Monday, October 1, 2018

9-30-18 “Start With Why”

9-30-18 “Start With Why”

   Art Linkletter famously offered, “Children say the darnedest things!” With their innocent statements or their simple questions, children have the power to stop a parent or grandparent cold in their tracks. With one word they can get an adult to do nearly anything, to offer nearly any treat or surprise, in order to avoid this dreaded trap. What is that snare? 
The question, “Why?” 

Why, mommy? Why daddy? Why?
Why is the sky blue, why is the grass green?
Why don’t bugs get out of the way of the car windshield?
Why do people get sick? Why do people die?
Why is my skin this color and her skin that color?
Why is poo brown if we eat green vegetables?
Why do I have to go to school?
Why is so-and-so mean to me?
Why, why, and because why?

   Studies show that the average 5 year old asks 144 questions a day - that’s one every 5 minutes, so it’s always good to have an escape route for this line of question when they begin to wear on us like some Sesame Street version of a Chinese water torture - the incessant drip, drip, drip driving us stark-raving mad. 
   WHY? Why do we do what we do? Why do we say what we say? It’s a question that, when we drill down deeply, reveals our values.  Knowing our WHY helps us to understand the deep-seated values and beliefs that underly our actions.
   Business consultant, author, and motivational speak Simon Sinek has made a career out of helping people and organizations explore their WHY. 
Several years ago he did an 18 minute video Ted talk called “The Golden Circle,” in which he explained the importance for an organization or business, and particularly for leaders, to understand their WHY, and what a difference it makes. Here’s a brief version of Sinek’s presentation. I have posted the full-length Talk on our church Facebook page and encourage you to watch it in its entirety.

   Why is this important for us? What difference does this make for a church? The church is not a business and should not act or be run like a business, but there are some things we can learn from the business world. 
What does any of this have to do with Jesus, with the Gospel?

   In Luke chapter 4, Jesus emerges from his time in the wilderness, a period of deep spiritual reflection and contemplation where he wrestled with and discerned his call and the direction of his life and ministry. After that time, our scripture says, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, went into the synagogue, read from the scroll of of Isaiah, and announced to all who were there, and to the world, his WHY.
   The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
   He reads from Isaiah 61, discerning that those words of the prophet were to guide his life, his ministry, his sacred vocation. These words, he says, have been fulfilled in your hearing. WHY does Jesus do the things he does in his ministry? Because the Spirit of the Lord was upon him - God had anointed him - God had set him apart for this purpose. That sentence was the first utterance of Jesus’ Vision Statement - WHY he did what he did. 
WHY? Because the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. 
WHY? Because God had anointed him, had set him apart. God had given Jesus a vision, a mission to fulfill. 

The rest of the passage describes his HOW:
[God] has sent me to preach good news to the poor, 
    to proclaim release to the prisoners 
    and recovery of sight to the blind, 
    to liberate the oppressed, 
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

   There, in that brief passage near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, is revealed Jesus’ Vision and Mission Statement. A Vision statement describes the WHY, a Mission statement describes the HOW. How will Jesus live into his WHY? By preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
   So, how does all of this fit together in Jesus’ ministry? Clearly, Jesus’ language here is at least somewhat symbolic even as it is also specific. For example, he says he will preach good news to the poor. 
Well, preach is very specific, we know what that means, but what is “good news to the poor?” That’s a little fuzzier isn’t it? What’s good news to one may not be to another. If Jesus had said, “I’m going to provide a place for the homeless to sleep,” that’s good news if you’re homeless, but not so much if you have a home but have no food. So, “good news” can be a relative term. 

   Centuries later psychiatrist Abraham Maslow would develop what was known as the “hierarchy of needs,” that suggests that the most basic needs that we must satisfy first are physiological and safety needs: food, clothing, shelter, safety, and health. Those primary needs must be met to some degree before the higher level needs of love, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization become important. That is, you don’t care about how much status or recognition you receive if all you can think about is how hungry you are, that you have no place to sleep, or that you can’t afford to go to the doctor for your illness. Good news is a relative term. 

