Balanced Leaders

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Exod. 18:13-271 Pet. 5:1-14Matt. (1:1-17),3:1-6

Being a leader is never easy.  The mantle of leadership means hard, unpopular decisions from time to time.  Being a spiritually-fit and balanced leader is tough too.

Moses has proven that he is an effective leader.  A wonderful leader.  He has led folks out of the land of Egypt, done all God says, helped enter a new phase of being fed with manna and quail, and brought water from the rock.  Now people know he is wise and come to him to seek God’s will.

Jethro, Moses father-in-law, catches wind of this.  He sees how Moses sits to serve as judge from morning till evening.  And Moses is doing a good job!  But Jethro wisely objects: “What you are doing is not good.  You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Find others to do most of this work.”

Isn’t this often the case?!

There are principles of church growth that come into play with regard to a pastor’s leadership.  Sometimes churches get stuck not growing despite the excellent leadership of a pastor.  But sometimes the pastor can greatly add or subtract from the overall mission of the church to spread the good news.

It is often said that a pastor, in his/her first few years, will shrink or expand a church to fit the pastor’s own abilities.  That means if I am a pastor who only has the skills to handle a 500 member congregation and I come to lead a church of 1000 members, I will quickly find subconscious ways to derail and shrink staff and programs until I have whittled the church down to something I can personally manage.  It is sad and awful, but a true dynamic.  I have seen this happen first hand in my many years of ministry.

The inverse is also true.  Some leaders have a vision of the church that is much larger than the current setting, and they have the skills to morph it and change along with them.

This is happening to Moses today.  Jethro takes a step back and says, “This job is too big.”  Yeah, he was doing fine now, but what about burnout?  What about cultivating leadership?  What happens if you die tomorrow?  Who is in a position to take up where you left off?  It turns out the “excellent” leadership of Moses wasn’t quite as excellent.

I am sure there are aspects of your life that intersect with Moses or Jethro.  Our culture is very anti-sabbath.  It is almost a sin in American culture to think about taking a break.  “And why would we train assistants to do our job?  That would be corporate waste and take my personnel figures over budget!  It would also make me vulnerable to being let go!  I know, I will just work 70 hour work weeks, and forget about my own needs, my family, and my friends!”  And so we “consolidate.”  Most of my friends seem to be doing the jobs of three or four people (and no offense) but spread so thin I doubt they are doing anything WELL.

Does this sounds familiar?  Are you struggling to balance your personal, professional, and spiritual lives?  And I am one of the worst offenders some days.

How difficult it can be to let go sometimes.  But that is part of what it means to be Christian.  If we are all in this ship together, it makes sense that very few things are “mine” and nearly everything is “ours.”  It is one of the reasons I like corporate confessions and the Nicene Creed which uses “we” and not “I”.  Christendom has never been an “I” society.

May we live this day in the “we”.

-Matt

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Body, Mind, Spirit, and VOICE

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Exod. 15:1-211 Pet. 1:13-25John 14:18-31

Enough!  That one word summarizes so much of the book of Exodus.  Having gone through years of bondage, the Israelites have had enough.  God’s escape plan has not been going fast enough.  God has had enough and the Plagues come.  Now it is Pharaoh who has had enough.  God gave directions for Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread was completed.  Moses and the gang have marched through the Red Sea, and the pursuers have been drowned – “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”

And what happens?  The people burst into song.  Their whole beings are engaged, wrapped up in the praise of the God who has freed them.  The Song of Moses, which recounts the events of the previous chapter, is beautiful.  The narration is not meant to be a sequential understanding, but is rich in poetic verse, parallelism, and appears to be quite ancient.  It is indeed a song!

As a church musician, and now a pastor, I am always intrigued by the process of singing.  No other instrument is so exposing and personal.  I am aware there are some who don’t feel they are good at it, so they stand there smugly in worship, arms folded, and wait for it to be done.  What a sad state of affairs!  This is no concert!  This is all of us joining in praise to the one who saved us from the Red Sea, delivered us from the hands of the Egyptians, and then delivered us from death by God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  How can we not share some sort of excitement about that?

Now I understand not everyone is Julie Andrews, and when they get happy they don’t feel like spinning on top of a mountain, singing their hearts out, and acting like a crazy person.  I know.  I understand.  But I have a confession: I am not a singer either.  I do it because I cannot help myself.  And I am not the greatest singer.  But God has awakened in me a sense of joy that cannot be contained.  So I make a joyful NOISE.  And you all have to put up with my big mouth.  And those of you in my congregation know I SING LOUDLY!

