Friday, August 31, 2007

Brian McLaren writes praise music

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I am a fan of post-modern Christian writer, pastor, and thinker Brian McLaren. At a time I was losing faith in the ability of institutional religion to really do more than pamper its own people, I was given a copy of "A New Kind of Christian", and since then my outlook has been forever changed. His last book, "The Secret Meaning of Jesus" is probably the best distillation of a post-modernist view of Christianity (and a hundred times easier to read than Lesslie Newbigin's works, of which McLaren is deeply indebted). Currently, McLaren is gearing up for the release of newest book, "A Revolution of Hope: Everything Must Change", which he told us last winter would contain how the message of the Gospel must be modified by the mainstream church not only to reach new generations of people, but also to be in line more accurately with pre-Christendom (and pre-Constantine) Christianity.

As a part of this project, though, McLaren has decided to write an album's worth of new praise music. A fan of contemporary music, but long a critic of the often vapid "me-and-Jesus" kind of praise music that now rules most worship services, McLaren (apparently a long-time musician), decided to pair up with some other folks to write praise music that he believes has the necessary theological depth to be embraced by Christians in a post-Christian world. I hadn't been on his website (which is linked there on the masthead) in quite some time, so I hadn't heard about the musical "side project" or the music itself. There was a link to a YouTube video of one of the songs which is entitled "I Am An Atheist", which I then sampled. Here it is:

While I can behind what McLaren is trying to do, as a I listened to the song (which, I must admit, not only made me laugh out loud, but conjured up visions of people who smell like petulie oil sitting in a drum circle in the middle of a makeshift wigwam made out of plastic canopies singing this while surrounded by dense sage brush smoke while a girl everyone just calls "Sunshine" twirls quietly in the corner) I couldn't help but envision three other famous people who decided to take on a creative project outside of their specialty, with, um.... mixed results.

Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy, at the hight of his fame and popularity, decided to release an album, which featured the infamous single, "Party All The Time".

The song, which was produced by the late Rick James, will never be mistaken for a Bach concerto. Murphy has often expressed his dismay at having cut the record in the style and amount of time that his schedule allowed. I can remember as a kid watching this video and hearing this song just invited howls of laughter from my high school aged friends and I. The song ensured Murphy would never record another musical album, while the video helped all of us who wondered what Rick James would look like in a silk shirt and red hair wonder no more.

Alex English
For those who don't know who Alex English is, English was one of the best pure shooters and scorers to ever play in the NBA. Back in the day, he and Kiki Vandeweghe (the Great White Hope) together powered Doug Moe's high octane motion offense for the score-happy-defense-challenged Denver Nuggets. English, who was never the most popular player in a NBA that was even less popular than it is now, made a movie, "Amazing Grace and Chuck" about a basketball player who (I am not making this up) joins a little league baseball player in going "on-strike" until the world gets rid of nuclear weapons.

I'm sure your video store (unless it still rents a lot of really old video tapes) doesn't have this movie (although your local library might). It is fantastically bad. Even worse than "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (which was Dr. J's foray into film). Now, Alex English is in the Hall of Fame, and a distinguished elder statesman of the game. However, his acting career is currently on hiatus.

William Shatner
If you haven't seen this clip, its kind of amazing.

Shatner, who was never what one would call the most polished of actors, recites Elton John's "Rocket Man" at what appears to be an awards show back in the seventies. I thought of him cause I'd love to see him recite the words to "I Am An Atheist", complete with a theramin accompaniment. That might be the single greatest moment in all of entertainment history.

All that being said, more power to you, Brian McLaren. I hope you fuel a praise music revolution. But, if you don't, please keep writing books.

Thank you.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Fantasy Football Team

When I was in college, and maybe a year or two after, I participated in a Fantasy Baseball league. Back in those days you had to hand tabulate (of if you had a smart dude in your dorm who knew how to use Lotus 123, input by hand all the data) all of the stats used to determine the league standings. I did that one summer (by virtue of the fact that the smart guy who set up the database was smart enough to use Lotus 123, but at that time didn't own his own computer) by virtue of the fact that I was the only guy on the floor with his own computer. Yep... strange but true. My old "Leading Edge 8088" would get use 24/7 by people who didn't want to wait in line in a few computer labs on campus cause it was one of only a handful of computers students on Miami's campus owned. I had to learn how to sleep while bathed by a warm yellow glow (no color monitors in those days kids... just yellow letters as far as the eye could see) and the light tapping of fingers on keys. I'm pretty sure the sound of Wayne Kintz cursing his engineering professors while imputing data put me to sleep more than once back in the day.

Ah... what a simple time 1987-91 was. No computers and no cell phones. It was the Stone Age, and by golly we liked it that way.

But, like most things, I eventually (as a marginal baseball fan) lost interest in all things Fantasy Baseball, and proceeded to live my life Fantasy free....

until about five or six years ago. That's when the Fantasy world sucked me back in.

I put the fault on my brother, who, as someone 12 years younger than myself, started getting into things like picking fake teams, to win a fake award, to win bragging rights that you are the best fake sports owner among your own tribe of clueless friends. One year his friends were short one player to fill out a full 12 man Fantasy NBA League, and he called to see if I was interested in playing. I really wasn't, but told him that I was. Then I proceeded to skip setting up my team and participating in the draft. It took Andy six weeks to convince me to even take a look at the team the computer had drafted for me.... which I ended up, reluctantly, doing, only to discover what stupid picks the computer had made in my absence. I dropped a few guys, picked up a few others, made a couple of trades, and within a week I was hooked.

Ever since then during every football and basketball (and one baseball season, which was enough) I have had my own fantasy team. And while I have won the regular season of the basketball league a couple of times (although I've never conquered the final tourney), my football teams have ranged from being passable to laughable. I don't know that I've ever finished in the top half of the league. It's good thing I enjoy the trashtalking, or I'd have quit fantasy football a long time ago.

But that's just it.... in my world, I can't trash talk with anyone. I mean, Sunday morning Charlotte (my associate pastor) was talking smack about how this hymn she wrote (to the tune of Great Is Thy Faithfulness) was the ultimate in song-writing efforts in the history of this church and how nobody would ever be able to top her. But that's as smack talky as it gets around here. "My hymn kick your hymn's F#". Not exactly testosterone generating.

Hence the downside of being a pastor: I miss being a regular guy. Nobody, even the guys who would consider me their friend here at the church, treats me as a regular guy. They watch their language and tell me clean jokes and make sure that if they have a beer with their dinner that it won't offend me. It's like I'm a 6'1" two-hundred and zzzzzzz pound china doll. I mean people I went to high school with apologize when they say a swear word in conversation. It's like they've forgotten that I might have heard that word once or twice while attending West Junior High School or Lima Senior.

This group of guys, who are largely Andy's buddies, don't know me as a pastor, so they bust my chops, and I theirs. And as anyone who knows me, knows, I like busting chops.

Anyhow, here's the 2007 edition of my Fantasy Football Team, which is named after it's owner who has dubbed himself the "Pastor of Disaster".

QB's: Donovan McNabb, Alex Smith, Byron Leftwich
This will be the third year in a row I've drafted Donovan McNabb. In both of the previous years, he was one of our league leaders in scoring, and carried me from weekly victory to weekly victory... until he got hurt. Then, ultimately, without him my team fell apart, and I either missed the playoffs or got bounced in the first round. So why pick him again. I dunno. Just a glutton for punishment I guess. Alex Smith seems to be figuring out how to be a QB in the NFL so I picked him as my backup, and since someone else got Big Ben, I took Leftwich cause he's from the MAC, I'm a Miami grad, and us MAC alums need to stick together (which would be laughable, except all the rest of the guys in my league graduated from Toledo, so you ought to see the run on UT-grads like Chester Taylor.... MAC solidarity is a real phenomenon).

RB's: Rudi Johnson, Edgerrin James, Fred Taylor, Priest Holmes, Anthony (A-Train) Thomas
If you actually play Fantasy Football, you know now why my teams aren't part of the upper echelon. For the fourth year in a row I've got a stable of not-stupendous running backs. And in Fantasy Football world, RB's are more valuable than even QB's (for statistical reasons that are too boring to explain). Rudi Johnson is probably the fifth to eighth best back in the league (which makes sense since I picked sixth). Edgerrin James was once an elite back in the league, and then committed professional hari kari by signing with the Arizona Cardinals, who are perpetually one-year away from being competitive. Fred Taylor had a great year last year, but has the most unreliable hamstrings in the game. If this were 2002, Priest Holmes would be a valuable back, but that was one major knee reconstruction and a Larry Johnson ago. And as for the A-Train, well, what can I say... he plays for Buffalo, so maybe he'll actually get a chance to get on the field. All in all, a pretty underwhelming group. We'll call em the "Drab Five".

