Category Archives: Church

Training Hard for the Fight: A Pastor’s Guide

In recent years, I have found the habits of elite athletes and soldiers interesting. Guys who not only do physical things well, but at a level above everyone else in the world. I am not an athlete, but am starting to appreciate the habits and mindset of folks who are top-tier in their fields. One of the interesting things I have noticed about such people is that they maintain physical discipline even when they are not doing their jobs. A former Navy Seal I follow online talks about getting up early every day to train. This is a man who is no longer fighting wars on the battlefield, but sees his own training and discipline as non-negotiable. Football legend Herschel Walker continued to train hard whether he was playing ball, between seasons, or retired. Training isn’t seen as a component of his career. Rather, it is a way of life. Pushing yourself daily to exceed yesterday’s best is never questioned. These are folks who are elite athletes and warriors by nature, not just by vocation. I am never going to be an athlete or a warrior. I am a pastor. I live a different calling. I exercise hard every day because I want to be better. This new practice and reading about the habits of these men has helped me to realize something powerful. I study and meditate on scripture verses 8 to 9 hours a week so I can teach them on Sundays. I truly love this aspect of my work. However, I struggle with spending time daily reading and studying the same book for my own edification. I also struggle with the daily discipline of prayer. This morning, I realized something convicting. While the elite athletes and soldiers I’ve been reading about do their required trainings as a part of their work, they also do it as a part of their lives. These men get up, train, then go to work and train more. They do it because it is who they are, not because it is their job. I study because it is my job, but if I want to be a man of God, I must study and pray because it is in my nature to do so. I will never be at the elite level of pastorate. I don’t really know that such a thing exists and if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to refer to me as something like that. However, I love the folks under my pastoral care. I love my family. I love to teach and preach. I love the folks in my community. I love the folks who read my writings and listen to my preaching online. Most of all, I love the God I serve. If all of this is true, and not just something I say, it really ought to be in my nature to hunger for better. I should treat my spiritual state as though my personal spiritual growth will glorify God and minister to those around me. The higher the quality of my spiritual life, the better I will minister to the people I come into contact with. Prayer and personal study are not optional to a person who loves the folks they minister to. It is training. It is conditioning. It creates in us a state of readiness for the moment when we need to love someone we are angry at or forgive the sins of our neighbor. Pastors and brothers in Christ: we must train daily in study and prayer so we can be ready for the moment God calls us to serve. Prayer must be like running. We should do it so much it is natural to us to pray without ceasing. Study should be like lifting weights. It should create strength in us to handle anything we encounter. Paul put it best when he wrote to Timothy: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” Brothers, we must train to be better because it is in our nature.

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Tin Men: A Perspective On Work and Love

I originally wrote this  for the Big Sandy Mountaineer in the Patching Cracks column. I have updated it for this setting.

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 8.33.32 AMI recently read the Wizard of Oz and was surprised at some of the differences between the film and the novel. The most interesting difference related to the story of the Tin Man, who started out as just an ordinary woodsman. The woodsman was cutting wood to earn money to buy a home for his fiancé, who he loved dearly. While he was working one day, he accidentally cut off his own leg, which he has replaced with a mechanical one. The same kind of accident claims his other leg and his arms, all of which he replaces with mechanical limbs. He discovers that he is able to work much better as a result of replacing his body parts with machine parts. Eventually, he loses his head and splits himself in half and becomes a fully mechanical man. Now he can work all day and all night without ever resting. The problem is that his heart is gone and he no longer cares about the woman he loves. All he cares about is working. Everything else is forgotten entirely.

This story is interesting because, despite being a children’s tale, it illustrates a sad phenomena that takes place all the time in our world. I have met many men who meet a woman, fall in love, get married, then work very hard to provide her with the best life he can give her. Those are great things. The tricky part is when the man becomes so engrossed in his work that he stops pursuing his wife. It’s easy to do because men are geared to work hard. It’s part of what gives life purpose. In fact, one of the first things God did when he created Adam was give him a job to do: naming animals and working in the garden. Work holds an important place in the male identity. The problem comes when he stops loving everything else. Work becomes his mistress and he leeches time from his wife and family in order to work more. Eventually he winds up struggling with restoring peace to his relationship when conflict inevitably arises as a result of the attention paid to work and not paid to his home life. This is a natural result of misaligned priorities.

