Friday, March 22, 2013

Pastoral Reflections on a Tragic Morning

Recently I was faced with the most difficult, tragic situation I have ever had to face in pastoral ministry: a man well known in the church I serve was killed in a jogging accident.  That morning I was in a meeting with two other pastors when one of our secretaries came in with a distressed look on her face to tell us that the County Coroners were in the main office requesting our assistance.  The woman whose husband had been killed was working at our church that morning, and the coroners asked if we could help them inform her of the death of her husband.  As a pastor, I have walked with people through tragedy.  I have mourned with families at the unexpected death of a loved one.  But I had never before had to deliver the news of the death of a loved one in this type of situation.

I was thankful to share the weight of this tragedy with my Senior Pastor.  Together we walked down the hall to the room where the woman was teaching.  I was profoundly aware that she had no idea we were coming to talk to her, and that the news we were going to deliver would change her life forever.  As she came out of her classroom and back to the office with us, she knew something was seriously wrong.  As we came into the office, the County Coroners were there, and together we shared the news with her that her husband had been killed in a jogging accident.  As we grieved with her and comforted her in those initial moments of shock, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to surround her and comfort her in this most awful of circumstances.  Our office staff quickly began making phone calls, and her family arrived within minutes to be with their mom.

After an hour or so, the family began to gather and left for a nearby home.  When I had some time later that afternoon to process all that had happened, I wrote down 9 reflections I wanted to share.  The first four of them are reflections on walking with people through suffering from a pastor’s point of view.  The next 5 (in an upcoming post) reflect on tragedy from a more personal perspective.

1.  In the immediate face of tragedy, compassion should be communicated by one’s presence and actions more then words.  It is easy as a pastor to want to speak at a time like this, and I believe there is a time and place for words in these situations.  But in the moment, being present with the suffering person and reassuring them of your care for them is crucial.  When Jesus encountered Mary in her mourning soon after Lazarus died in (?) says “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.  And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’  They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’  Jesus Wept.’  (John 11:33-34, ESV.  Emphasis added.)  In the moment of tragedy Jesus empathized with those who were suffering, and entered fully into their mourning.  There would be a time for words, but before that time came, Jesus was present and caring with those who suffered.

Throughout that morning I was able to do some small things to help the family, getting water, Kleenex, and making phone calls.  The times I did speak were in response to questions she asked or memories that she shared.  Most of the time we were seeking to reassure her there was nothing she needed to worry about right then, that we would take care of things to help her.

2.  This tragedy, and all tragedies, are major life interruptions.  Much of the work I had planned to do on Friday was immediately put on the back burner.  This reminded me that the sermon preparation process must be begun early in the week, and not left for the last minute.  Pastors should not assume they will prepare sermons during tragedy-free weeks.  Our sermon prep process must begin early, taking advantage of time early in the week, so that we allow space for interruptions and important events.  If I depend on Friday for a large amount of my preparation, then when important interruptions do occur I will not be able to respond to them the way I need to.  Waiting until the last minute means that, when interruptions come, my sermon will suffer, my heart will be unsettled, and my family and the church will feel the effects.

Certainly it’s impossible to plan for every interruption; ministry will often demand we leave our offices and preparation behind.  But we must be diligent to work hard early in the week as we have opportunity so we will be free to care for our people when the need arises.

3.  As I reflected on this situation, I realized that follow up with the family and those affected is crucial to pastoral ministry.  As the family left our church that morning, I realized their life would never be the same.  This tragedy changed the direction of my morning and the things I had planned for the rest of the day, but it changed the plans and direction of the rest of their life.  Holidays, birthdays, and everyday life will never be the same.  It is easy in pastoral ministry to be focused and available for people in the midst of suffering, but not to stay involved in the time to come.  Families walking through difficult situations need care for more then just the immediate situation.  My recommendation to pastors is that as soon as you get back to your desk, schedule some calendar reminders weeks and months ahead to follow up with them.

