Friday, November 30, 2007

The Boston Massacre

I know nobody who regularly reads this blog (besides maybe Brother Esq, Aunt Beth, and The Clouse) really give one whit about the NBA, but after watching the pasting the Celtics put on the Knicks last night, I just had to post. I just couldn't help it.

I have not felt the way I felt about a NBA game since watching the Pacers/Pistons melee that resulted in Ron Artest and Steven Jackson attacking fans sitting courtside at The Palace. The same sick feeling I had in the bottom of my stomach, mixed with utter amazement at what I was seeing, came over me last night when the Knicks were down in the 3rd quarter by more than 50 points, and they had only scored 43. It was obviously another black eye for a league that seems to perpetually take a beating... despite the fact that the overall quality of the league is slowly rising.

So, here's the question: Why even care?

Well, I like basketball. Always have. And while I used to watch the Big East on ESPN's "Big Mondays" back in the day, my preference has always been to follow the pros. I say this because nobody, anywhere plays the game like they do in college. It's overmanaged by the coaches who put a lot of emphasis on passing and defense... which are really just plain boring. If it weren't for the rabid college students going nuts in the stands, the most exciting sporting even every year (NCAA Basketball Tourney) and the cult of personality that's been created around big-time college coaches (particularly Bob Knight, Roy Williams, and Mike Krzyzewski) college basketball wouldn't be as huge as it is... because the actual basketball played on the whole isn't all that great.

I say this having grown up watching some of the greatest players in any age - Magic, Bird, Dr. J, Moses, and many others - put on a display of basketball in the 1980's that has gone unparalleled. Watching the ball movement, ability to run the fast break, shooting proficiency, and teamwork from that era helped me fall in love with the game. And whenever there are glimpses of this kind of excellence (Karl and John's Jazz teams, MJ's reign of terror, the Sacramento Kings teams that couldn't get past Kobe and Shaq, the most recent edition of the Suns) you realize that the game can be played on entirely different level from what you normally see.

That's why, after a drought where teams became too reliant on isos and defense played in a way that would get you booked for assault in the real world, this year's edition of the NBA has been so welcome by the 14 or 15 of us left that are still watching. LeBron has been a master on both ends of the floor. Phil is teaching the Lakers how to play together. The Suns keep being the Suns. The Spurs are opening up their offense to match the excellence they show on D. The Golden State Warriors are winning playing a Helter Skelter game. A new dominant center is growing up before us in Orlando. Boozer and Williams are the new pick and roll kinds in Utah. Greg Oden will be back next year on a good, young team. And the Celtics.... well, they matter again.

That's why last night was so depressing. What should have been a key match-up for the league, the Celts and Knicks, which are arguably two of the three (with the Philadelphia 76'ers) most important franchises on the east coast, was horrible. And it was horrible because the most important franchise in the league, The Knicks, are in utter chaos.

It would be bad enough if the team was dealing with bad contracts procured during the Scott Layden/Isiah Thomas GM era. Or it would be bad enough if the team was led by guys of questionable character (like Stephon Marbury, the self-proclaimed greatest point guard in the league). But the team is being managed and coached by a guy who was responsible for the team being successfully sued for sexual harassment last summer of one of the Knicks own executives and still he sits on the bench and in the GM's office.

Where else in the western world would this be possible? Yet, it is, and it hangs over the team and the league like a dark, dark cloud.

So when I saw his players, facing a Boston Celtic team out to prove something after LeBron dismantled them a couple of days ago, quit toward the end of the first quarter, I knew this was bad. I mean, earlier yesterday I had been gushing to my SPRC chair about how he needed to watch the Celtics, and how amazing the effort and quality that they, and others in the league, were bringing to the court on a regular basis this year. And if he watched last night, all he ended up seeing was a team poorly managed, administrated, and coached, roll over on a coach who has been rumored for years to be a not-so-admirable person... a tag that one would have to believe was proven in a court of law this past summer.

Bill Simmons, a sportswriter from wrote this:

Isiah failed with Toronto, drove the CBA into the ground and coached an underachieving Pacers team that thrived as soon as he left. When they hired him, I remember thinking (and writing) that he was the worst possible guy for the job, someone who would undoubtedly make a series of grandiose short-term moves that would destroy the long-term future of the franchise. And that's precisely what happened.

And the problem is that he wrote that almost three years ago.

But, why still, Bryan, do you care?

If this team were in Memphis or Atlanta or New Orleans, this wouldn't be nearly the big deal that it is. New York is the center of the basketball universe. The city lives and dies with the Knicks. Virtually every major media outlet is based there. The Knicks and Lakers (and now, thanks to Yao Ming, the Rockets) are the most marketable and watched teams in the league internationally. Millions of kids dream playing in the NBA, many of them specifically for the Knicks, and so they pick up the game, practice, get better and better, and a few have the talent and work ethic to become great players... at the youth league, high school, college, and pro level. A good Knicks franchise raises the whole boat. You just can't let this kind of thing linger.

So, here's what I propose. Back in the seventies the Cavs had an owner, Ted Stepien, who was so horrible, that the league had to pass a rule that now bears his name stating that a team can't trade it's first round picks in successive years. In other words, teams with poor management aren't allowed to trade away the future and run their team into the ground. The Cavs, upon Stepien's leaving, were so horrible that they had to be awarded extra draft picks just so they could become bad, as opposed to unwatchable.

Maybe its time for a Isiah Thomas Rule, which allows salary cap and trade exceptions to a team that's not only been historically mismanaged, but improperly represented outside of the court, in the event that manager is fired. That way Knicks fans could have hope, and maybe the overall renaissance in quality that's finally overtaking the league, can finally find its way to Big Apple. I'm for anything (short of LeBron leaving the Cavs to become a Knick) that will resurrect the profile and pride of a team the leagues needs for marketing, for it's biggest city, and even as a villain for every small market team to despise (leading to greater ticket sales when the Knicks come to town).

Besides, little kids all over the world need to start dreaming about playing in Madison Square Garden.... it's in the best interests of the game. Trust me.

Do you think David Stern reads this blog? Probably not. Let's hope one of his assistants reads this adopts it as his own idea. The time has come.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Return of Ten Things I Think I Think

It's good to be back.

1) Things are b-u-s-y in the world of Buchers. Now, both Max and Xave are doing roller hockey and (soon) basketball. I'm working on a lot of new things for next year. Aimee's business is picking up (if you need assistance in web site design click here), she's joined the Junior Service League here in Shawnee, and is "momming" to full capacity. Eli is getting bigger and is showing more personality every day. And, of course, Baby ??? is on the way. As our kids get older, "hyperdrive" is becoming a way of life for us, and slowly we are adjusting. I suppose every family has to deal with this at some point, and is never ready for it. We are no exception. But, we press on. At least we're never bored.

2) One of the challenges right now is to convince Eli that shoes and socks are necessary items while living in the Midwest during the fall and winter (and occasionally at other times too). It's not uncommon to see him him running around outside in barefeet (having disposed of his socks and shoes after we put them on him) on days where it's 45-50 degrees outside. We thought that the fact that his feet are freezing would naturally take care of this (much as it has taken care of his resistance to wearing a coat), but as of now, it has not. Are parents allowed to duct tape shoes on children? We may soon find out.

3) Update on my fantasy league teams. My football team, after starting 1-5, just rattled off it's 6th straight victory and verges on the possibility of actually making the playoffs. David Garrard (QB for the Jags), Donald Driver (R for Packers), and Wes Welker (R for Patriots) have been carrying my team, but it's been the emergence of Marques Colston (R for Saints) that's been the difference. Much like his team, he got off to a slow start, but now he's picking up steam. One more victory next week would cap the greatest comeback in our league's history.

Basketball, on the other hand, has been a little bit shaky. The loss of Mike Bibby, a slow start from Shaq, the trade of Mark Blount, and injuries to Larry Hughes and Corey Maggette have led to a rough start (including a weekly loss to Brother Esq). Generally I'd say I'd cautiously optimistic about the future, but as of now I'm not sure. My team's performance is reliant upon such pick-ups as Jamario Moon, Antonio Daniels (a former BG Falcon), Jeff Foster, and Kelanna Azibuicke (who's been a solid as a starter for Golden State... to bad the Cavs cut him two years ago). Can't say that's a sure thing.

4) Am having a great deal of trouble getting my leaves up. A very, very late fall, coupled with lots of rain/sleet/hail have made it difficult to get things done. Both my neighbors used lawn services to get the job done (in the rain and sleet), but the name is "Bucher" not "Gates", so I'll have to be creative, or scrape up semi-decomposed leaves next March (yuck).

5) Received a good visit today from a parishioner regarding something I said in the sermon yesterday pertaining to those who believe that the miracle narratives in the Gospels are literary devices, and not literal miracles. In other words, they believe the miracles to be part of the literary genre of myth, as opposed to historical events of record on the part of Jesus.

This is major debate raging in scholarly circles right now, and has been for quite some time. I always thought it strange, for example, as to why conservative Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, triumph C.S. Lewis as a theological hero. Lewis believed in the power of myth - which is essentially the telling of stories that define moral truths - as it related to the biblical narrative. To him, it was less important that supernatural events in the Bible (miracles of all kinds) were actually true, as opposed to the truth being expressed in those stories. Lewis went as far as creating a whole series of novels (The "Narnia" series) to try to do for people (primarily children) in his time and place what he believed the biblical narrative was doing... using myth to explain the fundamental truth of the spiritual realm. For more on this take a look at this article from Christianity Today and this article from National Geographic. This is not to say that Lewis didn't believe in Christ. He did. But he also believed that in every culture people wrote mythological literature to explain the world they were in, and believed the Biblical writers to be no different.