In the story, the Tin Man believes he has no feelings, but in reality he does. He becomes emotional at different times, but avoids it because crying makes him rust. This is typically the case for men who fall in love with work. Feelings are hard to deal with and it’s easier to avoid them than to deal with them. When home life becomes difficult, he works harder and hides out at the office because the world there is easier and safer. I’ve known plenty of guys who are afraid of the emotional complexity of repairing their home situation and simply sit at their desks to solve the problem. They get the reward of achievement, financial benefits, and can point to their long hours “to provide for the family” when criticized for neglecting their wives. I’m not saying that working hard is wrong. However, I am arguing that marriage comes with its own set of responsibilities that do not evaporate at 9 AM on Monday. 

In reality, most men still love their wives and become easily frustrated when things don’t go smoothly at home. They want things to work right but can’t quite figure it out. Or, they work hard to provide for their families and don’t realize that they are forgetting the other things they are responsible for. Either way, work is a necessity and it’s easy to justify making it the number one priority in life. However, that is not the way God designed us to be. 

The solution to this issue in our lives is to acknowledge the importance of our family relationships and focus on them. Work is important, but it is not all-important. The cool thing about the book is that the wizard doesn’t actually do anything for the Tin Man. He just convinces him that he still loves his fiancé so that he will act like it again. The same is true of most men. They can fix their problems by simply acting like they love their wives: showing them attention, doing nice things for them, having conversations again, going on dates, and all the other stuff they did when they were dating. This is really just a matter of making our outward actions reflect our inward reality. It’s really not that hard to do. Most men did it well when they were younger. They just have to decide to do it again. I would suggest that this is encapsulated well in Paul’s direction to “love your wife like Christ loves the church.” Love her. Meet her needs. Put your own self second. Have a heart for loving and serving.

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Faking Manliness: A Response to a Common Trope in Christian Manliness Literature

 

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This morning I overslept. I wasn’t late for an obligation or anything, rather I didn’t get up as early as I wanted to in order to achieve my morning goals. I went to the gym and felt tired. I don’t know whether it was because I was unmotivated, dehydrated, or something else. I finished my workout, but I didn’t go as hard as I wanted to. I got less done for work in the morning than I wanted, though I did get some things done. I just sorta fell short of my goal. While taking my son to swim lessons, I read an essay on pushing yourself to create the type of person you want to be and I felt convicted. Still, my physical state was dragging. My spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak. This often seems like the case when I set lofty goals: I eventually lack the time, energy, or will to achieve them. I am not great at being perfect.

My morning devotions dealt with Paul being the chief of sinners. It struck me that Paul worked harder than anyone else around him to achieve righteousness under his own steam. Yet he still failed. He later said that all his efforts were a pile of trash next to knowing Christ. In Romans 7 he acknowledged his daily struggles to overcome sin. Still he pushed hard and confessed that it was only Christ in him that made him good and righteous.

Now my morning focus turned to the manhood movement within evangelicalism and the larger point of my essay. Scrolling twitter, I came across a post from a pastor trying to shame guys into overcoming any softness in their lives. It was obvious he wants men to reach a lofty state of manliness that he has decided is the target of all believers. It was condescending, self-righteous, and unbiblical. He tried to coat it with a religious veneer, but it was a thin veil. He basically told men: Do not be soft, dependent on others, or effeminate in any way. To do so is to fail as a Christian man. It had the feel of a Christianized 300 speech. Part of what troubled me is that the type of manliness the pastor was describing is not unheard of in Christian circles. Lots of male focused Christian literature and influencers push this narrative that men should rule their homes with an iron fist, never feel emotions, shed weakness, and fight the world. The problem is that for anyone to try to live that way is purely playacting. 6846443501_7627be2b7c_b.jpgThere is no authenticity to it. If manliness is all about eschewing “softness” or any kind of personal weakness, it is a form of farce. It eliminates wide swaths of men from the contention of manliness and rewards virtues that don’t really make a man.King David wouldn’t even qualify, because although he was a fierce warrior he was also a poet. He danced before the Ark. He wept. He had close friends who he loved. He wore his dependance on God as a badge of honor. He was a man of steel and velvet. He was also sinful. 

