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…

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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.

Back to Mexico

The very first thing we did as a youth group when the Farra Tribe moved to Texas in 1995 was take a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico…before we even unboxed things in our new apartment. That yearly spring break trip would shape our personality as a youth group and influence who we became as a whole church for over 15 years.

For years, we raised money, stockpiled tools and camping gear, collected donated food, and mobilized teams of kids and adult leaders to make our yearly 1300-mile round trip through west Texas nothingness, to build houses for people living in poverty.

We would load vans and trucks and trailers and buses full of nervous expectations and servant hearts.  We would always come back changed people with a different view of ourselves and the world we lived in here in Lewisville.  On those trips, we always felt a little closer to what Jesus called his followers to do in the world and a little better prepared to do it at home, also.

Then it all changed.

In March of 2010, we made our last youth group trip to Juarez. That was the year the local drug cartels made open war with each other and travel to Juarez became too risky.  Even though things got back to normal in just a few years, Amor Ministries (the organization that always managed our trip) had decided to close down mission trips in that area for good.

I had always hoped we could take kids back to Juarez.  A couple of weeks ago, that hope became a reality as we took a small group back to where our life in Texas began 24 years ago.  I am grateful to Amor Ministries for making the trip possible…for connecting our youth ministry to the group of Mexican pastors in Juarez who have continued the work of building homes for people in need and to the local church that hosted our group.

The trip was very different than the way we used to do it back in the old days.  We stayed inside a nice church building and shared fellowship with some pretty sweet church folks.  Gone were the dusty tents and bucket showers and temporary banos. It was anything but roughing it.

The work project was like old times, tho.  We raised a bunch of money to pay for building materials and supplies.  We cut and hammered and nailed and mixed and rolled and stretched and spread.  And in the end, we passed on a set of keys and a Bible and some hope of a better life for a young family and their parents.

The house isn’t much by our standards.  It’s an 11-foot by 22-foot, wood framed, stucco coated, asphalt roofed building.  Not much bigger than a bedroom or a backyard storage shed here in our burgh. But to the family that received it, the gift is a treasure.

It was good to be back.  It was good to get our priorities realigned.  It was good to be reminded we have more than enough and that, as a church, we spend way too much money and attention on ourselves, our building, our technology, and our experience…all in the name of kingdom building.

I’m glad we get to go back. We’re better now.


Saying “goodbye” to old friends

So I recently started doing this thing at 9:30 on Sunday mornings.  I’ve called it “Wading into the deep water”. I figured it was about time to address some of the wild javelinas in the room…starting with the fact that we don’t all agree.  Theological opinion circulates in the church more than the smell of expensive hipster coffee in the lobbies of big churches.

There is no doubt I feel the pressure to give black-and-white, authoritative, “right” answers when I am confronted with questions…especially the hot button kind.  I am a spiritual answer man, for crying out loud.  I’m also aware there are “conventional” interpretations…answers I was taught when I was just a theological grasshopper…traditions as church practices that I just assumed as my own for years…that I no longer believe or practice.

Change did not happen overnight.  Nor did it happen flippantly. I didn’t just wake up one day and realize I had fallen off the Bible teaching bandwagon of my past.  I’ve read. I’ve studied…the Bible and the writings of church thinkers throughout the ages. I’ve listened. I’ve compared and contrasted.  I’ve weighed things out. I’ve wrestled with my motives and the possible outcomes.

There are many things I still hold as unshakeable truths.  I cannot remotely imagine ever changing what I believe about certain things.  Yet, there are others that have morphed over time…and still others that are long gone.

Some changes have been relatively easy.  Other changes in my thinking have been painfully difficult.  Some changes have been fully embraced. Others are still a work in progress.  All have been fueled by a desire to be a true disciple and obedient to the word.  At the risk of looking like a crazy man or being labelled a heretic, here’s a look at some things I no longer hold as absolute truth…things I have “changed my mind” on over time:

  • Rock music is of the devil.
  • Women are unfit to lead in society.
  • We can trust the american judicial system to treat everyone with fairness and impartiality.
  • Pastors are to be the theological authority in a church family.
  • The goal of the church is to get bigger.
  • True christians needed to picket abortion hospitals.
  • You can’t be a private gun owner and truly trust jesus.
  • Making condoms available from the health centers on High School campuses is always a bad thing.
  • Getting counseling is a sign of weakness.
  • The premillennial position on end times is the right position.
  • Men are always to be the spiritual leaders of the marriage and family.
  • I will be “raptured out” before the “great tribulation”.
  • Since God apparently knows everything that’s going to happen (and is possibly causing it), prayer can’t change God’s mind.
  • Calvinism and Arminianism are both equally true.  Our finite minds are just incapable of completely understanding it.
  • Any people who speak in tongues are just wacky.
  • Paul wrote the book of Hebrews.
  • You must have an invitation to accept Christ into your heart at the end of a worship service.
  • It is a sin to miss communion on a Sunday.
  • It might even be a sin to miss church on a Sunday.
  • Church services are only to be done on Sundays.
  • Communion has to be unleavened bread and Welch’s grape juice (the sacred grape juice).
  • Guitars should not be used in church.
  • We need to dress up on Sundays for church.
  • The earth is less than 8000 years old.
  • The King James Version is the most reliable translation of the Bible.
  • Christians should not have tattoos.
  • Dancing is sinful.
  • Women should never speak in a church service.
  • If a person repents of sin and professes trust in Christ for salvation on their deathbed…but never makes it to the baptistery…they will go to hell.
  • All catholics will go to hell.  Probably most episcopals, too. My home church even had some serious doubts about Southern Baptists.
  • Real christians don’t drink alcohol of any kind.
  • Missionaries and pastors are superior christians.
  • America is more “christian” than other countries.
  • Jesus was really born on december 25.
  • Homosexuality is always a choice that people make.
  • Hell is endless and eternal pain and torment.
  • Divorced people are prohibited from important ministry in the church.
  • Sundays are the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament Sabbath.
  • Church meetings need to begin and end with prayer.
  • Only certain people are predestined to be saved.
  • The sermon is the most important part of a church service.
  • God’s greatest attribute is his omnipotence.
  • Christians have to be republicans.
  • Personal wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.
  • Personal poverty is a sign spiritual maturity.
  • Churches are better off being racially segregated.
  • There is a sure-fire formula for marriage success.
  • Natural disasters are a form of God’s punishment.
  • My church and my doctrine are “right”…and everybody else…if they disagree…is wrong.
  • I have an obligation to perpetuate my denominational heritage.
  • My words or my relationship with a person can keep them from sinning or self-destructing.
  • If i am doing something really important for God, he will protect me from harm.
  • When a child dies, we can console ourselves by believing God wants them more in heaven than he wants them on earth.
  • All Muslims are inherently bad people.
  • Mormons and christians basically believe the same thing.
  • It is important to teach people to tithe.
  • The Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the 27 Amendments to the Constitution and the Sermon on the Mount are all to bear equal importance in the life of an American christian.
  • the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.
  • The amount of people believing a particular doctrine, teaching or tradition increases its credibility.
  • Since we’ve always done something that way (or believed that way), it must be right…and we must continue doing it.

I suppose…

Light bulbThe King of my life… was a rebel-leader who routinely broke the law in service to a higher law.  Let that sink in.

As much as I love the energy and cultural connection of modern musical worship…it more often than not, leaves me wanting and in need of corporate worship that is less dependent on performance artists.

After ten days in SoCal… it sure looks like the only pro football team that area cares about is the Oakland Raiders.  LA doesn’t want or deserve the Chargers. #stillinmourning

Whataburger > In-N-Out.  For me, it’s official.

Do not lie.  Always tell the truth.  Parents know this. Good children know this.  Why is it no longer a treasured value in our culture?  Where are the role models?

A friend brought up the idea of a sabbatical to me.  Nope. I will work hard not to be judgmental of those who feel they need them.  I throw up a little in my mouth at the thought of people who think they deserve them.

I’m learning to be a grandparent as I go.  I only met one of my grandparents. Neither of my parents were around long enough to show me how.  There is a special love I have for my grandkids…an unexpected surprise I didn’t see coming.

It’s going to be 109 degrees in Lewisville today.  But it’s a dry heat. Like a furnace on high.

The very best youth ministry…always has been and always will be parents who model Jesus’ love for people and love for the church to their kids.  The problem? Most parents struggle with that and won’t ask for help.