There are many scholars (like Lewis) out there arguing (as they have in some form or fashion for the past four hundred years, or so) that the miracle narratives are examples of literary myth, meant to convey to the reader the importance of Jesus' teachings, and not necessarily historical events of record. I don't happen to agree, personally. I think the supernatural acts of Christ (including his bodily resurrection) were the fuel that set ablaze the passions of fishermen, tax collectors, and widows who had no other reason to keep worshiping him. In his case, we aren't talking about gods and goddesses created to understand the inner workings of human emotion or the mysteries of the natural world.

Too, a comparison of Jesus with the cult of the emperor is flawed also. For centuries rulers have taken their own successes (while hiding their failures) and built them up into supernatural events as away of solidifying their power and their place in history (think, as an example, of the pyramids in Egypt). Jesus enjoyed no comparable temporal success. He died a criminal's death on the cross. To think that somehow his followers would come up with some kind of construct as to how this defeat was somehow a victory, without the resurrection, and continue on is quite frankly, pretty far fetched. Most likely, had he just died, his movement would have (like many others of the time) melted away. That's the primary reason I accept the supernatural aspect of Jesus' ministry. People can be duped by false prophets (Jim Jones or David Koresh) in one generation, but past their death generally the following dissipates. It is the enduring message and following Jesus past his death, which did not empower temporally any one group of people that helps convince me that the supernatural aspects of his ministry are true. There is no earthly reason his ministry should continue.... thus my belief in the super-earthly reality of who he is.

Anyway, yesterday I happened to mention in the sermon yesterday that it mattered not whether you believe the Gospel writers took the miracles literally or consider them myth. In either case they would have believed that Jesus was the answer to the prayers regarding all that vexes humanity (disease, hunger, division, war, etc...). I had to clarify what I meant today here in the office, as someone took exception to the idea of the miracles not being regarded as historical fact.... which is good. Means someone was listening. But, that being said, we cannot discount the importance of literary forms in the Biblical text, as it uncovers how people understood (and understand) myth in their age and how those forms were being used by biblical writers to convey the truth of the living God in relation to that which was the dominant belief in the greater culture. Hope that makes sense.

Hey man, what do you want? I had to pick up something while pursuing two degrees and making progress toward a third. This blog can't all be about fantasy leagues and what new word Eli is saying ("cake" is the new favorite). Gotta work those intellectual muscles out there for those who are interested (and there are a few).

6) One of the things I'm learning about leadership is that not everyone automatically sees what you, as a leader, sees. I, for example, believe that the institutional church thrives if you take care of three core areas of it's life:

- Creating opportunities for intentional relationship (person with God through Christ first, and and then person-to-person, in and outside your congregation, second)
- Creating structures and schedules that understood by all, and accepted as vital and necessary by all (in worship, administration, finance, discipleship, and prayer).
- Always being on the lookout for new leaders, and consciously developing them.

I learned this the way I learn everything.... the hard way. I didn't generally enter situations where these three areas have been well developed. Relationally, for example, the students involved in the ministry didn't have much of a relationship with one another, or they had an intense relationship with one another to the detriment of allowing new relationships with new people to form, or had no sense of the importance of relationship with God through Christ. This meant I had my work cut out for me as I attempt to begin to change the norms left to me. Or if the group hadn't many strong adult or youth leaders (or worse, negative ones) or their weekly/monthly/yearly schedule or regular meeting/class/bible study hadn't had much rhyme or reason to it, I had to begin thinking about ways to change this systemically in order to get different results. All of this I had to learn by doing, and heaven knows I made a lot of mistakes as I experimented with what worked, and what didn't.

But the challenge of working with a staff is trying to help them keep, in mind, these long-term strategic goals, while at the same time not get overwhelmed with all the details which exist in ministry. In my experience, most of the people recruited as staff people were exceptionally good at taking care of detail work. The transition from doing details to thinking strategically about relationships, structure, and leadership development is usually a tough one. Gone are the days when your effectiveness was measured by how well you did specific tasks. Instead the measure of effectiveness is how smoothly and effectively those tasks are completed as a part of a total ministry strategy, which includes volunteer recruitment/training, teaching of concepts to students, promotion, resource management, etc.... It's a hard transition for people to make, and even harder, I think, as a leader to try to teach. Now that I'm finally starting to find my stride, this willl be one of my major objectives in 2008... moving staff from task orientation to ministry development. Fortunately the staff we have is already working on this, and excited about the possibilities of expanding ministry. We are very blessed. I am confident we will do fine, and despite some growing pains, will have fun in the process.

7) Chances of Ohio State backing into the national championship game? I'd say about 28%. There's no way WVU loses to Pitt, cause they're just firing on all cylinders (i.e. the dismantling of UConn Saturday... you know a game is a blowout when in the 3rd quarter they switch from the feed you've been watching to a new feed with a more competitive game) but they are rivals so you never fully know what could happen (thus, I give Pitt a 3% chance of winning the game). Missouri, on the other hand, has already lost to OU once, so I'd put their chances as being 50/50 to win or lose that game. Hence, a 28% chance.... but it is at least, a chance.

And who knows... remember how Florida snuck in the back door last year (and all the whining Urban Meyer did to make it happen? Fortunately, Tressel's a class act and won't resort to such tactics... he'll express gratitude either way.)? It could happen again.

8) Expressed some frustration last week in my "random thoughts" about the way our annual conference does business. Am still frustrated on many points, but on one I am not. I have been exchanging emails with Stan Sutton in regards to a number of questions regarding our health insurance plan, and I have found his responses to be both timely and helpful. As far as conference treasurers go, he's one of the best. He has an impossible job of managing tight resources, and does it more than admirably. We are lucky to have him.

9) Bryan's Christmas List? Some new long-sleeve button-down shirts would be great. Outside of that, I'm set.

10) And finally, my Aunt Beth is visiting from Logan, Utah this week. We've been catching up on all the news of the Utah branch of the family. Her husband, Dennis (who is a man's man.... Chuck Norris has nothing on my Uncle Dennis - Dennis Riggs doesn't go "fishing"... he goes "catching"), Jenny (doing well with Matt and Cade, although Matt and Cade somehow failed to properly let out the new puppy, creating havoc in Dennis Riggs' home... fortunately Dennis Riggs tempers justice with mercy with the wisdom of Solomon), Trish (she and Josh are in their new house - Hailey is on the swim team and Branson is growing so fast he'll be taller than Trish sooner than later), and Al (working and deciding on a major before returning to Utah State... may I suggest pre-med or pre-vet?).

Now, if we just could Fred, Kathy, and Katy up here for a visit....

(hint, hint)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Leaving Paul - Sharing In Our Present Difficulty

Well, after seven weeks, it's time to push off and away from Philippians, Paul's letter to what could arguably be called his favorite church.

Paul's fears of what might tear apart the church at Philippi - division over cultural and theological differences, improperly entitled leadership, fears of corruption, and succession issues among others - are all, amazingly two-thousand years later, problems which beset local churches and the Christian movement as a whole.

For example, in the course of doing my dissertation research, I heard this story from the retired senior pastor, Sandy Miller, at Holy Trinity (Brompton). When Miller was contemplating retirement, he contacted the current Anglican bishop of the London area to talk about the process for choosing his successor. HTB is one of the few growing Anglican churches in Britain right now, and a force for renewal within the Anglican movement in Europe. Miller knew that in his tradition, the lay-elders in his church would want the opportunity to conduct a search for a new senior pastor, but Miller knew that the only person capable nurturing HTB's unique culture (which was and is youthful, intellectual, evangelical, and charismatic) was his long-time associate pastor, Nicky Gumble. Miller told me that he explained this situation to the bishop, who was well acquainted with one of his few growing parishes, fearful that elders would end up passing over the right guy in order to select their guy. The bishop, having watched too many congregations in his lifetime let petty jealousies and power plays ruin successions in leadership, agreed with Miller's assessment that no other pastor in all the Anglican movement could understand the unique culture of Oxford-meets-Speaking-In-Tongues that was HTB. In turn, the bishop took the unprecedented step of going to HTB's elders, and simply dictating that Gumble would succeed Miller as the new rector. Now, years removed from that decision, HTB continues not only be a strong church in its own right, but is producing new church leaders to re-invigorate churches all over England and now the European continent.

That's the world we live in now. In his time, Paul's worries are simply conjecture. In our time his concerns have become institutionalized. Now a republican senator decides to investigate pastors flying around in private jets and living in homes with marble commodes (all while claiming to make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year) for possible abuse of the tax code, and the rest of us shrug and say, "it's about time". Church splits, congregations that fall apart when a pastor leaves or split when one group decides it can't live with another are commonplace in our world. For us, Paul's theoretical of what might happen, happens every day.

Even church success can breed discord among the faithful. I've a friend who is a staff person in a church in another city who was despondent when another local congregation down the street was growing at rapid pace. What should have evoked joy became a cause for great concern because the one church's success heightening in friend's church it's own failures. Such is the world we Christians live in now. A place where humility and unity and integrity are often running in short supply as decades, or centuries of holding an entitled position in the world threaten to destroy churches, and individual Christians.

