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The Way That Seems Right

The Way That Seems Right

Budapest Parliament.
Image via Wikipedia

(This post is written for the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival [Road].)

The mission trip was off to a bad start. I had unwisely followed some “money saving” advice from a travel agent, which landed me in Atlanta with less than an hour to change planes, and the flights had been booked separately, so the airline had no obligation to make it work. Members of the team had come from various directions, and everyone but me–their leader–was off on the plane for Hungary while I worked the phones to rearrange my flights.

A mere nine hours later I was on a plane for Paris and then Budapest, living out the saying about a leader catching up with the people who are supposed to be following him. There was a further glitch in the plans. We had a van arranged to pick up the team in Hungary, but it would be long gone by the time I got there. I was to pick up a rental car in Debrecen, which was close to our work area, because our team would be working at two separate locations. So we arranged for me to pick it up at the airport in Budapest. I would then spend the night and drive out to the camp east of Debrecen the next day.

The travel agent was to arrange a hotel for me as well. I specified one thing–I wanted it to be in the southeastern part of the city which would be right on the road to Debrecen, and thus make it easier for me to find my way. Did I mention that I don’t like driving in unfamiliar places. I’m happy to ride the bus; driving is not a pleasure.

Well, I landed in Budapest, tired and ready to go to that hotel. I had to call back to the states to get the details. So I took the name of the hotel and found the rental car counter where I asked for directions. It turned out the hotel was on the northern side of the city, fortunately still east of the river, but nowhere near the route to Debrecen. In addition it was a luxury hotel that cost about three times what I had wanted to pay. I got a marked map along with verbal directions. I was told it was easy to get to the hotel, and I took off.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea let me say that I love Hungary. The teams I was working with stayed in Hungary and served children from the Ukraine. Our hosts there were wonderful partners in ministry. In addition, the public transportation system is great (see “bus” above!) and the roads are well marked. The problems here have much more to do with me than with where I was.

I was in a bit of doubt about a couple of turns, but then I got back on what appeared to be the right road. The way seemed right to me, right up until the moment I looked out the right window and down to the beautiful Danube. By the way, it’s a great scene, if you’re not fully focused on finding a bed.

For two hours I drove around Budapest, both using the map and asking directions. Every time I stopped to ask for directions I was surrounded by people who tried to explain. But my Hungarian vocabulary was around a couple dozen words, fortunately including left, right, and straight, and very few of the folks I met spoke English. In the end, it seemed almost an accident when I ended up in front of the hotel.

The next morning, somewhat rested, I carefully studied the map and planned my route out of the city. Do you want to guess how many wrong turns started the problem?

Exactly one.

I made one wrong turn that took me off the original route. Had I made that one turn correctly, I would have driven past the well-marked hotel entrance about ten minutes later. I was annoyed. I had already lost time on my mission, and I definitely saw no purpose in all that running around. I definitely wasn’t thankful, and I wasn’t rejoicing.

The next Sunday in the camp near Debrecen I was asked to give the message to the campers at the church service. What would I say to all those kids?

This text came to mind:

There is a way which seems right to a man,
but in the end it leads to death. — Proverbs 16:25 (WEB)

So I told the story. The kids had a great time laughing at the American teacher lost in Budapest. But they seemed to get the message. I was sure of it when I got to the Ukraine and was again asked to speak to some children, this time in a little house church. Again, the children laughed, and again they got the message. When I got back to Debrecen, nearly two weeks after the initial sermon, several of the kids came up to me and repeated the text. I’m willing to bet that there is no other sermon I’ve ever preached has been remembered by that many people two weeks later.

There’s a basic lesson in the text, of course. It’s easy to think you’re on the right road, but if you aren’t following the map, you can be headed to the other side of the river, so to speak.

But for those in ministry, there’s another lesson. There is a way that seems right in preparing sermons. Beautiful quotes, flowing language, fine rhetoric, jokes to relax the audience, serious theology. These are the things that make you look and sound more important than those who listen to you.

