Friday, July 20, 2007

Nine of the Fifteen Things I Think I Think

1) Why so many things? Well, we're going on vacation, so there probably won't be any new posts for at least a week, so I thought I'd give a few more things to tide you over. You know I'm all about the people.

2) And where are we going on our vacation? Um.... well, we're not all that sure. I assumed Aimee was going to call her Aunt about their place in the Galena (IL) Territory. We love their cottage and the area, and most of all, the price (FREE!) is affordable for us, especially since right now we're looking to install some carpet in the basement and buy some furniture. Free is about all we can handle. But I guess I wasn't definitive enough about when I had vacation, or something, so no phone call was made, meaning we have no plans... and little money. So where are we going? I have no idea. I'll give you a full report when we get back from... wherever.

3) Harry Potter mania? Nope, not at our house. Max wasn't even an afterthought when the first book came out, and he's really been too young to get caught up in all things HP. I'd assume at some time he'll give the series a read (they're up his alley... and we don't buy the tag by some evangelical Christians that the books make kids want to be witches. I mean, do you see any kids wanting to be hobbits or kings and queens of Narnia?) but as for our house... we could care less. I'm sure though that once my brother takes the Bar Exam next week, he'll be on Harry's trail to find out whether he lives or dies (well, that an 72 holes of golf a day). Anyhow, you won't get the HP ending here.... we'll have no idea.

4) The news that for the past couple of years a ref for the NBA has been fixing games is about the absolute worst news a NBA fan could receive right now. Of course there are only about 15 of us left anyway, but the idea that somehow games have been fixed just creates a hole in the pit of my stomach.

Which brings me to this.... gambling is stupid. I mean I've been fairly consistent on this issue since this blog began a year and half ago. I'm opposed to all forms of gambling: lottery tickets, bingo, casinos, poker, gambling machines, horses, dogs... whatever. For all the good people try to create through people's fascination with trying to come up with the big financial score (the "put it all on 13" approach to financial management) in the end it always ends up messing over everyone in involved. A paltry 4% return to the local government, a few bucks available for new beautification projects, and some jobs are more than offset by the costs of law enforcement (because where lots of money is changing hands, there will always be crooks), gambling addiction, rampant corruption, and cost of feeding into the public belief that you can get something for nothing. Since saving rates are now negative, average credit card debt is now at an all time high (an average of over $7,000 per household), and bankruptcies are climbing to depression-era levels (as the ARM refinancing miracle now must pay the piper) how much destruction does the whole "get it now/something for nothing" ethos have to wreak before municipalities do their homework, and realize that a business where the house wins 87%, is bad business?

This scandal too just reinforces the idea that sports are really all about money, which for those of us who really think they are about something else (fitness, teamwork, pushing oneself to be the best they can be, discipline, skill, gifts from God on loan to humanity, etc...), it further clouds the issue for parents as to why to get their kids involve in sports in the first place, and why we should even bother celebrating athletic prowess. Since the sums of money the players and owners are making, or losing, are paltry compared to the billions waged by countless bettors looking to make a score, one wonders if the perversion of pure sport and competition isn't really just a ruse. Anyhow, given the dollars involved, this story can only be the tip of the ice berg. Football, hockey and baseball fans (or in the case of hockey, fan, as in singular, not plural... it's just Eric Stalkamp and no one else)... you are next.

That's why, for the good of the local economy and the moral fiber of the community, when it comes to a casino coming to Lima, I say, "What happens in Vegas, should stay in Vegas." If you live in the city, give your city councilperson a call, and tell him or her that this intergovernmental agreement with the Eastern Shawnee does not make good business sense for this community. I mean, the councilmen in the two poorest wards in the city are opposed to bringing this kind of gaming to the area, and even if they can occasionally be flamboyant characters, shouldn't that be a good indicator of who will get pounded financially, spiritually, and socially with a casino? It'll be the folks who can ill-afford it the most.

First it threatens to take my town, now it threatens to destroy my favorite sport. I've had it with gambling.

End of rant.

5) We had a tragic turn of events here in Shawnee last week as two boys died in car accident at about 4am last Sunday. The boys, both sophomores at Shawnee High School, were out in the middle of the night with another buddy of theirs (who, thankfully, walked away from the accident with a few bumps and scratches), way after curfew. None of the boys in the car were old enough for a license, and it was reported that the driver was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident.

After 14 years in youth ministry, I can safely say that teens do a lot of irresponsible things. I mean, as a teen, I did a lot of irresponsible things. In a culture where males don't kill a buffalo or a lion to prove their manhood, and the passage of girls into womanhood isn't really celebrated until publicly until a wedding is thrown, it's kind become a strange right of passage to take risks in order to show how non-conformist/rebellious/grown-up you are during adolescence. Sometimes young people escape this somewhat unscathed, and other times they do not. Curiosity about on alcohol or drug use can become addictions (as seen here in this graphic public service ad paid for by the State of Montana admonishing kids not to do meth).

Dangerous physical acts can lead to crippling injury or even death. It's unbelievably tragic cause when something like what happened to these boys goes down, most of us realize that maybe not this exact scenario, but a number of other escapades we were involved in as kids, could have had the same ending. We all have memories that cause us to whisper "there but by the grace of God go I".

I know that's the case for me. I mean, I never snuck out with my parents car in the middle of the night, or done any kind of drug (a good talking to by an uncle of mine saved me from that road) but I have driven down Market Street at over 100 mph and gotten stupid in dozens of others ways that somehow, by the grace of God, I survived.

And just as easily, could also have not.

So, if a teen happens to read this, I want you to know that we get it. We understand. You want to test the limits. You want to experience liberation and freedom. You want to taste the forbidden fruit, whatever that might be, cause it looks like the ripest, tastiest, fruit on the tree. Believe it or not, the vast majority of us have been there. It's a story that, for humanity, is as old as our time here on earth. I guess you should know, though, that when we look back on it, we really don't treasure those moments as much as we wish we hadn't taken those dumb risks. I mean, don't be afraid of life... live it to the fullest. But there are so many other things that are so much more rewarding, exciting, and fulfilling that you can experience in life than breaking a few rules now.

Someday, you could tour Europe, or ride a motorcycle out west, or snorkel with your kids at a barrier reef in the Caribbean, or fly fish, or go to a fashion show in Paris, or skydive, or (a personal favorite) go barreling down a mountain on nothing but a couple pieces of fiberglass on thick powdery snow on a clear mountain day. Or you could build your own house, or sail on the ocean, or fly a plane, or fall head over heals in love.

Or you could bring hope to impoverished peoples in Haiti, or Liberia, or Bangledesh by drilling a well or building a school or just by holding orphaned toddlers who just want to play. Or you could sing praises to God with thousands of other people, as you get goosebumps on the back of your neck.

Just give it time.... I'm telling you, there are so many other things so much richer and exciting than the silly risks you take as a teen.

And as for the Dick and Blosser families, you are in my, and our church's prayers. And there's no judgment here... just a man whispering "there but by the grace of God, go I". RIP, boys.

6) "Sicko" has finally come to Lima, and I'm hoping to catch a show before we head out of town. Despite all the grandstanding, I've been a Michael Moore fan since the "Roger and Me" days. I guess being a somewhat radical guy, who too watched his own midwestern hometown struggle in the eighties as heavy industry went into decline, that I could easily root for a guy trying to chase down the chairman of an automobile company that was largely mismanaged. I also thought Moore was onto something when he talked in "Bowling for Columbine" about how fear is used in this country to turn us against one another, and believe his work in "The Big One", where he takes on Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, pretty much ended up changing the way that company did business (for the better). I never saw Fahrenheit 9/11 (for whatever reason), but I've a sense Moore is again really onto something by taking on the health insurance industry.

I know our insurance is awful. The church pays almost $19,000 a year for health insurance for my family that inadequately covers anything. The third-party payer system we have now is atrocious. Patients hate it because you always walk away with a huge bill when you get sick, no matter how much you pay each month in premiums. Doctors hate it because they never know if the insurance company will pay for the procedure or medicine they are proscribing. And it creates ludicrous situations like this one:

It's unfortunately that folks have to be publicly humiliated to get Congress to move on taking what we have now, and kicking it out the door, but really, the money being thrown around Washington is just so ridiculous, that movement won't happen any other way. This system of private third-party payer insurance needs to go... and yes, I'd take socialized medicine.