And no Christian is immune to the realization of Paul's fears and concerns. In today's paper there's an article about an Amish couple from Eastern Ohio who are trying to organize and help finance other Amish farmers to raise and grow organic food. They're doing this because the within the sect, after a couple of decades of becoming less active in farming (thanks to rising farm land prices and competition from corporate farms) there is a concern that as Amish work more with us "English" as carpenters, shop keepers, janitors, and in other realms of the business world, they are becoming more like us. Eating junk food. Buying IPods. Taking vacations to the beach. Amish young people are increasingly doing less "shunning" of the world, and instead are beginning to share its materialistic vision. The hope is that in moving back onto the farm, that future Amish generations will become more self-sufficient and begin living more simply... more Amish.

Such is the world we Christians now live in. A world where the faith and values that have defined us are constantly being compromised either by life circumstances, or a willingness on our part to throw away what has been in order to help us get "ahead".

Who knows how or why Paul was able to see all that would befall us. Maybe he just understood human nature. Maybe he'd already seen how quickly the joy of Christ's grace could be exchanged for bickering over "who was the greatest". Whatever the reason, Paul warns the flourishing congregation at Philippi of what to beware of and how to deal with it. And despite the vast differences between his world and ours, never has Paul's words been more timely, or needed, than right now.

Thus, while we have explored Paul's teachings on maintaining unity and humility in the face of so many of their enemies - leadership issues, internal divisions, corruption - Paul offers one last piece of counsel.

The Christian life... the good life... is the one that knows contentment in all moments of all days an in all circumstances.

The concept of contentment is an anathema to most Americans. The same ambition that drove millions of people to leave their homes and take a chance of starting over in the "New World" is still a huge part of the culture we live in today. People in other parts of the world live in cities, villages, or in regions that go back in their family generations upon generations. And when these ancient living patters begin to get upset by the effects of globalization, pundants, professors, and politicians begin to decry the tearing of social fabrics that have held together local cultures throughout history. Meanwhile, in the US, places like Las Vegas and Phoenix grow by thousands of new residents every month as people are quick to move to find a new, better life. We're the place in the world that coined the phrase and attitude, it you aren't moving forward, you're moving backward. Contentment, we believe, is something you might to experience in moments, or if advertisements for financial planner can be believed, at the end of your life in retirement when you finally get to enjoy all that you've worked for - days to finally paint those pictures, travel the orient, live in that large home on the lake... eventually, someday, if you pick the right company to help you roll over your 401k after you've switched jobs for the seventh time, your days of contentment are coming.

But until then, in the words of the Rolling Stones, you can't get no satisfaction, but you'll try. So, to coin the recent Disney movie, "Meet the Robinsons", better not rest easy, and instead, keep moving forward.

Somehow, contentment has become our enemy.

The interesting thing about Paul, though, is that I don't think he'd argue with continually moving forward. I mean, this is the guy who has traveled across the Roman world successfully starting scores of churches and raising up numerous Christian leaders while also being repeatedly harassed, beaten, maligned, and now imprisoned for a second time. It's Paul who's written the words, "I know what it is meant to have plenty. I have learned to secret of being content in and any situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty of in want." The guy, who while suspecting he'll never get out of prison, in other letters is still making plans to go to what is now modern day Spain on the chance he's ever released. He's the guy who says, "I can do all things".

But for him the concept of contentment, and the idea that somehow it's connected to a moment when a person has "arrived" isn't connected. Paul says he can be connected, even in moments when going forward might actually, personally or corporately, going backwards.

"I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me."

What in the world does that mean?

It would be easy to explain this away as the words of an evangelist who has decided to shun everything else, and now simply lives to explain the Gospel, and create communities that help people be transformed by it. Paul isn't worried about making that next promotion or whether or not the company he worked 40 years for will declare bankruptcy so as to avoid paying pensions any longer. Paul isn't one illness away from overwhelming medical bills or concerned about the dirtbag at the high school trying to sell a son or daughter crystal meth or ecstasy. What does Paul really know about the perils and pressures of modern life anyway?

I think the lesson we can learn from Paul not just in this text, but as he concludes his letter to the Phillippians, is that Paul has, through Christ, found reconciliation and peace with God. With the same God that made a world that often be inhospitable, difficult, unfair, and hard. A world where we might have seemingly gained plenty in one minute, and face foreclosure the next.

Paul has found contentment in the Lord, even in the world the Lord has made.

That's contrary to the way most of us look at things in this life. We tend to hold the creator responsible for the creation, and thus our trust of the creator tends to rise and fall with our satisfaction, or dissatisfaction with that which he or she created.

For example, once you get a food poisoning at a place you went out to eat at, are you likely to go back? Or if you buy a TV or DVD player from a company, and after a couple of months it craps out on you, are you likely to go back the same company to buy another TV or DVD player?

I used to take my cars to get oil changes at a local garage, until the day the engine of the first new car we ever bought was destroyed when the oil plug that had not been properly replaced by the said garage fell out of the oil pan while Aimee was on the road headed for a class in Columbus. That was over ten years ago. The garage has probably been bought and sold three or four times. Probably none of the mechanics who worked there are there any longer. And none of the other garages who share this one particular garage's name (cause it's a national chain) were even remotely responsible for what was probably just a momentary brain fart on the part of one mechanic on a particular day. But mention that garage's name to us, or let us drive past that garage or one of its sister garages, and still from the Buchers you get sneers and slanderous accusations about the mothers of the people who work there. Here I stood last week talking about the importance of forgiveness, but give me a gift certificate to this one particular garage for a free oil change, and wait to hear what I have to say about forgiveness then...

"I'd sooner cover the most sensitive part of my body with honey, cover it with red ants for two days, and then tattoo it with Calvin Coolidge's face than get my oil changed at that place again. HA!"

And my, the world has failed us, hasn't it? Disease, war, hunger... broken relationships, the loss of people we loved, physical breakdowns.... greed, lust, anger, jealousy.... the world has taken us for a ride. And when we suffer what question do we ask?

Where is God in all of this? If he's all-good, and all-powerful, then why do children die of malnutrition and nations fight over this, that, and the other thing and evil seems to be so alive and well among us?

Paul's world, while different in many other ways, is still a world filled with suffering where the good die young and wicked prosper. But God's presence in the midst of this doesn't appear to be a source of frustration, or worse, demoralization for Paul, but rather the source of his strength. And the key to this appears to be, Jesus Christ.

For in Jesus you have God giving humanity a gift... the key to making all things right. Disease and death. Inequity and inequality. Wars and rumors of wars. Power and it's abuse by a few at the expense of many. Jesus comes as God's answer to that which vexes us. He has the power to still storms. He can create resources needed to feed the hungry. He has the power to heal all diseases. He can overwhelm depression or mental illness with hope and wholeness. He can even take the enemies of God and God's people, and win them as disciples and friends.

I mean, if you believe in Christ, you can't say God hasn't tried to remedy the shortcomings of this life, presenting to us in one man all of the resources and power to make things right. All humanity has to do is, listen, obey, and follow to learn how to live differently.

And.... we don't. In fact those who claimed to be God experts, largely advised us to put the man given to us as the answer to all our questions, to death as a dangerous lunatic.

Now, who's fault is that?

I think Paul, once he accepts Christ as God's right and sufficient response to our suffering and sin, accepts the distance between who God is and his present reality because 1) he lays our condition at our own feet, and 2) he believes it isn't hopeless because Christ is still alive.

I suspect our own hopelessness and/or self-absorption prevents us for taking sufficient responsibility for our condition. And I suspect it is our own doubt, which grows collectively the further we get away from his death and resurrection prevents us from believing that Christ is still God's answer to our predicaments in all their sundry forms.

But Paul knew... God was not silent or idle. God heard our prayers, and delivered. And God would ultimately, in the end when we were still weren't able to exhibit the kind of faith necessary to not just hear, but do, would in the end even provide us what we'd need so the doing could be done.

And too, I suspect not enough preachers over the course of history, while preaching "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" sermons, have paid sufficient heed to the next verse (Philippians 4:14):

"It was good, though, of you brother and sisters in Philippi, to help me bear those moments when I didn't have very much, and my troubles were very great."

The secret to contentment? Putting the blame for our predicament where it's due, knowing that the Creator is willing to shoulder that blame and make things right, realizing it's not too late to turn that source of healing and wholeness that will work with us to make things, and bearing one another's burdens as we seek that day where faith in Jesus is less conceptual and more actual.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Blog Slackin'

Well, it's true. Two weeks in a row I never got to "Ten Things I Think I Think". With the short week, time that had to be spent working on next year's budget proposal, too many hours dealing with the West Ohio Conference office (more on that later), and a house that's about to be filled with family and friends for Thanksgiving, Monday and Tuesday flew by. Given that right now it's just after midnight on Wednesday morning should give you some idea as to how busy this day has been.

So, I've been blog slackin' two weeks in a row. Didn't even get a chance to post a pre-sermon thought or two on Saturday night. I am a neglectful blogger, and I wish to ask your forgiveness. So, without further ado, before I hit the hay, here a few random thoughts....

