This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Just Say It!

Several weeks ago someone, I think it was a young pastor, asked me what is the most frustrating aspect of pastoral ministry. I had to think for a second, not because I couldn’t think of anything, but because he didn’t ask for ten things, only one. And the number one frustration rose to the top pretty quickly - 

 (Yes, I am screaming it)

Unspoken expectations are different from the things that folks tell me they would like me to do, and I can then say, “Oh, sorry, I never thought of that. I’ll do it next time,” or “Thanks for your opinion, but I don’t think I can do that.”  Unspoken expectations are different because they are ... well, unspoken. They are those things that someone wants me to do because they think a pastor should do them, and maybe even a former pastor has done them, but I am not doing them. And it bothers them, usually because they think it is obvious that a pastor should do them. 

One example - likely the one that has already occurred to every one of the many (okay, three) pastors who are reading this - is home visitation. Now, for some folks in my congregation, the very idea that I might stop by their house, unannounced and uninvited, is the stuff of 3:00am nightmares, or at least a “Why are you here?” question. Yet there are a few folks, typically of an older generation, who not only see no problem with such a visit, but believe it to be what good pastors do. Even though I have told them, “If you would like me to come by, then just invite me,” this does not solve the problem. Because if they invite me, then in their mind it is not a pastoral visit. They want me to come, not because I am invited, but because that’s what they think good pastors do. 

(For more information on the deep psychological reasons for why I don’t like home visitation, see my previous blogpost “Socially Awkward.”)

And because I am not doing what they believe a good pastor should do, or that any pastor would see to be self-evident to do, they are left with only one of two conclusions about me:
1. Either I am a really bad pastor who doesn’t have a clue (definitely a possibility), OR
2. I really don’t like them (not true at all).

I'm sure there are other unspoken expectations, some of which I only surmise  - not because I have been told them - but because, like black holes in the abyss of space, we only know of them because of their effect on other aspects of church life.  Like gravity, unspoken expectations bring down everything around them.

It should not come as a surprise that unspoken expectations are a problem in ministry. After all, they are a problem in many relationships. When I see a couple for marital counseling, inevitably unspoken expectations become a topic for conversation. While the stereotype is that it is women who don’t tell husbands what they want - “If you don’t know what I want for Valentine’s Day, then I’m certainly not going to tell you” -  men are often guilty as well.

The truth is, I’m just as guilty. I will stand there, on Sunday morning, hoping that someone will tell me that the sermon blessed them, or challenged them, or made them think  - even made them angry. Usually, I get nothing, nada, zip. No one says a word.

Now, you may ask, “Mike, have you told folks that you need this kind of feedback? Do they know that it blesses you when they say something about how the sermon blessed them?”

Come on - of course not. After all, if I have to tell them, then it’s not as good. They should just know. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Lesson from the Music Room

For several months I have been attempting to learn how to play the bass guitar.

This instrument was purposely chosen for me by my music teacher wife because it is an easy instrument to learn at a beginner’s level. Another reason for the choice is that our church would benefit from adding a bass to the praise team. However, since it is more likely that one of the unborn children in our congregation will advance through birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, decide to learn the bass guitar, and then join our praise team, before I ever get to play in public, such a rationale lacks credibility. The primary reason is that my dear wife, fearing that I am quickly moving toward dotage, is taking drastic measures to keep my brain functioning. She thinks I need a hobby.

Taking up a musical instrument in my mid-50s sounds like a silly idea. After all, there is a reason why I am the only non-musician in my family. I am not musical. As a child I was the only one in my class who could not play the recorder. Not at all. I couldn’t get a sound to come out. In high school my one attempt to sing was quickly thwarted when the choir director kicked me out of choir. Something about me “making up my own vocal part, and not even singing that well.” As an adult, when my family gathers around the piano to sing, I am sent to the kitchen to prepare snacks. A wise choice.

So, here I am, attempting to learn a musical instrument. And as I try to figure out the basics of rhythm, beat, and contort my hand to stretch my fingers into position, all the while remembering to relax and feel the music, I am getting frustrated. I remember my wife (my music teacher wife) telling me how students in her classes easily and confidently move from piano and flute to guitar. I’ve seen my own children do it. A teenager I know taught himself the basics of the bass over a weekend. Why can’t I do this? Why am I even trying?

So, in the midst of all this, I remembered something. Something I seem to have forgotten, not just about learning the bass guitar, but about a lot of things.

This is supposed to be fun.

I am not good at having fun. I have spent most of my life thinking about serious things, and walking alongside people in great pain, and wondering what we can do to make the world a better place. I am not the person people call when they want to get together for a few laughs. It is one of those things in life I regret.

Music is supposed to be fun. Before you can make it beautiful - which I may never do - you have to enjoy it.

