Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Freedom for a Disciple of Jesus

(This is a rough outline of the sermon I gave at the building dedication for The Future Church of Tomorrow)

I've been asked today to speak to the issue of freedom. What "freedom" is for a disciple of Jesus Christ.

In the 16th Chapter of Acts, we read that Paul and Silas travel to the port city of Philippi. There they encounter a young girl, who the scripture says is possessed by demons. The girl, who works as a fortune teller for men who make a living off her misery, follows Paul and Silas for a couple of days, telling all who would listen, "These men are God's servants who have come to tell you how to be saved." Finally, Paul gets fed up. He casts out the demons and the girl is free.

Free of the evil spirits.
Free of men who would exploit her.
Free to get on with her life.

But when the men who had taken a shortcut to make a living found out they had lost their meal ticket, they got angry. So they lobbied the city fathers, used the system, and had Paul and Silas imprisoned. Imprisoned in the deepest dungeon of the city jail.

Imprisoned men, who spent the night, not in despair, but praising God, singing his praises.

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see."

A great earthquake strikes the city. The shackles of all the prisoners, bolted into the walls, fall useless to the ground. The prisoners, who have been listening the singing all evening, and the singers themselves can now leave anytime they like.

But strangely enough.... nobody moves.

The jailer, arriving on the scene, thinking all is lost, draws his sword to take his own life, only to be stopped by a voice from the darkness.

"Don't do it. We are all here."

The jailer puts away his sword, and after listening to the prisoners, the peace they've found, for it's peace they've lacked, invites Paul and Silas to his home where all the members of the household are baptized.

"Through many dangers, toils, and snares. I have already come. Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."

Freedom is boldly proclaiming a message of forgiveness and love to all willing to listen, and offering grace to those who don't.

Freedom is offering liberation to those who are oppressed, while fearlessly standing up to their oppressors.

Freedom is a willingness to do what is right, even if it might mean our liberty is comprimised, but our bodies might be imprisoned, but not our souls.

Freedom is offering comfort, singing sweet words of mercy to those who need to hear it the most.

Freedom is trusting in God to stay, instead of flee when the walls come tumbling down and the shackles come off our hands and feet because there's still work to be done.

Freedom is to offer real justice to those who only know the world's justice, only to realize there is something better for they and their family.

Freedom looks past Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and red and yellow and every color of the rainbow.

Freedom looks past urban and suburban, denominational and non-denominational, evengelical and progressive, high church and low church.

Freedom knows the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Freedom doesn't just apologize for the past, but makes the present right, while giving hope for the future.

Freedom demands justice, but only justice on God's terms.

Freedom believes a mother can change her community.

Freedom believes a child can make a way where there is no way.

Freedom doesn't believe a grandmother or grandfather is too old.

Freedom craves a father's love and guidance.

Freedom can take our family out of our comfort zone into the dangerous world of God's liberating, upending love.

Freedom is knowing that there is a father to the fatherless, and a mother to the motherless.

Freedom can speak the truth in love and leave arrogance to the pretenders.

Freedom loves justice and won't rest until all know her warm embrace.

Freedom knows this our moment and won't waste it on old animosities and resentments. Won't waste it on fear and anxiety. Won't waste it on old labels, old divisions, old differences, and old ways of thinking.

Freedom makes all things knew.

Freedom will make new friends, befriend old enemies, and rejoice as the lion lays down with the lamb.

And freedom dictates that today should only be the beginning of something new. A re-dedication of ourselves to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who call us to bring comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.

Together. You. Me. All of us. Choosing this day whom we will serve. Freely.

That, in my humble opinion, is what freedom is.

Let it be so. Let it be so.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Great video report on the web site of the New York Times on a public defender working in Miami Dade County, Florida. While I watched it I thought about Brother Esq, who is in private practice doing mostly criminal defense work. Lately, as the birth of his son (Baby Sammy) nears, Brother Esq has been putting in yeoman's hours on a host of cases. His biggest challenge though, recently, has been preparing briefs for a case that his firm picked up that will be appearing before the Ohio Supreme Court. He's been preparing pre-trial briefs and trial briefs and other briefs that he explains to me, but because I'm dumb preacher I don't quite understand. As he nears his one-year anniversary of passing the Ohio Bar, he now drives to court houses across far northwestern Ohio. On any given day you might find him in Fremont, Port Clinton, Bowling Green, Toledo, or Sandusky. He's a member of the Benovolent Order of the Elks now (the lodge is across from his Fremont office) and is getting leaned on by me fairly regularly to start attending the Lutheran Church across the street from the home he and the lovely Melissa purchased earlier this year in Perrysburg

Brother Esq mainly does criminal defense work because while he was in law school he clerked at the Public Defenders office in Lucas County. It was interesting to hear how my very politically conservative brother was affected during those years. His two years spent with people stuck in the system, facing lawyers better resourced with a lesser caseload than he (clerks in the Defender's office, once certified, can handle your case), prosecuting attorneys looking to manipulate the system for their own gain, and judges who want to keep things moving kind of tempered his view of the relationship between justice and the state. In particular, a case he didn't handle but involved the father of a friend of his, was for him an egregious example of how those in power can manipulate the idea of "guilty until proven innocent", particularly if the media has decided they are guilty.

The stories he shared with me during that time, the ones involving petty drug dealers/addicts who would intentionally get arrested when the weather turned cold so they could stay warm in jail, a retarded woman who was arrested for shoplifting when she was just trying to see if the new shoes she was looking to buy felt comfortable walking on the sidewalk, and the tales of an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney who tried to muscle a young law student who wouldn't back down, have convinced me that while our system isn't perfect, its better than most alternatives out there. It also convinced me that defense attorneys keeps us further away from tyranny and governmental oppression than we know.

2) Which leads me to this... why are all the most important jobs so incredibly underfunded? Whether it's public defense offices, social agencies, police and fire departments, public agencies commissioned to keep our infrastructure up and running, or local school budgets, my experience has been the accusations of administrative largess are minimal compared to the impact underfunding is having on how well these basic services function. How strange it is has been to see over a trillion dollars get spent by the Federal Government to bail out banks and corporations that that shareholders and executives together mismanaged, while, for example, our recently re-elected juvenile court judge, Glenn Derryberry, will see thousands of cases this year with a minimal budget and staff.

If the election is any indication, my confusion over the state of the country is shared by many others. The whole theory of large fiscal entities driving the economic engine for us all might sound good in theory, but the interests of these entities don't necessarily mirror the interests of the general public (hence the steady sucking sound of midwestern jobs going all over the world). Even more specific, when we're talking about huge amounts of money, the possibility for greed and malfeasance grows. And how strange it was to have heard Alan Greenspan, of all people, admit that the mistake that these huge corporate entities would self-regulate themselves to protect their shareholders.

Any C+ theology student could tell you that the reality of sin makes this unlikely. The stories deriding the ballooning salaries and bonuses of corporate CEO's have long been a staple in our nation's periodicals, particularly since the Enron scandals. The temptation to walk away with millions at the expense of the company's stability proved too great for individuals to pass up. Why more blame hasn't been put on these folks, and the shareholders who fostered this culture as opposed to the government pushing sub-prime loans is beyond me. And why more fiscal conservatives aren't calling for additional governmental oversight of corporate accounting, trade, and investment practices doesn't seem all that fiscally responsible, or appropriately conservative. Accountability creates efficiency. Lack of accountability creates inefficiency, meaning essential services in our communities remained, and remain underfunded, while the country sinks deeper in debt.

3) Quick note, do remember John McCain saying this:

Well, lo and behold what kind of health care do they have in Ireland, the land of low business taxes and economic opportunity? If you guessed, "Quasi-Nationalized", you would be correct. About 47% of the Irish have private health insurance, while the rest hold a national health card. All Irish citizens are given free emergency health, dental, optical, and aural care. With small businesses and non-profits struggling under the weight of health insurance obligations - or just eliminating the benefit to their employees altogether - a great opportunity rests with the Democrats to do something about health care that will not only improve care, while making our businesses more competitive in the global marketplace.

Of course in Ireland, if you sue somebody, and lose, you have to pay all of your costs, and your opponents, hence far fewer frivolous lawsuits. But If you think those are mutually exclusive ends - government involvement in health care and making business competitive - just listen to John McCain and take a look at Ireland. Apparently it can be done.

