Confession of a Single Guy…

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In the American evangelical church, a lot of our efforts are focused on families. We offer parenting seminars, we hold marriage banquets, we honor fathers and mothers on their appropriate made-up and non-liturgical holidays, we have youth groups and children’s activities. Much of our language regarding events is pointed toward families (each family bring a dish…or the price is $10 a family…etc.). We gauge the growth of a church by how many babies are in a nursery (which seems borderline cultish when you want to grow from within like that).

As someone who grew up in the church, I loved most of these things. But when I graduated from college and realized that I was going to be working in a church as a single person, these things began to stand out more and more. Let me make one thing clear: I love families and I love seeing families grow toward Christ together. This is by no means a post saying that we should forget about families.

This is a post saying that we need to remember a group we have forgotten: the singles.

When I say singles, you probably immediately think of people somewhere in the age range of 18-35 who are putting off getting married until they establish themselves. But I am not just talking about these people. I am also talking about the widows and widowers who became single due to tragic events. Or to the newly divorced person who is navigating what it means to be single again. This is also about those who took a vow of celibacy because it was something they wanted to do.

Look around, church. There are singles everywhere. And they desperately want to be a part of a family but they don’t know how or where they fit in.

Do they fit in to the numerous sermon series dedicated to marriages? Because the only time we hear singles being mentioned in those series is usually in reference to remaining sexually pure and to stop looking at pornography (because all singles are sexual deviants who continuously look at porn and/or have sex).

Do they fit into the countless married small groups? It’s not that we want to be in a “singles” small group…we really do want to be around married people because they are just people…but many times we hear that we aren’t allowed because we aren’t married.

Do they fit into the illustrations about frustrations with a spouse or with children? As a youth pastor, every time I go to a conference, other youth pastors who speak talk about their kids or their spouses…and I realize that the key to a successful youth ministry is really a family.

Do they feel at home in your church or do they feel the pressure to get married or remarried? You might say that you have singles in your church but how often are they asked about who they’re dating, when they plan on getting married, etc.

Recently, I read a book from Deb Hirsch called Redeeming Sex. Very rarely do I read a book that speaks to the soul as much as this book did. I found it saying everything I have felt and wanted to say for so long. And it was refreshing to know that I was not alone in my feelings for how singles are treated in the church.

As a single, I feel alone quite a bit. This isn’t to evoke feelings of sympathy for me (if you know me, you know that I would just laugh at those feelings). Surprisingly enough, I feel more alone at church than I do when I’m at my apartment.10392377_634829361283_6032125750710341341_n

At church, sometimes I feel more on the outside as families plan outings together and dinners (hey, I get it, if you take a 5th wheel to a theme park, rides get confusing).

At church, I hear sermons about marriage and I hear pastors say, “now if you’re single, this might not apply to you now…but it will someday.” Really? You know that for sure? You know, without a doubt, that this will apply to me?

At church, people ask about my dating life. Luckily, I have not had to endure many of the people who say, “oh…well if you’re still single, I have the perfect girl for you!”

At church, I see marriages celebrated all the time in a variety of ways. I immediately think of those whose marriages ended poorly. Or those who lost a spouse. Or those who took vows of celibacy. What does it mean to them when they see this?

It makes me feel alone because it reminds me that I don’t quite fit the mold for who should be attending an American evangelical church. Because I’m perfectly content with remaining single until I’m 35 or even older. I don’t have an end in sight. That’s okay with me. But it’s not okay for a lot of people. They think I won’t be happy until I find the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. But I am perfectly happy, as is.

As a single guy, I do not…

order takeout or pizza every night

have a crazy messy bachelor pad

get super depressed because I come home to an empty apartment

abandon my responsibilities (just because I don’t have a family doesn’t mean I can get up and do whatever I want whenever I want…I have other responsibilities)

pile on extra work because I don’t have a family to worry about

go to clubs or bars picking up women

or have a computer that’s filled with images of porn.