If my manliness is derived from my ability to get up early, bring it at the gym harder than anyone else, achieve more at work, or whatever, I will always be reaching for a ring that is unattainable. My flesh and the reality of my physical limitations are always going to get in the way. I am a cracked clay pot. I can push forever, but never be “good enough” because good enough is a shifting goal post. There’s always something more. My righteousness, toughness, and discipline will always be insufficient. Or worse, they will become a point of pride that will serve as a stumbling block to myself or those around me. Paul realized that. He worked to be like Jesus, acknowledged his struggles to hit the mark, and owned his shortfalls. I think that is what I want to be. I want to be a man, doing his best to be like Jesus. I want to love my wife like Christ loved the church. Teach my son to be like Jesus. Preach the Gospel and faithful explain the scriptures to the best of my ability. Still, I am going to be unfocused and soft sometimes. I’m going to act like a selfish child when my flesh overcomes me. If I fall short but I am a tool in the hands of my master I will consider it a win. If I’m not manly enough or disciplined enough or holy enough, then the good things I do are despite my weakness and point to the fact that Christ can still work through a broken tool. When I tried to be the best and to never deal with my weaknesses, it drove me to drink and wreck everyone around me. I will try hard and Christ will do the rest. If I am weak, he is strong. If I am boasting in anything, it won’t be my manliness or toughness or anything else. It’ll be in Christ alone.

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7 Things Christians Need to Understand About Mental Illness


For 8 years, I worked in a residential treatment facility for kids with emotional disorders. I started the job after working as a Youth Pastor for several years. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started the job, but over the years, I learned a great deal about mental illness and its treatment. After just a few months I was a better youth minister and I understood more about working with people than I did in the previous 5 years of church work. The experience also prompted me to earn a masters degree in Pastoral Counseling while I was earning my MDIV and certifications for addictions treatment. I’m now finishing my fourth year as a small church pastor. Im not an expert by any stretch, but the mixture of my experiences and my educational background has taught me a great deal about how the church ought to respond to mental illness in our communities. The biggest challenges related to these efforts are a product of folks not understanding the nature of the problem and misunderstanding the need.

  • Mental illness is actually illness. It’s common for Christians to assume that folks who suffer from mental illnesses are faking it, that they just need to have more faith, or that they just need to toughen up. This just isn’t true. The reality is far more complicated. Mental illness is often the result of chemical imbalances, past trauma, conditioning, etc. The suffering folks experience is real. Orthodox Christians would never say that polio or arthritis are merely a matter of weak faith. The fact that mental illness takes place in the parts of a person that we cannot look at doesn’t make it less real or less an actual illness. 
  • It’s not a product of weak faith. We would never tell someone that their physical pain is a product of weak faith or not trusting God. However, there are Christians who would describe anxiety, depression, addiction, or PTSD with those same terms. God gives us the tools to treat physical ailments and we do not decry those who suffer or seek treatment as not trusting God. Struggles with emotional issues brought about by trauma or brain chemistry are just as uncontrollable and breed just as much misery. There is no weakness in seeking help.
  • People with mental illnesses suffer. No one would suffer from severe anxiety, clinical depression, addiction, or PTSD if they could just make it stop on their own. It is miserable. I have yet to meet anyone who suffers in these ways who wants it to keep going or thinks it’s no big deal. It is often utterly unbearable, driving them to suicide or self-medication. Their suffering is real and profound. 
  • Mental illness comes with significant stigma and shame. Many people hear “mental illness” and they get uncomfortable quickly. Our culture tends to look at sufferers with a degree of suspicion. This results in a great deal of shame and fear of judgement. They often don’t seek help or talk to family and friends about their struggles because they are afraid of how they will be perceived. 
  • Treating mental health problems involves actual medical procedures. It’s sometimes assumed that mental health treatment is just talking or that it’s coddling. However, therapeutic approaches, medications, and the other tools/techniques utilized by mental health practitioners are studied, tested, reviewed, and evaluated for effectiveness. Like any other medical procedures, mental health treatment is medicine. In addition, this means that, with help, sufferers can get better. They can overcome their issues. 
  • The church has a responsibility. One of the most reassuring aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry was his willingness to engage with folks who were sick, ashamed, and outcasts. For two millennia, the church has led the way in caring for the suffering of this world. Mental illness is a vast, under-addressed area for the church to serve. There are uncounted multitudes of our brothers, sisters, children, friends, and neighbors suffering in silence because they are ashamed or afraid. We have a responsibility to talk about these matters and work toward taking the stigma away from seeking help. Further, churches are uniquely positioned to provide care and comfort to folks who suffer. We need to invite folks in be prepared to help them when they arrive.
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Falling “Christian” Stars: Josh Duggar and the Cult of Christian Celebrity

