Thursday, January 31, 2008

Four Years Ago, I Buried My Friend...

There's a lot of things I like about being a pastor. I like the fact that mainly what I do is try to help people. Help them make peace with God. Help them when their down on their luck. Help them face that which fills virtually all of us with anxiety. Help them lift their eyes above the muck of this world, to something grander. I help people, and that I like.

But over time this job takes it toll. It's about the most political position you can have other than maybe being a politician. The constant navigation between those who like this, and don't like that, or want this and don't want that makes you wonder, some days, if this whole institutional church thing was really what Jesus was thinking of while he walked this earth. Bishops want something. DS's want something. Conservative parishioners want you to preach on certain things, while progressive parishioners want you to preach on something else (usually mutually exclusive). You're always trying to balance the boundaries of behavior that are set up biblically with people's need for grace and understanding. And when you are the senior pastor, all of this just kind of multiplies.

But at least 99 days out of a hundred, I can deal with all the above. What gets you down one day, generally doesn't seem like all that big a deal days, or weeks, or months, or years down the road. Yesterday's crisis, becomes another piece of wisdom that informs today. That's generally what a life led on the premise of trying to see the world through Christ's eyes does eventually: He turns, as Joseph (from the Bible, not the former senior pastor) told his brothers after his father died, into good what other might intend for something less than good. But there's one thing about this work that never gets easier. In fact, the longer you do it, the harder it becomes.

Burying your friends.

Four years ago my friend and mentor, Dick Lyndon, died unexpectedly after a short illness. Tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary I led about 1000 people in saying good-bye to him.

I miss Dick terribly. Numerous times over the last year, especially, I've just wanted to give him a call and pick his brain. You see after making it in the picture/yearbook business, Dick entered the ministry as a second career. His life was hijacked by a kindly pastor who came to Dexter, Michigan to serve Dick's family church.... which Dick himself, wasn't all that active in at the time. Dick went from being the guy church leaders told the pastor he needed to talk to because he was sitting on a pile of money, to being the guy who was starving with a young family as a seminary student/part-time local pastor. I think because he had been successful in the "secular world", this drove Dick to strive toward a similar kind of success leading his churches.

This need to produce and willingness to take chances to do so made Dick unusual in the world of UMC pastors. Since he liked action, he wasn't really all that "pastoral". He disliked making visits to long-term lay-people. He wasn't all that interested in kissing up to Bishops or DS's in the hope of someday getting a bigger church. Instead, his dreams were more entrepreneurial, involving people accepting Christ, and then moving, as he had, from a secularly-oriented life, to one increasingly focused on living for God. Thus, Dick grew churches everywhere he served, and he was also good at being able to break down how and why that happened... hence he being sought out by so many pastors looking to be entrepreneurial as a consultant and mentor (and my wishing he were still alive to pick his brain).

He was the rarest of senior pastors.... a man with no ego. Go to a gathering of large-church pastors and you'll find a contest going on to (this is the nice way of putting it) find out whose shadow is cast the longest. Their triumphs and milestones are tossed to and fro the same way my boys battle with Nerf baseball bats... forcefully enough to get your attention, and let you know that you are just getting a taste of what they can really do. But Dick wasn't that way. Few other pastoral leaders in our denominational could say that they took a high-steeple country club church of 250 folks in worship attendance, to over 700 people from all walks of life and all points on the spiritual journey, in ten years. Few could point to the plethora of discipleship ministries, the raising of so many new leaders, and the sheer number of adult baptisms that Dick could boast upon. But he wasn't into boasting or building himself up, which in a strange, wonderful way, made him more accessible to others looking to do church in a new, exciting, fresh sort of way.

