Who am I?

I’m pretty amazed at what God does.  Especially when He does it in me….and through me.

For those who knew me as a young child, I might be remembered as the kid with the unusually large knees (I grew into them).  For those who knew me when I was a young elementary aged kid, I might be remembered as the kid who wet himself on second base during a t-ball game.  For those who knew me in middle school, I’d likely be remembered as “Farmer Varner”; the kid with the doofy “Shaggy-style” walk and the way-too-big duffle bag (I often forgot notebooks, textbooks, etc. at school,  so my parents bought me a school bag that fits everything–trumpet case included–into one bag).  For those who knew me in high school, I might be remembered as “What’s-his-name” until my junior year when I found utter joy onstage and actually graduated with a varsity letter in theater.  (Take that, quarterback Mike Zurowski!)  For those who knew me in college, I’d undoubtedly be remembered as the guy somehow dating the hottest girl on campus and actually getting away with it.

But as a 37-year-old student ministry pastor, I’ve got to admit that I’m often shushing a quiet voice whispering from the back of my mind.  A young voice that brings me back to a place of insecurity.  A place where I don’t really fit in anywhere, with anyone; a place where I’m a “little guy” tagging along, trying to keep up.

And I realize how unmanly that last paragraph makes me sound.  But if this blog is nothing else, its honest.

I wonder how many other humans, or men, or husbands, or dads, or pastors have a similar voice.  After all, when we’re not totally sure of who we are, the temptation is to be defined by what we do.  I especially struggle with this when interacting with other men who aren’t in fulltime ministry.  Men who are corporate and upward, men who are in a hands-on and rugged kind of work.  Men who are successful and lucrative.  Men who know the stats of their favorite players and are able to banter with other guys about who’s team is better.

I guess I’ve never felt quite like I fit in.  There, I said it.

I know who I am from where I am now, but there’s another me that seems to be wandering around inside who is still trying to catch up with me.  And I also know that therapists worldwide would have a hey-day with that last statement.  There’ s a couch and a prescription somewhere with my name on it, to be sure.

The implications of this to my life now are (in no particular order):

a.  I’m not great at parties.  When surrounded by more confident people, I typically clam up; at least at first.  Why?  I’m not sure.

b.  I’m tentative and cautious about emerging opportunities.  A good friend of mine (and extremely talented chap) named Kent Julian contacted me years ago to be on a team of authors he was building to write a book together.  I turned him down.  He contacted me a year or so later with a similar request/invitation for the next book.  Again, I turned him down; again for primarily financial reasons (there was an initial outset of money needed).  Did I miss a golden opportunity?  Maybe.  But I can’t tell you how many times soon after both of his invitations that I asked myself, “Should I have not missed that one?”

c.  The biggest changes I tend to make are to move the family couch from this side of the room to that one.  And while I do rearrange furniture more often than most people, I also (more or less) like to keep things tidy and familiar.  I like to have a plan, know the plan, and work the plan.  When that translates into ministry, I may (not sure if its true) tend to move slower than people would like.  I’m not dumb, I’m just moving at the pace that I process things.  I’m actually at peace with this one.  I’m totally okay with not being able to move at lightning fast speed like others seem to do.

d.  I’m still tempted to seek to please people.  I’ve gotten a lot better at this one as I’ve grown though.  I recently turned down a premarital counseling and wedding request.  Its not (just) that I didn’t want to do it, it was more that I didn’t really feel like my schedule would allow it.  If the same request had come in to a younger Jerry Varner just starting out in ministry, I would have bent over backwards to do whatever necessary to please this couple, or anyone else asking for my time and attention.  I simply put pleasing people really high on my priority list.  And every so often, I find myself wrestling with that old monkey.  One of the most freeing things I’ve learned is that if I dropped dead today, nobody in my life would.

Okay, so all that (and more) are on the psyche/intellect/emotional side of things.  I’d be remiss to not turn my attention to the spiritual facts of who I am:

God’s child (John 1:12), a disciple of Jesus (John 15:15), justified (Romans 5:1), united with the Lord and one in spirit with Him (1 Cor. 6:17), bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20), a part of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27), chosen by God (Ephesians 1:3-8), complete (Colossians 2:9-10), given direct access to the throne of God (Hebrews 4:14-16), free from condemnation (Romans 8:1-2), assured that God is working in my life (Romans 8:28), a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20), not fearful but powerful (2 Timothy 1:7), born of God and the evil one can’t even touch me (1 John 5:18)….to name just a few.

So, yeah.  Like I said, I’m pretty amazed at what God does.  Especially when He does it through me.