WR's: Marques Colston, Donald Driver, Wes Welker, Eddie Kennison, Rod Smith
I don't feel bad about my receivers. They're actually pretty decent. Colston was a breakout sensation last year with New Orleans, which should continue to be a hot team thanks to QB Drew Brees remarkable accuracy and decision making ability. Donald Driver is really Brett Favre's only decent receiving option, so he ought to pile up some stats this year. I had Welker last year when he played for the hapless Dolphins, and he piled up solid numbers as a receiver and returner every week. This year, as a member of the Patriots, with Tom Brady as his QB, I expect good things. Every year I've been in the league I think I've had Kennison. People always think he's too old, and then he goes out there and keeps playing well. Rod Smith, unbeknownst to me during the draft, is probably not going to play this year (because he's hurt and 165 years old), so I'm actually in the process of dropping for a receiver from Minnesota (whose name escapes me). All in all, a solid receiving corps.

TE: Jeremy Shockey
Unless you had Alge Crumpler before Michael Vick got bit by his love of Pit Bulls, or Tony Gonzalez before he lost a couple of steps, you've probably never had a very productive TE. They just don't tend to have much value in Fantasy world. I chose Shockey cause he'll get the ball regularly, and will score a few touchdowns.

K: Robbie Gould
Took an immense amount of abuse by taking this guy early (the eighth round) in our draft, but the way our scoring is set up, a good kicker can make some hay. This guy had a great year for the Bears last year, and the inability of the team to put the ball in the endzone makes him extra valuable cause the teams ends up settling for a lot of field goals.

D: Jacksonville
They were the best of what was left when I picked. I'm sure they'll get dropped more than once before the season is over.

Anyhow, I'll be lucky to finish near .500, and if I make the playoffs I won't last one round. But I really don't care because at least, for short periods of time, I'll just be one of the guys...

and that's just fine by me.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think (Mother Teresa Edition)

1) Years ago during my Goshen experience, I preached a sermon that in it's ending, invited everyone to come and suffer for Jesus. It emphasized that the end of point of Christian discipleship may not be happiness or wealth or good health or overcoming every problem (which is more the norm for the sermons we hear), but rather a willingness to take on the darkness and emptiness of the world just as Christ did: ending his life on the cross forgiving us all while also expressing his sense of total abandonment ("Why, Father, have you ignored and left me?"). After the service I got a smattering of varied responses, but the strongest actually came from my father, who looked visibly shaken and disturbed.

"Suffer?" he said. "Did you end that service by calling people to suffer? To feel lonely and broken? Why on earth would I want to do that? Why would anybody?"

Good questions, and at the time all I could say was that this was the idea that I had drawn out of the scripture: Jesus not focused on people receiving multitudes of good things, warm fuzzy feelings, a sense of happiness, healing, and wholeness. Jesus focused on sharing his suffering with us.

2) This sermon, and my father's response has always stuck with me. In an age where Time Magazine publishes excerpts of Mother Teresa's letters detailing her 45 years of spiritual emptiness, and an article openly wondering of TD Jakes was the next Billy Graham, so goes our schizophrenia as American Christians: the place where our spiritual heroes are a woman who lived and died as a suffering servant, and a pastor preaching a health-and-wealth message who wears tailored-suits costing thousands of dollars apiece.

I don't labor under the illusion that this "spiritual suffering v. prosperity gospel" division in the Christian world is simply an American phenomenon. Both in Seoul (at both Kwanglim Methodist and Yoido Full Gospel) and in London (at the pentecostal church, The Glory House, which was made up entirely of African ex-pats living in London) we heard variations on the same prosperity gospel theme that if you stay properly faithful and positive, God will reward you with material blessings and good health. People are looking to get ahead everywhere. It just that appears to me that less prominent have been messages calling us to empty ourselves out on behalf of others. They seem fewer and far between.

3) I think thought that the argument that God desires something more for us than simple abundance of stuff and good feelings could be made, and I think is in the New Testament. It boggles the mind, for example, when I hear people rattle off the visualization techniques written about in "The Secret" or the numerous instructions Joel Osteen uses in his book on how to simply asked God for something so it will appear before your eyes, as blueprints for their own spiritual progress. I mean, didn't Jesus tell us that we can't serve God and Money, or that love of money was the root of all evil, or that unlike the popular perception of his (our?) day that it's harder for rich people to get into people than those who were poor?

Of course you can't paint people with broad strokes without slandering their character. Both Osteen and Jakes have undertaken substantial ministries to try and improve the plight of the poor. And I don't really know about Rhonda Byrne, the author of The Secret, or even read the book for that matter, but the impression of the mega-ministries I'm getting is that the "pouring yourself out" part of ministry seems to be kind of a "oops, we really do care about more than making money here at this church, so here are these ministries to help poor and oppressed people" approach to alleviating suffering. And none of them teach suffering as anything more than something a person has to endure for awhile until they are rewarded with blessings. The leading edge of their focus and teaching is how you are going to be blessed, while somewhere on the backside the idea of how you might use those blessings to help others is suggested.

And why not... that's the way people get hooked. John Wesley preached Jesus first and foremost, but because he called people to "work all they could, to earn all they could, to save all they could, to give away all they could" and it didn't take long for Methodism in Britain to become a "middle class phenomenon". Wesley dismayed late in life that it was prosperity of his followers that was helping influence the growth of the movement, and feared it would be its undoing (and one might argue in this age as our denomination careens downward that he ended up being right).

4) But this view we're getting of Mother Teresa's faith is incredibly different than that of the "Prosperitors" that dominate the American Christian scene. Maybe it was because she wasn't raised in the secular west but rather in an older-world Eastern Europe. Or maybe its the influence of so many other mystics who have worked and lived in monastic communities over the ages, but Mother Teresa doesn't appear all that interested in material success. In fact, if her recently released letters are to be trusted, Mother Teresa actually took on a greater degree of emptiness and sense of despair as the success of her order and her own visibility continued to rise. She considered it ironic that so many people in the world sought her advice while she herself seem less and less able to experience the passionate, mystical interaction with the living God she had encountered before she started her order serving the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa's darkness of the soul, in fact, ended up becoming her proof that she was, in fact, becoming more like Christ, in that she was experiencing in her work the same kind of abandonment he experienced on the cross.

That emptiness.... that darkness... that despair.... that was the reward Mother Teresa received for following Jesus to the work he asked her to do.

How on earth do we compute this?

5) A number of people have suggested to me that Mother Teresa was, in fact, tormented and tempted by the Satan in an effort to break her will and abandon her faith. Their thinking follows the idea that the Devil saves his best stuff for those who are the most faithful. And this would be, I suppose, mainstream thought on how evil and good work. Forces of evil sew discord and foster temptation in every imaginable fashion as a means of trying to get good, faithful people to backslide, fall away, and return to sinful ways.

But if that's the case, why did Satan tempt Jesus with fame, political power, good health and wealth? I mean these are the very rewards we say God gives people if they are faithful followers of Jesus. Maybe not abundant fame, power, or riches, but still those are the kinds of things people seem to equate with continued faithfulness. Point out that neither Jesus or any of his disciples, were ever rewarded in these ways for their faithfulness and you get a myriad of responses... everything from "Well Jesus already owned everything so he couldn't be given anything more" to "They were blessed spiritually in ways that Holy Spirit can now reward us materially also".

It just wouldn't occur to us that Mother Teresa's 45 year darkness of the soul might be the gift God gave her for faithfulness. A gift that was so poignant and meaningful that she was willing to take it on for all eternity if Christ asked her to.

A gift, one might say, of abundant faith, which led to abundant hope and love for millions.

6) Those aren't words western corporate Christianity is ready to hear. We have bills to pay, endowments to grow, and buildings to build. The fortunes of our ministry rise and fall with the economic fortunes of our people, so we largely keep our mouths shut about suffering (outside of it being something to be endured so God can teach us something, or make a model of healing for all to admire) as the end point of faith. We preach more than one stewardship sermon as a means of taking care of the budget, but often fail to tell the mother of the severely handicapped child or the father who experiences chronic physical pain or the business person who failed, or the shut-in widow crippled with arthritis that their suffering and pain is a noble calling of God that should be treasured, nurtured, and prayed for by all.

Thus, we aren't looking for abundant faith, but rather just an abundance of that would keep our noses above water: volunteers and financial resources.

7) I get the sense that the cartoonish caricatures of preachers always with their hands out, asking people for prayer and money (and not always in that order), while trying to build huge organizations as signs of validation for their message are costing the Kingdom of Heaven more than they are building it up. They lack of the validity of someone who gives him or herself lovingly over to God to undo an egregious wrong without a sense of receiving something in return... or even the reality that whatever they've given their life to could actually, in the end, claim it entirely. Maybe that's why we only took Tammy Faye Bakker half-way seriously after the PTL club went kabluey... her compassion, which looked scripted as she built a theme park, seemed more genuine after jail time, a divorce, and public humiliation.

It's the difference between building your own kingdom, and The Kingdom.

8) God, I believe, wants to make our pain his victory. Our sense of abandonment a testament to his grace and mercy. Our darkness a light to illuminate the journey of many. Not necessarily by taking those burdens off our shoulders, but rather by gently drawing us into a greater love of Him and his people even as we shoulder the burdens that may or not have been of our own making. To not say to the world, "look, God can overcome any and every shortcoming in my life", but rather "look despite my shortcomings, God still loves and wants to partner with me in this world".

