Our Great, High Priest

When I was a little boy, the one thing I wanted most in the world was to be a big, strong man.  While there are many reasons one has for such a desire, the premiere one was that I could then do what I wanted to do.

The thing I hated most about school was the constant reminder that I was not a man.  Nothing did this more poignantly than the need to request permission to go to the bathroom.  Oh, the granduer of just being able to rise from one’s seat and go relieve himself without first abasing himself before an adult in two significant ways: 1.  I have to pee.  My body requires of me this obedience, and should I not respond correctly, I will eventually be covered in my own waste.  2.  You can tell me “no”.

Are you serious?!

Weakness is the antithesis of greatness.  There are no grand statues of our leaders throughout history holding themselves while dancing due to their need to pee.  It, in fact, seems disrespectful to even mention it.  Greatness is strength.  Greatness is not asking permission.  Greatness is doing, not submitting.

…and yet, Jesus is our Great, High Priest precisely because of his choosing our weaknesses, limitations and position.  In fact, he didn’t just choose to be a human but to serve to the ultimate extent of the expression of our limitations – he died…naked…in front of everyone…until his own weakness meant he couldn’t breathe anymore, and so he strangled to death due to his own body’s frailty.  Remember the pleading of Jesus for a drink?  Remember those in power telling him “no” in so many ways?  No, you aren’t worthy of the title Son of Man.  No, you are not our long-awaited Messiah.  No, you aren’t in control, and we’ll prove it by killing you after torturing and humiliating you.

And this is what makes Him great.  No, I am not lessening his perpetual divinity, nor his miraculous healing of others, nor any of the other “great” things he said/did.

What makes Him great is that Jesus understands our pain, our suffering, our weakness, our temptations.  He gets it.

He also defeated them.  Not in physical prowess, but in spiritual submission to the Father.  Nothing could make Him deny the Father’s will for His life, nothing!  The Apostle Paul knew this same truth when he said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

We often pray for God to make our lives easier.  Oh, that the Church would begin again to pray “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven”, and in this, show Christ’s victory to the world.  The indomitable will of the submitted servant.  “You can kill me, but you can’t make me deny my LORD!!!!”  May my brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Asia and Africa be strong in the midst of their weakness, and may we be inspired by their example of following Jesus.

Sacred Moment

sacred momentI had the privelege and honor to pray for a woman just before she died yesterday.  It was a beautiful, sacred time!

We often think of sacred moments as birth, salvation, baptism, membership, wedding and births; but our culture chooses to not think about the fact of our imminent demise as something beautiful anymore.  In fact, most of our culture has almost no connection with it at all.  That’s what happens to people in hospitals and nursing homes with “professionals” around them.  No longer is it even considered something that children should witness, let alone have a visceral understanding of.  I am told that children aren’t able to deal with it, but what I have found is that if they don’t have to deal with it as a child, they don’t see it as normal, and are unable (or unwilling) to deal with it in a healthy manner as adults.  100% seems like normal to me.

Death happens.  Life’s breath slips slowly, yet suddenly away.

In the midst of reflecting on this (now normal for me) event, a saleswoman commented how sad that must have been.  My response was that death is never sad – a life lived well leads to a victorious death, a life lived poorly is sad – death is just the statement that you have finished the race.  How we run that race is what is happy or sad.

There is something sacred about a child’s birth.  Awe-inspiring, moving and meaningful.  The breath of life enters their nostrils, and we are introduced to this person that we love already – before we know them.

There is something sacred about a person’s death too.  Awe-inspiring, moving and meaningful.  The breath of life leaves their body, and we love the person that we have known.

Don’t rob yourself of the sacred moment of a loved one’s passing.  Embrace them through the entirety of life; as you have embraced the race, embrace the finish line!

“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” – St. Paul  (2 Timothy 4:6-8, NIV)

The Disarming Power of Honesty

Reading glasses

Reading glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15 NIV)

In the arms race of far too many conversations nowadays, where each is vying for their due homage from the other, there is a better way to communicate, build unity and move forward (either as an organization or as individuals in life).  This will be mind-alteringly brilliant, but hang on:

Fall in love with the Creator of the other.

A couple of simple observations:

1. God made them.

2. God didn’t screw up.

3. God made you.

4. God didn’t screw up on you either.

Within this simple matrix of beliefs, the capacity for appreciation of the other is possible without lessening your own self worth.  This person is neither my enemy nor my competitor, they are my unique equal.  Using this newfound respect, begin to look at them with the eyes of He who made them.  Begin imagining His purposes in doing so.  Call forth their magnificent potential.  Speak life-giving truth into their day.

