Monday, October 05, 2015


I got a text message from my mom’s fiancĂ© on Friday morning. There is a shooter on the loose….it said. I did not read much further than that. Hal, even though he is nearing 70, tends to spend a lot his free time texting in group texts to family and friends about stuff. I thought maybe there was a crazy running around Phoenix. There had been a few freeway shootings on the highway there lately. Big city stuff I thought. Pray a little prayer for Mom and Hal and move on. I had work to get caught up on, and I could not do anything.

Then, I came home and turned on the television. I discovered that the shooter was not in Phoenix, it was in Roseburg, Oregon. Roseburg, Oregon is my hometown. I was born there. My mother’s side of the family homesteaded there in the 1800s. When I was little, we moved from an unincorporated community called Melrose, to an area just north of Winchester on the North Umpqua River. When I was growing up, we stopped at the fish ladder quite often to go to a viewing area and watch the fish climb up through the “ladder from the bottom of the dam up to the top. The dam is less than a mile from the UCC campus. At one point, we lived upriver from that campus and the dam, and thus drove by it going back and forth to town every day. My mom, my aunt, my uncle, and my grandmother at one point or another had all taken classes at Umpqua Community College.
So, needless to say, although with all the shootings that have happened I had become kind of numb to the mass shooting thing, this particular event caught my attention, and affected me a little bit more deeply than I expected.

I watched and wondered, would I know the shooter. I knew of course, that this was highly doubtful. Although I have some family there, many of us have moved away. I have not lived there since late grade school. But I was grieved that most likely, that when someone asks me where I was born and raised, one of the questions they will ask me is not about the lumber company or the beauty of the forests and rivers, but isn’t that the place where….

And of course, when this happens, we try and make sense of what happened, but we cannot make sense of what happened really. I mean we will hear that the guy was a loner, that he was angry and confused, that he didn’t really have any friends in real life, and all of that.

Some will argue for gun control. Others for better mental health testing. Others will want every student and teacher packing heat. All of them will seek to find causation. Find someone to blame. Maybe we need to do all that if we are going to keep this kind of thing from happening over and over again. But really, none of all of this is really going to make sense, and lend itself to easy answers.

This is especially true if you were to talk to the parents and children of the people who died. Why did this happen to my child? What was the purpose of all of this? There are no easy answers.

We have had a lot to deal with as individuals and a congregation in the last months, and in the last years. Those dear to us have died tragic deaths. Our health has inexplicably taken a turn for the worse. Our families have fallen apart. Our friendships have unexpectedly turned sour. We have searched for work, and not been able to fine any. And we wonder, “What Happened? Why am I having to go through this? Why me?”

Thank goodness the book of Job doesn’t try to make all that happened to Job make sense to us either. At least not with slogans or simple platitudes.

The book of Job begins by introducing us to Job. We learn that Job is a good guy. He is upright. He is blameless. He is the best guy around. In other words, whatever happens in the next 40 something chapters, you need to know that all of the hard things that are coming to Job are not his fault. The difficulties that he has faced are not the result of his sin, of his shortcomings, of the things that he has done wrong.

We need to remember this. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. The storms come to the man who built his house on the rock and the one that built his house upon the sand. There isn’t always an answer for why things happen that are heartbreaking and tragic. Sometimes they just happen. The good and the bad are both a part of life in the world we live in.

For most of Job’s life, things went perfectly. He was wealthy. He had a nice family. A good reputation. One day it began to unravel. His wealth, through a series of events, was stolen. And then, in a freak accident, his children were killed. And so he grieved.
Soon after that, Job was afflicted with boils. Inflamed painful, infected boils. As if things were not bad enough. Then, while Job was trying to grieve and wrap his head about everything that happened, his wife begins a conflict with him. She tells him that he should give up on his faith, and kill himself. Apparently, she is not happy with him either. 
To her mind, whatever he had built his life around was not really doing much for him now, and should be abandoned—including his relationship with God.

He is not very kind in return. He insults his wife, and says this, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”

And then he is quiet. By the end of chapter 2, his friends gather, and sit with him. They do not say a word. They see how much he is suffering, and they just sit with him.