My typical day includes: cooking, cleaning, reading, watching some tv, hanging out with friends, talking with friends, and maybe going out to do something fun. It’s not that bizarre. And it’s not unfulfilling.

So please, church, let us stop making singles feel like outcasts. It’s not that we get upset when: you include a sermon about us in your series over marriage, or when you include us when you celebrate moms and dads, or when you graciously open up events for us by saying something like “it’s not just for families…but for everyone (thanks for that),” or when you remind us that one day we will have a family, or even when you tell us we can come to your small group but we should really try to find a small group that we can really identify with.

We don’t get upset by those things…we just feel like we don’t belong. And we desperately want to belong. We don’t hate marriages and we don’t hate families. We don’t want the church to stop celebrating these things at all. But we do wish that the church would start celebrating us.

I love how Hirsch reminds us that Jesus redefined family. He really did. Everyone was His mother, brother, father, sister, etc. We all want that. We all want to be a part of that family. But we don’t have to already have a family to be a part of that family.

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Easter Is Not About You

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crosslambAs we finish out this Lenten season with the hope of Resurrection Sunday, I have been reflecting on some of the verbiage that I know will be used on Easter Sunday. Many evangelical churches gear up their services for this weekend (albeit, we do not do much remembering up until that weekend — in fact, many churches neglect the entire Lenten season and instead only focus on Easter Sunday, which I have written about before). They add extra “elements” to attract those who have not been at church in a while. They make sure that everything sounds and looks great. They will add extra services to make sure that people will attend.

We do all of this in hopes that the Gospel message of Easter is heard by many.

I am not here to discuss the effectiveness of these techniques, although I do have my opinions. What amazes me even more is the language that many pastors will use this coming weekend.

“God loves YOU so much…”
“On the cross, Christ thought about YOU…”
“He rose so YOU wouldn’t have to go through…”

Much of our language around Easter centers around individuals. Whereas this might be true, I believe it does a great disservice to the heart of the Gospel message. The Easter message has digressed into a selfish plea.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock considering that even when reading the Bible, many of us ask the question, “What does this mean for me?” We have taken God’s grand story and dwindled it down to a personal application. Our lens for reading Scripture is, “How can this help me in my life?” When this represents many in the evangelical church culture, of course our message on Easter Sunday will contain verbiage focusing on individuals.

As a kid, I remember someone telling me that if “I was the only person in the world, God would’ve still sent His Son for me.” It was a nice sentiment, but I think it does a great injustice to the nature of God. In trying to express God’s love, we have, instead, romanticized God’s love.

You are not the single affection of God.

Easter is about a reconciliation of ALL things. Easter is about ALL of creation being reconciled to God. Easter is about God.

It is true that Easter is hope for you. That because of what Christ did, we no longer have to fear death. That resurrection of all will occur. That death has no victory over you.

But it isn’t just about you.

If we continue to dilute the Gospel message, we will continue to perpetuate a selfish society. Instead, we need to take the complete Gospel message and penetrate a selfish society. It is like we are trying to preach Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John without preaching the entire Old Testament.

This is the difficulty of Easter. In order to understand the significance of what Christ did, we need to understand the story of Israel and the story of God…we need to understand the Old Testament.

The story of Easter is larger than you. It is larger than me. It needs to be. It has to be.

Let us move away from speaking the Gospel message to individuals and instead move toward inviting individuals to be a part of the Gospel message. This is one of the things I love about liturgical/high church services. I never walk away with a little fortune cookie saying of God’s love for me. I always walk away with a better understanding of God’s relationship with the world and what that means for creation.

May we not try to look at the Easter message in a new, fresh, or relevant (horrible word) way, but in the way it was meant to be viewed. This Easter, let us focus on what it means for everything…not just what it means for you.

Sabbath For Yourself

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IMG_3159I usually know when I need to sabbath (or rest). My personality is usually a bit more cynical and I am easily angered. Stress seems to be all around me. It becomes difficult to remember my daily schedule. God is likely a distant thought for me.