This works well in all situations, including the escalating types, but it works best like a sucker punch – out of the blue of normalcy comes an insightful compliment, a poetically placed truth that inspires the other to be who God created them to be.  They are changed.  They exist in an elevated state for a while as the reality of another’s belief in them saturates their soul.

Nina is graceful.  Her carriage, her conversations, her soul.  It is as though she walks in a beauty pageant her every day.  She exudes and gives grace to those around her as though sowing seeds without awareness.

Scott is caring.  He loads his own back to lighten yours.  He walks lightly while carrying great weight that his family, friends and village would not notice his burden.  He is simple in these guestures without fanfare or bombast.  He smiles as he picks up some of your load, and his joy is increased.

In truly beginning to see others, you will see yourself more clearly.

Change someone’s world today.  Speak the truth in love.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.10

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet With the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Phsychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text That Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

6. Teach About the New Heaven and New Earth.

7. Know the Basics.

8. Committal – Body and Breath.  Christ on the Cross.

9. Technology.

10. Eulogies.

As I wrap up this series of posts on ministering to our communities through funerals, a few points about eulogies are in order:

A) The First One.

If the family chooses to allow a time for eulogies during the service, make sure they have someone picked out to share the first one.  It is horribly uncomfortable when  the congregation is invited to share positive memories about the deceased only to have a dead silence ensue.  Usually the majority of the people are not wanting to intrude in what is seen as the close families’ prerogative of going first, and the close family are the most overwhelmed by their own emotions and struggle to be able to share.  The result is that it seems as if no one has anything good to say about the person’s life.

B) Being Emotional.

Crying is normal and healthy, and should not be seen as a reason to not share during this time.  In fact, a tear-filled eulogy is more powerful simply because of the depth of feeling that is being conveyed.  Encourage the family to  be free to be emotional, in doing so you are encouraging truth.  That being said, make sure to have a box of tissues handy.

C) Write it down.

Encourage the family members to write out what they want to share, preferably in prose so that another can read it if necessary, but at least in outline form so they don’t freeze up.  The paper will also give them a point of focus other than the casket or the congregation, and that in and of itself can be immensely helpful.

D) Pastoral Reading.

Feel free to offer to read for the family what they have written down if they cannot.  When offering this however, you might want to make sure that you state upfront whether or not you are willing to read profanity or vulgarity and that you will need a copy of it the night before.  Say it tactfully, but it sure beats making the decision on the fly in the midst of reading it in front of the congregation – trust me!

E) Brevity is Beautiful.

In the introduction to the eulogies, make sure to state in an understated way, that these memories should be shared briefly.  Don’t be heavy-handed, just say something like, “Now is the time to share briefly any joy-filled or meaningful memories you have of ______________.”

What would you add to my list of 10 main points in performing a funeral?

How to Perform a Funeral pt.5

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet with the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Psychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text that Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

I recently preached a funeral, in which the best trait was the person’s willingness to be the one to help someone, anyone, in need.  I need to reitirate here that the perspective of the family is the key, not our interpretation – but their truth of the person. No, I am not postmodern in perspective, but it is hearing their beliefs about their loved one tied to Christ that will most dramatically impact them – not our interpretation of the individual’s life based upon a 45 minute meeting.  This trait came up over and over again in the mouths of the family.  It was this trait that I went searching the text for.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan was the passage that best tied this trait to Christ and to eternal life.  At first you would think this would have little to do with eternity, but the framing of the parable is an expert in the Law’s question of Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responds with two questions, “What is written in the Law?” and “How do you read it?”  The expert responds with the formula of loving God and neighbor – and Jesus tells him that he is correct.  The expert trying to save face ask Jesus who his neighbor is…and the parable of the Good Samaritan ensues.

Here we have Christ, himself, speaking about eternal life within the context of helping someone (esp. a culturally despised someone) in a time of need.  Perfect!

The beauty of this approach to preaching funerals is manifold:

A) the whole of the Scriptures is opened as possibility;

B) the uniqueness of the individual can be fully reflected in a God-honoring funeral;

C) a call to action is perfectly at home at the end of the funeral service, based upon the person’s life and the Life of Christ;

D) the memory of the deceased will be inextricably tied to the message of Christ for all who attend the funeral service.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.4

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet with the Family.