There is much discussion to be made of the argument between God and Satan, and Satan’s work at attacking Job. If you read the story, Satan enters God’s presence. He claims that Job is righteous because God has given him an easy life, and then he goes about trying to make Job so miserable he will lose his integrity and faith.

As we see this part of the story,  we could speak of spiritual warfare. We could talk about the way that Satan works to attack believers, and what he is able to do and not able to do. Indeed Jesus says that the enemy has come to kill and destroy, but God has come to give life and give it to the full. But, the role of Satan as a part of the problem of evil in the world is an item I would like to save for another day.

 For our purposes today, we need to know this. Job’s suffering is not something directly caused by his sin.Job’s suffering is not something directly caused by God, although God somehow for some reason allowed it to happen.Job’s suffering was caused by the evil that is out and around in the world. It has a cause outside of God’s hand and our own. We can’t blame God. It is not our own fault either.

Sometimes bad things happen, you know? Not because someone did something wrong. Not because someone deserved anything. But because life is hard. It is, sometimes.
Life is not a technology to be conquered, it is often a mystery to be lived into by faith.
Satan’s argument to God was that Job’s faith was inauthentic. That he believed that it was inauthentic because Job was so blessed, and when his blessings were taken away, when the difficult things in life come, that Job would either sin or give up on God.
It is easy to faith with things are going easy. When blessings seem to come your way as you are walking with Jesus. And trying circumstances do test our beliefs.
It is when we are in the crucible of heartache, when we don’t have all the answers, when we are at the end of ourselves, and we are wondering what in the heck God is doing and things are not different that our faith is really challenged. And proven.

I have friends who have had their children stillborn. More than one in the last few years. One of my friends attended a church that believed that bad things simply don’t happen to good people. And so, when they went to worship heartbroken and in despair, the church they attended left them feeling like things would have went better if they just had a little more faith. Because blessings come to the faithful, and suffering to the faithless.
Job shows us that this is a lie.

It often when we are living in the crucible of suffering and pain and heartache that we discover what faith is really all about. Because we have to trust God when we don’t quite understand all that is going on. We have to learn to take the good with the bad, and to cling to Jesus in the middle of the chaos, and know that in spite of the fact we may be frustrated or angry with him at the time, he is the only one who can see us through, the only one who can deliver us, that only one that can offer us a way to make sense and find hope through our pain, and the only one who can offer us eternal life.

Job understands this. His wife does not.

Job’s wife believes that God exists to serve us. To give us stuff. To somehow make us happy. The faith, to Job’s wife, is a consumer exercise. A technology to be manipulated to get what we want.

We hear people like this all the time. They talk about power thoughts. They preach sermons on television that hardly mention the Bible and simply talk about having a positive attitude. They say that if you are faithful your church will not have room to hold all the people who come rushing in. They say that if you are a good Christian you will never struggle in your marriage, never falter in your income, and never have kids that get in trouble.

What Scripture teaches us, and what Job teaches us, is that God can be trusted, and often does his best work in our lives, when it seems like everything around us seems to be falling apart.

So my friends, in the midst of your heartache and pain, continue to trust GOD. The evil that has been done to you has not come from his hand. Cry to Him. And yet at the same time, look to the cross.

On that cross, God incarnate hung on roug-hewn wood. His face bloodied. His flesh torn. Gasping for air. Exhausted. Abandoned. Alone. People spit on his face. He was lied about. He was in physical anguish. And he was also in spiritual anguish as all the sins of the world were placed on his body. The weight of the sin of the world on his shoulders. As the perfect lamb that was slain he died for my evil, he suffered for my wrongdoings.

Christ does not leave us alone in our heartaches. He too is acquainted with suffering. When we look at the cross we see the Son of God dying, we see a Lord who is willing to suffer with us, to bear our burdens with us, one we can turn to that is familiar with the brokenness of our hearts.

And yet, even as we remember Christ’s suffering and our own, we remember that suffering is not the end of the story. We know that Christ rose again, and through doing so he has set all things new. Our sufferings are not the end of the story. God isn’t finished with us yet, despite our anger, our doubts, our frustration, and our inability to take it all in.