4) This fascinating tidbit just in: Beth Riggs, my aunt, and her daughter Allison are in Lima for a visit. They represent the Utah wing of the family. On the first night we were catching up, I happened to ask Allison, who has a couple years of college under her belt, if there was a guy in her life right now. She responded in the affirmative. Guess what his name is?

Alex Riggs. They are both called "Al" by their respective families (who are not related, thank goodness).

Al and Al Riggs. Just think, if they get married, Allison could hyphenate her name: Allison Riggs-Riggs.

This will never stop being funny to me. Never.

5) I like the new look Cavs. I underestimated the value of signing Mo Williams in the off season. I always thought of him as a purely "shoot first" point guard. His emergence, plus moving Delonte West to the shooting guard position - where he not only shoots well, takes the ball to the whole, gets the fast break started, but also plays pretty good D - has made over the Cavs offense. Last year, Coach Mike Brown's idea of offense was to clear out the middle of the floor, give it to LeBron, and say "have at it, big guy." What made this such a waste was that aging center, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is one of the best shooting and passing big men in the game. By moving the ball, and getting it into both Z and LeBron's hands, the floor opens up and the team can score. I've watched them three times this year and there's no mystery as to why LeBron's shooting percentage has taken off. With an open floor and an occasional fast break, he's getting open shots in the paint. Very exciting, and a testament as to how important a good point guard that can initiate the offense is in basketball. Now if they can trade Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract for one more outside shooter (Michael Redd.... please!?!) this could be the Cavs year.

6) As for the Buckeyes, the new freshman QB is the real deal. Eric the Buckeye is convinced the team needs a new offensive coordinator to get back to national prominance. Then again, Eric the Buckeye has been calling for senior QB Todd Boeckman to be re-inserted to the lineup, so maybe we shouldn't trust him with sharp knives, let alone the offensive future of The Ohio State University.

I mean, come on Eric the Buckeye... why go backwards with a guy who is graduating in a few weeks? The future is now. You gotta run with the future. There's no BCS bowl waiting for this team, and they aren't talented enough, particularly on both lines, to warrant such an invitation. They're going to a bowl named after a franchised steakhouse or financial institution. So let the Terrell Pryor Era continue.

That said, while I do enjoy tweaking Eric the Buckeye, I do think he has a point when he wonders aloud why the Bucks always have a Top Ten recruiting class but the linemen always seem to look slow. We've got a problem in our strength and conditioning staff building linemen a "Three Yards and Cloud of Dust" coach would die for in a "Spread Offense" era. You watch a Texas Tech, Alabama, and even a (gulp) Florida and you see linemen who are fast. The knowledge that Tim Tebow has so much more time to throw the ball makes watching Alex Boone getting spun around like a turnstile that much harder to watch. Until they get this under control there will be no redemption from two national championship blowouts and the drubbing at the hands of USC.

7) Great interview on Charlie Rose last night with Bill Ackman, manager of one of the country's largest hedge funds. While Ackman's comments regarding the contribution hedge funds made toward this financial mess were more than a little self-serving, his take on the cause of the crisis is right on. Financial institutions were over-leveraged (holding a dollar for every 30 or 40, or in Fannie and Freddie's case, 100 dollars they loaned out) and the corporations that issued bonds to insure the risk were over-valued by those rating how solid they were. Hence, while the internet bubble took mostly cash that investors knew was a high risk investment, in this crisis the cash that is disappearing is cash investors thought they were putting into low-risk, AAA rated bonds. This is effecting the incomes of retirees who thought they were avoiding high risk investments.

The upshot of this is that I believe that while in the past churches were one of the few non-profit organization who were largely insulated from a downturn in giving during a recession (thanks to the high level of commitment of their parishioners), this time around we're all feeling the pinch. Remember that the average age of the parishioner in this country in every denomination and non-denominational church has continued to rise over the last twenty years. Part of this can be attributed to the large number of baby-boomers getting older, and part of it can be attributed to the failure of churches to attract younger members (more on that later). But as we become increasingly dependent on retirement income, a collapse in the derivative market that was supposedly solid will be felt more fully. Couple that with the decline in investment income churches will be looking at as their foundations and endowments decline, and maybe the unwritten story thus far regarding this crisis is the inability of churches to assist people in a period of real need.

To date, SUMC hasn't been hit nearly as hard as what I'm hearing other churches are dealing with, but the end to this story hasn't been written yet. Churches, as a rule, tend to receive a large portion of their giving in the last six weeks of the year when congregants are a) making up deficiencies in their pledges and b) taking the advice of their accountant as they review their income tax situation for the year. The surge in giving in both quarters I think will be somewhat muted in many, many churches compared to years past, so we won't know the full extent of this until February when after what is historically a cash-poor month (January, when Christmas purchases come due) we have some idea as to what our overall cash position is.

8) Tremendous interview with McCain last night on The Tonight Show. If you missed it, here it is, and part 3 is particularly poignant as the veteran shares a story from his POW experience.

9) Congrats to Judge Glenn Derryberry on a well-run, honorable, and successful campaign. I thought Glenn showed a lot of grit and class as he built a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans who believed in his candidacy. I was proud to lend my name and effort to the cause.

10) Finally, I had the pleasure of organizing with seven colleagues of mine a forum for the two candidates running for Allen County Sheriff. Since one of the candidates refused to debate the others (don't ask), we hastily organized a forum where the two candidates in separate settings could respond to the issues that mattered to us. It was a particularly rewarding experience because we crossed the spectrum of theology, culture, and race, all along truly working together for the common good. Special thanks to Dave Harris, LaMont Monford, Daniel Hughes, Lars Olsen, Fayne Wise, Frank Taylor, and Steve Blum for a good experience.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

23 Days And Nothing's On

23 days it has been since my last post. As my public cries out for some warm morsel from the oven that is my intellect, I'm afraid the cupboard has been bare. But before I take off for yet another wedding (this has certainly been my busiest wedding year in quite some time, and I still have one more), here are few random thoughts to whet your pallet before 23 days turns into 24.

- For the record, I will not be voting the "Grandma and Dad" ticket in 2008 like I did (out of disgust for the candidates that were available) in the past two elections (sorry Great One). For the first time since 1996 I'll actually support a candidate that has a chance of winning (although I'd still prefer my grandmother who is fiscally conservative and pro-education). Every person has one issue that matters more to them than any other, and that generally decides their vote. I've got mine, so to the polls I'll go. May the best man win.

- I've been listening to a compilation on Rhapsody called "Soft Rock Favorites of the 70's". Don't ask me why. Let's just say that my musical preferences during the first ten years of my life weren't all that edgy. In any event, I just heard "Afternoon Delight", and now at the age of 39 am wondering how in the heck that song was ever permitted on the radio. It's about sneaking away to have sex in the afternoon. It's filthy. It features the lyric "and the thought of rubbing you gets me so excited /skyrockets in flight / afternoon delight". I predict it'll be the tag music for Viagra or Cialis within two years. Just goes to show that if music is tame enough to be on the Lawrence Welk Show you can pretty much sing about anything and still get it on the radio.

- Speaking of popular radio, have you listened to a Top 40 station lately? There's plenty of rap, plenty of sampling, and plenty of angst ridden bands playing lots of minor chords, but it's a little short on... well.... I don't know..... melody.

It's like nobody can write two verses, two choruses, and a decent bridge any more. They say you can't escape your influences. In the words of Paul McCartney, what ever happened to all the silly love songs? Where are all the kids who grew up listening to Elton John, Billy Joel, or Journey. And whatever happened to great funk bands or brass sections in general? It's like every little kid who grew up listening to Parliment, the Ohio Players, the Gap Band, and Chicago never took bass, horn, guitar, or drum lessons. I'm waiting for the next Earth, Wind, and Fire, but all I get Britney Spears.

By the way, here's a video on YouTube of a guy beat boxing to Womanizer:

The internet.... 57 billion channels and nothing on.

- My prediction for Saturday night: OSU 38 Penn State 36

What did you expect? I'm as biased as biased can be. Too bad I'll be listening to it in the car, thanks to my buddy Merv deciding to get married on game day. The guy was born in Ohio, but all these years living in Indiana have beaten the Buckeye right out of him. Scheduling a wedding on the day of the OSU/PSU game... yeeeesh! Some people have no priorities.