IMG_7424With the recent release of hacker data stolen from Ashley Madison, a dating service for married people seeking to have an affair, and the revelations that followed; various tendencies in Christians’ responses have, yet again, sprung forth. Every time a minister or other prominent Christian is caught in some sort of malfeasance, certain responses are predictable. Perhaps the most troubling to me is the tendency to minimize or ignore sin. Jesus and the rest of the Bible tend to treat sin seriously. This is even the case for the “good guys” in the Bible. David, a man after God’s own heart, took it on the chin for his adultery and murder. Peter was called “Satan” in the rebuke of Jesus when he spoke out of his own interests. Paul repeatedly bemoans his own sin, calling himself the least of the disciples and repeatedly referring to his persecution of the church decades after it happened.
In broaching this topic, it’s important to acknowledge a hard truth in our culture: Western civilization likes to idolize people. Politicians, musicians, actors, directors, writers, activists, preachers, teachers, and whatever the Kardashians are (That last one didn’t trigger my spell checker… just take a moment to let that sink in!). We tend to look to these folks as infallible heroes. The problem that comes with trying to make anyone into a messiah is that they can’t save us, and they’re only human. There shouldn’t be any such thing as a celebrity Christian. This is not to say that folks of faith shouldn’t be in the public square and that we shouldn’t support them. Rather, we need to recognize that these folks are not God and shouldn’t be idolized. They’re fellow servants of our Master. When we worship anyone or anything that isn’t Jesus, we commit idolatry.
Some folks might object to my characterization of idolizing celebrities. To those folks I’d say: If you’ve spent more money on, quoted more, given more attention to, obeyed more faithfully,  talked about more often, or pointed others toward anyone or anything more than Jesus, it is an idol. I see this especially with celebrity pastors. For example, lots of folks quote one best selling mega-church pastor or another more often than he or they actually quote scripture. Worse still, it’s seldom acknowledge that many of them are preaching things that aren’t in harmony with the gospel. Rather, fans tend to treat their teachings as though they are the gospel themselves. We are often slow to compare sermons and books to the Bible ourselves because the light of truth exposes falsehoods.
There’s a handful of reasons that it’s easy to latch on to idols. For starters, we are fallen creatures. We rebel against God by nature. Worshipping an idol is a matter of the sinful heart, which will always tend to love the creation more than the Creator. Further, our culture is geared toward this sort of idolizing of men. It’s on our TVs, magazines, books, billboards, conversations around the water cooler, etc. It’s just there and it’s easy to fall in line with it.
The problem that will typically arise with idolizing men is what we see happening to Josh Duggar and have seen with countless folks before him. They turn out to not be God, and as a result, they will stumble or fail to be everything that God is. We will eventually wind up defending, ignoring, minimizing, whitewashing, or pointing fingers at the sins of others all in an effort to draw attention away from the reality that the thing/person we idolize isn’t sufficient to save or worthy of praise. Otherwise, we are forced to disown and destroy our idol. In short, we shoot our wounded. We’ve seen these reactions in the folks who tried to defend Duggar or ignore his failings, as well as those who tossed him under the bus when it turned out that he’s a sinner, too.
The solution is for believers to come to a point that we recognize that God is deserving of our worship and adoration in a way that no one else is. We must remind ourselves of this daily. When His people who live in the spotlight of public scrutiny fall short, we need to acknowledge sin for what it is and point to Christ. Further, we need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard than we hold the world.
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Sermon Link: From Rubble to Return

This week’s sermon on Nehemiah 10, dealing with the Jewish people’s community commitment to obey and submit to God’s law after returning from exile and restoring the walls of Jerusalem. The message looks at the Hebrews’ repentance, compares it to repentance in modern believers, and talks about how God provides restoration through faith in Jesus. 