Unfortunately, when I know I need a sabbath, it is usually too little too late. When your body tells you to rest, it’s usually because you should’ve rested long ago and now you are running on fumes. Is it any wonder why we see so many health issues among people who are young? They feel like if they stop, then they will fail.

For those in the church world, we tend to ignore the Sabbath because we are “doing God’s work and God never takes a break.” This thought is utter nonsense. Of course God takes a break.

Some equate their love for God with how much work they do for Him. This is disheartening because it loses sight of the Gospel message.

Some believe that the eternity of mankind rests on their shoulders. It must be hard to play God like that…which is why it is probably better that we let God play God.

Most that I know in ministry will say, “I rely on God.” However, that statement proves false unless sabbath happens. Our reliance on God is directly connected to how we sabbath.

We need to get rid of the image that working late from home is a good thing.

We need to get rid of the mindset that turning off our phones could be disastrous.

We need to stop fostering a culture that enables people to become solely dependent upon someone other than God.

We need to stop thinking that the eternal fate of humanity lies on the shoulders of those who work in a church.

We need to learn that it is okay to say no.

We need to learn that the same email will be there tomorrow.

We need to learn that work was never meant to destroy.

We need to learn that martyrdom is not spending all your time working in a church.

We need to know that we aren’t God.

I say that phrase a lot because I have to remind myself of that frequently. This is why I believe it is so important to sabbath for yourself. As a pastor, I can easily succumb to the thought that I am God. Of course, I wouldn’t come right out and say that; otherwise, I would be a heretic. But it is easy to think to yourself: “If I don’t meet with this person, what will he/she do?” Or “If I am not at every single thing this person does, then I am failing as a pastor.” Or “The more I do, the further God’s Kingdom is advanced.” Or “People need to know and I’m the only one who can say it.” Or “I am in charge of their discipleship and I have to be there for them at all times.”

When I begin to think those things, I realize that I think I am God.

If Jesus needed to get away every now and then, why do you think you don’t need it?

If God, after creating the world, decided to rest, then why do you see resting as weakness?

I fear sabbath because I fear the truth about my motivations.

Clear away all of the religious phrasing (doing it all for the Kingdom, running on Jesus, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, etc.), and I find that I refuse to rest because I fear my motivations. Pastors, just like everyone else, want to leave their mark. They want to be remembered. They want to be the next Billy Graham, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We can say that we want to impact our community for Christ…but that can often transform into, “Caleb impacted the community for Christ,” or “Caleb’s church impacted the community for Christ.”

Sabbath puts us in our place. Sabbath humbles us. Sabbath reminds us that we are not the most important person in the world. Sabbath forces us to admit that our motivations are not pure. Sabbath tells us that God does not desire a martyr who died because he/she refused to take a break. Sabbath is the truth that in my weakness, Christ is strong. Sabbath points us to community. Sabbath is part of the Kingdom. Sabbath lets God be God.

How about you?

Do you really work as hard as you do to provide a good life for your family? Or are you working as hard as you do because you want to be remembered? Because you want to be successful?

Did you really take that second job to make ends meet? Or did you take that second job because of greed?

Do you refuse to rest because you don’t have time? Or do you refuse to make time because you are fearful of what you might hear from God?

If you take a break, I’m sure the world won’t come crashing down…but if it does, at least you’ll be reminded that God is God and you are not.

Sabbath for God

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When we talk about Sabbath, we rarely think about what it means for God. Usually, we know we need a sabbath when we are exhausted and don’t think we can go much further. Sabbath usually centers around our mental and spiritual health.

We must sabbath for God.

True, God isn’t going to smite you if you refuse to take a break. He isn’t going to get jealous at all the fine work you’re doing by not stopping. God won’t curse you if you work on a Sunday. But I do believe God won’t be in our work if we don’t rest in Him.