Also, I might add here that while Eric the Buckeye is a true Buckeye fan in every sense of the word, he's a little soft on the "Terrell Pryor Era". The guy actually texted me last week wishing that Tressel would put in Boeckman, even as the Bucks pounded MSU in front of their home crowd.

His ship has sailed, my friend. It's time to come into the future, and the future is a quarterback that can stiff arm defensive lineman, knocking them on their can, and run 18 yards for a touchdown. You gotta live with the inaccuracy and the sacks when he should throw the ball out of bounds. By the end of this season, he's going to be poised to be the best we've ever seen. Let's just hope Beanie comes back for his senior year.

- And, by the way, gotta love a 2-5 Michigan squad. Hail to Rich Rod and a team that can't beat Toledo (who got pasted the next week by Northern Illinois)!

- Finally, we'll be starting a new sermon series at Shawnee this week called "James: Uncensored". If you've never read much of the Bible, or tried but stopped because it seemed either too dense or obscure or, in some instances, very violent or strange, you'd probably do well to go back and read the book of James. It's short, to the point and incredibly practical.

The writer of the book is generally attributed to be James, the brother of Jesus, who we learn in the book of Acts becomes the head of the church in Jerusalem and one of the chief leaders of the first generation Christian movement. Early on, James sees a real problem in the Christian community. While they sing the hymns, recite the scripture, and share Communion together, in every other aspect they don't look all that different from anyone else in the world. For example, while Christ's church is supposed to celebrate different gifts while treating all people in its tribe equally, very early on rich people are treated better than those who are poor. James, who basically sees hypocrisy and calls it what it is, uses this example as a spring board to say something very important of church's role in the world, and how each of us together are responsible for one another's Christian journey.

Thus, for example, while American Airlines might have a First Class section and tony clubs in LA have VIP rooms, the church is supposed to honor everyone, particularly the poor who don't get a lot of honor anywhere else. The idea is that church is supposed to be the place that influences the way people treat one another in the world, and not vice-versa, and the only way this can happen is if hold one another accountable to demands of discipleship. So for five weeks we'll look at how James says the church is supposed to work.

If you can't make it to Shawnee for worship, feel free to download the podcast of the sermons here at the church website. They are, of course, free for all with internet access and a computer.

Stay cool. I'll be back with you soon.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Goodbye Old Friend

Today, we had to end the life of our cat, Trixie, who has been with Aimee and I since we were married more than 18 years ago. She was in renal failure, and instead of prolonging the agony, we had her put to sleep. After a long, and might I add, cushy life, her body just finally wore out.

We ended up with Trixie because she was rejected by her original owners. Before we were married, every year on Sherman's (my wife's grandfather) birthday, my mother-in-law, Carol, would threaten to buy him a live pet, and every year he'd end up with some sort of toy animal. It was a running joke until his 80th birthday. That year Carol actually bought Sherman a cat. She named her Trixie after Sherman's wife, (Aimee's grandmother) Henrietta, who earned the nickname from her friends after many nights dancing and partying. It was a party girl name, for a party girl.

Sherm and Henrietta took the cat home, but if you had ever lived with Henrietta, you'd know that one of things that drove her nuts was an unkempt home. We lived with them for nine days so I found that out, first hand (and often scolded).

By the way, in their home, somehow, against the laws of nature and physics, "The Lawrence Welk Show" was on their television every evening, sometimes as long as three hours, and these were the days before you could buy TV shows on DVD or VHS. How they could find that program every single blasted evening is a still a mystery to me.

You can imagine, then, the havoc a kitten wrought upon the Little household. Being up in her years, Henrietta just couldn't relax as Trixie messed up their house. Trixie, too, had a terrible habit of walking right under your feet, so she was a potential broken hip. For the good of their health and sanity, my mother-in-law took her back in, an orphan of a home, I'm sure, was scrubbed top to bottom the moment the cat left the house.

I'd never really owned a pet (besides, Garfunkle, a goldfish), and has always wanted one. Aimee grew up with all kinds of animals and liked them. We couldn't really afford it, but we decided to take her in.

Before you have children when you are young marrieds, often a pet will become like a child for you. Kind of a pseudo-son or daughter you spoil, talk to, and tell stories about to other people, much like a new parent tells stories about the the exploits of their babies. For nine years, this was pretty much Trixie's place in our life.

After Max was born though, Trixie, for all practical purposes became the cat. Still loved, but not nearly as pampered as before. Her change in status - from "favored child" to "cat who better stay away from the baby - was difficult for her. But she's a cat, so she adapted. Besides, she still found the available lap with great regularity.

That's probably how the story would have ended, her becoming more and more the cat as each boy was born, except late in her life she got a brief reprieve. The year we were in Kentucky while I was at school (June 2006-May2007), Trixie lived with The Great One, my grandmother, where for a time she was elevated from "cat" to "treasured guest" status. Within a month of settling in, The Great One's lap was Trixie's territory. Her every need catered to, when we would come home for a visit, Trixie would hide in The Great One's bedroom so we wouldn't take her home. Needless to say, she really didn't want to come back to the Bucher house. I'm sure she was grateful for a year where she always could find a warm lap to lay on and the absence of little boys looking to chase her or pull her tail before they were spanked or scolded by her parents. It had to be sweet to be talked to and valued again like she was when we had more time for a little gray cat.

Thank you, Great One, from Trixie, and us.

She's gone now. The obvious pain she was in, coupled with the loss of control of bladder and intestines, makes it much easier to let her go, but we'll still really miss her. She, like too many others - like Sherman, Henrietta, and Carol - have gone on from this life, leaving a hole in ours. Amazing how a cat can do that... leave a hole. Somehow, Trixie did.

"Goodbye old friend. I hope as you passed, you were comforted by memories of a a pillow, a lap, a gentle pat on the head, a finished bowl of milk, and a warm sunbeam."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Worshipping God As If Your Life Depended Upon It

I'm not one of those people who longs for the past. I'm not a person who paints some particular decade or period from long ago as idealistically the pinnacle of human history. Maybe the 50's or early sixties were great for you, but chances are if you think that you probably didn't live under the rule of a colonial power, or were a person of color living in the era of segregation, or felt the weight of Stalinist Russia. I don't believe there's ever been a golden age that could be reclaimed.

The best days, I believe, are in front of us, not behind.

I get ridiculed for this as some kind of clueless optimist. People tell me I'm running against the grain of public opinion, and the prognostications of most of my preaching brothers and sisters. Catastrophe, it seems, is just around the corner.

The best of times are still before us? What about economic meltdown? Environmental destruction? Cultural warfare? Overpopulation? Violent extremists hell bent on killing us? How could Jesus' return not be immanent and Armageddon not just around the corner?

Well, to answer this, let me ask you a question: Have you ever experienced absolutely outstanding worship? A time of praise, prayer, reflection, and response that challenged you to the point that you really had to dig down deeper and really turn over the answers you have to the big questions: Why are we are? What are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?

I have. Multiple times.

In many of those instances I was a person out in the crowd, who got absorbed into the Spirit of the Living God moving in our midst. In other instances, I was the preacher, moved by that same Spirit to preach that which I, quite frankly, could have never envisioned or written on my own.

I distinctly remember one particular example. In my last church we used to hold this conference once a year for churches who were thinking about making radical changes in the way they worshipped, in their structure, program, or focus of ministry. As a part of the experience, the folks who attended got to experience every form of worship we offered: traditional, contemporary, supra-contemporary (or just plain "really out there"), and the weekly worship our teens lead for their peers. One year, my senior pastor, Dick Lyndon (God rest his soul) wasn't feeling all that well, and by the end of the second day of the three day conference knew he didn't have the energy or stamina to preach another sermon and then give the final presentation. So, that night, knowing that I don't exactly put in hundreds of hours into sermon prep, he asked if the next morning I could fill in. Me, never turning down an opportunity to preach, accepted.

That night, after a long day, I tried to put something together, put a combination of personal and spiritual fatigue was making it impossible to put a sentence together, let alone 22 minutes worth of rhetoric. Finally, I gave up, went to bed, and just trusted that I'd either be given the words I needed to say, or would flop terribly. I mean, what the heck, if I did flop I could just blame it on Dick being a wuss and my not having enough time to put something together. Sounds a little crass now, but at the time I was overwhelmed. Not only had I been listening to pastors and lay-people dedicated to changing their church talk about the real difficulties they had faced in making that change happen, but we had as a staff been facing some of those same obsticles ourselves. Our church, at that time, was both growing beyond our expectations, and also was wracked with dissention because of the accerating rate of change this growth required.

