Is this ‘Pastoral’ Work?

            “Is this Pastoral work?” It’s a question that I can honestly say I’ve never been asked – at least directly. I think this is due in part to the awkwardness that accompanies such a pointed inquiry. Though not necessarily indicative of the intentions of the enquirer, it does seem to reflect a degree of distrust regarding the pastor’s judgement – something that increases the potential for strain in one of the most critical of a congregation’s relationships. It also comes with a risk – the risk that one will discover that the time, love, and attention granted to an individual by someone they’ve come to trust is being given only because that individual is being compensated for their effort.

            Despite these concerns, the question is a valid one. On the surface, it often looks like I’m really just a “paid Christian.” So what’s the difference between what a pastor does and the work of the average church volunteer? I could point out that pastors differ because of the nature of our Divine Call. Scripture indicates that God has granted each of us unique gifts with the intention that they be used for the betterment of the body of Christ (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12: 7-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11). In the case of a pastor, these include a capacity to preach, teach, administrate, counsel, and comfort (among others). It’s a whole suite of natural inclinations that prepare an individual to serve not just as a leader, but as a leader of God’s people.

I could also point out the extensive specialized training required to become a pastor. In the PC(USA) this includes three to four years of Grad School and multiple internships. This ensures that each minister has a deep enough knowledge of polity and theology (theoretically) to unite the congregation in the discernment and enactment of God’s will.

But this really doesn’t answer your question, does it. You already know this. What you really want to know is whether when I join you for dinner and we play checkers afterward, do I think of this time together as ‘work’? Do I count all of the time I spend praying or reading the Bible as pastoral hours? If I don’t – how do I know what is and what isn’t pastoral work?”

While you’re likely to hear different answers from different pastors, here is mine:

In general, there are two questions I ask as I approach any given task. The first is, Would I be doing this if I weren’t the pastor of this congregation? In some cases this is easy to answer. No, I wouldn’t spend the hours required each week to write the 8-10 page research paper you’ve come to know as the Sunday sermon. I wouldn’t be attempting to attend (let along offer meaningful guidance) to every church committee. And I certainly wouldn’t be trying to oversee the staff who ensure that the Music and Christian Ed departments function effectively, the building and property are well-maintained, or the bulletins get printed on time. I wouldn’t be asking for God’s guidance as I seek to resolve the challenges that face our congregation or pro-actively calling on individuals who I think may be in need. These tasks – all outlined in my formal Terms of Call – fall solidly in the category of ‘work’.

In other cases though, the answer isn’t quite this simple. The truth is that there are also tasks that I sometimes count as pastoral work that I would be doing – at least in their basic form – whether I was a pastor or not. I attend community events; I eat meals and socialize with congregants; I pray; I read Scripture. In these cases, there is a second criteria I use: Is the nature of this task significantly transformed by the fact that I am a pastor?

In my time here, I’ve made my way around town and it’s reaching a point where many folks recognize me. There are plenty of events or activities in which I would eagerly participate regardless of my position. That said, there are some which I attend because I’m the Pastor of our congregation. When I’m invited to speak or to pray as the pastor, am attending for the purpose of developing relationships between our congregation and the community at large, or at the request of members who have asked me to attend as the pastor – these events become work. To help congregants and others clearly identify that I’m “on duty”, you’ll generally find me wearing my collar rather than my street clothes.

The same principle applies to social invitations. If you’ve invited me to join you for some recreation or a meal because we get on well and we spend a few hours just enjoying each other’s company, that’s not work. On the other hand, if you invited me to dinner because I’m the pastor, if you want to chat about challenges the congregation is facing, or are seeking advice from me because you want the pastor’s opinion – well, that is. Sometimes this means that part of what I do when I’m spending time with you is work and part isn’t. Some of you have gotten quite adept at spotting the difference and I frequently hear the words, “I need you to put on your collar for a moment” from those who recognize that the time I spend performing these tasks does constitute the fulfillment of my formal Terms of Call.

This same principle applies to more mundane tasks as well. If I’m reading (even Scripture or an academic journal) for pure enjoyment or my own edification and relaxation, this isn’t work. On the other hand, if I’ve specially selected a passage, a book, a journal, or anything else because I’m actively seeking to improve my capacity to serve effectively alongside you with wisdom, creativity, and discernment – it is. If I’m reading something because I’m looking for answers that will inform my sermon, assist in answering the questions of my congregants (individually or collectively), or help to improve the functionality of our congregation – this is work. If I’m reading because a congregant has requested pastoral feedback on something they’ve read… also work.

As you can see, the answers to these questions provide a great deal of clarity when it comes to discerning which of my daily activities do or don’t fulfill my Terms of Call. But there’s one more question I want to answer before I conclude. This one is far more important than those I’ve answered above: When I’m sitting with you in my office, at your home, or by your hospital bed, when we’re on the phone together or e-mailing or texting – whenever I’m listening to your sorrows, holding your hand, caring for you in your trials – am I doing that just because I get paid?

The answer to this is a resounding, “No!” While like any first responder, I do get paid to be available to do this, the genuine love and affection I offer you is not for sale. This is not “just a job” to me and the emotions I express… those are the real deal. The tears I cry are there because I care about you and don’t want to see you suffer. The joy we share is from the genuine delight I feel over your successes. And I’d still love you and be glad to know you even if I weren’t your Pastor. Yes, there are some gray areas here and there, but this isn’t one of them.