The Song of Moses recounts the plight, and in this sense it is also a record of theology, the highlights of the community and what they meant.  In so many ways, our hymnal and WHAT we sing is a reflection of our theology – our beliefs about God and how we interact with God.

When I get in my car, the “burnt out musician” in me comes out.  I don’t listen to music anymore.  It is actually quite sad.  NPR….NPR….NPR.  That is about it.  But to those of you that do listen to music, what does that say to you?

How does your music impact your daily thoughts?  Might it also shape your beliefs about others?  You?  God?

My prayer is that when you get to church on Sunday, you will let go of those inhibitions, and just sing your heart out.  Show the joy and praise to all the world!  Give back to God that “dancing on a mountain top like a crazy person” kind of singing.  Who knows, it may open up a new path of thanksgiving and praise in you you have never known.

As my friend Helen Kemp used to say “It takes the whole person to sing and rejoice!”  When we do that, and engage your whole being, we give ourselves a chance to truly connect with ourselves, our God, and our bodies.  As she used to say, Body, Mind, Spirit, and VOICE.

-Matt

The picture above is Helen Kemp in 2008, as she conducts at Trinity Wall Street (NYC)
at a 90th birthday Children’s Choir Festival.  Helen and I were friends until her death in 2015.  She lived a life inspiring children in song, as a children’s choir clinician, composer, voice teacher, and church music pedagogue.  She was also a founding member of the Choirsters’ Guild, which made a huge impact on me in my development as a church musician.  Her inspiration to me continues.

Into the Water

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Exod. 14:21-311 Pet. 1:1-12John 14:(1-7)8-17

Yesterday we celebrated a renewal of our baptism in worship.  Our talk of water continues today.

Today is a central story of Jewish identity.  Moses, with outstretched hand, is leading the people across the Red Sea.  The Egyptians are following.  The wall of water forms.  The Lord turns part of the sea into dry land, and they pass on dry ground.

You know how the story ends.  The Egyptians are trapped in the sea, and eventually drowned.

These dry land/dry ground distinctions are all throughout our faith.  In Genesis, those of us on dry land are set apart in God’s creation.  Here in Exodus, the “dry landers” become those chosen as God’s people.  In Joshua, dry land leads the people to the promised land.  With the East wind, the strength of the Lord, and the guidance of Moses, the identity of God’s Chosen people is hewn.

In Jonah we also see the sea as a force, and as a metaphor of chaos and death.  To be on the rock, or on sure footing, or on dry land is seen as blessing and power.  It certainly was for Noah.

Time and time again we see a consistency in the story.  Frankly it is good writing.  It is easy for children to remember and track.  It makes for good bedtime stories.

It also leads us on a journey to discover God at work more deeply in our lives.  Where are the waters of chaos in our lives?  What is dry land going to look like for us spiritually?  Where and how will I find that dry land?

Ironically, we are people of the water – we have come from the waters of baptism, and have entered the watery chaos of God’s Spirit on the move again.  Our lives are marked by unpredictability and new life.

And so we are called into the waters – to lose our life in order to gain it.

-Matt

A Teaching Moment

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Thanks to Eileen Gryzbowski who snapped this shot of a sign at the State Capitol protests yesterday.  Eileen is a fellow educator and a science teacher in our Oklahoma public schools. “My favorite sign so far of the day!!!”

Exod. 13:3-101 Cor. 15:41-50Matt. 28:16-20

Day 4 of the OK Teacher Strike.  Day 4 of panicked legislators.

The Great Commission comes to us today in Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Those words may sound familiar.  Many in Oklahoma grew up with the Great Commission, especially that first part of making disciples.

“…and TEACHING them.”  Often we miss that second part, or fail to take it seriously.

This is especially the case here in Oklahoma, where we value the teaching profession about as much as we value sewage.  We rank 49th out of 50th in US States for our overall public school system, the pay for teachers, etc.  Our faith is not that much different –  often simple, parochial, unchallenged – with many in our midst content burying their heads in the sand, believing the earth is flat and climate change is a hoax.

Secretly, many like reaping the rewards of our underfunded public education, so they can remain unchallenged in matters of faith and the world.

I’m not talking about our public school teachers teaching the faith – I am talking about the principles of a good education.  I am talking about opening minds.  Why would we not want to fund our schools in the best way we can, arm teachers with all the tools they need, and give our children the best opportunities to develop critical thinking?  We do want a good education, right?  (We do, right? I’m not sure anymore.)

