Monday, October 30, 2017

I love church! & other rambling thoughts on the privilege of preaching as an introvert

I cannot imagine being anywhere else on Sunday morning other than church.


There are moments when I’m in church that I just tear up.

Frederick Buechner writes, “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention, they are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

I try to stifle the tears. After all, real men don’t cry, right? When this happens, if we are singing, I have to stop as I consider where I have come from and to where, next, God is summoning me.

Often tears happen when we’re singing a particular hymn that reminds me of my mom. She loved to sing. Yesterday it was “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” that nudged out a tear or two. That was one of her favorites.

But it’s more than that.

There is such an intense thrill being with other believers as we are focusing our lives on the worship of God. It’s at times like these that the word “awesome” is accurate in its truest and deepest meaning.

How can one not tear up when God is affirming His presence in your heart?

Yes, what I’m saying is that in church -- and at other times -- I can feel the presence of God. Tangibly. This is a good thing. In fact, several million people around the world would agree with me on this.

* * *

To be loved by God, acknowledged by God is crazy delicious. And mind-numbingly humbling. All at the same time.

I know, better than anyone (other than God), that I don’t deserve His attention, His grace, His mercy. And yet, every breath I take, every move I make, it’s because of Him.

One of my favorite passages is Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV): “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

All things hold together. In Him!

This couples well with Paul’s statement in Acts 17:27-28 (ESV) “...that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’"

This, too, is a good thing.

Surprisingly, even those who refuse to acknowledge God are in still His care. While these atheists or agnostics or “spiritual but not religious” often claim bliss in the midst of this ignorance, frankly, they don’t know what they’re missing.

And then there are those who wrap themselves securely in the banner of being Christian and yet eschew church completely, or, if they are a member somewhere, easily find “reasons” for not being in church on Sundays. And if they do show up, Lord help them if they are asked to serve more than rarely!

Forgive my little rant, but I don’t get any of this.

* * *

Maybe I was just spoiled as a kid. I was born into a family where being in church and serving in church was viewed as a privilege, an honor, a source of joy. And so that is in my DNA, as they say. Referring back to the Buechner quote, “this is telling you something about the secret of who” I am.

Mom and dad always held various leadership as well as behind-the-scenes roles in church. Me and my sister followed their leads. And I have zero regrets in this area.

Occasionally there is some Satan-seduced scoundrel that slithers into a church and tries to stir up discord and strife that results in hurt feelings and worse. These times are hard. Yet, inevitably, the Holy Spirit provides clarity and discernment, the scoundrel either is repentant or rebuffed. Healing comes and unity is restored. Until the next round. And there will always be another round.

Jesus made it clear that the Christian walk is no cake walk. There are weeds in the wheat fields. Goats among the sheep. It rains on the just and the unjust, and everyone has troubles to deal with. But the advantage goes to believers who get to hold God’s hand during the hard times.

I’d rather be worldly-poor holding God’s hand than wealthy and godless. I’ve turned my back on God a few times and it wasn’t a good thing. It’s those times that generated regrets.

* * *

But, as I was saying, I love church.

I love it so much that, even as an introvert who is not the most comfortable getting up in front of people, I will joyfully -- more or less -- say “Yes!” when asked to fill in for our pastor on any given Sunday and preach.

For some weird and inexplicable reason, God has subtly gifted me with the ability to preach, periodically. I know this isn’t something I could do every Sunday, and I have huge respect for the pastors who can and do. But, I can fill in now and then.

Oddly, it’s something I want to do, kind of.

Just recently I shared with a friend that, of late, I’ve found myself wondering when I’ll get to preach next, while at the same time, sort of dreading it. There is both eagerness and anxiety.

Probably at least some of the anxiety comes from such admonitions as found in 1 Peter 4:10-11 that advise, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace:  whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God....”

An oracle of God? Yikes! That’s some heavy-duty responsibility.

Confronted with such a burden of obligation, I cry out with Isaiah, saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips....” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV).

So, no, I don’t step into the pulpit lightly. I understand full well how serious such an endeavor is.

* * *

This awareness helps drive my preparation. I’ll even share an early draft of a sermon with my pastor and a few trusted friends to ensure I’m on the right track.

Sermon prep surfaces a few fears. Besides worrying that I might have to go to the restroom halfway through delivering a sermon, the bigger overarching concern is that I not misspeak, mislead, somehow misinterpret a passage, or provide any level of misinformation. God forbid! Which He does.

One of the advantages I’ve discovered of doing sermon prep is that it takes me into the Word at a different angle.

Just yesterday I had the privilege of filling in for our pastor and continued the series on John that he began over a year ago (Read it here; listen to it here). We’re near the end and the passage that was next was John 21:1-14, the breakfast on the beach scene.

As I mentioned in the opening of my sermon, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much there. What’s happening seems obvious. But is it?