In tragic situations, we need to be aware of how everyone involved is affected, not just the immediate family.  Our secretaries and office staff were deeply affected by what their co-worker had gone through.  The County Coroners who came to the church were very emotional.  I’m sure that the police and medical units that responded to the accident were affected as well.  As pastors we have the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate the love of Jesus to everyone we encounter.  My suggestion is to go out of the way to care for and appreciate the secondary people involved, including police, fire, medic, office staff, and anyone else.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just telling them how much you appreciate their work and their service to the community goes a long way.

4.  Finally, as I sat back down at my desk, thinking about the message I would deliver that coming Sunday, I was struck afresh by the fact that sermons must speak to this kind of life.  As pastors we can have tunnel vision at times, focused on the series we are in, the points we want to communicate, and the direction we are trying to lead our ministries.  Our people need to hear what God’s word has to say in the midst of tragic situations.  They need to know the unfailing hope they have in Jesus, no matter what happens.  We need to preach God’s Word, realizing that the people who listen are looking to see how this unchanging truth can help them with the daily realities of worries, hurts, fears, struggles, and unexpected tragedies.  My encouragement to pastors and teachers is to feed your people solid food, truth that matters, truth about a Savior that will be with them and carry them through tragic situations when they can’t see how they can carry on.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Bible, Episode 1

Last night The History Channel debuted a new 10-part mini series called "The Bible". The series is produced by Mark Burnett, the well known producer of "Survivor". Having seen my fair share of Bible documentaries and docudramas (which this series is), I was skeptical when I first heard about the series. But Sunday night rolled around and there were no new episodes of Heather's and my current Netflix shows, so I decided to give it a try. Less then one minute in and I was completely hooked. It was fantastic to watch and I am eagerly looking forward to the coming episodes. Most of the characters were cast incredibly well and brought a refreshing human element to familiar stories.

In my enthusiasm, I am not overlooking some flaws, historically and theologically. I will speak to those as well.  But first, there are 4 themes in Episode 1 of "The Bible" that caught my attention: 1. "The Bible" clearly displayed the majesty and awesomeness of God through creation. Episode 1 opens with a scene of the ark being tossed in a turbulent sea. Inside the ark Noah is comforting his family by telling them the story of creation from Genesis 1. Quoting scripture, Noah describes what God did on each of the 6 days of creation. I was amazed at the way it portrayed the creation of the sun, the animals, and especially the way God formed Adam out of the dust. Burnett portrays creation as being spoken into existence by God over the course of 6 literal, 24-hour days. Having Noah tell this story to his family in this setting, when his family would have been filled with doubts and questions about God's goodness and his purpose in creation, was brilliant.

2. The theme of judgment was evident throughout Episode 1. Episode 1 begins with Noah, moves through much of Abraham's life, and concludes with Moses, the 10 Plagues, and the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. I was not expecting this from a History Channel docudrama. Many people reject and revile the notion of God's judgement. The idea that God would pour out his wrath on people is unacceptable to many. Yet these truths are clear in the Scriptures, and were very evident in Episode 1. Noah explains to his family that the flood is God's judgement on the wickedness of man. The story of Sodom is clearly portrayed as God pouring out judgement on their sin, (though the true Biblical reason is left out; keep reading). The plagues show the story of God's judgement on Egypt and Pharaoh for enslaving God's covenant people and refusing to let them go. I think it would have been possible to create a compelling story in Episode 1 without the theme of judgement, but the fact that they made it the centerpiece was impressive.

Abraham and Sarah
3. The theme of faith. Following the commands of God oftentimes does not make sense, and appears foolish to outsiders. Episode 1 brought to life in a powerful way the irrationality (from a human perspective) of following some of God's commands. This is evident in Noah's response to God's command to build an ark, in Abraham's departure from Ur to the land God would show him, and in Moses going before Pharaoh to demand Israel's release. As Bible teachers and readers, it can be easy to overlook the human element in familiar stories. But when you see Abram's wife counseling him not to leave Ur, it reminds you of the overcoming faith required to follow God's call.