If you are anything like me, your idea of rest consists of binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix. Some will delight in their favorite hobby. Others will go out to the golf course. These are all great things (especially House of Cards). It is important to turn your mind off every now and then. But very rarely do we focus on God in those moments. Rarely do we state that we are stopping work to rest in Him. Normally, we stop work because we need a break.

There has to be an intentional focus on God.

When I stop work and rest for God, I notice a change in my behavior.

When I Sabbath for God, I notice:

I renew my covenant with Him…

I find Him in everything I do…

I stop worrying about my job…

I quit using words like relevant, connecting, and other trendy words churches use to build relationships within their community…

When I Sabbath for God, I notice that I have taken control of my life too much and tried to stop God from doing what God wants to do. Rest can remind us that we are tired and worn out, but when we intentionally focus on God during that time, we also see how our work for Him has been far from Him.

Our constant need to control things drives us further from God. So when we rest, we draw nearer to Him. When we rest, we remember that our strength comes from Him. When we rest, we realize how little we can do on our own.

Being in ministry, sometimes the last thing I want to do on my day off is focus on God. I know, that sounds horrible. If we were all honest with ourselves, I think we would see how horrible each of us actually is. The point being, I know it is horrible. I’m not a great person. Usually on my day off, I want to watch all of the television shows I missed during the week, go see a movie, read a new book, take a drive, go to Three Floyds, or clean my apartment. Very rarely do I want to think about God in the midst of all of this. I usually have to force myself to focus on God. The human side of me says just to take a break, but the Spirit in me says to turn my thoughts toward God.

We have to Sabbath for God. God doesn’t need us to do this (even though He did command us to do this). But I think when we Sabbath for God, it reaffirms our covenant with Him. It focuses our misdirected attention back on Him. Our works that were once done in vain are now done with purpose. Weariness is replaced with strength.

When we seek God in our rest, then we will find Him in our work.

What I Learned While Sitting in Irish Pubs

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Recently, I went on vacation to Ireland. My knowledge of the country was very limited. I knew of some things because of films, books, or vague memories of Social Studies in Junior High. Overall, however, I went in without much of an idea as to what I was going to do and see.

To some people, this freaks them out. They need a plan that tells them minute by minute what they are going to do and see. To me, however, I don’t view that as a vacation. When I go on vacation, I want the locals to tell me where to go and what to see. It’s how I found out that the view from the Rockefeller in NYC was a far superior view than the Empire State Building. It is how I found little hole in the wall restaurants on a strip filled with KFCs, Taco Bells, and McDonalds. I have always believed that for the best vacations, one needs to find out where the locals gather.

In Ireland, that was in pubs.IMG_3168

Pubs are much different than American bars. Bars are filled with overly loud electronic dance music. Pubs are filled with conversations, laughter, and whatever music they feel like playing. Bars are filled with overpriced cocktails, pubs keep drinks simple and relatively inexpensive. Bars are where people go to get drunk to forget their problems, pubs are where people go to drink (and yes, sometimes they get drunk) and converse about their problems.

In pubs, I learned that we, as Americans, have little knowledge about our history. It seemed like everyone in Ireland spoke about their history as a nation. And in their speech, there wasn’t a tone of entitlement, but a tone of appreciation and pride. Not only did they know about their country, they knew about my country, as well.

In pubs, I learned that storytelling is the best remedy for anything. People love to tell stories there. They will tell you about stories of the country, stories of their lives, stories of famous people, stories of Guinness, and stories of the town. As I sat and listened to these stories, I lost track of time and for a moment, I forgot about worries and troubles in my own life.

In pubs, I learned that they take pride in what they produce. Every single pint of Guinness was poured the exact same way. They would grab a Guinness pint glass, tilt it at a 45 degree angle, pull the tap handle until the Guinness reached a certain level, straighten out the pint glass and continue pouring until the Guinness reached a certain level, let the Guinness settle for about 109 seconds, push the tap handle and top off the Guinness, and serve. Every single pint was poured the same way. They took pride in their product. They knew that good things come to those who wait.

