Fifty And Fed Up.

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Is the world today the way you thought it would be back 10 or 20 years ago?

Mine isn’t.

In some ways, that’s for the better.  I didn’t think we’d have Iphones or Alexa or Impossible burgers.  I’m surprised that there’s great strides in the treatment of HIV, and that they’ve found a vaccine for Ebola.  I am daily grateful for Netflix, and the wonderful people of my church.  Not in that order.

But yesterday, my 50th birthday, had me feeling almost despondent.  Shut down.  Not the way I wanted to feel.

I let two crises get the best of me.

Crisis #1:  Impeachment proceedings.

I’ve not been able to watch the televised proceedings, and so instead I’ve relied on a Smartnews App on my phone, which I’ve since removed.  It shows headlines from 50+ news sources, both on the left and the right, and updates every 20 minutes or so.  I’ve been spending an unhealthy amount of time–hours every day– reading headlines and articles and refreshing and checking and fact-checking and on and on and on.

It’s gotten so ugly, the fighting and smearing. Such vitriol! Such careless throwing around of “facts”.  And remember when “can’t we just get along” didn’t elicit sneers?

I started thinking about civil war.  I started wondering if that’s where we’re headed.

Crisis #2:  Denominational Mayhem.

In the United Methodist Church, everything is up for grabs.  Once again, polarization has pushed people to one of two main sides, with little help for reconciliation.  Talk has veered from compromise to separation. Despite people’s best intentions, it would take some miraculous work at the 2020 General Conference to keep us together.

Once again, this threat of civil war looms large.

So when I woke up on my 50th birthday, it was into a world I had never expected.  A world where my country and my church both threaten destruction.  Funny, I’d always thought that by the age of 50 my maturity level would have finally caught up with that of my government and my church.   HA!

I want you to know I had a lovely birthday, for the most part.   But there were a few hours there when I dropped the ball.  I dropped my hope.  I felt like giving up.

And now you’re up to date.  I’m 50 and I’m fed up.

I want to tell you about how I got all my hope back…

But I haven’t. Still working on it.

I’m definitely a quart low in the hope department.  I look around the world with my pentagenerian eyes and see so many other things that seem broken. Sometimes it’s too much.

At 50, I thought I’d be able to fix anything.  I thought I’d feel accomplished and powerful.  I thought I’d have gained some supernatural trait called wisdom that could help my world stay Civil, without the threat of War.

My comfort today is Psalm 42, one of my favorites.  When I read these words I am reminded that I am not the first to feel this way.  Somebody else has wrestled with the same thing.  The refrain about hope,  in vs. 5 & 11, invites me to make that my refrain as well.

No witty punchline today.  I just invite you to read this Psalm and remember that the struggle is real, and that God is ever with us.

Psalm 42[a][b]

For the director of music. 

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

 

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Quitting my calling for a job.

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CALLING: a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence

JOB: a regular remunerative position

(Miriam Webster’s Dictionary)

I don’t think I could tell you the difference between a crescent wrench and a tree saw, but for some reason, I have this recurring fantasy that plays in my head:

I want to manage a hardware store.

I don’t want to own it.  And I’m not talking a monstrosity like a Lowe’s or a Home Depot.  Just a nice family hardware store, decked out with handy tools and old wood floors.

There wouldn’t be that much to manage.  Mostly, I’d be the one behind the counter, making duplicate keys for people, and pointing them to aisle 5 where the duct tape is.

And a couple times a month, I’d take my medium-sized paycheck to the bank, and say hi to the woman behind the counter, Jan.  We’d smile and wave knowingly–just two hard working folks, doing their jobs.

I think the only credible job I ever held was my first one.  At the age of 15 I ran the tractor at my parent’s church in Rochester, Michigan, pushing snow out of the way.  It was good, honest work, and I was lousy at it, but I put in my time, and got my paycheck.

After that, I worked at a movie theater (free movies and popcorn), and at a library (nothing ever happened there).  Oh, there were a couple other ones, like a 4 month stint at a dysfunctional computer store, but really, I was just coasting by, until…

I found my calling.  To be a pastor.  Honestly, I had a sense of my calling since I was 5 years old and drew a picture of myself standing behind the pulpit.  My parents were both pastors, so really, the language of “call” was more common in my home than the language of “job”.