   Likewise, Jesus’ claim that he’s going to proclaim release to the prisoner did not mean that Jesus would lead a massive jail break, like in the movies. So what does this mean? What prisoners is he talking about? Prisoners to what? 
   Recovery of sight to the blind? Well, Jesus certainly restored sight to blind people throughout his ministry - all of the gospels attest to this fact. But that isn’t the only kind of blindness that Jesus is talking about. He referred to the Pharisees as being “blind guides,” at one point - did he mean they literally could not see, or was he speaking metaphorically that they couldn’t see or understand who he was and what he was doing?  A large portion of Mark’s gospel, framed by two stories of Jesus healing men who were blind, is a metaphor about how many people, including the powers-that-be, were blind to who he was and what he was doing. 
   He next said in his WHY statement that he would liberate the oppressed. It’s easy to understand WHO the oppressed are but how was he going to liberate them? Did this mean, as some thought, that Jesus was going to raise up an army and overthrow Roman rule? If so, he failed miserably. But we know that that’s not what he was talking about here - he was speaking symbolically about liberating them into the Kingdom of God.
   And what is this declaring the year of the Lord’s favor? This is something that would have held great value for the people of Israel but is largely lost on us. 
The year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee Year as it was called in the Hebrew Bible, was part of the Law of Moses detailed in the Book of Leviticus that declared that every seven years all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves were to be freed, all lands were to be returned to their original owners, and that it was to be a year of sabbath-taking, with no sowing or reaping from the fields so that the land, too, could rest. All of which sounds really good news, unless you’re a lender, a rich landowner or a slaveholder, then not so much.

   And of course the HOW then leads to the specifics - the WHAT. The WHATS are the very specific things that are part of the HOW that we do because of the WHY. Theologian John Dominic Crossan has written that if you look closely at the ministry of Jesus you see that, more than anything else, WHAT we see Jesus doing primarily are two things: healing people, and eating with people. Those two activities make up the bulk of the stories we read in the Gospels. They were Jesus’ WHAT.
    So, when we think about Jesus’ WHY in terms of the Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, we can see that his WHY is in the center - it guided everything he did throughout his ministry, it came directly from God and guided his life. The HOW we see in terms of what he says in Luke:by preaching good news, by proclaiming release to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, by liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. The WHAT then, are what we see happen in the specific stories of and about Jesus. His WHATS are consistent with and flow directly from, his WHY and HOW.
   And many people in the Bible are only interested in the WHATS. We read story after story of people who came to Jesus to be fed or to be healed and then we never hear from them again. Remember in Luke’s gospel Jesus heals 10 lepers and one returns to thank him. “Were not ten healed?” Jesus asks. Jesus is surrounded by people who are interested primarily, if not exclusively, on the WHAT. They are religious consumers, not disciples. 
   The disciples, on the other hand, they’re fully invested in the WHY. Oh, they’ve seen the WHATS, they’ve witnessed healings, and great feedings, and great catches of fish, and all the rest, but they’re buying Jesus’ WHY. When Jesus asks, “who do the people say that I am,” the disciples say that the people think he is Elijah or John the Baptist, or another prophet. When Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Peter replies, “you are the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one.” Peter embraces Jesus’ WHY. In Simon Sinek’s words, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it?”

  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it?” I don’t know if I’ve ever shared fully with all of you my WHY? Why I became a pastor? What it means to me be called? And called to what?

   I grew up in the church. My parents were very active in the church. Even after my father died we remained very active in the life of the church. One of my early memories, as a 7 or 8 year old, is of coming home from church on Sunday, and while Mom fixed lunch for us, I would line up stuffed animals on the couch in the living room, turn an ottoman on its end as a pulpit, and preach to them from our Bible. Later, I sang in the choir, was in the youth group, and was the first youth representative to serve on our church council. My first paying job was as a custodian at our church. I was all in. The pastor family when I was young were friends of my parents - they socialized together outside of church. Later in my teens, I was close to our pastor, he might even have been a father-figure for me in the absence of my father. 