Love Your Neighbor

Last month, I shared my commitment to avoid preaching politics from the pulpit. For some of you this was exciting news – you’ve had enough of ministers telling you how you ought to vote. For others, it was a bit confusing – isn’t this what a good “prophet” ought to be doing? In fact, to some it seems that this is exactly what Jesus was doing throughout most of his ministry! What could be more political than the commandment to “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31)?

The truth is, our beliefs about Jesus’s teachings and their relationship to the political scene (both then and now) are often so strongly rooted that whether we lean liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, it becomes difficult for us to read the biblical text without engaging a political lens. To illustrate, I once preached a sermon on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Unlike most of my sermons in which I read the text, share some background, and move on to exposition, I determined to keep this one simple. I read the text and provided a bit of cultural background. Then I committed the sermon to God and sat down. I didn’t draw any cultural parallels or suggest ways to implement the teaching in our local community. I didn’t even tell my congregation what the text meant; I just read it.

The next day, I began receiving angry e-mails about my having preached a “political” sermon! Why? Because my listeners had grown so used to filtering sermons through the lens of their politics that they could no longer hear that Jesus was really trying to teach a lesson on morality.

There isn’t, of course, any question that personal morality and politics are intertwined or that a Christian’s personal morality should impact their politics. But it’s important to recognize that the fact that these two issues intersect at the center of our mental Venn Diagrams does not make them identical to one another.

So let’s start by taking a moment to define “politics.” The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines the term as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” In other words, political activity is tied to the action of governments as they make broad policy decisions intended to bring about specific ends for stereotypical subsets of people, i.e., “minorities,” “immigrants,” “students,” “retirees,” etc.

As much as we condemn stereotyping, this isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s helpful to recognize the broad similarities across specific subsets of individuals – especially when doing so helps us to identify problems that need to be addressed. When I was in seminary, for example, I noticed that each student with disabilities was fighting an independent battle for reasonable accommodations. While a few students were meeting with success, the vast majority felt like they were losing. This was due in part to how overwhelmed the administration was trying to sort through everyone’s unique needs. In banding together, disabled students and their allies were able to identify some broadly shared requirements and bring actionable items before the board. (It turns out, for example, that one disabled parking slot is insufficient for a building in which eight students with mobility challenges are attempting to attend a single class.)

I mention this because I want to be clear that engagement in politics (the establishment of broad governing policies) isn’t a bad thing and can, when done prayerfully, be quite useful. But it’s also important to note (and here is where I get controversial): Jesus never engaged politics through his preaching.

That’s right. Though many of Jesus’ teachings have good applications in the political realm, they were never directed at the nation’s political leaders or intended to influence national policy. Jesus didn’t offer commentary on Caesar’s greed for power, Rome’s policies on slavery, or its use of torture to punish criminals (despite the fact that crosses with their suffocating victims were a common sight on the roads outside of occupied cities). Instead, he focused on developing the individual moral character of each of His disciples so that they in turn could engage these issues following His death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. His primary concern was not how His followers responded to or enacted policy but how they interacted with individuals relationally.

This may, in fact, shed significant light on how Jesus was able to attract disciples from such a broad variety of political perspectives to begin with.

  • Matthew was a tax collector and in league with the empire.
  • Simon was a Zealot, a member of a group that many felt bordered on a terrorist organization since it advocated the violent overthrow of the empire.
  • James and John were faithful Jews awaiting the coming of the Messiah – a political leader who would establish a new, more peaceful empire.

Jesus’ teachings weren’t directed toward the empire. Of equal note, they weren’t directed toward the population at large either. Instead, His concern was the Jewish religious community. That’s right – those who professed faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and were struggling to figure out how to live that faith in a world in which God was not king and religious plurality was the norm.

I’d like to draw your attention back to the oft quoted “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Though in a present-day American political context this gets repeated with such fervency that it sounds like the first commandment, it isn’t. In fact, it’s the second. The first is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – something that is extraordinarily difficult for a government (especially one that deliberately advocates for separation of church and state) to do. Yet as Christians, this first commandment is our primary call.

It is our morality as reflected in our individual relationships (first with God and then with others as individuals created in God’s image), not our politics – that defines us. Jesus was training His disciples to approach the rest of humanity not as stereotypical groups, but as individuals. And this is where things get sticky…

You see, politics will always be easier than relationship. This shouldn’t be surprising since the principles that govern our politics (regardless of which way we lean) allow us to quickly identify the chief needs of others and to have the proper response to those needs always at the ready. See a homeless woman holding a sign asking for money for food? A political response already knows her story and what she really needs – a better work ethic, training in financial management, a rehab program, maybe all three. Perhaps we’ll help her out (not her and not today, but someone else later) by advocating for tougher parenting, the addition of financial training to High School curriculum, or the establishment of better insurance options for addicts. We feel good about ourselves and say that we fulfilled Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor.” But have we really?

Remember that Good Samaritan mentioned earlier? If you’ve taken time to read the story, you know that when the Samaritan comes across this unnamed victim lying naked and beaten by the side of the road, he doesn’t hurry by thinking about the importance of advocating for better policing of Roman roads or the establishment of some new church program to clothe the naked. Instead, he stops and looks the dying man in the eye. He doesn’t know the whole story – whether the man who was beaten provoked the robbers to a confrontation, or whether he was the member of a rival faction – what he knows is that the man if left on his present course is going to die. And God (yes, Samaritans also worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) has commanded him to be a bringer of life. So he bandages the man’s wounds and delivers him to safety. Then he goes a bit beyond and provides a few resources to ensure that he’s not just delivered from the immediate threat of death, but that he has a chance at recovering a “normal” life.