Preached by Erik Sietsema at Big Sandy Community Church of God in Montana On 8/16/15. 

http://patchingcracks.sermon.net/main/main/20467287

Click the Image To Listen to the Message

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#OfficeArtifactWednesday: The Redneck Fish Finder… Thoughts On the Power of Words

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Anyone who has ever visited my office knows that it has always been filled with odds and ends. Little collections and keepsakes. A big part of the reason I collect things is to spur my thought processes. Being surrounded by odds and ends sort of feeds my short attention span and sometimes results in interesting thoughts. #OfficeArtifactWednesday is a weekly Facebook/Twitter posting I am doing to share a bit of what I’ve accumulate and some of how it makes me think. Let me know if you find it interesting.

For my first Office Artifact Wednesday item, I decided to share a picture of my redneck fish finder. 15 years ago I preached my first sermon in a church. During the sermon I told a joke about fishing with dynamite. The next morning, when I came into my office I found a bundle of wooden dynamite with the label: “Redneck Fish Finder.” There was no card or label. No one ever took credit for the gift. Someone thought enough of the anecdote (or me) to bring the knick-knack by and gift it to me. It has been a part of my office collection everywhere I have gone since. It is the very first office artifact.

Over the the last decade and a half of looking at the redneck fish finder on my desk everyday, my thoughts on it have changed. In the beginning I was encouraged that my story had caught someone’s attention. It was very encouraging for me as a young preacher. It’s not often that sermons illicit responses, so this has served as a bit of a reminder that folks are listening.

As time passed my perspective changed. The dynamite began to serve as a reminder of how powerful stories can be in conveying a point. I love telling stories and bridging them into principles or lessons. I’ll admit that I do this almost constantly, looking at things and considering how they can be used to illustrate an idea. I do this because stories can create deeper understanding. They can help people identify with what is being conveyed. They also draw in the listener’s attention. My fish finder always brings my mind back to this concept.

In the last few years, as I have finished seminary, studied the Bible more deeply, and worked with people more seriously, the fish finder has grown to reflect the reality that the things I say from the pulpit have the potential to make a huge impact on those I serve. I’ve spoken carelessly to folks and regretted it on more than one occasion. This is especially the case when preaching, because it involves standing in a spot where folks look to you to learn truth about God. The responsibility involved ought not to be taken lightly. Over the years I’ve known people whose words were like a carelessly tossed bomb in any situation: inflicting pain, provoking anger, and breeding dissension. I’ve also watched as preachers ignore the scriptures in favor of their own agenda and opinion, misleading folks for selfish gain. Being a professional talker (and a guy who tends to to talk too much) it’s important to remember the power of words and to choose them accordingly. Jesus once said: I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. (Matt. 12:36) He also taught: “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.”  (Luke 17:1-20)

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues. Proverbs 17:28

Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!” Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. Proverbs 26:18-20
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Where In the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1 Understanding the Background

goodwifeguide-331x268Over the past few years, I’ve read several articles arguing varying perspectives on the ideal wife portrayed in Proverbs 31. Most of these articles have argued the matter in terms of whether or not this woman is a standard model for wives and women everywhere to aspire to be the best housewife possible in serving her 1950s family or an allegory for wisdom so as to remove the unattainable ideal that just serves to discourage women into standardized gender roles. I’ll admit that these characterizations are hyperbole, but I am exaggerating the extreme sides of this debate for a reason: because this text has become a bit of a tug-o-war passage for folks in the battle over the role of women in the church. Each side pulling for a gender political stance and taking pride in their position, sometimes without bothering to ask whether or not they are glorifying Christ in their stance. My intent in this post is not to engage either of these positions, but rather to offer an analysis of the text with an eye on shedding a little light as to what believers are actually supposed to do with these passages.

