Keeping up with the Joneses' Church

Keeping up with the Joneses' Church

The worth of a congregation is determined by statistics. A church with 25 people in the pews is not as important to Christ’s kingdom as a church with 2500. It’s simple arithmetic, really. The more worshipers, the more worth. The larger the church, the larger accolades it deserves.

Called and Ordained Sheriff of the Word

The man was crouched down in the aisle of an Office Depot when I turned the corner and our eyes met. It was December, so the coat he wore didn't look out of place. I had one on too, but it was unbuttoned enough to reveal the clerical shirt I was wearing beneath. I had dropped by to pick up a few items for my study. He had dropped by to pick up an item or two as well…and slide them inside the pocket of his coat. In fact, he was doing exactly that when I rounded the corner. I stopped and stood there. Didn’t move. Didn’t utter a syllable. Didn’t even blink. Never unlocking his eyes from mine, the would-be shoplifter eased the product out of his coat, put it back on the shelf, stood up, turned around and walked quickly away. He cast one last glance over his shoulder at the pastor who had caught him red-handed.

As I’ve told this story over the years, it’s always prompted knowing smiles and laughter. I'd even wager that the man eventually laughed as well. It’s not every day a thief gets caught by a man dressed as the Almighty’s representative.

I wonder, though, upon further reflection, if there’s an unhappy side to this story. Unhappy not because the man was stealing—though, of course, that is, lamentable. Unhappy not because the man ran off before he could be collared. No, unhappy because though that thief fled from a man dressed as a priest, you’d have thought I sported a badge and brandished a pistol. And I wonder if his reaction sums up many people’s view of the pastoral office, as if a shepherd of Christ's flock is actually a called and ordained sheriff of the word.

First of all, let me say that I understand his reaction, because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, when I was in the ministry, a few folks reacted to me as if I wore a Moses mask and lugged around two tablets of stone. They wouldn’t answer my calls, wouldn’t open the door when I knocked, because to them I was the embodiment of their guilty conscience. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. A pastor must preach the law. And that law causes some people to dive for the nearest cover. On the other hand, I’ve also been that sinner who fled from pastors. For a long time, I was carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame. So I avoided contact with men who, in my eyes, embodied so much of my pain. I fled from them like a criminal would a cop.

But I wonder, is it unavoidable that sinners run away from Christ’s shepherd as if he’s an officer of the law? Is there anything they can do to try and prevent it? Think of those questions in terms of Christ’s own ministry.

What is most amazing to me is not that Jesus welcomed public transgressors into his company. What astounds me is that they came to him with the full expectation of not being turned away. He is the holy one of God, after all. He’s a sinless priest, above reproach, the most moral man on earth. Yet these unholy people seek Jesus out. Lepers cry out to him. Whores weep on his feet. Tax collectors climb trees to get a peek at him. Some men even rip apart a roof to lower their friend into his midst! Far from running away from Jesus, sinners of all stripes run to him.

Why? Because Jesus never preached the law? No. Because he was soft on sin? Hardly. Rather, it’s because he not only beckoned the weary and heavy laden to come to him; he took a seat at their dinner tables, became their friend, accepted them as his followers, praised their faith, and defended them. And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the name-calling and tsk-tsking of the religious superstars who were offended that he would lower himself to hang in the gutter with such unworthies. He was the kind of pastor who didn’t damn the woman caught in adultery, much less make a public example out of her. He sent her away to a new, unadulterated life, forgiven and loved. He made an apostle out of a hated tax-collector. Restored another betraying apostle. Chose a murderous, blaspheming persecutor to be the evangelist to the nations. There was really only one group to whom Jesus was harsh and unyielding: those who deemed themselves better than other sinners, who walked around flexing their spiritual muscles, whose treasure was trashing others whose lives were not as outwardly righteous as their own.