I remember standing at the front of a sanctuary, packed with hundreds of people desperate to bring the life of Jesus Christ to their communities, and in many instances, their own congregations, singing "Holy, Holy, Holy / Lord God Almighty" at the top of their lungs....

and I was moved. Moved by the Lord. Moved by Christ's gift of life. Moved by Spirit who had been invited into our midst and showed up in full. Moved by the passion of God's faithful servants. It moved me. And what followed that worship, a deep meaningful prayer on the part of one of our staff people, a rousing piece by the choir, and a reading of the scripture by a layperson of deep faith (the late, great Fred Blosser), was a sermon that came from a place I don't get to visit very often. A sermon that was for anyone who felt overwhelmed by the obsticles in front of them, or beat up by the very people they had dedicated themselves to lead and serve. A sermon that proclaimed the message that God doesn't measure us by the same measures we use. Our degree of usefulness, the level of "success" we have attained, the degree of holiness (or lack thereof) that has taken root in our life, etc.... all those things we use to measure ourselves aren't the same measuring stick God uses.

God uses two sticks. One horizontal, and one verticle. Your worth was nailed to them, and no greater a measure could ever be used than the self-giving of a Son and the gift of him to us by the Father.

There was raucous laughter. There was more than a few tears. And silence. The memories, though fading, are still very real for me. And more than once in awhile, when I feel uncertain or afraid or upset, I remember that morning when we worshipped God, and He spoke back to us.

If people at Shawnee UMC wonder what the heck happened to the reckless wildman, who came back a whole lot more polished, they should know he was changed by worship. Those collective experiences of coming before the living God to offer Him praise and thanksgiving, sometimes directly and other times indirectly, changed me.

Worship still does.

If I've learned anything in my almost 40 years on this planet, its that you only get worked up over that which you really, really care about. That's probably why I took perverse pleasure in USC getting waxed Thursday night by Oregon State. I care about Buckeye football, and so there was something about a team that so soundly beat my team, facing their own day of reckoning that made me care.

And, quite frankly, too often what often should be pleasant diversions, or sources of concern, but not ultimate concern, we care about too much. Pardon me if I sound unsympathetic or callous, but the breathlessness with which the country, me included, have been following the events of the last five or six days - bailout or no bailout - puts an exclamation point on that which we really care about. We are fearful of our economy imploding, as we should be, but let me say this... if we had cared about something greaterthan the economy, we wouldn't be in the predicament we find ourselves in right now.

The depth of our own integrity. The quality of our communities. The respect with which we treat one another. The care that we offer and receive. Our concern for our neighbor and his or her family. The plight of those caught up in a cycle of poverty who want to get out. The tough love we have to, at times administer. Looking beyond our own portfolios and anxieties about that which seems out to get us, at Jesus Christ, who, though afraid, lives and dies for a world where those who claim to be religious, love those who aren't in the same vein that God does. To worship, or rather to kiss the hand in reverance, of the one whose heart is filled with only justice and truth, would leave us by his side long enough that we could learn and experience what's in that heart, and let that passion change our own.

We are a world in need of the kind of worship that turns away from the kind of back-stabbing and short-cutting that only enables a person to get ahead at the expense of others, and toward the one who might lead us down a long-difficult road. A road that might compromise our own fiscal goals by stating the truth that sometimes we aren't called to a life where we are not financially better off than our parents and grandparents. A road that forces us to confront and deal with the hatred and pain and dysfunction we think we hide in the dark crevasses and corners of our soul but is still leaking out, destroying relationships and our own integrity. A road that is narrow and difficult, but one that leads to a happy life:

"If you want a happy life, (or as it's put in the New American Standard, "if you desire life, to love, and to see good days), keep your tongue form speaking evil, and keep your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do dood. Work hard and at living in peace with others. You must worship worship Christ as Lord of your life and if you asked about your hope, always be ready to explain it."

In a world where worship of the Lord is central and primary, the shift in emphasis goes from "my well-being", to "my responsibility". From "performance" to "truth".

I had lunch very recently with a member of our congregation who does real estate appraising. He told me that for the past five or six years that various financial entities, when they were unable to convince he and other long-time appraisers from the community to inflate their appraisals on homes in the community so that people could re-finance their debt load upward. And how when that began to happen, appraisers not from the community were brought in to give the various financial institutions the numbers they were looking for. And how when these mortgages were re-packaged and re-sold, the lack of due-dilligence done entities buying up this debt failed to catch the possibility that maybe the debt being bought up should have never been sought and delivered in the first place. That, he proclaimed, is where the pain and suffering among people who just had to walk away from their homes, or got downsized came from: a combination of greed and desperation. Of worship of an idealized lifestyle, material goods, and a chance to make a profit more quickly than should have been possible.

We are a world that's in need of worship. Worship of that which really matters, so that when the pressure of real life situations comes knocking on our door, the measure we use in our response, is that of a cross teaches us that the truth is painful.. that doing the right thing is a tremendous burden... that calling into contempt the values being celebrated will bring ridicule and mockery... but ultimately will move us closer to the Kingdom, in this world to come, and this life we live, brining life, love, and good days that cannot be stolen from us, because they have been given by the One who does not give as the world gives, and they are not gifts that can be destroyed, burned, or carried away.

Worship that celebrates justice. Worship that lifts up those who do the right thing, even as they are beaten down for it in the world. Worship that frees us from trying to prove our selves worthy. Worship that seeks to venerate, as opposed to interrigate, the motives of the Living God. Worship which provides strength and hope when often

We need to start worshipping God as if our very lives depend upon it... because they do.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I Want My BTV!

My cousin, CJ, is a editing, animating genius. He lives in Chicago with his lovely wife Jill, and their young son Spencer. He is a raving mad Cubs fan who lives on the North Side. Hence this wonderful little snippet.

Spencer reverses the curse! from CJ Dugan on Vimeo.

Let's hope that Spencer does the reverse the curse so in 30 years he won't live with an impending sense of doom come every October.

A couple more videos from the creative mind of CJ. Here's one of the boys' favorites.

Parenting Fear #14 from CJ Dugan on Vimeo.

This is one my fav. It's the announcement CJ sent out to let us know he and Jill were expecting.

DC Preview from CJ Dugan on Vimeo.

As you can see, this is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill dude messing around with digital video on his computer. Dude has a degree from Columbia (Chicago) and free-lances putting graphics together for commercials, TV shows, and the like. Haven't figured out a way to exploit his talent for my own selfish gain, or at church, but that day is coming. I ruined my back throwing him around in a hotel pool when he was about 6, so he owes me.

It's been years since David Letterman was must-see TV for me. Probably since before Max was born. I share part of the blame for my lack of Letterman interest. I'd rather just go to bed or watch NBA games. But part of the blame should be shared by Dave, who, in his own best interest, started treated guests well so they'd come onto his show, lost a bit of his edginess.

Well, last night after getting stood up by John McCain, who decided to use the time to appear with Katie Couric instead, Dave was vintage Dave. Funny. Angry. Sharp. Edgy to the point of making his audience uncomfortable. If you missed it, here it is.

Also caught this interview.

Ummmm.... maybe she'll get better. At least she's energized the Christian Right of the Republican Party. I guess we'll just have to wait and see if that proves to be enough to get McCain over the top.

(Let's just say that if she keeps up a performance like this one, the prospects will be unlikely.)

This is the video I left a link for on my post yesterday. Paul Solman is the economic analyst on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Speaking as a dummy, I think this "Economic Crisis for Dummies" presentation is a pretty good one.

Here's another good interview, from 60 Minutes, with David Walker, the Comptroller General (Lead Accountant) for the US Government. Walker has been beating the drum that the current economic policy being pursued by the Federal Government is unsustainable. That the amount of money it will take to not only repay our debt, but fund all the mandates we're committed to can't be raised unless we act now.

Walker's cause has been taken up in an independent film called IOUSA, which (of course) isn't coming to Lima anytime soon.

