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.

One Man’s Take on Marijuana

 
           My grandson is four years old, and he has epilepsy.  When hooked up to an EEG last year the data showed that my little buddy at times experiences as many as three seizures per minute.  Granted, they are not the grand mal, big-daddy-of-them-all kind of seizures.  Nevertheless, they are still seizures.  The doctors at the best pediatric facility in the Midwest for this kind of thing tell us that, well, they are stumped.  Kolten has experienced up to seven different kinds of seizures, and he has defied any kind of solid diagnosis as to the nature of the epilepsy, let alone even thinking about a prognosis.  Yes, he is on medication – lots of it.  Without it he would be having literally hundreds of seizures in any given day.  Yet, even on a good day Kolten will have dozens.  And even though most of his seizures last only a few seconds, each and every seizure damages the brain, if only a little bit.  Add up the thousands of seizures over the span of a four year old life, and factor the tens of thousands of them he will yet have in the next several years and it, in my puny limited understanding, doesn’t look promising no matter how you examine it.
 
            So, why in the world am I talking about this in a blog about church ministry?  Because when well-meaning Christians and churches rant about the ethics and morality of ungodly “potheads” having a legal avenue for their recreational smoking, what gets lost in the mix is a little boy who could potentially be helped by legalizing marijuana – not by taking a toke of a reefer, but by a carefully genetically engineered strain administered medically and safely.  In this grandfather’s mind, the greater risk is to keep doing what we’ve always done and hope that all will work out okay someday.  When it pertains to a small boy’s life – that kind of thinking doesn’t cut it for me. 
 
            Unfortunately, this kind of ignorant proclamation is nothing new for many “believers” in Jesus.  Just this week I attended a local denominational meeting in which a man stood up and rather angrily proclaimed as unquestioned fact that our current U.S. President is trampling our Constitution and that we are being judged as a nation for killing babies.  Without me even attempting to deal with any rightness or wrongness to that statement, the only kind of good that that kind of proclamation did was personal to the proclaimer – he just got something off his chest, and maybe he felt better for it.  But I was left wondering:  What about the supporters of the President in the room?  Instantly demonizing others and polarizing on a position only shuts down what they really think and feel about our country.  What about women who have had an abortion?  I cannot even begin to imagine that if there was a woman in the room who had an abortion in the past having to sit and listen to a guy put a label on her as a murderer.  There is enough cutting regret and grief in many a woman’s own heart without having someone twist the knife for her.
 
            There is a reason why many people in many churches often do not want others to know what they really think about certain issues, and why they want to keep all their skeletons in the closet.  They do not want to be judged and condemned, and they have every reason to think that they will be when they hear the raving of fellow Christians who believe they are doing God a favor by effecting holiness through noise.  It behooves us as the church of Jesus to do the best we possibly can to create and sustain a culture of compassion and care through continual monitoring of what actually comes out of our mouths.  When there are oft mentions of the sin of homosexuality peppered with defaming names; when there is a stream of hateful references to particular politicians; when there is anger about certain persons and people groups; and, when there is a blanket denunciation of marijuana as always being linked with persons getting high; then there is not an atmosphere of grace that leads to life, but a culture of fear that leads to death.
 
            Where some see the “issue” of gays and lesbians, I see people created in the image of God who have the same need of a Savior that I do.  Where some see governmental “issues,” I see persons in need of God’s justice and peace and basic human rights and decency.  Where some see the “issues” of poor lower class people versus upper class wealthy people; Hispanic concerns versus Black concerns; blue collar people’s agenda versus white collar people’s agenda; plain Americans versus hyphenated Americans; instead, I see people, just people – people in need of Jesus Christ and His continuing presence on earth:  the church.
 

 

            My daughter needs support with her special needs son who happens to have epilepsy.  I am glad I can be there for her and for him.  I am glad I am a pastor of a church who cares about them.  This old sinful world has enough sin and pain in it without adding to the pile through ignorance and strife.  Before we use our tongues, let’s have some working knowledge and some basic education about what we are talking about.  Most of all, let’s have some basic decorum and some working knowledge of God’s grace.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” is a statement that applies to us all.  So, roll that one together and smoke it daily.

Simplicity

 

          For most churches the unofficial start of the year has begun with Fall ministries in full gear.  After a few weeks of programming it is a good thing to evaluate and reflect on how it all is going.  It seems to me that we must always come back to what is important to God and not make ministry such a complex beast that overwhelms us.

Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God, and when we pray to ask that God’s kingdom would come and be manifested on this earth. That is, since the fall of humanity, this world has been under the realm of Satan. God, however, is in the business of restoring his rule and reign. So, all church ministries must have this controlling agenda.

The kingdom of God is established and expanded through proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. In other words, the means of God’s grace to us is through communication of the Bible and its central message of the redeeming work of Christ. There is now reconciliation between God and humans through the death of Jesus. God has united us to himself in order that we would enjoy him, and he us. As Teresa of Avila has said, “the soul is God’s paradise, being made by God and for God.” Intimacy with the divine is the purpose of our existence. Prayer, then, is the primary means by which to commune with God and is not optional equipment for the Christian.  Prayer is vital to seeing the kingdom grow and expand not only in our own hearts but in others, as well.

We must come back to the simplicity of this ministry. It is easy to become sidetracked and be content with erecting massive ministry structures, programs, and events that may please other people and feed our egos, but do little toward accomplishing what was important to Jesus and is necessary to seeing the kingdom of God realized in our communities.

So, then, maybe we need to ask ourselves such questions as these:
1. Is the kingdom of God a controlling goal for my ministry, and do I even understand what it is and how it works?
2. Do our ministries truly develop intimacy with God?
3. Is prayer necessary and central to everything we do?
4. Are our ministry structures simple and contribute toward the kingdom of God, or cumbersome and divert congregants away from this focus?

Just as football teams must never forget the fundamentals of the game in order to win, so we need to come back to what is important as defined by Jesus, and let this be the evaluative grid through which we look at all of ministry. Ministry may require hard work and sacrifice, but it need not be complex. Simplicity toward doing what is essential is required. May you experience joy in ministry as you see the kingdom of God come in all its power and grace.

The Heart of Ministry

 

          Church ministry is not for the faint of heart.  It is both challenging and rewarding, frustrating and a joyful privilege.  In a typical day I can experience the heights of rejoicing with new parents, and grieve with one who has lost an aging parent.  Emotions can run the gamut simply by being available for people, people who can be encouraging one day, and another day become downright ornery.  The thing about ministry is that, unlike any other vocation or work that people do, there is something supernatural about it.  That is, we cannot do it on our own; we need God.  Furthermore, ministry neither occurs in a vacuum, nor in a distant objective sort of way, as if our very personhood were not needed.  Rather, God works both in and through people to accomplish his purposes on earth.  Therefore, we must minister out of the overflow of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Loving others results from the fact that God has first loved us. Since this is true, it is vital that we meet with Lord often and allow him to care for our souls. Plans, strategies, schedules, evaluations, and the demands of life and ministry are the reality for the Christian servant. To neglect the soul is to fall into the demonic trap of believing in grandiose thinking instead of trusting in God for the ability to engage in ministry to others. The snakes of self-reliance and pride slither about our feet looking to strike at any time.

In order to be an effective minister, one must take the journey into the self and discover the union that exists with God through Christ. Intimacy with the divine is the whole purpose of the Christian life. The practicality of reaching this is through the ongoing process of detachment from worldly allurements and a growing attachment to the things of God. Prayer is the vehicle by which we wean ourselves from trust in our intellects, abilities, personalities, and pet theologians and learn to become an intimate friend of God.

Prayer, then, is not primarily the means of getting what we want and promoting our ministry agenda as if we were making some sales pitch to a skeptical buyer. It is the place of meeting with God and experiencing the union for which Jesus Christ died to procure for us. God himself takes delight in dwelling within the innermost sanctum of the heart, as if we were his temple.

If this is God’s goal for us, then it is also the aim for the persons for whom we seek to minister. To lead them in the path of intimacy with God, with knowing Christ better, is our highest and most joyous call. What do we model to the people around us? Ask yourself:  Is my agenda really God’s plan for my church? Does the journey of spiritual formation I lay out lead straight to the heart of God in a vital union with Jesus? How do I engage in the role of spiritual director with others? What do they need to be delivered from?

If this world is to be turned upside down for God, it must begin with me and you. There must be a healthy rhythm in life of detachment from the world, attachment with Jesus, and then an engagement with others. To have engagement without detachment and attachment is to do nothing but perpetuate the brokenness that already exists in this fallen and decaying world. Instead, may you find the garden of paradise in the soul where God meets with you, that you might minister out of the overflow of the heart in a union with Christ.