And before you get on me about"well, aren't you afraid the government will screw up the health care system?", let me tell you, I'd gladly give up my private health insurance in exchange for government control. Let me tell you a story....

7) When Max was three, he broke his arm. He was playing with a friend, and he fell down and broke his arm. It was bending strange ways in places that shouldn't bend, so Aimee rushed him to the hospital. The break was clean. Both bones, just above the growth plate in his left arm. The doc, an orthopedic surgeon, told us he needed to take Max into surgery to successfully set the bone. We didn't ask any questions. We just admitted him to the hospital, and told the doc to do what he needed to do to make Max's arm right.

Well, I'm happy to say that Max's arm has healed good and strong. And while other friends of ours facing similar breaks were given advice by their doc that surgery wouldn't be necessary to set their kid's arms, they've encountered multiple successive breaks in the same place, while Max keeps chugging along.

However, our insurance provider at the time, Anthem, who simply managed our "self-managed" care in the North Indiana Annual Conference, refused to cover the surgery, or anything connected to the surgery, including the doc's bills and the charges from the hospital. Meanwhile, why we fought with our provider, the hospital, Goshen Hospital if you are curious, refused to wait while we appealed our case, and turned our bills over to a collection agency. In order to avoid that which can happen to you and your credit if default on a debt, and not really being able to afford a lawyer, we signed up for a credit card, and charged the $16,000 bill, which made our already tenuous consumer debt situation, much, much worse. Ultimately, the insurance company denied us, and we ended up taking years to get out from underneath that debt.

I guess it could be argued that Max received the care he needed, the time, energy, and then the money (plus interest) we ended up paying was enough to convince me that this system is broken. That the best orthopedic surgeon in our community (Dr. Kournikavic) could be told that his diagnosis was wrong by some administrator, and now five years later, Max's arm is fine, is proof enough to me that it's time for things to change.

Well, that and the fight I had to have with our insurance provider in Illinois to convince them that there really was an OB/GYN in Bloomington-Normal Indiana (a metro are of 140,000 people, home of State Farm Insurance and two universities among other things) that could do the job of taking care of Aimee and delivering Max... as opposed to them demanding that we drive to Peoria, which was an hour away. But that's another story....

It's time for something else.

8) Xavier finished "Safety City" this week, which is a local educational program that years ago use to teach kids when it was safe to cross the street, and to not take candy from strangers.

But, oh how the times change.

This week, Xavier and his five year old classmates were taught self-defense moves by the Officer Dave and his staff. This new program, called R.A.D. Kids, is based on the premise that predators a) make sure that abducted kids don't ever come home and b) that the more commotion a child makes during an abduction will deter a predator, who really is looking for something easy and no jail time. So, for an entire week, Xavier learned how to peck at someones eyes, kick them in the shins, and hitting them in unmentionable areas as a means of just stunning an adult long enough so that he could run away (stun, and run).

Which got me thinking... as a Christian, how does this fit in with the idea of "turning the other cheek"?

Well, I had kind of a new revelation, for me, about this. When Jesus makes this pronouncement, he's talking specifically about the relationship between a roman soldier and a Jew. And while lots of commentators have had lot of takes on what he meant when he called us to carry the load a second mile and to turn the other cheek, there appears, at least, to be an implication that Jesus disdains violence as a means of overthrowing authority. That the grip of power can be more effectively loosened in other ways, while violence itself as a means to an end politically, socially, and spiritually destroys the soul.

But Jesus isn't talking about illegitimate forms of power in this scenario... only a legitimate form (i.e. The Roman Empire). While Christ himself does submit himself to bankrupt religious authorities by taking the cross and the grave, I'm not seeing anywhere in this text that a human should debase themselves by assuming less than human status by allowing someone to beat them for absolutely no good reason. While the Apostles, for example, follow Jesus' lead by taking great abuse for the purpose of spreading a message of love, it's only as a means of exposing the ludicrousness of religious and political authority used as a means of repressing Christ's message, which isn't that of a violent demagogue.

Christ called us to treat others as if they were valued members of the community, of our family, even if they had traditionally been our enemy. He never called us to be whipping boys or girls for perverted, sick lunatics who simply want to hurt people for their own pleasure. We are called to lay down our lives for our friends, but we are not called to non-violence as a unilateral course of action. We should preserve life, especially our own, even if it takes the use of force. This is different than using defenselessness to further the Kingdom.. in that case, we make a choice to say that death has no power over us, and what we believe, and thus choose to live that choice out. That doesn't mandate us biblically to allow ourselves to be beaten like punching bags just for someone else's sick pleasure.

Thus, my son is not less Christian if he pokes out the eye of someone trying to take him to do him harm, or even take his life. Rather, he is treating his own life with dignity, given as a gift by God for him to use for his glory. I'm sure my pacifist or Mennonite friends would debate this, and maybe it does open a Pandora's box to other kinds of violence.... but I still think I'm right. Use of force as a means of preserving one's health and life can't be considered a sin. I just think it takes the "turn other cheek" teaching much too far.

Yeah... I know. But I can't help it. That's the stuff I think about.

9) 15 things? I must have been nuts. So how about this... I'll give you six more tomorrow before we leave. We'll see you then.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think

A Quick Note: Most of today's post was written before I learned of the deaths of the two high school students from Shawnee High School. As a matter of fact, despite the time of accident, which was at about 4am this morning, word didn't arrive to me until late this evening. Wish we had known this morning, or we would have lifted up the boys and their families in prayer during the worship service. This is obviously a very difficult time for the community, and I don't want to minimize the weight and gravity of the situation. I have offered the church, it's staff, and whatever resources we possess to the school system, and encourage everyone to pray for the Blosser and Dick families. If you would, please take time and pray for them.

1) Coolest thing to happen to me in awhile: Tonight at Max's swim team banquet, it was revealed that at Championships this weekend, Max's 100 Meter Medley Relay set a new team record, eclipsing the old team record by 8 seconds. Now, his name and the names of his three relay mates will go up on the Meter Record Board (there's a different record board for pools that are 25 yards, and not meters... which includes ours) affixed to the side of the clubhouse. As soon as the names are up, you can bet there will be a picture up on this website. Guaranteed.

2) Biggest Challenge Right Now: Just taking on a million things at once at church. Joseph once told me that when a church is small, managing it is a lot like playing checkers. You just pick the most advantageous move, and then wait to see what happens before you make another. Then he said that when a church grows, what happens is that managing it becomes more like chess. You have to think how making a move that effect other people, staff, or programs in a congregation. But then after awhile, if growth continues, what happens is that you have to make multiple decisions/moves all at the same time, because that is what is demanded as the complexity of the situation heightens. Shawnee is a church that is beyond chess. Youth ministry, adult discipleship, growing the children's programing, finance planning, home visits, a growing list of that which must be replaced or repaired, worship planning demands, staff issues, volunteer recruitment, and much more all present challenges that need to be addressed, now. So the questions becomes, how do you start making multiple moves, or what few things do you choose to move first, while putting off the others just a little bit longer? That friends, is what I'm trying to figure out, right now, and the clock is ticking.

3) The Thing That Happened to Me I Didn't Really Know How To Handle: In the first service today, for whatever reason, a small group of quasi-charismatics ended up in our church today. Can't say as I've been "Amen-ed" as much in my life as I was in today's service. Quite frankly, I'm not sure what to do with charismatics, I may have to give Kent Reynolds (the resident "Holy Spirit" guy from my Beeson class) a call for some advice. Can't say a guy who has described himself as "a long-haired, hippy, liberal, United Methodist pastor" has ever been identified as being "filled with the Spirit". Filled with fried chicken, maybe, but not filled with the Spirit.

4) Best Backhanded Compliment I've Had In the Last Two Months: A member of the congregation stopped me last week to let me know that the first half of last week's sermon kind of lost her, and apparently those around here. Never, I was told, were so many people check their bulletin, their cell phones, purses, or staring off into space as they were last week. "But the second half of that sermon, Bryan, was something we had to hear. You really nailed it there."

Gotta love a little bit of honesty.

5) Best Unintentionally Funny Conversation I've Had In the Past Couple of Weeks: Was out and about, filling up the motorcycle (only four gallons, to take me another 200 miles... YEAH!) when someone, who apparently recognized me, grabbed me to say "hello"

"Wow it's great to see you. How long has it been? We sure do miss you at the church."