In it, he and others (like Warren Buffett) lay out the coming monetary crisis, the tip of which we're only starting to see now. You can't keep monetizing debt and driving down the dollar, and hope that it will all turn out OK in the end (a message Ron Paul has been trumpeting for quite some time). At some point, when the dollar becomes too weak, it becomes a bad investment, and people holding dollars start dumping them and buy something else (like Euros or Pounds, which are right now eating our lunch). In any event, the movie is being lauded on both the right and the left. Maybe we can bring it to Beantown soon.

The Christian church (you were beginning to think I was only going to talk about economics and politics again, weren't you?) has been engaging in the kind of false optimism that we're beginning to see fall apart on Wall Street: belief that the economy will grow infinitely, and pick us all up in its wake. The difference is that churches either preach this message from the pulpit (in the form of "health and wealth" theology), or keep quiet as on issues like materialism and greed as they accept millions of dollars for new projects.

This kind of happy/slappy theology has been packaged largely as an intrigal part of contemporary worship. As newer non-denominational churches, and mainlines like the one I serve, have traded in traditional worship for something more contemporary, we have begun to buy into the notion that each week worship needs to be "uplifting" and "spirit filled". The fact of the matter is that there are huge tracts of scripture are "spirit filled", but definitely not "uplifting". Contemporary praise music, because its essentially a form of pop, largely ignores the reality of the difficult side of faith: personal sacrifice, suffering, lamentations, and denying oneself... a point raised by Brian McLaren (a post-modern Christian thinker and writer) as a part of a new series of shorts he's producing. In this one he takes on "the worship industry" (which is a term I've never heard before).

McLaren is touching on something deep. You can feel the pendulum starting to swing in Western Christianity. When I was still engaged in youth ministry five or six years ago, Ron Luce's organization, Teen Mania, was reaching its apex. The mission of the organization was largely to mobilize teenagers to take up the batter of the culture wars that evangelicals have been fighting in this country ever since the pendulum last swung in the early eighties from the Sexual Revolution, to the Reagan Revolution. But now, a new teen Christian organization, based out of Great Britain is mobilizing steam. Hope for Justice is looking to mobilize teens not to fight the culture wars, but instead take on the issue of human trafficking.

Steve Chalke, the pastor in the second video is behind this movement, believes that if the church is to remain relevant globally, it will need to get out in front of serious social justice issues because largely, that's what people in the world care about, and ultimately what matters to Jesus. To engage in false optimism in a world fearful of the future will only serve to alienate further the church from the culture at-large. It'll be interesting to watch how this begins to shape worship, church administration, and program as more churches - some out of sense of mission, and others out of a sense of survival - start moving in this direction.

Ok, gotta go to bed. Enjoy BTV.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The End of the Longest Silence In This Blog's Recent History

Well let's see, what all happened since I last posted anything?

- Gonaïves and Galveston were both leveled and people all over Ohio lost power for days and days thanks to Ike.

- The Todd Boeckman era at Ohio State ended with the Buckeye's national championship hopes.

- The government added more than a trillion dollars to our national debt to stave off the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression.

- The GOP as sequestered Sarah Palin from the press like she was a material witness in a RICO trial.

- Our six year old son, Xavier, lost his two front teeth.

Now for the witty and insightful commentary...

Hurricane Ike
Last May while in Haiti, I had a great conversation with a Haitian missionary regarding the work that UN had been doing in the country since the last failed coup a few years ago. My Haitian friend insisted that the impact of the UN was slight to non-existent because they had virtually no impact in helping the nation's government become self-supporting and independent. I argued the opposite. My reasoning was that given the public works projects the UN had been able to facilitate and the drop in the nation's violent crime that Haiti was much better off than it was under UN care than without.

But I have to say, in the aftermath of Ike, that I was wrong. Why? Well, as Gonaives, which is a town that basically rests in a river bed, languished in Ike's wake, who was it that struggled to get into the city to provide any kind of assistance or aid? Answer: Argentinian troups under the command of an Argentinian general.

Without a military, national guard, police force, or the equivalent of an Americorps, the Haitian government has virtually no power to keep the peace or assist in times of emergency. An unwillingness to acknowledge this is only perpetuating the nation's dependence on outside aid and leadership to keep the ship righted. If we are truly going to do some nation building in Haiti, then much like President Bush's ongoing effort in Iraq, we are going to have to help the Haitian government raise a national security force so that they aren't dependent on outside entities to maintain order. As distasteful as this might be to those worried about the possibility of a future military junta, its already been proven that small armed guard can sail into Port Au Prince and topple an existing government. At some point, if order is to be truly restored, some arm that the Haitian President that can command into action, and act quickly in a time of crisis, needs to be established. Without that, the hope for Haitian sovereignty and development will be nil.

The End of the Todd Boeckman Era
Listen, I was at the game in SoCal. I saw the interceptions, poor line play, botched receiver routes, and the total domination of USC first hand. This Buckeye team is not a great one. Chances are they'll drop at least two more games to Penn State and Wisconsin, which at this point in the season look far more polished.

So, given all this, do you stick with a sixth year senior whose QB play could be described as "shaky" in his last seven games, or do you throw the freshman phenom out there as the first step to future glory and redemption? In my mind's eye, there's no choice. And for all those folks pooh poohing the crowd at Ohio Stadium for booing Boeckman in his one and only snap, I think that's what they were trying to say. It was less "we think Todd Boeckman sucks" and more "let the Terrell Pryor era begin". It was less a message to Boeckman, and much more a message to Jim Tressel:

"The future ain't now coach, so you got our permission to do some rebuilding and break these young kids in. You got no qualms from us."

On a side note, my trip out west (the game notwithstanding) with the three doctors - Eric the Buckeye, Dr. Mango, and The First Husband - was excellent. If you are pastor though, and you ever travel with three doctors on a trip that really has no spiritually redeeming value (i.e. no mission trips and Christian conferences), here are some things you need to know:

- Docs are the same as you and me. They put on their pants one leg at a time like you do... it's just they got their pants Nordstroms while you got yours on sale at Kohls. No big deal.

- While shopping (or, in my case, looking) on Rodeo Drive, I found out that docs have a weak spot for cars, watches, and pens. Now cars I can understand. Who doesn't like cars? Cars, in any culture, are cool. Guys in remote parts of Africa can get geeked over a Ferrari.

But watches and pens? How ironic is it that I spent the better part of an afternoon looking at watches and pens with guys in a profession known for not being able to keep a schedule and illegible handwriting? You can't make this stuff up.

- Pastors should be prepared to field questions about theology, religion, and spirituality if they travel with docs. Much like docs field medical questions from us when we find out they're docs, when they get unfettered access to us, docs will take advantage of the opportunity to pick our brain. Hence our discussing everything from the nature of salvation to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. At least its better than talking about the weather, or watches that can tell you the barometric pressure.

- I don't care who you are traveling with - docs, pastors, businessmen, teachers, etc... - if you are traveling with a group of guys and one of them orders a Mango Margarita, you are obligated to question his manhood. Doesn't matter if the guy can run a thousand miles or wrestles bears for a living. If some dude is ordering stuff you're wife, girlfriend, mom, or great aunt would normally order, don't let that go, or you will be twice the wuss he is. I mean, what's worse... being the guy drinking the Mango Margarita, or the guy sitting next to the guy drinking the Mango Margarita? The other three guys could be drinking molten lava (or a manly Coke), and it will mean nothing if the fourth guy is drinking from a pretty glass with an umbrella and a fruit drink in it. Publicly humiliating the gender drink offender is the only way to restore order, hence the nickname, Dr. Mango.... which will get downgraded to Ms. Mango if we ever have another serious infraction involving daiquiris, wine coolers, or a cosmopolitan.

You see, that why I'm here. What would you do with out guidance on such matters?

The Collapse of Our Financial System
Don't understand the credit mess on Wall Street right now? Here's a great piece by Paul Solman that was on the McNeal Lehrer News Hour last night.

I have this friend who, long ago, decided our financial system was headed toward collapse. He's put his money in gold doubloons, rare coins, and other precious metals that can be melted down. I must say I thought he was maybe a little on the fanatical side.... and then I found out that our financial system is now being built on the premise that you finance debt, but buying up more debt. Now, as my wife said this morning, my friend looks less fanatical and more of a genius. Here's to hoping when the house of cards falls down he makes his contribution to the church in gold doubloons.