At this table, we know that when we hurt, he hurts, and that he seeks to draw near to us. Now let us draw near to him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On grieving the loss of the bereaved

I just finished a funeral for Delma Mehlhaff. In a week in a half I will do a memorial for Clara Clay. Both ladies were widows in their 90s. I officiated both of their husband's funerals, and now I have done theirs as well.

One of the challenging things about losing elderly saints in our congregation is that after they are gone, we are going to lose touch with much of the family as well. I first came to this realization after we did the service for Marv and June Wilkinson, a couple who died within a week of each other. Such sweet folks! They had one daughter, and she lives in Samford, MI. Soon after they passed away, the family sold the land and finished the estate business. I said to the daughter, "You are not only saying goodbye to your parents, you are also saying goodbye to this place aren't you? That is a lot of loss all at once."

She confirmed that she really was saying goodbye to Hot Springs for the most part. She might drive through on the way to somewhere else, but there was really no reason to come back. Her ties to the church and the community were gone. This confirmation saddened me. As a pastor, especially with elderly folks, you not only build a relationship with the person who is a part of your church, you build a relationship with the whole family. Then they lose one of their parents, and then the other, and then their is really no reason for them to return.

In the process of caring for spiritual needs of ailing church members, I often feel a connection or a bond with the family members of those I serve. I grow to like them. I expect to see them occasionally drop in. But there comes a point when you know that their lives are somewhere else, and it is probable that you will not see them for a long time, if ever. Especially if all ties to the community are gone.

Anyway, moments like these always make me a little sad.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Mercy and Crysostom (from IVP's Ancient Christian Devotional, p. 210)

Mercy is the highest art and the shield of those who practice it. It is the friend of God, standing always next to him and freely blessing whatever he wishes. It must not be despised by us....It must be shown to those who have quarreled with us, as well as to those who have sinned against us, so great is its power. It breaks chains, dispels darkness, extinguishes fire, kills the worm and takes away the gnashing of teeth. By it the gates of heaven open with the greatest of ease. In short, mercy is a queen that makes men like God.

Monday, August 31, 2015

St. Augustine's thoughts on wealth and poverty

I love the way St. Augustine uses a reversal motif to entreat the rich to allow the poor to help them by unburdening them of some of their wealth.

He says, "Both of you are travelling the same road; you are companions on the journey. Lighly laden are the poor man's shoulders, but yours are burdened with heavy luggage. Give away some of the load that is weighing you down; give away some of your luggage to the needy man--and you will thus afford relief for both yourself and your companion. (Sermon 11.6--In Ancient Christian Devotional Year B, p. 209)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review of Fail by J.R. Briggs

Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure
by J.R. Briggs
ISBN 978-0-8308-4111-0
IVP Praxis
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I suppose I am a glutton for emotional punishment. My wife sighed when she saw me with this book. And rightfully so. I have been feeling like a failure lately. I have especially felt down about my ministry work, but because I tie so much of my self-value to how successful I am as a pastor, it cannot help but also find its way into how I feel about who I am as a father, husband, friend, and human being. I feel like their is a big "L" for loser on my forehead at this point in my life, and try as hard as I may to feel different, I struggle to overcome it.

J.R. Briggs, in his book Fail,  talks about the sense of failure that many pastors experience and/or feel, and sees that sense of failure at the very least as not fatal in life or ministry, and at best perhaps fertile ground for growth as a disciple of Christ and perhaps as a minister.

Briggs discusses all sorts of failure that a minister can experience. He speaks of failure in the ministry that is the result of sin. He shares about ministry failures that are a result of a lack of wisdom, or perhaps a series of poor communication patterns between the pastor and the congregation or congregational leadership.

Perhaps, what Briggs really grabs onto that is helpful is a study about amoral ministry failure. He describes in detail how that process comes about, how it wounds the soul of the Christian leader, and healthy ways of recovering from such a failure. I found this section of the book worth the price of the entire text.