2. Distill to one Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Psychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/hope.

The goal of the service is not to preach the deceased into eternal life (you can’t), nor is it to convince the living of the sinfulness of the errors of the deceased (they already know).  The goal is, as always, to lead people to a closer relationship with their Creator through Jesus Christ his only begotten son.

Given that the people you will be preaching to chose to come to this person’s funeral service, odds are that they at least don’t want to hear someone speak badly of them.  If you do, Christianity will be seen as judgemental and pharisaical – not holy and desirable.  If you speak falsely in order to praise the individual – you will be known to be a liar and therefore a peddlar of lies – Christianity will be discounted as either so easy they must be one too, or a pack of lies not to be trusted.

Fortunately, there is another option: speak the truth in love.

The truth you should speak isn’t where the deceased may or may not be (unless of course you knew them to be a devout Christian who had their name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life), but of God’s desire to spend eternity with them.  One of my favorite ways of stating this truth is, “If______________ could come and share one truth with you, it would be to choose Jesus.”  Think of the rich man in the parable who wanted to tell his family to not make the same choices he had made.

Ultimately you want to focus their desires on their own eternities and their loved ones’ eternities that can still be saved.  If the focus is too much on the deceased, then their emotional impetus will be to reflect both the good and the bad of that person’s life.  Our mission is to focus them on the good of the deceased, tie it to the ultimate source of all good things – God, and lead them to honor both with their lives from this point forward.

How to Thrive in Church Ministry

Bible Study 2

Bible Study 2 (Photo credit: DrGBB)

Notice I didn’t say, “How to have a thriving Church Ministry.”  The two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, in the long run thriving ministry requires that you thrive as a pastor.

God rescued me from myself when he called me to Cuba, NY – a village in economically depressed Western New York with only 1600 inside its limits. As soon as he called me here, I knew I would never be a famous, world-changing, magazine-cover, hip t-shirt wearing pastor.  I also knew my God had called me.  The answer was obvious, simple and even joyous.  It was at that moment that God saved me from and for ministry simultaneously.  I no longer would strive to be a great pastor, but rather to be a great Christian who happened to be a pastor.

Being a pastor is not peripheral to me, but neither is it central – it’s integral.

15.5 years into professional ministry, I am also more excited about and energized for the people God is entrusting to me and our Church.  I am not depressed.  I am not discouraged.  I am not burned-out but calmly passionate about being God’s man in this office of pointing people to Jesus.  Here are a few principles that I have found helpful in living out a life of devotion.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.

1. Be yourself, growing.  God called YOU, not someone else to your charge.  Rest in the assurance of your church’s need for you for this time, but don’t rest on your (or anyone else’s) laurels.  Be transparent enough that your people can see you growing – and thereby be challenged by the Spirit to do likewise.

2. Read.  There are way too many great ideas and insights in the world for you to have to come up with all of them.  A book is a life condensed.  Learn a life’s worth in a couple of days.  You can’t ask for a better return on your investment than that.

3. Have a day off…every week.  God did all His work in 6 days and rested on the seventh.  The corollary to this is obvious – work, actually work, 6 days a week.  My day off is Friday, and Friday night is our sacred family time (every other week that means date night).

4. Comp time.  As a pastor, my schedule is flexible so that when there is a need, I can flex my schedule to meet that need.  That means that some weeks, my day off gets taken.  I have an ongoing understanding with my church that if I put in more time in a week, I can take that time the following week (or as soon as possible) as comp time.  My family understands emergencies, but what they should never have to suffer through is taking a backseat.  Go pray with the dying saint in the hospital on Friday night – then have a family night the next week as well as a date night.  This is not vacation – it is earned.

5. Flex for your family.  No, not in front of a mirror grunting.  As pastors flex time is required for the parishioners – use it for your family too.  Child is getting an award at school in the middle of the day?  Flex.  Go, be there.

6. Talk to God, not just about Him.  Don’t confuse preaching with praying.  Just because you spend your every day talking to others about God, doesn’t mean that you don’t need to spend serious time talking with Him.  It is possible to die of thirst while pointing others to the fountain.  Be a leader, not a signpost.  Show them how to drink deeply and frequently.

7. Don’t quit too early.  I am not talking primarily about your work day – but about your sermon preparation.  Don’t ever stop preparing until you have learned something and been changed by it.  It will increase your passion for the message, and will insure that you are constantly raising the bar so that your leaders can keep growing.

What ideas do you have?