"Um... (me trying to place the face, but just can't)... a long time."

"So", they asked, "what church are you serving now?"

"Shawnee" I replied.

"United Methodist?"

"Yeah. That'd be the one."

"Wow! That's great! How long have you been back?"

"Three years."

(Pause, and then laughter) "I guess it's been longer than I thought since I've been to church."

How can you make this stuff up?

6) "A Statement I Just Kind Of Threw Out There That's About To Bite Me In the Keester": Happened to mention in church, sometime over the past few weeks, that one of the things I'd like to do this summer is to camp out with the boys in our backyard, but that I'd need to find a tent or something before that could happen. Well, I pretty much forgot those words as soon as I said them, right up to this morning when Sue Dickerson invited me over to her house to pick out one of her tents that I could use for the big excursion. Now it appears that I will, very, very soon, will be sleeping on the cold ground, which is fine. But I fear that I'll also have to navigate where Lucy's dog piles are in the pitch black back yard at 2:30am when Elijah, who will insist that he has to be with all the guys, wakes up in a panic not knowing where he is, and (Heaven Forbid) where his mother is. Better pick up a "Super Duper Pooper Scooper", pronto. That, and be more careful about what I say. Next time, I say camping, but instead of the word "tent" use "luxury cabin alone with my wife" instead.

7) Thing That If You Missed It You Shouldn't Have: If you live in the Shawnee area, have elementary age or young kids, and haven't been to one our Family Fun Nights, mark August 10th on your calendar cause you won't want to miss the next to last one of the summer (we'll do the annual "Sea of Galilee Party", where kids, among other things, will get to fish over as Sims' pond). Every one of these events has been fantastic. They're real laid back, have lots of stuff for kids to do, always feature activities for parents and kids together, and make available free eats. It is, without a doubt, the best kept secret in the township (although given the increase in the number of people from the first to the second event, maybe the word is out). My boys didn't want to leave, and believe me when I say that they are not ones to want to hang around the church for long periods of time, cause too often in their minds, that's what they have to do. Just a great, great time for all!

8) Thing That Made Me Scratch My Head Today: After a post-worship lunch, Aimee and I left our angels with my folks, and headed over to a local carpet store. Our basement, mercifully, is almost done, but before we're finished, we'll need to carpet the basement, as the old stuff wasn't savable because we tore down some interior walls to make it more open and bigger. We had already received one quote, which included $7.00 per square yard for labor, and $.50 per square yard for 8lb. padding. At the establishment we stopped at today, though, the labor was only $4.69 a yard - which sounded great! Considering the carpet we liked was marked down, we figured we had a winner... right up to the moment we asked about the cost of the padding.

"$3.99 per square yard for 8 lb. padding, which is the industry standard."

Apparently, there isn't a rule of thumb on this kind of thing. Maybe I'll just paint the floor, and buy a lot of pillows.

9) Trade That Needs To Happen Soon: The "Drew-Gooden-for-Mike-Bibby" rumors appear to be heating up, and say, "Make that trade yesterday if you can Danny Ferry!!!" The Cavs were one point-guard away from actually matching up well with the Spurs. If the Cavs had made this trade back in February, when it was first rumored, you can bet that Bibby would have eaten Tony Parker's lunch, and that wedding in France to the Desperate Housewives actress wouldn't have been nearly as festive. A starting line up of Bibby, LeBron, Big Z, Pavlovic, and Gooden, (because Larry Hughes was the player the Kings wanted at the time), with Varejao, Marshall, Gibson, and Brown coming off of the bench would have been a lot more interesting and turned the four game laugher into a real series.

Now, by parting with Gooden, they'll need to resign Varejao and Pavlovic, buy out Damon Jones' contract (the guy who is the self-proclaimed "world's greatest shooter"... after the buyout, he'll be able to add "playing in Turkey" to that title), and "Allen Houston" Larry Hughes so they can sign another scorer, and then let Scott Pollard and Ira Newble's contracts run out so they can bring in some vets to bang down on the boards. Gotta pull out all the stops before LeBron leaves Cleveland in two years for New York or LA, where he can become the "Global Icon" he desires to be. For the first time since Wayne Embry ripped out the hearts of Cavs fans everywhere by trading Dayton native and Miami alum, Ron Harper, for Danny Ferry, the future really is now.

Hey Danny, I believe your time has finally arrived!!!!!!

10) Most Popular Post of the Past Five Months: Want to know which of my posts, over the past four or five months, has been the most popular the day of, and after it was posted? Well, if you guessed my post on "Clergy and Retiree Health Insurance" amazingly enough, you'd be correct. Close to a couple hundred people in just a couple of days stopped by to check out that post (with a large number of those coming from the denominational board offices in Nashville and New York) which my friend Paul described as a post that would only succeed in "scaring people away".

Shows what he knows. Better stick with writing sermons and revitalizing churches, buster. Leave the important stuff - like blog topics - to the pros.

Anyhow, if that blog could obviously get passed around, and people would actually read it, then how hot a topic is health care right now? Presidential hopefuls (because there is so many of them that read this blog), you'd be crazy not to take this issue on right now. It is your ticket to victory.

Friday, July 13, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

Today, my wife is at an overcrowded swim and tennis club here in Beantown, sitting around all day to watch Max swim in two events. Tomorrow, I get my turn to do the same, except Max will swim three events and I'll probably be timing instead of sitting. But otherwise, it's going to be long day.

There are probably more efficient ways to do the WOAL Championships than crowding hundreds of swimmers, and that many more parents, family members, friends, and volunteers into cramped quarters for two full days. Why they can't do two age groups each (8&under & 9-10, 11-12 and 13-14, and then all the old kids) at the three clubs here in Lima (Sherwood, Westside, and Shawnee CC) is beyond me. You could get the whole thing done in a day, and probably half a day at that.

But, for whatever reason, humans often like, maybe even need, to be inconvenienced in overcrowded quarters with too many people per square foot. Or as I'd like to call it, "An Inconvenient Truth" (ha ha). I say this cause every time I time tell someone older than I am that we'll be at Championships this weekend, they groan, talk about how long and hot they are, express how thankful that they don't have to do it anymore, but always end the conversation talking about how much fun the kids, and they, had. It's like a right-of-passage for middle class parents in this community.

Speaking of Al Gore, could there have been any less excitement around the Live Earth concerts to raise awareness about global warming... which just brings to mind the scene of Madonna screaming out "Change your ways before the ice caps melt", right before she sings "Material Girl", or Kanye West launching into a diatribe about how global warming is destroying the earth right before he does "Golddigger". I mean, Jackson Browne doing a "No Nukes" benefit, or Willie Nelson doing Farm Aid made sense. Both guys write a lot of serious songs, and put time and energy into the causes they believe in, so the concerts they did, or do, just kind of come out of their own conviction. But you kind of lose something when the awareness for the cause is left in the hands of UB40. Can't say as I can remember an environmental message in "Red Red Wine" or "Smoke It".

And I wonder if when Xzhibit came out on stage, he started by saying, "This is X to the Z, Xzhibit, and I'm bout to Pimp Your Climate".

But, I suppose that doing something is better than nothing. It's just maybe all those artists could have done something a little more practical, like committing to using tour buses that run on bio diesel.

But I digress....

Humans like, on occasion to be inconvenienced, especially if they are gathering in some sort of tribal fashion, where people and achievements are celebrated. I remember as a college student, squeezing into a corner booth packed with my friends, talking, congregating, laughing, singing ("Piano Man", most any Steve Miller song, and "Wheel In the Sky" being our favorites), and just generally enjoying one another's company. To give you some idea as to how powerful these experiences can be, last May on the evening before my Clergy Session in Columbus, I gathered with two old college chums - Wayno and Steph - and all anyone had to do was mention those "old days", and smiles burst wide on all faces. Sure there were the tales that come from misspent youth, but the real depth of the experience was in the time spent together and it made no difference if there were twice as many people in that tight, cramped space than I'm sure the fire marshal would have allowed. The point was the celebration of relationship, and the grip that need, and the memories of that need being fulfilled, have on us (which in our case, was underscored that night when we realized that that those days we had together occurred before our waitress was born... nothing like getting old).