Much if not all of God’s Word is like those expandable grow-monster sponge toys. They come in little capsules and when placed in water overnight, the next morning your kitchen is overtaken by a nearly life-size dinosaur or some other giant sponge beast. In fact, these things can keep growing for days!

This is what happens when diving into scripture with the intent of opening it for others. The Holy Spirit provides intense insight. Some may call this anointing or unction. Perhaps. But the application of these is entirely up to God and not something I can be presumptuous to claim for myself.

All I know is that as I examine a passage with the intent to preach it, the passage begins to look different from all the other times I’ve read it. What was unseen before glows, as it were. Well, at least eventually. It takes diligence, discipline, prayer, study, and panic before the glowing comes.

* * *

I don’t begrudge the need for some blood, sweat, and tears when digging into the Word to unearth the deeper truths. Nothing good comes easily. And the struggle forces dependence on the Holy Spirit which is as it should be.

I also don’t begrudge the sheer effort it takes for me, a God-imaging introvert, to stand up and preach. I don’t begrudge the exhaustion and recovery time needed afterward -- and every introvert knows what I mean. To echo Paul, I rejoice in this suffering because I know it’s productive and temporal. It’s good for me.

 * * *

Yesterday evening I was exhausted. And I was genuinely happy to be done with the preaching for the day. Yet, at the same time, I was happy to have had the opportunity, to have been entrusted with such a weighty task, to be considered by God and others as acceptable for such an endeavor. The tears welled a little thinking about this as I don’t really feel worthy. Others do, so I trust their judgment and work hard to live up to their trust in me.

Buechner also said once, “the vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet. When you are doing what you are happiest doing, it must also be something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.”

From time to time, here in my little part of the world, there is a need for someone to fill in when the pastor has other obligations. For me, answering that need, saying yes, ultimately brings me deep gladness. Even as I write this, thinking about yesterday’s preaching effort, joy bubbles gently in my spirit and tears well.

Like I said, I cannot imagine being anywhere else on Sunday morning other than church. Even when it’s me -- the introvert -- who is preaching.

Do you love church? Why or why not? Do you attend church regularly? Are you a member of a church? What is one of your most fond memories of church? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Things are not looking up, but I am. So is the body count.

I’m always looking up. When I’m out walking in the neighborhood and especially when I’m someplace surrounded by tall buildings. I look up.

Monday as the news of Las Vegas filtered out, the first thing that came to mind was the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings. I was 14. There wasn’t the intense 24-hour news coverage like we have now, but the news that did reach us was terrifying and transfixing.

Who would do such a thing? Why? Was it really happening? How could it happen? In America!

Thinking about the victims then I was gripped by a sense of helplessness. I don’t clearly remember all of the details, but I do remember that feeling. I’m wondering if that isn’t the impetus to my always looking up.

Looking up. I wonder.

Then came 9/11, demon driven terror plunging out of the sky. Memories of that day in 2001 and the weeks that followed are more vivid than those from 1966. The day after, I stepped into the backyard, and looked up. The sky was so clear and blue. Empty and quiet.

Even now I can’t resist looking up any time I hear a plane going over. I need to see it. To see that it isn’t diving down into the earth.

And now I wonder what it was like in Las Vegas to have hundreds of bullets falling down like a hard rain. Some told how they could feel bits of dirt and debris striking their face, thrown up by bullets hitting near them. Very near them. Shrapnel everywhere.

Many looked up, pointed at the Mandalay Bay hotel. Pointed at the source of the terror falling on them. And ran screaming. Many are still screaming in their dreams and silently in their heads. They will be for a long time.

* * *

I don’t own a gun now and have no objections to those who do. I’ve thought about getting one, but it’s not a priority. Years ago I won trophies on the rifle range at Scout camp. It was fun.

For some it seems guns are an obsession. They seem more passionate about guns than most other things in their lives. It’s a weird and desperate idolatry. A crazed addiction of a kind. A sort of paranoia-inducing gunpowder fever. Mad gun disease. Bigger guns! Larger clips! More ammo! Silencers! Bump stocks!

I don’t know a lot about the current gun laws, the lobbying practices of the NRA, or about specifics of different kinds of guns. I know some things and probably should learn more.

But I don’t need to know much to understand that if guns aren’t easily available, when a person goes all broken in their head and heart, when they let evil invisibly take them over, it’s less likely they’ll turn to a gun to do damage.

You can’t use what you can’t get.

* * *

There are those who claim it makes no difference if someone chooses a gun or a knife, that if they are intent on killing they will.


But someone wielding a knife has to come down from the 32nd floor, walk into the crowd of 22,000 to inflict pain. They have to bring their evil up close and personal to their victims. Look them in the eyes.

Once aware that evil is running amok, people can avoid a person with a knife. And one person with a knife certainly isn’t going to kill 59 people and wound more than 500 others. Not even close.