And this, is what Jesus means when He tell us to “love our neighbor.” He isn’t talking about policies, but about persons. True love is rooted in relationship. As your pastor I care about how you do (or don’t) approach the homeless person in the parking-lot, the neighbor whose electricity just got shut off, or the overwrought mother in the grocery line; not because there is one “right” way to respond, but because there are a multitude, each one as different as the individuals involved. We will only know which one God is calling us to if we treat each encounter as its own and each individual as a unique creation of our God.


Politics from the Pulpit: Why I Refrain

September has arrived and a new election season will soon be upon us. In the midst of turmoil both at home and abroad, tensions are running high. With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to share about my personal commitment to keeping politics out of the pulpit.

Over the years, I’ve seen too many congregations torn apart by political differences to feel that preaching my own politics (even though I believe them to be Biblically based and fully justified) is a good idea. The reason is simple: I know that you (whether you lean right, left, or somewhere in between) believe your politics to be Biblically based and fully justified as well. The temptation when hearing a politically infused sermon is to assume (especially when our views seem to be in direct opposition to one another) that one of us is right and the other is… well, wrong. It is easy for us to translate this sense of “rightness” or “wrongness” into a belief that we are being judged and (by and large) this sense of judgment leads to division and alienation. So I won’t be preaching my politics from the pulpit.

To some of you, it may sound as though my primary goal here is to avoid difficult issues or the need to take a stand. But this is hardly the case. Instead, I’m recognizing that our understanding of the Biblical text and its implications for our political actions are strongly influenced by a variety of factors – our religious upbringing, the culture(s) we were raised in or in which we currently reside, our socioeconomic status, our racial or ethnic backgrounds, even (at times) our mood on any given day. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few things that are “clearly right” or “clearly wrong,” but it does mean that when we start exploring the complex weavings of our political system, things tend to get a bit muddy. And this isn’t just because some of us are exposed to certain facts (or “facts”) that others aren’t. Our individual calls to discipleship can differ significantly in their focus – something that leads to our prioritization of certain issues in our decision-making processes.

In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul compares the Christian Church to a body. He observes that each of us has different God-given gifts all of which contribute to the body’s overall functionality. Though these gifts differ from one another, all of them are necessary for the fulfillment of Christ’s mission. For one part of the body to tell another “I don’t need you” is simply foolishness.

“Yes,” I can hear you saying, “but Paul is talking about the gifts of teaching and preaching, of hospitality and generosity. He isn’t talking about the idiot on the other end of my pew who is voting for that person.”

You would, of course, be right. Paul knew nothing of the twenty-first century American pollical landscape. But it’s worth noting that not all of these gifts for ministry (though they may be similar) are exercised the same way. Why? Because the individuals exercising these gifts come from different backgrounds and perspectives. There is a right side to the body and a left side – each a mirror image of the other. And while most of us have a hand on either side, those hands don’t always work equally well when it comes to performing the tasks assigned to them.

We’ve all experienced this practical aspect of “body mechanics” at some point in our lives. Ever dropped something behind the couch and need to reach into that narrow crack between the furniture and the wall to retrieve it? Perhaps you noticed that though you have two hands, one seems to have a bit more reach than the other. It’s the same with the Body of Christ. There are people lost and floundering, unaware that the love of God is being offered to them. Some are lost in places where only those Christians on the political Left will be able to reach them. Others will only ever connect with Christians on the political Right. To fulfill Christ’s mission and reach all who are lost, we need both arms.

It’s also worth noting that while the differences between our arms sometimes puts them in direct opposition to one another, this isn’t always a bad thing. We’ve all had experiences in which the only way to move a large object or hold something steady is to put one hand on one side, another hand on the other, and push both hands hard against one another. The tension created by this is necessary in order to get the job done. Too much pressure from one hand and the object topples. Too little from the other and it tumbles from our grasp. Balance the conflict between them and the mission gets accomplished.

As your pastor, I’m committed to doing everything within my power to help maintain this balance. While I do have my own political views (some of them quite strong), my primary call as a member of Christ’s Body is to help the other members grow closer to God and to one another. This call takes precedence over my personal political opinions. My charge is to be a safe space where all of you can come to express your hopes and fears and to help you evaluate how those are impacting your development as disciples of Jesus Christ. Are you growing in faith, hope, and love? Are you treating others with mercy and compassion? Are you forgiving as you have been forgiven? If you are, we will find unity even in the midst of our diversity.


Finding Strength in Christ: Why Context Matters

            Published in 1871, Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass was written as a sequel to his immensely successful 1865 work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While the latter introduces us to the familiar characters of the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, it is in Through the Looking Glass that we first meet the Red Queen, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Humpty Dumpty – all of whom have become staples in dramatized television and movie adaptations. The book’s primary conceit (a literary term meaning “fanciful idea”) is a world in which everything from movement to logic functions in exact opposition to the way those of us born into the real world would expect it to.