So once I was old enough, that’s where I went.  Into the ministry.  A life’s work built around serving the Kingdom of God the best that I could.  I went to lots of school (and accumulated lots of debt) and jumped into a complicated system where I didn’t even get to pick where I would serve.  Folks higher up in the denomination knew of my gifts, and (hopefully) respected my calling, and put me where I could best serve.

I’ve loved having a calling.  It’s meant a life of meaning and purpose, at least most of the time.  It’s meant being part of something bigger than myself, and guiding parishioners to discover their calling, too.

Yeah, I learned long ago that you don’t have to be a pastor to respond to a call.  Just as God spoke to Samuel out of the Ark of the Covenant, that dark night in the church, God can speak to anyone, and anyone who commits themselves to a life of discipleship is, indeed, answering the call.

And still, some weeks I’d love to give it all up, for something simpler, easier.  When church conferences loom and funerals start to stack up, and attendance is dropping despite my best efforts, I hear that siren song:

It’s the sound of chicks, penned up in the back of the store.  The sound of the bell over the front door as Jan from the bank comes in.  They need a couple keys made next door.  Simple.  Easy.

Then she asks me what I’m doing Sunday, and invites me to church. And, wouldn’t you know it, I feel that old sense of calling, leading me back to this office, and this desk, and my list of church-y things to do.  And I realize I’m right where I need to be.

Not in the church, although I’m happy here, but in God’s hands.  That’s a choice of holy, focused living that calls to us whether we’re a pastor, or a hardware store manager, or anything else.  Calling is different from a job–you can even have both at the same time.

Have you paid attention to your calling, of late?  It is Holy Spirit-given companionship and guidance,

steering you back into God’s Kingdom

in spite of all life’s Highs…

and Lowes.

 

Have a great week,

Mitch

 

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Is It Okay To Be Content?

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12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  –Philippians 4:12-13

I had one thing on my list yesterday afternoon. I had a precious 5 hours set aside to relax and be content.

And I just couldn’t do it.

There were too many big pressing issues taking up space in my brain.  Not enough professions of faith at my church this year. The future of my denomination. The constant creep of scary political times.  The busy week ahead.

Not only did I feel plagued by these issues and more, I started feeling like it would be irresponsible to push them aside.  There are, for me, some pretty serious issues on that list.  Big problems.  Disturbances in the Force.  Valid reasons for feeling discontent.

Maybe it was wrong for me to want to be content in the first place.  To take a big sigh and forget my problems for a while.  Maybe that was a mistake.

Maybe my role as a disciple is to carry my cross, shoulder my burdens, keeping my eyes on the prize of the Kingdom come.  As long as things are broken in this world, my job is to be discontent.  Or even a malcontent–fighting the man, even if that turns out to be me.

So, no bingeing on Netflix.  No Burger King Impossible Burger.  No Lazy Boy Recliner.  And NO peace of mind.

That is the dangerous path my brain was headed down.  So many Christians have chosen to live that way .  I didn’t fully rest.  I couldn’t relax.  I went to bed exhausted.

Today, I read the scripture above, from Philippians, where Paul talks about being content.  He has figured out the secret–so much so that he can feel at peace when life is producing either a bounty or a scarcity.

The key, it seems, is what gives you contentment.  Paul finds peace in good times and bad.  There is no earthly item on his list that can sway him–because his strength comes from God.  His ongoing connection with God is the most real thing in his life, and holding tightly to that allows him to be content, even when things on earth feel dicey.

I happen to know several times where Paul declares himself to be distressed, so it’s not like he’s unaffected by the problems he’s up against.  It must be that the hope and joy of a life in God simply matters more.

I wish I could go back and live those 5 hours of downtime over again.  I would have leaned on God more.  I would have rested in the sure and certain knowledge that God wants more for me than to fret without ceasing.  Perhaps praying without ceasing would have framed things better.