That’s a good lesson, because it is true about many things in life. Relationships especially. Family. Love. Work. Music.

This is supposed to be fun.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


I think that I understand more now than I did when I was 12.

I was 12 years old in 1968. 

When I was 12 my grandparents talked about the Great Depression. To me it was ancient history. To my children, the 1960s are ancient history. And just like my grandparents tried to teach me the lessons of the Depression, I have tried to teach my children the lessons of our nation during my childhood - a time when hate and fear resulted in neighborhoods and cities burning, when even children cried out in venomous hate for those whom their parents identified as the despised “others,” and when defending “our way of life” justified uncivilized evil that today my children have trouble comprehending.

I remember the April evening when we heard that Dr. King was assassinated. I remember watching some people cry inconsolably, and I remember watching my next door neighbors celebrate. I remember the morning two months later when we woke up to the news that Robert Kennedy had been killed. I remember watching the smoke rise above the city of Baltimore from the riots that summer. And I remember my parents telling us that the schools and streets of the city were no longer safe, and the next year we moved to the suburbs.

I remember seeing men like Bull Connor, George Wallace and Lester Maddox on television, spewing hate and venom and encouraging others to do the same. I remember scary pictures of people in white clothing, talking of hate in the name of the God of love. And I remember their children, doing the same. 

And that is when I began attempting to understand why people hate. 

I have spent my life studying theology and psychology, in order to understand. I have come to the conclusion that we hate because we are afraid, and we are afraid because we have not been completely transformed by the gospel. We hate because we are afraid, and we are afraid because we do not fully love. We do not accept the love that we have been given in Christ, and because we do not accept it for ourselves, we do not know how to share it with others. 

These days I am concerned about the language of hate that I hear, the words that describe our neighbor as our enemy, and the need to defend “our way of life.” I am concerned because I believe that, while our cities are not burning as they did in 1968, we have not learned all of the lessons. We still define people by how they look, and how they are different from us, and how they arouse our fears. And far too many of us live in fear, and practice hate. 

And we still need to allow God to not just save us, but change us.

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” -MLK Jr.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally when the focus is on the story of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. To me it has always felt a bit strange, a bit forced. We just celebrated Christ’s birth - I’m not ready to jump ahead 30 years.

So, this year, as the first in a series of messages on relationships in the kingdom, we looked at two gospel stories about relationships. Yes, we did visit Jesus’ relationship with his cousin John and the baptism event, but we also spent some time looking at the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple. I was struck by a theme that connects the two events - and that speaks to us about our relationships in the kingdom.

(I encourage you to read these two passages: Luke 2: 21-40, and Matthew 3:13-17)

What struck me was the theme of blessings.

1. Mary and Joseph blessed their child Jesus by doing the best that they knew to do in following the Law. Certainly you can have an interesting - at least for me - discussion about the necessity of this action. After all, Jesus did not need to be purified - did not need to be consecrated. Yet this was the best that his parents knew to do. As parents, doing the best we know to do is all we can do. There are times when I look back on my life as a parent and realize that what I did was not enough, or wrong, or foolish. But my intentions were good. I did the best that I knew to do. As children, when we understand that our parents did the best they knew to do, we understand that their actions were a blessing in our lives. Mary and Joseph blessed Jesus by doing the best they knew to do.

2. In the Lucan narrative we are introduced to two senior saints: Simeon and Anna, both of whom are waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Mary and Joseph blessed them by allowing them to see and participate in their family life. They honored them by sharing their joy. This has broad and significant implications for the intergenerational community of faith.

3. Simeon and Anna blessed Mary, Joseph and Jesus with their words. Of course, if you read the passage carefully, you may not think Simeon’s words to Mary were all that much of a blessing. I’m sure the statement “And a sword will pierce your own soul as well” was not what she wanted to hear that morning in the temple courts. Yet when those who are wise speak truth into our lives - in love - it is a blessing.

4. God blesses Simeon and Anna. What God had promised, God fulfilled, and they experienced joy in this promise kept.

5. With all this in mind, I have fresh eyes for the story of Jesus’ interaction with his cousin John. John’s ministry, calling the people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, was shortly to be superseded by the ministry of Jesus. And what Jesus did that day, in participating in John’s ministry, even over John’s protestations, was a blessing. Jesus blessed John’s ministry. Jesus honored John’s work. There were those who wanted to see the two as in competition - both those who were disciples and those who were looking for ways to discredit both. (If this sounds similar to the situation today - with both followers and critics of ministry trying to portray churches and Christian leaders as adversaries rather than co-laborers, you get my point.)

6. And, of course, we then read of the Father’s act of blessing Jesus, both for whom Jesus is, but also for the work Jesus is about to do.