            Though we see this theme reflected throughout the volume, one of my favorite examples is found in chapter 6 which tells the story of Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty – the large egg who for some unfathomable reason found a wall to be the best place to rest his rotund form. (Those familiar with the nursery rhyme will know the ultimate end of this ill-fated choice.)

            The conversation proceeds about as one might expect for a dialogue between a seven-and-a-half-year-old and an egg until Humpty Dumpty uses the word “glory” in a way that Alice does not fully expect:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t— till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master— that’s all.’

Humpty Dumpty is employing what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as a “private language.” It has no ultimate value to anyone aside from H.D. since it fails at the primary task of languages: to communicate one’s meaning clearly to others. While whole philosophical debates revolve around the question of whether such languages have any validity at all, I bring it up here because Humpty Dumpty’s approach to language doesn’t differ greatly from many Christians’ use of Scripture – “[The Bible] means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

We see this strategy employed frequently in cases of what scholars refer to as “proof texting” – a single verse (or several) removed from their original context in order to make a point. These points (while sometimes reflective of the truth) are often so far removed from the original context of the verses, that the new interpretations would have left the original readers completely baffled.

A perfect example of this is found in Paul’s declaration in Philippians 4:13 that “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Since the passage comes from Scripture and we believe Scripture to be the word of God (and since we believe God to be truthful), we can assume there is truth in Paul’s statement. But divorced from its original context, “all things” can easily be construed to mean “any thing” – and this to the point of absurdity.

I have frequently seen this passage on t-shirts alongside images of barbells laden with so many plates that unless you’re a powerlifter, you probably wouldn’t be able to move the bar at all – much less get it off the ground. The implication of the pairing of the verse with the image, however, is that if you are fully dependent upon Christ, you too can deadlift 600 lbs. This is absurd.

I’ve also seen the passage appear in conjunction with support groups for cancer survivors. The implication here (intentional or otherwise) is that if you walk faithfully with Christ, you will be able to overcome the disease. Since the reverse implication is that if you don’t find victory over cancer you weren’t living in obedience to God, this is heinous.

Context matters. Scripture was not written to be consumed like breath mints (one at a time as necessary), but as a meal. Each book is a self-contained unit, a feast of its own. Without all of the pieces, it’s a bit like licking the salt off your steak (or your potatoes if you’re a vegetarian), but not eating the food itself. In conjunction with the rest of the meal, the salt serves a useful purpose, but on its own (and consumed without any other food) it can be deadly.

So what exactly is Paul talking about in Philippians 4:13? To begin with, we need a little outside context. The year is 61 A.D. and Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (better known as just “Nero”) is the emperor of Rome. Though full-scale persecution of Christians (feeding them to the lions and burning them to light his gardens) won’t begin until 64 A.D., the pressures are mounting.

The new believers are increasingly at odds with a society that finds the teachings of Jesus to be at best a bit foreign and antiquated and at worst an actual threat to their freedom to comfortably act in ways that bring dishonor to both God and their neighbors. Being a Christian in more than an intellectual sense simply isn’t safe. The Apostle Paul (now in prison in Rome for his own faith) is writing to the young church to remind them that nothing about being a Christian was ever billed as being easy. Christ, Himself, died on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:5-11).

Yet in addition to this external pressure, there are conflicts within the Church over the proper physical expression of the faith; should it mirror the cultural customs of a small subset of the believers and ignore the ethnic norms of others (Philippians 3:1-11)? The Apostle is quick to point out that differences in individual expression of the faith simply aren’t that important; there is no right or wrong culture. No one is superior to anyone else and no tradition (whether it comes from the ethnic group which gave birth to Christianity or not) is so important that it is worth dividing the Church.

What does matter is that Christians live in ways which reflect God’s love for humanity in all of its variety. Do we respect one another even when we disagree? Do we care for others even when their needs are an inconvenience? These are the things that make one a true follower of Christ. And they aren’t easy.

The Apostle Paul is writing to remind believers that the struggle is to be expected, but that hope is not lost. There is peace to be found in the midst of strife and contentment in the heart of chaos (Philippians 4:11). The journey may be difficult. The struggles are real. But God has given us all that we need to remain faithful to our call as disciples. “[We] can do all things through Christ who gives [us] strength.”

There can be no doubt that this message is far more compelling than one which suggests that lifting 600 lbs. of weights is somewhere in our future if we only rely on Christ, and far less condemning than one which offers victory over cancer only if we live faithfully enough. This is a message with some substance and power to sustain in trying times. It’s a solid meal, not just the seasoning on top.

Scripture (like language) doesn’t mean “just what I choose it to mean.” It has context and purpose. And that context and purpose are what characterize the difference between a faith built on fantasies and one with the power to strengthen us for real work in the real world. I know which faith I prefer. My guess is that you prefer the same.


Reflections on Forgiveness

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the topic of forgiveness. It’s an appropriate subject for the Lenten season as we explore our personal need both to be forgiven (something accomplished by Christ on the cross) and to forgive others (accomplished by us as we imitate Christ). But to suggest that it’s an easy topic for discussion would be outright foolishness.

To be honest (and as a pastor, I think I should be), I don’t have to think long to identify at least six people who if God were to strike with lightning, resurrect, torture, and strike with lightning again… well, I just wouldn’t be that disappointed. In fact, I might even feel some smug satisfaction that they finally got what was coming to them. The problem is that if I really am being totally honest, I can think of at least six people who feel exactly the same way about me. And they wouldn’t be wrong.