4. Finally, the theme of sacrifice plays a prominent role. Again, this was somewhat of a surprise to me. The idea that God would require a sacrifice as payment for sin, let alone a blood sacrifice, is unacceptable to many. Episode 1 tells the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22 in way that grips any viewer, and especially any parent, with the terror of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Later, the story of the passover is shown in a very real way. Families slaughtered sheep and spread the blood over their doorposts to keep away the promised death. Christians know that it is only by the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus and his death on the cross that we can be forgiven of our sin against God. Episode 1 begins to show that this truth had its beginning from the foundation of the earth.

While there are many things worth getting excited about, Episode 1 of "The Bible" has several serious flaws. I am not speaking here of artistic license, which I generally appreciated. Rather, there are things included, or left out, of the episode by design which were not faithful to scripture.

1. The sin of homosexuality is an essential element in the Genesis 19 story of the destruction of Sodom. The men of the city attacked Lot so they could gain access to the male angelic visitors in lots house. Episode 1 does show Sodom to be a wicked city, sexually promiscuous, but leaves out the aspects dealing with homosexuality.

2. The character of Moses is not true to the biblical story. In the scriptures, Moses continually questions his calling from God, making excuses and asking to be relieved of his duty. Eventually God allows Aaron to be a spokesmen for Moses after he continues to declare his inability. Episode 1 portrays Moses as a man extremely confident in his calling and assured of his success.

In conclusion, my recommendation is to watch Episode 1 - and the rest of the series - with your Bible open on your lap. The book is always better than the movie, right? Especially true in this case. But this is still worthwhile. This series is appropriate for families to watch together, with parents sensing when cover their young children's eyes and pausing (if you use DVR) to read the Biblical story together from scripture. I'm thankful for Mark Burnett (who professes to be a follower of Jesus Christ) having the courage and vision to make this series.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Links

One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog was to pull together every now and then links to some of the good articles things that I read on the internet. I'll call this (weekly?) feature "The Links" and it will generally contain 4 or 5 links to articles, some related to Christian living, some to ministry, some to sports and some to .... well, we'll see. I hope you will be blessed and enjoy the things I link to, and I'd love to have you post in the comment section any links along these same topics that you've enjoyed. So, here is week #1 of The Links!

1. John Piper has 6 reasons why he thinks pastors should blog. I'll let you check them out for yourself, but #'s 1, 3, and 5 were influential in my deciding to blog and what I will post about.

2. This post on Kevin Deyoung's blog was challenging. Kevin is a pastor and an author I have enjoyed reading over the past couple of years. He is the author of "Why We Love the Church" and "Why We're Not Emergent (by two guys who should be)". This post is done by a guest to his blog, Jason Helopoulos and deals with the issue of when a person should leave, or stay, in their church. Let me say right off that I love the church I am in and am thankful to be here. I do often have conversations with people who are thinking about making changes and have wanted to give them better counsel. While I don't necessarily agree with everything Jason says here I think he makes a lot of good points and demonstrates a high commitment to his church family in a culture where people move on for some very silly reasons.

3. My friend Brian Aaby is on vacation in Hawaii, but somehow during his vacation he posted this helpful post for youth pastors who struggle, or want to improve on the administrative side of their job. I am certainly one of those youth pastors and I thought this post had some good suggestions that are easy to put into practice. Thanks Brian!

4. The Mariners fired their manager, Don Wakamatsu yesterday. Hopefully it was not because of my previous post about the Mariners season (scroll down if you want to see it) as Curtis Bryan said to me. Geoff Baker is the Seattle Times beat writer, and people usually love Geoff or can't stand him. I think Geoff does a good job and usually agree with most of his analysis. His article about Wakamatsu's firing, Ken Griffey Jr, and the future of the Seattle Mariners is really interesting.