Mother Teresa wasn't tormented by Satan... she mystified the crap out of him. Who counts feeling distant from God a blessing? She did, and maybe we can learn something from her as we wonder why God hasn't taken all the pain and suffering in our life.

Now for a couple of non-Mother Teresa related items.

9) The District office is still closed, so still no word on ways we can help flood victims in Northwest Ohio, beyond sending supplies to help people cleaning up flood damage. Communication being our Achilles heel, there was no way we were able to organize a team to head north on as short as notice as we received about the work days as the three churches in Findlay that were damaged during the storm. On that note, I'm thinking the time has come for Shawnee to set up a "Mission Crisis Team" so we can quickly mobilize resources to meet needs like this one.

However, I promise that as I learn of opportunities for us to serve and contribute, I'll pass them on to one and all. I'd assume that with the District Office re-opening (it's in Ottawa, which is in the heart of the damage), we'll know more specifics very, very soon.

10) Max played in this first soccer game this Saturday. He did well, although he did look fairly lost most of his time on the field. Fortunately, a couple of other kids who have been playing for three or four years were able to direct him where to stand and in what to do, which he responded well to. While his team ended up winning big, the big winner of the day ended up being Eli who became the object of attention of a number of elementary age girls. They spent the duration of the game playing with, and essentially coddling, my two-year old. Eli, realizing that he was the center of attention, thought the girls wanted to play an elaborate never-ending game of chase... which is his favorite game. Thus, Eli and those girls ran far, far more than any of the soccer players that day, and nobody had a bigger smile on his face.

11) Sunday, I heard a fine sermon from Charlotte (who taught us that if you can't stand solitude in silence, you'll never find solitude in a busy world), enjoyed lunch with Jon Hodges (the guy playing "Jim" in our "Life Improvement" skits), destroyed my mower and my lawn while mowing in the afternoon (don't ask), and finished the day visiting with my family (including the "Official Younger Brother of From Bryan's Office", his wife, SuperUnc and his lovely wife Beth, The Great One, all the grandparents, and Radio Zac). Outside of having to buy $70 worth of parts to fix my mower (only mother nature can fix my lawn), it was as pleasant day. A day that happens less and less, and thus must be treasured more.

12) OSU football starts this Saturday! Go Bucks! Beat Youngstown State!

Youngstown State? Who do they play next? The University of Findlay? Ohio Northern? Did Cleveland State somehow slip onto the schedule too?

Today Youngstown State... tomorrow, Indiana of Pennsylvania. There's just no stoppin us now.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Kid Nation: Where Kids Have All The Power?

Apparently this September, CBS will air a show they shot last spring called "Kid Nation". The premise for the show I think was kind of a "Lord of the Flies comes to life" where kids ages 8-15 were dropped into a remote movie location in New Mexico to organize themselves into a "town". Of course there was a lot of supervision of the children as provided by the show's producers, but parents themselves were not permitted on-site for the duration of the taping. Children received $5000 is they were able to survive the 40 day shoot, with the chance of one child getting the chance to win $20,000 if they were elected by their peers as the "gold star participant".

One of the parents who signed her child up for the show is now complaining that New Mexico's child protection laws were skirted during the show, and that her child was injured during the event (you can click here to read the article). In her complaint, it has come to light that parents had to sign a 22-page contract that included a clause stipulating that (according to the article) they had to "waive their rights to sue the network or production company if their children died or were injured. The agreement also acknowledged that the participants 'will have no privacy' except while using bathrooms or changing rooms." While companies that use children as actors in California have to follow strict guidelines as to the number of hours a child can work a day, as well as allow parents to be on the set with the children (as mandated by child labor laws and the Screen Actor's Guild), no such comparable laws existed in New Mexico during the taping (a situation that was changed in June of this year after furor over this production began to rise, and the New Mexico legislature took action).

The show will be promoted and advertised as an experiment where children were given all the power to make their own decisions. As an exercise where children could learn more about themselves, while we get the chance to see, left to themselves, how kids would fare on their own. I'm sure the show will be spun as a way of helping kids understand how good they have it living with their parents, and ultimately, how much the participants learned from the experience.

But really, given what we know about the show, what did this show really reveal to us about ourselves?

It's becoming clear now, as the state of New Mexico scrambles to change their law as a means of making sure that nothing like this production happens again on its soil, that while the show might highlight humanity at it's best, it also lowlights it at its worst. The production company, while continually defending how it conducted itself, obviously played semantics with New Mexico labor law in an effort to get the product it wanted. No way would a minor as young at 8 years old be permitted to work non-stop, which is essentially what the kids were doing if they were constantly being filmed even while sleeping. And too, now that's it come to light that the families received only $5000 for the 40 days of constant taping, one can't help but wonder what was going through the minds of those parents while they essentially waived their parental rights and ultimately the life and death of their children for over a month to an entertainment company and television network. I mean, even if there was the possibility of $20k for the ultimate "winner", how far did parents think that was going to go toward college, or for that matter anything else?

And how much would $20k be worth if something happened to your child?

The fact of the matter is that this show highlights how little power these kids actually had in the course of this project. There's no possible way an eight year old could make a well-thought out decision about his or her participation in something like this. What's more, knowing what was at stake, pressure was put on the children, even if they didn't want to stay, to stick it out as a means of "winning the prize". So kids, not really knowing what they were getting into, were then put under intense pressure to tough it out under the end.

Ultimately, these kids were totally at the mercy of the producers who had essentially in their own interpretation of New Mexico state law, were able to ignore child labor regulations and use the kids as they pleased. And that, friends, really rubs me the wrong way.

In any event, don't go looking for the Buchers to watch "Kid Nation" or for Max or Xavier to be on "Kid Nation 2" anytime soon. For this is a lesson in power I'd rather they not learn at such a tender age.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

We're OK

Have received a good many messages in a variety of forms from people across the country wondering if we were OK. I couldn't figure out why until I heard today that the flooding in Findlay had made the national news.

What can I say.... I'm kinda slow.

Thanks for your concern everyone. The Buchers are safe and dry. Outside of a little trickle of water he had coming in an old pump room off the basement, we had no problems at our house. As a matter of fact now we know unequivocally that we'd need an ark-worthy storm to flood our basement. We are very, very thankful.

Unfortunately though, the area just north of us is getting pounded. Here are some pictures of the town of Ottawa (which is where our district office is):

Findlay too is getting hammered as the Blanchard River crests, leaving plenty of mud and water damage in it's wake. And pretty much everywhere located in the heart of the Maumee River watershed (which is just north of us) got flooded by little creeks that turned into swollen dangerous rivers in practically no time.

For those wondering, the Maumee River is one of the few large rivers in the world that runs north (the Nile being another), eventually emptying out into Lake Erie. That's why the places north of Lima got hit harder that we did.... that's where all the water is going.

So, while we wait for the water to recede, while wondering if the huge storms that hit Chicago today will pound us with even more rain tomorrow, the Buchers are thankful to be safe and dry, but also ready to jump into the clean up effort. And for those of you from the church or the Lima area reading this right now, we are awaiting word from the churches north of us as to what they will need from us to help them in the upcoming recovery. As soon as I know some specifics, I'll let you know how you can help us, help others.

Once again everyone, thanks for your concern, and please continue to pray for those who are looking at cleaning up some major damage, others who are just getting back to their house after being rescued and relocated to emergency shelter, and all the people working hard right now to provide relief for those in trouble. I know they'll appreciate it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think (plus 2)

1) Sorry for "Ten Things..." being posted in so unpredictably. I've just been working hard to get a whole bunch of new things off the ground. Between the youth ministry position, re-grouping the Centrum Stage Design Team, working with a fledgling new drama team, and planning every stinking service from August to next February (among all the other regular things a pastor does like weddings, funerals, visitation, writing sermons, and the like) I've just been struggling to keep up.... so something had to give. Anyhow, I'll try to get back on a schedule. Thanks for your patience.

2) What could be stranger in the pop music world right now than an artist having a top ten song about refusing to go to rehab when asked, while she is, in fact, in rehab right now? Nothing I can think of. I'm just glad that Amy Winehouse finally said "yes, yes, yes" to treatment cause it sounds like she's falling apart. Not to mention I dig her throwback Motown sound. Here's the video if you have no idea what I'm talking about:

I'm just sorry that the song is apparently written from personal experience. They say pain is fertile ground for creativity.... let's hope whatever Amy's pain is, that it will ease with time.

3) If you didn't know, or don't remember, for the entire year we lived in Wilmore, we didn't have cable. It was something I had talked about doing for a number of years, and since money was tight, o6-07 seemed like a good time to give her a whirl. Well, what I learned from that experience is that living without cable, while noble, ain't for me. I mean, I'm glad I did it, but mostly because I DID it. It's done. Kaput. Never, I think, ever to be done again.