As I think about this, I am reminded of my favorite Thanksgiving, ever. It occurred in my last year at Shawnee when Aimee and I lived next door to the church in the since demolished parsonage (which we semi-affectionately nicknamed "The Shack"). I don't know what possessed us that year to invite both our families (27 people in all) to our tiny home for Thanksgiving dinner. We had no business, really, even thinking we could shoehorn all those people into our house. But that day, I remember, was filled with card games, laughter, football, a group of guys washing dishes using an industrial dishwasher my brother-in-law fixed with a matchbook and a shoe (cause secretly, he's MacGuyver), and a lot of people having a great time. The space, or lack there of, and inconvenience, didn't really seem to matter that day. And when we tried to do the same thing at our church in Toledo next Thanksgiving - where we had tons of space and a state of the art everything at our disposal - it wasn't a quarter of meaningful or fun. It was as if it was a bigger deal when we had crawl over ten people to wait in line to use the only bathroom in the house.

All that to say this: This need to gather, reconnect, and celebrate is, I believe, innate to us all. Hence the need for real, authentic, corporate worship where people not only enjoy one another, but complete the circle by also basking in the presence of God's grace and love. Sure, it's a pain getting up early, or taking time out of your schedule on a Saturday night. Sure, Sunday might be the only morning you get to sleep in, and who wants to spoil that by having to force three boys from a Pokemon re-run and into dress clothes. But spiritually, people need this kind of interaction. They need to make the sacrifice of personal space and time, and remember again what it is that makes being human great: the time we get be together and with the Lord. And like everything, the more crowded worship is, in most cases, the more memorable and fun we remember it. That's why I treasure those packed out Candlelight Services at Trinity I went to as a kid, the old Youth Sundays in the sanctuary at Shawnee, and worship in packed Life Center on the third night of CVC. Just to be with so many others, all ready to worship, even though its too hot, or too crowded, or maybe a fire hazard, impacts the soul.

Throw in that the world gets changed in the process through our collective prayer, effort, and giving... and you get a great experience.

So anyhow, I hope to catch you at church this Sunday, wherever you are, crammed into a pew between the guy who sings "How Great Thou Art" too loud and off key and the woman who thinks your kid is the most adorable child, EVER! And may you, over time, build memories and a fondness for them, as you are yoked together by the Spirit of the Living God, who calls us in humility, to mutual serve and enjoy one another....

Remember that on Sunday, while you thank God that you survived those days of misspent youth, so you could enjoy the gift of this moment.

And as for the WOAL Championships... well, I say, leave 'em alone, so we can participate in the fun now, and thank heavens later that they are but a (mostly) pleasant memory, that someday will make us groan and smile.

P.S. Just as I was making this post, the wife called to let me know that Max's 100 Meter Medley Relay just won a silver medal, and ended the phone call with, "I am having a great time out here today!" And she made the phone call using a cell phone of friends of ours from church she's been hanging out with all day. Couldn't have been more appropriate, or timely.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What the United Methodist Church can learn from Dana

If you didn't hear, Dana reached an agreement with it's union that the company would drop 800 million dollars into a trust fund that the UAW will manage for it's retirees health care. Widely praised, with caution, by all the experts as a means of limiting the company's long-term financial liability, pending all things stay even after the next election and the health insurance situation in this country remains the same, long-term Dana is getting a bargain...

and the UAW has got to feel a little bit queezy, wondering if the money will hold out.

I imagine that all of the other major heavy industry will follow Dana's lead, which was only made possible by the company entering bankruptcy a couple of years ago. Bankruptcy enabled the company to reorganize its pension and health obligations, which long term, threaten to sink it. One imagines that this will not be necessary for say, Ford, because current employees and retirees are already very nervous that corporations like it (which are getting hammered in the marketplace by Asian imports) are already fighting for their survival. The prospect of having no retirement benefits (but that guaranteed by the federal entity that insures pensions) has made unions more than willing to step up and look for creative solutions to these issues.

I hope the United Methodist Church is taking notes.

This year at Annual Conference, we learned that a little more than $10 million dollars was apportioned out to congregations for 2006. Of that $10 million, about $8.2 million actually ended up getting paid. 82% is actually considered, in our conference, a pretty good payment year. Most years we're in the high to mid 70's. In 2006, a strange of confluence of events - no rise in health insurance premiums (because we had just switched self-managed care providers) and no rise in conference apportionments (because of a recent consolidation of the number of districts from 14 to 8) - enabled churches to get caught up on conference expenses. With a rise in apportionments and the hike the health insurance provider gave us for this year, I'm not anticipating a rising percentage of payment to be a long-term trend.

Anyhow, of the $8.2 million paid, $5.4 million was used for retiree health and pension benefits. Couple that with the most ridiculously high health insurance premiums anywhere (thanks mostly to the high number of retired clergy we're carrying on our plan) - $18,700 for a family plan (yeah, you read that correctly, 18 grand plus for insurance that you can count on not covering hundreds, or even thousands, each and every year) - and you have a conference sinking under its health and pension obligations.

Mostly, health.

No one has ever said this, but I suspect that what really exacerbates this situation is that while the retirees have been promised free health insurance for life (although, I think now they pay a small portion of their insurance, on some sort of sliding scale), is that UM-clergy have a small window of opportunity (a couple of years just after ordination) where they can opt out of social security. I'm sure thirty or forty years ago, this probably didn't sound like such a bad idea. Financial managers were visited, charts and graphs were consulted, and the return on 15.3% of your income, wisely invested, probably looked like a boon to young preachers whose pre-1982 pension program wasn't all that great.

Only problem is that if you opt out of Social Security, you opt out of Medicare. It'd be interesting, then, to see how many retirees we're carrying not with a Medicare supplement (which is incredibly affordable), but with full coverage. My guess is that it wouldn't take too many of these folks to make a bad situation, worse.

Of course, there is no entity in the UMC that can drop millions and millions of dollars with, say, the General Board of Pensions, to create a trust to cover our retirees. And given the power the retirees have at our Annual Conference meetings (because there are just so many of them), nothing short of bankruptcy would enable this kind of arrangement to be made. But when 2 out of 3 conference dollars just go straight into entitlement spending, and health insurance is climbing so quickly, that in the near future you can see churches paying as much for the insurance as they are the base salary of a pastor, something has to give. After very little thought, here are some half-baked suggestions (mostly unrelated) as to how to alleviate this issue:

  • Allow The West Ohio Annual Conference to go broke: (Right now the Bishop is reading this, and already amassing the file that will de-frock me) Ok, I know many of you think I've lost my mind, but here's the thing - we are already robbing "Peter to pay Paul" to keep this crazy system we have going. For example, all DS expenses that used to be paid for out of Columbus, have been passed to the Districts (which levy their own apportionment, which I suspect will, after this reorganization, begin rising faster than conference expenses). We offloaded life insurance premiums that used to be paid for out of Columbus, onto the local church. We provide no travel reimbursements for any conference meetings. We require churches to buy a Conference Journal, when only a short time ago, one copy was sent gratis to each church. The net result is that the service and utility the conference office continues to decline, while almost yearly, local churches have to pick up additional expenses, plus rising apportionments, just so we can keep a balanced conference budget. By allowing the conference to go broke, this would force either the Conference Finance and Administration (CFA) committee or a federal bankruptcy court, to make changes in our cost structure that, right now, would get the bishop decapitated (see, I got your back, boss!). Why force the Bishop to make radical changes in structure that every special interest in our conference will fight tooth and nail, and end up subverting anyway? Let us begin dealing with reality, strategizing how to start getting out of this mess as opposed to simply relying on praying for some miracle to save us or hanging our hat on a massive comeback on the part of our denomination. I mean, it's not that I don't trust God, but do you know how many church buildings in the world are being used for some other purpose. Apparently, God will allow institutions to wind down, and die, even if they don't want to. So let's take that as our cue, and make real changes, now.

  • Phase Out Subsidized Health Care for Future Retirees: Considering that our conference treasurer has been modeling how business in West Ohio is conducted as based on the model in North Indiana, I would assume this is coming. North Indiana did this back in 1999, phasing out free, and then subsidized care, so that as of 2004, when you retired from the conference, you could expect to pay for your own Medicare supplement/health insurance. Given the differences in the pre-1982 pension, and the one we have now which, if managed properly (and the Board of Pensions does a great job), is far superior, this doesn't seem unreasonable.

