at them to punch them right in the nose!)

There’s a verse in the Bible that I have held close to my heart for over 50 years and one that has taught me how to be a friend to nearly every person who has ever crossed my path.  The words are few, but boy are they powerful:

“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”  Ephesians 4:26

I’ve always believed I have about 24 hours to deal with my bad feelings for another person.  No matter what they’ve said or done. Yup. 24 hours. And once those 24 hours are up, I only have two options:

One…forgive them and consider them a friend.  And treat them like one.

Two…go and talk with them about what they said or did and how it made me feel.  If they continue to say and do mean things, I have to keep going and talking to them.  I might even need to take a trusted friend to join me, if the problem continues.

That’s it.  Forgive them or talk with them.  Or forgive them AND talk with them.  The problem is it’s much easier to talk ABOUT the people we are angry with, than it is to talk WITH them.

It’s not going to be easy. These days, people don’t grow up learning to talk and forgive. It’s crazy, but there are actually people who hold on to anger or bad feelings for others for months, or even years. Sometimes, forever. Don’t settle for being “those” kind of people. Ever.

I know.  That’s pretty heady stuff for little sprouts like you, but I promise if you decide to live by what the Bible says in this world (instead of by your own feelings), where careless words and thoughtless actions are everywhere, people will notice there is something really different about you. And your lives will make a difference.

Use your 24 hours wisely, Grasshoppers.

Papi

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The Skywalker Letters #5

Youngling,

There was a time in our culture when a pastor was seen as a truly respected and valued part of the community.  A pastor could walk into a room and his work and reputation would be recognized as good and worthwhile, even though his beliefs might not necessarily be shared.  

When I was young man, people who weren’t church goers or who lived lives of marginal or even non-existent faith in God, would still view the job of the pastor as something important and needed, especially in times of tragedy or emotional distress.  

Although many church people still place pastors on pedestals…though often in really unhealthy ways…the same cannot be said for the current unchurched world we live in.  Whoa. How things have changed. And in many ways, the fraternity did it to itself:

  • Living lavish lifestyles on the church’s dime.
  • Expressing the “man o’ gawd” sense of entitlement.
  • Growing the bossman of the church attitude.
  • Talking weird. Really weird.
  • Being known more for what we are against, than what we are for.
  • Projecting the image we don’t struggle with the same junk as everyone else.
  • Acting like we know it all.
  • Massive moral failures. Horrible, well-publicized moral failures.
  • Being quick to talk and slow to listen.
  • The endless pursuit of bigger and better churches.

Sad to say, but this list could go on and on…

Young Jedi, here’s some ugly truth:  Your life will be spent dodging guilt by association.  Get used to it, but don’t give up.  Or give in. Among the world of spiritual seekers and religious runners, you will probably end up being Pastor Buzzkill or Judgey McJudgey most of the time.  But you don’t have to let that define you.

Here’s the best advice I can give you: Let the unpretentious and loving life of Jesus be your guide and example.  

  • Live with simplicity and humility.
  • Flee from the love of money and the lure of the next hot item.
  • Don’t act weird. Please. Don’t.
  • Check your “church language” at the door.
  • Curb your need to always be right.  
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at the church.  We do some pretty crazy stuff.
  • Stop being shocked and offended by the things people do.
  • Be kind.  All the time.  To everybody.
  • Be a peacemaker and call others to join you.
  • Be open and transparent with your doubts and fears.  You’re human.
  • Quit thinking bigger is better.  The modern American culture has grown weary of the church’s obsession with spending money on itself.

These things probably won’t stem the tide much.  I’m afraid the USS Good Reputation has sailed.  Your neighbors may still build a “wall of shallow” whenever you come around.  The other parents may develop that creepy nervous twitch and not know what to say to you in casual conversations. Your own family may consistently change the subject if it gets too close to a genuine “spiritual conversation”. They won’t understand what you do, much less understand why you do it. It will be a private pain you have to learn to live with.