And why would I, when there's quality TV on like "Ice Road Truckers", on the History Channel.

What could beat spending an hour listening to truckers cuss like sailors as you wait and see whether or not their rig will either go through the ice, get stuck in a white out, or meet some other grizzly ending? My wife thinks I'm crazy, but I think the show is great. Hard to believe people would go to such trouble and expense to keep a few diamond mines open, but then again, with the demand for "bling" being what it is, I'm sure it's more than lucrative. Anyhow, this is one of my two top shows of the summer.

4) The other show is one on VH1 called "Scott Baio is 45 Single". Another reality show, it's a fascinating look at Scott Baio, (for those who don't know) an actor whose popularity peaked more than 20 years ago and is probably even more well-known for being one of Hollywood's leading ladies men. It doesn't take to long to figure out that now, deep into middle age, Baio's life is now a parody of itself. The entourage he's run around with for years (which includes Jason Hervey, who was the older brother on The Wonder Years) is finally (save one guy, who is in his mid 50's and still glomming off Baio's waning popularity to bed women) growing up. Having run around the Hollywood scene for so long, Baio just looks perpetually shell-shocked. It's like he's seen so much debauchery that he's desensitized to anything and everything that would be shocking to those of us in the regular world, and (on the flip side) shocked by that which most others would consider "normal" (namely, settling down, being monogamous, and having kids). To watch him grapple with the possibility of settling down with one woman and having a family is watching man go through a well-edited midlife crisis. And yet as he struggles to recognize the pain he's cause others (mainly women), and figure out why he's terrified of commitment, I'm fascinated by watching the person cope with what it means to finally admit they need to grow up, and move on. It's a living sermon illustration, both in terms of an example of redemption, and also a cautionary tale. If my parishoner's threshold for acceptable entertainment was as low as mine, I'd write a sermon series around this show (using Samson as the parallel).

Did I mention how much I like having cable?

5) If you didn't catch this post and this post from last week, I spent about a total of 27 hours in New York City last Thursday and Friday. The purpose was to meet with some folks at the UMC General Board of Global Ministry office to talk about UMCOR's (the United Methodist Committee On Relief) future plans for its involvement in Haiti, and how Shawnee UMC might be able to assist. I mentioned in the last post that while the meeting wasn't as productive as I hoped, the trip in and of itself was worth it if only cause I got to spend some time with Sam Dixon, the General Secretary of UMCOR. Outside of the stuff I learned about UMCOR and Haiti, after a shared car ride, and a few hours talking in Delta's Crown Club at LaGuardia Airport, I learned a lot of interesting things about the "relief industry" (Sam's words), which include:

- Denomination with the biggest relief organization in the world? If you said Roman Catholic, you'd be wrong. Apparently the Lutherans (ECLA) are the big player on the block, active everywhere in the world (who knew), largely financed not only by their congregations, but also sizable investments and their insurance wing (of which Aimee and I are participants... her family was Lutheran).

- The people working in the Women's Division office across the hall from the GBGM offices aren't the warmest or friendliest people in the world, particularly if you are a man. Given my experience with them while in conference ministry (many moons ago as the IGRAC rep to COSROW), I can't say I'm surprised. It was like being Wells Hall's Associated Womyn's Services rep all over again.

- Because relief agencies are being increasingly regulated all over the world, and also because the UN coordinates much of the relief effort in war torn places, relief organizations are hiring a lot of former British military personnel because they understand how to work in the UN's multi-layered command structure structure. Who knew?

- UMCOR has changed its focus. It used to be that it provided emergency relief in disaster situations with the immediacy of a Red Cross. But three or four years ago, it began, instead, to be part of the follow-up rebuilding process. That takes place after other agencies make an initial response. The reason for this is that in the "relief industry", a few organizations have carved out a niche around addressing issues over the first thirty days of a disaster.

- Total amount the United Methodist Church collects in one year? About $6 Billion, with the vast majority of the total going toward work in the local church.

- All of the major denominations in the world now cooperate together through an organization founded for that purpose in Geneva, Switzerland. Thus, while we might be struggling to work together ecumenically in our communities, in terms of serving the world's poor we are apparently much further along. That helps me sleep a little bit better.

6) We did some drama as a part of last week's service. It's was a blatant ripoff of the old TV sitcom, "Home Improvement". A lot of people after the service wanted to know who was playing the title character (the "Tim the Tool Man" character, who we named "Jim"), as they'd never seen him around these part before. Well, when we first had this idea to do seven weeks of running drama with this current sermon series, "Jesus In The Suburbs", I knew that from a drama perspective we'd need someone really good to pull of "Jim". Someone who really knew something about acting, and in particular, comedy.

Enter Jon Hodges. Aimee and I have known Jon since high school. Ever since he played a role in one of Miss Longbrake's plays at Lima Senior back in the day, he's had the acting bug. Now, here in the Lima area, you'll see him in any number of local productions produced either at the Encore Theater or in other ventures of community theater (most recently in the Playfair production of "The Alligator Boy" which ran at the Civic Center the past two weekends). A lifelong United Methodist, Jon is on loan to us for a month from Westside United Methodist Church, where he is a faithful member. If you didn't see him at last week's service, he, and our very own Paul Clemans (who played "Spalding") were great. Don't miss them in the coming weeks.

7) As a quick note, if you liked this past week's sermon, it, and this series, were inspired by two books I read this past spring: "Death by Suburb" by David Goetz and "Plastic Jesus" by Eric Sandras. For anyone who feels like the established church is just kind of "hollow", I'd encourage them to pick up either title. Both books, I think, pinpoint the kind of lackluster-don't-offend-anybody-health-and-wealth theology that's now running rampant in our nation's mega-churches. All of the preachers (and now the author of "The Secret") out there telling people that God wants them to be rich I think have kind of missed the point of a gospel preached by a man who owned almost nothing and called us to pour out our lives on behalf of others. Anyhow, both books are good reads if you are interested in looking beyond this series to more personal study. I'll also be reading "Jesus of Suburbia: Have we tamed the Son of God to fit our lifestyle?" very soon.

8) In a strange twist of fate, Mayor David Berger will be advising the City Council before tonight's third and final reading of the Inter-Governmental Agreement between Lima and the Eastern Shawnee to NOT vote for the agreement and the subsequent posting of it on the ballot this coming fall. The city, which spent $15,000 to hire a lawyer with extensive experience dealing with Indian tribes to check out the agreement that it's attorneys had hammered out with the Eastern Shawnee, found out that IGA didn't turn out to be all that great. Now, the two sides are back at the table, and the Eastern Shawnee are balking at fixing a number of loose ends in the current pact that could be possibility exploited at the gain of the Tribe and their corporate financial backers.

What a surprise.

This isn't the last we've heard of this, I'm sure, but if doing a little homework on this agreement turned out to be so eye-opening that the Mayor would one-eighty on something only a week ago he was pushing City Council to pass without reading a final agreement, how much more valuable would an economic impact study NOT commissioned by the Tribe be to helping local officials and voters decide whether or not this really is a good thing for the community?

9) If it rains anymore today, I'm going to start building an ark. We are approaching 3 inches of rain for the day, and still counting. My dog had to swim out into our backyard to use the bathroom this morning. It's really coming down hard.

10) Finally (if you think this takes a long time to read, you ought to try writing it), I've got four of the church visits I need to do for my dissertation tentatively set up. In the coming months, I'll be at the Downtown Baptist Church (Alexandria, Virginia), Indian River United Methodist Church (Indian River, Florida), St. Luke Community United Methodist Church (or as the locals call it, "The Luke", in Dallas, Texas), and Fairhaven Church (Fairborn, Ohio). I could also too be visiting Mt. Pisgah UMC in Atlanta, but I'll have to wait and see on that one. Just letting my Beeson brothers and sister know that if we don't get that free trip to Israel for all be done with our work by May 2009, that it won't be because of me.....

so get crackin' you Beeson slackers!

Just kidding. I miss you guys.

+1) Just read the pending deal that Michael Vick will agree to in regard to the charges he's facing thanks to be being involved in dog-fighting. What in the name of all that's holy was Vick thinking? Is dog-fighting so lucrative that a $130 million dollar contract to play football worth risking? And who gets their thrills watching two dogs fight to the death? Turns my stomach just thinking about it.

+2) A couple of weeks ago, a fellow Beeson pastor, Nolan Donald sent me this news article link and another related link. The articles refer to Southwestern Baptist Seminary's new program where women can take classes toward earning a certificate in becoming (I am not making this up) a Certified Christian Housewife. You too can take classes in doing laundry, sewing, screening content to be watched by your kids, cooking, and even a class in what it means to be the wife of a purpose-driven pastor.

Um..... yeah.

I like this excerpt from the USA Today article:

Seminary officials say the main focus of the courses is on hospitality in the home — teaching women interior design as well as how to sew and cook. Women also study children's spiritual, physical and emotional development. Yet the program is raising eyebrows among some Southern Baptists, who say a degree concentration in how to be a Christian housewife is not useful, and a waste of seminary resources.