It's a risky action to emulate this kind of ministry, to associate yourself with sheep that some consider wolves and others label goats. You’ll be lied about. Your morals will be questioned. You’ll be ostracized by some, laughed at by others, or simply stop hearing from those adept at toeing the religious-political line.

But you might also find yourself listening to hurting people pour out their hearts to you about how good it is to finally find a Christian who’ll listen to them and talk with them without sounding condescending. You might discover the outcasts and unwanted and branded and scarlet-lettered flocking to you because they perceive that in you they will find the sympathy and love and forgiveness of Christ. Rather than running from you as a called and ordained sheriff, they'll recognize in you the kind of shepherd who doesn't care how much mud and dung has defiled their wool. You stand in the stead of the one who washes clean every sinner, loves them, names them his own, and makes them part of his flock.

Fidelity to Christ and love of the outcast neighbor go hand in hand. The mark of an orthodox pastor—indeed, of an orthodox Christian—is not, for example, making sure everyone knows you would never attend a homosexual wedding, much less bake a cake for it. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t; I don’t care. But I would like to know if you would bake them a cake when you asked them over to your home for dinner, introduced them as your friends to your Christian friends, invited them to your church, and showed them in every imaginable way that they, like you, are dead in sin but loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ. It seems rather impossible to bring the Gospel to those we will have nothing to do with. Might this scandalous love result in being shunned by some within the conservative Christian community? Yes, but there is perhaps no clearer sign that you are being a Christ-like shepherd than when you are rejected by some because you embrace those the religious establishment keeps at arm’s length.

This week, in at least two seminaries, men who have been studying for the ministry will receive their calls into that sacred vocation. I pray for them and the congregations they will serve. And part of my prayer is that they will not see or portray themselves as called and ordained sheriffs of the word, but as called and ordained servants of the friend of sinners.

Preachers with Soiled Resumes

Headhunters have a straightforward job. There’s a position to fill, usually in the corporate world, so they hunt down a candidate for that position. Of course, they’re searching for an employee with a top-notch resume, one who has the necessary experience and know-how. Headhunters don’t waste their time recruiting underachievers or amateurs. They’re matchmakers; they introduce just the right employee to just the right employer so that they’ll enjoy a healthy, thriving relationship.

And that’s why God would be, quite possibly, the world’s worst headhunter. Yes, often He does find people to work for Him who have extraordinary skills that they use for service in His kingdom. I have many friends and colleagues who are gifted in this way, and for them I thank God. But we cannot deny that the Lord also has a tendency to call people to do jobs for which they have little or no experience, not to mention few of the skills requisite for the task. In fact, some of them don’t want anything to do with the position. And, to make matters worse, when God strong-arms them into service anyway, much of the time they wind up making fools of themselves, making a mess of the work, or even telling God that He can take this job and shove it. It's as if sometimes the Lord asks Himself, “Now who would most people think would be a miserable candidate for this mission?” Then He goes headhunting precisely for that individual.

Case in point: Jonah. Calling this man to be a prophet makes about as much as sense as hiring an executioner to be the CEO of a hospital. To begin with, he doesn’t want the job, period. He lets his feet do the talking. When God says, “Go preach in Nineveh,” he boards a ship sailing away from Nineveh. Is he afraid of the people in Nineveh? No. Does he doubt his abilities as a preacher? No. Rather, those people he’s supposed to serve—they sicken him. Nothing would make him happier than for God to fry those fiends with fire and brimstone, to play the ole Sodom-and-Gomorrah card. They’re his people’s sworn enemies. They’re infamous as butchers. They make ISIS look tame. The problem is simply this: Jonah knows that if he preaches God’s word to them, they may actually repent and believe. And if they do that, God will do the very thing which angers Jonah most: He’ll forgive them. In His audacious, scandalous love, He’ll let them off scot-free. That Jonah can’t stomach. And if you remember the rest of Jonah’s story, that’s exactly what happened.

