Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to ruin a good concert

My guitar hero, Phil Keaggy, came to town last weekend. And it was a good concert...until a preacher started talking. And wouldn't stop.

It made me mad too.

You see, Phil and his friend Randy Stonehill were on fire. They played songs both new and old, including some of the hits from their Jesus Movement days--"What a Day," "Love Broke Through," etc. And of course Phil Keaggy is just a masterful entertainer, especially when he starts layering loop after loop on top of amazing sounds no other human being can create.

And then it came time for a break. That's when this preacher got up on stage and started expounding. It was really kind of creepy. There was nowhere we could go; we were trapped. He read a few verses from John 10: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Now that's Bible, and Bible is good. So why did I get upset?

Three reasons. 

Number One, it turned into a 30-minute sermon with a prayer for "salvation" at the end. And here we were, a room full of Christ followers.

Number Two, the reason I put "salvation" in quotes in the paragraph above is that the sermon was more about how, if you do the right things and try hard enough, you'll have a life of success and fulfillment. There was little Jesus in the guy's message and a lot of do's and don'ts. Why did the man even feel this message was needed, much less faithful to the text?

And Number Three, the fact that the preacher felt compelled to insert a long Bible lesson into the concert revealed a greater problem: the denigration of the arts. This preacher failed to grasp how music, especially music played for the glory of God as it was on this night, is a spiritual feast to the soul, a gift of God to the world, and an aspect of general revelation to thirsty hearts. As I listened to this preacher, I sent out this tweet: "Please Mr. Preacher, stop spoiling a good concert with your 30-minute sermon. Let the music be. Glad I didn't bring a non-Christian."

Yes, let the music be.

I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill, who must have felt betrayed, waiting in the wings for the second half of the show. And embarrassed for this preacher, whose theology was just awful. It's because of this "abundant life" kind of preaching that millions of non-Christians dismiss the gospel message as so much anti-intellectual pablum. And if there were any unbelievers in the audience, I was embarrassed for them. I felt like standing up and saying, "I'm sorry. This is not Christianity."

But I suffered through it, and at last Phil and Randy came up and did their second set. But it wasn't as good. It seemed like Phil and Randy felt like apologizing too.

When will the Church celebrate the arts and not feel they have to be "baptized" with a few verses of Scripture to be valid? In the Old Testament, Bezalel was "filled...with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze" (Exodus 35:30-32). God gives the Spirit to artists, who empowers them to bless the Church with songs, paintings, photographs, dance, literature, sculpture, architecture, and other creative endeavors.

Let the music be! 


Monday, March 24, 2014

Check out my new blog

I started a new blog. I'll keep The Greener Grass going for personal and family-related posts, but my new blog's theme is "tips and tools for joyfully persevering as a church leader." My goal is to provide help and hope primarily for pastors. The new blog is called "Surviving Ministry." If you're in ministry, I hope you find it helpful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reflections on turning 60

I turned 60 a few days ago. 

Wow--I've entered my seventh decade! Pablo Picasso once said, "One starts to get young at the age of sixty and then it is too late." I don't know what to think. I don't feel old. But when I look in the mirror, for a split second I wonder who's staring at me. I look more and more like my dad every day. I remember when my parents were in their 60s. I thought they were ancient.


So here are some random thoughts that have been bouncing around inside my head the past few days.