- It's official... both Max and Xavier will be playing basketball this winter. Since I've coached Max twice, and this is Xavie's inaugural season, I'll be back out at the Naz teaching kindergarteners how to play basketball. I remember the first time I did this when on the first night nobody knew what a lay-up was... pretty quickly I realized that this is a much greater challenge than Phil Jackson or Thad Motta ever faced. Phil deals with Kobe. Thad deals with losing Oden. I deal with endless requests for bathroom breaks and kids who want to run with the ball (wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!). Xavie said he wants to play because (I am not making this up) he gets a snack after every game. It should be a lot of fun... if I don't lose my mind.

- Brother Esq. defeated me handily in Fantasy Basketball, riding the juggernauts of Chris Kamen and Eddy Curry to an impressive victory. Am I worried that this is a harbinger of things to come? Nope. No way Kamen, Curry, and Bonzi Wells (the other guy who had a huge week) last the entire year. Am looking forward to round two in about 11 weeks. I'll get you then, Brother Esq. The judge will find for the plaintiff. You wait and see.

- I just deleted hundreds of words expressing my frustration with my denomination's system of health insurance and ordination because I didn't want to incur anyone's wrath. Sorry you didn't get to read them, but I'm in no position to be prophetic. Hopefully, that day is coming, soon.

- In some respects this has been a very tough year. We lost my mother-in-law in January, and every "first" season/holiday/yearly tradition this year has been hard on the family, particularly my father-in-law (Thanksgiving being no exception). Now, though, we have received the news that Aimee's grandmother is ill with rapidly advancing cancer. Please, in particular, keep Henrietta's husband Sherman, Aimee, Aimee's dad, her brother and sister, and her Aunt Sharon in your prayers. And of course, you might drop a prayer for all of the rest of us in the family who are experiencing our world changing right now just too quickly.

- Our youth ministry held a dodgeball tournament last Sunday afternoon as a fundraiser for our annual Harvest for the Hungry Food Drive. I decided against playing, and instead chose to sponsor my own team, "Bryan Bucher's Dodgeball Kings", which consisted of all junior and senior varsity baseball players from Shawnee High School. A group of older guys, who chose the name (ahem) "Fools for Christ" swore they 'd take my guys out. But my players, competently led by their coach/general manager/team CEO/owner, were swept to victory, defeating the Fools four out of five matches (most of which were not that close). The Fools have sworn revenge at whatever dodgeball tourney might be held in the future, but my Kings have committed to come back, under the watchful eye of their mentor, to continue to dominate the dodgeball landscape of Shawnee and Fort Shawnee townships.

Oh.... and here are five suggestions as to how the Fools could improve their name before the next showdown:

5) Targets for Christ
4) The Weary Laden
3) Swollen and Sore Disciples
2) The Other Cheek Turners
1) The Shawnee Dodgeball Firsts (cause everyone knows the first will become last)

Congrats to my guys for winning it all, me for being smart enough to know that any team that would have me actually play dodgeball is doomed to lose (I'm past my prime.... way past), Fools for Christ for a good showing, all the participants, and volunteers. It was a great event.

- Apparently all that typing you never saw has worn me down. Gotta get to bed. I'll try to post something on the other side of Thanksgiving. Hope you have a good one.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Congratulations Judge Derryberry

Today, Governor Strickland appointed long-time Shawnee UMC member and Administrative Board chairperson, Glenn Derryberry to the bench recently vacated by David Kinworthy. Having known Glenn and his family for more than a decade, I can't tell how how excited I am for him, and for the community. Glenn will make an excellent judge.

Congratulations Judge Derryberry! Thank you for giving of yourself in this way to our community.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Random Thoughts Over Caffeine and Cough Drops

Am sick as a dog today, just like yesterday and day before. Endless coughing, sore throat, sniffling, achy body, fever, etc... I've got it all. Unfortunately, the business of the church waits for no many, so here I am, in my chair, just having finished up the bulletin for Sunday.

Just giving my folks an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.

Anyhow, for the first time in can't remember, I'm skipping "Ten Things I Think I Think" and just going for some random thoughts. Here's hoping they make sense.

- How out of it am I? Well, this morning the PTO at Max's school sponsored its annual "Donuts With Dad" breakfast. I drug myself out of bed early enough, but had a hard time getting the motor started with all the coughing and wheezing and wanting to die. Finally, I pulled myself together, hopped in the shower, threw on a some clothes, grabbed Max, and we hit the road. We were late, but would have made it...

if only I had driven to right school.

3rd and 4th graders in our district go to Maplewood Elementary. K-2nd grade go to Elmwood.
Max is in the 3rd grade. I'm sure you can figure out the rest.

With no hope of making it on time, I did the only thing I could to salvage the situation.

"Instead of 'Donuts with Dad', you wanna stop at McD's and get "Breakfast with Bryan?"

Max was game, and I started off my day with an Egg McMuffin.

- Our annual "Harvest for the Hungry" food drive was a success. To date, we've raised enough in cash and kind to purchase over 1.4 millions pounds for the West Ohio Food Bank. Thank to everyone in the community who participated. I'm sure Bambi and all the rest of the good folks over at the food bank are saying a prayer as their funds for the year are largely depleted. This will do nicely to carry them into 2008.

- Word on the street is that the Columbus Dispatch named the official who missed the Illinois fumble that turned out to be a touchdown, and the official is from here in Lima. I haven't seen the name in the Lima News, and I hope I never do. People who forget that OSU's D couldn't stop Juice Williams in the last eight minutes of the game are likely to do something stupid as a way of taking out their frustration. Considering the team lost most of it's offense last year, not a soul in these parts could have envisioned a better season for the Bucks (even with a schedule padded with patsies like Youngstown State, Akron, and Kent) last August. The team fared well in a lousy conference. Let's just cheer them on as they take on Michigan in the "Big House" Saturday.

- The local UAW representing workers at our Ford plant approved the national labor contract it has with Ford, but turned down the local contract. I didn't realize there were two separate contracts until today. The national contract covers issues like wages and benefits, but the local contract covers issues like use of non-union labor and work rules on the floor (who works where and does what). The Lima plant has, until now, out of fear they would close the plant and go elsewhere, always been ahead of the curve on these issues. Voluntarily the labor at the plant has voted numerous concessions with the idea that with new engines about to come on line, they would be positioned well to be awarded the line by management. No one seems to know why all of a sudden 60% of the local union seems to have decided they've gone as far as they can. It'll be interesting in coming days to find out what's going on.

Back in college, I took a number of classes from a Political Geography prof named James Rubenstein. To be honest, had I known what the heck Political Geography (the study of how stuff is distributed, produced, and consumed) was before I went to college, I would have chosen it as my major. As it was, I didn't take my first PG class until my Junior year (as a part of the social sciences requirement for my Secondary Ed degree), and switching majors would have involved another an extra 1.5 years of classes. Lots of people go to school for six or seven years, but they call those people doctors and lawyers, so I just took as many PG classes as I could before graduation. Rubenstein's class was a study on transportation issues, focusing mainly on automobile industry (his knowledge, of which, is in demand worldwide by all those tied to the building and selling of cars).

I remember him telling us that the real difference between Japanese and American automakers wasn't quality (because the American companies in the early nineties were talking massive new steps toward higher quality... a gap that has largely been closed as of this year). The difference, he said, was that in every 60 seconds a Japanese worker is paid to work, he or she is working 59 of those seconds, while (as of the early eighties) American workers worked about 42 of those seconds (the rest of seconds going into breaks, down time, and the like). And it wasn't that Japanese workers were better than American ones. Honda and Toyota plants in the US employed people on the line who worked the same 59 seconds as their Asian counterparts. All things being the same, the issue was two-fold: the number of breaks an American union auto worker received as opposed to a non-union American auto worker and the unwillingness of the UAW to allow their union members to be "cross-trained" on different tasks needed up and down the assembly line. These two issues, he told us, would be bones of contention between management and labor for years to come.

I think I heard those words back in 1990. How true they appear to ring here in our town in 2007 as work-rules and cross-training (and also the use of non-union labor) appear to be the sticking point. The guy obviously knew his stuff.

- Much ado is being made these days about the forthcoming release of the movie, "The Golden Compass", a movie based on a children's book series about a group of people out to kill the God of Christianity, who is portrayed as a mean dottering fool. Apparently the movie, which is based on a three book series, has been watered down immensely to keep Christian groups at bay (think Ron Howard's movie version of "The DaVinci Code", which was not only watered down, but downright boring) but the fear is that by seeing the movie, children and their parents will be encouraged to buy the books, reading the unvarnished version of one atheist's attempt to undermine the Christian church using fantasy in fiction (a ying to the yang of someone like CS Lewis who did the same thing in his "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" only as a way of winning children and families to Christ).

Now before you get all hot and bothered that somehow I'm one of those people who telling you to stay away from Harry Potter (cause I'm not) because it will inspire your kids to take up witchcraft (highly unlikely), the concern across the Christian spectrum appears to be real., the website dedicated to unearthing urban legends, confirms that the author of the books, Philip Pullman is an avowed atheist, something that can be confirmed by going no further than his own website, which contains this tidbit from a Q&A section:

His Dark Materials seems to be against organised religion. Do you believe in God?
I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away. Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them.

