You Are Loved!

You are Loved!

The simplest expression of the gospel — and perhaps the starting point for any discussion about God – is this: You are loved. This is one thing I believe Bill Bright got right when he penned a booklet entitled “Have you Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws.” The first three words of what Bright calls law one are, “God loves you…” He doesn’t start with sin and separation. He starts with love. Why? Because that is where God starts too.

There would be no good news without there first being love. “For God so loved the world…” That’s why love has to be front and center for the Christian. Erwin McManus, in his book The Artisan Soul, writes, “Make love the unifying principle of your life; let love inform all your motives, decisions and actions.” (The Artisan Soul, 191.) Sounds a lot like Jesus who said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength and a second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Do you love others by what you say… why you say it…how you say it?

Do you love others by what you do… why you do it… how you do it?

Do you love others by what you think… why you think it… and how you think?

They Will Be Loved

I’m a pastor of a Mennonite Church. It is no secret that the question of whether or not to include or exclude gay people from church life is a big one in our denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and culture. I get asked about this — in relation to the congregation I pastor — a lot. Here’s my answer. If we were to have a theological or sociological discussion on questions related to gay people and our church, I’m not sure which voices would win the day, but I’m sure all the different options would be represented. However, if — and when — gay people enter MMC, I am 100% sure they (are) will be loved.

That is the best we can hope for, because that is the best thing we can do.

Plutarch Gets it Right

No matter what we articulate theologically, what really matters is whether or not we love the people before us — no matter what shape they are in. In a poignant moment in the movie The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, part 1, Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, says, “People don’t always come to you the way you want them to.” That rings true to me. It is a profound insight for God’s people.

Truth Matters

People don’t always come to us the way we want them to. The truth is, we don’t always come to God the way God wants us to, either. Thanks be to God, that God loves us. May we receive God’s love for us and, in turn, extend it to all those who come to us in less than ideal condition.

Truth matters, and the truth is that Jesus called us to love God and love our neighbor – no limits or exclusions.

Striped Carpeting

We had a problem at church.  The carpeting in our basement meeting space was old. The carpet wasn’t just old, it was unraveling at the seams. The estimate to replace the carpet was approximately 15% of our budget – and that’s IF the loose tiles underneath weren’t asbestos. If the tiles were asbestos, the cost would rise.

What to do?

We have another problem at church, too. It seems unrelated, but it’s not. There are fewer people in our church than there were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.  Fewer people means fewer resources. In the past our church could meet budget and above budget projects –  like carpet replacement.  Now we cannot. We can meet budget. Or we can replace the carpet. But we can’t do both.

That adds another strategic wrinkle. Our carpet is old and unraveling in a physical space that is used infrequently by fewer persons that cannot afford to replace the carpeting. However, we do use it enough that the unraveling carpet is both an eyesore and a hazard – both of which impact church morale.

Striped Carpeting

That’s how we ended up with striped carpeting. The decision was made to fix the seams without replacing the entire carpet.  Our carpet guys cut an eight inch strip where the unraveling seams were. They then put down a strip of carpeting in a color that complements the original. It looks better than before, but it’s pretty obvious that it wasn’t designed that way.


The presenting symptom is unravelling carpet. The underlying illness is a failure to thrive in a key aspect of church health – growth/stability. It’s fair to say that we would not have put stripes in the carpet if we had the resources to do otherwise.

In my view, the solution of striped carpet was…

  • Creative – Leaders were able to look beyond the obvious option of replacing the whole carpet in order to imagine new solutions when resources didn’t allow for the best option.
  • Resourceful – While not the preferred solution, Leaders were able to resolve the carpet issue with the resources available in a way that works.
  • Potentially distracting – What remains to be seen if whether or not leaders will engage the underlying illness now that the presenting symptom has been dealt with in some fashion.
  • Potentially discouraging – The obvious stripes in the carpet CAN represent a creative, resourceful, solution. It also serves as a visible reminder that the church does not have the resources it once did. It’s better than unraveled carpet seams, but it sends the same basic message – we aren’t what we once were. This is another leadership challenge.

What would you do?

Many churches face this kind of situation. While it might not involve carpeting, the basic pattern of declining resources – people and finance – creates problems that require the best from leaders.

On one hand, the creativity and resourcefulness is to be applauded. It’s not healthy to face challenges like this with a sense of defeatism born in the inability to do what one wants to do. It’s far better to face challenges like this responsibly, using what resources are available, to resolve the issue in the best possible way.

At the same time, the key for leaders is not to let what is urgent draw all the time and attention away from what is truly important. Missional engagement is critical for each church. If we spend all our time on striped carpet, such that we barely talk substantively and practically about missional engagement, there will be many more striped carpets in the church’s future.