I just can't believe this is for real. That's what makes it so strange... this is really for real.

Call me a liberal hippy, but I'm guessing that in 50 years when someone looks back at SBS' academic catalogue there will be more than a little bit of cringing. Kind of like the way the Catholic church now regrets telling Galileo he was a heretic for believing that the earth revolved around the sun.

Anyhow, I've got to go. Tongiht I'm cooking dinner while destroying gender stereotyping. We'll be having mac and cheese with a side-dish of mutual respect and dignity. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Getting All That You Need

The older I get, the more convinced I am that people live their life defined by the reality of their own death. The immanent and unavoidable end of their existence here in earth. For some people the notion that they only get one turn round on this crazy ol' world has led them to the place that they want to fearlessly stare death in the face. Their mantra is "eat and drink and live today, for tomorrow we die", so they span the globe looking for experiences they've never had before, and take wild chances with their own life, wringing every last drop of adrenaline out of their glands.

For others the reality of death is so overwhelming they hide from others, paralyzed by their own fears. Fearfully, they cope with overwhelming anxiety about what the future holds, venturing little or nothing, under the logic of why take a needless chance.

Still others have lived lives, either in reality or in their heads, that have been so painful, so difficult, that they begin to believe that death is the only way out of their misery. They'll begin to dance a morbid dance, often killing themselves slowly with self-destructive behavior that often causes great pain to those who love them.

And there are also others who have decided that what lies on the other side of death is the only thing that's truly good in life. They build their lives around the premise that life has to be endured until finally a reward can be realized in an afterlife. And it's that afterlife, heaven or whatever a particular religion calls it, they focus on and live for, often turning their backs on this world we live in, so as to embrace the next.

But for, what I believe, is the vast majority of people, life is spent just trying to keep death at bay. At a little further than an arm's reach, where it can't claim us, or those who we love in life. We work to earn money so that which might kills us - hunger, a lack of shelter, disease, the evil of others - to enable us to get what we need to keep death howling far away from our door. And while we are at it, we try to make the little cocoon we we weave for ourselves; the space behind the hedge we plant and nurture marking the barrier where we are safe; more comfortable.

Such is the premise behind the late 20th century American phenomenon we call "the suburb". Safe, clean, communities where people share similar values about those things they want to exist in their neighborhood - maintaining property so it will rise in value, good schools, quiet streets, no crime, and the like - and those things they don't. They are communities, I believe people move to because the quality of life is high, and the likelihood of something bad happening at least seems less probable to happen to us. And it matters not, really, if your idea of this kind of better place is a more conventional suburb like Shawnee, or what you conceive is a better neighborhood in town, or a move from the city to the country, or from a village to a town with more to offer, we're all just really chasing the same thing.

A safer, nicer place.

That, I believe, is what most people want. I was watching this show on TV the other night, a show called "Cribs" on MTV, where a camera crew goes to the house, the crib, of a celebrity or extremely wealthy person, and that person takes them on a tour. And the night I was watching, the featured celeb was Snoop Dogg. The D - O - double G. Here's a guy who's made millions of dollars rapping about how hard, or wild, life is in the ghetto, and where's he living now? The suburbs, of course, in huge house with a manicured lawn, formal sitting room, huge garage filled with lots of cars, fully stocked kitchen, and his own recording studio.

A gangster who now prints off rules that are posted throughout the house in order to keep it clean, neat and tidy. For shizzle my hizzle. And you get bet nobody is popping caps into anybody else. No way. Instead, Snoop's kids are doing their homework and watching Scooby Doo.

And this, pretty much, is what people are looking to do. Move from down the hill, up the hill, from a life of poverty and uncertainty, to four bedrooms, three square meals, health insurance, and nice 401k. Just ask people living in Banglore, India or Shanghai, China... the suburbs are the place to be.

But the thing about affluence, the thing about moving up the ladder, about power and responsibility, is that its a double-edged sword. With the greater reward, comes greater responsibility, greater pressure, and greater stress. It's an age old issue B-I-G summed up as mo' money, mo' problems. So old, in fact that its as old as the Bible itself.

Have you ever read the story of Solomon - the son who succeeded David to the throne of Israel, who as a young child asked God for wisdom? The man regarded as the wisest in history, the person who is credited for writing the vast wisdom that makes sense even to this day in the book of Proverbs, as his responsibilities grew with the size and scope of his kingdom, was forced to make harder and harder choices as he navigated the murky seas of leading a nation.

You know why Solomon, for example, had over 800 wives and concubines? It's not, as a former student in a confirmation class once said, because he was "a horny old goat". At least, not solely because of that, anyway. In Solomon's time, kings took wives from other national leaders, other royal families, as a means of cementing alliances, treaties, and agreements. Solomon was so shrewd a negotiator, that he ushered into Israel unprecedented wealth and peace. A time so rich that not only was able to build up Jerusalem into a major city, complete with the first permanent temple of the Lord and a palace so opulent it was the envy of his world.

But in making the choices that he did, by exercising his great wisdom, Solomon ushered into Israel even more difficult problems. The 800 women brought with them their religions and customs, bringing with them idols the superstitions that confused God's people. Wealth for huge building projects meant the enslavement of those people so those projects could get built, leading to resentment among the subjects for Solomon's lack of concern for their welfare. A resentment so great that upon the confusion of who should have succeeded Solomon as king (the guy did have 800 wives - that made eventually for lots of potential heirs) part of the kingdom took the opportunity to be freed from Solomon's legacy.

He built a great kingdom, but also sowed the seeds for it's demise. The wisest man in the history of the world.

So it should be of no great surprise to us that statistically speaking, when we talk about things like divorce, treatment for anxiety and depression, suicide rates, drug and alcohol dependency, incidents of diseases associated with high stress and lack of self-care, and the high cost of white collar crime, that the suburbs aren't really the haven of safety and security we think they are. And even more telling, surveys of Christians versus non-Christian people show absolutely no difference in the chances of a marriage surviving or failing or a prescription being issued for an anxiety disorder. As a matter of fact now, one-quarter of all Christians are now perpetually church-shopping, hopping from one church to the next, looking for better program or preaching or counseling or something they keep looking for.

It's no wonder Jesus is so direct, in his parable of the bigger barn, when he calls the rich man who builds the bigger barn for his abundant harvest so he can quit work and lounge about doing what he wants, a fool, because the stuff we use to build the hedges that supposedly will make us, if not immortal, less mortal, are an illusion. An illusion that fooled the man that he had it made, when in fact, it wasn't what made him at all. The bigger barn is for Jesus, nothing but a missed opportunity. A wealth of potential experiences and relationships never realized because the rich farmer thought he could live off what was in the barn. Instead, now it sits, the unrealized potential of a man, now dead, his possessions to be fought over by those who are left behind.

Now don't misunderstand me: It's not the wealth that makes the guy foolish. Being wealthy doesn't make you inherently evil anymore than being poor makes you inherently holy. I've long since abandoned the notion the idea that the key to spirituality is to stay poor or powerless. That kind of idea can become every bit the destructive idol people will use to put themselves up on a pedestal above their brothers and sisters, as those who can travel first-class will use their wealth and power to do the same.

The sin of the rich man is the sin Jesus tells us we must be wary of here in the suburbs. The sin of believing that things sustain us. The sin of separating ourselves from one another, except largely only when it's mutually beneficial, in order to be protected and comfortable. The sin of leaving behind little more than a barn filled with stuff that will be divided up, and that's it because we never believed we could really amount to anything more. That's the sin that dogs us all.

The sin that deceives us into measuring the success of our life by our things and place in our tiny little corner of the world. A sin that might help us end up in a safe, comfortable car, while never looking for the opportunities now given to us to use our things and place to bring glory and honor to the living God. A sin which localizes the effect of our fruit and character, when really, all along, the joy and fulfillment from being able to reach beyond what you thought you could, is unrealized.

The unforced rhythms of grace lead us to live life at a a pace Jesus promises will be more sustainable, even if at times it can demand more of us. A pace, which after pondering for awhile, Paul says will lead to fruit in our lives that's more meaningful and deep. New measures of success like the depth of our affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick it out no matter what "it" might be. Measures of success that involve the depth of compassion in our heart, a conviction that basic holiness permeates things and people, a life filled with loyal commitments, where are able collaboratively with others to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

A life that can only begin if we change in our minds and hearts what we think the nature of the trophy and award will be when we get to the finish line. Because whatever it is you are racing after, will be what you'll end up with.

So for you, what wouid that be? And if, by chance, it's "more" of something, when will you know you have finished?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Live From New York.... It's Thursday Night!!!

Well, in yet another strange turn in this ministerial odyssey, I find myself this minute in the heart of Greenwich Village where I'm staying at the Alma Matthews House, which is a guest house owned by the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church. I just returned from a short walk where I ordered two slices of Two Boots Pizza where they have specialty pizzas named after celebrities and show business characters. I went with two slices of "The Dude" pizza, which had a bunch of cheeses and some sausage.