But you can do this. You can live a genuine life. You can be approachable and friendly and unassuming and an honest-to-goodness normal person. You can. And if you really follow the example of Jesus, people might even enjoy being around you.

Truth.

The Skywalker Letters #4

So…Young Jedi-Knight,

Here.  Let me say it to you, just in case you have any lingering delusional thoughts.  YOU’RE NOT PERFECT. Not even close. And even though you are comfortably nodding with agreement, there is a near-fatal flaw in your character.  

And trust me. I would know this.

You want to be perfect.  You expect to be perfect.  You will beat yourself up over the mistakes you will make.  You will be your own worst enemy. You will stay up nights obsessing over decisions you wish you hadn’t made.  You will second guess your words, your actions, your motives, and your effort.

You will come up short.  You will fail miserably. Your reputation will take hits. Your character will be called into question. But you will still think you should be perfect.  You will make choices that put you at odds with people you care deeply about. You will make promises you break.  There will be times you forget…appointments, commitments, texts, emails, requests, and conversations. You will be constantly reminded you’re not perfect.

Your sermons will fall on deaf ears.  Your counsel will be ignored. Your hard work will often go unnoticed.  You will wonder what people are saying behind your back. (Your fears are probably true, btw…)  

Kids will walk away from God.  People will leave the church. Programs will fail.  Other pastors will knock you…sometimes right to your face.  For real.

Sometimes you will say things that wound people you love, even though that was never your intent.  Your teaching will be misunderstood and possibly rub people the wrong way. You will try to make it right, but only dig the hole deeper.  Your imperfections will be magnified…even in your own eyes.

You will be judged and maligned.  And all along, your worst critic will be you.

And because all of this is true about you…and you still care and you still want to give your best and you pick yourself up after you fall and you don’t give up, but continue to believe it is still worth it even when you make messes of things…

…in my book, this is where your calling to a life of serving is confirmed.

I’ve always been amazed by people who weather criticism well.  I’ve even admired people (a little) who simply shake off their mistakes or the unfair judgment of others like water off a duck’s back.  I’m not that guy. And in my opinion, most pastors worth their salt as shepherds aren’t those guys, either.

I care.  So shoot me.

So here’s a hard life-lesson for today, one much easier said than done:  Since the voices of your world will be loud and sometimes painful…yours included…make sure you are filling yourself with the words God says about you.

There will be no adequate substitute for His voice of reason and majestic declarations of value given to your life. 

The only way to counter statements of defeat, failure, loss, judgment, and criticism is with words of love, grace, hope, compassion, forgiveness and worth.  And the only consistent source of that kind of good is from the only One whose image we truly bear.

March on.

The Skywalker Letters. #3

Jedi Noob,

To be honest, I’ve really struggled over this particular letter to you.  I’ve written and rewritten it, both on the keyboard and in my head, dozens of times.  But I have to remember this is a letter, one pastor to another, from my journey to yours.

(To any of you who think I’m offering a backhanded criticism or that I’m trying to say something to you that I can’t say to your face, I hope you remember me better than that. Jedi paranoia is the worst…)

If you choose to walk this pastoral path for a lifetime, it is going to be filled with a particular kind of loss that hurts more than you will ever be able to speak about…except to the hearts of only your most trusted and faithful friends.  To everyone else, you will give a smile, words of encouragement and understanding, and a call to join you on the “high road”.

What is this loss, young warrior?  It is the loss of friends.

Some of those losses are simply the result of relocation…the sad, but inevitable fallout of living in a mobile, even transient, society.  I get it. Sheesh…I did it myself. Kids grow up. People move. For jobs…for family…for health…even for a better view of God’s creation. But once there is a move, friendship takes a hit.  Maybe you even work real hard for a while to stay connected, but it will never be the same, no matter how many FB pics and comments you post. And it’s okay.

It has to be okay.