  • Require 100% Health Plan participation from all West Ohio Annual Conference Elders: State law in Indiana requires that if you offered health insurance by your employer, you have to take it. The upshot of this for clergy in North Indiana is that instead of those who have a spouse being able to opt out of the insurance program, that they had to remain in, if only on a single policy. This not only makes the pool of people in the plan larger, in minimizes the effect of "adverse selection", as most of the folks who have opted out are more able-bodied than the mass of retirees currently on the plan.

  • Provide a yearly financial allotment to retirees, and let them shop for their own Medicare supplement: After Dick Lyndon passed away unexpectedly during my last year of service at Goshen First, our DS, in all of his wisdom, appointed an interim senior pastor, who supposedly was to fill that role until the new senior pastor arrived on "moving day" in mid-June (which, after having lived through the experience, in our case, was an example of poor stewardship on the DS's part... but that's another post). The guy they sent, Norm, while not necessarily the world's greatest interim pastor, is a great guy. After Norm retired as an Elder, he took a job working as a security guard at the auction house in Shipshewana. Because at the time, free or subsidized health care for retirees had been phased out, Norm had the option of either purchasing a Medicare suppliment plan from the conference, or finding his own. And what he discovered was that he could buy a plan that not only served him better, but was more cost effective. My thinking is we let every retiree be provided health insurance this option, and then simply deposit the equivalent of what we would have spent on our own plan, into a Section 125 account set up by the conference, that the retiree could use to buy their own coverage. The amount could then be raised yearly, based upon the cost-of-living index. This too would eliminate costs for those who have no Medicare who we are covering at 100%. While that sounds heartless, as they probably would lose their coverage, our conference staff could work with these people to find ways to work with the state and federal government to find new coverage, probably under Medicade... and they would also serve as a cautionary tale as to what could happen to you if you opted out of Social Security.

  • Require churches who hire retired UM-pastors to pick up the cost of their health insurance: This just resulted in ten nasty emails. But hey, let's look at the facts. Right now, you have every incentive in the world to retire as a long-term UM-pastor at 65. Your Medicare supplement is heavily subsidized by the conference. You can draw on your pension and your social security, while still pulling down a small salary from a church. And you are no longer itinerant. On the surface, too, it appears to be cost-effective for a church to hire these pastors, because they don't have to provide housing, pay pension costs, or health insurance premiums. But, fact is, the cost for health care is just being passed on either through ridiculously high premium payments, conference cost-unloading, rising apportionments, and an increasing percentage of conference apportionments going to health care costs. Let this cost be factored in when a person is hired.

  • Tie conference apportionment increase/decrease to local church financial performance: Look, right now, outside of the chance that the budget will be voted down, or more likely just modified, at Annual Conference, the strategy the conference is using to determine apportionments isn't tied with the local church's fiscal health. The only response a church has to rising apportionments is just not paying them, of which the only consequence right now the conference can levy, is moving the pastor or removing his/her credentials. Tie apportionments to local church revenue. Make it a flat percentage (I'd suggest 8-11%) of either general fund giving, or total general fund expenditures. That way, when a church does well, so does the conference, and vice-versa. The balance of the conference's energy is already moving toward helping local congregations and planting new churches anyway, this just cements the balance moving toward the local church.

  • Freeze all conference expenditures on new church starts, mergers, or church re-starts not derived from either the sale of property or gifts designated for the purpose, for ten years, while giving apportionment breaks to local churches that either start multiple sites or a new church: More nasty emails. I can see people freaking out at this suggestion too. But if you check the Discipline, guess whose responsibility it is for planting new churches? If you said the "Bishop" or the "Conference Office New Church Development", you would be incorrect. The District Superintendent is responsible for new church starts. What's more, the chance of a new church/new site plant succeeding if a local church does it instead of the conference is so much better, it'd blow your mind. This would enable us re-focus conference staff, give short-term incentives for local churches to be entrepreneurial in creating new venues and congregations, and most likely grow apportionment giving faster, over the long term, as local church revenues grow.

  • Ask the Lilly Foundation, in conjunction with Eli Lilly, to set up the same kind of fund for retiree health costs with the Board of Pensions, as Dana did with the UAW: We're talking about millions of dollars, which quite frankly, we as a denomination, don't have. Eli Lilly and the Lilly Foundation, though, do. So instead of providing cash for all sorts of things, like clergy sabbaticals and the like, which the Lilly Foundation provides now, instead, why not make a 5-10 year arrangement with this company, which has a long history with the UMC, to take on creating the same kind of trust Dana provided to the UAW, for our retirees? I mean, what greater gift, by golly, could the foundation give a mainline denomination for the cause of Jesus Christ, than the gift of lifting these expenses off our shoulders, long term? And I'm sure, someone would derive not only good PR for the gesture, but a sizable tax deduction. Somebody call the Council of Bishops, cause this might be the only decent idea I've had today.
Anyhow, that's what I'm thinking about today. Aren't you sorry you asked? I'll try to write something funny or spiritual later in the week.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) If you hadn't heard, the Buchers are expecting their fourth child. We found out a couple of weeks ago. Needless to say, it's a bit of a shock. I can't say that we had ever planned on having another child, but then again, we knew that at this point it was a possibility (we know how these things happen). I'm coping with the idea that the youngest child in my home won't be a graduate from high school until I'm 57 years old. And as for Aimee... well, I think this having the greatest impact on her. It's pretty much shaken up her plans for the future, and the immediate present. We're just both feeling more than a little overwhelmed... but blessed. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for a little girl, but as always, around here the top of the checklist is "healthy and happy". Anyhow, we'll see if we still have our sanity as we embark this year in our new home, me in a new job, Eli in the throws of "Terrible Two-dom" (he's got it worse than either of the other two boys ever did), and prepare for another trip down "Newborn Lane".

And consider this your warning: Make twins jokes around us, and Aimee will take you out at the knees. Seriously!

2) This next week is going to be a bear. I've got my first SPRC meeting Monday night, my first Finance Committee meeting Thursday night, our last dual swim meet Tuesday (against Westside, Sherwood's bitter rival.... they are to us what Michigan is to our Ohio State. Or more appropriately, they're more like Florida in that they've been beating Sherwood like a rented mule for a number of years now.), and WOAL Championships all day Friday and Saturday. Couple that with some one-on-ones I'll be having with some of my staff members, the formal start of youth pastor search process, and whatever else comes up, and you've got a full seven days. We're also dog sitting my father-in-law's Great Dane, Rufus (who is old enough now that he has little or no control over his bowels..... great) and checking on my parent's cat while they're visiting friends. It you need me, be prepared to leave a message. I'll get back to you just as soon as I can.

3) First and foremost on the agenda is our youth pastor situation. Must have had six different families come talk to me about it this morning. Everyone is nervous about this, and wondering if and when a new person will be in place. The good news is, though, that given the state of things, lots of folks are coming out of the woodwork right now to offer their help, which is what will be needed to get over this hump.

I can say this, I've come to the conclusion that whoever it is that ends up in this position will have had more people praying for them, and their success, than any other youth pastor in the history of this church. Maybe any other youth pastor, ever. We're ready for a new day. Pray for us, please, as we cautiously begin taking the first steps toward a new reality.

4) The Finance Committee meeting this week, too, should be an interesting experience. We've got a three-pronged issue we need to discuss and pray over in the coming months. First, our church is always faithful when it comes to giving. At the end of day, we always have what we need to keep the church plugging along. But, like every church, we have periods of the year where attendance and giving good, and other times that it isn't (summer, of course, being one of those times, and any Sunday in the winter where the weather is so absolutely brutal that folks stay at home fearing for their safety). This creates, then, serious cash flow issues that inhibit our ability to make medium or long-range plans for ministry.

Second, unlike many other churches our size, we have no "emergency fund" or available cash in an endowment available for us to dip into when things are tight. In my time at Shawnee these past three years, we've had at most in the General Fund, a month-a-half's worth of operating expenses on-hand ($90,000), and at the least, two days ($4000). Most of the time, we're right around one month (about $60,000) which sounds like a lot of money to most folks, but two off weeks or one unexpected expense, and we're in a situation where we have to cut budget - which in our case, because from a programming standpoint we run lean, has always meant reductions in staff salaries, which creates chaos cause these are people everyone knows and loves. Then people respond, and we keep plowing along, but not without creating all kinds of confusion, merely because our cash flow got tight. We must begin to do some long range planning to grow our General Fund as a means of enabling us to continue growing ministry opportunities for people in our community.