I’ve done some things that I’m not that proud of. And as much as I may wish I could undo them – keep the promise I broke, take back the unkind words I said, expose the truth I left hidden – I simply can’t. To make things worse, my feelings of repentance over these sins are often a bit unstable. There are days when I look at what I’ve done and feel 100% committed to never doing that particular wrong again. I usually feel quite confident in my resolve until the moment when… well, I do it again. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul is warning us about in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

Then there are other days when I look at my sins and realize I’ve fallen so many times that I’ll never get it right. So I swing in the opposite direction and simply give up trying. The Apostle Paul warns us about this too in Romans 3:8 when he mocks the belief that if God is going to forgive us all our sins in Christ, there really isn’t any reason for us to continue to try to overcome them.

Repentance, it seems, is not a once and for all singular event in which I simply quit doing wrong and never fail again, but a process in which sometimes I succeed more frequently than I fail… and sometimes I don’t. For this reason, I’m immensely grateful for Jesus’ instructions to His followers regarding forgiveness:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-times seventy.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.  He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV)).

If you look closely at the passage, you’ll notice that this isn’t just a command for other believers to repeatedly forgive us (Jesus’ use of ‘seventy times seventy’ is an idiom meaning “infinitely”), but for us to repeatedly forgive them. And Jesus doesn’t put any parameters on the types of things we are to forgive. There’s no sin scale where some crimes are more heinous than others. We are simply to forgive them all. Every time. End of story. Period.

If remaining consistent in my efforts to repent is difficult, remaining consistent in my efforts to forgive is even more so. The truth is that we all do things that rupture our relationship with God and with one another and some of those things have more severe consequences than others. While it’s worth noting that Jesus never equates forgiving with forgetting (He still bears the scars of His own choice to forgive us) or with knowingly placing ourselves in a situation where we are endangering our lives or the lives of others, He does make it clear that we need to release the vengeful anger, bitterness, and fear that hold us hostage. Why? Because these are the things that lead to death.

When we cling to unforgiveness, we ensure that neither we nor the person we refuse to forgive have the opportunity to experience God’s transformative power. In other words, we cut off our nose to spite our face. We condemn both ourselves and others to a half-life deprived of the joy and peace God offers, free of reconciliation and healing. Unforgiveness is like a cancer; it destroys our bodies and our souls. In its worst manifestations (murder and suicide), it destroys life itself. This is why the Scriptures put such emphasis on our need for forgiveness – both from God and from others. And it is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4).

I’d like to say that in the process of writing this, I’ve managed to forgive those six people I mentioned at the beginning. For the moment, I don’t feel so set on their utter destruction. I hope and pray that come tomorrow, I feel the same. But if I don’t, I’ll take a moment to remind myself of Jesus’ words and encourage myself to choose forgiveness. To choose life. Because that is why Christ died.


In Christ Alone: Is Reconciliation with God Possible Outside of the Christian Faith?

As a Presbyterian minister, I often find myself presented with opportunities to openly discuss questions of Christian faith and practice. While sometimes these opportunities take the form of simple statements concerning the doctrines passed down by tradition, other times, they lead to deeper, more illuminating discussion. Due to the habituality of my dialogue on these issues, it isn’t uncommon for me to say something in passing that later opens the door for one of these deeper discourses – but I am rarely able to anticipate which statements these will be or when the conversations will take place.

This last week is a case in point. In the midst of a discussion on conflict management, I made an off-hand reference to Jesus being “the only route to[wards reconciliation] with God.” Since this has been the perspective of the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions since the beginning of the faith, c.f., Acts 4:12, I thought nothing more about it.

The next morning, I was surprised to find that my passing declaration had become the source of sincere dialogue amongst the group – each member having understood it somewhat differently from the rest. Recognizing the important role that context (both theirs and mine) played in gaining a clear understanding of my personal beliefs, these co-laborers determined to send me a follow-up question. It was, in fact, such an excellent question that I have decided to share both the question and a full exposition of my answer with the rest of you:

Question: “Are persons of Jewish faith able to enter the kingdom of heaven?”

Answer: I believe that the only way to salvation is and always has been through the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This blood is freely applied to all who have a relationship with the one true and living God whether they freely subscribe to the Christian faith or not. (This is important not only for our Jewish neighbors, but also for those who have never had an opportunity to hear the Good News.) 

Here is how I believe this mechanism works: Scripture is clear that there is one and only one God (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4; 34:39). Scripture also teaches that this God is triune, i.e., that God exists in community with God’s self as three persons revealed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). It is possible, therefore, for someone to have a genuine relationship with God the Father but be completely unaware of or unfamiliar with Jesus as the Messiah. That is, if you know the Father, you know the Son and vice versa because there is only one God (Matthew 11:27; John 14).

We see this principle demonstrated repeatedly throughout the Jewish Scriptures. (Some might wisely note that since the Apostles were all Jewish, all of the Christian Scriptures are, in fact of Jewish origin.) Perhaps the most prominent case, however, is that of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, who was saved through faith in God (Genesis 15:6), not through a knowledge of Jesus Christ as the mechanism through which that salvation would be made possible. (To claim otherwise, as some have, i.e., that God miraculously revealed this plan to Abraham so that he could believe, is to speculatively add to Scripture what is not already plainly contained therein – something which both the Jewish and Christian faiths steadfastly guard against.)