In pubs, I learned that no one is a stranger. People were excited to get to know you. Once they heard my American accent, they asked from where I came and then proceeded to try and make a connection with me to make me feel welcome (everyone there kept saying, “you are very welcome here”). They wanted to know what I thought of their beautiful country. People truly listened to you because you weren’t a stranger in a strange land there.

IMG_3200Ultimately, I learned that God is present in pubs. I had the chance to attend Evensong at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. It was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. The music, the architecture, the carefully crafted liturgies, the eloquent reading of the Scripture, it all came together to show a piece of the Kingdom. But that wasn’t the first time I experienced a piece of the Kingdom in Ireland.

Shockingly enough, I experienced a piece of the Kingdom in the pub. There were musicians in the corner playing songs everyone knew. People were lifting up their pints of Guinness and singing along. Strangers were becoming friends over a pint or over a cigarette outside. Stories were being shared, laughter could be heard, and embraces could be seen. In pubs, like churches, people might come in pretending to be someone else. But after a few drinks, they tear away the facade they created. People walk into churches all the time pretending to be someone else. After a while, though, they hopefully drop the facade.

God is as much present in the local pubs as He is in the cathedrals. The Kingdom could be experienced through a pint and through the Eucharist. Worship was in the Gaelic tunes and in the hymns. Truth was told in conversations and in the reading of the Scripture.

There are a lot of similarities between pubs and churches. And I think there is a need for both. Pubs remind us that the Kingdom is messy because we are messy. We are drunks stumbling outside trying to remember where we live. But churches remind us to try and create beauty. We are called to create beautiful liturgies, gardens, parks, and art. Both the pub and the church collide to create a picture of the Kingdom that is sloppy and beautiful. But isn’t that what Jesus talked about? The world being in labor pains. It is messy and ugly, but something beautiful is coming.

Pubs reminded me that this world is messy and ugly but that something much more beautiful is coming.

Sabbath For Others

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Grunge benchSabbath is a term that goes against much of modern American evangelicalism. Every now and then, there is a book published or a series of blog posts that focuses on this idea. I have read sections in spiritual discipline books that deal with the importance of this practice. However, it still seems to be something that is rarely discussed from the pulpit. I have decided to write a 3-part blog over the practice of Sabbath and its importance in our lives. Today’s post will primarily focus on those in leadership in the American evangelical church. However, I believe the principle still applies to those in any work environment. Since I operate from a limited view, however, I have decided to speak into the context with which I am acquainted.

In the church ministry world, we have convinced ourselves that unless we are behind something, that endeavor will fail. We pat ourselves on the back for working 50, 60, 70+ hours a week on something because we feel we are working tirelessly for the Gospel. In our age of technological advancement, phone calls, emails, and texts are never more than a glance away. Dinners are interrupted by a “ministry crisis.” Conversations with friends are put on hold while an “important phone call” is taken. Even on days off, we feel the need to check on things. This is unhealthy for us (which I will talk about in a different post), but it is also extremely unhealthy for those with whom we work and come into contact.

When we refuse to rest…to Sabbath…others feel lazy if they take a day off, turn off their phone, and/or refuse to check their email. Our example spurs others on to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Sabbath reminds us to trust in God more than in ourselves.

It reminds us that work is not the most important thing we do.

It reminds us that greed is not good.

It reminds us that the world can function if we turn everything off.

Sabbath reminds us that we are not God.

And when we don’t Sabbath, we try to become God.

So what does this mean for others? Why should we rest for others? Because how we live influences others to live in the same way. If we learn how to rest, others around us will feel less stressed. If we turn things off, others around us will begin to understand that many things can wait.

Sabbath is not only important to us, but to others as well. In Exodus 23.12, it reads: “You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.” (NLT)

As leaders, if we don’t rest, then others won’t rest. The principle of this verse applies to today even if the specifics don’t. Leaders are called to Sabbath so that others will Sabbath.

