Still Wonderful

nativity3A popular song calls Christmas the most “wonderful” time of the year. But some pastors might be tempted to use a different word to describe the season. Christmas is to churches what Black Friday is to retailers. It is the busiest time of the year, when attendance reaches its peak. Church’s Christmas services are viewed as the most important of the year. Pastors feel pressured to exceed last year’s numbers and to tell the familiar story in a way that is bigger and better.

Unfortunately, this often leaves us feeling exhausted, depressed, and cynical. Attendance may reach a high point at Christmas, but when January comes it dips again. The visitors who showed up at Christmas will not reappear until next December. The heady excitement generated by families coming together at church is mixed with a dash of melancholy for many pastors who serve at a distance from their own extended family. Consequently, we go about our business grumbling like Scrooge, reciting Paul’s warning in Galatians 4:10 about observing special days, and reminding people that Christmas wasn’t actually celebrated by the church until the fourth century. Humbug!

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Jesus’ affectionate reproof to Martha in Luke 10:42: “Only one thing is needed!” The wonder is not in the day or in the season but in the birth that they commemorate. We do not need another extravaganza. We do not need to tell the old story in a new way. There is enough wonder in the story of Christ’s first advent to last for eternity. Perhaps we have grown jaded because we have co-opted the story for our own purposes and turned it into a marketing tool. We have allowed our voice (and our interests) to drown out the song of the angels. This Christmas, do not be afraid to say it simply and to say it again: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).


Shepherding the Suffering

visittothehospitalWhen I was a pastor I thought it was my job to make suffering people feel better. I was dismayed at how unsuccessful I was at it. I counseled the hurting and prayed for the dying, Yet people seemed no better when I left than they were when I arrived. Their condition had not significantly improved, at least as far as I could tell.

In time I came to see that it was not my job to make suffering people feel better. That is God’s job. My job was to remind people of God’s presence. Most of the time pastoral ministry in the context of suffering is the ministry of presence not the ministry of repair. We may sit in silence or we may speak words of promise but we do not fix. We cannot. The problems are too great. They call for a remedies that are far beyond the scope of our skill or ability.

In the moment of suffering this ministry of presence seems terribly inadequate. We leave the hospital bedside confounded. Or we feel a mounting sense of panic as the counseling session progresses and we realize that we have no simple solution to recommend.

Days, months or even years later, when some someone reminds us of the crisis and thanks us for being such a help, we are astonished. “What did I do?” we ask in honest wonder. With a gentle smile they answer in kind, offering truth for truth: “You were there!”

Black Box

blackbox2By now most of us are too familiar with what is euphemistically referred to as a “black box.” It is that piece of technology which searchers have relied upon to try and locate disappeared Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. In the long days that have followed the mysterious disappearance of this flight, our hope for survivors has given way to a methodical search for wreckage and then finally to desperate listening for the fading sound of a ping from the plane’s flight recorder.

There is something in this experience which is as human as it is profoundly sad. The desperate desire to find the black box answers our longing for an explanation. We want to know what went wrong. There is obvious wisdom in this. Such knowledge could prevent disaster in the future. But it won’t do anything for those who might have gone down with the plane (if it did go down). Despite this, family members and friends of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 still want searchers to find the black box. Its discovery will at least provide some closure for them.

I have been meditating on the black box as a metaphor in organizational leadership. It occurs to me that what we really need as leaders is a black box which analyzes disaster as it is happening and provides the information we need to correct our course. Even better would be a black box that reads the signals, trajectory, and speed of change in advance. That way it can warn us so that we will avoid the event horizon altogether.

I suppose there already is such technology, when it comes to planes. That’s what the buzzers and warning lights are all about. But even they cannot do anything about the human dimension. If the pilot chooses to fly the plane into the sea, no buzzer will stop him. Some might say that the Bible serves a similar function in human relations. But it often seems that its whistles and warning bells are just as easily dismissed.

Perhaps prevention is not the objective. Maybe there are times we need the painful experience of wrong choices and epic failure. I am, of course, only speaking metaphorically about human experience and leadership here, not about flight MH370. Nobody wants to see a plane go down. But in the world of human relationships and organizational leadership, some disasters can only be understood after the fact. What is that pinging noise I have been hearing all morning?