When a whole system only keeps moving on the premise that growth will never end, then you got trouble. For example, as Solman pointed out, if you use your credit cards under the assumption that your income will always rise enough to cover the spending you can't afford right now, you'll only be OK if your income continues to rise. But if it doesn't rise, or shrinks, you're hosed.

That's where we are right now.

Thomas Friedman, in his brilliant book, "The World Is Flat", suggested that in a global economy where trillions of dollars get moved around the globe at the touch of a mouse button, investors will punish institutions like governments or businesses firmly and swiftly for bad behavior. When it comes to the house of cards that has been our adjustable rate economy, my best guess is that we saw the beginning of this crisis late last year when investors of all kinds started moving money out of Wall Street into commodities. That's why you gas went up to $4 a gallon, even as global demand for oil actually DECREASED as Americans began to engage (out of financial necessity) in conservation (i.e. we drove less, and traded our SUV's for more fuel efficient cars).

While we were screaming at the oil companies and OPEC, the connection between this drop in Wall Street and surge in commodities was pointed out, strangely enough, by the Royal Prince of Saudi Arabia, who blamed the commodity crisis on poor economic policy in Washington. Just like people vote on the quality of a pastor's sermons with their feet, the world was voting on the soundness of our economy with their dollars.... or euros. Years of failed economic policy, particularly on the part of the Bush administration, where trillions of dollars were continually borrowed with little or no plan for repayment, drove down demand for our bonds and stocks, creating dis-ease in the world in regards to the health of American business, particularly the financial sector.

Friedman's assumption was correct: Money went into oil, rice, zinc, and hog futures on the assumption that they were a better risk than say, an investiment in AIG. Hence when Shearson Lehman went down the drain, they had been appealing to the South Korean national bank and various Chinese institutions to lend them dollars so they could meet their daily operational costs as their own investments in credit card, mortgage, car loan, and other forms of loans were collapsing.

Now, with the world unwilling to give us a nickel to bail out our financial situation, our federal government has decided to back the bonds necessary to get all these debts off the banks' books. The questions are

a) will they be able to raise enough money to essentially end this ponzi scheme banks have been engaging in by trying to meet their debt obligations by buying up more debt

b) will the government's action convince investors that American business is a good bet for the future and move their money back into our markets and

c) will the government, which has put itself on the line in the eyes of the world, follow up this unprecidented action with a sound fiscal policy that will encourage saving over spending, and debt repayment over deficit spending?

I wish I had bought some gold doubloons.

Sarah Palin, the GOP, and the Press
Whenever a studio in Hollywood has a movie they think the public might be interested in, but it isn't all that good, one of the tricks of their trade is to not screen the film in advance of release to critics. Hence, bad press can't contribute to negative buzz passed via word of mouth, and the movie might at least open strong before everyone finds out its really a dud.

Given the quality of the few "off the cuff" remarks I've heard Sarah Palin make, my guess is that the GOP is doing with her what the Hollywood did with "Snakes On A Plane". I think they realize the IDEA of Sarah Palin is better than Sarah Palin herself (at least at this juncture of her political noviceness). Hence the GOP's preference that we see a picture of Sarah Palin with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, as opposed to hearing any actual interaction between the press and Sarah Palin to find out what she thinks about Pakistan (just days, I might add, after indirectly telling Charlie Gibson that she supported the Bush Doctrine of going into sovereign nations, particularly Pakistan, if we suspected that an entity within them might attack us).

I suppose the GOP is simply trying to do with Palin what neither party can do with any of the other candidates. McCain, Obama, and Biden all have enough of a track record, on and off camera, that you pretty much know what you're getting when you vote for them. You are choosing less their image or what they want you to see, and more their substance. McCain's definition of the middle class includes people making $4.999 million dollars a year and his plan for health care is to replace employer-provided health insurance with a $5000 tax break. Obama's record consists of a term as an Illinois state senator and a partial term as a US Senator, and is littered less less with a voting record indicating less of a willingness to cooperate on a bipartisan basis than we've been promised.

And Biden is due to put his foot in his mouth any day now, so bloom is off the rose for those guys.

So, for example, a friend of mine whose family income is substantially higher than $200,000 a year has made no bones about it... he'll be voting Republican even though he can't stand McCain and disappointed in the choice of Palin because he knows that Obama advocates raising his taxes. It's not about hope for him. It's kinda just become the lesser of two evils, and the hope the federal government won't make things worse. I hear enough talk to know that he's not alone in these sentiments.

This kind of reality hasn't hit the folks who are gaga over Sarah Palin. Disaffected from the other candidates, they aren't really all that concerned with her substance. They couldn't care less about what she really thinks about the economy or foriegn policy. It's really more the IDEA of Palin as a populist, right-wing, evangelical Christian, Washington outsider that has won them over. So, if I had to guess, I'd say the GOP is trying to stick with the idea of Sarah Palin, as opposed to anything substantive. And this is no knock on Palin... they'd do it with all the candidates if they could (hence all the negative campaigning). Thus if enough Palin believers can put her into Blair House (or wherever the Vice-President lives) then the GOP handlers will try to get her up to speed so she doesn't become a female version of Dan Quayle.

Hey, the first couple of weeks of its release, it worked for "Snakes On A Plane". The question is whether it will work in the campaign.

Xavier Loses His Front Teeth

I guess all he'll want for Christmas is his two front teeth... which is a good thing because the Tooth Fairy has bankrupted us.

Maybe the government will bail us out.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Upcoming Sermon Series at Shawnee UMC

Just a few random thoughts before the week gets away from me....

- It took two months but we finally got every service through Christmas Eve laid out. I struggled with mapping out these series more than I ever have before, partly because nothing I read this summer particularly inspired me and partly because I worry that I sound like a broken record, giving the same sermon over and over again. That's the trouble of being a liberal, hippy United Methodist pastor.... lots of sermons about self-sacrifice and helping others.

So we're gonna try and open it up a little bit. Starting in a little over a week we'll be doing five weeks on what Bishop Ough has deemed (with the help of others) as the five marks of a growing congregation.... except that we've decided that you could probably go a little further and say that they were the five marks of a growing disciple of Jesus Christ. They include...

- Becoming Radically Hospitable: I always think of my friend, John Bachelor, and his willingness to let a young African college student live in his house for free while he worked on his studies. The student ultimately was bound for service within a mission organization in Western Africa, doing a combination of computer work, airplane repair/maintenance, and piloting said airplanes. It took years and years for the young man to get his studies done, but I'm convinced that if it took a million years, John Bachelor would have said "mi casa es su casa". A more gentle, thoughtful Christian I have not met.

- Desiring Passionate Worship: The other evening I was at a meeting being held by my friends at the Future Church of Tomorrow for the purpose of planning their 35th Anniversary/First Sunday In Their New Digs weekend extravaganza. As they were debating what activities would be taking place that weekend (and what small part Shawnee UMC might get to play to welcome them to their new home), the conversation drifted to a recent Sunday-morning worship service that, unplanned, lasted seven hours. I sat incredulously listening to the folks gathered explain what the world would hold the attention of a crowd of people for seven hours, only to hear them say, again and again, that the Lord's presence was intensely real.

Can't say that I've ever had a seven hour worship experience, but it did take me back to various experiences I've had where after the worship began I was not eager for it to end. A sunny July morning at St. Luke United Methodist Church... a few early Sunday mornings outside of Rax with nothing but the sun and my cassette player... various evenings at The Life Center during the old Church Vision Conference worship services and on one special TGIW right after 9/11 ... driving east through Wyoming as Third Day played and the sun came up over the rocks and mountains.... in a small compound in a remote corner of Haiti... a Communion Service or two at Lakeside... these examples and others still stand out for me as great worship moments.

But the most powerful worship experience I've ever had occurred on the evening when three young men from Goshen, Indiana died unexpectedly in an auto accident. Since one of the three had just graduated, and the other two were going to be seniors that fall, the outpouring of grief in the community - particularly among teenagers - was overwhelming. Because one of the boys had attended our youth group, the decision was made among their friends that an impromptu memorial service should take place at The Life Center that night. With the parents' (and in one case, grandmother's) permission, we went forward. The building had never been so full before, or after, as hundreds and hundreds of people gave themselves over to worship in the midst of great pain. The service lasted a little over two hours, featuring only some singing, prayer, and kids taking turns sharing their thoughts and feeling in front of their friends. Not a soul moved or left until its conclusion, and people continued to hang around hours after its conclusion. Words can't really describe the worship that evening.