Not much doubt there about how he feels. All of us associated with Christianity, or any formal religion I suppose, are off of Pullman's Christmas Card list. Can't say I'll be buying the books for Max, or taking the boys to see the movie this Christmas. They'll be thinking critically about God, Christ, the church, and the rest on their own soon enough. I'd rather not deal with sort of thing in elementary school. But you can bet I'll be checking out the books at the library to get a sense as how this new breed of angry atheist is spreading his message, this time under the guise of fiction (which is ironic, if you think about it).

- I get the feeling we'll learn quite a bit as Senator Grassley (R - Iowa) begins his investigation of the six televanglists/pastors who have set themselves up for such an investigation by flaunting IRS rules on how non-profit money can be used. Benny Hinn (one of the six) is said to be gearing up the troops and circling the wagons of his ministry, already in financial trouble (despite working toward raising $36 million dollars so he they can buy Benny a new Gulfstream jet), and I'm sure the other five will follow. Joyce Meyers has already come out to say that God gave her all the stuff she has, including a marble commode valued at over $21,000 (wonder if he shipped it UPS or DHL?). I can't wait to hear who these evangelists begin to blame for these investigations. It ought to be rich.

I remember back in 1997 when Michael Pitts, a pastor with a checkered history at a prosperity gospel church, after getting picked up for allegedly exposing himself along a busy street in suburban Toledo, accused other churches in the Toledo area of being jealous and constructing a smear campaign against him for revenge. Strangely enough, Pitts, by name, singled out the church I was serving at the time (Epworth UMC in Ottawa Hills) as one of those churches. Why on earth a streetfront preacher pastoring an independent church would single out a high steeple mainline denominational old money church from the suburbs was beyond me. Maybe he thought like most mainlines we were shrinking and becoming desperate (which wasn't the case). Maybe he just remembered the name cause he and I went to the same high school (his brother was in my class), and had read an article on my recent appointment in the Toledo Blade. Or, maybe he thought we really were out to get him. I guess I'll never know. It provided us with a pretty good laugh, though, the thought of all those late night meetings we were having to somehow take down Michael Pitts... whose church we couldn't find, let alone name. I get the sense that as the heat gets turned up, lots of similar allegations will be made in attempts to explain why, all of a sudden, the checkbooks of these churches and pastors are going to be investigated.

The other weird part of this, though, will be the strange bedfellows this is going to create. As the Senate continues its investigation, I'm sure that I will begin receiving many emails warning us pastors of how this is just the first step toward all churches being stripped of their tax-exempt status, and that all of us need to do something about it. Thus, those of us who really want to see this whole prosperity gospel thing get nipped in the bud, will be asked to take up the fight to defend these very same "evangelists", "apostles", and "bishops" in the name of protecting ourselves.

So, this thing will get more interesting with time. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Alright... back to coughing my head off.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Charge Conference - Ten Wacky Suggestions On Make New An Old Idea

Was doing a bit of surfing tonight as I'm making tons of copies of my dissertation for the Academic Progress Review Committee Asbury requires me to have, and happened across this post by The Thief (a personal blog fav) about Charge Conference. He then linked to this other blog post on Charge Conference by another pastor in Cambridge, Ohio. Can't imagine charge conference would warrant two posts by anyone, anywhere, let alone inspire me to write a post too.

Particularly since I didn't go this year.

It wasn't cause I didn't think it was worth my time or anything like that. I called my DS and asked for a reprieve as the night we were scheduled was the night that my Brother became Brother Esquire at Doc Watson's in Toledo. Had to go see him (and hold the Bible his hand was on) get sworn in after years of (literally) praying him through his undergrad and law school. This sort of things only happens once, and I was determined to be there. Graciously, Tom Tumblin (our DS) gave me my pardon, and I saw legal and Bucher history both made.

So, I don't have anything to report, first hand, regarding Charge Conference.

Note to my Grandmother: Right now, Oh Great One, you, like many of my loyal blog readers, are wondering, "What's a charge conference?" Well, it's like this... every year since forever ago the District Superintendent (who is the supervisor of us peons in local churches) would come visit our church. They'd meet with our Staff-Parish Committee to find out whether or not us pastors were doing our job, then they'd vote on our salary for the coming year, and finally they'd lead what amounts to our church's end-of-year business meeting where all of our officers for the upcoming year, pastors salaries, and the like would be voted on. Since Methodists are into conferencing (as opposed to meeting.. what's the difference? conferences start and end with prayer and generally include coffee) we call this annual end-of-year business meeting a "charge conference" (the word "charge" being an outdated word meaning a place where pastor had been given "charge" of a congregation).

Two years ago, when we re-districted as a part of our downsizing our bureaucracy and it's spending (which, even though we have six fewer districts, didn't end up downsizing either bureaucrats or spending... gotta love decisions made from the top down), it made it impossible for the DS to get to every church every year, so instead, now we meet in what amounts to group charge conferences. I think the one I signed up for included 26 churches. Now, we are supposed to bring all of our paperwork (all voted upon at a previous Ad Board meeting the pastor now leads) and lay representation with us, where it will be collected by a DS or the Assistant DS.

My trusty associate, Charlotte Hefner, went in my place (she was required to go anyway), and after my current lay-leader and future lay-leader both weren't available, I asked Sue Dickerson (a loyal lay person, and all-around great person) to go as our lay-representation. I plied her with promises of a future lunch and the guarantee of a meeting that wouldn't be all that long.

I mean, what's the point? All the decisions have already been made in local churches. There's no debate. Just bring your paperwork, let 'em sprinkle the magic dust, maybe take communion, and go home, right?


First, Shawnee, which is the largest church in the district, brought the fewest lay people (one). Other churches brought 8-12, all of whom were supposed report in small groups created by the Assistant DS, about all the wonderful things happening in their church. Couple that with a worship service, a sermon by the Assistant DS, and final communion, and the conference took over 2 hours (which, Sue informs me, is worth a multi-course lunch at Red Lobster... I don't think I'm in a position to argue).

A 2 hour conference to decide, well.... nothing.

I don't want to bite the hand that fed me. Heaven knows that if our system worked the way its always worked there'd be no way a 38 year old dude who has never been senior pastor would be appointed to one of the 12 largest churches in the conference. I'm an experiment, serving at the whim at the Bishop and with the blessing by my predecessor. So, to insult those who serve as my superiors really serves no good purpose. I don't purport to understand all things, and I'm sure that this new model of conferencing serves a higher purpose (most likely to remind us that we are we "connectional" that needs to cheer on and help one another).

But while Sue is retired, she's still plenty busy. That we upgraded lunch from eating off of wax paper to eating seafood and dessert gives you some idea as to how, well, not all that particularly exciting the conference was. And it makes me wonder what it will cost me next year when I ask Sue to tell others what a great opportunity going to Charge Conference is to other lay-leaders. Most likely, they'll go, I'll end up back at Red Lobster again, and the following year I'll have to find fresh fannies to fill the seats, and the vicious cycle will be completed.

And let's be honest... a bunch of people coming together to talk about all the good things happening in their churches is really only half the truth. Like we've always done, we take the other half and sweep it under the rug, never to be acknowledged by anyone until, well, the church falls apart or closes (which is happening with greater frequency... hence the downsizing). Let's face it... we've got just as many issues as we do triumphs. Why ignore them?

Here's the thing... we in the local church have been promised by our leadership less "business than usual" and more "out of the box" kind of thinking. Bishop Ough at our Annual Conference (that's the business meeting for all the churches, in case you are keeping score) promised that we have entered into a new age of Pentecost, where "whoosh" happens. "Whoosh" being the technical term for that force or energy that sweeps away what has been the way it has been, and replaces it with something new and better.

Friends, replacing what was for 30-40 church people a one-hour conference time where real decisions were made with a two-hour conference time for 8-10 (or in our case, 1) lay-people per per church where nothing is decided is not "whoosh". It's grasping at straws to schedule something less in the place of something more. So, here they are...

My top-ten suggestions as to how improve charge conference:

10) Have each church establish benchmarks for at least three ways the church can realistically improve for the coming year. DS's, Assistant DS's, conference staff, or some other consultant could be used in helping the church assess where it is now, where it can improve, and establishing clear steps and goals toward that improvement. Then, each year at charge conference, the new benchmarks are shared with the body assembled, and help/assistance/advice could be solicited on the part of the other churches present, that way there would be some collective effort and accountability to helping this improvement become reality. All benchmarks would have to be approved, in advance, by the district powers-that-be.

9) Of course, starting in year two, reports on these benchmarks would need to be shared at charge conference. Now, here's where it gets interesting... the body, upon hearing the reports, would vote to determine which church that achieved their benchmarks will receive a 10% reduction in their conference apportionments and 5% reduction in their district apportionments. This isn't a contest. This is a tangible way of investing in ministries that are achieving, while also giving each of these charge conferences something tangible for those present to decide.

8) And how would these apportionments be made up? Well, all the other churches would take on an equitable portion (taking into account church size) of the amount to not be paid by the excelling church.

Now, let's make things even more interesting.

7) At the meeting, the District Superintendent must report to all those gathered, what benchmarks the district is establishing for the coming year. These benchmarks, while not subject to change, must be open to question by the body.

6) After the first year, the DS must report to the charge conference on how the district did on it's benchmarks. The body may question the results, and then vote to determine if they concur with the DS' assessment, or not. If they do, there will be great rejoicing, and if they don't it must reported on the floor of the following year's annual conference. This will give the Bishop an idea of where good cooperation and creative thinking is happening, and where it isn't, across the conference.