It was his uniqueness, though, that confused a lot of long-time church members. Certain lay-people thought Dick held training conference and did all the consulting he did so that someday he could write a book and free lance as a church consultant. They thought the constant calls to make things better, more efficient, more accessible, were just feathers he was trying to collect in his cap at the church's expense so his track-record would look that much more impressive. They just didn't understand a pastor who was more concerned with those who didn't have a relationship with God, than those inside of a church who already did. And in turn, by missing this, they missed the best part of the man... his willingness to give up absolutely anything that might keep him from reaching and making new disciples. What he had done in own life, giving up the house on the golf course and six-figure salary, he expected the church to do also. To him it made sense to let die senseless traditions that mattered little to anyone except those few people who hated change and wanted everyone to know about their unhappiness. Dick would have (and did) gladly sacrificed those traditions, and those people, because their cause, was not his cause. Their cause was honoring the past. His cause was honoring Jesus. And sometimes those two causes are mutually exclusive.

Thus, his willingness to try and fail made for a perfect situation for me, a young pastor who really wanted to learn and try new things. Learn and try new ways to reach people whom the church hadn't seemed all that interested in reaching... kids from unchurched homes, people emerging from broken relationships, people with drug and alcohol issues, hard-core atheists and agnostics, those burned by the church, or those who thirsted for some thing more than a glorified social club that did a limited number of social programs. Dick indulged me (sometimes to his own detriment) because he thought it good for the kingdom, and for his guidance, patience, and willingness to question and correct I'll be forever grateful.

I just wish I had expressed that more while he was alive.

I only hope that at some time in the future the staff and laity I lead will become as obsessed with doing their best for God as we were are Goshen First UMC. That would be the only fitting tribute to a man who never felt like the church as a whole took the Great Commission or Great Commandment seriously enough.

But I digress....

It hurts to bury people you love, and I suspect that someday this, along with the gradual erosion of my skills, will drive me from the ministry. Because you can only pretend for so long that you can see past the despair death brings everyone else. A good-bye is a good-bye, for me as it is for everyone else. And while I try to share my pain with Jesus, and let him turn my mourning into dancing, it still doesn't stop me from wanting to call somebody to bust their chops, pick their brain, or just catch up while I can't.

Four years ago, I buried my friend. I love him, and it still hurts.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ten Things I Thought While Laid Up All Weekend

If you want to see the most creative birth announcement in the history of birth announcements, click here (congrats CJ and Jill!)

Last Friday I made good on a promise to my lovely wife that I would follow through on an (ahem) procedure that render me unable to continue procreating. It wasn't the best timing. My original plan was to have surgery right after Christmas so I could do nothing but watch football for a few days. But this didn't work for the doc, and since the only other date available would have rendered me useless while my associate was in Haiti on medical mission trip, January 25th proved to be the only day that would work before we welcomed child #4 into the world.

Anyhow, with only a couple of NBA games, and too much pain to concentrate on reading, I basically watched a whole bunch of crap on TV and just laid around with my bags of frozen peas. Here were ten thoughts I had during my convalescence.

1) I was referred to a urologist by our family doc and friend, Eric Stalkamp. During the actual procedure itself, they only use a local anesthetic so you are wide awake for the festivities. The Doc, Ben Martin, asked if I wanted a particular form of music on while he did the surgery, and I told him anything that made his hand more steady would be fine with me (I don't want the guy playing air drums while trying to match Alex Van Halen as "Panama" blares across the office). Then to try to relax me (because I was not relaxed), he started talking sports. Pretty soon I found myself talking Fantasy Basketball with him, which did make the time pass a little more quickly. Kind of surreal experience, though, watching your fertility go up in smoke while your surgeon asks you for tips on any NBA guards he could pick up.

2) All the reality shows on these cable networks are replayed over and over and over, all day long, so I was exposed to all kinds of foolishness passing off as TV entertainment I had never seen before. I watched some show that locked up Bobby Brown, Dee Snyder, Maureen McCormick (the original Marsha Brady), Carnie Wilson, Sisco (the "Thong Song" guy), a guy whose Hispanic heritage was commented on more than once, and another lady who apparently appeared on "American Idol", in a house to write county songs. The highlight was seeing Dee Snyder go crazy because no coffee was in the house while the producer played "We're Not Gonna Take It" as background music. You could say that both rock and country music died a little in that moment.