That kind of bingeing…

is even better than Netflix.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Athazagoraphobia

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‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’  –Exodus 33:12b

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and Ted Danson was the guest being interviewed.  He mentioned about his struggle to remember people’s names, and how he has to “load-in” the names of people he’s about to see.

My first thought was, “Wow!  I have the same problem!”

My second thought was to laugh, realizing that the theme song for his most famous television show describes a place “where everybody knows your name.”

I desperately wish I could remember the name of every person in my church.  I envy people who can do it.  I would be so much more hospitable with second time visitors.  I would greet everybody at the door by name.  I would serve communion by name.  Every phone call, every committee meeting, I’d be throwing out names, left and right.

I’m not sure why I have such a problem, but I do.  Even with people I’ve known well for half a decade, sometimes the name just escapes me.

I looked on WebMD for some help.  They listed 36 conditions that contribute to the loss of names.  Naturally, I gravitated to the more severe ones:  Stroke, Alzheimer’s, Mad Cow Disease.

Probably not.

Then I thought, maybe I just have a phobia about it.  I looked it up:  It’s called Athazagoraphobia, the fear of forgetting or being forgotten.  Kind of funny that its name is something I will NEVER be able to remember!

Maybe I do have Althazha….Athazagrapi….nevermind.  Whatever you call it, I suppose it describes me.  Scared of forgetting people by name.

There are 35 times the NIV Bible uses the phrase “by name”.  Many are census listings in Numbers or Chronicles, or conversations between God and Moses in Exodus, but in Isaiah 43, God says this to God’s people:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. –Isaiah 43:1b

God knows me.  By name.  Not just me.  Every person who walks through the doors of the church.  Every person who fears forgetting–or being forgotten. No need to fear.

That doesn’t allow me to abdicate my job to “load in” as many names as I can, but truth is, there are few places where “everybody knows your name”.  It’s just not the Norm. (Get it?) Names are tricky sometimes, slippery.  Some people are better at it than others.

But in God’s redeeming of our lives, we are known, by name.  God claims us. God knows us, and wants us to know God, too.

God is the master of name-knowing.  You and I are just apprentices.  Disciples.

So as we continue the hard work of getting to know those around us, we can rejoice that God has long been on the job.

For that, we must be eternally grateful…

So say it with me…

Cheers!

Mitch

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That Chaos Moment

ChaosLogo

 

In Exodus 14:14, Moses tells the Israelites:
“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

And, then in the very next verse,

Exodus 14:15, God tells Moses this:
“Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” 

Ladies and Gentlemen, That Chaos Moment.  The moment when communication breaks down, and vision grows fuzzy.

It’s no wonder that God and Moses got their wires crossed.  Moses said, “God’s got this.  Be still.”  God said, “I’ve got this.  Keep moving!”  For a moment there, the communication lines between God, Moses, and the Hebrews were about as shaky as it gets.

We give the Hebrews a lot of grief for being whiney and complaining but, you know, none of them had ever done this before.  Crossing the red sea?  Chariots chasing them?  This was all chaos to them.

We would probably be smart to recognize that such a moment can happen to churches, too, especially ones moving into uncharted territory.  The pastor or church leadership may have one direction in mind, the people may be impatient or uncertain, and God may be desperately trying to move the church in yet another direction.

That Chaos Moment may be necessary, and not nearly as scary as it sounds.  God’s advice is rarely wrong, of course.  We just need to heed God’s call to “keep moving”–to step boldly into the uncertain.   That doesn’t mean our Moses-types are necessarily wrong, encouraging the “stillness” of discernment.  It is, after all, a sure way to reacquire God’s signal and direction.

And as for the impatient, even complaining person in the pew?  They can be a potent reminder that the vision must be shared amongst everyone.  Of course, even the best communicated vision can fail to bring along all the stragglers, but when the core people reengage with God and church leaders, there’s no barrier that cannot be crossed over.  Or through.

That Chaos Moment can hit any church, any time, but especially the church that’s charted a course towards a spiritual unknown.   It takes faith to pass through the waters of chaos and see the dry land of the very next moment…

Here it comes…

That Liberation Moment.