Aware, yes. Yet Awry.

Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief at the sinking-boat society we live in.

I know it sounds unfair and awfully judgmental, but if you know me you know that’s not who I am.  It’s just that I marvel at how educated our American society can be, and yet have no bearings on what is right.  We’re educated for the purpose of knowing things.  But to what end?

I just finished reading another article outlining a long overdue research project done by a study group.  While I always approach “research” with a skeptical eye (especially when I’m not the one who did the research), I find that again the research has served no purpose in the larger scale, but to give us a snapshot of ourselves.  Knowing statistics is utterly pointless unless learning those things steer our society in a better, more positive, more constructive, healthier direction.

Finding things out about our society is only part of the equation.  I was recently vacuuming and noticed the vacuum was giving off a high pitched sound.  I thought that the sound perhaps was the result of something wrong with the machine, so I decided to take it apart and investigate.  Sure enough, I found that the drive belt had broken and needed to be replaced.  Once I discovered the issue, I most certainly didn’t continue to use the vacuum and expect it to clean the carpet properly.  That would have been insane.  After all, it was broken.  It was not working.  It was effectively inoperable.  If research doesn’t ultimately bring repair, then what good is the research?

We’re more aware, yes.  But still awry as a society.

Suppose I could invite America to go on a cruise with me.  Suppose that during the course of our cruise, someone discovers a leak in the hull.  Would discovering that leak make us any better off?  I suppose you could argue that point; that at least we now KNOW something isn’t right.  But what we REALLY need is a welder–someone who can fix the leak.  What America seems to do is point out the leak (through research) and then go back to the lido deck for a limbo contest.

Here’s the problem.  Some people like leaks.  And for me to suggest that the leak is a sign that something is wrong is, well, judgmental.  Who am I to say that a leaky hull will lead to a sinking ship?  This is precisely what we seem to do with research in our country.  Its a finger that points out leaks and yet leaves us sinking.

Even if we could agree that we need a “welder” who can fix the leak, we then can’t agree on which one.  The most popular is the welder of education.  The idea is that if we can just get smarter about things, we’ll be just fine.  Can somebody please show me how and where that has ever worked?  I’m not saying education is a problem, but it certainly isn’t the solution some people seem to think it is.  Again…we’re aware, yet still awry.

Having research and/or statistics in hand is a good start; it can serve to show us where we are.  But the critical issue is where we’re going from where we are.   Are we aiming at peace?  Are we shooting for universal harmony?  Are we striving for a wide variety of cures?  Is it tolerance we’re after?  Are we going for a world where I’m okay, and you’re okay, and that’s okay?  To me, our societal direction is indiscernible, and what which is discernible is disconcerting to say the least.

And I’m no Eeyore.  If you know me, I’d hope that I’d rank among the cheeriest and carefree people you know.  I’m optimistic to a fault, so don’t think I’m some doomsday kind of guy either.  That’s just not me.

What I AM is I’m someone passionate about what’s true, and therefore right, and therefore should be repeated.  I have a feeling that cuts across the grain of our society, but quite frankly I’m at a point in my life where I simply don’t care about lesser things.

So, what should we do with research, statistics, and findings?  Let me suggest a few things:

1.  Test the “facts”. I recently heard the 87% of statistics are made up on the spot.  As funny as that is, I wouldn’t be surprised by it.  So, do your due diligence to find the facts…the real ones.

2. Steer away from danger.  I know it gets sticky here because as a nation, we don’t all agree with what constitutes danger.  Let me give an example.  I believe its dangerous to reject God’s teaching on marriage.  The ramifications of turning our collective backs on what God says on this issue are numerous.  We would be wise to not merely see the facts, but use them to steer ourselves into a different direction.

Suppose we were taking a trip, your family and mine.  We’re going to drive across the country.  My minivan is full of my wife and kids, so you take your own car.  We do our best to stick together, but I’ve got a heavy foot which causes me to get up ahead of you.  As I’m driving (with you a couple miles back), I come across a barricade that blocks a bridge we had planned to use as a part of our route.  So, I quickly stop, get turned around, and very soon our vehicles meet up once again.  I roll down my window, and say to you, “Don’t go that way! The bridge is out!”  Imagine you yelling back, “That’s okay, I’m going to go that way anyhow!”

Sounds crazy, right?  But it seems that no matter what piece of information we get as a nation, we continue to fly down the highway, shrugging off any and all warnings that the direction we’re headed isn’t a good one.