Sometimes, people leave churches for really legit reasons.  Toxic leadership, unhealthy church relationships, financial mismanagement, doctrinal disagreement, empty programs, loneliness, disconnect, and probably many others.  They need to leave. If some of those conditions ever exist in your church, you’ve got way bigger problems than the loss of friends, Skywalker. Just sayin’.

But that’s not the loss I’m talking about.  The one on my heart this afternoon is when people up and leave your church and go to a new one down the street.  At least that’s what it feels like. And when this happens, you will feel a particular kind of pain deep down in your bones. And you can’t talk about it.  You just can’t.

People will leave your church family for all kinds of reasons.  Some are understandable. Some have no expressed reason at all. Some just drift away because their connections are not deep enough or strong enough. Some will leave because of personal issues you never knew about. But from my POV, it will always circle back to the same basic reason:  they are no longer finding what they are looking for in your fellowship. Cue U2…

Now, your response to that little nugget of reality can be pretty complex and is better left for another letter somewhere down the galaxy.  I’ll get to it someday, I promise.

For today, though, here’s what I hope you are able to see.  When those people leave, your friendship with them will be forever changed.  And the loss of friendship might even be against your will. And it will hurt. You will want to fight it.  Sometimes, you will try to keep the friendship active. Sometimes they might even try to keep it alive.  But you will be fighting a losing battle. It may be a little more complicated and there may be some layers to their decision, but make no mistake…they left because they wanted to leave.

And here’s the really dysfunctional part.  You will run the risk of feeling like it’s your fault.  Your fault they left. Your fault you don’t see them anymore. Your fault you don’t text or email or talk on the phone anymore. Your fault the friendship dissolved.  Your fault they felt neglected or overlooked. Your fault they didn’t find what they were looking for. Your mind and your logic and even your support group will try to tell you otherwise, but aching hearts don’t respond too well to objectivity!

Look.  I didn’t say I was the sharpest lightsaber in the quiver.   Just rapidly becoming the most experienced.

So here are a few lessons to be learned:

You will often be left wondering. You will probably never know the full extent of why people leave your church fellowship.  It will stink. I don’t know any other way to say it.

Good friendship takes time.  There is no substitute.  It takes shared experiences.  It needs give and take. It takes common direction.  It takes conversation. Lots of it. As a pastor, when people move on, you will no longer have that time with them.  Any of it. They have moved on to new friends. You will also.

People need to be in a place where they can grow and thrive and live lives that bring honor to God.  That may not be in your fellowship any longer.  If the cost is your friendship, that’s a pretty small price to pay for the good of the Kingdom, don’t you think?

Pull up your big boy pants.  You’ve just got to remember it’s not your church, your people, your needs, your plans, or your kingdom.  It’s God’s business and you’re just a caretaker. Where his people go, who their friends are, and who they choose to share life and ministry with are not yours to control.  There is one Church. One Vision. One Kingdom. One King.

As a shepherd of the flock, your heart will be broken more times than it will be thrilled…unless you insulate yourself behind behind a desk, or a pulpit, or a program, or a bunch of other insulated shepherds.

Or you can choose to fully invest yourself in the lives of the people who wander onto your path, for as long as they choose to be there.  Count the friendships as gifts from God.  Who knows?  If they leave, maybe they will be the kind of blessing to others they have been to you…

From the Yoda Anvil…

The Skywalker Letters. #2

Young Jedi,

Roll with me here. As the church becomes more militant and combative in our fight for truth, justice and the American way, the more our commitment to expanding the Kingdom will be compromised.

Come on.  As pastors, is our highest calling to preach the gospel to all nations and reach the lost with the message of hope and grace and healing revealed in the life and words of Jesus or not?  Are we called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus or not? Are we to do what he did…say the things he said…treat people the way he did…and live by giving value to the things he valued or not?

Some people may say that Jesus was an extremist. Maybe you do. I know I did when I was a young Jedi. Some say he polarized people and drew lines and caused his followers to choose sides.  And in a way he did. But he also did something else.

He navigated the middle.