So why would the heavenly headhunter choose someone with such personal animosity towards his mission field? We could ask the same type question of any number of the Lord's other choices, many of whom have rather soiled resumes. Why would He choose Moses, a man with Egyptian blood on his hands, to lead one of the greatest act of redemption ever accomplished? Why would He let David, a renowned murderer and adulterer, remain on the throne of Israel, and even use his words of repentance in one of the most widely sung psalms in Christendom? Why would He fill Samson with His Spirit, a judge who's always getting caught with his pants down? Why appoint Peter as part of the apostolic foundation of the church, a man who publicly denied three times that he even knew Jesus? Why call Saul, a once blaspheming, murdering, Christian-hating Pharisee, to take the Good News throughout the Roman world? Why would the Lord of wisdom make such foolish choices?

Someone might say that the messenger doesn't matter but the message does. I disagree. In fact, the messengers do matter—they matter greatly. In fact, they are part of the word that God is speaking. And that word is that God is the God of the cross, the cross that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18). God has chosen the foolish things and foolish people of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the lowly things and lowly people of the world to shame the high and mighty. God has chosen the weak things and the weak, broken, soiled, despised people of the world to shame the powerful and self-righteous. He chose tax collectors and prostitutes and renegades and doubters to show the religious establishment that they didn't know their theological ass from a hole in the ground. He even chose a mule-headed prophet named Jonah to demonstrate that He can be as stubborn in love as people can be in judgement.

God's kingdom is a wild and wacky place. It's pregnant with seeming contradictions. A God who's a man. A king who's a servant. A priest who's a sacrifice. Shepherds who get fed to wolves. Men and women with scars proclaiming His healing. Pastors with skeletons in their closets revealing a bodiless tomb. Preachers with soiled resumes uttering words that wash us white in the blood of the Lamb.

All this seemingly contradictory work God does, however, not to be vague and sneaky but to show us that it's okay to be weak. It's okay to be broken. You don't have to fix yourself so you're good enough for God. Christ loves you in your brokenness. His light shines through the cracks in your soul. His cross is for you, where He was broken to heal you, to cleanse you, to make you better than okay. In Christ not just your resume, but your whole body and soul are as pure as snow.

Blessed are the soiled, for in Christ they are clean. Blessed are the weak, for in Christ they are strong. Blessed are the despised, for they leave the temple justified. Blessed are the Moseses, Davids, Samsons, Sauls, and Jonahs, for in Christ they are God’s chosen leaders, poets, warriors, apostles, and prophets.

When Angels Gathered Above a Kitchen Sink

He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new. Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.

Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.

I suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.

Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.

Punching the Vicar in the Face: One of the Best Years of His Ministry

When they pulled up in front the farmhouse, the elder behind the steering wheel cast a sideways glance at the vicar who rode shotgun. They’d both spotted him, the man they’d come to visit. He was slouched on the porch, shirtless in his overalls, surrounded by empty beer bottles. A sneer twisted around his unshaven face. He hadn't darkened the church doors for months, probably over a year by now. And it was the job of this pastor-in-training and his lay sidekick to provide the loving admonition needed to try and bring this lost sheep back into the Lord’s fold. But the only "admonition" about to happen didn’t come from these two church-goers, and neither was it delivered in love. It was the late 1940’s, in a small, rural parish in central Oklahoma. The vicar was a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, in training for the ministry. He’d been assigned to serve one year in a kind of internship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma. Because the church’s budget was a bit restricted, the vicar boarded with congregational members, a new family welcoming him every month. He preached, he taught confirmation, he visited the sick and shut-ins. And, like it or not, he also visited members who, for one reason or another, hadn’t been to church in a blue moon.

When the duo stepped out of the old Ford, the man stepped off his porch to meet them.  “Morning, Mr. Jones,” said the vicar, attempting a jovial smile. Mr. Jones didn’t see fit to return the greeting. Or the smile. He stopped a few paces away and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “What do y’all want?” A good question that was. What did they want? Honestly, the elder really wanted to be back home with his wife and children. The vicar really wanted to be back at the church scratching out next Sunday’s sermon. But here they were, so they’d just as well make the best of it, say what needed to be said, and hightail it out of there. “Well,” said the vicar, “folks've been missing you in church. Everybody has. So we thought we’d stop by and visit with you for a bit, if that’s okay.”