   As an adult in church, I was very active. I sang in the choir, was a youth group leader for several years, was involved in most book and Bible studies and did three years of Disciple Bible Study. I served in nearly every leadership position or committee within our United Methodist congregation. I did all of this while I was managing stores for Kmart, while my mother was dying of cancer, while I went through a divorce, while I changed careers, began a new life, and eventually remarried. And while I did all of these things in the life of the church, there was always this nagging feeling that God wanted something more.

   One Sunday morning Lynn and I were getting ready to go to church and Robert Schuller was on TV. There was a guest speaker that morning who had written a book called The Dream Giver, the premise of which is that God has planted a dream within each and every one of us, a calling, and that some people realize that and live into it and others never do. Well, thinking about that nagging feeling I had had, I bought the book and quickly read it. It was then that I came to realize that God had been calling me into ministry since I was a child and that I had denied it, deflected it, and deferred it for decades. I knew then that God was calling me into ordained ministry. 

   I came to know something else as well. As I went through seminary it was a huge transformation in my faith. I’ve shared with you before, using a house built of blocks representing my faith, how at one point I found my entire belief system in a pile of rubble, from which I had to rebuild it. And I did rebuild it so that it was even stronger than before. But I also came to understand this additional aspect to my call. My call into ministry was to do things differently. I had seen all the statistics about what was going on in the church universal and in the United Methodist Church. The workshop that some of us attended a few weeks ago updated us on some of those same sad specifics:
  • 85% of all churches in the U.S are in decline
  • 96 churches close every week
  • 50 pastors leave the ministry every day 
   Albert Einstein is credited with having said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. I understood, through much prayer and discernment, that my call into ministry was to break that pattern, to not do things the way they had always been done, to do things differently, to be different, because the way things “had always been done,” wasn’t working any more. 

   That was the call I received from God. That is the call that was affirmed by my District Committee on Ordained Ministry, by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and by the Bishop when he laid hands on my and told me, “Take thou authority.” That was my WHY. That was the WHY with which I began ministry ten years ago. And this is where this message takes a different turn from where I originally intended to go today.

   I now serve on that District Committee on Ordained Ministry, hearing the testimony and call stories of ministerial candidates who believe that they have heard God’s call into some form of credentialed ministry. This Tuesday, as I sat in one of those meetings listening to candidates share their call stories and exhibit their fire and passion for ministry, it affirmed for me what I already knew: that I no longer felt that fire the way they feel it; I no longer breathed the passion with which they breathe. The fire is not out, the breath is not gone, but it isn’t what it was a decade ago when I sat where they sat.

   You all received a letter last week informing you that I would be taking a time for spiritual renewal leave in January and February of next year. The reason for that is simply this - I need time to stoke that fire. I need time to rekindle that flame of passion for ministry that God worked so hard, for so long, to light within me. I don’t know when the fire began to dwindle, I can’t point to a moment that the passion began to ebb, I just recognize that that is where I am. I came to understand why 50 pastors leave ministry each day and why it’s so hard to live into a call like that. I realized that the spiritual disciplines that I know are so important and that I have preached to you about so many times, had gradually become less and less a regular part of my life. 
I realized that my prayer life had become less and less about my listening for God and more and more about my making demands of God - if it happened at all. My reading and study of scripture had become limited to what was needed to prepare for sermons and Bible studies, there was no time given for my personal growth or faith. All of this was taking its toll on my spirit and on my health, and was effecting how I approached ministry. And in some ways it has effected how I’ve been with some of you. The Staff-Parish Relations Team noticed it, as well, and made mention of it in my annual evaluation this year.