Preliminary Issues: Genre, Audience, and Context
In advance of the discussion, there are a few important concepts that need to be understood as a lens through which we must look in interpreting the passage. The first is the genre of literature being discussed. Wisdom literature, and more specifically the proverb, is a specific genre that needs to be understood on its own terms. Reading Proverbs isn’t like reading the instruction manual for your toaster. It’s a highly defined style of writing, featuring multiple sub-genres. In this case, it’s important to recognize that the text is presenting an idealized truth. It is the same throughout the book. This idealized truth must be understood as such. It’s easy to recognize this when comparing the book to other wisdom texts. For example, read Proverbs straight through, then read Ecclesiastes or Job. All three are wisdom literature, but the three texts offer very different perspectives on the world. In Job, the righteous man loses everything and suffers despite being blameless. In fact, Job’s friends seem to reflect a position that might be supported by the book of Proverbs: If bad things are happening to you, you must have acted wickedly. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon declares some hard realities that seem to stand at odds with the more idealized book of Proverbs. There seems to be a contradiction between the books. However, this contradiction is pressing only if we rigidly look at the proverbs as absolute statements of truth or rules for the universe, instead of recognizing that ideals are being presented. To this end, it is important to recognize that this is an idealized version of women, a target to aspire to. It is not a list of hard and fast rules for wives. Rather, it is an ideal.

Further, the passage itself is Hebrew poem, written with a structure that gives hints as to what the main point is. For starters, each line of the text begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which points to the completeness of the truth being presented. Acrostics could also be used to aid in memorization. This is important because the book is intended to be instructional material for young men. Easy memorization would be a desirable feature. In addition, the poem itself has a Chiastic structure. This is when the first and last line parallel each other, the second and second to last line parallel each other, and so forth. The middle line of the poem, which has no parallel, is the major point being made. In this case verse 23 is the center of the poem:Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. Essentially, the poem culminates in the instruction that a man with a good wife will be lauded publicly. A modern equivalent would be: “Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” This may seem like a back-handed treatment of women, saying that their only purpose is to make their husbands successful, but this isn’t the case because wives aren’t the target audience of this text.

When interpreting scripture, understanding the target audience intended by the author is valuable for understanding the message being presented. In the case of the book of Proverbs, the target audience is young men. Throughout the book, young men are addressed in the instructions. In fact, chapter 31 is advice given to King Lemuel by his mother. In this context, the advice being given to sons in the chapter is essentially that picking a good wife will aid in you becoming the kind of man that folks esteem highly. This is hardly unique in the text. 25:24 warns: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. What sort of wife should you seek? One that you don’t fight with constantly, or you’ll hit a point where you’d rather sleep on the roof than with her. Chapter 5 is loaded with advice for young men regarding loose sexual morals. Young men are instructed to avoid such behavior and keep their sexuality confined to the relationship with their wives. In this light, the passage fits the larger context of the book’s tendency to offer advice to young men about ideal truths. This is most evident in verse 30: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Young men tend to gravitate to a pretty face when selecting a wife, while ignoring more important qualities, like character. The advice being offered is heavily oriented toward young men’s inclinations. Again, the audience is important because it reveals a truth that is often ignored by those who attempt to interpret the text in terms of gender roles: chapter 31 is never intended to be used as an instruction manual for wives. It is not a checklist for being the ideal wife. Rather, it is advice for sons to look for certain qualities in their wives if they want to be successful and well thought of. That having been said, there are truths that can be gleaned and applied for wives, but more on that later.

1f63a8228ad74caec641eaecef106871Understanding the historic context is also important for getting a solid grip on the meaning of the passage. The advice being offered isn’t being given in a culture where people typically married for love. Marriage was generally a very utilitarian institution. Wives were selected based on all sorts of considerations, most of them pragmatic. The poem is literally about choosing a wife according to high character standards. This choosing was more akin to shopping than our culture tends to immediately recognize.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the most important background issue: How to interpret what King Lemuel’s mom was saying. Is it symbolic of something else? Is it a guide for being a perfect housewife? Is it a call to return to the 50s? Or is it something better that all believers can take hold of with joy?
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6 Things You Can Do To Support Your Pastor

6 thingsI haven’t posted to this blog in 3 months. The reason for this leave of absence is simple: I am a small church pastor in a rural community of 700. I love my job and the people I serve. Between early October and December 26th, the busy season for church work, I didn’t have a single day when I didn’t field a work-related phone call, head over to the office to take care of a few tasks, visit with someone from the church, run into town for a hospital visit, spend time working on a sermon, sat down for counseling, attended a meeting, or spend time working. I often joke that I work every day, which is true. As the excess or work ramps up, the productivity of writing goes down. That having been said, I’m not bragging or complaining about this. I don’t consider burnout to be a sign of spiritual health. I actually really like my job and most days I don’t think I work to excess. In the past, I’ve worked at similar levels of busyness and not felt as good about it. Most ministers have experienced days when they didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and when they felt like there was no escaping the crush of expectations.