5. Art Azurdia has been a teacher, friend, and mentor to me for the last 5 years. I've been blessed to take several classes from him at Western Seminary, and he preached several times when I served at Riverlakes Community Church. Recently Art has planted a church in Portland, called "Trinity Church" and they are in their pre-launch sermon series called "Distinguishing Features of a Gospel Congregation". Art is a powerful preacher and he has really shaped my view of preaching that Jesus Christ and His Gospel must be at the heart of every sermon. If you are looking for something good to listen to that will strengthen you in your walk with Christ, this is it!

What about you? What links and sites have you enjoyed lately?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Seattle's Greatest Sports Failure

Seattle is a city well accustomed to sports disappointment. The 93-94 Seattle Supersonics had the best regular season record, only to lose to the Denver Nuggets in Round 1 of the playoffs. The Seattle Seahawks had a fantastic regular season in 2005 going 13-3 earning a trip to the Super Bowl. Disappointment reached new heights as the Steelers/Referees defeated the Seahawks 20-10. This list could go on, with disappointments like UW vs. UCONN (rip Hamilton anyone?) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116 wins, lost in ALCS). Within all the failure and disappointment of Seattle Sports I would rank the 2010 Seattle Mariners as the greatest failure in Seattle sports history.

Expectations for the 2010 Seattle Mariners were high coming into the season. The 2009 version of the Mariners was a very pleasant surprise. Coming off a disaster 2008 season, the Mariners pitched and defensed their way to a very encouraging 85-77 record. The off-season served to raise expectations even higher for the 2010 team. Jack Zduriencik added versatile Chone Figgins and made the splash of the off season acquiring ace Cliff Lee at a bargain price from Philadelphia. The Mariners also re-sigined Erik Bedard and locked up Franklin Guitierez and Felix Hernandez to long to term contracts. Zduriencik and his emphasis on pitching and defense were the talk of the pre-season. ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated had feature articles on the M's as the trendy pick to win the west. Mariner fans drooled at the prospect of a post-season rotation of Felix-Cliff Lee-Erik Bedard. Ichiro and Chone Figgins were going to create havoc on the base paths and our Milton Bradley and Jose Lopez were going to be steady, if not spectacular run producers.

Today however, the Mariners sit at 42-70, third worst record in the major leagues. Cliff Lee has been traded, Milton Bradley has been hurt, suspended, and terrible when in the lineup. Franchise icon Ken Griffey Jr. retired after an ugly end to his brilliant career. Mariners fans are once again looking at August and September with an eye to the future and our talented young players in AAA. So why are we here? How did a season that looked so promising end up as a total failure? Four reasons stand out:

1) MIA in the Middle. I'm referring to the middle of the Mariners batting order. The Mariners rank 30th (out of 30 MLB teams) in every major offensive category including batting average, home runs, on base %, slugging %, and OPS (on base + slugging). Several Mariners have had career worst offensive seasons including Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley, Ken Griffey Jr (now retired) and Casey Kotchman. Some writers suggested that despite all their positive off seasons moves the Mariners still needed to add a middle of the order run producer. Without hitters that can drive in runners with power, the Mariners are forced into a position where they need 4-5 consecutive "small ball" hits to produce a single run. This has also not happened, leaving the Mariners starved for runs and leading the league in shutouts against and 1 run games.

2) Trouble at the Top. The top of the order, that is. Ichiro-Figgins looked like they would be the new, dynamic, 1-2 punch the Mariners had lacked in previous years. Ichiro gets on, Figgins works the count, both of them steal bases all over the place...PRESTO, offense! Far from it. Ichiro has had a solid, but uninspiring season hitting .310 with 28 stolen bases. Until a recent hot streak Chone Figgins had hovered around a .200 batting average all season, making his $9 million dollar contact look more like a ball and chain, rather then a value. Chone and Ichiro have not clicked and it has sunk the Mariners. Whether it is age slowing Ichiro down, or changing positions in the field and in the batting order that has thrown Figgins off the Mariners failure falls heavily on these two guys.