The problem with not wrestling with your faith and failing to ask the tough questions is that we also fail to take the Great Commission seriously.  How are we to take Jesus seriously “…teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” when we don’t arm congregants with a mature faith that can grapple with our current context – this big, bad world of technology, scientific inquiry, and the complexity of understanding politics?

This is where a good public school education, or a good liberal arts education comes in handy.

Having your world view challenged is never fun.  But here we are folks.

And now educators are pouring into OKC every day now, fed up with the abysmal state of our schools, protesting the reality that we have put less and less money toward education in the last 10 years and yet have many, many more children now.  And I am behind them.  We have to stand up to the powers and principalities that would prefer to keep us as idiots, so we could not see the corruption of power and the ways of cruelty at work in the system.

The problem isn’t the schools, or taxes, or priorities.  The problem is that many legislators turn a blind eye to SIN – the sin inherent in the system.

On another level, instead of valuing discourse, we as a people have bought into the notion that it isn’t polite to discuss politics or religion.  As a result, we have raised ourselves and our children to be idiots.  We don’t dialogue anymore.  We self-select the “news” we want to hear.  We can’t seem to have intellectual conversations about anything important anymore.

I believe we have been led down this dark and sinful path because of what is at the heart of the Great Commission.  What was it Jesus was really teaching?

Really, what was that teaching we are talking about in the Great Commission?  To love the unlovable.  To care for the poor, the hungry, the helpless.  To welcome the widows and the little children.  To party with sinners.  To feed everyone, whether they deserve it or not.  To teach that those who think they have power and authority have very little.  In short, he taught the in-breaking of the kingdom – an upsidedown world in which the meek would inherit the kingdom of God.

In other words, our faith costs money.  It costs us our very lives, but also our pocketbooks.  And at the end of the day we are a sinful, greedy people who want an excuse to simply horde all we have and forget about neighbor.  We don’t want to truly live as Christ lived, practice radical hospitality and self-sacrifice.

This is why many Christians are content to stop with just the first part of the Great Commission.  Baptize and they are done.

We don’t want to change.  We want control.  We want to horde our money and not share.  Secretly, (and sinfully) we hate the Great Commission.

If we TEACH then we will OPEN minds, TRANSFORM souls, and CHANGE people.  And we secretly (and sinfully) don’t want that.  This is why you see efforts to de-fund education.

The Great Commission is about radical love.  And that scares the hell out of most of us.

Dare to believe in the WHOLE Great Commission today.  And if you feel so inclined, support a teacher too.

-Matt

P.S. November is coming, friends.

The Three Women: He is Risen!

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Exod. 12:14-271 Cor. 15:1-11Mark 16:1-8

He is Risen!

Like our Sunday reading, today’s expression of the gospel is the end of the Gospel of Mark, which I preached on yesterday, and which you know I love.  It is a remarkable cliffhanging ending.  Here it is today.

All along in Mark we have had Jesus’ identity enshrouded in mystery: “Shhh, don’t tell anyone who I am.”  The demons are silenced.  The crowd is kept in the dark.  The disciples are told, but told not to tell anyone about Jesus true identity.  At the cross everyone scatters.  Where are his 12 male disciples?  Gone.

Three women show up at the tomb.  They find the empty tomb, and are alarmed to encounter a young man dressed in a white robe who says, “He has been raised; he is not here.”   They run from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And that’s it!  The gospel ends there.  Naturally, over the centuries, monks copying the text had decided that was a disaster of an ending.  Not wanting to leave everyone hanging; being uncomfortable with tears, they decided to make up new endings.

But it is great the way it is!   The irony!  I mean, certainly they told someone eventually!  Right?  For here is the story before us.  It is a cliffhanger!  It is supposed to be.

Mark wants us to enter the story.  He wants us to claim it for ourselves and write our own ending. 

I also find it interesting that the Gospel of Mark has been filled with men.  Men, men, men.  Now the essential knowledge of Jesus’ power has been encountered in its fullness.  In this new world order, this post-resurrection world, it is women who are entrusted with the good news of the gospel.  It is no mistake.  Mark wants to let everyone know how fully Jesus was breaking down the walls of culture.

And much of what we know of early Christianity, a religion that was underground and met in peoples’ homes, is that it was dominated by women leaders.

God has defeated the powers of darkness, and given us all a new lease on life, and now we are to tell.

Are we ready like the two Marys and Salome to venture out of our chaos and fear and tell the story of what God has done?

-Matt