How's that for a "whoosh"? Accountability that runs both down and up the corporate structure.

5) Districts that are not meeting their benchmarks must receive some sort of consultation to assess what the issues are, and how they might be dealt with positively and effectively.

(OK... now let's have some fun)

4) At every charge conference, each church must announce the salary and benefits package of each appointed person they employ (or are self-employed... depends if we're talking about the IRS of the Social Security administration). They must also announce the percentage of their annual budget these salaries and benefits consume. Why do this? Well, this can have two possible consequences. First, it could confirm for a church that their pastor is over or under compensated, which will assist in future fiscal planning. Second, it would get churches thinking about how they allocate their resources.

3) Churches would be assigned to particular a charge conference based upon their size. Thus, the 10-15 largest churches would have their own charge conference, and then the other 100-some odd churches would be broken up into six or seven other charge conferences as determined by attendance and size and budget. Each year at each charge conference, it would be reported which churches had moved up, or down into, that particular category of charge conference from the previous year. The theory behind this comes out of how they do basketball and soccer leagues in Europe. There are A, B, C, and possibly even more divisions for pro teams across the continent. Each year, you can play your way up, or down, a division. So, the last place team in the A division in 2007, will find itself playing in the B division in 2008. This isn't to say that bigger is necessarily better... but in an imperfect world, we use imperfect measures to try and get a handle on the issues. Besides, maybe similar size churches can teach one another a thing or two about how to improve ministry as they network across their district.

2) Have each charge conference establish by discussion and consensus, the best missional project one of its church's want to undertake in the coming year. The DS will take the most worthy project of from each charge conference, and decide with one will receive a special $10,000-$20,000 grant to help make that project a reality. The winner will be announced at the District Pastor's Christmas Party.

1) Let any church that gives 120% of its conference and district apportionment the option of missing charge conference altogether.

This is why in four years I'll probably either be a Bishop, or driving a truck for a living. If we weren't opposed to all forms of gambling, I'd put my money on the truck driving.

Friday, November 09, 2007

What Christ Saved You For

Philippi, if the historians and commentators I've read are to be believed, was actually, for the Roman Empire, not a bad place to live. The city was located not far away from a number of mines (which mined among other things, gold) which really helped the local economy. As a matter of fact, Philippi at this time was a growing metropolis because it was a good place to make a living.

From all accounts, the church at Philippi was a strong one... maybe because of the economy, and maybe not. I'm not sure. Although, the nature of the relationships between growing churches and the economy in the surrounding community they are located is a subject which interests me.

Recently at a meeting of pastors I attended, I talked to a fellow pastor who leads a downtown church in a Midwestern town that has seen better days. At one time the church was one of the leading churches in the city, both in size and influence. It counted among it's members, prominent leaders of the community and people of great wealth. If you were a Protestant it was THE place to attend church in town if you were of a certain social stature. If the pastor of that church spoke up on some issue at a local city council or via the editorial column in the newspaper, you can bet his (no women pastors at the church in those days) words were taken very seriously. It was a desirable church within its denomination.. a place that helped springboard pastors to positions of prominence.

Now, though, as the suburbs of the city have grown, and the inner city has deteriorated, the church struggles. The once full sanctuary that held hundreds and hundreds, is lucky to see 150 folks at a morning service. The church is divided over whether the music program, once the envy of every church, needs to change its focus to contemporary music, as opposed to the western European classical music that's been its hallmark. The congregation continues to grow grayer and grayer as the people in the pews age. And as buildings around the church begin going unoccupied, homeless people, many with substance abuse and mental issues, have become evident and numerous.

As we were walking to our cars, talking about the challenges for ministers in this age, he asked me a simple question, "Are you aware of a thriving church with a long history like ours, in a downtown community like ours, anywhere? Because I've asked this question of everyone in the denomination, and now some outside of it, and nobody, as yet, has been able to tell me 'yes'".

And then, he openly wondered, "Do you think in the United States that the growth or decline of Christianity in this country is directly connected to the local economy?"

It was a shocking question, that as we talked, seemed to lead to answers that made us uncomfortable. For in depressed communities in our part of the country, the only urban churches that are growing are largely committed to "health and wealth" theology, which promises that if you are faithful to God's precepts, he'll reward you with material riches in this life. And virtually all the mega-congregations here are now located on the ring outside of cities, where people who could afford it have moved to escape the social problems that come with poverty.

This question give me pause, cause last year after doing some travel overseas, I've a sense that in places in the world where Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds - Africa, South America, and Asia - one wonders to what degree "health and wealth" theology is fueling the faith's growth among the world's dispossessed populations? I saw ample evidence of promises of riches on the part of pastors to the faithful. Is that what people are thinking when they hear the words, "The last shall become first, and the first shall become last"? I don't know.

Anyhow, I have a sense as I read Philippians 3 that Paul is thinking about issues like these. Many of his other churches are struggling or fighting or dealing with all kinds of internal struggle, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Phillipi. Phillipi has remained very strong in its faith, and held fast to what Paul had taught them. Possibly because there wasn't a large Jewish community in the city, the infighting between Jewish and Gentile Christians doesn't seem to have reared its ugly head like it has elsewhere. The church has the financial means to be able to support Paul, and others connected to him, who are continuing to carry the Gospel across the Roman world.... and does so without the kind of grumbling heard in other churches about "money not growing on trees" for evangelists.

In fact, in many ways, the rise of the Philippians church, which would continue long after Paul's death, mirrored the Paul's rise (a body that came out of nowhere, that against all the odds now was a leader in the Christian movement) and I don't think that escaped him. But remember, Paul is reflecting on a life lived. A life (in this world, anyway) he suspects has more day behind, than in front, of it. He probably could have bagged any more days of ministry if he had wanted to. If there was anyone, anywhere, who could have made the argument that he had earned the right to rest on his laurels and become a senior statesman for the Christian movement, certainly Paul would be that person.

But resting on laurels is not Paul's way. The hard driving former Pharisee, who once thought he had God all figured out, had exchanged a privileged, elevated status within his community, for the uncertainty of how he'd be accepted by a new community he had once tried to stomp out of existence. God had delivered him, and now he held a similar status and position elevated again, as now Christians came from all over seeking his counsel and guidance.

I think Paul feared the complacency that can come with success and a job well done. The kind of privilege that had blinded him before I think now he feared would creep into his new life and slowly rob him of his passion. Hence, despite his status as one of Christianity's pre-eminent leaders, Paul's continued need, which we see again in Philippians 3, to express how unworthy he still is even as his stature grows:

I'm not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. 13 Friends, don't get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I've got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward - to Jesus. 14 I'm off and running, and I'm not turning back.

Hence Paul warning the Philippi church to not get sucked into trap of believing that because they had their act together as a faithful congregation, that somehow they to would begin to believe themselves to be "more blessed" by God than others, and begin acting in such a way - moving from grace to legalism -that would make them feel that they understood this whole Jesus thing better. Thus Paul goes further to say:

15 So let's keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision - you'll see it yet! 16 Now that we're on the right track, let's stay on it.

Success. Affluence. Privilege. Position. Status. I wonder how things such as these effect the Christian life. I wonder how they can not only blur the vision of an individual believer, but also a church.

My sense is that the effect of things like success, affluence, privilege, position, and status, often is greater self-absorption. A preoccupation with me, and all things associated with that which is mine, resulting in the banality of our own life appearing to be more important than it really is. Our vision gets blurry as we becoming myopic, only seeing what is directly in front of us, to the detriment of seeing everything else clearly.

Being a child of the 80's, if I'm watching TV late and night and just flicking around, if there's a movie or show from that era, or about that era I tend to settle in for awhile a take a gander at it... no matter how ridiculous it might be. Such was the case when years ago I was flicking around and discovered "Can't Touch This: The M.C. Hammer Story". You remember MC Hammer, right? Rapper. Danced around. Got rich singing a song that said "Can't Touch This" a lot. There's a whole lot of people who wore, in public, baggy, gold-lame', pants and thought they were the coolest people ever because of MC Hammer. He's lucky he isn't sued.

Well, like a lot of people who seemingly overnight get hugely popular, just as quickly, Hammer disappeared from the scene. And if you hadn't heard, the man, who once pulled down $30 million in one year, shortly there after lost everything he owned in bankruptcy proceedings.

But what maybe a lot of people don't know is that Hammer was, and is, a very religious man. Church is where he met his wife, and where he raised his kids. Very serious about what he said and did, Hammer became popular because his songs weren't controversial, and were positive. He was as big among parents as he was children... and this was all by design.

But when Hammer's popularity began to wane, and his financial position began to crumble, in an effort to save all that he had, Hammer decided to turn his back on the kind of positive, bubblegum music he'd been making, and instead tried to go gangsta. He signed with a record label (Deathrow) that was notorious for signing artists that were of questionable character who openly boasted about their use of drugs, alcohol, women as sex objects, and guns. This greatly distresses his wife, who openly questions whether or not her husband is selling out all that's been important to them both, and what it's costing them in the process. But Hammer makes his choice, and pushes forward, to the point where he shoots a music video at his house featuring scantily clad females, open drug and alcohol use, and guns lying around on tables accessible to his own children.

