The Unpreachable Santa

     I learned a considerably valuable lesson last week in the pulpit; of all the places in the world in which it remains offensive to declare, “Santa is not real,” Sunday worship still manages to rank fairly high. 

     To be fair I did not begin my sermon with any ill intent. I am not a Christian version of the Grinch who is bent on ruining “Holiday spirit” in the lives of millions of children or some cynical, old, cantankerous codger who suggests Christmas is nothing more than a bunch of pagan rituals high-jacked by Constantine. To the contrary, I like Christmas quite a bit, and I have preached a great number of sermons about the need for the church to learn from the culture around it how to celebrate this season to the fullest. I have often talked about the missional opportunities of Christmas, the historicity of St. Nicholas, and the voice we lose when we chose to shout through megaphones in the marketplace to shame people into believing “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  To be quite honest, I like to think of myself as a fairly culturally-whimsical Christian.  At least, I use to.

     But there I was preaching a sermon last week in the season of Advent, at a decidedly Evangelical church (a Presbyterian one at that), in the heart of the Bible belt when I began to speak about the less-than-truthfulness of Saint Nick. As I did so the crowd shifted nervously in their seats. Some let out uncomfortable laughs while casting even more uncomfortable glances around the sanctuary. Others averted all of us by simply looking down at their shoes or their hands while wringing them nervously in their laps. Some flashed wide-eyed gazes at their innocent children while hiding their fear behind insincere smiles that attempted to communicate “he is just kidding honey.” One of the boldest in the bunch simply got up and ushered his child out.

     All of this occurred, mind you, before my introduction was even finished.

     Yet, despite all its discomfiture the moment served as a fitting illustration, perhaps a better illustration than any I could have conjured on my own, of the message I actually came to bear. My original intent was to reflect on the often overshadowed glory of the first Advent, and the way in which our failure to ponder the sheer impossibility of Christmas actually tempts our hearts to believe fairy tales that are far less mythical than the truth of the Gospel.

     The thunderous silence of the sanctuary confirmed that the story of a man dashing down chimneys with a sack full of gifts and a little holiday spirit trumps the excitement of the Incarnation. For some, the story of elves and reindeer is the one we would rather tell our children, maybe it is the one we would rather tell ourselves.

     While I have real opinions on whether or not you should tell your children Santa is real (perhaps another post for another day), suffice to say here that no matter how exciting, or fantastic, or mythical or impossible the story of Santa may be, the story of the Incarnation is infinitely more so. Infinitely. That God would become a man is a blasphemous claim worthy of anathema in nearly every world religion throughout history. That his joining us here on Earth would come by way of an unwed Jewish teenager, that he would first see the world he created through human eyes from the bottom of a trough in a borrowed hog pen, and that the only ones who would recognize his coming would be shepherds and pagan magicians, is simply divine comedy of the highest order.

     As Frederick Buechner once wrote in his seminal work on preaching Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale:

“There is no less danger and darkness in the Gospel than there is in the Brothers Grimm, but     beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome…That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still….that once upon a time is this time, now…and the ones who are to live happily ever after are…all who labor and are heavy laden, the poor naked wretches wheresoever they be.”

     That is the better story for the Church this season. It is the better story for the world, and it is only story worth telling.  



What the Church can learn from Serial

     In its introductory season on air the Serial podcast has become one of the most popular podcasts in the world, surpassing even the long-time champion This American Life, which is produced by Serial host, Sarah Koenig. If you are not currently among the over one million weekly listeners to the show- here is a quick synopsis.

     In 1999 a young teenager named Hae Min Lee was murdered in Baltimore County, MD. When her body was finally discovered in a nearby park, a fellow student named Jay Wilds came forward and testified that Hae’s ex boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was the killer. In short order, Adnan was taken into custody, tried, and convicted. For the past 15 years he has been living out his days in a maximum-security prison in Maryland. He has never stopped claiming his innocence.

     In the course of a few months Koenig has brilliantly strung together a series of podcasts that explores the entire story for us in segments that range from 30-60 minutes. Every Thursday a portion of the tale is told that pulls together new voices, new angles, new theories and a heightened anxiety as we all hang on for another 7 days. It is a brilliant formula and one that I have come to believe has invaluable lessons imbedded in it for the church.  The following are my top 5.

1. Explore the topics that matter

     At the center of the Serial podcast is a discussion of race, justice and religion. The three main characters include an Asian woman, a black man and a Muslim with familial roots in Pakistan. Issues of race and religion play a dominant role in the conversations as does the subject at the heart of every episode- is Adnan guilty or innocent? Has justice been served, or has a great injustice been perpetuated for the past 15 years? Serial is touching a nerve here and in the process demonstrating a strong penchant for communal conversations on topics that are sometimes considered too confrontation for pulpit time.  

