Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

Let It Out

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Courageous, brave, bold, and strong – it seems most people do not characterize themselves this way.  I suppose it makes some kind of sense in our minds as to why this is: Every one of us can readily recall a time or several events in which we wilted with fear; did not speak up; or, were not assertive.  The many conversations we will never have that take place in our heads are testament to our supposed withdrawal in the face of adversity.  In other words, we have far too many discussions with ourselves of how something should have gone and way too many brave retorts for someone whom we really have no intention of saying those words toward.

If this all sounds like the convoluted musings of a wimpy kid, that’s not far off the mark.  When we get bullied, even as adults, it can be easy to wilt, or to take it, or to simply find a way to avoid the bully.  With some folks, we even create elaborate internal reasons why it’s our fault someone is upset with us.  In such times, bravery and courage seem a long way from our true selves.

Faced with a daunting task at work, at home, or at school, we may wonder if we really have the internal stuff to pull it off.  We feel that maybe someone else would be better suited to do it.  What’s more, given a set diagnosis with some disease looks a whole lot like a circumstance that is way above our emotional pay grade.  It isn’t only the added hard situations of life that make us look fearful; it is the crippling losses that can leave us feeling anything but strong and brave.

Yet, what if I told you that you are, indeed, brave, strong, and confident?  What if I insisted that courage resides within you, even if you yourself cannot see it right now?  And, what if I told you that bravery isn’t something you must go on a quest to find, but that it’s been in you all along?  If so, you only need to let it out.

You intuitively know I’m on to something here.  After all, the most common exhortation and assurance in the entirety of Holy Scripture is to not be afraid because God is with us….

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NIV)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6, NIV)

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NIV)

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6, NIV)

Believe it, or not, the Bible tells us 365 times to not be afraid.  Maybe that’s not a coincidence that we can quote a verse every day of the year about our own fearfulness in the face of so much of life’s cruel junk.

Yet, the tack I want you to take in the great litany of fear we daily face is that bravery is not something that is so much commanded as it is a calling forth of something which is already within you.

Parker Palmer

Now, before you go thinking I’m some New Age huckster, hear me out.  Right from the beginning of the world, in God’s creative activity, the LORD did it all by calling forth from within himself.  What I mean is this: God did not simply command everything into being; instead, he said, “Let there be…”  God let out what was already there in his very Being.  It was almost as if God belched-out from the great depth of his Being and let out all this wondrous creation.

I also find it interesting that when it comes to fear and bravery God does not so much command us to be courageous, as he wants us to draw from the great reservoir within.  That is, he has already created us strong, as creatures in his image.  We just need to get in touch with what is already there.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus to his disciples because he knew his followers had it in them to walk in his way without fear (John 14:6, NRSV).  “Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful,” said God to the prophet Jeremiah in the face of a terrible destruction that was about to unfold against Jerusalem because the LORD knew that his servant could face what was going to happen (Jeremiah 51:46, ESV).

When it comes to genuine Christian spirituality, we can act with boldness because Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation.  He is the One which enables us to draw from the deep well of courage….

“So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:14-16, NLT).

When I say that you are brave, you are strong, you are good – those are not words meant to make you believe something which may or may not be true, as if I were trying to convince you to take some panacea to feel better.  No, I say it because it is true.  You really can face the immense mountain in front of you and climb it.  You can actually surmount the adversity you are in the middle of – not because of some words I say, but because you were created for courage.

So, how do you let out the bravery and let the boldness shine?  That seems to be the million dollar question.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you already know the answer to this.  Yes, you possess the answers to your own questions.  You have all the knowledge you need to face your problems.  So, the real question is this:

Will you let your bravery come out to play, or will you keep it hidden beneath layers of insecurity?

It’s a whole lot easier to let me tell you what to do than to draw from what you already know deep down how to handle that troublesome something.  So, I’m not going to give you a simple three-step process out of fear and into courage because you already have been endowed with the process.  This certainly isn’t a sexy way to end a blog post, but it just might be the most effective and lasting.

Mark 9:2-8 – Shining the Light on Our Fears

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“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him. They went up on a high mountain, where they could be alone. There in front of the disciples, Jesus was completely changed.  And his clothes became much whiter than any bleach on earth could make them.  Then Moses and Elijah were there talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  But Peter and the others were terribly frightened, and he did not know what he was talking about.