He rubbed elbows with everyone.  He was as comfortable with the prostitute as he was with the aristocrat.  He saw the good, or at least the potential for good, in all. He partied at the wedding feast and he taught in the temple.  He loved the saint and the sinner. How about you?

He was a living bridge and not a wall.  He was a window and not a barricade. He was always the safe middle ground where all were accepted. All were welcome. All were loved. Such a far cry from so many of his followers today.

How about you? Will you be safe?  Will you be welcoming?  Will you listen or are you licking your chops to tell people what you think they need to know?

Will you try to walk in the shoes of the other…to see what they see and feel what they feel and understand why they may think and act the way they do?  Will you do that without judgment and rejection? Do you still have more to learn…even from people with whom you have differences of opinion or conviction?

Will you draw people in or will you push them away with your opinions and corner on the truth?  Will you be known more for you love or for your rhetoric?

Junior, can I offer a suggestion?  The more people are defined by right and left…liberal and conservative…pro this and con that…the greater the need for some pastors who can navigate from the middle.  Followers of Christ and leaders in his church who can understand and articulate and sympathize with both sides of the fence. Any fence.

We desperately need a new generation of pastors who will not be bullied by anybody.  Who will not be intimidated by new ideas or run scared by change. Who will not be frightened by people who are different…philosophies that are different…and even ideas that challenge our orthodox understandings of the church and doctrine.

The world we live in has changed.  Technology has changed. The flow of information has changed.  The rate of change has changed. But people still need to meet Jesus.

And if that’s going to happen in the world as we know it now, we need to have pastors (and people, in general) who can navigate the middle.  The middle is where peace is forged, where compromise is found, where surprising friendships and new alliances are born.  The middle is where people are drawn in, not alienated.

Will that be you?  Will you be a pastor who navigates the middle? We’ve got more than enough of the others!

Shalom, Skywalker.

The Skywalker Letters. #1

Young Jedi,

I’ve thought a lot about my first letter to you.  Before we get to any of the lessons I have learned over time, there is one thing we probably need to get squared away.  I’m pretty much at odds with a lot (maybe even most all) of the other pastors I know or read or listen to. I am definitely the minority.  Let me explain…and I’ll try my best not to be too judgmental. Lol.

Many years ago, I faced a theological, as well as a practical, crisis of sorts.  I was struggling to see the role of the modern pastor anywhere in the Bible. As a matter of fact, much of what I was seeing looked awfully different than what I was reading of the life and leadership of the New Testament church…not to mention the character of Jesus.

So I made a decision.  I rejected the corporate model of church leadership. The pastor-as-CEO has been extremely successful. I just don’t see it as particularly “pastorly”.  Or biblical. It’s totally ridiculous to me that some churches let, or even expect, their pastors to be the bosses or the authority figures or chief decision makers.

Prophets, priests, and kings played significant roles in the era before Jesus. However, the only truly anointed One in the New Covenant was Jesus. A pastor is simply a shepherd who cares for the sheep.  Maybe sometimes a little more, but certainly nothing less. What’s wrong with us that we have let…or even required…pastors become the “face” of a church and the central figure in the life of a local body of worshippers?

Now here’s where it gets dicey, fledgling warrior.  You must choose the path you will walk, or it will be chosen for you.  Let me explain.

Most every person you will have the opportunity to shepherd will have a preconception of what your “pastoral” role in their life should look like. Young and old. Seasoned and newbie. And not only their life, but the whole church as well. It’s one of those occupations where everyone has opinion of who and what you are, and how you should act…and they’ll most likely tell you.  And if you disagree, whether it’s expressed or held close to the vest, they will feel they are right and you are wrong.

Their perception of you and your role will be influenced by a lot of things: their past church experience, their family’s belief system, the immediate culture, your church’s structure and history, and maybe even their interpretation of the Bible.  

And you will need to listen with humility and serve them consistently, with love, no matter what.