   I realized this over a year ago and first approached Mike, our Staff-Parish Relations Chair, about my need for some time away. The letter you received was not something that just came up recently - we’ve been working on how to make this happen for quite a while. And some of you have come to me to express your support and your concern, and I truly appreciate that. 
I know you are a loving and caring people - you’ve shown that love to us many times, not the least of which when our family suffered a tragic loss nearly four years ago. And I love you for that. I know, though, that there are questions that you have. I know that there are rumors going around, as well, and I want to address some of those too.
   No, I have no plans on leaving ministry. I want to rekindle the spark that God planted in me. I know how to do it - I know what I need to do - I know I need help to do it. But just as you would not attempt to perform maintenance on your automobile while you’re driving it down the highway,  I also know that I cannot do this spiritual and emotional work of renewal while I also tend to the day-to-day responsibilities of being your pastor. Wiser people than I also realize that to be the case, which is why our Book of Discipline provides for paid renewal leave for clergy, for up to 6 months at a time if needed, but for at least one month every four years and one week every year. 
   Why is it a paid leave? Because our denomination doesn’t want pastors who know they need this time of spiritual, emotional, or physical renewal to not pursue it because they can’t afford to take time away unpaid. 
I don’t know the broader statistics for this, but within our own Capitol Area South District at least one pastor has committed suicide in the last couple of years - conference and denomination wide the numbers are much greater. Fifty pastors leaving ministry every day is over 18,000 each year. I’m not interested in being a statistic, I’m interested in being a pastor. And I want to be the best pastor that I can be for all of you, and I know that right now I’m not. And I know that some of you are thinking, “Well, Duh!”

   One of the concerns that Mike and I shared, and that was shared by the Administrative Board, was about how could we afford to do this. How could we afford this paid leave and also have someone come in to lead worship and preach on Sunday and also handle the pastoral care needs that the congregation will have. That is the part that took so long to figure out. Now, there are rumors going around that this is going to cost the congregation tens thousand dollars or more. That is simply not true. Rev. Danny Dahl is filling in for two months, preaching and leading worship and providing pastoral care, for a total of $1,000.00. That money will be paid in part by me, through a reduction in one part of my compensation, and in part out of our 2019 budget. That’s why this leave is happening in January and not now - so that we could plan for it and budget for it. The total expense to the church, over and above what the church would normally spend will be $500.00. 
   The question was also asked as to why this came to the congregation as a decision already made by the Administrative Board, and why you weren’t consulted on it before a decision was made. Very simply, this is at its root a personnel issue. It’s literally a pastoral care issue. In your workplaces, if someone needs to take a medical leave or family leave, it’s not put to a vote of the employees. The personnel department handles it. In the United Methodist Church the personnel department is the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. 
This decision, as called for by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, was handled by those tasked with doing that within the United Methodist system, with the approval of the Administrative Board and the full knowledge and support of the District Superintendent.

   Now, these and other questions were raised at our Administrative Board meeting this week. And I would like all of our Administrative Board members and leadership team who are here to please stand. I hope you appreciate the work that these people do. These are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I know. These are among the most self-less, self-giving people I’ve ever worked with. These are people who have answered God’s call in their lives to serve in various capacities in order to serve God and to serve you in this place. Each and every one of these people gives generously of their time, their talents, and their treasure - all are either tithers or are moving towards being tithers - because their WHY is based on their love of God, their discipleship of Jesus Christ, and their love for you. I would go into battle with any of these people, knowing full well that God was with them. These are what disciples of Jesus Christ look like. These people have my fullest support and my utmost admiration, respect, and love. And I hope you will give them your support as well.  Thank you.

   So, we have over three months before I will begin my leave. If any of you have any questions, I am happy to answer them for you. I’m trying to live into my WHY. We start with WHY, in this issue as well as in our faith and ministry, because it speaks to our beliefs and our values, to God’s call in our lives about who and how we are supposed to be. Next week we’ll continue to explore how we, as a congregation, can live into our WHY in how and what we do to live into and support our vision and our mission. We have two new ministries that we’re kicking off soon that I’m excited tell you more about them as well. 

   I love being your pastor, and I want to be the best pastor for you that I can be. No, I’m not like other pastors that you’ve had in the past - I’m not supposed to be. But I want us - together - to do the best ministry that we can. To do that, we have to know our WHY and live into our WHY, and our WHY must be in alignment with the WHY of Jesus Christ. That’s where we’ll go next week. Thank you. Amen. 

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