Have a Great Week,

Mitch

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Worth Fighting For

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There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. –2 Samuel:18

Can you imagine a situation where the most celebrated King in Israel’s history goes to war… against his son?.  This was the crazy, almost Game Of Thrones-ish world of our ancestors of faith. This struggle between Father and son, David and Absalom, threatened the very fabric of the Kingdom.

Today we have fathers and sons facing a very different kind of battle in the church: Whether the Kingdom is even worth it.  Family members do battle about this on a weekly basis.  Other folks grew up in the church and let it slip away.  Some just find themselves otherwise preoccupied come Sunday morning.  Countless people have been hurt by the church, or are bored to tears by it, or are excluded by it, and so their connection becomes tenuous.

Those with “casual ties” to Christianity are on the verge of becoming “casualties” of it.

I was taught not to worry so much about those with such casual ties, that they’ll  never come back.  Sometimes we call them backdoor Christians, or Christians INO (In Name Only), as if they are a lost cause.  Can you imagine how many thousands — hundreds of thousands there are out there with fading interest in the Church?  They may believe in God, but not the institution.  They may be tied up in the trappings of culture.  They may come twice a year and suffer through the boredom and think that’s enough.

What should we in the Church do about these folks, many of them family?  Just let them go?  No, here’s my suggestion. hard as it might sound:

Let’s go to war.

I can’t believe I’m even writing those words!  I’m not a “war” guy.  But those men in 2 Samuel were willing to lay down their lives.  They were invested.  This was a fight for who would be King and it mattered.

Let’s go to war.  Let’s find our friends and neighbors and missing-in-action Christians and fight for them.  Our weapons will not be guilt or coercion.   Instead, we’ll wield, with fervor–an undeniable call that Christ is our King.

We’ll have to be prepared.  With excellent worship, engaging small groups, life-changing mission and earnest fellowship.  And we’ll have to listen.  To reform, to engage, to see the church beyond how we at times have poorly conceived it.  To reach out to every father and ever son, everyone, who hears the call of the Kingdom.

We have to be experiencing the same Christian life that we advertise, which means we have to examine our own casual ties to faith.

The human expression of the Church may never reach all the goals and all the people that we have been called to.  But we’ll never get anywhere if we aren’t willing to give our all on behalf of Jesus.

So, CHARGE!!!!!!!

The battle is for nothing less than to become…

a Church worth fighting for.

Have a great week,

 

Mitch

father and son in way to church

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Siren Song

loud-musicThe Song:

At noon and 6pm, music pours forth from my church.  Bells, or electric facsimiles of them, send out five minutes of tunes into the neighborhood around us.  In a closet behind the sanctuary, a cassette is timed to play through outdoor speakers.

It sounds really nice.  We have a few different tapes we can play, even a tape of Christmas tunes to play in December.  I’ve threatened to look online for one that plays Beatles tunes.

The Siren:

Perched atop our building is an elaborate speaker, pointing in all four directions.  When this sound cranks up, people go into their basements.   I suppose the sound is grating, but it could save your life.

It seems to go off at least once every spring when dangerous clouds are swirling overhead. When I hear it, I feel an instant pang in my gut, a warning that all is not well.

What sort of vibe is your church putting out?

Is your church a gentle lullaby, coaxing people in, or is it a brash trumpet, alerting all to imminent danger? Does your church present itself as a sacntuary of rest and comfort, or as a watchtower blowing the whistle on the threats we face?

Which is the right one to be?

A prophetic, siren blaring church is uniquely suited for fighting injustice, for helping the marginalized.  Members of a Siren church write letters and go on marches.  They take risks and carry the banner of Jesus Christ into a broken world.

A song church that sends music out to all who can hear is sending an invitation of peace, gentleness, maybe healing.  Inside the walls of this church is a place of comfort, of creativity, of togetherness.  Members of a Song church invite others to praise God and acknowledge each other as made in the image of God.

There are, of course, many other types of churches, but still I wonder…which of these two would you be drawn to?  Is God’s Kingdom blessed by both?

In the spring, on the first Monday of the month, something interesting happens.  The siren fires up for its monthly test at the same time  that the bells begin to play.

Let me tell you, for a couple minutes there at noon, it’s quite a racket.

But to the discerning ear…

it sounds like harmony.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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