Now, "The Dude" abides. "The Dude" abides.

I also picked up a bottle of Boylan's Black Cherry Soda which was delicious and refreshing. Those Jones Soda people have got nothing on the good people of Boylan's. Absolutely nothing.

But you're probably wondering... what the heck are you doing in New York City?

It all started over a year ago. One day, late in the afternoon, almost evening, while I was sitting in my office, out of the blue I received a call from someone from UMCOR - the United Methodist Committee On Relief which is a missions organization of the United Methodist Church. Back in 2005, UMCOR, as a response to terrible flooding in Gonaive, Haiti, established an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) to do ongoing relief work after a long, long absence from what is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. By the spring of 2006, people at the UMCOR office here in New York, began to wonder what exactly they were going to do with the personnel (I think one person) on the ground in Haiti, particularly in the northern part of the island. You see, the Methodist Church in Haiti is well established in the southern third of Haiti because back in the 19th century, after Haiti won its independence, the Baptists, Episcopalians, and Methodists missionaries decided to split up the island into thirds for the purpose of evangelism. The Baptists took the north, the Episcopalians took the central highlands, and the Methodists took the south (including Port Au Prince, the country's biggest city). Most of our denomination's mission work takes place until this very day in southern Haiti.

Of course, nobody told me that bit of history back in 1993, when I went to Haiti on behalf of Shawnee to go see if there was any interesting mission work for us to do there We had no idea there were no Methodists in the part of Haiti I first visited. However, given the friends and contacts that were made that year, the question of denominational affiliation (to tell the truth) didn't seem all that important. So, for the past 14 years, Shawnee has largely worked with churches of various denominational backgrounds and small independent mission organizations to engage in a variety of projects throughout northern Haiti. And to be quite honest, we didn't really think too much about it....

until somehow, the folks at UMCOR got our church's name.

Apparently, the guy who called me from UMCOR knew a bit of our story, and because we'd been working in Haiti for a fairly long time, asked if we'd like to be a part of the visioning process for UMCOR's future work in the CapHaitian area. It sounded promising to me, so I said "yes". The guy said he would call back with more details about a "fact-finding trip", I hung up the phone, and never heard from him again.

Fast-forward to June 2007....

Upon arriving back to Shawnee from my one year sojourn to Asbury Seminary and the Beeson Program, I found in my desk the piece of paper with all the details I had written down from the phone call I had taken from UMCOR a year previous. Curious, through their website, I found UMCOR's number, and gave them a call to see if I could find the guy who had called me a year ago, and ask the question, "What happened?".

It did not take long find out that what happened was that the guy I talked to left UMCOR, and never passed our number to anyone else. But the person who answered the phone was nice enough, and patched me over to a guy named Sam Dixon, who he said could answer any questions I might have.

Sam Dixon is the head honcho at UMCOR, and when I told him my story of what had happened a year ago, what Shawnee had been doing in Haiti the past 13 years, and some of our hopes and dreams for the future, he asked if I'd be interested in coming to talk with him and some other folks some more. I agreed, realizing that such promises from UMCOR are probably not worth that much...

but low and behold, this time he called. Late last week, to be exact.

Thus, here I am, typing this post late at night in the city that never sleeps. Tomorrow, I'm told I'll be meeting with Sam, the doctor who is the head of UMCOR's medical division, and the Bishop of the Methodist Church of Haiti to talk about the plans the Methodist Church of Haiti and UMCOR have for the CapHaitian area. What will it lead to? I have no idea.

But, then again, you never know.... maybe God is getting ready to write the next chapter in our church's work in Haiti. I'll let you know when I find out.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Sin Nobody Is Talking About

For those who don't know, for a good many years now, virtually every Saturday night before I preach, I hang out in my office until the wee hours (although "wee" keeps getting earlier and earlier the older I get... by the time I'm 50 "wee" will be 7:15pm) kind of shaping up a sermon that usually I've been (theoretically) thinking about all week long. I have been taking a ton of grief from a few of my Beeson Pastoral pals because the last sermon I preached on campus (a sermon that looked at the parallel stories of Judah and Joseph in Genesis) I sketched out on the back of an envelope that got tossed just a couple of days later whilst packing up my study carrel. Word of this leaked out when Alicia Coltzer learned of it upon asking me for "the written draft of my sermon".

Um.... right. Written draft.

You see, I've written exactly four sermons in the last ten years or so. I wrote a sermon out in Goshen the first Sunday I returned to the Downtown Campus after creating a stir on Christmas Eve by telling those in attendance that evening in the message that I pay my father-in-law in beer to work on my car and that I had "knocked up" my wife twice (which has happened again since we left). I wrote it just to make sure that I didn't slip up and offend overly sensitive ears (as God as my witness... I had used the line about my Lutheran father-in-law in other sermons there and never had a problem, and I had no idea that "Knocked Up" was to older generations what the f-bomb is to mine. I just didn't know.) I wrote a letter to my son as a Father's Day sermon here two years ago, a letter to Wade Broadwater for a "Freedom Sunday" service this year, and the first sermon I gave at Asbury for Dr. Kalas (cause I was really nervous, and thought I wouldn't be able to remember it.... it was a disaster anyway).

But other than that, most of my sermons are scratched on small pieces of paper (usually, quite honestly, the backs of used envelopes) and aren't written out as much as they are outlined with key words that help me remember the order and place of the content. I've never really thought too much about this, and just always kind of did what I've always been doing... that is until I took a razzing this summer.

So, I'm making no promises, but this is my first (and maybe my only) attempt at sketching out in written form what I usually only do either mentally using (please don't laugh) visualization techniques or on the back of an envelope. We'll see how it goes.

One of my favorite pop songs has always been "It's a Sin" by the Pet Shop Boys (what can I say... I grew up in the eighties. So shoot me.), which is actually kind of a downer tune about a guy who feels like his whole life has missed the mark.

"Father forgive me, I tried not to do it. Turned over a new life, then tore right through it. Whatever you taught me, I didn't believe it. Father you fought me, cause I didn't care, and I still don't understand."

I like the song cause it's hits on the sensitive theme of Jesus setting the bar of acceptable conduct too high for real people to clear, and then the church working to raise that bar even higher by expecting folks to not only be sin-free, but also to be shiny, happy people with no problems all the time. That and it's eurotrash dance music, which, like disco and funk, I enjoy.

Hey, before you go throwing stones, remember that nobody has good taste in everything. You either thought "Beaches" was a good movie, "Loverboy" or "The Monkeys" or "Uriah Heep" was the next great thing in music, miss some piece of clothing or hairdo no one should ever wear, or secretly actually enjoy all this tabloid Brittney-Spears-Lindsay-Lohan dreck they sell on the shelves at the supermarket. Somehow, your "taste-o-meter" got a bit off. It happens to all of us.

Anyhow, the song does a good job of identifying the problem of sin: if you don't want to do it, you do anyway, and sometimes when you don't even know it.

But what, exactly, is sin?

In the Old Testament, sin became those things you said or did that violated the law handed down by God to Moses, and the only way you could overcome it, was to repent by making a blood sacrifice of an animal you owned. The animal was not only a gift to the priests and levites of the Temple, but a symbolic act of putting the animal in your place so it would take the punishment you deserved. Curiously enough, throughout the OT there was no "after-worldly" dimension to the sacrificial act, meaning that the act of sacrifice symbolically reconciled you to God and his community right now. Because the idea of an afterlife (outside of some references to an underworld where the dead go, particularly in a story we're told of Saul going to the witch living in Endore for the purpose of conjuring up the prophet Samuel from that underworld), the idea of "heaven" and "hell", don't really get developed in Jewish theology until the age of the Babylonian exile, and then the inter-testimental period. The idea of sin, originally, comes out of the idea of maintaining a solid relationship with God, and others, and not violating those rules set down in order to keep that kind of order.

Sin, by the time Jesus arrives on the scene, has always been for Israel a corporate and collective reality. But even then, sin didn't as much keep people out of heaven as it prevented God from showing his favor on all of Israel. Thus, religious groups like the Pharisees, as portrayed in the New Testament, don't emphasize the condemnation of sinners to an eternity in hell as the wage for their actions, as much as they blame them for God not putting Israel in her right place in the world as the ruling nation of everyone. Thus, sinners made Israel impure, which made it impossible for God to bless Israel cause He can't bless something impure, leading to the scapegoating of sinners (and usually those who committed scandalous sins) as the reason why Israel was occupied and ruled by inferior pagans.

It's hard for us now to get inside this concept of sin because we don't have the same kind of national and religious identity that Israel did in Jesus' day. Christianity is an international phenomena, and while at one time Western Europe and (to a degree) the United States viewed themselves as "Christian Nations", we've never ever had the same kind of unified vision of our place in the world that Israel has. Couple that with the reality that the balance of power in terms of numbers of practicing, believing Christians is moving south of the equator, while the west increasingly becomes more humanistic and secular, and you get the age we live in now, which is an age very, very different than that of Jesus' world.