3.  Share the truth. We’ve got a problem here in our country.  It’s the idea that you have nothing to do with me.  Let’s go back to the bridge illustration.  Imagine that I’m up ahead of you on our trip, I come across that bridge that’s out, so I turn around heading back in your direction.  Only this time, when we meet up again, I don’t roll down the window.  I don’t even slow down.  I don’t say a word.  I don’t warn you, I don’t stop you, and I don’t share what I know with you.  How has this way of living become the norm?  How have we gotten to where you don’t matter enough to me to share the truth with you?  We have no problem sharing “The restaurant has terrible service and awful food. Don’t go there” and “That hair stylist has no business cutting anyone’s hair” and “That movie plot went nowhere.  Save your $10 for something else”, but one the bigger issues of life, we’re much slower to say, “Hey don’t go that way. The bridge is out.”  Why?  Because my business is none of your business…or so we think.

So, being aware is only one part of the equation.  Learning things and even discussing things is only a portion of what must be done.  What difference does it make in the long haul?  What are we DOING with what we’re LEARNING?  That is the issue.

Weakly Worship, Part 2

I don’t remember where I was, but I was attending a conference of some type.  Let’s say it was Milwaukee.  My wife was with me and we had the afternoon free, so we decided to stroll around a bit and we saw a huge charter bus (as if there are small ones) with a bus-length “Discover Card” graphic on the side.  There was a welcome mat kind of thing at the door, and someone standing there obviously waiting for someone like me to stroll by.  And since I can’t possibly turn down a guided tour through anything, let alone a huge luxury cruise bus, I walked right up and walked right in.

As soon as I entered the mammoth vehicle I was immediately whisked away to a land where the fridge is stocked with glass bottle Coca-Cola, where chocolates are found by the basketfuls, and where Discover card hats are free for the taking.

I made my way along the center aisle/corridor of this behemoth bus and looked through to the back of the bus and saw a dude sitting at a table.  I didn’t know the dude, but I thought, “I guess that dude is somebody.”  What gave it away was his debonair looks repeated on the stack of 8×10 inch glossies he had of himself.  Next to the glossies was a bunch of Sharpie markers; presumably so the dude could write his autograph on the glossy and give it to people like me.  This guy was set.  He had a sweet luxury bus to hang out on, he had all the Coca-Cola he could dream of, he had a stack of hats, glossies, and markers, and he even had a flat-screen tv to watch sports on (which is what he was doing when I entered the room).

Before I could even take it all in, he looked over to me as I entered, grabbed a glossy,and scribbled his autograph while asking generically, “What’s your name?” and “How you doin’ today?”  He handed me my glossy, I took a few more Cokes and hats, and I made my way back to the front of the bus.

As I stepped off the bus, I looked down at the photo in my hand.  It was a picture of a professional hockey player that looked a lot like the dude; kind of one of those “in action” photos that was probably staged, but you’re not quite sure because he’s the only one in the picture, skating aggressively on some ice.  In the lower corner of the photo, I read “To my friend, Jerry”

We can view God like that sometimes.  We come into His presence, aware of the fact that He’s got some power (like my “friend” on his bus), aware that we should probably recognize who we’re talking to, but often feeling rather distant–or even foreign–to the idea of a true “friendship” with Him, despite the fact that if we really knew who we were dealing with, we would gush with excitement, unable to contain ourselves.

And perhaps when we find that our worship of God is weak, we can often trace it to the reality that we don’t really recognize who this God is.  We don’t have any kind of discernible friendship with Him.  Imagine if that hockey player really was my friend.  Imagine if I had known exactly who he was, that we had a history, and that we had plans to hang out later that day; after the whole Discover card promo bus gig was over.  I certainly wouldn’t have approached the bus as pensively as I had.  I would have bounded on, shouting my friend’s name, confident that he was in there and that me stopping by would make his day.

Have you ever thought, “I’m going to be spending some one-on-one time with God later on.  We’ve got plans.”  When I think about a date with my wife happening sometime this week, I have a hard time concentrating on the work I have to do in front of me.  I just about want to jump up on my desk, grab the hands of the clock on the wall, and spin them around and around in an effort to bring the time of our date closer.  Do I do that with God?  Do we think about grabbing a cup of coffee with our Creator this afternoon?  Do we see Him as close friend or unfamiliar celebrity?

As you read this today, I’d pray that in your near future, you’d have an opening in your schedule that would allow you to meet up with God somewhere and spend some time with Him.  Let that meeting encourage you, refuel you, and set your soul ablaze with a passion for an intimate friendship with Him.

