Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Vote for Jesus?

Vote for Jesus!  Cute slogan – not possible. Not even Jesus would endorse that option.  In the flesh he refused to be crowned by a crowd eager for his early rule, and shared with Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this earth” (Jn.18.36). In fact, Jesus warned his disciples not to engage in political games the way the “gentiles” do, seeking to be in a position to “lord” their authority over others, but rather to become “servants of all” (Mtw.20.25). Jesus and His disciples through the ages have a globally redemptive view that transcends nationalism, party divides and political power plays.  Nonetheless, Christians are called to engage their world, often engaging in healthy ways with political movements.

Many Evangelical Christians will sense some ambivalence in casting their presidential vote this year. President Obama self-identifies as a Christian, being converted to faith and baptized as an adult.  Many conservative Christians question how his faith has been evidenced through some of the issues he has embraced.  Mitt Romney self-identifies as a Mormon, very committed to his faith.  Most Evangelical Christians, including Free Methodists, view Mormonism as a non-Christian cult.  I don’t know the religious views of Gary Johnson (Libertarian candidate) or Jill Stein (Green candidate).  Regardless, this election is not a time in which Christians vote for their next ecclesial leader, but for a person of sound character and healthy mind with the ability to lead the United States through very troubled times.

Perhaps Christ-followers should vote for the candidates or parties that seem to align best with Jesus or Kingdom or Christian values. This also creates a dilemma. There is no single “biblical world-view” and fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ have drawn quite different conclusions on many core matters (for example just war versus pacifism). 

It will likely prove a very dangerous stance to claim any particular candidate or party is the godly one, and to judge as unspiritual (or unpatriotic … these are not the same) those who disagree.  Some may believe that surely all true Biblical Christians would endorse the same set of core values or issues as being closest to the heart of God.  This is simply not true. 

Around the same era, speaking to the larger context of the Jewish people of faith, three prophets of God, led by the Spirit of God, preaching the Word of God proclaimed three very different agendas. Malachi proclaimed a deep concern for marriage, crying out that “God hates divorce!” and pointing to the disintegrating family as a core cause of national and spiritual distress (Malachi 2). Zechariah had a different emphasis, “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other (Zech.7:8-9).”  Haggai had a different emphasis, blaming economic woes on neglect of the temple of God (Haggai 1). 

If we were prone to label and divide, pick sides and play party politics, we might be tempted to say a conservative “values party” leader like Malachi is dead-on but that a liberal social justice guy like Zechariah is bad for the country. Or visa-versa. Or point to Haggai's religious solution of getting back to prayer, worship and building up the temple as the truly godly approach and wonder about how faith-compromised the more socially involved Malachi or Zechariah might be. Knowing that each of these “agendas” originate from the Spirit of God, we are not left with the option of playing the labels game and claiming one is closest to the “Kingdom agenda.”

What if God’s best desire for a nation is an agenda too big for one party to contain?  What if the “mind of Christ” is too big for one person to have the whole picture?  What if every nation needs the values of personal morality and responsibility and social justice and care for those who cannot care for themselves in order to be closer to healthy?  What if portions of “Kingdom agenda” issues are reflected by Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents and Green or Tea Partiers alike? And what if aspects of each agenda may in fact embrace issues that oppose the heart of God?

What if Zechariah had the best words for voting Americans of faith during this contentious time? “In your hearts do not think evil of each other!”  It is my prayer that nowhere in any church in the North Central Conference will someone utter something as uninformed or unspiritual as, “No true Christian can vote for (fill in the blank).”  Engage what God has called you to engage with all your heart, contribute to the betterment of the nation in which you live, while holding onto enough gracious humility to bless those engaged in issues that you do not feel are as important, or who take a different point of view than you do.  

Let us endeavor to prayerfully work together as the people of God to make the best decisions we can, and to work as fruitfully as possible across every political divide.  Jesus as Lord (rather than any political party) makes this possible. Jesus as Lord, I believe, makes this necessary.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Appreciating Pastors

I wonder if my experience might help you understand the heart of your pastor.  In so doing, my hope is that you will take time this month to extend a word of kindness, a show of appreciation, during October, which for 17 years in the USA has been “Clergy Appreciation Month.” 