3) Bull in the Pen. One of the greatest (and most surprising) strengths of the 09 M's was the bullpen. David Aardsma emerged as a go-to closer. Shawn Kelly and Shawn White surprised as solid middle guys, and Mark Lowe was as good an 8th inning set-up man as there was. Not so this year. Mark Lowe was hurt early in the season, not pitching like himself, and eventually DL'd for the rest of the season and traded to the Rangers. Sean Kelly was good but injury prone again, and Sean White demonstrated what some people claimed all along, that last years success was a fluke. Aardsma's numbers don't look terrible at first glance, but early in the season he blew key saves against the White Sox and Angels that were the catalyst for the M's long, downward slide.

4) Bad Grades in Lab Class. Team Chemistry Lab that is. Plenty of fingers to point in this situation. Griffey (reportedly) falling asleep in the clubhouse; Milton Bradley blowing up and then taking a leave of absence for personal problems; Mike Sweeney challenging everyone to a fight; and Chone Figgins trying to go MMA on Don Wakamatsu. A strength of last years team has been a failure this year. Different analysts value chemistry in varying amounts, but no one will argue that this years Mariners clubhouse has been a dysfunctional group and that dysfunction has negatively affected performance on their field.

This years Mariners are at the top of Seattle sports failure. The failure has not been as dramatic or instantaneous as some (Rip Hamilton again). Instead it has been a long process of what the Fugee's called "Killing me Softly", or in this case, "Killing Me Slowly".

Honorable Mention Seattle Sports Failure: 5) 2008 Huskies Football (0-12) 4) 97-98 Sonics (losing to the Bulls in the Finals) 3) 2001 Seattle Mariners (116 wins, lose in ALCS 2) 2005 Seattle Seahawks Superbowl.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Vacation Reading

This week I've been blessed to enjoy a tremendous week of vacation with my family. As we prepared for this week I was excited to choose some books to bring along. One of the books I brought was "Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World" edited by CJ Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace pastors. Having read almost everything CJ has written I expected this book to be biblical, practical, personal, and convicting. I was not disappointed.

In chapter 1 CJ begins by asking the question "Is this verse in your bible?" The verse he is referring to is 1 John 2:15 which says "Do not love the world or anything in the world." As CJ unpacks, our reactions to this verse are 1) ignore it and 2) load it up with qualifications and "apply it to those more "worldly" then ourselves."

What is worldliness? CJ defines it this way: "Worldliness, then, is a love for this fallen world. It's loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God. More specifically it is to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God. It rejects God's rules and replaces it with our own. It exalts our opinions above God's truth."

It's easy for me as I look at areas of my life to see where worldliness creeps in and takes a foothold. A few months ago I bought a FLIP digital video camera. I love it! It's easy to use and easy to sync it with my computer to create videos. I thought I had purchased the best, most up to date version of the camera, but last week I saw someone who had a newer, slimmer version of the camera with greater memory and in a different color. Immediately I was unhappy with my version and was thinking of ways that I could upgrade. Worldliness!!

Another area that is an easy area for worldliness to take hold in my heart is my love for sports. Mariners....Seahawks...Huskies...Sonics, oh, wait, not them anymore. But wow, these things so easily dominate my time, my thoughts, and my emotions. During baseball season it is so easy for me to want to dedicate 3 hours per day to enjoying the Mariners on TV. During football season my weekend can easily revolve around watching a Huskies game on Saturday afternoon and the Seahawks on Sunday. Some of you my rightly question my sanity in devoting myself to teams with such poor won-loss records as these, but I don't think I could quit being a fan if I tried. But as I look at these uses of my time and the lack of true valuable return they bring to my life, it's clear that if I do not control my enjoyment of these pleasures that these pleasures will control me!

CJ and his co-authors point out throughout the book there is nothing wrong with enjoying things of the world as a gift from God. No where in the book will you find a list of things to do or not do, movies to watch or not watch, music to listen to or avoid. The book works at every step to avoid setting up a legalistic set of rules that everyone needs to follow to avoid worldiness. Rather, throughout the book they pose questions for you to consider in areas including Media (TV, movies, internet), Music, Possessions, and Clothing (especially modesty).