How many stories of ministry burnouts do we need to read before we realize the importance of this practice?

How many heart aching tales of divorce do we need to hear before we begin putting this discipline into practice?

How many health issues do we need to have plague our lives before we understand that our bodies are not made for the stress we endure?

If people around us are showing exhaustion and stress, could it be an indicator that we have not set an example of Sabbath in our own lives? If those we know seem to become more and more needy, could it be because we have not rested as we should have? Sabbath is important for us…but it also reminds others to not look to individuals as God, but to look to God as God. It reminds others that they cannot become God.

Sabbath for others.

#blessed

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largeRecently, there has been a trend in social media using #blessed to describe something good that has happened to you. I have seen tweets describing winning the lottery, losing weight, getting a new car, winning a football game, getting into college, and even getting gifts from friends. This was a topic I spoke on with my students this past weekend, but I think it’s part of a much larger issue that is hindering our view of God.

For a long time, we have confused blessings with success. And it is true that throughout Scripture, there are prosperous blessings given to individuals. Luckily for us, we have best selling books that teach us how to pray the prayers those individuals prayed so that we may receive the same blessings. Life is all about receiving financial, health, relational, or career blessings. And when those things happen, we are all of a sudden #blessed.

Our view of God changes based upon what kind of “blessings” we are receiving at the moment. If we are experiencing financial success, God is this benevolent God who freely gives. If we aren’t experiencing financial success, God is reminding us that our trust needs to be in Him alone. Or if we are healed of a health scare, God has blessed us with life. But if we are not healed of an ailment, then God must have thought that it was “our time to go.” When we get something, God is blessing us. When we apparently aren’t getting anything, God is teaching us something. Some will argue that through the lessons, we will be blessed. But this still seems a bit off.

I believe that we are blessed because of who God is…not because of what God gives.

From the nature of God, flows blessings. But it is an error to base the nature of God off the content of His blessings. If we view God in this way, then His nature is ever changing based on our circumstances. Is that a God that we really want to follow? We are blessed to follow a God that is who He is. In Exodus 3.14, God declares “I am who I am.” I love this phrase because it sheds light on the nature of God.

The modern evangelical church seems to be a bit enamored with blessings. We sing for Him to pour out His blessings upon us. We praise Him when we are blessed with tangible things that help us make it through life. We pray that God “blesses” us in prosperous ways. I have heard people say that they are so blessed while others seem to not be as blessed. I have sat in meetings when people seem to think that God is pouring out His blessings on our endeavors. This view of God is based upon what He gives rather than who He is.

I know that I have said that I am blessed to have a job, a home, a car, a steady income, etc. I have said these things in the past. If I were to lose these things, I would probably say that I am blessed to have other things. But that line of thinking still focuses on what He has given rather than who He is.

Financial blessings may pour out from the heavens but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who is benevolent.

Forgiveness flows freely from Him but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a merciful and gracious God.

We may do a great work in this world but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who is focused on showing this ministry of reconciliation in this world.

We may be blessed with a spouse or a boyfriend/girlfriend but that isn’t the blessing. The blessing is that we have a God who desires relationships and created us with that same desire.

Our blessing is that God is who He is.

Does this mean we shouldn’t pray for these other “blessings?” That is a great question and one that I have been pondering quite a bit lately. I honestly don’t quite know. We are told that we can ask anything of God. But are our motivations pure (we could get into a long conversation about the question of whether or not anyone can have “pure” motivations)? Or are our motivations based upon what He can give us? I would appreciate any input you are willing to give on that point.

If our view of God is based upon an idea that He has blessed us with a great day of football (yes, I saw a tweet from FOX that stated we were blessed with a great day of football last week), then I think we are missing out on what blessing really means and who God really is. We are blessed because of who God is not because of what God gives. We need to stop using the word “blessed” in substitution for living the “American Dream.” It does a great hindrance to who God is and what He is about.