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…

Marriage Tuesday

some people would say that marriage is difficult.

i would not be one of those people.

as a matter of fact, because i believe that god created men and women for relationship, there’s no way that i believe that he created it for all the pain and heartache and struggle that it ends up being for so many.

nope.  marriage is not difficult.

but people are.  like…really difficult sometimes.

difficult people make marriage hard.   selfish people make marriage hard. thoughtless people make marriage hard.   angry people make marriage hard.   scared people make marriage hard.  demanding people make marriage hard. dishonest people make marriage hard.   controlling people make marriage hard. hurt people make marriage hard.

it’s true that it takes two to make a good marriage…but it only takes one to make it difficult.   so i’ll ask you…

are you being driven by what you want, or do you constantly put the needs of your spouse first?

do you think carefully before you talk or act?

are you holding on to unresolved bitterness or your spouse, or even others?  what are you afraid of?   is fear controlling your heart?  does it spill out in unhealthy ways?

are you demanding?  do you have to have things done your way?  do you try to control or manipulate your spouse?  do you know what passive-aggressive means?  do you pout or give the silent treatment when you don’t get what you want?

are you hiding anything from your spouse?  do you have other relationships that get more of your time or emotional investment?  are you talking with your spouse about it?

do you have past hurts and resentments that you are holding on to?  does past pain and disappointment that happened to you years ago affect the way you interact with your spouse today?

don’t blame the concept or reality of marriage for the difficulties you face.   don’t act like the end of your marriage will be the end of your problems.  

you can’t be responsible for the actions, attitudes, or heart of your spouse.

but you better be responsible for yours.

Of wolves and sheep

winding down our year of study in the sermon on the mount.  here’s a look at sunday’s study…

near the end of his sermon, jesus gives a warning to be on guard against false prophets.  they are like wolves in sheep’s clothing… ready to devour.  so pay attention.

i’ve had over forty years in church leadership.  not a lot i haven’t seen or heard about.  but one of the things i have seen and heard about far too often is the hurt inflicted on people by bad church and bad church leaders.  brutal.

a prophet is a person who speaks on behalf of god…or at least thinks he does.  god raised up prophets in old testament days to warn his people of the dangers of the way they often lived.  prophets would call the children of israel back to where god wanted them to be.  false prophets looked and sounded like the real deal…and even had miracles and signs to back up their false authority,  but they were not from god.

and things haven’t changed much over thousands of years.

throughout history, there have been heinous false prophets who have led people to their death, with the promise of deeper spirituality, answers to prayers, miraculous interventions, or the ushering in of the end of the world.  and those prophets (and their religious groups) all share some common characteristics that raise “red flags” for me whenever i see them pop up in modern culture:

the first and most noticeable to me is an authoritarian leader.  people refer to it as “________’s church”.  a place where the leader (often a pastor) wields power and is treated like the boss.  he’s a leader who is protected from the common people and unapproachable for the rank and file.

the religious group or leader has all the answers.  his teaching is simply “more right” than most everybody else.  disagreement with the leader causes concern.  questions are perceived as a threat to leadership or even cause for discipline.

i always get concerned about groups or leaders that have fixation on particular doctrines or practices.  usually those practices lean more to the more mystical, like healings, prophecies and special messages from god, miracles, signs, or spiritual battles.

god is doing a new thing in a particular group.  this one may sound really spiritual, but it’s one that always raises my concern… especially when it’s inferred, or outrightly expressed, that if you don’t follow a particular leader,  you’re missing out on something really important.

now don’t overreact.  these are just characteristics.  if they are present, does that make the leader a false prophet?  not necessarily.  but it does mean they are walking a similar path…and we should be very careful.

these groups and leaders are almost always huge into studying and preparing for the end of world.  and because of that, there is usually over-the-top attention given to creating a sense of urgency and developing a timetable for the end.  and then all decisions and behavior of the group are fueled by the fear and insecurity bred by those kinds of scare tactics.

for me, one of the most obvious signs of something being deeply wrong in a church or religious group/leader is the mishandling of money.  bizarre purchases.  closed books.  secretive spending practices.  only a few people who know “real story” behind the group’s financial plan and practice.

on the heals of mishandling money, is often the excessive or opulent lifestyle of the leader.  false prophets (or those pastors and church leaders that are walking way too close to that slippery slope) seem to be way more open to living the high life and adopting extravagant lifestyles.

these days, one of the scariest and most damaging practices of toxic or “false prophet” kinds of religious groups,  is the willingness of these groups and leaders to drive a wedge between younger, more impressionable followers…and their unsuspecting families.  sometimes these young devotees are even stripped of their independence and personal decision-making responsibilities.  scaaaary.

i’m always concerned when i see or hear of groups that place an over-emphasis on music.  anybody with even a casual understanding of the manipulative power of music understands how easy it is to massage emotions and create a contrived setting for unhealthy and overloaded senses.  35 years ago, i was a stupid, young youth minister that unwittingly manipulated kids with music on the last night of camp.  have we not learned anything?

are all groups and leaders who practice these behaviors necessarily false prophets?  no.  but in my book, any group or leader that exhibits any of these characteristics should be looked at with great suspiscion…and probably avoided all together.  just my take.

i would rather be found taking jesus’ warning to watch out for false prophets with greater urgency…than my desire to follow what i feel lead or drawn to participate in.  

better safe than sorry.