What is the antidote to worldliness? How can we defeat it and make sure nothing competes with our love for Jesus Christ? It is not through a set of rules, and it is not from withdrawing completely from the world (as some throughout the ages have advocated). CJ says "Only through the power of the cross of Christ can we successfully resist the seduction of the fallen world. The Savior's death on the cross is what makes possible forgiveness of sin and provides power to overcome sin. And the cross is the attraction that draws our hearts away from the empty and deadly pleasures of worldliness.

So, what am I going to do about what I have learned? How I am going to practically put into practice God's command not to love the world, or anything in it?

1. A one-year fast from all fantasy sports. This is tough one for me and one that I have really wrestled with. I have played in the same fantasy basketball league with a group of 11 fantastic guys for the last 7 years. I love the competition of putting together the best team and have even won the league championship several times. In the past 2 years I've enjoyed dipping my toe into fantasy football and fantasy baseball as well, with some success. These things take some serious time and energy from me though, time and energy that I am sure could be used for things more glorifying to God and better serving my family and my church. So, for at least a year, I'm giving them up for the goal of loving things in the world less so that I can be more devoted to the Lord, my family, and my church.

2. Less TV, more reading and devotional time with my kids. This shouldn't be tough, but it is. One the surface, we'd all say "time with kids is SO much more valuable and important then what is on TV." But at the end of a long day I want some "me" time where I am on the couch, enjoying some (worldly) entertainment. So, from 6pm-9pm I'm going to work on keeping the TV off (maybe the DVR will be on) and focusing on things that really matter.

3. My money. I have a designated amount of money every month that I can spend on whatever. It doesn't have to go to bills or payments or anything in particular. Where we spend our money though can be a real insight into our hearts, and I'm sure this is true with me. Even in my discretionary spending I want to focus on things that matter, things that glorify God, and not things that our temporal or self focused. So for at least a couple of months I'm going to write down everything I spend my discretionary money on, and how much I spent, and share it with Heather and pray over it. We'll see what happens, but I expect it will be quite revealing.

I highly recommend the book "Worldliness". It's far from legalistic. It's thoroughly Biblical, challenging, insightful, and easy to read. Even if you don't think Worldliness is an issue for you it's a great read. I'm actually loaning it to a family member who was intrigued by the topic. Have you read anything good on this topic? Have you seen this book? I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beginning to Blog

One of the funniest openings in the The Office is when Michael, Andy, and Dwight run through the office and the office park doing Parkour. The caught onto the internet sensation about 6 years later. I feel a little the same starting a blog long after "blogging" was first catching on. So, why now? Why blog?

1) I read a lot of good blogs and books. When I'm reading I often think "I'd like to write about that".

2) Lots of conversations and opportunities I have has a Student Pastor create a desire for more concrete, thoughtful processing and discussion. Twitter and Facebook are both fun, but neither of them is designed to be a platform for those kind of discussions. I hope this blog will do that.

3) I love sports! As a long-suffering Seattle sports fan there are so many things I want to discuss, debate, and burry my head in my hands and ask "What did I do to deserve this?!" I'm looking forward to a weekly sports column here on the blog.

4) The life of a husband, father, and Student Ministry pastor is full of joy, excitement, challenges, and opportunities for growth and sanctification. I hope that this blog will be an opportunity to grow and share those things.

Our plane is approaching for landing as I write this. I have been on a fantastic mission trip with 17 other students and leaders from Westwood Baptist Church. God has done incredible things and I am so thankful for them. My beautiful wife and 2 girls are meeting me at the airport in a few minutes, I can't wait to see them. 13 days is a long time apart.

Stay tuned later this week: 1 small step 1 am taking after I read chapters 1 and 2 of C.J. Maheney's book "Worldliness". Thanks for tuning in!