This theme of blessing speaks to me. It encourages me to cross the lines of generations that the culture so embraces and that the church has so foolishly accepted as inevitable. It encourages me to cross lines that divide ministries, as we are so tempted to define ourselves by our differences rather than what we have in common in Christ.

More importantly, it encourages me to look for opportunities to bless. I want to bless parents who are doing the best they know to do. I want to bless folks who have been faithful across many years. I want to bless those who are doing what God has called them to do. I want to bless children and teens as their service to God is just beginning.

And I want to bless you.

Grace and peace

Monday, January 10, 2011


Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and, after listening to what they had to say, wanted to call a time-out? This happens to me all the time. I want to stop in the middle of the conversation and say,
“Let me ask you a question: Did you consider the repercussions of that statement before you said it? Because if you did, I don’t think you would have said it.”

I don’t usually do that, but I want to. Often. It seems that some folks do not have filters between whatever thought pops into their head and what comes out of their mouth.

Before I go on, in case you don’t know me well enough to already know this, I am an introvert. A true introvert in the Jungian sense. I am not shy, I just prefer fewer social interactions. Most of what really goes on in my life, who I really am, happens inside my head. And because of this, quite a bit of energy is devoted to deciding how much of who I am is revealed to the outside world.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of filters. Think of a filter, say one of those paper coffee filters. Now, where is your filter between what you think and what you say? For an introvert, the filter is well inside their head. The filter decides how much of what they think actually comes out. For me, my filter is fairly strong. I am constantly doing a “cost-benefit analysis” of my thoughts and feelings, deciding if something I think should be said. My filter does not let much out. This has repercussions for my life, and some are not healthy.

Now, for some of my extrovert friends (not all, but some), it seems as if their filter, if they have one at all, is about 3 feet outside their mouth. They think something, then they say it, and then they deal with the consequences. While they may ask me - “Mike, tell us what you are thinking,” I am asking them, “Did you think about what you just said before you said it?”

We all know people who seem to have no filters. And for everyone of us, there are times when our filters are not working. For some people, especially teens, they spend so much energy controlling themselves at school and in other areas of their life that their filters stop working around family members. All of their frustration of the day, controlled by their filters while at school, comes out toward their parents and siblings. It’s as if the filter takes a time out - or is overwhelmed.

I’m thinking about this today because there are times when I wonder if we as a society have lost our collective verbal impulse control. It seems as if many of us have stopped thinking about the consequences of what we say. It’s as if the filters have been turned off.

Of course, one of the most obvious examples is Facebook.

Have you ever wanted to private message someone, after reading their Facebook update, and ask, “Would you stand in front of 400 people and say what you just wrote? I don’t think you would, because you are smarter than that. Before you would stand in front of all those people: friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, high school buddies you have not seen in 20 years, and your employer, I think that you might take the time to edit what you would say. You would think about how it would be received, and you would think about the consequences for you, for them, and for your relationship. You would think about what they will say to you after hearing your comment. I know you, you are smart enough that you would not say what you just wrote if all of those people were right in front of you. Well, when you posted that comment, it is as if you are standing in front of all of those people. And you know what - calling it a “rant” is not an excuse.”

All of the above is prelude.

This idea of a lack of filters, a lack of verbal impulse control, a lack of maturity when it comes to communication, and a willingness to say whatever pops into our head that will get noticed, with a lack of concern that words actually have consequences, is most obvious in our national political debate.

Folks are screaming at one another, saying the most outlandish things, demonizing those with whom they disagree, and using the language and imagery of war, death, and destruction in order to make their point. Pundits and commentators are popular, not for the insight and perspective they offer, but for their ability to excite/incite the masses and “rally the troops.” We are called to “reload” and “take no prisoners” to achieve our goals in this “culture war” for the hearts and minds of our country, as we are led to believe that the end justifies the means and that those on the other side are out to “destroy our way of life.” Compromise and listening to the other side are simply not options.

But then, there are those people who are not mentally competent enough to understand that it is all just metaphor and imagery, and that we really don’t mean that our enemies should be “taken out.” Some folks are not capable of processing this language in a nuanced way, and these words serve as the last drop in the bucket of their tormented lives. Of course, no one expected any one to take our “call to action” literally. But someone did, and someone always does. Since there is seldom an easy way to draw a straight line from someone’s words to another person’s actions, particularly the actions of a mentally sick person, then no one is to blame, no matter how toxic the environment those words create.

Of course, all these pundits are saying these things under the protection of the First Amendment, and are making a pretty good living keeping the fires burning. You have to wonder, if folks started actually talking to each other, would these pundits have a job?

Now that I think about it, maybe this isn’t about impulse control at all. Maybe these folks have filters that work just fine, when they want them to work. Maybe they’ve just turned them off.