I have worked a few jobs. I have been a lumberjack, worked a ranch, in a garment factory, as a dishwasher, cook, counselor, social worker, business owner, landlord, administrator, university educator and more. I have worked 9-5, swing shift, rotating and overnight shifts. I know for a fact, first hand, that every job has its challenges, charms, curses and blessings.

I have also pastored. It is hands down the most varied, challenging, difficult and delightful role in my personal experience. It is uniquely challenging. It is the only job where I have worked no less than 60 hours a week routinely but have been accused of being a slacker who really works but few hours a week. It is the only job where drawing a salary (in every case, much less than the average salary of the church’s board members) for solid, competent work was viewed as potentially unspiritual. It is the only job in which every fault or flaw not of my own but of my wife and children have been critiqued, often openly and painfully.  It is the only job in which I have been asked to be humble and bold, lead with vision while being asked to serve all, embrace and love everyone with warm grace while challenging everyone equally with sometimes harsh calls to repentance, create a sense of unified purpose and adherence to standards of conduct while being sensitive to the needs of the harshest detractors and unrepentant sinners.  It’s all quite logically and practically impossible!

There have been seasons when it seemed every word, every direction, every sermon was critiqued and every motive challenged.  As the pastor’s biggest critic is usually him or herself, I have felt the weight of constant self-evaluation and reflection upon integrity as one called to proclaim the very Word of God, knowing that people, even when critical, are depending upon the pastor getting it “right” so that they may be encouraged, challenged, inspired, changed not by the personal opinions of the preacher by the good news of the gospel. Most difficult of all is sharing the gospel as continually and faithfully as I know how, in the church and outside of the church, through word and deed, and seeing how often the love of God is rejected, disputed and mocked – and seeing the resulting pain in lives that could be healed and full of joy through simple trust in God’s grace and obedience to His loving commands.   

But then again, pastoring is uniquely wonderful.  To journey with human beings through every stage of life, from birth, to growth, to youth, to marriage, to family, to sickness, to health, to professional struggles and gains, to the losses incurred through the ravages of time, to death, to comfort, to eternal hope.  No other vocation affords this blessing.  To be the midwife who catches the newly “born again” when the Holy Spirit moves and to see the amazing changes of healing and hope that occur.  To champion the poor and disenfranchised and see the homeless housed, hungry fed, abused healed, enslaved freed, jobless employed, hopeless hopeful and communities transformed. To take hits for leading through biblical truth and see over time the power of persuasion soften hearts and make room for the holy.  To be frequently awed by the power of the Spirit to answer prayers prayed with tears and faith as people experience miracles skeptics say don’t exist. To see enemies become friends. To see goodness happen. There are challenges, but when called to pastor, it is difficult to imagine any other form of service. Pastoring is fantastic.  

GeorgeBarna, demographer, researched pastor’s work habits and experiences.  He writes, "Most pastors work long hours, are constantly on-call, often sacrifice time with family to tend to congregational crises, carry long-term debt from the cost of seminary and receive below-average compensation in return for performing a difficult job. Trained in theology, they are expected to master leadership, politics, finance, management, psychology and conflict resolution. Pastoring must be a calling from God if one is to garner a sense of satisfaction and maintain unflagging commitment to that job. Fortunately, we have thousands of men and women who have responded to that call and serve God and His people with energy and grace. May they be encouraged by an outpouring of love and gratitude this October - and beyond!"

It’s Pastor Appreciation Month. There is much that is worth appreciating. There are unique struggles and unique joys. Let me encourage you to celebrate and appreciate your pastor this month. You will find Pastor Appreciation Resources at clergyappreciation.org. You may wish to send your pastor to the NCC Annual Pastor’s retreat in October. Remember, your pastor is doing what he or she does out of love for you and obedience to God in Christ Jesus.