Writing Must Be a Matter of Life or Death

 

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There’s nothing like a doozy of a hyperbole to kick off a blog post…

It’s true that there are many excellent, useful, well-read blogs, books, and magazines that are decidedly not dealing with “life or death.” Rather, I’m talking about that feeling of life closing in on you, of losing hope, or wondering if you can go on another day. These struggles vary from one season of life to another.

The (few) nights I have to get dinner ready for the kids on my own sure feel like a life or death struggle in the moment. I’m never more open to a blog post with simple meal ideas or a humorous blog post about the zoo-like atmosphere of feeding small children while my own kids are sputtering milk and throwing things during dinner.

Whether or not I pray each day won’t necessarily save my life, but there are weeks when life feels like too much. I’m angry, tired, frustrated, and flat out up to here with one thing after another. My fuse is short. My mind is raging. To be blunt, the last thing I want to do is pray, and that is when I know that I need it the most.

Perhaps I pull up a prayer app on my phone, pick up a prayer book from my shelf, or see something striking from a friend on social media, and it hits me right where I’m at in the turmoil of the moment.

Writing rarely saves lives directly, unless it’s a survival book, medical literature, or addressing a serious mental health issue. More often, good writing speaks to a pain point, an area of struggle, or a weakness that continues to nag at us.

The writing I need and you need is a revelation, a great relief, and a significant step forward.

So many moments throughout the week feel like life or death struggles, and the thing that I’ve found is that I’ll only speak to those struggles if I take risks, if I dig deep into my own flaws and personal battles.

Herein is the risk of really writing. We can play about with attacks on what we are not, and there may be times when these help open our eyes. But the vast majority of the time, we need to learn how to survive and what to become.

I need to know how you handle the frustrations of failure in your work, low points of your day with the kids when you really blow your top, or how you keep your marriage together when there’s always more laundry, more dishes, and more emails from work.

How do you handle the uncertainty of moving?

How do you navigate the loneliness of visiting a new church?

How do you go on when you’ve been working on dinner all day and you burn it all to a hot, flaming crisp?

These are the moments where our faith, our spiritual disciplines, and our relationships meet the challenges of the every day. These are the moments when we’re grasping for lifelines.

We can sink or swim, and it may not be life and death, but it sure feels like our little corner of the world is crashing or falling apart for a moment.

Who will give the perspective, the next steps, and the hope that we need?

This is where our writing can step in with words of encouragement, empathy, and wisdom.

I used to think my writing was a success if lots of people read it, but I was dead wrong.

My writing is only a success if it helps people with these small or big “life or death” struggles that make up each day. Large numbers of readers are only a side benefit of helping people, ministering to them, and lifting them above what they thought would drag them down.

 

Are We Moving Toward Suffering During Advent?

Advent Candles

If I have made one big mistake as a Christian, it’s been wanting to help people from a distance rather than drawing near to them. You know, pretty much the opposite of what Jesus did.

For instance, the author of Hebrews called Jesus a high priest, which made him a mediator between God and humanity. A high priest is supposed to be among the people—all up in their business, so to speak. Despite being so close to us in the midst of our flaws and weaknesses, words like “merciful” and “empathize” are used when discussing the ministry of Jesus. Have a look:

Hebrews 2:17 (NIV)

“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

The author Hebrews goes on to say:

Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

We could summarize the ministry of Jesus like this: Find people trapped in sin and suffering, join them, and restore them to God. He is merciful and kind, empathizing with our weaknesses and then healing us. However, in order to be truly merciful and in order to fully heal us, he has to also be fully among us, present with us even when we’re at our worst.

My church has been talking a lot lately about being present with those who are suffering during Advent. In fact, our big picture mission is “to be a community of prayer that engages suffering.” I kind of hate the word “engage” because I think it sounds a little too impersonal or detached, but it captures the right direction and intention. If there was ever a time of year to think about being present among those who are suffering or in sin, Advent is the time.

Jesus came down to earth in order to be present among us, to show mercy. He wanted to fully see, hear, and understand. He wasn’t detached from suffering. And when he encountered suffering, he drew closer to the people, listened to them, and offered to help those willing to receive it.

I like the idea of helping, but it can be tough to draw near to others and to be fully present. There’s always a great excuse, whether I don’t have enough money, time, or emotional reserves.

For advent, I wanted to ask what it might look like to be present among those who are suffering and how we can help.

Perhaps today we need to begin with a simple truth that will make everything else all the more meaningful: God is present among us first and foremost. We’re not in this alone, even if we sometimes feel like it.

We could be in the midst of a dark night of the soul.

We could be distracted.

We could be traumatized.

We could lack training in awareness of God.

There are lots of reasons why we may struggle to recognize God’s presence among us, let alone experiencing the joy and freedom of God’s Kingdom that is already here.

If we don’t believe God is moving toward us first, we’ll struggle to move toward others.