2. Do not fear a lack of closure

     At the outset Koenig was clear to assure her audience that the story we were pursuing together may not have any closure at all. Undoubtedly this causes anxiety for a number of listeners who are desperate for resolution and it was a gamble amidst a culture that has come to expect the drama of a 30-minute sitcom to be tied together nicely by the close of the last commercial. But the gamble has paid off and has highlighted our desire for authenticity over happy endings. Real life is far more grey and complicated than what typical entertainment offers. Serial’s refusal to provide answers in black and white is refreshingly honest.

3. Invite rather than dictate

     Serial invites us, the listeners, to participate. It raises questions, provides evidence, wrestles and doubts along with us and Koenig is quick to refrain from offering easy answers. To speak in pedagogical terms, Serial is less didactic and more inductive. Instead of a lecture full of facts and figures Serial is a conversation punctuated with penetrating questions, insights and comparative viewpoints. It is asking “what do you think” and then it sits quietly for a week while you answer.

4. Encourage dialogue

     In addition to the fame of the podcast itself, Serial has also caused chat-rooms, discussion groups, and all manner of social media to explode with conversation. Quite literally, strangers from around the whole world are talking about Serial. People speak when they feel as if their voice matters. Through a mixture of humility and honesty Koenig empowers us to join the conversation and participate in a story that we feel we can impact. Serial makes us feel as if our opinion is not only valid, but wanted and valuable.  

5. Be vulnerable with your own questions

     Finally, we all feel as if Koenig is in this with us. Despite the fact that she has far more information than any of us, she doesn’t lord it over her listeners. She is quite comfortable with her own doubts and unresolved questions, and that frees us to be more honest about our own. 

     Next Thursday Serial will deliver the final episode of the season. Undoubtedly it will be a podcast event relatively on par with the likes of the Breaking Bad and Mad Men closers. While a final answer about Adnan may not be reached, one of the more lofty goals of the podcast has already proven to be successful- encouraging millions of people to gather together for one hour a week to talk about life's most important questions. It would not be a bad goal for the Church to reach for as well. 

Burying the Forgotten

     Every now and then a story emerges that needs very little commentary. In fact, some stories are so precious, and so fragile that any additional words run the risk of tarnishing them, cheapen them, or perhaps even destroy them. Ruth Coker Burks has such a story to tell. It is her own story of standing by the bedsides and gravesides of AIDS patients who had been abandoned by their families. It is the story of personal sacrifice and a tremendous testimony to an individual who is willing to embody the ideal of stepping into the darkness of another to ensure that they don't have to face it alone. The fact that, until today, we have never heard of Ruth is only further testimony to the humility, purity and the beauty of her actions.  Her story was featured today in Story Corps.

Click HERE for the whole story 

Pastoral Suicide & the Lamenting Church

“To enter a broken heart means that our hearts will be broken as well.” - Paul Miller

     It was close to a year ago that I sat at my computer writing a reflection on the suicide of a fellow pastor named Stephen Hightower. Today, I find myself compelled to memorialize the life of Mickey Sheally. Mickey was one of Stephen’s mentors who took his own life while sitting in the parking lot of his church at the close of last month. My denomination specifically, and the Church at large, has lost two pastors in the span of a single year by way of the evil torment of depression, human suffering and desperation. It should cause us all to stop and pause. 

     I first heard the news of Mickey’s death by way of a phone call that came late in the evening. As I stood stunned in my frigid driveway, the question that clogged my mind more than any other was not merely the obvious question of why? But more specifically, why the finality?  Why was an answer that was so utterly terminal, permanent and unalterable the only one he could seem to find?

     If we can withhold the temptation for a moment to suggest an over-spiritualized chastisement that pastors should find their escape in ”just turning to Jesus,” could we not, at least, wonder why some pastors can’t seem to find even temporary relief in a drink, in a movie, or sex with their wife? I ask this honestly as a man who has been open about his inability to fully grasp the depth of darkness that the suicidal endure and with the realistic expectation that the endless night which some pastors face can’t be shaken by a couple beers or a decent flick.

In fact, could it be that perhaps attempting to escape the pain at all is actually part of the problem?

     I have been slowly working my way through the book A Loving Life by Paul Miller in which he traces the gospel through the book of Ruth. In it he writes, “The church has not been particularly good at hearing laments from its broken people…We’ve not been taught that to love someone means we enter their suffering.” Dr. Soong-Chan Rah agrees, noting that few churches include lament in their weekly liturgy.

How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.

     Could the great irony of pastoral life be that in an attempt to meet the perceived needs of communities bent on experiencing “their best life now” many pastors have created emotional prisons for themselves where even they are not free to cry? In such an environment, the sermons preached and the songs sung each week become a constant ringing in the ear of leaders who are confronted in potent ways that they are living anything but the life abundant. Who does a pastor tell when the gospel is not sounding so good anymore?