That said, two issues can complicate this understanding of Christ’s role in reconciling us to God when we begin thinking about Jews and Judaism in a modern context. The first is the question: “But don’t Jews now know about Jesus and yet choose to reject Him?”

The answer, in this case, is sometimes yes – they have met Jesus in His fullness as God and rejected both the Son and the Father. In most cases, however, I would argue that my Jewish friends have met someone named Jesus, but who is a false Messiah. They have rightly rejected this less than (and sometimes anti) divine variant as inconsistent with the True and Living God with whom they already have a relationship. This is, in fact, a prudent and wise decision!

A great example would be a decision to reject the Jesus who the Reich Church appealed to as the divine motivation for their actions during the Holocaust. I wholeheartedly reject this Jesus too! I don’t know who he is, but he certainly isn’t/wasn’t anything like the Son of God I’ve encountered in the Christian Scriptures! I applaud my Jewish friends for knowing their own Scriptures and the God who delivered them well enough to identify this impostor. (This is more than many of the Christians I know are capable of doing.)

The second question is: “How does this method of reconciliation apply to Jews who aren’t religious?” 

In this case, I would point out that identification with “the right people” is not the same as a relationship with “the right person.” Just as one’s racial or ethnic background is insufficient reason for an individual to be condemned, it is insufficient for Salvation. The color of our skin whether white, black, or olive; the church we attend whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; the place of our birth in America, Israel, or Afghanistan all have no bearing on our eternal destiny. It is our faith in the One True and Living God, our relationship with our Creator, that saves us – and this alone.

I can honestly say that I believe my eternal destiny and that of my closest Jewish friends (mostly Rabbis) is the same. They live lives that show ample evidence of the love of God and the fruit of the Spirit. They have rejected a false Jesus, but the blood of the real Jesus still has them covered. In this way, I continue to embrace Jesus as the sole avenue for humanity’s reconciliation with God yet leave room for God to work among those who do not share a traditional Christian understanding of Christ’s redemptive work.

God could, of course, be working more narrowly than my understanding permits or much more broadly than a more traditional understanding allows – but that is not up to me to decide. Instead, I continue to faithfully preach the Good News that God has “expressed… his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace [we] have been saved, through faith—and this is not from [our]selves, it is the gift of God— not by works [or by the obtainment of a complete and  accurate theological understanding], so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:7-9). 


Stewardship or Stinginess

October marks the beginning of the fourth quarter of the year and, as Summer turns to Fall, many of us find ourselves reflecting upon what we did and didn’t accomplish during the previous nine months. Perhaps we are pleased with how we spent our time, money, and effort and feel motivated to begin planning for the next season of our lives. We feel excited, hopeful, invigorated, ready for the next adventure and prepared to see what God has in store.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves reflecting on just how little we have done with God’s gifts. Perhaps we’ve taken care, but not enough. Winter is coming and we feel the overwhelming need to shore up our resources. While others may be thrilled about what comes next, we find ourselves frightened and doubtful, uncertain that our hard work has paid or will pay off. We plan anyway.

For churches, this reflective season becomes a time to focus on stewardship – it’s time to make our plan for next year – to think creatively about what we have and what we might do to continue the work of God in our communities. Not surprisingly, our collective thought processes often mirror the individual ones highlighted above. For some congregations, this season of stewardship is a joyous celebration of bounty, marked by gratitude and thanksgiving for the generosity God has shown through the acts of Christ’s followers. For other worshipping communities, however, stewardship season is a time of grief and anxiety as we take a hard look at budgetary shortfalls and the ways in which the ministries that we engaged this year (sometimes just barely) will have to be cut to match our projected financial status in the coming year. Such disparate responses make one thing clear: stewardship matters.

According to Wikipedia “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.” So when we speak of stewardship, it’s important not to just get hung up on the monetary definition (though this is definitely an important one). Stewardship in its truest form recognizes that our resources (in whatever form they take) are not our own, but a gift from God. And Scripture teaches that the more we have been given, the more is expected from us (Lk. 12:48).

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells His disciples a story about a wealthy businessman who, before leaving on a long journey, decided to commit portions of his fortune to his servants. To one, he gave five talents of gold, to another two, and to another one. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between the servants. He doesn’t tell us what roles they held within the household or how hard they labored (or didn’t) on their master’s behalf. In fact, the only clear distinction between them is the amount of money that the master left in their care.

Upon his return, the master found that the first servant had doubled the value of his investment. The second servant, likewise, made a return on the rich man’s money. The third, however, took the path of extreme caution. Opting for a “low-risk investment,” he buried the gold and returned it to his master exactly what had been given. (Though, perhaps, a bit dustier than it had been initially.)

Jesus goes on to explain the master’s pleasure with both of the servants who, despite the disparity in what he had given them, gave him a good return on his investment. The third servant, however, didn’t fare quite so well. He had done as little as possible with the resources entrusted to his care and reaped the “reward” due a lazy steward.

The passage ends on a theme quite similar to that of Luke 12:48: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29) The moral? God’s gift to us doesn’t just consist of time, money, and energy, but of His trust that we will handle those gifts well and in ways that further the work of Christ’s Kingdom. If we break God’s trust, God will offer the gifts to someone else.