What if you took 20 minutes each day this week to simply sit and acknowledge of the presence of God. Don’t ask for anything to happen. Don’t expect miracles. Just recognize that God is present. Focus on a simple word like mercy, love, kindness, present, heal, or another word that helps you focus on God’s presence.

Through Advent we recognize God’s movement toward us, but we’ll feel alone and forgotten if we don’t prepare a place for God to arrive and assure us that the mercy and empathy of Jesus, our high priest, also applies to us.

When Pastors Become Experts in the Wrong Things

Pastors experts in church

There were two precise moments in my life that drilled home the message: You, Ed Cyzewski, are not a pastor. At least, I’m not a pastor in the traditional North American Evangelical pastor sense of the word.

Here’s One Moment:

Standing at a bulletin board littered with pastoral job descriptions in my seminary cafeteria, I saw the lists of requirements for pastoral positions. I remember thinking, “No human being can do all of this. They want to hire Jesus.”

The lists were something like this:

  • Strong spiritual life with commitment to daily Bible study and prayer.
  • Supports our doctrinal statement which is based on biblical Christianity.
  • Will preach at least 40 Sundays each year.
  • Available in the evenings for committee and ministry meetings.
  • Plans Sunday services.
  • Manages staff hiring.
  • Leads church meetings.
  • Participates in elder meetings.
  • Set up and coordinate small group ministries.
  • Oversee office staff who develop website, bulletin, and other communication.
  • Available to counsel individuals.
  • Recruit, train, and lead volunteers.
  • Responsible to lead evangelistic outreach to community.
  • Ensure church has thriving ministries for children, youth, and college students.
  • Provide ministries to every possible niche in a white suburban setting, including but not limited to seniors, singles, parents, athletes, gamers, introverts, and rabbit owners.
  • Must repair or at least kick all broken office equipment, including the copier, fax machine, and wireless router.

You get the idea. The level of commitment and expertise is staggering. There are MANY areas of expertise that pastors are called to embody.

They have to be expert managers, spiritual directors, Bible scholars, communicators, evangelists, volunteer coordinators, and technical experts. Oh, and pastors are also expected to be counselors—as in, helping people with major, major life problems.

The problems pastors are called to address in a counseling setting could include teenage rebellion, childhood trauma, marital difficulties, depression, and plenty or other severe issues that they may not even realize they’re dealing with. Sometimes people walk into a pastor’s office presenting one issue, when there’s really something else simmering under the surface. Are most pastors even qualified to handle these types of counseling situations?

I attended a really great seminary for my Master of Divinity where I could have added a few counseling electives to my requirements, but let’s just say that I coasted through my one required counseling class with a B and called it a day. I was completely out of my depth in counseling situations. When I had to counsel a friend for part of my coursework, I had no idea what to tell him about his problem.

“Pray?” (I know! Right?)

The session was supposed to last twenty minutes. I made it to fifteen by ending our session with a REALLY long prayer.

The vast majority of the pastoral positions out there came with the expectation that I would teach the Bible, counsel, manage, and micro-manage at the very least. There weren’t too many places where my gifts as a creative introvert could help churches that were calling for extroverted jacks-of-all-trades.

I may have noticed this discrepancy because I grew up in a church that had a “counseling pastor” on staff. That’s literally all he did—except for the occasional Sunday when he was dragged kicking and screaming up front to preach a sermon. Another pastor was hired to handle all of the meetings and volunteer stuff. Another pastor handled all of the community networking. While every church has their issues, I really appreciated the focused nature of each pastor’s role.

The pastor who provided counseling actually had significant training and experience when it came to recognizing abusive situations, walking with people through seasons of depression, and guiding couples through difficult seasons of their marriages.

There’s a burden on pastors to do many different things well. They’re expected to be theological experts, master communicators, well-grounded counselors, and so on. This mindset is only encouraged because pastors with no formal counseling experience write books on topics like having a healthy marriage. It’s like we’ve said, “Hey, if you have enough people attending your church, take a swing at any topic you like!”

Most of us struggle to do one thing well. The exceptional can do two things well. Pastors have to do 10 things well.

And if a pastor passes someone off to another person with more expertise, people sometimes feel shortchanged. Many want the pastor to handle it.

“What are we paying this person to do, anyway?”

I’ve seen this over and over again while working and volunteering at different churches. People want the pastor to handle things—even in the areas where they don’t have experience or knowledge.

I know that pastors feel this burden. Some pastors want to be needed. They want to be essential, so they take on more things than they can handle. Others feel duty bound to take on as much as possible, lest someone send an angry email.

There’s no shame for a pastor to pass responsibilities to someone with more expertise.

There’s also a significant need for churches to scale back their expectations for pastors. A seminary can only teach so much, and much of what pastors learn in seminary is how to teach the Bible, not how to herd cats/lead a congregation.

My friend David Henson, an Episcopal minister, tweeted:

“Pastors need to remember sometimes their job is to lovingly steer folks to professional help. We walk with, not fix & solve.”

May we recognize the fits of each individual pastor and surround them with people who can help them minister effectively without burning out or having to become experts in things they know nothing about.