The thing was, it wasn’t okay with Mr. Jones. Not only was he in no mood to visit. He was in no mood to see them, to hear them, or to tolerate their continued presence in front of his house. So if they knew what was best for them they’d get themselves back in that Ford and get the hell off his property.  This he made abundantly clear in rather colorful language.

As the man went from speaking to growling, the vicar tried his best to calm him down. But the storm of liquor inside him raged. He took a menacing step forward, then two. “Let’s go, Vicar,” said the elder, opening his door and sliding behind the wheel to start the Ford’s engine. The man was now in the vicar’s face, his breath reeking of whiskey, his words reeking of spite and plain old meanness. He didn’t give a damn what nobody thought of him, he said. And he wasn’t about to go back to a church with all them there hypocrites and holier-than-thous. He was spitting the words out by now. The vicar, still facing the man, fumbled behind him to find the door handle. He grabbed it, pulled it open, and jumped in.

But the man—who supposedly didn’t desire this visit—now seemed intent on it not ending there. Through the open window on the vicar’s side he shoved his massive frame, reaching for the car keys. The elder threw it in first gear and popped the clutch. As the vehicle started to lurch forward, the man yanked his body out, cursing them both. And they almost got away unscathed. Almost. But just as the car moved, the man let go a swing with his right arm. His fist flew through the open window and found its target in the face of the young man from St. Louis, who showed up to church the next morning with a blackened eye and a bruised face and the remembrance of a pastoral visit he’d never forget.

I should know. For over half a century later, when I served that same Oklahoma congregation as a young pastor, he recounted it to me, as I have to you, in vivid detail. While researching the history of the congregation in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2000, I’d unearthed the bare bones account of this story in the minutes of a church meeting held after the services on that black-eyed Sunday. My interest piqued, I did some hunting, found an address and phone number, and phoned our vicar friend.

He was in his early 80’s by then, living in the Houston area near his family. Having served a handful of congregations, he’d retired years before and settled into that vocation of rest and reflection reserved for our twilight years. He told me about that infamous visitation, and all the drama that unfolded after it (the man was excommunicated, and eventually repented, was absolved, and restored to the fellowship). He went on to talk about some of the loving, welcoming families with whom he had stayed; how much he had learned about himself and the church during that year; and how it had helped shape him as a pastor. At the end of our conversation, he wished me God’s blessings as I served at that congregation where he himself had served as a vicar decades before. And he said something else, something that has always stuck with me, “That was one of the best years of my ministry.”

When I hung up the phone, I sat in my study and thought about those words. I had yet to suffer from a blackened eye, but my pride had been severely bruised many a time during my service there. There were a few people who didn’t want to see my face or have me on their property. I’d been verbally attacked, lied about, scorned. In other words, I’d suffered what just about every pastor suffers. I’d borne the cross of the ministry. But I’d also been welcomed by families that gathered around this pulpit and altar every Sunday. They had defended me, loved me, supported me privately and publicly. And, right or wrong, I’m pretty sure that if I’d shown up for the liturgy with a blackened eye, I knew a couple of guys who’d pay a visit to the perpetrator to return the favor.

The vicar’s story helped put my life, and my ministry, in perspective that year. Pastors are like everyone else; they are tempted to view everything as negative when looking through a blackened eye. But that’s only part of the story. There is the joy over one sinner who repents. There is the joy of being God’s hands to hold the child who is washed in water and the Word to become a member the divine family. There is the joy of the grieving consoled, the wayward led back, the guilt-ridden soul set free through the absolution. I thank the Lord for that vicar, his black eye, and what he told me on the phone that day. For I began to realize then, and fully realize now, that it was one of the best years of my ministry.