While this isn’t what is happening in every struggling congregation, it is certain that it is what is happening for many of us – oft times without our even realizing it. Part of the reason for this is our tendency to conflate stinginess with stewardship. TheFreeDictionary.com defines stinginess as “the unwillingness to part with money” (though we might freely add “time” and “energy” to the mix). We hold on to what we have with an iron grip believing that in doing so, we are engaged in “the responsible planning and management of resources.” We do our best to get the most work for the lowest price (without regard to the quality of the work being done or the well-being of the workers), avoid paying too much for a professional to handle the work or maintenance we believe (often wrongly) we can do just as well ourselves, and stash as much of what God has gifted us with in the ground as we possibly can. When the Master returns, we will be able to proudly show him the one dirty talent that we buried – our storehouse against potential future disasters.

True stewardship, on the other hand, is a call to courage. It’s not about getting everything at the lowest price, through the least amount of labor, or in the shortest period of time, but about using discernment as we seek ways to earn a return on what God has entrusted to us. It’s an invitation to invest our time, money, and energy in ways that bring glory to God.

In honesty, it’s often difficult to measure these “Kingdom returns.” We may rarely (if ever) recognize the impact that the time invested in speaking words of kindness had upon the supermarket cashier or the difference that one meal made in the life of a friend. But God does. And we are called to invest with faith.

So as the air cools and the leaves begin to fall, it’s a good time to ask ourselves about our own plans for the coming year. Will we cling to God’s gifts out of stinginess, or will we invest them wisely in the work of Christ’s Church?


What do Presbyterians Believe About the Bible?

“What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible?” Believe it or not, this is a question I get asked with some regularity. What is the Bible? Why do we use it? Is it really relevant to our lives today?
According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency:

“The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books that together tell the story of a group of people bound by a common faith in God. It is divided into two main sections: the Old Testament containing 39 books originally written primarily in Hebrew and the New Testament containing 27 books originally written primarily in Greek. For Presbyterians and others of the Reformed tradition the Bible is the means by which Christian believers come to understand how God has been present with humanity since the beginning of time and is present in our world today. By studying the scriptures we can begin to know of God’s faithfulness, constant love and eternal goodness.”

It is for this reason that reading the Bible in church and studying it at home is essential for those of us who seek to live as disciples of Christ. It is here that we learn about who God is, who we are, and how we are to relate to God and one another. In the pages of Scripture, we see God’s love and faithfulness unfold as His followers spread the message of peace and reconciliation. And it is here that we learn to live in ways that make peace and reconciliation possible.

The Book of Order tells us that as Presbyterians, we confess “the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, witnessing to God’s self-revelation. Where that Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the Living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the reading, hearing, preaching, and confessing of the Word are central to Christian worship” (Book of Order, W-2.2001). In other words, (from a Presbyterian perspective), Christian worship simply doesn’t exist without the Christian Scriptures.

The Book of Order states that “Leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be expected to affirm that “… the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments … [are] … by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to [them]” (W-4.4003b). This is more than passing agreement or mental ascent – it is a belief that governs our lives and actions, propelling us into a space where we are constantly open to the transforming power of God as we are made more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

So what does this mean in a practical sense? To begin with, it means that we must give the Bible a central place in our lives. While there are a lot of good religious texts and self-help books on the market today, we affirm the belief that this one is the best. This means that when it comes to determining what we should believe, where we should focus our attention, or how we should act in a given situation, it is the God through the words of Holy Scripture, who has the final word. Not the government, our parents, our psychologist, our friends, or the latest best-selling author or hit public speaker.

Of course, for this to happen – for God to really have the final say – we must know what God has to say to begin with. And this doesn’t happen by osmosis. Simply spending time with the pastor or other believers doesn’t mean that you’ll get a good grasp on the contents of the Book or how they all fit together. In order for this to happen, you have to do some study. One of the ways we facilitate this is through weekly worship. Another is through Sunday School as we meet to discuss the Scriptures in community.

That said, there is no substitute for personal, daily study and reflection. If you aren’t a reader, this can be a challenge, so I invite you instead to consider joining me daily as I read through the Revised Common Lectionary on my YouTube channel. This is a great way to begin building familiarity with Scripture in around 10 minutes a day. I hope you’ll join me there!


“Helping Hands” or “Why I Became a Presbyterian”

“How did you become a Presbyterian?” It’s a question I’m asked with some regularity, often with the assumption that I fall into one of two categories: I was born a Presbyterian, or I became a Presbyterian because they’re the only ones who ordain women. (P.S. We aren’t. There are Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Baptists who also ordain women… just to name a few!) To correct these misconceptions, I’ve come up with a witty reply: “I became a Presbyterian because John Calvin converted me.”

Needless to say, this raises a few eyebrows. For most of us, Calvin is an antiquated Father of the Reformation era – an unsophisticated time when Black Death kept popping up throughout Europe and the only way Christians could think to respond was to isolate, wear masks, and do what they could to help those suffering. For me however, Calvin is a wise friend with a deep knowledge of Scripture and an opinion worth hearing even if I don’t always fully agree. A man of deep insight and even (dare I suggest) progressive ideals, he bucked the trend by suggesting that women were not just capable of serving in what for the Western Church were traditionally male-only roles, but actively ordained them to them! But I’m getting ahead of myself…

At the age of 2, I was baptized in a United Methodist Church that my parents had selected largely on the basis of that having been the denomination my father attended as a child. From there, my family moved on to a series of congregations rooted in the Baptist tradition. One of the things I appreciate most about these communities of faith was their outward focus. Though few in our town had what one might consider to be “ample” resources, there was a constant attitude that no matter how little you had, there was always someone who had less. The mission of Jesus was to find that person, get to know their need, and extend a helping hand.