Jesus recognizes the burden that the Pharisees have placed on the backs of sinners. Not only were they being punished in this life and most likely in the afterlife for their transgressions, but in the meantime their punishment had to bared by also their friends, family, and all their Jewish brothers and sisters.... condemning everyone to God's punishment in this life.

The ironic aspect to all of this is that by doing this, the Pharisees sin themselves by judging themselves better than others... an irony not lost of Jesus. He gets to this as much when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he mocks the "holiness" of the Pharisees by telling all those listening that if they behave better than the Pharisees, they'll invite condemnation by God. For example, if you follow the logic of the Pharisaic thinking, not only can you not engage in sexual sin, but even thinking about a sinful sexual act will get you, and everyone, the same punishment than if you actually committed the sin you daydreamed about. That's the endpoint to the Pharisees definition of holiness, and its a standard Jesus says is not achievable in the real world. Trusting in a system of belief as ludicrous as one that scapegoated sinners while trying to shame them into better behavior so God could finally act, Jesus concludes, is like building a house on a foundation of sand directly next to an ocean. The system, and your place in it, is bound to fail.

And, eventually, it did.

Instead, Jesus offers sinners hope. Hope in believing not just that whatever sin beguiles us can really be overcome because God wants to give us the strength to do so, but more importantly, hope that God will bless the world even though sinners live in it. A blessing, I might add, available to us all, if only we ask for it.

The significance of this cannot be understated. People's sin couldn't force God into not acting, or universally condemning everybody. Humanity doesn't have that kind of power. And, in fact, God does redeem Israel as the hope of all the nations in that the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob becomes the God available to all.

But the funny thing about history, is that eventually, even though Jesus willingly breaks Jewish law as a means of demonstrating how his teaching is not only superior, but also that the real needs of people are more important that rules than prevent real needs being met for the sake of "purity", that in funny ways, we often treat sin the same way the Pharisees do: as a collective force that will eventually doom us all.

And that is the sin nobody is talking about: the sin of the church offering the world, not hope, but a sense that individuals had better save themselves as the world goes to hell in a hand-basket. Once again, sin cannot be defeated cause it's too pervasive and becoming nothing but more abundant... and all in an age where never before in all of history have we been more blessed by God than we are now... educationally, technologically, medically, and in a host of other ways that past generations could only dream.

Now is the time for hopelessness?

I think not.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Another Sign of the Apocalypse v2.0

In a moment of down time, I saw this article just posted on the, which will no doubt be featured on the front page of tomorrow's paper:

NEW: Starbucks is here
Beth L. Jokinen |
- 08.07.2007

LIMA, 11:55 a.m., Aug. 7 — Your Starbucks coffee is now being served.

A Starbucks kiosk opened this morning in the 200 Building on the University of Northwestern Ohio’s campus. It is located across from the newly renovated bookstore and operated by Barnes and Noble College Booksellers.

The kiosk will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. There are designated customer parking spots outside the building.

University President Jeff Jarvis said construction of a full Barnes and Noble store, which will serve Starbucks, should begin soon and take about two years. The 16,000-square foot facility will be located off of Hartzler Road.

Read more about this story in Wednesday's The Lima News.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the line at this Starbucks will be ten miles long every single hour for the foreseeable future. You see, not much changes in this town, so when something new is added we lose our minds. Case in Point: I remember when Shoney's opened out by I-75 that you couldn't get a seat at dinner without waiting at least 30 minutes pretty much every night for EIGHT MONTHS! There was even an article about it in the Lima News back in the day.

Eight months waiting to eat at a Shoney's that ended up being so poorly run that it closed three years later. Heaven help us if we get a Chipotle Grill, A TGI Fridays, or an Outback Steakhouse. The town might come apart at the seams.

Anyhow, I'm sure the locals will rejoice greatly at this bit of good news. Thank goodness too that The Meeting Place, which is essentially been Lima's only real coffee house, has worked hard to upgrade the quality of it's product (to the point that you can get a pretty good cup of joe down there now.... kudos to their continued improvement) because having a nice place to meet downtown is real asset to the community (even though the meter maids patrol West Street like a maximum security prison). Yours truly, being no better or worse than the rest of the populace, will take a magazine with him as he waits in line for an hour for a Frappacino or a grande cup of Breakfast Blend. If that makes me nothing but a corporate toady and a a mindless sheep, then so be it... especially if it means I can get a decent cup of coffee out of the deal.


Welcome to Lima, Starbucks! Brace yourself for our "hello".

Monday, August 06, 2007

An Overdue Ten Things I Think I Think

1) So the obvious question is, "What the heck happened to you? You promised six more things, and then disappeared for two weeks. What gives?"

Well, if you remember correctly, in my last post, I mentioned that we really didn't have much of a clue as to what we were going to do for our vacation. We had toyed with the idea of amusement parks, visiting friends, and the like but having just bought a home, some furniture, and just renovated our basement (to turn it into a finished rec room), funds were tight. So, we went to Goshen, planning to visit friends for a couple of days, and then kinda of just figured we'd figure out what to do next.

I have to say that a lot of neat things have happened to me through the writing of this blog. Since it's really my own journal, I like to go back and read both the blogs I've posted, and those I chose not to, just to get a sense of where my head was at. This blog has also helped me make friends here in the area (a big "shout out" to you Thief) and across the ocean (particularly in London after my two part post on my experience at Holy Trinity Brompton). It got me corrected via email by a leading pastor in the "Emerging Church" movement and engendered the wrath of some faithful members a church in Seattle led by a pastor who has a history of teaching things about a woman's place in church and home that just didn't seem right. But after reading my last post, Vanessa Stalkamp (a faithful member at Shawnee) told her husband, Eric (one of the last 4 or 5 NHL fans left in the Lower 48) about our lack of vacation plans. In turn, he text me to call him (how 21st Century), and they offered us their lake house as a vacation destination.

I mean.... how wonderfully bizarre is that?

After 3.5 seconds of discussion, we graciously accepted their offer, cut our visit to Goshen short (considering that at the house we were staying, there were four adults, seven kids, and one dog under one roof, I think they were happy to see us move on), and spent six days swimming, jet skiing, boating, playing games, and watching "family movies" (Cars and The Aristocats). Of course, I also locked us out of the house one evening and ruined a tow rope, but we corrected those things! In any case, it was a very, very nice week, and we thank the Stalkamps for their generosity.

2) But still, why no updates? Well, while on vacation, mostly because we didn't know what we were doing, I didn't take my laptop with me. And while my phone is WiFi enabled, it would have taken me forever to punch in with my thumbs six more things on my tiny QWERTY keyboard (which would have left my wife alone with all three boys for hours while I would have been at the coffeehouse in Coldwater, Michigan bogarting their free WiFi access. I like being married, so I chose differently.)

Then upon my return to the working world, there was just too much to do. We had three youth ministry candidates at church the first Sunday we were back which required multiple interviews, a weekly service had to be planned, discussions had to be had with the Centrum Stage Decoration Team (for our next sermon series, "Jesus In the Suburbs", starting August 19th), a team to write dramas for that series had to be organized, phone calls had to be returned, an interview in Fort Wayne had to be conducted, and we also experienced the passing of two members of our church family. Couple that with a wife and three boys having my undivided attention one week for a vacation, and their still wanting me around even after returning to work, and I just ran out of time.

3) Which leads me to this... I have noticed a lot of differences between being an associate pastor and a senior pastor, but the biggest difference, by far, are the demands that are put on your time. It wasn't like I was just sitting around twiddling my thumbs as an associate pastor. Far from it. Back in the "salad days" at Goshen First, particularly, my schedule was insane. Not only was I working every work day, but I'd teach an adult bible study on Monday evening, do worship planning Tuesday evening, process over the TGIW Youth ministry on Wednesday, shoot short videos (when necessary) on Thursdays, do "The Peak" on Sunday nights, and somehow in there fit in evening meetings and counseling. I probably worked 70-80+ hours every week.

No, it's not the volume of time that overwhelms me: it's the sense of responsibility. The inability to get away from everything that needs to be done. The mountain of praying, listening, researching, planning, organizing, executing, and evaluating that needs to be done in every single aspect of ministry. Before, I was worried about my areas of responsibility. Now, I'm concerned with overall direction, effectiveness and health of the church as a whole... and that's a huge change that will take some time getting used to. While even now, when I introduce myself as the "Senior Pastor at Shawnee United Methodist Church", hearing the words come out of my mouth just seem surreal. I keep waiting to get a call from Joseph asking me who in the world I think I am.

Someday, soon, I suspect though, I'll wake up to the reality that I'm not some pastoral usurper and Joseph ain't gonna call to put me in my place. This is my place now, and it will take some getting used to.

4) Fortunately, I'm finding out just how great the staff and people of this church truly are. I always loved my time at Shawnee as a youth pastor, and having survived a two year "trial by fire" ordeal as Joe's chief spear carrier and another year getting treated like royalty by the Beeson Center, I am reconnecting with that joy and passion I had a young dreamer so many years ago. I credit this mainly to all that the Lord is teaching me, and the staff and lay-leadership of this church.