The Ministry Legacy of Scrappy

 

 
 
This summer my family has had its share of both highs and lows.  Without question the most difficult experience of the summer for us was watching our nearly fifteen year old cocker spaniel, Scrappy, go from health problem to health problem which finally ended in needing to put him down.  He was very much part of the family, and my daughter, Mikaela, really did not know life apart from him.  As I have reflected on Scrappy, and his place in our family, he really taught me a lot about life and ministry.
 
            Recently I was reading in the psalms and was struck with this verse:  “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land, and befriend faithfulness.  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:3, ESV).  I believe that all God’s creation has something to tell us and ways to teach us.  My family has been through a lot in the past fifteen years while having Scrappy as our pet.  I can remember about ten years ago going through a particularly difficult time and not always coming home at the end of the day with a good attitude.  There were times I even wept and wondered if God was even paying attention.  It was in that time that good ol’ Scrappy, no matter how I acted or what I said would be so happy to see me that it seemed like he would wag the tail right off his backside.  Even when I yelled at him, he would just come up and lick me like I was the most important person in the world.  There is no one quite like a dog to embody the words:  befriend faithfulness.  If I could have just an ounce of Scrappy’s faithfulness I think I would be the best Pastor in the world.
 
            Then there is the matter in the psalm about delighting in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Scrappy was happiest and never more in sheer delight as when he was with the family.  I didn’t matter much where we were; he just wanted to be with us.  And that is exactly the thing that he taught me about going through those rough stretches of life – that no matter what was going on around me, no matter what the circumstances and situations I had to face, God was with me, and I could choose to delight in him in the midst of anything.
 
            Over the years we learned to trust Scrappy as the family watchdog.  He was actually the runt of his litter, and was really a wimp.  Any feral cat could have beat him up.  But no one knew that by the way he acted.  Scrappy would bark the living daylights out of any stranger, or make a growling gesture toward the packs of feral teenage boys that would seek to date one of my three daughters.  Yep, Scrappy was a keeper.  You could count on him to secure the perimeter of the house, and guard against any and all danger that might be lurking about.  One day we came home to find Scrappy going nuts.  I couldn’t figure out what set him off.  A few days later I was walking around outside the house and noticed that someone had tried all the basement windows, and damaged some of them, to see if they could get in.  That night Scrappy enjoyed a steak with the family.
 
            I know that I can trust the LORD.  I know it, in part, because a crazy old cocker spaniel that God decided to throw my way for a few years on this earth helped me understand what trust is.  God’s grace can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.  Has God taught you things about himself, and about life, in unconventional ways?  Through people you never thought he would use?  In situations you would rather not find yourself in?
 
            May we all learn together the enjoyment of God, as well as the nature of God, through all of life’s ups and downs.

The Imitation of Ministry

 

One day, several years ago, while driving through an intersection, a car turned right in front of me and caused me to slam my brakes. After getting on my way (and proud of myself for not saying a word) my daughter, who was five years old at the time, leaned forward from the back seat and asked me, “Dad, is that guy an idiot?”

Kids often imitate their parents in everything, whether good or bad. This is no less true for adults. When it comes to Christianity, the faith is passed on not just from individuals reading their bibles in seclusion, but is handed down from person to person (2 Timothy 2:2). Christians learn from leaders how the faith is lived out and practiced, not primarily from listening to sermons, but through imitating what they see.  It is good for us to ask the question: who do I imitate? We pass on things we learn from others, so it is imperative that we learn from the right people.

Consider just a few biblical verses on this: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what was promised” (Hebrews 6:12). “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

               We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in the faith in the face of pain and suffering, and have done it with great humility. This does not necessarily mean that we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean that we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ and are not self-promoting peacocks who go after being admired and praised. Paul chose Timothy to go to the Philippian church because Timothy had proven himself as being genuinely concerned for others, and not for making decisions that would simply further his ministry career (Philippians 2:19-23). Timothy had learned from his mentor, Paul, how to cultivate a life of service to others rather than to be self-serving.

We are to imitate those who have proved themselves in hardship. A Christian leader who has not undergone the purgative fires of trials in this life may more easily become seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating.  Put in this light, the choosing and electing of church deacons and elders is greatly important.  Just getting a warm body willing to serve is not really an option.  Perhaps it could be that many young people are leaving the church, and even the faith, because they have not seen genuine Christianity lived-out with passion and integrity among those who hold leadership positions in the church.