So, by all means, lets have striped carpet this time. But if all a church is doing is the equivalent of striped carpet, there may be some deeper issues at the leadership level that require attention.

Riot in a padded cell…

There were (are) riots in Baltimore.

In an press conference on April 28, the Mayor of Baltimore – Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – said,

It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we tried to make sure that [the police] were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. We worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate

Her statement about giving those who wished to destroy “space to do that as well” raised many eyebrows.

In my view, her statement was important – but not for the reason many think. Many were shocked by the notion that a containment strategy might actually include letting people destroy things. That, I actually get.What shocked me was that she admitted it.

Here’s the point: A riot that is sanctioned by the powers isn’t a riot. It is an impotent expression of social outrage, anger, and so on. It may be cathartic, but it will not change anything. It gives the appearance of substantive resistance, but in reality, the powers are just waiting near-by until the people tire of it all. Then they go right back to the way it was before.

What people know, that they don’t want to admit that they know, is that if riots really did start to change things substantially, the people would be crushed.

Put differently, a riot that is allowed to happen by the powers that be is like the violence that police allow inmates to exercise within a padded cell. Beat yourself up. Have at it. When you are good and tired, they will escort you to your regular cell.

Insurrection only happens when the measures used by those subjugated are actually able to challenge the powers that be. You will know it when that happens…

Choose who you listen to…

In my experience as a pastor for over two decades, I’ve learned many lessons. Here’s the one on my mind today.

A strong, strong, strong, majority of people are people of good will. They will receive you and your story – both the negative and positive aspects – and respond in honest, truthful, loving, supportive and helpful ways. It is important to listen to these people. They can help you understand how the story of your life is being heard by others.

Some people simply don’t give a rip about you. After all, you’re not the center of the world. It’s ok. It’s a gift, really. You do your thing. They will do their thing. It is all good.

Other people are not people of good will. They will receive you and your story – both the negative and positive aspects – and respond in ways that conform to their agenda. They will do this without a second thought.  Even if that agenda is hurtful to you. It is important not to listen to these people. You can bend over backwards to correct the false version of your story they are telling. It won’t matter. Why? Because it isn’t about you. You’re story is about them. It’s always about them.

The best you can do is live the story God has called you to live. Live it with integrity. Live it with honesty and transparency.  Live it humbly — with a sense that it is God who has called you to live it.

As you live it, however, beware of three equally disruptive mistakes.  One is ignoring the people you should be listening to. The second is listening to the people you should be ignoring. The third is chasing after the people that just don’t care. Jesus didn’t even do that….



Does it matter if we’re Mennonite? (a serious, in-house, question)

Does it matter?

I’m knee deep in transcribing interviews, coding survey data and writing (Dmin thesis). It’s a bit like herding cats, only the cats are ideas and insights that have to be captured, and written down, and put into a coherent form.

In the midst of all that, a question popped into my mind. It’s one that I will explore further, but today, I want to ask you the question:

Does it matter if we are Mennonite or not?

The question comes out of a series of observations.

  • A very strong majority of people, in both surveys and interviews, say being Mennonite is important as a distinct, or different, way of following Jesus.
  • That same, very strong majority, think Mennonite theology and practice plays an important role in the world.
  • That very same strong majority says it is important to welcome and include new people in the life of the church.
  • Yet, that very same strong majority says it isn’t important if new people, coming into the church, are or become Mennonite (either theologically or communally).

This is curious to me.

On one hand, we acknowledge that the Mennonite name is often misunderstood outside of our congregation. We also recognize that, to some degree, this misunderstanding hinders our outreach in the community.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that Mennonite faith – properly understood and practiced – is distinct and needs to continue. That involves successfully reaching out to our non-Mennonite, non-Christian, neighbors.

On the other “other hand” (if that were possible), we are not intentional about leading others into the Mennonite way of faith and practice. For example, it’s common to hear Mennonites say that we are not trying to make Mennonites out of others. What matters is that we are Christian.

Two questions

If being Mennonite is important, both theologically and institutionally, then why don’t we intentionally make Mennonite disciples of Jesus?
If being Mennonite isn’t important, either theologically or institutionally, then why in the world would we keep the name – which we believe hinders outreach?
Either it does or it doesn’t matter if we’re Mennonite. Which is it?

Feel free to talk among yourselves about these questions, or give me a call. We can sit over a cup of coffee and talk. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can also email me or comment below.

