Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The problem I have with Twitter

Well, I don't really have a problem with Twitter per se. I just said that to get your attention. What I have a problem with is slogans. Especially when the slogans are Christian. And when the slogan-er thinks that by dropping a cute little saying or quoting a Bible verse or famous person he or she has just done a slam-dunk, given the last word, and solved the problem.

I tweet, and I read other people's tweets. But I wonder what culture we are creating with our new adroitness at 140-character sayings. Christians seem the best at it. I've done it myself. "Jesus is all you need." "God is good all the time; all the time God is good." "Let go and let God." "God works all things together for good." "Hate the sin but love the sinner." "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship." And the worst offender? I saw it again just the other day on a bumper sticker: "Try God."

It's not that there's not truth in each of these cliches. (Well, except that last one.) And I know what Ecclesiastes 5:2 says: "Let your words be few." But God himself took 66 books to tell us what we need to know. If it's evangelism we're after, I suspect what non-believers are really looking for these days is conversation - the chance to ask us questions and get reasoned, thoughtful answers. Not one-liners. Not Thomas Kinkade-ish pearls of "wisdom."

What got me thinking about this today is Rosaria Butterfield's excellent book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In that book the author chronicles her journey out of lesbianism and atheism to Jesus. She credits her conversion not to slogans, Scripture references on football players' eye black, a quick presentation of the Romans Road, a tract, or even a dramatic evangelistic sermon, but to a long, patient relationship with a Reformed pastor, his wife, and several members of their local church. These Christians embraced her, welcomed her into their homes, and cultivated extended conversations that eventually led to her asking THE question: "What must I do to be saved?"

Butterfield writes that when she came to faith, she began to devour the Bible - "huge chunks at a time." But soon she observed that even seasoned believers liked to pull a few words of Scripture out of their context and display them on placards. To her, this made Scripture verses seem "like sneaky little raids, quick and insulated targets into culture, with no sense that a worldview of care lay behind them."

I know that we don't always have time for the kind of relationship-building that brought Rosaria Butterfield to the Savior. (Hmm, could that be the real problem?) I also realize that some of Jesus' teachings were tweet-like. He was a master at packing profound truth into bite-size pieces. "The first will be last and the last, first." "It is more blessed to give than to receive." "I am the Bread of life," etc. But these sayings were not intended to be printed on bumper stickers or Precious Moments figurines. They were most often said in the context of extended dialogues with disciples, inquirers, and foes. Besides, Jesus is...well, God.

I'll keep tweeting. Twitter serves a purpose. But let's invest time in words and in people, that the culture we leave the next generation is an intelligent one.

Monday, May 06, 2013

My book proposal

I've started writing a book! Well, not really. I'm just developing the proposal. But I've talked with an agent at Credo Communications, attended a workshop on "How to Get Published," talked extensively with an author-friend, and gotten words of encouragement from my church. This summer I'll take a four-week study leave to (hopefully) knock out a good bit of work on the book.

So what's my book about?

Here's the way I've pitched it to my agent:

Being a pastor is sort of like living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or Louisiana. There's always the danger of a ministry-killing catastrophe. Churches are often unsafe places for ministers. Churches are filled with sinners - just like me! Many pastors walk into a church with a naivete about the danger of what they do every day. They are vulnerable to difficult people, unresolved conflict, incompatible visions, hidden agendas, and sin - their own and that of others.

I endured five years of conflict and crisis in a church. I went into that church naive and unprepared. I should have asked harder questions. I should have taken more time to build trust. I should have been more careful about introducing change. Fellow leaders should have been more cooperative and forgiving. It was, in short, a perfect storm, a Category 5 hurricane in the making. When the catastrophe happened, I should have been more prayerful, less accommodating to the wishes of others, move loving, patient, and honest. The conflict eventually exploded in a "planned split" that devastated my family and me and many other people. It threatened to end my career as a pastor and seriously damage my marriage.

But through that catastrophe, I learned valuable lessons. I moved on, recovered a love for the church, and eventually returned to the role of lead pastor elsewhere. In my book I will reflect on my experience and share the lessons learned. I hope to redeem the experience by helping other pastors recognize, negotiate, and redeem their own ministry hurricanes. I will also share anecdotes I collect from other pastors. Unfortunately, there are many stories out there to share.

(By the way, if you're in ministry and you've gone through a ministry catastrophe -- or have a friend who has -- I would appreciate getting the story in writing. Or I can interview you over the phone. I plan to keep all stories anonymous and will change the names of people and places.)

Obviously, my book will be aimed at pastors, but people in a variety of ministry settings will be able to relate to my story. My goal is to help people in ministry recognize the signs of an impending catastrophe, limit its damage, learn its lessons, and live with gospel optimism for the future.


Mud is the name of a new movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, and two teens who put in an amazing performance: Tye Sheridan (also in Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland. Mud is directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories). It's a really good movie, not only from the acting and cinematography angles but also for the values it highlights: family, friendship, loyalty, and forgiveness.

Sheridan and Lofland play the roles of Ellis and Neckbone, respectively, two boys growing up on an Arkansas river and learning something about love in an adult world filled with disappointment.

I usually dislike Matthew McConaughey movies. This one's an exception. He is Mud, a mysterious, grimy, gutsy guy who can't quite be figured out. Is he a hero or a fool? Is he to be trusted or feared? He wins the boys' help in tracking down a lost love, Juniper, played by Witherspoon in an understated role. Along the way, young Ellis has to deal with the break-up of his parents and the rejection of a girlfriend. Despite it all, he becomes the real hero as he seeks to pull Mud out of the mud he's made of his life.

In this movie, everybody's broken and everybody needs help. Help comes from unlikely sources. While Mud has been wounded by life, in him we catch a glimpse of Jesus, who like the prophet Hosea doggedly pursues his adulterous bride. Mud understands there's a devil out there who steals, kills, and destroys. Mud risks his life to rescue Ellis from death. He himself is rescued by a father who lost hope but finds it again. In the end, the many risks of love are proven worthwhile.

The Christian view of life holds that this world is messy, just like Mud. Investing your hope in people, places, and pursuits will leave you high and dry - just like the boat Mud lives in that's stuck up in a tree. The best of
human loves disappoint. Only Jesus can come to you in your helpless state, lift you out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire, set your feet on a rock and give you a firm place to stand (Psalm 40:2).