Another thing Briggs does that is helpful, however is that he describes the landscape of the modern American church and the modern pastor's ministry. Using Eugene Peterson as a foil against the modern business and success model of doing church, he then borrows statistics that speak to the scene of pastoral ministry on pages 46-47 of this text. These include:

  • 40 percent of pastors seriously considered leaving ministry in the last three months
  • 25 percent of pastors have been forced out or fired from their church at least once
  • 45 percent of pastors experience depression or burnout to the point where they express a need to take a leave of absence.
  • 70 percent of pastors report not having a single close friend
  • Pastors who work less than 50 hours a week are 35 percent more likely to be terminated
David Hansen put it correctly in his book The Art of Pastoring; Ministry Without All the Answers. Ministry is a journey to the cross, or at least of taking up your cross and following Jesus. It is not supposed to be easy. But, there are points when you really wonder if God wants you on his ministry team anymore. Briggs gets this. He acknowledges this sense of failure as part of ministry, and then he leads ministers, not necessary out of failure, but to a place of healing and perhaps hope. Praise the Lord.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Book Review of Entreprenurial Leadership by Richard Goosen and R. Paul Stevens

Entrepreneurial Leadership: Finding Your Calling, Making a Difference
by Richard Goosen and R. Paul Stevens
ISBN 978-0-8308-3773-1
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I come to this book with a different attitude than most I am sure. I am not really an entrepreneur--yet. At least in the classical sense. I am not one who goes out on new ventures and starts new things and takes fantastic risks. Nor do I really have a lot of experience in the business world. To be honest, I went "all in" with ministry in college and really never looked back.

On the other hand, there are some things I do, even in ministry that people would find entrepreneurial. I try to innovate, and enjoy doing so. I work to help the congregations I serve as a pastor to transition from being internally focused to being externally focused. I try to look toward the future instead of simply preserving the gains of the past.

At the same time, the theme both in a colleague's blog, conversations with members of my church, as well as some reading I have been doing seem to endorse what is often called the "side hustle". That is, attempting to have an entrepreneurial venture that compliments the current work I am doing. I am not sure what that is yet, unless it has to do with writing, but it is something I am thinking about.

What this book on entrepreneurial leadership does is show you how to develop innovative business ventures that get you in touch with your calling, help you take steps toward fulfilling that calling, and helping you take those steps grounded in your Christian faith.

The authors encourage reading the book a little bit at a time. Read one chapter a week, they advise, putting the principles you learn into practice. I can attest to this, this book gives you lots to consider and practically apply.

Book Review of Ten by Sean Gladding

Ten: Words of Life for An Addictive, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture
by Sean Gladding
ISBN 978-0-8308-3656-7
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Ten is a book about the spiritual importance of the Ten Commandments. Written in a format that Brian McLaren called "creative non-fiction", Sean Gladding sets his discussion of Scripture in the middle of a modern day story. The characters are a small group of friends that gather in a coffee shop each week, and begin an extended discussion on the Decalogue. The discussion begins as one of the characters sees a debate in the news about whether or not the public display of the Ten Commandments is important, and moves on from there.

Gladding says this book was inspired by the people he was working with in a ministry that focused on reaching out with the grace of God to people struggling with addictions in Houston. And in fact, the back cover has a quote from the book that shares "We've been shaped by the things we've become enslaved to."

The study carefully goes from the tenth commandment to the first, clearing up misconceptions about what the Scripture says, bringing in helpful modern scholarship, and showing that God through the Ten Commandments is showing his people a way to health and freedom in a way that they have never experienced, and in a way that many of us rarely experience either. Too often we gloss over this familiar part of Scripture, and don't consider it closely. Gladding lets the Scripture speak to us in new ways in this fine book, and shows how the Ancient Word is as contemporary as yesterday's news.

A good book for the shelves of teachers, pastors, and lay persons alike.

Thanks Sean!

Book Review of Summoned by Daniel Allen Jr.

Summoned: Stepping Up to Live and Lead with Jesus
by Daniel Allen
ISBN 978-0-8308-3687-1
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

With enthusiasm and energy that comes leaping of the page, Daniel Allen has written a book that is in equal measure a battle cry, a pep-talk, and a practical guide to Christian leadership both inside and outside of the church. Summoned is a passionate plea for people, especially men, to step up as leaders and leave a meaningful life that has true power in building the kingdom of God here on earth.

There are several appealing things about this book. First, most of the chapters are fairly short. They have good practical exercises and steps to grow as a Christian and as a leader. So, as one seeks to walk through this book, they can take each little section step by step over a period of time. As a matter of fact, this would be a great book to do with a group of men wanting to learn about living their faith with true meaning and passion.