Third, as a means of trying to address the cash flow issues I mentioned above, we engaged in a three year capital campaign just under a 18 months ago, in the hope that people would make gifts above and beyond their normal planned tithe. The goal was raise just over 600,000 over a three year period to pay off the existing mortgage, with interest, while also simultaneously easing the burden on the General Fund by, for intensive purposes, eliminating our monthly mortgage payment. That goal was not achieved. What's more, the bump up in giving we saw in the first year gifts to the campaign, has slowed considerably in year two. While the committee would love to use all available capital campaign funds to pay down the mortgage at an accelerated rate, we can't and stay solvent. Thus, our compromise has been to use the capital campaign funds to pay only the principle on the monthly mortgage payment, and on a quarterly basis, to make additional principle payments when the funds have been available (which did happen once last fall).

My feeling is that I'd rather come up with a strategy that would increase our cash reserve so as to relieve this cash flow issue, while at the same time accelerate the pay down of our mortgage, all with the goal of resourcing needed ministry geared toward helping people. I'd rather be upfront with the congregation about all of this, and invite them in helping us deal with this situation positively. Or, as I like to think about it, I'd rather write a positive letter during a stewardship campaign explaining our strategy and goals, than three letters of appeal later as a means of cleaning up a financial mess. In any event, after the Finance Committee chews on this issue, I'll let you know exactly where we'll be heading, and it what will mean.

5) People have asked: So, are you making progress on your dissertation?

No, I have not.

I've put it off a couple of weeks longer that I would have liked, but before I take some vacation later this month, I'll be putting an advisory committee that I'll need to report to monthly, on whatever progress (or lack there of) I've made in my studies. This committee is a requirement of the DMin office at Asbury, so it has to be put together soon. Besides, knowing I have to make a report monthly, I believe will propel me toward actually making progress each month toward the end of my degree completion.

Or that's what I keep telling myself.

6) Our second swim season is rapidly drawing to a close, but not before we face the dreaded Westside Waves (a team described by a Westside father, as being one loaded with swimmers imported from East Germany so as to maintain their continued superiority) and spend two entire days waiting for Max to swim five events at Championships. I, however, have already concluded that this season has been a success for the following reasons:
- Max has consistently cut his PB times all season long.
- Max has made a lot of new friends on the team.
- Max is learning how to take his competitive drive, and channel into performance.
- It gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Max this season.
- No other team we've seen all season is more supportive of one another than Sherwood, and that's been a good thing for Max, and I, to have witnessed.
So if Flori.. I mean Westside ends up spoiling Sherwood's perfect season, no worries. It's all good. Go Sharks!

7) In all time swim team has commanded, and the insistence of Elijah that Daddy spend time with him whenever he's home, Xavier has kind of gotten the shaft this summer as far as one-on-one time with me. So, I'll be taking a couple of days very soon to do some stuff with just Xavie on what we like to call "DaddyXavie Days". I think a couple of motorcycle rides, some time crawling on lawn tractors at Lowes (one of Xave's favorite things to do), running a few errands together, reading some books at the library, and maybe taking a few nice hikes (not too long though.. the boy is still only 5) are in order. Got to get things back into balance, so Xavier knows without a doubt how much he is loved.

8) Did I mention that we have a Great Dane living with us right now? A Great Dane, by the way, who cannot control his bowel movements? This is where you find out just how much your family loves you... when they house your Great Dane which is likely to poop in your house. Just know that before you come to visit, there will be a Great Dane on a chain in our backyard, not messing up our carpet. He's big bit worry not: He only looks like he could chomp off your foot. In reality, if you were a thief, he'd show you where we keep the good silver, and help you stuff in a bag so you could make a clean getaway. My brother's chihuahua, Spike, could mop the floor with Rufus, and that's no lie.

9)In case you missed it, this was the woman on MSNBC who refused to cover the "Paris Hilton is released from jail" story. Apparently, she felt that on a morning when she had to report a war in Iraq, that Paris' release didn't warrant being the lead feature of the morning. To that, I say "kudos".

Remember after 9/11 when the talking heads said we wouldn't be covering meaningless pop culture like it was news? That the world would be changed forever and people wouldn't care about stuff like that anymore? Well, now it's news on the news when the news doesn't report Paris Hilton as news. That's how far we've come. God help us.

10) And finally, if you are new Beeson Pastor, and you are reading this right now, please enjoy your year. You have the chance to make life-long friends, lots of connections, and the luxury of reading and thinking without the interruptions that come from the pressures of a full-time job. Use this time to reflect, think, challenge one another, and discover how far the Lord can push you as a servant and leader. I envy you right now, because this could be one of the very best years of your life.

I hope and pray, that will be the case. Please e-mail me if you are blogging about your experience. I'd love to read about it.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Is the Roman Empire Making a Comeback?

Just read an article this morning in the Saturday edition of The Lima News, focusing on the resurgence of people who want to hear the Mass in Latin. Apparently the Pope has relaxed rules on when such a Mass can be used, and there is much rejoicing in the Roman Catholic world.

What gives? Speaking as a former Latin student (in college, one year, which was long enough to convince me to not do a second and switch my major to something not requiring a foreign language) I have a hard time believing that there has been an upsurge in the number of folks learning and speaking Latin. Outside of Vatican City, people only use Latin if they are a Marine ("Semper Fi"), a lawyer, a scientist, a viewer of Wile E. Coyote cartoons (Road Runner: Delecticus Fastus), or when a person tells another person they got ripped off (How many of us only know the phrase "Caveat Emptor" because we heard Mr. Brady utter it on that episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg buys the car that turns out to be a lemon?). What's more, the priest doing this Mass not once turns and faces the congregation, instead chanting it toward the alter. So why are people so excited about worship they can't understand led by a priest who doesn't appear to care whether or not they are there?

Well, I have a little insight to this, thanks to our trip to the Trappist Monastery last summer. There, a group of monks, who worship multiple times a day, recite Psalms, sing hymns to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and pray, unceasingly and to the same schedule that has been used in that order since 900AD. Now, they do all of this in English, as is the custom of that particular order to use the language spoken in that particular part of the world (for they are an international order) where they are located, but still, the monks sing chants that have remained unchanged for over 1100 years. What's more, they pay no attention to those non-monks who come to the service and sit in the specially designated area for spectators...

and yet, on Sunday morning, each Mass is packed with people from the community and beyond.
And I understand why this is. There's something oddly comforting about their ritual and devotion to their order. The fact that they are more concerned with being in the presence of God, than with any parishioners, is deeply different than what we have become accustomed to in our Protestant worship experience - which is largely becoming more and more consumer oriented. In other words, in my world the worship service is designed to engage the worshiper. Musicians are recruited so the music is appealing. Worship themes (as per my last post) are developed so that music, visuals, and drama can be developed to drill home the "point" of the service. And the preacher sweats out a new sermon each week, hoping and praying that what they say will be entertaining enough to those looking for such a thing, while also being educational enough for those who suspect and despise the idea that all preachers want to do now is entertain people. It's a consumer-driven model where the stakes are being pushed so high that churches are converting their worship spaces into virtual beaches, firehouses, corn fields, or some other space designed with the same attention to detail as a stage for an elaborate musical in order to envelop the worshiper in the experience. A kind of a "Rainforest Cafe" kind of experience, only with praise music.

In a Latin Mass, the focus for those conducting the service isn't on those attending the service. Instead, the attention is focused on doing the Mass right in the presence of a God who, it is believed, is present. The worshiper is taken in by the aire of mystery that comes with hearing music and language that's thousands of years old - mystery which bellies the presence of God in their midst.

Now I'm not so naive as to believe that somehow this push for a Latin Mass is in the end, any less consumer-driven than the seeker-sensitive worship services that churches like Granger Community Church conduct each and every week. In both instances, the main reason people go is because of what they experience and how that which they've participated in has moved them. But one does wonder whether or not people are growing weary of churches trying to keep up with cable TV, Broadway, movie theaters, pop radio, and amusement parks by becoming increasingly driven to manufacture largely emotional experiences, when really all they want is to be in the Lord's presence. In an age where worship has been shaped mainly by the idea that people need to be educated to be illuminated, we probably have much to learn from an earlier age where people maintained a sense of fear, respect, awe, and admiration for the spiritual realm. An earlier age where the presence of the Living God was sought in community, ritual, prayer, and worship conducted in such a way as to invite God into their midst by praising God with all they were.