The shadow of a cloud passed over and covered them. From the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, and I love him. Listen to what he says!’  At once the disciples looked around, but they saw only Jesus.” (Contemporary English Version)

The transfiguration of Christ was a glorious experience on the mountain.  But we are told that Peter, James, and John, the inner circle of Christ’s disciples, were terribly frightened.  Peter, always the extrovert of the group, nervously babbled-on without making any sense because he was so nervous and afraid.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus would take three of his disciples with him to experience such an incredible vision?  Why did Jesus show these men something so otherworldly that they nearly soiled themselves?  I will tell you why I think Jesus put his close disciples in such a position as this:

Because the way to see Jesus as our only hope, we must face our fears, insecurities, and anxieties squarely without hiding.

Jesus did not relieve their anxiety.  He let them feel the full impact of their fear.  His glory shone show brightly that they couldn’t hide from what was happening to them and what was in their minds and hearts.  Only through shining the light on the shadowy place of our fears and insecurities will we accept that we need a savior.  That savior is Jesus, the light of the world, the Lord over fear, anxiety, and discouragement.

The invitation which Jesus extends to us is to move further into our fears so that we can see how desperately we need him.  Nobody seeks a savior when they don’t believe they need deliverance from anything.  But the one who sees what is truly inside of them – the fear of connection; the scary prospect of confrontation; the anxiety of what will happen; or, the discouragement of failure – is the one who is then able to hear the voice of God and listen to Jesus give the answer to our most pressing life issues.

Jesus Christ wants to change us from the inside-out.  He helps us by showing us not to avoid the fears which cause us to be beside ourselves, but through confronting those anxieties with him.  You and I are never alone; we always have the glorious presence of Christ with us as we walk through dark valleys and ascend high mountains.  It is the wonderful existence and omnipresence of God in Christ through the Spirit which makes all the difference.  We were created for connection with the divine, not for separation and loneliness in our fears.

Glorious Christ, you love me with a grace and mercy which always has my best interests in mind.  Help me through my most pressing fears and failures so that I might see your glory, hear your voice, and know your constant presence.  Amen.

Pursuing the Good Life

 
 
Everyone desires a good life.  No one wakes up in the morning and hopes they have a bad day.  A person might get up on the wrong side of the bed and grump his/her way through the first hours of the day, but nobody makes a conscious decision to deliberately have a bad life.  We all want a good life.  Students go to school hoping to have a good experience.  Marriages begin with the hope of having a good life together.  New employees start with the wish that there will be satisfaction in doing a job well-done.  Parents dream of their kids growing up to have a good life.  We want the kind of life that brings contentment, joy, and happiness.
 
            A good life comes through the fear of the Lord (Psalm 34:9-14).  Yes, that’s right, the fear of the Lord.  If we want to live a good life, it will have the fear of the Lord at the heart of it.  We need to make an important distinction between good fear and bad fear.  We as human beings are all too familiar with bad fear.  Bad fear is being too afraid to take the steps necessary to have a good life.  It is being insecure, risk-averse, and unwilling to take even a small step toward expanding my comfort zone.  Bad fear causes people to retreat in bubble of anxiety that keeps them stuck and imprisoned in a small world of protection, unable to engage God’s big world with any effectiveness.  Bad fear is to be afraid of what other people may or may not do or say.  Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe (Proverbs 29:25). 
 
The way to overcome the fear of others and the fear of the situations that might happen is to have the good kind of fear, the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord means to honor and obey God, to be loyal and submissive.  It does not mean being afraid, like the bad fear of people.
 
            If you want to lack no good thing; if you desire to see many good days; if you do want to simply survive in life but to thrive in it and love the life you possess; then, the first thing that must happen is taking the posture of listening.
 
 
 
            The Hebrew word “listen” literally means to bend or to incline the ear.  It is to take a posture of listening in order to learn.  The prerequisite to any kind of good life is to have a teachable-spirit that gives focused attention to the wisdom God has for us.  A fool is a person who does not listen, but only mocks, complains, and is continually negative.  But a wise person is one who has learned to be attentive to the voice of God.  Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.  Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.  Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning (Proverbs 9:7-9).
 
            The fear of people is a death-dealing practice.  But the person who fears God through the posture of a teachable spirit discovers a life-giving practice that will serve him/her well.  The teachable spirit takes the posture of listening and learning from other people’s hard-won experiences.  It bends the ear to good advice.  It inclines toward acquiring knowledge and learning the skill set needed to live a good successful Christian life.  There cannot be a good life without having a teachable spirit, seeking after learning, discovering, and listening. 
 