Strangely, after nearly three years of this sort of schedule, I have yet to reach that point. I certainly have bad days and times when I grit my teeth when the phone won’t stop ringing. The difference between past times of ministry work and now seems to be the attitude of the community of believers I am serving, as well as a few things they do consistently. This is a huge deal considering how often pastors walk away from church work in a state of burnout. Here are a few of the big things I have observed that have made a big difference to me.
  1. Pray for your pastor. Praying for your pastor means more than simply telling them you will pray for them. Praying for your pastor involves asking them what they need prayer for. It’s offering prayer for them in church during community prayers. It involves praying with them before events. Pastoring is spiritual leadership. There is an inherently spiritual component to the endeavor. As such, it is important to pray for pastors and let them know you are praying for them.
  2. Let your pastor be human. I am not perfect. In fact, even on my best days, I am not anywhere close. I still sin. I get tired, frustrated, and angry. Sometimes I am thoughtless, careless, and insensitive. I’m not saying I don’t strive for holiness or that I’ve given up on trying to be a better man. What I’m saying is that Jesus is perfect and I am a work in progress. The congregation I am serving has been great about letting me be human. When I struggle, there are church members who listen and offer advice. I talk about struggling with sin when I preach and no one is lining up to fire me for it. Nothing is more tiring for a minister than putting on their “holy man” mask every morning for work. There is a great deal of peace and comfort that accompanies knowing that you can talk about your struggles. It’s crushing to constantly live in fear of minor slip-ups. It’s even worse to carry secret sin, knowing you cannot confess it to anyone lest you lose your livelihood.
  3. Offer to help. There are several people in my church who routinely offer to help with aspects of my workload. They typically do a great job of following through when I take them up on the offer. These are the same people who show up at church events, bring food to sick members of the community, and stay late to visit with other members and clean up after an event. One of the biggest frustrations that can set in as a pastor stays longer with a small congregation, is the sense that they are doing everything. To be honest, even the offer of help is heartening. The sense that others are willing to help out is huge. Very little is more frustrating than investing time, energy, and enthusiasm, only to be met with indifference. Offering to help demonstrates investment.
  4. Be concerned about your pastor’s marriage. My first pastor appreciation month in Montana, the members pitched in and got my wife and I a 3-day stay at a hot spring resort. With this gift, we were given free childcare at the ranch of one of the members. This has been the norm since. Every year, we are given our own marriage retreat. This really isn’t a once-a-year thing. There are several members who routinely take our kids so we can go on dates or just get some alone time. On top of that, I am regularly approached by members who ask about my marriage and ask for ways to support us. The single best mechanism for maintaining pastoral morale is their family. The demands of ministry work can be significant and can significantly strain a marriage. Supporting a pastor’s family and helping maintain familial health essentially protects the most important mechanism for pastoral contentedness.
  5. Offer your pastor honest accountability and meaningful praise. This doesn’t mean offering empty praise. I often joke that no one ever tells you that you preached a bad sermon. There are a handful of people in my regular contact who will tell me when a sermon wasn’t good or will hold me accountable when I am wrong. Mind you, I am not talking about nit-picking. Feedback is most effective when it deals with larger block matters. Several years ago, I encountered an individual who would make suggestions based on phrasing errors I made while preaching. I don’t preach from a manuscript. It’s nearly impossible to preach extemporaneously without phrasing a few sentences poorly. In addition to accountability, praise is important. Pastors appreciate hearing when they do well. Positive feedback lets them know that what they are doing is appreciated. This should not be empty, puffing up praise. Rather, they should be genuine positive observations. There are a few people in my church whose praise various efforts, but aren’t shy to let me know when I miss the mark. Their opinions are valuable to me. This is not an instant thing. It is a product of relationship.
  6. Develop a relationship with your pastor and his family. My family has eaten meals with most of the members of our church. When I encounter church members at the store, they converse with us. We love the folks we are serving, not just because we are supposed to. We love them because they have made it a point to be our friends. I once had a pastor tell me that it was best not to invite people from the church into your lives. He told me about folks who had personally hurt him and his family. In time, we encountered people who confirmed this as a decent suggestion. For many years, my wife and I were standoffish in church communities. During our time in Montana, we have discovered that this was not the right course. There has been little that has meant more to us than the close relationships our church has set out to form with us.
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5 Date Night Ideas for Couples Stuck in a Rut