Unintended Shrapnel

people say they aren’t hurting others by making poor choices,  but they are only deceiving themselves and ignoring reality.   a line i have heard my whole life goes like this:   what’s the big deal?  nobody’s getting hurt.

the reality is that we don’t live our lives in a vacuum.   there is no decision we make that is independent of effect on others.   the deeper the investment,  the deeper the hurt…to the one who stands by and watches.

sometimes there is no apparent or immediate harm that surfaces in a person’s life when they make choices that are contrary to god’s standards.   getting drunk or smoking dope makes pain go away.   lying can get good results.   sex outside of marriage still feels good (i assume…).   cheaters get ahead.   stealing puts money in the pocket.   revenge is sweet.   nice guys finish last…the strong,  powerful,  intimidating,  show-offs,  bullies,  and sharks win.

sometimes justice is never served.   sometimes the wrong people do is never righted.   but make no mistake…the poor choices people make hurt…somebody.

there is always collateral damage when people turn from god’s wisdom and trust their own judgment.   always.

don’t be caught off guard by unintended shrapnel.

a personal insight…

we had lunch with an old friend today.  we had not sat and talked…really talked…since 1990.  in 1990, he was a just a kid.  he’s a man now.  older.  wiser.  deeper.  it was great to be around him.

as we talked, old wounds of mine were opened.  i thought about things that i had long since buried.  i remembered a lot of good stuff, but some of the pain was still there.  lurking.

but it’s in the past and i have moved on.  older. hopefully wiser and deeper, too.  we are all products of our past.  life events…both good and bad…are the things god uses to shape us and mold us and turn us into something for noble purposes.  or not.

i’m grateful for the pain and the struggle and the injustice and and difficulty and the mistakes and the growth curve that my life journey has produced.  i would not be who i am without it.

i am even more grateful that god never quit on me…even when i doubted…even when i wanted to give up…even when i called his existence and wisdom into question…even when theology and philosophy didn’t square up with what i heard others saying and doing.

i am grateful that faith and reason learned to coexist in my world.  i am grateful that i got to the point that i didn’t have to have answers for everything and that i became (by the grace of god) a pursuer of the “big picture”.

i am most grateful that i didn’t let people define god for me…or ruin faith for me…or box me into corners where there was no reasonable way out.  i am grateful that hurt or mean people did not suck me into bitterness…or lure me into apathy…or blindly call me to a life of judgmental self-centeredness (though i struggle with it everyday).

i will be eternally grateful for mercy, forgiveness (both for me and for those i interact with), for purpose, a higher calling than a mere existence centered on my own pursuit of happiness, and a the capacity to live life within the touch of people…in spite of the risk.

yeah, i’m a pretty happy guy tonight…and it has nothing to do with my location!

Axioms…from my perspective

normally, i dedicate thursdays to giving some of my personal life axioms…truth that, from my perspective, is self-evident. sometimes practical. sometimes philosophical. sometimes whimsical. but truth, no less.

“sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do.”

have you ever had to emotionally separate from someone you love?

have you ever had to put up internal protective barriers between you and someone else, because even though you wanted to be close, they didn’t…and you didn’t want to feel that pain?

have you ever wanted to have a relationship with someone, but you had to create distance…waiting for them to be honest?

a while back, i shared with you this axiom:  “risk being hurt by people.” don’t get me wrong.  i still believe in this axiom.  it is still one of the most profound lessons i have ever learned and i will stand by it’s truth and live with it’s consequences until the day that i die.  but there is a “flip side” to this truth.

sometimes, there just isn’t anything more that you can do.

sometimes, you will give it all…pour it all out…and others will not reciprocate.  sometimes, you will want more and deeper and all you will get is shallow.  sometimes, you will want to be great friends and all you will get is cordial.  sometimes, you will want to share life and heart and spirit…and all you will get is the passing of information.

you will want to speak honestly…resolve differences…dig deeper…know the truth…struggle with dissimilarity…feel their pain…walk through the uneasy, the uncomfortable, the darkness, the anger…but they won’t.

sometimes, there’s nothing more that you can do but wait.

it may change.  it may not.  but you can bet it will stink.

A little introspection

i’m getting ready to preach this morning.  the topic is love.  probably one of the most popular sermon topics preached around the world today.  i wouldn’t have chose it, but since i’m preaching through the book of 1 john, it comes up pretty regularly.

i always get the feeling that when i teach about love, people are saying in the back of their minds, “yeah, yeah, yeah…i’ve heard this a bizillion times…tell me something i don’t know.”  i’m not so sure i don’t feel the same way most of the time.

the problem is, no matter how many times i have preached and taught on love, i know that i still struggle with it.  i can’t even comprehend the love of god, let alone imitate it!  when i am commanded to love my brother, i’m generally ok with that, as long as there is some kind of reciprocation.  when i am rejected, ignored, gossiped about, turned on, lied to, withheld from, slandered, judged, hurt, disregarded, …well, that’s another story.

my prayer today is that even if nobody else listens to my sermon, i will.