Easter and My Fear of Death


thedeadchrist2I am afraid of death. I know that I am not supposed to be. Hebrews 2:15 tells me that one of the reasons Jesus shared my humanity was so that He could “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). I believe that this is true and I am still afraid. I know some Christians who are afraid of dying. But they fear the crossing, not the destination. It is death itself that I fear.

Perhaps that is why, as far as Christian holidays go, Easter has always seemed to me to have a more somber tone than Christmas. Christmas is about life. It celebrates the birth of the Savior. Easter is about life too. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to get to resurrection, you must first face death.

Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours. Most of us do not seek death. Death finds us and when it finds us it always comes as a surprise. To me this is one of the proofs that death is an intrusion. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the human race through sin. Death was Adam’s gift to the human race, the fruit of his disobedience.

But in Romans 5:15 the apostle Paul also writes that the gift of God that comes to us through Christ is not like Adam’s trespass: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Death did not come to Jesus. Jesus ran to meet it. Jesus pursued death and defeated it like a champion.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Jesus treated death lightly. There was certainty when Jesus spoke of His own death but no flippancy. Matthew 26:37-38 says that on the night of His betrayal Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples and “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The savior’s distress is a comfort to me.

It is a comfort because it means that Jesus understands my fear. The fact that Jesus did not take death lightly means that He will not dismiss my fear of death. Because He knows what it is like to be sorrowful and troubled at the prospect of death, Jesus will treat my fear with compassion by providing grace to help in the hour of my need.

But more than that it is a comfort because Jesus faced death and defeated it on my behalf. My fear of death is personal and individual. It is my death that I fear and when I die it will be my own fear that I feel. But Jesus’ death was different. There was a corporate dimension to Jesus’ death. Jesus faced death but not for Himself. Jesus experienced death but not for His own sake. Christ died for us. Christ died for us so that whether we live or whether we die, we may experience life with Him.

And this ultimately is what makes Easter different from Christmas. This is why the early Church celebrated Easter instead of Christmas. Christmas is about life. It is about the birth of Christ. But the life of Christ would have no real value, if it were not for Christ’s death. At the same time, the message of Easter is not merely that Christ died. It is that Christ died and rose again. Both facts are fundamental to understanding the significance of who Jesus was and what He did. Both facts are foundational to my hope.

Does this mean that the fear of death automatically dissolves when I place my faith in Jesus? While this may be true for some, it has not yet proven to be true for me. I still have moments when I am gripped by the fear of death. Does this mean that my faith has failed me? Not really. I believe that God’s grip on my soul is greater than the fear that often takes hold of me.

What is more, we should not be surprised if some of us feel ambivalent about death. The Bible itself is ambivalent when it speaks of the believer’s death. On the one hand, the apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet when writing about the prospect of life and the possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul also said that he was torn between the two explaining: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

I confess that while I do not always share Paul’s enthusiasm at the prospect of death, I do share his hope. I know that in the hour of my death this same Christ, who boldly strode out to meet and face death like a champion, will rise up to welcome me as a friend. In that moment all my fears will be forgotten forever.


Breaking Silence

quietSomewhere in my family history I learned to communicate by interrupting. It is rude, I know. I try to moderate but I am not always successful. To be honest, I should probably say that I am rarely successful. I try to wait for a lull in the conversation. But I cannot contain myself. The thoughts that have been collecting within me burst forth like shaken soda on a hot afternoon, usually with more force than the ideas actually warrant.

I have often wondered why it is so hard for me to hold my peace. Perhaps it arises from the conviction that I am right. But I can’t possibly be as right as often as I think I am. Even if I am right, the truth can wait. I will be just as right when there is space enough in the conversation for me to speak.

No, I think the real reason I feel compelled to speak out of turn is out of a fear of not being heard. This has little to do with being right. My interruptions are merely a symptom of a greater existential crisis. I want to be heard because I mistakenly think that being heard is equivalent to being known.

The foolishness of such an equation is evident to me as I write this in solitude. But I know that when I am in conversation and in the company of others, I will see it otherwise. I will break my silence, whether in the heat of the moment or in the tedium of dull discussion. And I will probably regret it later.



Now We Are Sixty

mapWinnie-the-Pooh was out walking in the forest one day, thinking about lunch. He would have gone on thinking about it, but it occurred to him that he had come to the path that led out of the forest. It was a very old path, overgrown and lined with hoary willows. Pooh had been there once before with Christopher Robin. But that was long ago and he did not like to think about it.