  • The saying is true: how time flies. When I was a kid, I thought I'd never grow up. The next Christmas seemed an eternity away. Now, weeks just zoom past. One holiday ends and another is upon us. As a pastor, I measure time by Sundays. The days in between are often a blur. Job was right: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle" (Job 7:6).
  • I'm more grateful than ever for friends. I'm glad I have some. Many people do not.
  • I'm also more grateful than ever for health. I'm still running, playing racquetball, wrestling with my grandkids, and working in the yard with strength and agility. I know this will decline in the decade ahead, but for now I feel really good.
  • My best days are ahead of me. Not in terms of productivity, necessarily--my output is already not what it used to be. But in terms of the freedom I have to live with more selectivity and intentionality. Last year I purposely "downshifted" from being a senior pastor to being an associate pastor. I'm focused on helping people grow more spiritually mature and emotionally healthy. I am writing a book on pastoral ministry. I can travel on weekends to see my kids and grandkids. My wife and I can go out together more often than ever. We have plans to visit California and Chicago later this year. I am mentoring younger people, doing premarital and marriage counseling, leading a small group, and other ministry activities I love best. I'm so glad I read Bob Buford's book, Halftime, several years ago. It inspired me to view this final third of life with optimism and purpose.
  • I'm also thinking more than ever about death. It may sound morbid, but I feel death's reality much more than I used to. I feel its enmity, its curse. The cliche, "Death is just a doorway to eternal life," just doesn't satisfy me anymore. I don't want to die. Or put it this way: I don't want to be terminally sick, to be hospitalized and be a physical and financial drain on my wife. When I was young, I didn't think much about death. Even when I conducted funerals, I didn't think "That could be me in that box." Now I do. People I know are getting cancer and dying of heart attacks. I'm asking myself hard questions like, "Have I lived well? Am I ready to see Jesus? What's that going to be like? Will I die well like Hopeful in Pilgrim's Progress, or with much fear and trembling like Christian?" I know all the pat answers. I know they are true. I'm just telling you what death feels like, the closer it gets.
  • Finally, I'm REALLY glad for the gospel. Because when I look back on my life, I see an enormous number of failures. Sins of omission. Sins of commission. Blunders in marriage and parenting. Risks I didn't take. Hardships I didn't face. Disappointments I caused other people. Thank God Psalm 130:3-4 is true: "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared."        
How good it is that whatever stage we're in--whether six, sixteen, or sixty--we can have the perfect righteousness of Jesus credited to us, and our ugly sin transferred to him, so that we can face our future and our Maker unafraid!

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.


Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
(Isaac Watts, 1719)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Things Christians say

Some time back I posted a plea for plain speaking. I also once complained about Christian cliches in a post called The problem I have with Twitter. I continue to believe that one of the strangest things about us Christians is our specialized vocabulary. Surely it accounts for at least some of the disconnect between us and our non-believing neighbors.

So every week or two I've been tweeting a banned Christian phrase. Someone asked me to collect all my banned phrases in one place. So here's the list so far:

  • "hedge of protection"
  • "rethinking church"
  • "praise report"
  • "the center of God's will"
  • "love on"
  • "love well"
  • "Jesus is the reason for the season"
  • "God will never give you more than you can handle"
  • "God showed up"
  • "a God thing" 
Can you think of others?

To qualify as a banned Christian phrase, think of something Christians say a lot that either makes no sense to people outside the church, or is said merely because it's the cool, hip, trendy thing to say, or has appeared on sentimental framed prints in the local Christian bookstore for years...or is simply untrue.

If we want to impact our culture, let's use truthful and sensible words.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The one-legged duck

We have a one-legged duck in the pond behind our house.

I can't tell if his leg was bitten off, lost in a fight, or if he was born with only one leg. Either way, it's sad because when he comes up on land he labors to get anywhere. He's straining with life. He hops and falls over, hops and falls over. When you see him in the water, he looks just fine. But when he's on shore, you ache for him.

I've been feeding the ducks so they have grown in number. But today the one-legged duck was all by himself. So I brought out some bread and took these photos. Finally the one-legged duck didn't have to compete with all the two-legged ducks to get some food. When they are around, it's really pitiful. He's slow. They grab the bread before he can get there.

I can relate to the one-legged duck. I am broken just like him. I hop and fall over, hop and fall over. I say the wrong thing, think the wrong thing, and do the wrong thing, many times a day. "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19).

The whole world is like this. Things are not as they are supposed to be. Everybody's missing a leg. You see this on the news, when you read about a death, or a rape, or a terrorist act, or a drug bust. On the outside most people seem to have it all together. But when you look more closely into their eyes, you ache for them.

You know this yourself. You think about this when you're all alone, late at night, when the house is quiet. You're not what you always thought you would be or should be. Either you're not happy, or married, or successful, or hip, or good looking. Something's always missing. You're just like the one-legged duck.


The good news is, one day everyone who trusts in Jesus will get their legs. 

Jesus died and rose again not just to save our souls and take us to heaven, but to make things right. All things. To rid the earth of injustice, and loneliness, and fear, and hate, and poverty, and death. One day we won't read about kids beating up another kid. One day we won't see a young starlet gyrating on stage and cheapening the gift of sex. One day we won't pack up a friend's truck and say goodbye. One day we won't need to bomb Syria. One day weeping wives won't talk about how lonely they are in their marriage. One day men won't get told they're worthless.

"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord" (Isaiah 65:17, 25).   