Weakly Worship, Part 1

Let’s be honest.  For those of us who have been around “church” and “worship services” for any amount of time, we can sometimes approach worship like a vending machine.  We seem to “enjoy” a worship service most when it has certain qualities such as a) that song/those songs I like, b) that style of music I prefer, c) a person up front that I connect to, d) a comfortable temperature in the sanctuary, e) a sermon that I find useful or funny or comforting or entertaining or (sometimes) thought-provoking or able to keep my attention, f) a seat/row/section that everyone understands is “mine”, g) not too much talk about money, h) not too convicting, i) a good volume level, j) no babies crying (“Don’t they know we have a nursery?), k) people around my seat who are friendly/likable/good singers/don’t smell bad, l) a preacher who has just enough fire, but without too much brimstone, m) clearly marked exits, n) not too many “crazies”, o) nothing that’s going to make feel uncomfortable in any way.  (I’ll save p-z for another time).

Is this the way worship services today are meant to be?  Here in America we seem to walk a tightrope balance of having nice amenities to bring people in (gifts for visiting, java-drenched atmosphere to make you comfortable, special parking spots, etc.) balanced with enough _________ and not too much __________ to ensure that they’ll return next week.

The worship service is one of the central components that create a local church’s identity.  When you invite someone to your church, one of their first questions is undoubtedly going to be “What’s the worship service like?”  And if you don’t have some good adjectives to use like “casual” or “welcoming” or “amazing music” or “friendly” or “comfortable” then you might not see them darken the door.  But has the modern worship service evolved into something it was never intended to be?  Does God have anything to say about how HE’D like to see worship services happen?

I once heard a question asked when I was in college that I don’t think I could forget if I wanted to.  A chapel speaker once asked “If the Holy Spirit left your ministry, how long would it take for you to notice?”  In other words, are we so busy planning, preparing, doing, and going that we leave  God’s Spirit entirely out of the whole equation?  As a pastor, believe me there have been times when I’ve gotten so busy doing things FOR God, that I stopped doing things WITH God.  Oh, I was doing pastoral ministry kinds of things, but God was nowhere in sight.  How messed up is that?

And I suppose a similar type of question could be asked about our worship services: “If God decided He wasn’t coming to the worship service you attend this week, would anybody notice?”  Are we so entrenched in our routine machine that we completely leave out the One who is supposed to be at the center of it all?

I have countless blogs that I’ve begun and haven’t finished.  I have learned about myself that if I don’t publish a blog post in one sitting, I’m likely not going to come back to it and complete it.  So, here’s a great stopping spot.  I’ll come back and do a “Part 2” kind of thing, but in the meantime, I’d like to invite your thoughts on what you’ve read so far.

“Take me to your worst stain.”

I don’t recall many of the details about what day it was or what time, but I was a newly married youth pastor at home  by myself; perhaps home for lunch when there was a knock at my front door.  I hadn’t learned the “pretend I’m not home” trick yet, so I opened to the door to an early-twenty, eager, bright-faced young man.  He had a small duffel bag over his shoulder and a squirt bottle in his hand.  With a proud smile and before any greetings could be exchanged, he blurted out: “Take me to your worst stain!”

I think I responded, “Hi.” and then a few seconds later, “Okay.”

I led him down into the basement where our laundry room was.  It never occured to me that in his duffel bag could be rope, or a gun, a candlestick. or a lead pipe.  Looking back, I could have been walking to my death.  Turns out,  I wasn’t.  Turns out, he really did want to know where my worst stain was.

We had copper pipes that ran along the wall of our laundry room.  They had become corroded and nasty with a nice green fuzzy funk on them.  I turned to him and said, “There it is.”  With a few quick squirts of his bottle ‘o magic whateveritwas, those copper pipes were shining like a new penny.  He turned to me and said, “This cleaner will clean absolutely anything…and watch this!” He then proceeded to unscrew the trigger nozzle top, pulled the straw out that extended to the bottom of the bottle, wrapped his mouth around one end, and wiped the straw through between his lips.  “It’s completely safe and non-toxic!”

I deliberately stalled with some chit-chat for a few minutes to see if he’d drop dead in my laundry room but no such luck.  We walked back upstairs, I bought a bottle of the concentrate that allowed me to make a billion bottles of the stuff, and he walked out the door and out of my life.

While I don’t have the faintest clue where the “worst stain” is in your life, I can absolutely guarantee that Jesus knocks at your door with the power to take it away.  He’s done everything necessary to wash away the worst mess you can possibly make.  Let Him in, give it a shot, and see if I’m not right.