Since I rejected the modern definition of the pastor, I have always earned my paycheck by living out the role that was expected of me by the church (both leaders and members), while fulfilling my calling as a shepherd of people and kingdom worker in more subversive and less culturally acceptable ways.  (This was always much easier to do as a youth pastor, rather than the Big Dog role.  Youth ministers can be stealth and ninja-like, because most people see the youth guy as a wannabe, rather than a real minister, anyway!  Just sayin’…).

We’ll get into this more in other letters, but let’s just say I have opted for a definition of pastor that was as free as possible from the modern, cultural picture of a leader and as similar to the life and character of Jesus as I would dare to be:  lead from weakness rather than strength, lift others up, serve with humility, be a peacemaker, focus on the least, live and guide with simplicity, hold people close, forgive ridiculously, extend grace with no limits, find my significance and worth in Who I know, not what I do, and define leadership by integrity and character, rather than decision-making and results.

Here’s the good news:  This has always allowed me to be a pastor who can build deep, meaningful friendships with anybody in the church, live free from the pressure of performance, validate my worth apart from numbers (budget, staff, attendance, facilities, etc…), laugh at myself and the church, ignore the spotlight, be free to be wrong, say “I don’t know”, embrace and express my doubts, change my theological mind, put my family first…like, really put them first, have the freedom to fail without fear, lead from my giftedness and not the expectations of others, preach honestly, care deeply without obsessing, enjoy every Sunday morning, and lead with no need to compare or compete.  And that’s just the tip…

It also means I pastor at the slowest growing church in Denton county…but that’s for another letter, rook.

Like I said, you choose the way you define pastor, or it will be chosen for you.

Choose wisely.

Letters to a young skywalker (pastor)…

I’ve been doing this pastoring thing for a long time.  In one form or another for over forty-six years. Are you kidding me?  That’s my whole adult life! I started this gig in 1973. You do the math…

For about twenty-five of those years, I taught young ministry students in a couple of different Bible colleges.  I considered it an honor and a responsibility to pass on what I had learned from the pastors, authors, teachers, and the many godly men and women whom I counted as friends and mentors along the way.  I am indebted to those who discipled me when I was younger and who pointed me in the right direction and encouraged me to learn from my own experience in church leadership.

My days of teaching in an institution of higher learning have apparently passed me by.  Those book deals the big dog pastors get? Not in the cards. An invitation to speak at a ministry conference?  I’m pretty sure the cost is too steep to insure me walking up on the stage and risking a nose-dive.

So I will write.  Here. To an unknown audience who isn’t exactly lining up to sit at my feet and savor the morsels of my experience or collect the table-scraps of wisdom of what I’ve learned about pastoring along the way.

But, hey.  I’ll take what I can get.  And Wanda still listens when I pontificate. At least she does during the commercials when Fixer Upper is on.

Years ago, I had a student in a youth ministry class I was teaching at a Bible college. He was arrogant, lazy, entitled, and didn’t listen. He came from a large church with a huge youth group, with a well known youth pastor. He told me he was only taking the class because it was required and he already knew enough to be a youth pastor.

I flunked him.

Some years later, he was hired at the same church where I was the youth pastor when I was his teacher in Bible college. He told an old friend of mine that I was just a “bitter old man who was out of touch with youth ministry.” (That was about 25 years ago, btw…)

After a couple of years he was fired.

“You think Yoda stops teaching, just because his student does not want to hear? A teacher Yoda is. Yoda teaches like drunkards drink, like killers kill.” – Yoda

The Star Wars franchise has been around the whole time I’ve been an adult.  I’ve never really been a total fanboy, but I’ve always had a deep connection to the mentor – apprentice relationships that are embedded in the soul of every story line.  The gentle wisdom of Yoda and the passion of Obi-Wan Kenobi for the ways of the Jedi and the training of Luke Skywalker are set in parables that inspire me.

So here I will teach.   Here I will assume the Yoda-esque posture of one who has been there. Here I will don the Obi-Wan robe and offer what has been given to me.

Maybe there is a ministry Skywalker out there who will listen.

I will be back.