In the movie, that's a powerful scene... Hammer, in the middle of lip syncing some song, seeing the horror on his wife and children's face, who have come home early from visiting family, at what he's allowed in their house. You can see it on the actor's face...

"How did I get here and what have I done?"

Success can blind us. A blindness that leads us to believe that we need to be defined by that success and that it needs to be maintained at all costs... because whatever it was in the beginning that drove us, has been replaced simply by us. By me. My wants, my needs, my desires.

This Sunday, we'll be giving away our weekly offering to the local food bank. It's something that after initial resistance from the congregation, unsure of how a missing offering would effect our financial position, has become some that defines us. It's my prayer that nothing else besides that crazy original idea that maybe, if we leveraged our resources not just within the church, but in the community as a whole, we could eliminate hunger in our community, will always be front and center for us every time we do this. But more importantly, I hope that by giving away what many believe to be the "lifeblood" of our congregation, that we learn the lesson again and again that it is not our offering that sustains us. We don't exist so that we can give to ourselves just so we can give to ourselves again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

We are only as successful as our ability to give ourselves away. We will only be first if we can put ourselves last. We will only inherit the kingdom if we refuse to crown ourselves kings and queens.

May that be our prayer as individual and corporate disciples of The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Charlie's Free Pass

Of all the things about living in northern Indiana for five years, one of the most difficult things I had to endure as a life-long fan of a Big Ten team was living smack-dab in the middle of Notre Dame country. Virtually all of Indiana is basketball crazy, but in one little corner of the state roundball dreams take a backseat to visions of football glory, and that corner was where we lived. I chalk that up to the fact that the big news every week, everywhere within an hour of South Bend, is what's going on with Notre Dame football. You can be sure that 365 days a year (366 on a leap year) there will be an article in the South Bend Tribune about the Fighting Irish's chances to win it all in football. Every recruit they get or don't get, every play in the Spring Game, and every word the coach says or doesn't say is front page news. Hence, I think that while most of the rest of the state dreamt of playing for (while being verbally berated) Bobby Knight at IU that everywhere the Irish are king, little boys grow up want to wear those green jerseys for a particularly important football game.

So, endlessly I had to read and listen and watch all the talking heads and talking head wanna-bes drone on about Irish football for five long years. It did help that in 2002 OSU won the National Championship (I enjoyed my time with Irish fans immensely that year), but for the most part I grew weary of dealing with what I believe to be the most unforgiving, demanding, and arrogant football fans in the world. I had to listen to everyone and their brother lambaste the Big Ten as being too inferior a conference for ND to join. I watched them run Bob Davie out of town. And I watched them short-change a true gentleman in Ty Willingham (all the while saying that race had nothing to do with the short clock he was apparently on) who deserved much better.

When they won, life was good... but when they lost, ND turned into Chicken Little Central, and man can those people worry about the sky falling better than any other people on the planet.

Which is why I'm curious that Charlie Weis apparently is getting a free pass this year, even as his team is 1-8? These guys are mostly Charlie's recruits. They've had ample time to learn his offensive and defensive(?) system. What in the world is going on South Bend that somehow Charlie Weis' job status isn't being scrutinized like Bill Callahan's or Dennis Franchione's? And really, outside of the hot shot freshman QB from California who lost his starting job, what is it about the program and the players in it that give Irish fans... a notoriously impatient lot... a willingness to let this season slide?

Well, beats me. Maybe someone could explain it to me, cause the ND nation I knew would be calling for the coach's head if they had a mediocre season, let alone the disaster that is this year.

All I can figure is that because Charlie was once a starry-eyed kid who took classes on the campus, that the faithful are more forgiving of one of their own. Cause if a guy's job status isn't gonna be questioned when he loses to Navy in triple OT (NAVY! They have rules about how big you can be to play football, and the rules state you can be TOO big. How in the world does ND lose to Navy?) he apparently isn't going anywhere... for now.

But you can only play like this for so long and believe that NBC is going to shell out $33 million to broadcast your ballgames. I get the sense that in the offseason, and if things don't start well next season, lots of candles will be lit in the Grotto... and not to many of them for the coach that's getting way more slack than I thought possible in a city where the sun rises and sets on the stadium next to Touchdown Jesus.

You're getting a free pass this year, Charlie. Better enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Sorry for the late post. Today was a busy one. Even got into work bright and early to get a jump on the day. Made no difference.... it's 10pm and I'm just beginning to blog. Started the day working with the office staff sorting out the stewardship campaign which concluded on Sunday. A Sunday service, I might add, that might have been the most uplifting worship service on a day financial pledges were asked for in all of history. If you weren't there, you missed Roger Rhodes' reminding us what "We Are Shawnee United" means to the community and the world, a word of thanks from Marty and Dave Hutchison for all the support they've received from the church in light of the death of their son and grandson, fine interpretive dancing (it's back!), a poignant communion, and just an overall spirit-filled day. Then we all went to Captain D's (who had a record day, I might add) and gorged ourselves on fish and shrimp to support our Harvest for the Hungry food drive for the West Ohio Food Bank. I wish I could explain it better, but I can't.

Just suffice to say, don't miss this Sunday. We'll be giving our offering away for "Harvest...", and I suspect this might be the biggest year we've had in a while. I think it's going to be something special.

2) Anyhow, we were sorting out pledges so we can finish up the next phase of the campaign (phone calls from the finance committee members to those we haven't heard from yet), and then begin projecting a budget for 2008. We have a number of capital improvements that will need to be made next year, as well plenty of opportunities for ministry we need to start taking advantage of, so we'll be maximizing our resources in every way possible. Initial results of the campaign are encouraging, but it will be a couple more weeks before we have a more concrete idea as to the success. We'll inform the congregation as soon as we know something.

3) Also I met for lunch with a number of concerned folks from the community who are discussing ways to try to support the local Hispanic community here in the Lima area. A couple of years ago, in response to a serious situation regarding an illegal alien hiding in our area who was wanted for allegedly doing some very bad stuff, our sheriff began to make cracking down on illegal immigrants kind of his core political issue. Since then his "zero tolerance" policy has made him famous across the country via cable news networks, which have led to a number of speaking engagements being extended to him by like-minded interest groups.

The only problem with the sheriff's new policy, though, is that by profiling people of Hispanic origin as possible illegal aliens, a number of Hispanic-Americans and Hispanics legally in the country on work permits have been harassed to the point where many of them have moved away from the community. Because Allen County sheriff cars are pulling people over for DWH (Driving While Hispanic) or WWH (Walking While Hispanic), folks who have every right to live here are feeling unsafe and unwelcome in our community.

And besides, there are much better ways to deal with the illegal immigration than by constant harassment. I understand that the sheriff has to enforce the law... that's what sheriff's do. But surely, given the depth of the crime and drug problems in our community, manpower spent on ultimately deporting what will amount to a handful of people could be reassessed... especially given the fact that the sheriff's budget proposal, which was a million dollars larger than last year's, was just rejected by the county commissioners.

So, a group of concerned people from across the Christian religious spectrum, have started gathering to figure out how in the world to begin to support those living in the community whose only crime is being a member of a particular ethnic group. A lot of good ideas were bandied about at the gathering, and I'm optimistic that some positive things can come out of the minds and prayer of these good folks that will benefit all in the community, while not subverting the law.

4) Finally, since tonight was the regional church conference that I had signed us up for, I spent the rest of the afternoon filling out the paperwork that had to be turned in to the "powers that be" in the United Methodist Church. In the end, I'm not sure anyone will actually read all of the stuff I wrote down today, but if they ever do, they'll find my answers to their questions to be short and to the point.

5) I didn't actually attend the conference tonight, because this evening at 6:00pm at an establishment called Doc Watson's in Toledo, Ohio, my brother was sworn in as an officer of the court by one of the judges he's been working with as a clerk in the public defender's office in Lucas County. Yep, my brother is now officially, Brother Esquire, Attorney at Law. Mostly he'll be doing a lot of trusts, estates, probate, and the like, but I suspect he'll keep his eye out for the occasional ambulance or the pro-bono case where justice must be served. I took my oldest, Max, up with me to see the actual swearing in (where I got to hold the Bible... me being the holy one and all) and while I don't know whether or not he was all that impressed with the proceedings, he certainly did spend plenty of his grandmother's money playing video games (video bowling, Donkey Kong, and, of all the crazy things, video cornhole.... how the world's most boring outdoor lawn sport could be turned into a video game remains a mystery to me. What's next? Video truffle hunting? Video jarts? Video metal detecting? The possibilities stagger the mind...).

Best part of the evening, though (besides the actual swearing in) was hearing the judge and a supervising attorney of Andy's in the Public Defender's office tell us just how good Andy is at practicing criminal law, already. He has apparently found his niche. Congrats, Brother Esquire, as you begin your new career parsing the letter of the law.

Now, about doing my will, pro bono (because this is a case where justice must be served)...

6) I hate to say this but as Christmas approaches (too quickly in the retail world, I might remind you, for my taste) I find myself becoming one of the "those parents" who are becoming somewhat obsessed with getting "the toy" everyone wants for his own kids. When Andy was little "the toy" was the original Nintendo. When the group of kids a little older than he were little the "it toy" was a Cabbage Patch kid. When I was a kid for awhile the "it toy" as the original Atari 2600. Now... it's something I'd rather not say (out of fear someone would tell the boys, I'd fail to find one, and there would be a mess of confusion on Christmas morning around here) but has me making endless phone calls, calling favors, and lurking in dark alleys to acquire. Can't say that I'll be able to find one as a joint gift to Max and Xavie, but I'm gonna keep looking, because obviously I've lost my mind.