            Therefore, Christians cannot learn if they will not read.  The Bible is a book.  If the Bible was a car I would tell us all to learn to be mechanics.  If the Bible were a fish or a deer I would tell us all to learn the best ways to hunt and fish.  If the Bible was a store I would tell us all to learn to be good shoppers and consumers.  But the Bible is a book, and so we all need to read it, memorize it, meditate on it, and learn from it.  Get in the Word of God!  Wise churches will find ways to immerse themselves in Scripture and have moldable teachable spirits. 
 

 

If we desire a good life we will fear God and keep his commandments; we will be readers of Scripture and take the posture of listening and learning.  If we want to experience the good life we will engage in personal reading, corporate reading, and bible studies.  We will find ways to get into the Word!

The Politics of Fear

 
 
            We all have personal fears.  They may be different, all the way from snakes and creepy clowns to public speaking and talking on the phone.  Whatever the fear, being afraid can multiply exponentially when a group of people collectively fear something.  When that happens, the politics of fear takes over and faith is replaced by what a church thinks might happen.  Most church problems and conflicts do not arise out of doctrinal differences, but out of a clash of fears. 
 
Consider just a few scenarios.  One group of people think women should serve in leadership capacities the same as men, and another group believes that women can only serve in limited leadership roles.  The former group fears that if women are not allowed leadership status that the church will wither for lack of fully utilizing the giftedness of half or more of the congregation; they fear the church will not grow.  The latter group is afraid that if women attain leadership roles that the men of the church will become lazy and not serve; it is only, they fear, a slippery slope to an all-female run congregation with no men leading.
 
A more obvious scenario is the so-called “worship wars.”  One group holds to a more traditional and liturgical form of worship with hymns and responsive readings.  They fear that if this form changes it will dilute the true worship of God and degenerate into an unfamiliar form that they will not like; they are afraid of change.  Another group believes that “contemporary” worship (usually understood as praise songs and choruses with a simple sing and speak liturgical model) is the way to go because they fear people will leave the church for another if things do not change.  One group fears change, the other fears not changing.
 
Fear is a reality that all pastors and church leaders must navigate.  And God himself knows it.  This is why the command to not be afraid is common throughout Holy Scripture. We find, as well, that the command to not be afraid is given often to leaders.  The patriarch Isaac was told to not be afraid because God was with him (Genesis 26:24).  The prophet Jeremiah was told to not be afraid because God was with (Jeremiah 1:8).  Jesus was pointed with the synagogue ruler concerning his dead daughter:  “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mark 5:36).
 
Non-anxious leaders help congregations deal with fear because their calm presence in the face of competing anxieties creates the environment that everything is going to be okay, that engaging in faith will work out, and that God’s promises and presence trumps all realities.  Before facing the conquest of the Promised Land, the Lord commanded Joshua to be strong and courageous and boldly engage the enemy, with the result that the people acted in faith and took Jericho.  David courageously and confidently faced down Goliath, and later led the people of Israel and Judah as king because he understood that the Lord was his strength, and, so, fear could melt away.  David’s best friend, Jonathan, acted in faith while all his fellow Israelites were hiding in fear from their Philistine enemies.  His courageous stepping out emboldened everyone else to win the battle.
 
Jesus Christ has promised that he will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  We have the promised presence of the Holy Spirit as we engage in Christ’s mission to be witnesses.  God’s steadfast love is with us.  Therefore, we choose to live above the fray of naked fear and trust the kingdom values of humility, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace-making in facing down whatever issues are gripping the church.  God, in his sovereignty, has ordained certain persons to take the lead in recognizing the presence of the Spirit and moving forward in faith, not fear.  Faith and fear cannot co-exist.  “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying not to give in to the politics of fear within the church.
 
So, how will you live?  How will you lead?  In what ways can you bring a non-anxious presence to the people for whom you minister?  How does knowing that God is with us change how you face difficult problems and people?  Can you think the thought that courage is a spiritual discipline?  How will you stretch your faith muscle so that the weakness of fear can take a back seat to your decision making?
 

 

May the power and presence of God’s Spirit fill us all now and always with faith to accomplish God’s will.