It's that transcendence people are looking for as the priest speaks a strange language that only God and a relative few people in the world can understand, hoping that He who is largely mysterious and unknown, will grace them with His presence, bringing peace in a difficult world.

So, I say, "Welcome back Latin Mass", while wondering about my place in helping people encounter God in worship.
Semper Fi.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Upcoming Sermon Series (in the planning stages)

Of all the things taught to us not just in our Beeson year, but way, way back in seminary, for most of us preachers the art of long-term sermon planning has never been addressed. I suspect that the cause for this was either the homiletics profs were of an age where they used the lectionary exclusively, or because they worked largely alone (just handing off the subject of the week to the music director so that hymns and a choir anthem could be selected), and as a result the concept of planning these things in terms of working with a worship team was out of their realm of expertise.

Fortunately, I had five years of experience doing this, well and poorly, in Goshen. I even went into the "wayback machine" and gave The Clouse a call just so I could remember how in the world we put together 4 to 6 week series that weren't overly repetitive, and were hopefully thought-provoking and engaging. It was good to put my head with his again, as together back in the day, we came up with some really good sermon series ("The Six Greatest Things Jesus Ever Said") and some real dogs ("Real Good Sex" - a series we did years before Mark Beeson at Granger was profiled on all the major news networks for doing an almost identical series... too bad our series blew chunks)

Anyhow, after a lot of reading, and another long morning with our worship team, here is where I expect we'll be heading in the course of the next year.

Jesus In The Suburbs: This series is inspired by the book, "Death by Suburb: How To Keep The Suburbs From Killing Your Soul" by David Goetz. It came out of a struggle I had late last fall and early this past winter about where to live when we returned to Lima from Wilmore. The obvious answer to this question, as the senior pastor of the Shawnee UMC was to live in Shawnee (duh), but I didn't arrive at that answer easily. Aimee and I (mostly I) toyed, seriously, with the idea of living in the city simply because sometimes that which you try to avoid by living in the burbs (crime and such) can often end up costing you something else. Like it or not, for example, the experience of attending Lima Senior, in my humble opinion, was in many ways better preparation for the "real world" than attending one of these suburban high schools, where kids attending tend to be from families who are more affluent, and communities more homogeneous.

And then it hit me.... did I think Jesus was more alive in the problems of the city, than the relative calm of the suburbs?

That was an important question, because it went right to the heart of some of biases I've always carried toward suburban Christianity, and the kind of "class warfare model" that's always shaped my understanding of the Gospel (which was also a reaction to the over-spiritualized interpretation my more fundamentalists brothers and sisters had of Jesus' understanding of what it meant to enter the "Kingdom of Heaven"). Besides, some of the best Christians I ever met and did ministry lived in the suburbs, or suburban-esque conditions.

So what was my problem? Middle class guilt? All those liberation theologians I've read over the years? A fear that as a guy who always wanted to "stick it to the man", that now, I have become "the man"?

I wasn't sure, but I had to find out. This series, then, is the product of some personal reflection on what shapes us in the suburbs, and some study regarding where Jesus shows up in the midst of our lives, inviting us to step out in faith to follow him.

A Letter From Prison: One of my favorite preachers is Bruxy Cavey, the teaching pastor for The Meeting House in Toronto, Canada. TMC was advertising on its website that this was going to be the title of Cavey's next sermon series, which is basically a study of the book of Philippians, which Paul wrote while he was in prison. I've never been all that strong a preacher when it comes to Paul. His teaching has always been difficult for me to get inside of because he dances this dance somewhere between the highly structured Jewish Christians (high church) and the more spirit-led Gentile Christians (low church), which makes it appear that he often is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. For example, on one hand he says that in Christ there is no male and female (implying a certain equality that exists between the genders) but he also in another letter basically tells women in a church to keep their heads covered and keep quiet, which implies some definitely inequality. These kinds of things always frustrated me, so I'd usually use Paul as the proof text - and rarely the source text - for a point I wanted to make

However, since I spent so much time with Paul in the books of Timothy for my dissertation in the last year, I feel like I have a better grasp on where Paul was coming from. Thus, inspired with a title (but no specifics), I decided to borrow Bruxy's idea, and come up with a series of my own. A series, I think, asks the question, what is the relationship of blessing and suffering to Christianity. Given the plethora of preachers now sporting "bling" and preaching a Gospel that basically tells people that Jesus wants us to have it all, particularly in a material sense, I wondered what Paul might have to say about this, locked away in prison, uncertain whether or not he'd ever be free again. As a side note, I'll not take a look at Bruxy's series until we're done with ours (late this year), just to see how brilliant he is, and what I missed.

Heroes: One of the things that has kind of come into vogue the past decade in terms of series planning, is the use of something in pop culture as a metaphor/symbol to represent a concept to be explored by a preacher. For example, I don't know how many churches have riffed off the idea of "Desperate Housewives" as a metaphor for bad relationships/suburban living but they have to be in the hundreds. We, at First UMC, weren't above doing this, having used the "Extreme Makeover" kind of home improvement show as a metaphor to talk about improvement spiritually and "The Simpsons" (an inspired sermon series about 30 people saw as "The Peak" faded in it's second summer, the victim of a time change and the exhaustion of having written over 150 sermons in 18 months) as a metaphor for family life.

One of the more interesting shows with a growing following right now is Heroes. It's premise is that ordinary people are given extraordinary powers to fight evil in the world. I gotta admit that The Clouse was the one who came up with this idea, because for the past year I lived without cable or an antenna, so I never watched the show. But the idea that ordinary people could change the world was intriguing (and something I say all the time), so I began thinking, in a Christian sense, what powers are we given by the Creator to change lives and change the world. And then, this verse hit me:

The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, hope, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

Or, in other words, when we allow the Spirit of the Lord to work in our lives, the evidence that the Spirit is doing his thing is that we become more loving, hopeful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and more in control of our own impulses and reactions. So the obvious question is, how in the world does this work? Well, my premise is that the Spirit really embodies all of these things, and by exposing ourselves to them on a regular basis, we become more like our influence. This is a product of some scriptural study, but also twenty-some years of working with musicians, whose tastes are largely the product of that which they've heard. Hence the phrase uttered by countless musicians, "You can't escape your influences". Since Steven Covey is right in the sense that you can't decide your way out of a habit you behaved yourself into (I quote I saw on Nolan Donald's Facebook page), the role of influences in a life, and on a world, can't be understated. Thus, we'll be looking at how these "fruits" change a life, and do change the world in very practical kinds of ways.

That's as far as I've gotten. More as it develops.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Every day at church is a mixture of highs and lows. Today, for example, I received a number of comments regarding how much people enjoyed yesterday's "Freedom Celebration", which is a service I inherited from Joseph. You see, back in the day (sixteen years ago), the idea of a "Freedom Celebration" came out of Joe's desire to capitalize a) on all of the WWII vets we had attending the church and living in the area at the time and b) put together a service in the dead of summer that would remind people we were still here. In the first five or six years, the service picked up steam, and started garnering a lot of attention in the community. Color guards were invited to be a part of the service. Vets did 21-gun salutes outside on the lawn. And the church became known as the church that surrounded itself with hundreds of small American flags, stuck in the ground about a foot apart from one another around the perimeter of the church.

As time passed, however, the service started losing some steam. A big part of it was the sheer number of WWI vets who were passing away each and every year. That's really the last war we fought as a nation that morally everyone can agree had to be waged. Every war since then, particularly Vietnam, has been controversial and left the public divided in terms of its support.
The WWII guys had no qualms about their service. They fought Adolf Hitler and a Japan that had bombed Pearl Harbor. These guys are proud about their service to their country.

Couple that with the pain we feel every year we do this service, and a few more of those guys are no longer with us. Now, when you see the various vets rise while their branch's battle hymn is played, you are reminded of the faces you don't see anymore. This year, for example, I looked out and there was no Gene King or Bob Joyce. That's just..... hard.