7) It's been a long time since the Browns were relevant this late in the NFL season. Not since a few years before Art Modell whisked the team off to Baltimore have the fans in Cleveland actually had any kind of hope that maybe their team was something special. But, they've got that team this year. I watched the end of the Browns/Seahawks game yesterday, and the part I enjoyed the most was hearing the fans go berserk when Seattle turned the ball over on downs in OT, and continuing to go berserk until Phil Dawson kicked that final FG to win the game. Considering Browns fans, arguably the most loyal in all sports, have had to put up with the move of their beloved, three years of nothing, a Raven's Super Bowl victory, being awarded an expansion team, and a decade of futility, this season is a long time coming. Here's hoping they can keep playing good football, and reward the city with some post-season action. That would be sweet, indeed.

8) How can it be that a football game between the Buckeyes and Badgers, who were ranked 1 and 21 respectively, could go virtually unseen in most of the state of Ohio last Saturday? Whelp, you can sum it up in one word.... greed.

The Big Ten Conference, in all their wisdom, have seen the future, and the future is broadcasting their own team's games on their own network that they want to charge people an arm and leg (more than the cost of ESPN, which is the most expensive cable channel you have) for the privilege of viewing. However, the two main cable companies in the state, Time Warner and Comcast, are unwilling to add the Big Ten Network to their basic package cause, well, not everyone would really want it... particularly if their cable bill went up $10 a month. Thus, we now have a deadlock resulting in Dad and I driving up to Perrysburg to watch the game at my brother's house (he has Buckeye Cable, which must have worked out a deal with the B10N early on before things got ugly).

You know at some point, someone is going to blink. Who'll cave in first? My best guess says the Big Ten Network, which will need the advertising revenue that broadcasting to 16 million people (as opposed to 1.6 million people) can bring. You just can't beat a monopoly.

9) I'm not tired I'm just...... (YAAAAAWWWWNNNNNNNNN!).... not very excited.

10) Remember how in a post last week I told you about Xavier's penchant for ending up with some little girl who makes goo goo eyes at him (or as I called him last week, a natural born playa)? Whelp, at Captain D's Sunday, it happened again. This time some blond haired little girl Xavier knew from school, saw him, begged her mom to let him sit at their table with her family, and then proceeded upon their leaving to announce to us all that Xavier was her boyfriend.

He's only five... but he was smiling. Should I be worried?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Problem of Change

For the past three weeks we've been working through the book of Philippians, which was written toward the end of Paul's life while he was incarcerated at Mamertine Prison in Rome. It is clear from various comments that Paul makes throughout the text that he is incredibly unsure as to whether or not he will ever be a free man again. The experience is forcing him to take stock of his career, and in what essentially amounts to a good-bye letter, Paul wants to let the church of Philippi not only how he feels about them, but also what they'll need to do to continue to be a strong family of faith.

In the first three weeks we worked through three different themes that Paul emphasizes. First, Paul tells the church that it needs to remain unified in it's intent and purpose. Second, he calls the church to always remain humble in their attitude toward one another, the Lord, and to those outside the community. Third, Paul, who has always believed that Jesus will come back in his lifetime, begins to realize that maybe this will not be the case. As it dawns upon him that maybe it will be much longer before Jesus returns than anyone ever anticipated, he calls the church to be faithful Christ's teachings, even if it means persecution and sacrifice. As opposed to the end-time prognosticators of this age who read the tea leaves in order to let us know that Jesus is coming back very soon to rescue his people, Paul makes no promise of an immanent rescue, only the promise that those who are faithful, will be sustained all their days.

Unity. Humility. Faithfulness. Three values Paul says a Christian community, and a Christian individual, will absolutely need if the Kingdom of Heaven is to be realized. And quite frankly, in any institution or network of people, if you don't have mutual unity and humility, coupled with faithfulness to the cause, you are most likely going to be in a lot of trouble. As a pastor, I've heard enough horror stories of work places where a lack of unity, humility, or faith in the system led to chaos to last me a lifetime.

Paul has lived this himself. Some of the churches he's helped start, or have counseled, were bitterly divided as people jockeyed for positions of power or argued about what it meant to be a "true Christian". With great dismay, embarrassment, and anger, he watched as once-joyful and hopeful people became disillusioned as the same kinds of bitterness we experience in the world shattered valued and treasured relationships in a venue where they should be treasured and valued.

To date, the Philippians had appeared to have experienced this kind of difficulty. Paul implies throughout the letter that the church has remained pretty much on the same page, even while weathering storms, throughout its young life. But he sees coming on the horizon for the Philippian church that which is the greatest threat to unity, humility, and faithfulness...


The only time people really like change is when they are uncomfortable. It's like when you lie down on the couch, and the initial relief from standing up eventually turns into a nagging ache or some body part falling asleep. So, what do you do... you shift to find a more comfortable position. Humans don't have nearly as much of a problem with change if they know it will relieve them of their stress and pain, while positioning them for a more comfortable or better future.

Do you remember this picture:

This is a protester, a Chinese student, who in 1989 stood courageously with other students against and opposed to a repressive regime that ran roughshod as perpetual human rights violators. The student, and thousands like him, were attempting to bring more freedom of expression and ideas to Chinese society, something they knew would be impossible unless the Communist party became more accountable to its own people, and the rest of the world. The protests were brutally put down, but the aftershocks reverberated throughout the western world. In China, it seemed, anything could happen.

But I just read an article how almost 20 years later, even as the Communists remain in power and the human rights violations of the Chinese government continue, Chinese college students and recent graduates have become reluctant to engage in matters of politics. Why? Because with the explosion in the Chinese economy over the last decade, the wealth of this age group has grown exponentially better than any other demographic in Chinese society. Because they now have good jobs, with high pay, and opportunities not even imaginable 20 years ago, young Chinese adults appear to have very little interest in dislodging the Communist Party from power.

The comfortable never want change.

And that, I think, is what Paul is sensing where the weak spot of his beloved Philippian church might just be. A time where change will become necessary, even though those who must endure the change are perfectly happy with the way things are right now.

The cause for Paul's concern is his own inevitable death. Because the church has taken to him so readily as it's spiritual and temporal leaders, he strongly admonishes the Philippians to accept his successor, Timothy, and reject all of the other various so-called prophets, teachers, and preachers who will come knocking on the church's door, looking to lead the church astray.

17 But even if my life is to be poured out like a drink offering to complete the sacrifice of your faithful service (that is, if I am to die for you), I will rejoice, and I want to share my joy with all of you. 18 And you should be happy about this and rejoice with me. 19 If the Lord Jesus is willing, I hope to send Timothy to you soon. Then when he comes back, he can cheer me up by telling me how you are getting along. 20 I have no one else like Timothy, who genuinely cares about your welfare. 21 All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ. 22 But you know how Timothy has proved himself. Like a son with his father, he has helped me in preaching the Good News.

It makes no difference how it happens, unwanted change is hard. By passing the torch from himself to Timothy, he knows that the church is going to face two kinds of change. First, because Paul's message of Jesus' love and acceptance of ALL people isn't exactly universally accepted in the Christian church at that (or any other) time, he knows that those who oppose his message will attempt to convince the Philippians otherwise after he's no longer around to refute them OR in other words, external forces attempting to upset what is good about the status quo.
Their advances will be unwanted, forcing each individual of the church to re-evaluate what they know to be true about the Christian life. Surely no amount of discussion or debate will be able to mitigate the uncertainty this is going to cause as people must re-affirm their choice to follow Christ as they have done so, again and again.

But on the flip side, there is another kind of change coming, and one that's just as, or maybe ever more challenging, to deal with as individuals or as a community. Because Christian faith is powered by the Holy Spirit, which is living and breathing, it will never allow us to simply be who we are, unchanging, forever. Paul, personally, has experienced this. The former Pharisee who used to take his marching orders from the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, stamping out all traces of Jesus's teachings and followers, was now his principle evangelist to those who had largely known very little about living life as a Jehovah-fearing Jew. As he traveled, sharing the Gospel, he saw how different churches located in throughout the Roman Empire, viewed the Gospel... and the variances of those views. In Corinth, a cosmopolitan city where the patron god was Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and procreation, he was forced again and again to deal with issues of sexual immorality. It proved challenging to work with people who from a very young age were taught that visiting prostitutes in the city was something were supposed to do as a means of appeasing the gods, a new way to live that encouraged monogamy sex lives or even chastity.Thus, for the good of not only the individual, but also the community, Corinthians had to be taught a new way to live, and re-taught that way again and again, as new people who didn't share the Christian community's values would stumble into this strange new world. We are talking about the reality of internal change.

The challenge of internal change, Paul knew, would be even more hairy for someone like Timothy, who as times and circumstances changed, would have to address new issues and problems, while preaching about that which had already been accepted again in bold new ways, because people, at some point, often stop listening to that which they've heard again and again and again.

It is change, internal and external, that we will talk about a bit in the worship service tomorrow. Happy fall back night!