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.