At the time, my impression of “mainline” denominations like the Presbyterians was that they were largely disinterested in these forms of outreach – particularly if one actually mentioned the name of Jesus while offering food to the hungry or water to the thirsty (Mt. 10:42). This, combined with what I would later discover were some substantial misunderstandings of what John Calvin taught allowed me to conveniently place Presbyterians and Presbyterianism in the category of near-heresy. Then 9/11 happened.

Awash in usually reliable Christian sources all arguing with one another over whether Islam was or wasn’t a peaceful religion, I decided to begin seeking answers for myself. I read the Quran cover-to-cover – twice. I sought out information about different Islamic sects (including those responsible for the attacks and others far less well-known). I read the work of various Imams and eventually even ended up with a few Muslim friends – none of whom, I discovered, were even marginally inclined towards acts of terrorism. And I found myself asking how many of the perceptions I’d formed in my childhood – especially those based on “reliable” sources – were accurate.

With this in mind, I began reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. My goal was to prove that at least my diagnosis of Presbyterianism was correct. It wasn’t. In fact, the man I’d once viewed as a hateful misogynist turned out to be gentle in his approach and well-reasoned in his arguments. So well-reasoned that even having committed massive portions of Scripture to memory, I couldn’t find good arguments against much of what he had to say. It turned out that I already was a Presbyterian – I just needed someone to show me!

I began exploring the Presbyterian tradition in greater depth, reading other authors and learning about various confessions. Shortly thereafter, I joined a PC(USA) congregation and several years later (finally convinced that it was biblically acceptable for a woman to hold a position of leadership) and, at the encouragement of others who had identified my gifts, began seeking ordination.

The result is that when I say I’m a Presbyterian, I’m not talking about having been born into a denomination or simply having chosen one out of a hat. Instead, I’m speaking about the culmination of a long process of growth and exploration – of openness to the ideas of others and to the possibility that I, myself, might be wrong. I’ve found a home in this denomination not because I perfectly agree with every doctrinal statement we embrace (our own confessions disagree with one another in places), but because overall, I find the Presbyterian understanding of Christ’s teachings to be in line with those teachings as presented in Scripture. And that includes our understanding of what it means to reach out to our neighbors.

During the Black Death, John Calvin led the other ministers of Geneva (elders and deacons) in the visitation of the afflicted. He was a stalwart supporter of immigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution in other European countries. He set an example by taking personal risks in order to demonstrate Christ’s love to those most in need. And we should too. Though our modern plagues look a bit different (COVID, homelessness, etc.), an embrace of the Presbyterian tradition calls us to a deep compassion for those in need and begs us to follow in the steps of Christ who “while we were still sinners… died for us” (Ro. 5:8).


Redeeming the Day

This last Saturday, I had the honor of officiating my first wedding. It was an unusual event in that the bride and groom chose to declare their love for one another on the 20th Anniversary of September 11th. For them, this was just another date they’d memorized for grade school history exams, but for many of us gathered it still stung like an open wound. (I still remember every moment of the day in vivid detail.) The previous day had only deepened this painfully surreal sensation as the procession returning USMC Cpl. Page (one of the 13 U.S. servicemen and women killed during Kabul airport bombing) passed just blocks from the hotel in which we were staying.

In a private moment, the bride approached me to confess that she was beginning to feel a little guilty for choosing the date – as though she were being disrespectful by indulging such joy on a day that for many symbolized only pain. I suggested to her both then and again later in the ceremony that she was actually doing quite the opposite: she was redeeming the day.

In Ephesians 5:8-11, 15-16, the apostle Paul reminds his readers that “you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

Paul recognized that in a sinful world, there could be no escape from darkness – it penetrates us and surrounds us. That is, until we turn on the light. In marrying on a day so painfully burned into our collective memories, the bride and groom were doing just that – turning on the lights to remind us that even in the darkest moments of sorrow and suffering when the clouds seem most impenetrable, Christ is there: extending His nail-scarred hands to offer us a hope and a future.

This is a good reminder for us all, not just on September 11th but every day of the year. Throughout our lives, each of us experience events which scar us deeply – lost jobs, homes, children, or spouses. Broken promises. Shattered dreams. These events transform who we are and how we see the world. Yet on these days too, Christ is there for each of us, extending His hands through the darkness to offer us hope for a future – if only we are willing to accept it.

It would be nice if the charge ended there with Christ opening His arms to us in our darkest moments. But it doesn’t. In fact, for those of us who claim Jesus as the source of our hope, this is just the beginning. In John 15:2 (the Scripture passage chosen for the wedding ceremony), Jesus charged His disciples, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” In other words, His scarred hands should never be the only ones reaching through the darkness to offer hope to those who are suffering. Ours should be too.

This is no easy task. To live in true obedience requires perseverance in the midst of pain: a willingness not only to see the darkness, but like the many firefighters and EMS workers in 2001, to walk boldly into the midst of it. It requires us to place our lives and our livelihoods on the line as we extend our hands to our neighbors in a gesture of fellowship and support, as we shine the light of Christ amidst the darkness of the world. Only when we boldly embrace this charge will we too redeem the days.