Second, it has a well-thought out process for addressing the movement toward being a Christian that has influence on the world around them for Jesus. The book is divided into four sections. The first section is about "waking up" to the possibilities of what God could do with your life if accepted his call on your life. The second section seeks to form the leader in issues of character, which is an often neglected area of true leadership development. The third section gives practical ways that the reader can "step-up" and serve. Finally, Allen addresses the need for believers, and especially leaders, to develop a meaningful support team to help them grow.

My favorite chapter in this book was about addressing blind spots. We all have them, but rarely does anyone teaching on leadership give their students a process for addressing those blind spots.

This is a great book! I encourage a number of you to pick this up, read it, and share it within a small group.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On preaching....

In 2008, after a dozen or so years in youth ministry, I chose to move into a solo pastorate, and then into what would probably be called a senior pastorate. I believe it is what God called me to do, in large part because I believe that I am called to preach.

I don't know why I feel called to preach. I think I have teaching gifts to be exercised in the church. I struggle with doubts, though, about whether I am really all that good at what I do, and whether God is continuing to call me into this kind of ministry. But, I try and be faithful to the call, and people seem to respond with feedback that tells me that my preaching is making its way into their hearts and lives.

Having said that, I have been thinking a lot lately about my preaching methods and habits. I have found that each time I am in a different community, it is important that I learn to alter how I communicate to each group. Belgrade Community Church wanted to be inspired to live the Christian life with enthusiasm, and so they preferred a more conversational approach from me--even though that was neither of my senior pastor's styles. In Colorado Springs, people wanted to connect with the heart and head, so the preacher was challenged to be open enough to vulnerable (but not too vulnerable), but also handle the word with intellectual rigor and clarity. Fowler wanted to hear the Word, plain and simple. Fowlerites liked it when you got excited, and responded when you challenged them from the pulpit, but most of all, they just wanted to hear a clear gospel message. Here in Hot Springs, this church at this time is hungry for sound, understandable teaching on basic Christian living. Many of the folks in church seem to respond well to sermon outlines, with blanks to fill in. They like sermon series' on relevant issues and basic discipleship. Last year I did an "Under Construction" theme. The summer before that a "Together in Christ" series highlighting the important issues related to life together (like forgiveness for example). This year I have preached through the Fruit of the Spirit. Even though attendance has not been as strong this summer, I feel like the 9 week series has been my best two months of preaching since arriving at United Churches.

Having said that, I focus my work in the contemporary service in the evening doing more of what I did in Fowler. In Fowler, I preached through Bible books in a sequential fashion, thus drawing messages from Scripture and applying them to life. This has the function of teaching the Word the way it was presented, and educating the parishoners on Bible content while inspiring them to connect with God and live their life based upon the Word. There are times, however, where it can come across like more "bible-study" and less "preaching".

Now, both my seminary training and some of my members, especially those from traditions other than my own in this multi-denominational church, really value use of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in worship. (The RCL is a selection of 4 texts chosen by an ecumenical ground of mainline leaders that rotates through selected texts every three years with a Psalm Reading, and Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle Reading. The order the texts around the seasons of the church year, and tying together themes from Biblical literature in each section of Scripture.)There have been times when I have been able to tie a theme to the RCL, and work that together pretty well. But the RCL often is neither sequential in its study of specific parts of Scripture, nor easily able to work into a "thematic unit" that really works for those "teacher types" in my congregation.

Now that I am nearing Fall, and coming to the place of sermon planning, I am at a crossroads. Our church has structures our lay leadership around an RCL preaching schedule and methodology. I don't mind the RCL a lot of the time. And, I believe the practice of the church year (Advent to Pentecost especially) is an important spiritual rhythym that the RCL honors and assists with. But, more and more, I wonder if my preaching gifts and the church's learning style's are ripe for a change in our adherence to the RCL for most of the year.

So I wonder, can I move in a more independent direction full-time without upsetting key leaders in my congregation. How important is the RCL to the congregations identity and self-understanding of what worship should be like for them? Should I continue to seek out series material, or is that pushing me away from "preaching the whole counsel of God?"

Just things I am thinking about. The reader's comments are always appreciated, as is the banter back and forth that will follow.