Charlotte Hefner, our associate pastor, I think is just starting to get used to the idea, after so many years of taking care of endless details, what leading others to take care of details will look like for her. And she's so smart that I can't wait to see what dreams start becoming reality in the areas of discipleship ministry for all ages. I'm watching Shane Hollar transform from the guy who played piano and wrote out the music for the band, to someone developing a vision for music, tech, and visual ministry here at the church. I love watching Christie Lewis and Billie Hollar begin wrapping their brains around the possibilities for Children's ministry. I sense an excitement in Cathy Dempsey, our long-time Administrative Secretary, as I hear her talking about the Spirit moving, slowly but surely, among us. I witness the dedication of Barb Brenneman to our older adults and shut-ins, while enjoying how well we are working together (with Charlotte) as a team to make sure people are visited and cared for. I watch Mike Sheets throw himself into his work of maintaining this building, coming in on days off to make sure things are working properly and the plant is ready for us. I feed off of Sharon Barr's energy for making music, and her passion for her church home, while I marvel at how dedicated Sue Anne Shaw is providing this church with good music, filling in anyway she can so that people might be touched by God through a ministry of praise. I appreciate the relationship that Diane Hile and I are forging, as we seek to work together to do what's best for both our children's ministry and our excellent pre-school and daycare.

And all the lay-leaders and volunteers.... shoot. How are you ever going to do better than having Roger Rhodes help you sort through financial and personnel issues, or his wife, Judy, offering to help out any way she can (and subsequently doing so)? Who has greater measure of faith than a Ruth Anne Loar, or a bigger bear hug than Bob Brenneman? Who can give better counsel than a Glenn Derryberry or Cecily Crider, or push you harder to think through your theology than a Rob Neidich? Or who is better organizational thinker than Arlene Joyce? Bretta Roush, Brian Adams, Dr. and Mrs. Becker, the Johnsons, Peaks, Millers, Yunkers, Millie (the world's best neighbor) Hughes, the Stalkamps, and on and on and on and on. I'm a pastor who goes to the Kewpee, and gets to talk to one my parishioners, Jeri Moyes, about her ongoing ministry of praying for her customers and co-workers. I believe in our public school system cause I know people like Tony Cox are working with our children, our civil service system cause people like Roy Tordiff are working hard to serve the people, and our military cause a classy young man like Wade Broadwater serves with dignity. People like Don Fischer and The Immlers use their gifts to so that others in this world, people they don't know, might have access to clean water or medical care... and it energizes me!

Top that off with Sue Dickerson loving my mom into the choir and this church, and Stan Weller inviting me over for the occasional bowl of chili.... and, well, you'd have to be dead to not get geeked to be where I am right now: serving with all these people, and so many more, who just love Jesus and his people.

I have my days, just like other people, but all in all, I love my job!

5) I want to extend my condolences to both the families of Mary Lou Hosselman and Willi DaPore. Never in my career have I been blessed before by doing two funerals back-to-back. I attribute this to the abundant love that these women had for their friends and family, and how that love was reflected back to me in the stories the families and friends of these wonderful people told me about their lives. I know that the coming days will be hard for those who left grieving, but that everyone could have a mother or grandmother like Mary Lou or Willi, this world's ills would cured... and that's the truth.

6) Had a nice lunch last week with Father Steve Blum, senior pastor of St. Charles Catholic Church here in Lima. Shawnee has a great working relationship with St. Charles, and I attribute that to Father Steve's willingness to work ecumenically in this community, and across the world. I am excited at the prospect of doing some good work with him as we seek to eradicate hunger in this community through our annual "Harvest for the Hungry Community Food Drive", discuss ways that the church community can address the needs of people living in our community who are impoverished and disenfranchised, and how we might join together to address the challenge of the City of Lima's willingness to bring a casino to town (which, in case you hadn't caught it, I am fully opposed to). Praying with him, I am reminded that in Christ, truly, there is no east or west, or north or south.

7) And speaking of the casino issue, it blows my mind that the Mayor and City Council of Lima are willing to spend $15,000 on legal fees associated with making sure this Intergovernmental Agreement is in line with the guidelines of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but fail to see the need to commission an independent study to determine the potential impact of a facility like this on our community. I suggested this in a letter to the editor of the Lima News over a year ago, and still the city continues to march forward on this issue using only information provided to it by the Eastern Shawnee tribe.

What will the impact of the casino on area crime and what will be the cost to area law enforcement agencies? the demand for services like water and sewer? the impact of the casino on local property values or the allocation of the community's disposable income and how that relates to other existing service industries?

Right now, it's like we're buying a house, and the only real source of information we're receiving on that house, is coming from it's owner/builder. Will the Chamber of Commerce or a service organization like the Rotary Club look out for the best interests of it's members and the community and begin demanding real, impartial answers to these questions? Or are we just so smitten with the possibilities of "2000 new jobs" promised to us that we'll just keep merrily marching forward?

I have no idea. All I know is that I don't trust an industry set up in a fashion that the house always wins. And I mean ALWAYS wins. Demand answers from your local lawmakers, and force those who are supposedly looking out for the community's best interests to gather solid information not paid for by people who stand to make a financial killing.

I'll stop pontificating, after I just say one more thing: I will never, I MEAN NEVER, forget last year, when upon hearing the concerns of local people at an open forum on this issue on how devastating a casino would be on local families, hearing one of the tribe's non-Native American financial backers in attendance that evening, comment on how excited church people should be at the prospect of working with all these broken people. Let's hope Jacob Marley's ghost visits that guy before he too is condemned to wander the earth haunting misers whose business should have been humanity.

8) One of my fellow Beeson Scholars, Aaron Wymer, recently returned from his dissertation hearing at Asbury with the good news that one of this year's Beeson Pastors, Lenny Luchetti, a Wesleyan pastor raised in South Philly, is writing a blog about his experience. You can check it out here. After reading the few posts he's written about his experience thus far, I can tell that the "Beeson Magic" is already working on Lenny and his class. I look forward to reading about their experiences.

9) Families whose livelihoods are dependent on a bread winner who is a Civil Engineer always fear news like that of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. While spending on infrastructure like roads, bridges and sewers isn't all that "hip" (let's put it this way, we'll never see Paris Hilton take up bridge maintenance or Angelina Jolie take up sewer updating as their cause) when a story like this one, or a local story like a city crew in Delphos who dug up sewer pipes so old they were made out of wood, breaks, one realizes how important these structures are to our physical, environmental, and economic well-being. And yet, as I remember the failing levies in New Orleans, it's difficult to raise the ire of the public on such issues until there is a massive failure that results in the loss of life.

Well, I feel the same way about the church. Culturally, economically, educationally, and socially we have benefited greatly in this country from the existence of houses of worship. Places where high ideals, morals, integrity, sense of collective responsibility, a great respect for good, and a desire to combat evil are developed and honed among the populace. I know that a lot of people wonder in an age where governments in the western world have recognized the importance of providing education, rehabilitation, and other humanitarian services that all found their genesis in the church, if this institution is still necessary. And, in fact, most people in this nation, while in spirit and theory affirm in principle the teachings of Jesus, have expressed their doubt by dropping out (sometimes for multiple generations) of church life, assuming that which the church taught and stood for is just "here to stay".

While I don't doubt that the church has, in part, due to its own insularity brought this development down upon itself, one wonders if pretty much 400+ years of non-stop economic progress (with admittedly some hiccups) in the west hasn't somehow, slowly and surely, coaxed the populace into a state of apathy and self-centeredness. A state where the fixation of individuals on themselves can now often only be broken when those values we take for granted - values like respect, honesty, integrity, and morality - but are essential making it possible for us to live together with some semblance of order, are broken in ways that shock our sensibilities. Hence the upsurge in church attendance after 9/11, which then kind of died down as the shock of that day began to fade back into the background of "news" like celebrity indiscretions and the world record for number of hot dogs eaten in one sitting. Considering that the Christian church in places south of the equator, where people are struggling to survive while dreaming of a better tomorrow, is flourishing as a source of hope and direction, one wonders what depths would be necessary to startle us out of our spiritual "blank stare"?

I think we should all fear that "bridge collapse".

10) We have officially become a soccer family. Max, today, had his first soccer practice. This meant this weekend we had to go out and buy him a pair of cleats, shin guards, soccer socks, and (most important) a soccer ball. I talked to an old friend, Jason Reeves, last night, and he told me that eleven years ago when his eldest started soccer as a kindergarten student, he couldn't believe that his own flesh and blood would choose to play the one sport he never had anything to do with growing up. Never, he told me, could he imagine himself ever caring, or even understanding, a soccer match. But now, not only does Christian play for his high school team, but Jason and his wife Tammy are traveling all over hither and yon so their younger son and daughter can score goals. Now Jason describes himself as a soccer fanatic, coaching his daughter's club team, and even watching matches on TV.

"Just watch," he said, "what happened to me could very well happen to you."

Do you think it's too late to sign up Max for football?