Fear Factor


Several years ago I spent about six months working in an assisted living facility.  One of the residents, who still had a house he had not sold yet, admitted to me that he had nearly $100,000 dollars in cash in his house.  It was well hidden, he assured me, within every door jamb of the house!  Having experienced the run on the banks that began the Great Depression, this man had no trust for institutions and was afraid to invest his money.
            Investment is only as good as our level of trust.  When Jesus told his story about three servants whom he gave a pile of money, he was saying something about the servants’ level of trust (Matthew 25:14-30). Two of the servants saw the master as gracious and generous and freely took their talents and confidently used them to create even more money.  They took risks, they invested, they worked, and they acted all with the idea that they were secure in their relationship with their master.  However, the third servant’s view of his master was different.  This servant saw his master as stern and serious and angry, and, so this is why he did nothing with his money because he was afraid.
He was afraid because his view of the master was not accurate.  If we see God as primarily being angry all the time, then we will not use the incredible gifts he has given us for fear of messing up and bringing his wrath upon us.  The truth is:  God is a gracious and generous God.  He has generously and graciously gifted each and every one of us, and he expects us to use those gifts and not hide them away in a door jamb!  He wants us to be like Him:  generous and gracious.  We must address this fear if we want to hear the saying:  “well done, good and faithful servant.”
            Fear is maybe the devil’s greatest tool to prevent God’s people from being productive Christians in serving the church and the world.  Beneath that fear are powerful feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and a low view of self which is really born of a low view of God.  Fear paralyzes a person’s potential to serve God’s kingdom.  Being afraid wastes what impact a person could have for God, and waters-down life so that it is ineffective.

 

Fear destroys dreams and godly desires.  Psalm 37:4 encourages us to delight ourselves in the LORD, and he will give us the desires of our hearts.  We are to enjoy the gracious and generous God, and in our enjoyment of Him He will place within us godly dreams that He will absolutely delight to fulfill.  Our enjoyment of God gives us the security and confidence to act upon those godly desires and produce a wonderful harvest that we can turn right around and give back to God.  
But put fear in the mix, and it dilutes and destroys everything.  It makes you do nothing.    Not only did the third servant do nothing, like his ancestor Adam he went into hiding and didn’t put his life to work.  One of the things that church leaders need to understand is that Christian discipleship is not primarily about getting parishioners to have the answers right on some bible study workbook; it is about action and service and that will only rightly happen as we have a solid robust view of God instead of a wrong view of God that leads to us being immobilized by fear.
In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Israelites were immobilized by fear.  God had a grand vision and a big dream for his people to enter the Promised Land.  But ten of the twelve spies who came back after checking out the land were paralyzed by fear.  “The land has giants, and we are like grasshoppers” they said.  Caleb and Joshua, however, had a different view of taking the land because they had a different view of God.  They didn’t see giants – they saw a gracious and generous God who could easily take care of whoever might be in the land, and they wanted to act on the faith they had in a mighty and merciful God.  The God of the other spies wasn’t big enough to handle the giants.  Their low view of themselves as grasshoppers betrayed their low view of God.
Pastor David Seamands has rightly observed that “we wrap a lot of our fears in morbidly sanctified self-belittling.  We piously cover this self-despising and call it consecration and self-crucifixion.”  In other words, we feel good about feeling bad.  We use those feelings to make spiritual excuses for not exploring what God’s dreams and vision is for us.  It is high time we have bold God-sized dreams!  It is time for us to get into the world with our witness in a far greater way because we serve a God who sees giants as gnats, and we will, too, if we have a high view of God.
What holds us back?  Fear of criticism; fear of taking a risk; fear of going outside of the way we’ve always done it; and, the crippling fear of what others may think or say.  If you once dreamed something and you think your dream is dead because you destroyed it by your sins and bad habits, you are wrong.  Dreams are destroyed by fear, by being tricked into thinking that we are nothing but grasshoppers and God doesn’t care, and so we do nothing.
Fear ruins relationships, with both God and others.  Seeing God as angry and belittling is right where Satan wants all of us.  Fear ends up isolating us from people.  The most common way of coping with feelings of fear, insecurity, and inferiority is by withdrawing from other people.  You cannot give yourself fully to your spouse, your kids, your church, and to the world without a healthy robust view of and relationship with God. 
 
Fear sabotages Christian service.  “I can’t!” is the cry of the person locked in fear.  Perhaps you have noticed that God isn’t typically in the business of using superstars to do His work.  Moses was tongue-tied, Abraham was really a wimp, Matthew a lowly tax-collector, and the disciple Mark was a momma’s boy.  The less talented a person is the more God gets to show off His power and His ability through him or her.
            So, give God a chance.  Give him a chance to work in and through your life.  Explore the dimensions of church ministry because you have a God behind you that is gracious and generous.  May your mustard seed of faith grow to produce a harvest of righteousness.