A knife is inherently very self-limiting as to the amount of damage that can be done. You have to hold it in your hand and your reach is limited to the length of your arm. If you throw it at someone, you’re done.

A gun is a different beast. All that limits a person with a gun is how much ammunition they can carry and how fast they can reload. The reach of a single gun is vast and obscene. The Las Vegas shooter had dozens.

* * *

Every time there’s a mass shooting, we’re told this is not the time to talk about gun control or related issues. That doing so politicizes a tragic event. Which is an odd claim given that often those trying to talk about it are survivors, or friends and family of those killed.

What I wonder is, what is it going to take? What’s the body count that will trigger the backlash and release the courage needed to reign in this gun madness that infects our nation?

Clearly the death of 18 people and wounding of 31 at the University of Texas wasn’t enough.

Obviously 12 students and one adult murdered at Columbine wasn’t enough.

Evidently the 32 killed and 17 injured at Virginia Tech wasn’t enough.

Apparently 20 frightened children and six adults being killed at Sandy Hook wasn’t enough.

Forty-nine dead at the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando did not achieve the tipping point either.

You’d think that 59 dead and more than 500 injured in Las Vegas -- and the numbers keep ticking up -- would certainly be enough.

Instead, all that is accomplished is the setting of a new macabre record repeatedly touted in the news.

Get Guinness on the phone! It’s another one for the record books!

A “mass shooting” is when four or more people are killed. According to several sources, in the U.S. there have been 273 “mass shootings” in 275 days so far this year -- more than 1,000 people killed by guns -- and even this is not enough.

* * *

Many, taking a cue from the NRA and bizarrely intense Second Amendment firebrands, urge a wait-and-see approach. Just calm down and let the facts be gathered.

They claim we still need to know how many guns there were, we need to wait to learn if the gun Stephen Paddock used was fully automatic or was converted. We need to wait to learn if the guns were purchased legally. We need to wait until we learn definitely the shooter’s motive. Was it terrorism, a screw loose, a failed relationship, gambling debts, or something else? We need to wait. To wait and see.

Actually, no. We don’t need to wait. We need to act. As far as waiting, enough is truly enough already!

It makes zero difference the type of firearm, how it was purchased, or the motive. Having answers for these questions will be helpful, but they are not required for action. We have all the data and information we need to move, to act, to incite change. Now.

All that matters are the lives lost because a bent man with a gun sprayed bullets into a crowd at a concert. All that matters are the lives lost in 1966 in Texas. The lives lost in 1999 at Columbine. The lives lost in 2007 at Virginia Tech. The lives lost in 2012 at Sandy Hook. The lives lost in 2016 in Orlando. The lives lost this week and every week across the United States.

The body count is high enough already.

We need action to reduce the number of guns produced and available in this country. We need more stringent, consistent laws that make it tougher for anyone to get and own and use a gun.

It shouldn’t be easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver’s license.

It should be as regulated to own and use a gun as it is to own and drive a car. We need standardized training, mandatory testing, required insurance, a probationary licensing process, annual registration, license renewals and fees every couple of years, photo ID -- the works -- to get and own and use a gun.

Not doing anything is insane. Not taking action is irresponsible.

I agree with Stephen Colbert, now is the time to do something. Do something, “or come up with a better answer. Anything but nothing. Doing nothing is cowardice. Doing something will take courage.”

* * *

It’s startling to realize part of why I look up. Out of fear. Fear that was seeded when I was 14 and a madman climbed a tower in Texas. Fear that was fed when towers fell in New York City. Fear that has now been refueled by a guy with far too many guns shooting from high up in a hotel.

It’s a cautionary and not a paralyzing fear. It’s not like the fear generated by gun lobbyists and others that freezes lawmakers into inaction and insensitive excuses when it comes to making needed changes. When it comes to standing up and acting.

The country needs more courage and regulation. Not more guns. There are more than enough guns. Far, far too many guns.

So, while waiting for lawmakers to stand up -- to do what We The People want them to do -- I look up. I look up to scan the windows of the buildings towering over me, and, even though changes were made and it’s much more difficult to commandeer one, to scan the skies and watch the trajectories of the planes above me. And to keep an eye on all those around me vehemently, irrationally insisting they need more guns and fewer regulations.

I look up to God and pray that He will send comfort to the families who have lost a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend -- yet again.

I look up and pray and hope, knowing it will probably take another tragedy, and another, and another, and who knows how many more before lawmakers will find the courage to stand up and act, to push against our country’s gun madness.

God, help us.

In the iconic image heading this post, think of the man holding the gun as the NRA and the other man as the USA. Agree? Disagree? Do you own guns? If so, are you in favor of more regulation? If not, what suggestions -- better answers -- do you have to better manage gun ownership? What ideas do you have for bringing mass shootings to and end? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.