- Intentionally Engaging In Faith Development: One of my favorite experiences as a pastor was the first Disciple class I ever taught at Goshen First UMC. In that class were a number of people from a variety of backgrounds, but the person I'll always remember the best was Jeff. When he was young and dumb (like most of us), he barely made it through high school, rarely ever applying himself to his studies in exchange of pursuing other things (mainly girls and a good time). Given his poor academic performance, Jeff had convinced himself that he was not a smart person. So you can imagine how overwhelmed he felt when he showed up for that first Disciple informational meeting and found out that the class would demand the reading of 80% of the Bible in only 36 weeks as well as additional hours of written reflection and background reading. I remember him telling me that there was no way he could do all of that because he was too "slow" or "stupid".

How wrong he was.

Jeff not only crushed all the reading and writing for that study, but went on to do three more equally demanding classes. By the time I was about to leave Goshen, he was toying with the idea of going to college and getting a degree in adolescent social work. Such was the growth personally and spiritually in him during that time. As far as I know, he never did end up going back to school, deciding instead to continue working at an area plant, the demands of raising two boys and paying bills factoring greatly into his decision. But if a way had been made, I am convinced that four years of intentional faith development in Jeff opened his eyes to his, and the Lord's, possibilities for his life.

- Willingness to Engage In Risk-Taking Mission and Service: I do not think my father, on that fateful day fifteen or sixteen years ago when I asked him to fill in for an adult volunteer who had bailed on a teen mission trip I was leading, realized how profoundly that eight days would alter the course of his life. Now, I am aware of no greater proponent of serving others than he. I've seen him talk to complete strangers in restaurants, airports, parking lots, and even golf courses about going to Haiti, or some other place where there is great need, on a mission experience. Now, he's the one cajoling me....

Come on, it's only a week. Let's go. People need you down there.

What can I say. The student has become the master.

- Becoming Extravagantly Generous:
And yes, I mean this in terms of money.

I'll be honest... in 18 years of ministry I've discovered that (mostly) the people who don't complain when a church asks for money are the folks who support it the greatest. It's kind of the reverse of what you'd expect. In fact, those who tend to be the most generous tend to be the most radical when it comes to a congregation extending itself into new forms of ministry and mission.

My favorite example of this was a former parishoner of mine named Lorraine. Lorraine would have no trouble with me telling you that nobody gives more to her church than she does. In fact, she would volunteer regularly to teach classes on giving as a spiritual gift and opportunity from God. The only times I remember Lorraine getting upset with me was when I'd share an idea about something, and then say, "but we can't do that cause it costs too much." That'd drive her up the wall.

People who are extravagantly generous don't want to miss opportunities God presents along the way, especially when a lack of money is given as the reason. For them, giving it away has become a measure of faith, and they can't stand it when they are trapped in an institution or movement with others who refuse to put the depth of their faith to the test.

After that series is over, we'll jump over to the Book of James for five weeks of something we're calling "James Unfiltered". The premise is that if James showed up on Charlie Rose's program to talk about the world, the church, and direction Christians have taken, and should take the church, what would he have to say. To get ready, go grab a copy of "The Message" or your "New Living Translation", or whatever readable version of the Bible you have handy, and go read James for yourself. I think he'd pull no punches discussing issues like faith, truth, love, respect, and the nature of freedom. I'm am looking forward to spending some time with him in late October/November.

And finally, we'll be doing an Advent series which will look at the centrality of Jesus in the creation, the plight of the poor and oppressed, in the heavenly court of the Lord, and hopefully, in you.

You can check out www.shawneeumc.com for digitial copies of the sermons. Listen and enjoy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ten Things That Always Make My Day

10) Anytime my boys show up in my office at work, it's a good thing. Eli wants to crawl up in my lap. Max and Xavie want to tell me what happened at school that day. Toby smiles and gurgles. The wife is always happy to be out of the house and sometimes she even brings ice cream. A huge perk in this old job of mine.

9) This is the sixth year I've been in a Fantasy League Draft with my brother's bozo friends. I'm known as The Rev, and they like giving me crap about being so much older (at least a decade) than all of them. I enjoy them cause I can talk smack and just be one of the guys... which you can't do if you're a pastor. For example, when people cuss in your presence they look at you like you might break in two or shoot them down with thunderbolts. I went to Lima Senior and Miami University... do you think that's first cuss word I've ever heard? It's depressing really. That's why I enjoy Brother Esq and the rest of the punks in The Murmen Ultimatum. I'm just the fat, old guy they like to push around, and who pushes them back. They don't act like I'm made of glass. It's a nice release.

8) I like swim meets. I can't help it. I know they're six or seven hours (or two or three days) long and often unbearably hot (or cold and wet), but I like watching the kids swim. It's fun to watch both the really good ones cut through the water, and the newbies tadpole their way down the lane. The kids usually get into it, and us parents are allowed, even encouraged, to scream our heads off. There's a good chance I'll be taking on a larger role at the WOAL Championships (possibly as the new "voice" of the meet, following in the footsteps of Don Fischer) and I couldn't be more giddy. Two entire days in the hot sun watching hundreds and hundreds of swim heats in the heat, and I can't wait.

7) I enjoy going out to lunch with people. Whether its one of my regulars (Roger the Raxkiller or Eric the Buckeye) or the random person who wants to get together, it doesn't matter. There's nothing like getting out of the office and just spending a little time with someone over a meal. Today was a perfect example. Five other pastors and I sat together, brainstorming how all of us - black and white, suburban and urban, mainline/catholic/orthadox/independent, and the like - can begin working together in the community. The discussion, while not leading to any action yet, did yield, I thought, a lot of important information, particularly as it relates to the differences in the role of black pastors in the community and their congregation, as opposed to us white pastors. We'll be eating lunch again in a couple of weeks to try and take the discussion a step further, hopefully with more people.

Good things come out of eating lunch with others.

6) I like working with my staff. They are all fine people who are all good at their job. They work well together, and seem to respect each other and me as their leader. We have a good time, but get a lot of things done. Considering I've worked in some pretty tense situations in the past, I'm thankful for the environment we have created together at Shawnee.

5) There is nothing better than the look my kids get in their eyes when they are genuinely excited about something. We are heading to Indianapolis for a wedding this weekend, and the boys are practically giddy at the idea of staying in a hotel for a couple of days. Who knew a free continental breakfast and an indoor pool could ever end being such a big deal? You'd think we were going to Disneyworld or some beach resort, not the northwest suburbs of Indianapolis. Throw in a trip to the Children's Mueseum of Indy, and you have one big time adventure. I wish all of us were so easy to please.

4) The combination of a clear sky, little or no wind, temps in the low 70's, the open road, and a Kawasaki Voyager.

3) It is always a good day when someone calls, emails, or comes into the office for a discussion about a biblical or theological issue, or for prayer. Today I wrote an email for a former youth groupite who is now on a Family Ministry committee at a church in suburban Cinci to help outline my philosophy of youth ministry, and my reflection on her spiritual journey as a teen. Then, a member of the church came in with a question about the Reveleation of John and the Ark of the Covenant. Yesterday I prayed for a lady who is in the hospital, and also at the same time mourning the loss of her husband. I'd rather do stuff like that then tend to the budget any day of the week.

2) I dig it when my wife says I'm sexy after I mop the floor or watch the kids so she can get a few peaceful moments away from this circus. I know she's just playing me.... but I don't care.

1) Cool sheets, a soft pillow, and a comfortable bed.

And here are few more...

A newspaper and a cup of hot coffee first thing in the morning (especially if someone else brought in the paper)

opening mail or email

an evening with The Great One

time spent with any and all of our folks

visits with family

phone calls about the NBA from Brother Esq

phone calls and visits from friends

a big bowl of ice cream

a crisp clear day spent on snow skis

any day spent at a lakehouse

and an evening spent blogging

Have a nice weekend!

Friday, August 22, 2008

This Is My Wife's Job

Someone forwarded me this video, and it perfectly describes my wife's job as a web site designer.

http://view.break.com/542649 - Watch more free videos

Pray for her.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Well, the big news from Bucherland this week is that Max and Xavier went back to school today. We celebrated the end of summer yesterday by heading out to the Allen County Fair where the boys proceeded to ride rides, eat food not good for them, and ask to play every single game on the Midway. Neither boy was all that interested in the larger rides - although Max did ride the Gravitron - but they did the smaller ones over and over again.