IMG_1564After 16 years of marriage, my wife and I have noticed that it has become easy to fall into a rut with the time we spend together. For example, since the kids came along we have had begun doing the “grocery store date”, which involved going out for dinner, then going grocery shopping. This date pattern came about for fairly obvious reasons. It’s easier to go to the grocery store without the kids. If we already have a babysitter, why not have an easy night of buying groceries? On the plus side, it meets the basic requirement of spending time alone together.  The problem is that this outing isn’t particularly exciting and is really just doing home maintenance without the kids along. Dating your spouse should be about enjoying each other’s company and spending quality time together, unfortunately its easy for it to devolve into an obligation or routine.Because of this, we have put effort into coming up with new and novel activities to engage in on date nights that shift us out of our rut. Here are a few of our favorites:
  • First to pick up their phone loses- This one isn’t as much a game as a strategy for enjoying the evening. Cell phones have invaded so much of our interaction and demand a great deal of attention that it is easy to sit across from each other, surf the net, and never talk. This activity is aimed at curtailing this trend. It starts with a bet. Both partners select the stakes and the first to pick up their phone for any reason loses. Some decent stakes include: breakfast in bed for the winner, loser plans the next date, or the winner gets to sleep in while the loser takes care of the kids in the morning. It’s best to be creative and friendly with this. It’s also smart to set a special ringtone for the babysitter to prevent missing emergency calls.
  • Book Store Gift Shopping- One of my favorite date night games involves a visit to Barnes and Nobles with $30. Each of us takes half and spends 20 minutes picking out a book for the other. The book can’t be an obvious choice, but should 1480537_10151792771816835_1306916336_nreflect something that you think your spouse might find interesting, something that is a sort of project or activity work on together, or anything else that might spark conversation. Afterward we spend time talking about why we picked the book we picked and our reactions to the book we received. The important part of this game is spending time talking about it afterward and sharing reasons for picking the book. It can be adapted to other settings if you aren’t a reader. The game can be played in a mall or almost anywhere else.
  • Playing Games at Denny’s- This one may sound silly, but we have done it on more than a few occasions and find that it makes for a fun evening. You go to a restaurant that would generally expect patrons to sit for a little while, like Denny’s, Perkins, Tim Hortons, or a coffee shop. (We did this at a sports bar once.) Once seated you start a game. We have played dominoes, scrabble, and cards, though these are not your only options. Pick a game you both enjoy playing. It’s kind of neat to sit and play a game while being waited on. It’s particularly great to play a game without little hands grabbing the pieces or asking to help you play your side. If you tip well, most waitresses won’t mind if you sit for a while.
  • Walking- Early this year, my wife and I had a small window to go out. We visited a local restaurant. After the meal, we were at a loss as to what to do next because we live in a very rural area, with somewhat limited options for outings. I called a friend who owns some land on the river near our town. He directed us to a trail that ended at a cliff overlooking an island on the river. We walked a few miles along the trail, enjoyed the view, held hands, talked, and spent no money. Walking in parks, along trails, even through your neighborhood provides an opportunity to spend time together and just talk. Bring dessert or a picnic for dinner as well to enhance the outing.
  • Questions- Take turns asking questions. This may sound corny, but it provides conversation starters and can lead to knowing each other more intimately. Questions can be on any subject and should be answered to the best of your ability. Some questions I remember asking include: Best time we ever had together? Most memorable date? Favorite gift you’ve gotten from me? Really, the point of this is just to ask each other’s thoughts and feelings on different issues.
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