Live long and prosper | The death of Leonard Nimoy and my imagination

A while back I was listening to local talk radio. The question they were discussing was, “Is there a famous person, that you don’t know personally, that – if they died – you would cry?” I’ve had some interesting conversations with people around that question.  At the time, I couldn’t think of anyone in particular.

Then Leonard Nimoy died.

While I didn’t exactly cry, I have found myself grieving over the death of Leonard Nimoy.  I have been a huge Star Trek fan as long as I can remember. I was born in 1968, right at the end of Star Trek’s three-year run on TV.  I watched Star Trek after school when it was in syndication. My favorite character was, of course, Spock.  I had Star Trek toys. Spock action figures (that we’re really dolls).  I had a Spock uniform. I’ve seen every Star Trek movie multiple times (even the first one which was long and a bit overblown).  I’ve watched Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn more than I can count.  I’ve loved the new reboots with Zachary Q as a young Spock.  Spin off series, too. When it comes to Star Trek I’m all in (although I’ve never been to a convention).

My older brother, who was a little more sports minded then me, still complains that when we were kids he could never get me to put down my Star Trek and Star Wars toys long enough to get me to come outside and play basketball.

With all of that, however, I still did not know Leonard Nimoy the man. And it’s pretty clear that someone else can play Spock, so I won’t lose on that front either. So, what am I grieving when I grieve the death of Leonard Nimoy?

My hunch is I’m grieving the loss of my own youth, my own childhood, a more simple time when I could kick my imagination into overdrive and escape to distant planets and far off places and spaces and people and aliens…   It seems to me that when we are young the world is wide open and full of possibility.  But choice by choice what was once wide open becomes a bit more constrained.

Seems like the art of living is learning to find joy and meaning and purpose as life becomes more constrained. Or, perhaps, cultivating spaces where we can still kick that old imagination into overdrive again.

According to the Mars One website, over 200,000 applied to join a mars colonization program. They literally applied to embark on a one-way mission to Mars for the purpose of setting up human colonies.  Why?  I think it’s because there are so few places for grown ups to take their imaginations out of neutral.

So perhaps, instead of grief over the death of a man I really didn’t know at all, the death of Leonard Nimoy can be an encouragement to dust off my imagination.

Something to think about (I’m sure my therapist – if I had one – would find all this fascinating)

Live long and prosper!

God compels us to try

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

– President Obama, 2015  National Prayer Breakfast

Do my ears itch? | An exploration of the use of 2 Timothy 4:3

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

– 2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)

2 Timothy 4:3 is often pulled out in the church in discussions over contentious social issues.  The charge is often leveled that, “you are just doing what the culture wants instead of standing for sound doctrine.”  No doubt, if you’ve been around churches when things like the inclusion of gay people, or women’s role in ministry, or the age of the earth, you’ve likely heard one side, or the other or, perhaps, both sides say this.

In my experience, the usual direction of this comment is from those who occupy positions of power within the status quo towards those that are suggesting some change, or loosening, of current understandings and practices.   For example, it is more common for a straight Christian who opposes LGBT inclusion or gay marriage to say to those who don’t, “You’re just going with the culture.”  I’m not judging that in any way, just using it as an example from my experience.

It’s meant to be the ultimate insult.  In effect the comment says, “You don’t care about sound doctrine, the Bible, Jesus or God…you can’t possibly have a well reasoned theological basis for your decision…of course you haven’t discerned the Spirit correctly because I doubt you’re even really a Christian…you are just doing what YOU want to do and caving to popular pressures from the world.”

That’s pretty heavy…”judgey”….stuff when you get down to it.

Here’s my question, which springs from an online discussion about a Nashville Evangelical Church (GracePointe Church) that came out as fully inclusive of LGBTQ people. Not too far down in the comments, someone pulled out 2 Timothy 4:3. This person accused the church – of which he’s not a part – of “simply tickling itching ears…”   Having recently, over the past year, spent some time – not a lot, but some – in Nashville, I found this comment odd.  To me, when it comes to Nashville, GracePointe Church is doing the exact opposite. Most of the ears I met in Nashville have no affinity for gay inclusion in the church.  So, who’s ears are being tickled? Where’s the upside to full gay inclusion in Nashville? Seems to me like near universal scorn would be the result in that community.

So it brings me back to the text.  Who are the ones that won’t put up with sound doctrine in the text?  Is it the people outside of the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the world over and against sound doctrine?)  or is it the people inside the church (i.e. teachers are tempted to play to the church over and against sound doctrine?)?  According to the text, it’s the latter. It’s people within the church that no longer suffer sound teaching. They just want to hear what makes them feel good, or “in”, or certain that they are right.  The want teachers who will speak from a position of authority and echo what they already believe to be true. No challenge. No change. No discernment. No deeper exploration. People want to land at a church that reflects back to them what they already believe.  That, my friends, is having your itching ears tickled.