We bought a "string" ($10 for all the rides you could ride Noon to 5pm) for Eli, but our independently-minded 3 year old hated having something on his arm, so he ripped off the string about ten minutes after we put it on him.... of course making it worthless. Thus he spent the rest of the day eating snow cones (with his daddy, who also loves snow cones).

In any event, even though I can't stand fairs (I worked part-time as a "Carney" selling corndogs the summer Aimee and I were married... let's just say I got a lifetime's fill of county fairs), it was a nice way to see the summer out, cushioning the blow of no more long days of playing in the sprinkler, Mr. John's woods, and riding their bikes on Sandy Lane.

2) Was up until 2am watching Olympic table tennis last night, which is really the lowest of lows. For those who don't know, the Official Father of this blog is a table tennis (I learned very early on to never call it "ping pong") fanatic. Every Christmas The Official Mother gives the Official Father a video copy of that year's Table Tennis World Championships. It's like 2,467 hours of nothing but table tennis, and the OF watches ever hour, sometimes repeatedly. We've just learned that for the remainder of December, and all of January, unless Ohio State is playing, that if we are at his house, we'll be forced to watch non-stop table tennis action. You can't imagine how painful it was to realize that, despite being exhausted in the wee hours of the morning, that I couldn't go to bed until I saw if it was either the Canadian or the Brazilian player that won the match, making it into the field of 64. That's when I knew these Olympics need to end, soon, so I can get my sanity back.

3) Just finished doing some worship planning for the coming fall, and as we look to our next series, "The Marks of Discipleship", I stumbled on a song that will compliment the theme scriptures for the five week series. Sara Groves isn't your typical contemporary Christian artist. While most Christian artists, it seems to me, are intent on writing the next great praise song, stating over and over how great the Lord is, Groves isn't afraid to look deep within, expressing her doubts, questions, hopes and dreams as it relates to faith. I've been impressed with the variety of musical styles she's been willing to embrace, and the depth of theological thought in her lyrics. "When The Saints" is a song she wrote after spending the better part of a year helping Katrina victims, and then getting involved in a ministry that attempts to free slaves of the sex trade in the nation of Rwanda. As we think about following Jesus, and what the effect of pursuing him should be on us, I could sum up message no better than the lyrics of that song. Here's a YouTube video that looks like a powerpoint presentation a church group (not ours) who went to Haiti put together for their congregation at home. I know not one person in the video itself, but I understand why they chose Sara's tune. Hope you enjoy it, but more importantly, I hope you feel the depth of her conviction as she sings a definition of what a "saint" is.

4) This weekend, Shawnee UMC lost it's oldest member. Dorothy Gaulker died at the Lima Convalescent Home early Monday morning. We just celebrated her 100th birthday not more than a couple of months ago. I can tell you that despite her declining health, the joy she conveyed on that special day as we sang some of her favorite songs and ate ice cream and cake, was identical to Xavier's - my six year old - joy on his birthday. I won't forget that smile when we sang "Happy Birthday" anytime soon.

Godspeed, Dorothy. May you rest in peace with your Savior in paradise.

5) If you get bored, and maybe want to rent a movie, I have an unusual suggestion. I can't remember if I actually posted some thoughts I had on the juxtaposition between Kevin Costner's character in "Swing Vote" and the title character in Frank Capra's "Mr Smith Goes To Washington", but on the recommendation of the New York time's film critic, I recently wrangled up a copy (via Free Movies on Demand) of "State of the Union" by Frank Capra. Given the political climate, and the full range of emotions I'm hearing as people reflect on this upcoming presidential election (everything from despair to the most optimistic hopefulness), Capra's movie (which I watched while taking a break from my Olympic obsession), now sixty years old, is an interesting look at how the political process wears on the democratic ideal (which was also his main theme in "Mr. Smith..."). Click here for A.O. Scott's three minute review of the movie, which features a couple of scenes that express ideas that are as pertinent now as they were when the movie was first made. A Capra classic featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Angela Lansbury (who, unlike in "Murder She Wrote", didn't leave a trail of dead bodies in her wake).

6) I've been watching this version of the USA Olympic basketball team, and I'm wondering.... is the difference between this team's performance and the last three or four that were so awful, a matter of talent or attitude? I mean, I don't think this team is all that deeper than the one that lost in 2006 World Championship. In fact, three of the main players - Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Duane Wade - were were on the team that was humiliated by Greece in that tournament two years ago. But that 2006 team, and the others before it who got their clock cleaned, seemed more intent on marketing themselves as individuals than the 2008 team, which just seems to want to destroy everyone in their path. Kudos to Jerry Colangelo who did a great job of getting guys to play on the team, not intent to use the experience as a marketing tool to sell more of their shoes, but out of a sense of pride to represent their country, and to a lesser degree, the league they all play for... a league has been much maligned as being short on people that play fundamentally-sound ball. Gets me that much more excited for the upcoming NBA season.

7) Aimee and I have been married 18 years, as of yesterday. While we've had our ups and downs over the years (she reminded me that during dinner on our 15th anniversary, we did a year-by-year synopsis of our marriage, deciding that 8 of them had been pretty good and 7 not so much) we make a great team. I love her much more deeply than so many years ago when we exchanged vows, two kids having no idea what we were really getting ourselves into. After 18 years of moves, jobs, houses, kids, kids, kids, kids, good days and bad, she is truly my partner, lover, and friend. I am blessed indeed.

I love you, my love, very, very much.

8) Last night (while, once again, breaking from table tennis) I watched Charlie Rose do an interview with Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors. For those who didn't hear (or didn't care), GM's talks with a Chinese company to sell Hummer fell through, sending the stock into yet another tailspin. Click below to watch the interview:

Wagoner's professional obituary has been written so many times over the last eight years at GM that it's hard to imagine how in the world he's survived as CEO this long. If its worth anything though, he impressed me last night. When the hour was over I felt like GM had a fighting chance to remake itself and remain competitive throughout the world. In fact, I had no idea that the company was growing at such a rapid rate all over the world, suffering poor sales only in North America. Given that they aren't alone in misjudging how quickly oil prices have moved the preference of the American market, they seem no better or worse positioned to succeed than anyone else. Particularly if they get the albatross of retiree health care and pension off their backs (if only the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church would be so lucky) by 2010, they'll be in great shape to start winning back market share.

Of course all of that means nothing if the company doesn't have the cash to withstand this economy (which is what the sale of Hummer, and I imagine eventually Saab is all about). Good interview, though. Can't wait to see what Bob Lutz has to say tonight.

9) I was riding my motorcycle back from Fort Wayne Sunday (after doing some pre-marital counseling with a couple who I'll be marrying in Indy on Labor Day weekend) when I saw a body laying on the ground, underneath a T-Shirt on the side of US 33. As I headed west earlier in the day, I had seen a guy in a white t-shirt walking east and wondered, as I sped past the body alongside the road, if this might be that same guy.

Vaguely remembering another story about a priest and levite passing another man laying on the side of the road, I turned around to see if the guy was OK. Fortunately, he was.

He told me, if you can believe this, that he had left Fort Wayne that morning intent on walking to Columbus, Ohio. The only thing he carried with him was a (now empty) bottle of Gatorade. Also, to make the journey, his choice of foot ware was a pair of flip-flops. I offered him a ride to Van Wert (and, I was thinking, a shelter near that community), and he hopped on the back of my ride. Over the course of the next twenty miles, Aaron told me a somewhat convoluted tale involving getting tossed off a train, shot at on a bus, and all this being caused by a dead cell phone battery.

I just kept moving east.

When we reached Van Wert, he told me that if I could get him to WalMart, he could buy a quick charge for his phone which would, in turn solve all his problems and eliminate the need to walk to our state capital. When I dropped him off, I asked him if he needed any more help (thinking he was probably broke), but he flashed some green in his wallet at me, and told me I had already given him what he needed... which was evidently a ride to WalMart.

Why a WalMart in Fort Wayne wouldn't suffice, I have no idea.

I dropped him off. He thanked me profanely and profusely, and then told me he'd be praying for me. I told him I'd be praying for him too. So if you have the time, lift up a prayer for Aaron the Flip-Flop man. I've a sense he could use every prayer he can get.

10) Isaac Hayes, rest in peace.