Monthly Archives: September 2013

Don’t Make Me Lead the Church?

As I look into the annals of our church family, I stumbled upon this obvious, yet profound, theme.

downloadPachomius (d. 348), after being discharged from the military, found his way to a life of solitude in the desert. He and his followers were committed to never holding church office.

St. Anthony of the Desert (d. 356) committed himself to a life of solitude and prayer. He avoided church leadership issues, but his fame led to gossip about his doctrinal beliefs. His only involvement in local church life in the city ended up being him having to clear his name.

Athanasius (d. 373) was a church bishop, but chose to order his life by the rhythms of the monastery. Whenever he was in trouble in church politics, he would run to the desert for spiritual and relational peace. 

Basil the Great (d. 379) was ordained an elder against his will! Conflict drove him back to the monastic life. But then he was elected bishop, which was followed by direct conflict with the Roman Emperor. As a bishop, he championed (you guessed it) the monastic life of solitude!

st-gregory-nazBasil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) was forced to become a bishop by Basil. He didn’t want the job – he preferred a life of contemplation. Gregory was so sad being a pastor that he left his local church. But, he was such a great thinker that his influence became known in the high places of power in the Empire. He was then called by Theodosius to become bishop of Constantinople. He didn’t want that job, either…and, sure enough, as soon as he assumed that role other church leaders started hammering him on some policy and procedure issues. So, he resigned yet again, and went back to little Naziansus to be a song-writer at his original local church.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), Basil’s younger brother, was an introvert. He enjoyed anonymity and solitude. His big brother Basil forced him against his will to become a bishop (why do these guys keep doing that?). But major conflicts ensued, so he went into hiding. Emperor Theodosius found him, read his amazing theological writings, and obliged him to travel all over the empire teaching doctrine. Gregory always felt this was a huge distraction to what he really wanted – a life of solitude.

Martin of Tours (d. 397) was also a military man. After he was released from the army, he, too, settled into the monastic life. When Tours needed a bishop, the people elected Martin to the post. But even though he took the position, he chose to live his life like a monk, not like a prestigious church leader. He eventually felt the need to move out of the city.

Ambrose (d. 397) didn’t want to be a bishop, but one night the crowd in Milan demanded that he take the job! He tried hard to dissuade the people. He then tried to escape. Finally, the Emperor himself let it be known that Ambrose would be bishop, like it or not. So, begrudgingly, he accepted the role – all this before he was even baptized!

John Chrysostum (d. 407) was a lawyer-turned-monk who happened to be a great preacher. He was so good that people couldn’t accept the fact that he wanted to live in simple solitude. He was preaching in Antioch when he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople, because the Emperor wanted him as the bishop there. As a monk committed to poverty, the glitz of the Roman capital turned his stomach…and he preached about it. More conflict! From there he was turned on by other bishops, banished from the city, and even exiled, where he died from failing health.

Jerome (d. 420) was a monk, who then became a church leader. He did incredible work as a Bible translator and theologian. But his work in the church drove him to depression. He made a lot of theological enemies, and spent the last 10 years of this life lonely, in a lot of pain, and surrounded by controversy.

Augustine (d. 430), from the time he became a Christian, wanted a life of solitude. He was on that path when he was ordained in the church of Hippo against his will.

Obvious, isn’t it? Everyone craved solitude! The great leaders of the Imperial church all realized something: Following Jesus is the one thing to be desired above all else … and being a leader in the local church is huge distraction to that simple pursuit! And their experience was that church leadership worked against that desire, not for it.

I’ve been a Christian now for 39 years. I went to Christian college and graduate school. I’ve been pastoring for over two decades. In my lifetime, I have never met another man or woman who shares this ancient conviction. “I would much rather live a life of solitude than be a leader in the church.” No, what I experience instead is an almost insatiable desire to be in the throes of church life, preferably as the senior leader of the church.

I’ve also experienced in my ministry career that local church life is fraught with peril, especially for the pastors. When church conflict is at its peaks, rich community life and shared spirituality ebb. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

I truly believe that, if I could get all these “great uncles” together in my living room, they would tell me, “Bill, don’t let life in the church keep you from the main thing of knowing Jesus deeply. Leave ministry leadership if you have to. Don’t lose it! Because it’s the best.”

I wish I could have heard from you guys sooner.


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21st Century Family – “Winning at Life”

So, I got an invitation to church in the mail today.

On the front, it says, “Coming Soon! To the East Valley. Join us…for the launch of the East Valley Campus.”

On the back, it says, “Helping you WIN AT LIFE – Join us for our Grand Opening experience as we kickoff a brand new four-week series called My Family.”


That, along with logos and web site addresses, is my invitation.



The Cross?

One thing one notices when exploring our family through history is that every generation sees the Biblical truths of Jesus morphed by the influences of the culture. In the ancient church, the theology was bloody. During the last days of the Empire, it was Imperial. The Middle Ages found us nervous and desperate. The Reformation made us bookish. The Enlightenment made us proud of our ideas. The Industrial Revolution made us machine-like. The days of the revivals have made us crowd loving emotionalists, and the post-war era urged us to be somewhat complacent.