So the question, for me, isn’t “Is church A or church B just teaching what people want to hear?” That is a never ending process of judgment and finger pointing.  A better question is,  “Am I the kind of Jesus-follower that can’t tolerate anything that I don’t already believe to be true?”  If I am, then I’m holding God hostage to my already believed stuff about God.  Then I’m the kind of Jesus-follower that seeks teachers who will itch my ear?

I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to being that kind of a teacher. I don’t want to be that kind of church.

A soft rant (delivered in love)

I hesitate to say this out loud, but it is something that bothers me every time it happens.  My words here are an honest reflection on how a particular comment I receive (semi-regularly) feels.  My words are not meant as a slam to those who make this – or similar – comments.  Those who say it are sincere.  I love them.  It’s just that, I’m not sure they know how disheartening their words – meant to encourage – really are.

Let me back up.  I serve as pastor of an awesome church, filled with many of the best Jesus followers I’ve ever met and spent time with.  They worship, lead, give and serve tirelessly and accomplish more for others than churches 5 times our size with 5 times our budget.  BUT…we are an older, getting smaller, rural, Mennonite congregation.

Over my almost 20 years at MMC, I’ve witnessed people who were raised by this congregation leave here as they head to the congregation(s) down the road(s)  The music is hipper, more people my age, varieties of programs a smaller church can’t accomplish, and so on and so on.

Here’s the comment:

Pastor, I just want you to know that I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.

It’s not always those exact words, but the sentiment is nearly always that.  “I still consider Metamora Mennonite my church home.”  Those seem like encouraging words.  Sometimes they are – especially when the person saying it lives in another community or state or country.  But when the person saying it lives near by, and they are choosing to go to another congregation, the positive sentiment is down-right frustrating.

When I hear it I often want to scream, “THEN COME HOME!”  There are a lot of people at home that would love to throw you a welcome home party.  They are the same people that changed your diapers when you were in the nursery, taught your Sunday school classes, played games with you at VBS, taught you the hand motions to “Deep and Wide”, led you on service trips, introduced you to Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, Jonah, David, Mary, countless others and – most importantly – Jesus.  They are the same people that pledged to have your back when you were baptized. And, by the way, you said you would have their back too. They still have your back and would welcome you back.

I guess I wonder what the sentiment accomplishes? “Pastor, I want you to know that I still consider MMC my church home.” To me, that would be a lot like me saying to my wife, “Melissa, I want you to know that I still consider you to be my wife,” as I leave her.  And, to make matters worse, reminding her of that every time I happen to run into her. I think we’d all be better off just telling the truth.  I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.  Yes, such truthfulness inflicts a deeply personal wound. But the wound is no less deep by pretending it isn’t happening.   Why can’t we do that with our “home” church? Own the reality.  Sometime I think the sentiment is intended to cover up the fact that leaving a church also inflicts a deeply personal wound.  It is a way of pretending that it isn’t a big deal – but it really is.  It would have a lot more integrity to say, “Pastor, I’m choosing to be somewhere else with someone else.”  Then I could say, “I’ve noticed. We will miss you deeply.  I wish you God’s best, and hope you are an engaged member of your new community for the glory of God.”

In the end,  a faith community is not a group of folks that consider that community their home, but a group of folks that make that community their home by their presence.

“We’re not your parents church!”

I got my start in vocational Christian ministry in 1993.  Back then people who started new, seeker-driven, contemporary churches would say, “We’re not your parents church!”

That’s a perfect message to Baby Boomers who had experienced the institutional church as dull, with nothing to say and an old way of saying it.

We’re not your parents church!

The new, seeker-driven, contemporary church approach worked to some degree.  Baby Boomers did return to churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback and all their local incarnations.  Now it is there children and grandchildren who are finding their parents (and grandparents) church as dull, with nothing to say and an old way of saying it.   They are more critical of churches with professional stage lighting, fog machines, hi-tech video screens, and worship auditoriums with a platform or stage instead of a sanctuary and a pulpit.  I often talk to young people who ask, “Is that – the whole big event show type worship service – really what Jesus had in mind?”

Pastoring a small, rural, Mennonite church that is pleasantly irrelevant (to me) by the world’s standards, I never thought I’d get to say, “We’re not your parents church!”  But, alas, I think we can say it with some integrity.

If you parents attended a modern, contemporary, seeker-driven church we are decidedly NOT your parents church. I think that’s a good thing.