So whom will you follow?

What Christians will serve you well as good models of faith and ministry?

Be alert for Christian leaders who exemplify genuine meekness, selfless service, and are in the habit of being helpful and doing good to others. Imitate such persons.

If you do not have someone in your life you can truly consider a “mentor” in the faith, begin today to search for a person for whom you can imitate.  It’s not only biblical, but will change your life for the better.

Addressing Addiction

Addiction is as much a part of our culture and society as dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, or weeds in the garden.  For the person who wants to encourage and help someone caught in a destructive pattern of alcoholism, pornography, drugs, smoking, or any other addiction it is absolutely imperative to understand and use the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to address the situation.  This is not to say that approaching addiction from the medical end of things with a sensible regimen of appropriate meds is not necessary; in fact, it is.  However, people are not only fundamentally physical creatures; they are also spiritual beings and, therefore, addiction needs to be addressed from the spiritual angle with a vigorous biblical regimen.  It is important to understand that theology is not just something to passively believe but a powerful reality to be actively lived.  Here is one of the most incredible summaries of the gospel and shortest theological statements for our daily practical lives that you will find in Holy Scripture from Romans chapter 8, verses 1-4:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was  powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.


          The culprit of addiction is sin.  The answer to addiction is grace.  Radical, unconditional, unlimited grace.  In fact, grace is the answer to everything.  Law can’t save a thing; it isn’t designed to do so. Yet, the addict tries and tries to will himself to change but cannot.  He cannot because he is weak, and the law doesn’t help since it is inadequate to counter addiction.  It only hinders genuine help.  Sin is all too ready to attach itself like a cancer to the weakness of the flesh (NIV – “sinful nature”).  And it uses the law to do so by believing that addiction can be overcome through sheer willpower, effort, and turning over a new leaf.  So, the addict may get caught in a vicious cycle of sin, regret, expressions of never doing it again, and then returning to the addictive behavior.  The availability of sin plus the lack of accountability combines with a lethal dose of the flesh to equal addiction.

Only God can save.  Its called grace.  God sent his Son to deal with the the problem of sin and addiction.  He shared our humanity, and the weakness of being a flesh and blood person.  Jesus experienced human frailty to the full; he knew, personally, what desire and enticement is – and he never sinned.  Moreover, Jesus became a sin offering for us.  So, he condemned addiction in the flesh.  The power of addiction has such a hold on us as people that there is no other path than destruction if we go the way of the law.  The law itself is not evil (it shows us how sinful we are), but is not able to bring deliverance.  New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn describes the work of God using the metaphor of disease:  “God is the divine surgeon who recognizes that the cancer of sin has so eaten into the flesh of humanity that there is no salvation for humanity other than by radical surgery, by the complete destruction of that cancerous tissue.  That radical surgery took place, as it were, on the cross.  The humanity which emerged from the operation is free from the cancer.”

Through Christ, and only through Christ, we are free.  It is our task, then, to enter into this grace and forgiveness through faith in the cross of Jesus.  That’s it.  God has brought an intervention through Jesus Christ in order to rescue and rehabilitate.  God’s rehab program is the Holy Spirit, which deals with the weakness of the law from within the life of the believer in Jesus.  In the Spirit, using the gospel of grace, we have the resources to put to death the sinful nature of addiction.

If you are helping a person caught in some addiction, here are some practicalities to consider:

  • If the person does not know Jesus, or you are not sure, start with communicating the gospel of grace – that there is forgiveness through the cross for all the addictive behavior and thoughts and offenses.
  • Have the person commit the entire chapter of Romans 8 to memory.  Focus on discussing aspects of this material in several conversations.  Memorize it yourself, and meditate on it regularly.
  • Be an accountability partner and an encouraging person; do not condemn.
  • Help the person think through what things need to go and what behaviors need to change, so that the flesh has no opportunity to rear its ugly weak head.
  • Pray with and for the person consistently.
          If you are a person caught in an addiction, seek the help of a trusted Pastor or church layperson immediately.  Christianity is not a private religion; it is designed to be lived and practiced in community.  The reason your private efforts have failed is that you have been created in the image of God and hardwired for relationships and community.  Find a church with a support group that addresses your addiction.
          Remember, Christianity is a paced journey of walking, a long obedience in the same direction, and not a magic pill to swallow.  Let us journey together along the road until we reach the heavenly city where there will be no more addiction.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.