Well, our modern era would have our faith become something that helps us “Win at Life.” That makes sense. It fits in with all of our triggers. From the time I entered kindergarten, I was on a path toward self-fulfillment — through education (“space technology, working for me!”), our world was progressing, and all I had to do was get on board, and enjoy the American Dream. The land of opportunity has provided all the means by which I can be “a winner!”  My job. My family. My home. My toys. My retirement. My “good life.”

So, it only makes sense that the church of today should morph to serve these ideals. After all, I do want to win. I don’t want to be a loser. I want to be first, not last. I want servants, not to serve. I want contentment, not a cross of suffering. The right kind of gospel for this generation is a Jesus who died, so I won’t have to. Instead of dying to self, I get to win.

I have no doubt that the new church will do very well numerically, and in terms of gathering a slough of enthusiastic customers.

I wish them the best. Not success, but the best. Maybe a return to the best. Loss.

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” – Philippians 3:8-11

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Posted by on September 6, 2013 in Contemporary Experiences


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A Visit to St. Mary’s

When just a child, one thing was always clear to me. “We’re not Catholic.” Then, when I became a Christian at the age of 14, in a small, fundamentalist church, the next layer was added: “Those Catholics are wrong.” 

I was told that I certainly wouldn’t want to go to one of their services. I was told they believe in works, not grace. I was told they are run by a dictatorship (i.e., the Pope), not as a good democracy (i.e., how good, American institutions, including churches, should be run). I was told that they worship Mary instead of Jesus. I was told they have to sit in a little wooden box and confess their sins to a priest in order to get forgiveness. I was told that they baptize babies, which is obviously wrong because babies don’t know that they’re saved. And, I was told that their services were really, really boring.

I grew up being told, in no uncertain terms, that Catholics are not a part of our family, the true family. I later learned that the watershed moment of this family split was called the Reformation. This was the time when there was a big ecclesiastical fork in the road, and the true Christians went right with the Protestants, and the false Christians continued left with the Catholics.

Since those days, I’ve visited many Catholic churches. I’ve read lots of Catholic literature, and some Evangelical literature with different slants on Catholicism. My conclusions? Well, I haven’t joined the Catholic church. But I do see them as family (I’m sure the Pope is relieved to hear this!).

So, I visited St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix recently. I thought I’d share my experience, from an orphan’s eyes.

Through the lens of my Protestant biases: Since it is “St. Mary’s”, there were an awful lot of Marys in there. Statues, paintings…it did seem to be Mary heavy, and Jesus light. There were also a lot of Francises, since this church is administered by Franciscan friars. It’s a beautiful building, which made me think of how much it cost for all the ornamentation and furnishings (and the sermon dealt specifically with inviting the poor to Jesus). The service was terrible theater — lots of long pauses, challenging acoustics, hard seats, unfocused lighting, no screens, no “normal” musical instruments. Hardly anyone acknowledged my visit (except during the “passing of the peace”).

But more to the point, right from the beginning of the service, the Word of God was central. They processed the Bible to the altar. The priest even kissed his copy of the text after reading the gospel passage in a show of veneration. The prayers and readings were thoroughly drenched in scriptural thought, especially during the set-up for the Eucharist. They read four, longer, rich passages of scripture. The message was pointed, attacking my pride, and calling me to genuine humility before God. I was led in prayer in ways that I wouldn’t have spontaneously prayed myself, which was great. I knelt. I stood. I sang. I sat in stillness.

Then, I looked at their bulletin. The ads on the back are always a bit strange to me (I guess that’s a Catholic thing…), but program announcements are compelling: a teaching article on the gospel reading, a call to those wanting a richer Monday-through-Saturday spiritual life, children’s classes, membership classes, and calls for people willing to care for the sick, work with the youth, help with the arts (!), prepare for worship, and to offer ongoing prayer support to others.

Not once during my visit was I confronted with the major points of discrepancy I have with Catholic doctrine. I was not put in a position where I was called to worship Mary. At no time did Papal authority come down on me in a negative way. Never once did the priest reference a Thomistic version of the transubstantiated host. I was never encouraged to place Biblical truth behind a man-made tradition. And in no way was I made to believe that I had to work my way to God’s favor. Instead, all was about Jesus, His headship, his presence, and His grace.

I also saw something else I don’t see very often. All kinds of people were worshiping together in this downtown gathering. Old and young, from many ethnic groups. Some seemed devout and moved, but not most. Some were obviously very poor. Some seemed totally disinterested. The great equalizer was seen in the queuing up to receive the Eucharist – all those people, regardless of who they have become, and all with different levels of mental ascent as to what was actually happening there … all streaming forward to receive Christ. What they all knew is that they needed this. And the church was there to hand them the tangible Gospel, as Jesus has told us to do. Really, simply, beautiful.

I sensed that I’m welcome here. And that this is not a dangerous place. I still don’t get everything about them, and I still have my theological questions. Like I said, I haven’t joined the Catholic church. But, I’m happy that they are a part of my family, and I think I have a lot to learn from them. We might have some insights for them, too – if we can ever get along long enough to have a nice conversation.

Thanks, St. Mary’s, for welcoming me, and inviting me to Christ.

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Posted by on September 2, 2013 in Contemporary Experiences


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