     Might our recent experiences with these pastoral deaths point us back to practices like confession, lament and songs that can give voice to death as well as life, to despair as much as hope. Might we create churches in which people gather together as much to cry as to laugh; churches where we remind each other that sinfulness is a prerequisite for salvation, and sacred spaces where people are not projects but brothers and sisters; homes where prodigals and orphans find a family and communities when, on any given Sunday, the pastor might find themselves at the center of a group of outstretched hands praying for their sobbing hearts. Temples of lament where our tears serve as constant reminders that while we wait together for the new world, the one we live in now is only bearable when we are not asked to face it alone.    

Pastoral Lessons from Bansky

Be very careful what you wish for.

In the world of pastoral ministry (especially the evangelical variety) what seems to be wished for with an increasing frequency is fame. Despite the fact that it is often shrouded in more spiritual terms like “influence” or "maximizing capacity," there is but a razors edge difference between them all. In recent months we have watched our culture develop a healthy unease with "celebrity pastors," and yet, all this discussion has done little to stem the flow of those who continue to follow a predictable script on their path to stardom while simultaneously creating pastoral prisons they are desperately trying escape. 

...Pastor a small but quickly growing church (preferably in an urban setting), write a blog, publish a book, produce a podcast, speak at conferences, get invited to more speaking engagements, start a new church campus, speak at more conferences, develop another church campus, or two, and then…. burn-out, quit, or disqualify.

So common is this refrain in our modern era that the full list of names who serve as exceptions to the rule will most likely run through ones mind before they finish this very blog. Perhaps before they finished that last sentence. Which is not to suggest that there is only a small number, just that they are not known.

And therein we catch a hint of the problem, as well as the solution.

While there is certainly no shortage of reasons given for the current crisis in pastoral leadership, the fact remains that many pastors are, quite simply, bringing these troubles upon themselves. Contrary to popular belief, pastors have considerable control over their celebrity status. Publishing, speaking at conferences, broadcasting their sermons online, or projecting their faces on multiple LED screens across a city are decisions that are not typically being demanded, much less even expected, from average parishioners. Most people just want a pastor.

If pastors are walking away from their pulpits because of increasing “demands and pressures” or the sense that they have somehow “lost themselves” or have "drifted from their calling" many only have themselves to blame. If a great number increasingly recognize that becoming a celebrity is not working out so well for the health of the church, why are more pastors not intentionally protecting themselves?

Maybe more of us in ministry could be taking a cue from the famed artist Bansky whose worldwide acclaim can only be attached to his finished work. No one, outside of a small band of fellow street artists, knows who the real Bansky is. The only thing associated with the artist is the work he has produced. What is highlighted is the product, not the producer

What if pastors were as intentional about hiding themselves as Bansky? What if more of them strategically and intentionally refused to speak at conferences, publish their sermons, or grow their congregations beyond the number of names they could remember. What if?

And what if the people who normally sat in conferences and streamed podcasts of their favorite preacher were confronted, in the startling absence of both, with the fact that their local pastor was their pastor. Maybe they would find their pastor is good at preaching or maybe they would discover they are mediocre. Maybe the music would prove to be fantastic or very, very, average. However, people would not know because they would have nothing to compare it to. Congregations would have no other pastor than the pastor God gave them, and pastors would not be pastoring anyone else but the people God called them to. How refreshing and freeing that might prove to be for both parishioner and pastor alike. 

If you are able to imagine a world like that, could you also articulate what it is the church might actually lose if pastors were to shun the pursuit of fame? Fame does not guarantee moral failure or professional burnout, but it undeniably increases the odds. Would God’s great mission to reach the world be hindered in any way if pastors declared universally that theirs was a profession, perhaps one of only a handful of professions perhaps, in which increasing popularity was shunned and fought against at all cost.

As a pastor myself, I wonder what the church may look like if we shepherded souls like Bansky painted? What if faithfulness in our calling could only be gauged by the transformed lives of those who sat under our care. And what if pastors chased solely after the satisfaction of being completely known by just a handful of brothers and sisters who referred to them only in simple and profoundly intimate ways like, "my pastor."

I believe that nearly every pastor who has gathered a fledging church in a living room, a borrowed theatre, or a local gym began with this very vision, to see their own lives diminish while the God of the universe was lifted up and unleashed into their communities.

That dream doesn't need to die. Work in the shadows and let the spotlight fall on the only One who is truly worthy to stand in it.  



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I am a father and I am a son. I am adopted and rescued...a friend of Jesus. I am Carrie's husband and dad to Luke, Andrew and Zachary. I am the Director of Spiritual Formation at Toccoa Falls College and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). I am a teacher who loves to engage the world with words and I am a Christian who aims to be the Good News in speech in deed. I am an artist attempting to create good art that glorifies the Creator and encourages his creation to seek him.