But sometimes, many times, in fact, it is your own experience that’s going to make the difference. It may involve getting laughed at, but where’s the problem in that?

I have to add one other note. In the Ukraine, when I used the “lost” sermon, I was invited to speak to the adults as well. I spent a good deal of time on what I would say to the adults. I had a great lesson for them. Or so it seemed to me. (There is a way that seems right, no?) When both were done, I saw the head elder of the little congregation copying some stuff down from what I’d said.

What was he copying? The illustrations on the blackboard for the children’s lesson. Nobody commented on my well-prepared sermon.

There is a way which seems right to a man,
but in the end it leads to death. — Proverbs 16:25 (WEB)


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Choosing a New Church

Choosing a New Church

No, I’m not choosing a new church. In fact, I really like my home church, First United Methodist Church in Pensacola. But today I received an e-mail from someone who asked me to share a blog post with my readers. I get few enough such e-mails that I normally at least read them, though I’m not going to link unless I feel there’s something worthwhile.

In this case, while I think the post makes some interesting points, I have a major problem with the entire approach. The post is 10 Tips for Finding a New Church Home.

The points are generally valid. I have some objection to the fact that “mission” is #9. But that is only the minor point.

My major point is that the primary thing we should consider when choosing a church congregation is how we will be able to serve through our membership in that congregation. Now all of the other points in the article may well contribute to our ability to minister. For example, if your church does not have adequate ministries for children, or if you are not challenged and convicted by the sermons, you may find it more difficult to use that congregation as a base for your own ministry.

Christianity is about serving others. When my wife and I have changed congregations, we generally ask first about the mission of the church. In fact, I have quite a “thing” about church mission statements. Most churches have one. What I’ve found in visiting churches is that if the members in general can tell you what the focus of their church is in ministry, you’ll find you have a vibrant church. If the members in general aren’t sure what they are there for, you’ll find the church is dead.

So while this list of tips for finding a new congregation includes many things that should characterize a good church, it looks much too much like the way I’d choose a grocery store.

This leads to point #10: Keep trying until it feels right. I’d suggest instead a prayerful process of selection that ends when you know you will be able to carry out your personal part of the overall mission of the body of Christ as part of that congregation.

Burned Out Pastors

Burned Out Pastors

One of my observations in both churches of which I’ve been a member and churches I’ve visited, representing several denominations, is that the actual job of the pastor is so enormous and multi-faceted that no human being could actually perform it.

That isn’t what was envisioned in the New Testament, but it has become pervasive. Responding to an article in the New York Times, Arthur Sido has some excellent comments on this point. I’d add my small quibble–I’d say “men and women” where he says “men,” but in general I just say a hearty “Amen” to his post.

What truly bothers me on this issue is the way in which we cling to stupidity in the church. There are many cases where the Bible asks us to stand against the viewpoint of our secular culture. But any business consultant could tell us that the model of church management we use isn’t going to work, and that the actual job description of a pastor is impossible to fill. Those who try are destined for much heartache.

I do see a place for the professional ministry, in the sense of people paid for full time service. But both to save their sanity, and to allow the church to accomplish its full mission, we need every member active in ministry, which those paid full time equipping the whole body.

In this case we’re running hard against both Biblical commands and common sense. I wonder why we do that!

The Biblical Basis for Mission

The Biblical Basis for Mission

Eddie Arthur has a fascinating post on language development and mission, particularly relating this question to the language development work of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

An alternative way to view mission is to start with the character and activity of God as revealed across the whole of the Scriptural narrative. The whole story of Scripture pictures a God who reaches out to humanity in creation, through his relationship with the people of Israel, through the incarnation of the Son, His death and resurrection, the sending of the Spirit and the eventual winding up of all things at the end of time. Our mission is a response to God reaching out to us: … [a quote follows in the source post]

I think this is a wonderful way to think of the Biblical basis for any activity.  We can certainly use specific texts and commands, but we will get a much better idea of what God calls us to do if we set such commands in the full story of the Bible, i.e. of God’s interaction with humanity.

Read the full post.  It’s really worthwhile.