Monthly Archives: December 2015

Christmas With Family

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I awoke early this Christmas Eve morning, for some reason unable to sleep past 5:00am. How unlike me! But after starting some chicken for our traditional Christmas Eve meal of enchiladas, then showering, then walking to the local coffee shop for my earned freebie, I sat down on the couch—still not quite six o’clock—to read my Mom’s last Advent devotional of the year, followed by Glimpses.

My treasured gift this year—received unwrapped in a Priority Mail® envelope, and so opened the day it was received—is a fifty-page collection of “memories, impressions, disappointments, joys” from her life. In these pages (I’m only halfway through), I am finding names I’ve heard over the years that go with faces I’ve never seen, or seen only on rare occasions in my childhood; I’ve read of the grandfather I never knew, who died ten years before I was born (I think I would have loved him); I got a peak as if through curtains at the pain and fear my mom endured when my brother was diagnosed with cancer.

And so, in the quiet of this dawning Christmas Eve day, I am enjoying the time with family, a family I have too little known. It is a special treat, for the frequent moves we made while I was growing up took us away from the people I am sitting with now. And although the voices are mute and the faces dim, there is plenty of space in our living room this morning.

Merry Christmas, Modzel and Paul (Pahl) families. I’m so glad you could all be here this morning.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

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XRF_12daysIt’s one of my least favorite Christmas carols. It’s obnoxiously repetitive, ranking right up there with that long-bus-ride favorite, “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” It’s nonsensical, with its references to dancing ladies, leaping lords, and half a dozen varieties of bird. It seems that the song, like so many TV commercials, must have been inspired by late nights and an excess of wassail and eggnog.

And yet, for all its faults, perhaps “The Twelve Days of Christmas” can serve for us as sort of an Advent-in-reverse, extending the significance of the holiday beyond the family gatherings and the feverish unwrapping of gifts.

Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas—the actual days, not the song, which was written around 1780—has taken place for hundreds of years…at least as far back as the Council of Tours in AD 567. Included by different Christian traditions during these days are celebrations of the birth of Jesus (Dec 25), His circumcision (Jan 1), and Epiphany or Three Kings Day (Jan 6). 

In recent decades, some have suggested that the song was an encoded catechism, a training tool for Catholic children. That idea, it seems, was concocted in the imagination of a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh McKellar, seeking religious significance in what was in fact little more than a two-hundred-year-old party game. Still, perhaps there is something of value in his thinking.

For the imaginative hymnologist, each gift in the song represented an aspect of Christian faith. In order from one to twelve: Jesus Christ; the Bible’s two testaments, Old and New; faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13); four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the first five books of the Old Testament; six days of creation; seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, and mercy); eight beatitudes (Matthew 5); nine fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23); ten commandments; the eleven faithful apostles; and twelve points of faith in the Apostles’ Creed.

Perhaps in the days following Christmas, we could use McKellar’s list as a guide for reflection and gratitude.

 

In the Face of Evil

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Terror Headline Collage

Courtesy of Huffington Post.

Suicide bombings in Beirut kill 43, wound 239. Terrorist attacks in Paris kill 130, wound 368. Ten dead at an Oregon college, fourteen in San Bernardino. And those are just in the past two months.

Gun control. Prayer shaming. Closing borders. Fear.

These are the responses to the evil and violence that seem to be growing in intensity and frequency not only in our nation, but around the world. Politicians on one side call for gun control; on the other side, for border walls. The news media calls for solutions while reveling in the business; fear—like sex—sells.

Christians divide: some call for war, some for peace, all for prayer. Some want to reject Muslim refugees, some want to eradicate Islam altogether. Others want to win Muslims through love and service, a la the Good Samaritan in one of Jesus’ more well-known parables.

This morning I read these familiar words in a new light:

Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. (Psalm 37:3-6, ESV)

It is a passage often quoted by Christians, offering hope and encouragement through trust in a good and faithful God. What struck me this morning, though, was the broader context in which these verses lie. Far from being a simple call to faith in the midst of the normal challenges of everyday life, the backdrop to Psalm 37 is a time of great strife, enmity, and threats from surrounding nations. The aging David’s reign over Israel has been marked by war and bloodshed; his victories on the battlefield have left behind jealous, hate-filled enemies. Even before ascending the throne, David’s life since youth was spent running from his own king, fearing for his own life.

This warrior-king’s call is to place faith over fear; to trust in God even in the face of threats and imminent danger. When David uses words like evil and wicked and wrongdoers, he is not talking primarily about swindlers or cheaters, but about bloodthirsty adversaries bent on killing. If he were writing today, perhaps he would use the word “terrorists.”

And how does David say we should live in the face of this great evil? Not in fear or hatred, which “tends only to evil” (v. 8), but in goodness and trust, in worship and faithfulness, in righteousness and justice.

We should live with great trust in the Lord who “laughs at the wicked, for He sees that his day his coming” (verse 13).

Today, will you live in fear or—worse—in hatred? Or will you trust in the God who sees…and who will one day act to end all violence and fear and hatred? …the God who laughs in the face of evil.

Hiring Weakness

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In the world of pastoral search committees, there is a long-standing gag that says not even the Savior of the world would meet the qualifications many churches are looking for in a senior pastor. It’s not as funny as it sounds.

There is a disconnect between the pastors that search committees are looking for and the men[1] who would be those pastors. Taking cues from the business world in which so many of their members work, and from the executive search firms they engage to aid in the process, the hard-working men and women on search teams are looking for a hard-working pastor who will lead their church to ministry success and growth.

They scour resumes and cover letters and references for signs of leadership strength: increased attendance, multiple services, growing budgets, advanced degrees. They want to know the pastor is a skilled exegete of scripture, is known and respected in the community, is well-read in the latest from John Maxwell and Tim Keller and Malcolm Gladwell.

I want to suggest a different path: that search committees look for a pastor who is honestly and humbly aware of his weaknesses and his inability to stand alone.

I’m not talking about answering the question, “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” The corporate world has trained us to wrap our deficiencies in the language of strength; our answers to this question are therefore a sideways attempt to declare our aptitude, rather than a genuine admission of weakness.

Paul David Tripp gets at the heart of this in his excellent book, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. I am grateful for the search committee member who recommended the book; it ought to be required reading for every pastor, every search committee, every church leadership team.

Writing from both his own experience as a pastor and his work with pastors and church leaders, Tripp boldly warns of the dangers inherent in pastoral ministry. Not the Davidic threat of an illicit relationship with a secretary or counselee, but the more sinister—because it’s more hidden—disappointment with or anger at God; the “personal isolation coupled with a large network of terminally casual relationships”; the unrealistic and unbiblical expectation that a pastor no longer struggles with sin.

But the reality, as Tripp reminds us, is that the pastor is still being sanctified just like any other church member. The shepherd needs to be nurtured and nourished every bit as much as the sheep under his care.

Search committees, keep this in mind the next time you look at resume or talk with a candidate:

“We are not calling skills, knowledge, and experience to ministry. … We are calling people in the middle of their own sanctification, still struggling with the seductive and deceptive power of sin. … We are calling people who are as desperately in need of forgiving, transforming, empowering, and delivering grace as anybody to whom they would ever minister.”[2]

 

[1] My use of the masculine is not a theological statement, but a practical one. In the church circles in which I run, the vast majority of pastors are men. I have chosen to use the masculine gender only in the interest of readability.

[2] Tripp, Paul David (2012-10-31). Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (pp. 64-65). Crossway. Kindle Edition.