But this year, we kind of took the service in a new direction. For the first time we focused not on the vets, but on the soldiers serving now, which seemed appropriate given the fact that there are so many of them fighting and dying overseas. To personalize this, we focused on recognizing Wade Broadwater, a young man who is a member of our church, graduated from Shawnee High School in 2005, and enlisted in the Marines. Wade was one of soldiers that went to Iraq in the "surge" earlier this year. We just tried to tell Wade's story from the perspective of his parents and friends, as well as make a connection between him and one of our own WWII vets, Dale Lockwood. The point I wanted to make was that no matter how you feel about this war (and even here in the a Republican hotbed that is Allen County, feelings on this war are decidedly mixed), that as we yearn for a world where justice and mercy reign supreme, we must in all humility as Christians serve our soldiers, their parents, the government, and the people in Iraq caught in the middle of this war, with our prayers and service. Thus, we prayed for Wade, peace for the world, and a day that earth would work more like Heaven than it does now.

Fortunately, that message seemed to get across, thanks to the help of a lot of people (particularly Lindsay Hefner who put the video pieces together) and it was nice to hear that the message was received.

2) But, like I said, each day has its ups and downs. There are always people issues. Finances are always tight in the summer so each new voucher I am presented with gives me indigestion. I don't so much show up at work hoping I won't have to confront some sort of issue or problem, as much as now I just expect that something will come up and I try to anticipate what it will be. I am usually wrong, but it's still a fun game to play. Anyhow, I'm just trying to learn how to find balance between the moments I feel pretty good about things, and the moments that make me feel sick to my stomach. The moments I think maybe I'm starting to get a handle on this ministry stuff, and other moments I take a look at that brochure for truck driving school.

But, we probably all have those moments, don't we.

3) Aimee used the money she made teaching music on-line to buy a couch. It's being delivered tomorrow from Elder-Beerman. It's really a long, red sectional with a chase lounge on one end and kind of a.... well, I can't really describe it at the other end. Aimee has always wanted a chase lounge, and she knows I like couches long enough to lay down on, so this is her compromise. Can't say that the first time I saw it that I felt overjoyed. That's kind of a pattern in our marriage... neither of us can agree on furniture. If I had it my way, everything would be dark, heavy, and traditional. Aimee would be happy if art students from the Columbus College of Art and Design came here and welded us new furniture. So, we're never happy with what the other person likes. But, as time goes by, and I've visited the floor model of what she bought a few times, I must admit that it's growing on me. At least I didn't have to listen to an Art Punk band while a kid from Dublin with plaid hair welds me a big oval that's supposed to be a chair. I'm sure it will be fine.

4) Experienced another "first" yesterday. The annual Shawnee fireworks happened yesterday, and since we live only a hop, skip, and a jump (through John's woods) from the ball field at the Middle School, we could watch the fireworks from our house.... meaning we didn't have to sit in traffic for two hours to get home. Couple that with the picnic that our next door neighbor hosted for her friends as part of the pre-fireworks festivities and their insistence we eat dessert with them, and you get a first-rate evening. Millie's son Lowell, who works in management for Captain D's, even gave us all "3-D glasses" that supposedly take the fireworks experience to a whole new level but they just gave me a headache and made me wonder what all the fuss in the sixties over LSD was about. The boys, however, found them to be the best thing since sliced bread, and intend to take their new glasses with them to the "Star Spangled Spectacular" in Lima on Wednesday.

Apparently Captain D, you have a winner!

Anyhow, the best part of the evening was, upon the conclusion of the festivities, we put our chairs in the garage, went inside, and hit the hay. Fantastic!

5) Earlier in the evening, we had a bit of excitement here on Sandy Lane. Our newest next door neighbors are a young couple who bought a house across the street at a Sheriff's Sale (the size and scope, of which, continues to grow as foreclosures shoot through the roof here in Allen County). They're in their early twenties, and are as nice as can be. The guy, though, owns a four-wheeler, which is a problem given that their lot is probably less than a half acre. While mostly he'll just tool around the yard, and occasionally up the street (sometimes to the chorus of "slow down", of which every time he does because he is very polite), yesterday his wife's young brothers were over, ostensibly for the fireworks festivities, and things took a bad turn. As a means of entertainment, my neighbor took each brother for rides up and down the street. The young boy would ride on the front, steering, while my neighbor rode on the back, helping steer and keeping a hand on the brake.

I was in our bed room, changing out of my church clothes (we had spent the afternoon at my mom and dad's), and I could hear this contraption racing around. With three young boys, one of which is prone to wander into the street if we aren't paying close attention, I can't say I was all that comfortable with this activity, and even, at one point, wondered allowed to myself if something horrible might happen, when..... POW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm still not sure what happened exactly, but the boy with his hand on the throttle, pushed when he shouldn't have, and the four-wheeler decimated my neighbor's mailbox and pole, which was fairly substantial. The boy driving ended up with a gash on his head. My neighbor, who was pitched off the back, had a serious case of road rash over his entire back. The four-wheeler was dented badly and leaking anti-freeze. It was something horrible, and it had happened.

Fortunately after a visit to the ER, everyone was pronounced well (although cleaning out that wound on my neighbor's back couldn't have been all that pleasant). I saw repairs to the mailbox today, and the four-wheeler is tucked safely in a shed in my neighbor's backyard awaiting what I am assuming will be hundreds (if not over over a thousand) dollars of work. My neighbor is shaken up and humbled, and I'm assuming a little wiser. Probably next year, they'll play badminton or cornhole instead. That's my guess.

6) I read Ronald Lederman's editorial column yesterday. In what can only be considered another one of his famous leaps of logic, he equated the voting down of a proposal of a casino company to expand gambling in various forms by the voters of Ohio as a step toward "mob rule" where government is conducted by "lynch mobs" who force the will of the majority on the rights of individuals. If you don't believe me, check out the article here. It was a little over the top.

7) Which leads me to this.... if I published this blog under an assumed identity, or anonymously, I think in some ways it would be a whole lot more fun. I could have made some serious comedic hay with various posts from today if only nobody knew who wrote this crazy thing. As things
stand, though, I have to constantly reign myself (particularly my sarcastic, cynical self) in so as to keep the waters smooth (or at least not as rough). I'd like to think that by having to always think twice that I'm becoming a more sensible, wise, and compassionate person.... but it's probably just turning me into a big wuss who is thinking more and more like a politician every day.

I say this because I ran into more than one old acquaintance up at our district's Senior High Church Camp last week who is doing some form of youth ministry, and the constant refrain was that by becoming a senior pastor I had somehow "crossed over the dark side". That instead of railing against "the man" who never supplied the youth pastor with enough money or support, now I was the said "man", doing the "sticking". I'd like to say that they're all just a bunch of weenies, but with each day as I find myself looking to answer questions with positive, yet non-committal answers that imply I care, but need to "further study the subject before acting" that I am becoming exactly just like the people who always frustrated me the most.

This is not good.

It's for this very reason that I contemplated a change of career a couple of years ago. My feeling then was that my days as a loud rabblerouser were probably over, but that I could be more independent and free-thinking as a lay-person in a church, as opposed to a pastor. I could play silly political games at the local Public Defender's office as an attorney, but at church I could just live out my convictions.

Now, two years later, having made my choice, I wonder if my glimpse into the future as a "cautious to a fault" Bucher isn't coming true, and if somehow in the process I've compromised something. Of course, then again, if I also keep hearing the words, "If you don't do this ministry thing, then who will?" echoing in my soul, and so I press on. I just don't want my prophetic voice to atrophy as I commit to "further prayer" or "continued study". Somehow there needs to be a balance. Will I be able to find it? I don't know.

8) A big thanks to the mass of people who showed up Saturday to weed, rake, and trim the church grounds. The place looks great, and the turnout was just plain energizing. My mom suggested we put together a ground's team, which my wife termed as "The Master's Gardeners", which sounds like something that would be printed on a piece of ceramic you could buy at the local Christian book store. But, strangely enough, I kind of like it. If we adopt the name, next year we might have to get T-Shirts.

9) No swim meets this week, thanks to July 4th being on a Wednesday. Now I know what it was like to receive manna from heaven.

10) And finally, after a heated game of "tackles" out on the trampoline tonight, I made the mistake of telling the boys -whose mother suggested that some night they sleep out on the trampoline with their father under the stars and now they won't drop it - that I'd try to find a tent we could camp out in... meaning, I'll have to sleep out in a tent, on the ground, outside, with three boys until the youngest starts crying for his momma. This is my penance for working so much lately. I'd better starting getting home earlier, or next week she'll start suggesting we need a pet snake.

Don't look for me in the office after 5.