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The ordinary

My granddaughter Talitha with Dabo
I've told you before about my dog Dabo. He's a little 3-year old Bichon Frise. Not a yapper, thankfully, and lots of fun. He's never met a stranger, and he especially adores kids.

Everybody wants to know what his name means. Dabo Swinney is the head coach of the Clemson Tigers football team. So, since we're big Clemson fans, we named our dog Dabo. His full name is Dabo LeBlanc. The dog's, that is.

Dabo regularly teaches me lessons. One is not to be in a hurry. When I take him outside to go to the bathroom, he just kind of wanders around the yard aimlessly, taking his time, smelling everything, chasing lizards, looking around, and sniffing the air. Finally he gets down to business.

But another lesson Dabo teaches me is enjoyment of the ordinary. On sunny afternoons I'll go outside with Dabo and he'll find a spot in the backyard and just...sit. I'll say, "Let's go over here, Dabo." And he'll glance at me, turn away, and...lie down in the grass. It's like I can hear him say, "Umm, I don't think so. Why are you in a hurry? Don't you want to just stay here a few minutes and feel the sunshine?" I can't resist. So I'll walk over, plop myself down next to Dabo, stroke his back, and enjoy the ordinary.

I hate to confess this, but I apparently need a dog to teach me this lesson. Otherwise I don't know if I'd ever stop and feel the sunshine on my face.

I'm reading Zack Eswine's book for pastors, titled Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being. It's a wonderful but convicting book about enjoying the ordinary. He says we ministers are, generally speaking, driven people. We are always hankering after some "significant" work, chasing some "God-sized" dream, trying to change the world, thinking that we have to move on to some exotic place where we can "make a difference." Problem is, we are not God, though we secretly fancy ourselves to be. We are not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. We are actually pretty much...a mess. And anyway, God usually chooses to work through ordinary people in ordinary places.
He who called you to where you are declares that you needn't repent of being in one place at one time. You needn't repent of doing only a long, small work in an extraordinary but unknown place. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.
I wish I'd read Eswine's book years ago when, as a young pastor, I felt "called" away from my small, rural church to a city I knew nothing about but where, I thought, I would really make a difference for the kingdom. I don't know, maybe I was called there. But looking back from Dabo's perspective, maybe I was in too much of a hurry.

The prophet Jeremiah told his friend and secretary Baruch, "Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not" (Jeremiah 45:5).

That's what I hear Dabo saying to me in the backyard on sunny afternoons. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.
   

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Boasting

In my Bible reading this morning I came across Jeremiah 9:23-24.
"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the Lord.
I also thought about Galatians 6:14, one of my favorite verses.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
The idea of boasting gripped me because just last night I was reading Paul David Tripp's book for pastors, Dangerous Calling, in which he says, "You are constantly preaching to yourself some kind of gospel."

I think there's a connection between the things we boast in and the gospel we believe.

Look around and you'll see all sorts of human boasting. Bumper stickers parading our outstanding kids or righteous convictions... fast, shiny new cars that bury us in debt... shouts of "We're Number One!" from the football stands... exaggerated fish stories... immodest or loud clothing... talking too much... Why, even photos of smiling family members set on display in our office can be our way of telling untrue stories about how great we are.

I look at my own heart and find that I boast in jobs well done, sermons well preached, counseling sessions well run. I generally boast in things that bring me the praise of man. Conversely, my regrets and griefs generally revolve around personal failures, mistakes, and foul-ups.

The common denominator: ME. God is not even in the equation.

Jeremiah admonishes me not to boast in things that bring me attention, admiration, and power, but to boast in the astonishing fact that I know God. Or as Galatians 4:9 points out, the even more astonishing idea that I am known by God!

As long as I preach to myself the "gospel" of good works and accomplishments, I am set up for disappointment. Because the bar is too high. I can never be good enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of pride. There will always be someone out there better than me. I will fail. In less than an hour, or sooner.

But the gospel of Jesus says that Someone who is perfect has gone to bat for me, has fully paid for all my sins, and has satisfied on my behalf the one Being in the universe whose opinion really matters. The struggle for significance is over. It's done. If I want to boast in anything, I can boast in my weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). I'm free! I can be small, and obscure, and unknown, because my identity is rooted not in what I do but in the fact that I'm a loved, forgiven, adopted, justified, redeemed, rescued, secure child of God.

May I never boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.