Just as the bear was about to turn away and think about something else, he realized that there was someone else on the path. Tall and gray-headed, the stranger looked a little like the willows. Something about him reminded Pooh of the sticks in Eeyore’s house, all withered and weathered and sagging just a little.

At first Pooh thought this might be Piglet’s grandfather–Trespassers William, also known as Tresspassers Will for short and sometimes even T.W. for shorter. Piglet often talked about his grandfather, who was known to be something of an Adventurer. Trespassers William had been away for a long time. He had been away for as long as Pooh and Piglet could remember, actually. But this stranger looked too tall to be Piglet’s grandfather and there was no family resemblance.

“Hallo” Pooh said, wondering if the stranger liked honey and wondering if he should ask whether he had any with him. “You don’t look like Piglet’s grandfather,” said the bear.

“I’m not” the stranger replied with an affectionate grin. “But then you always were an astute bear.”

“I was?” asked Pooh.

“Most assuredly,” the stranger said.

Pooh squinted and licked the tip of his nose in a thoughtful way. Then he smiled a smile of recognition. “It’s you” he said.

“And it’s you,” Christopher Robin replied.

“You’ve been gone” Pooh observed as the two of them walked deeper into the wood. They were going in the direction of Pooh’s house.

“Did you have adventures while you were away?”

They had come to a clearing where one of Pooh’s favorite sunbeams shone down on the forest floor. The two of them stopped to rest and sat with their backs against the same great oak tree. Pooh glanced into its branches to see if there were any bees buzzing nearby.

“You might say that I did” Christopher Robin replied.

“I might?” Pooh asked. “Would I like to?”

“Silly bear” Christopher Robin said.

So Christopher Robin began to tell Pooh about all of his adventures. Some of them seemed quite grand to Pooh. But being a bear of very little brain, he did not understand many of them. One was about a beautiful princess named Jane. There were battles and castles and sometimes things that made Christopher Robin go silent, as the dew gathered at the corner of his eyes.

“I’m sixty now, Pooh” Christopher Robin said.

“That seems like a very large number” said Pooh, who had never been very good at doing sums.

“It is not so very large while you are counting up to it,” said Christopher Robin. “It only seems large after you have finished and you are looking back.”

“I understand,” said Pooh, even though he did not.

“Will you be going away again to have more adventures?” Pooh asked.

“Oh, Bear,” Christopher Robin said affectionately, as the dew gathered once more at the corners of his eyes.

By now the sunbeam had moved on and the shadows had begun to gather in the spot where they sat. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but Pooh now thought that his old friend looked just like he had remembered. He wondered why he had not recognized him at first.

But the question made Pooh sleepy. And he thought the sunbeam might have gone on ahead to shine in the window of his house and warm the seat of his favorite chair.

“I think it’s supper time,” Pooh said. “Shall we go over to my house and have a little something?”

“Yes, I’d like that very much,” said Christopher Robin.

So they did.


Hard Work

CAW031I spent the morning listening to Dr. David Gill talk about the theology of the workplace. He is the Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace. He has a wonderfully redemptive angle of vision and a winsome spirit.

Then when I came home I read this excerpt from Helmut Thielicke’s book The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus: “To me it is always a comfort that nearly all the incidents in which people become involved with Christ happen on these sober, serious workdays when a man has to stick to the job. The disciples are caught while they are fishing, and therefore at pretty hard work, and the tax collectors are accosted in their offices. And if it is not work, it is some need or distress. When a man has leprous sores, when a man’s little daughter has died, as with Jairus, when a man is blind and crippled and is obliged to cadge a few pennies in any crowd that comes along he is not likely to be in a solemn, religious mood. He is more liable to be depressed or indifferent. And this is always the time when Jesus comes.”

This was a long and discouraging day for me at work (despite the wonderful lecture by Dr. Gill). I am grateful for the reminder that this is just the kind of context where Jesus shows up. As Eugene Peterson observes, “The sanctuary is essential, but it isn’t the primary location for the day-by-day cultivation and practice of spirituality, the Holy Spirit shaping the Christ-life in us.”

I do not always know what God is doing. Indeed, lately it seems as if I hardly ever know what He is doing. But He is there and He is at work. That’s what Jesus said: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).