3) Watched two Cavs games this weekend: the heartbreaking last-second loss at home to the Suns, and the win against the Lakers. Biggest difference in LeBron's game from last year to now is his commitment to defense. Not only did he strip Kobe Bryant down the stretch, but he also took away his chance at a last-second three pointer to win the game. Injuries continue to threaten the team's progress (Varejao's ankle twist against LA looked ten times worse in HD), but if they can get healthy and a point guard, they can win it all. I believe!

4) Biggest downer of the lost weekend I wasn't allowed to walk? Missing the boy's basketball games on Saturday. I'm told that in the middle of his game, Xavier and the boy he was defending began to make faces at one another, totally forgetting what they were doing. Just two boys making faces at one another at mid-court while everyone else chased the basketball. You don't get moments like that back. Not to mention, if I had been there coaching, his little can would have gotten a little nudge back toward the action, which once again proves my theory that coaching 5-year olds is like herding cats.

5) Eli, who still isn't all that proficient at speech, can say the words "Knock, Knock". The reason for this is that "Knock, Knock" jokes have become a staple in a family with boys in both kindergarten and the 3rd grade. Here's a typical Eli "knock, knock" joke.

Eli: Knock, Knock
Me: Whose there?
Eli: Snzerfizzip
Me: Snzerfizzip who?
Eli: eyecap
Me: (laughing hysterically)

What can I say... he's a regular Drew Carey.

6) Speaking of which, Aimee and I while waiting at the doctors office, saw Drew Carey of the host of "The Price is Right" for the first time. How did he do? Well, let's put it this way.... despite the fact that Bob Barker was surrounded by people wearing homemade shirts saying things like "Hey Bob, Bark at Me!", he always seemed to bring a measure of class and sense of respect to all those present, which resulted in his audience becoming very loyal to him. Our sense with Drew was that at virtually every moment of the show, Carey was collecting more material for his stand-up act. "Respect" is exactly the word I'd use to describe Carey's attitude toward the audience. "Amusement" is probably better, which makes sense for a guy whose comedy is built on pointing out the absurd in others. I wonder how well that'll play in Peoria, long term?

7) During a commercial break, I saw Obama's victory speech on one of the news channels, and I have to say I was impressed. It was short on policy (something The Great One pointed out last night as we ate Kewpees at our house), but victory speeches rarely have much policy in them (a point she conceded). It was very inspiring and - dare I say it - reminded me of John Kennedy. Not that I can remember John Kennedy. He was killed before I was born. But when you speak to those coming of age in that generation, there is this melancholy that comes over them when they talk about his death. My generation never really had the kind of politician who inspired hope (we were too young for Reagan, and Bill Clinton inspired hope among Baby Boomers who were getting one of their own for the first time). I can see where Obama is that kind of person to young people who aren't yet jaded or cynical about politics. He's certainly going to give Hillary a run for her money.

And as for the Republicans, well, I'm still perplexed. I don't see Romney winning the South, and there's no way a Republican will win if he doesn't win the South. That leaves McCain and Huckabee (Giuliani is done). Maybe we'll know more after Florida and Super Tuesday.

8) I watched most of the Godfather I, II, and III, complete with commercial interruption, all weekend. It's been said by a good many pundits that this series is the ultimate "man movie series" of all time. It's violent. It's about family. It's about the struggle of wanting to be good, but also dealing with the reality that the world isn't. It's about love found and lost. And most of all, it's about money and power. My opinion is that they get progressively worse (III being a complete train wreck) and largely are less about family, goodness, and love, than they are about violence, money, and power. And more specifically, how fleeting power and money are because of all the violence. Anyhow, I tried to turn it off, but just at the moment I thought I could get out, they pulled me back in. Too bad the Star Wars series wasn't on instead.

9) I don't know what Dr. Drew Pinsky is up to, but it appears TV has sunk to a new low with "Celebrity Rehab", his show which is now on VH1. Reality TV has always kind of lived off the misery and humiliation of others, but jiminy frost this takes it new lows. Watching Jeff Conaway literally be incapacitated by opiates while his hanger-on girlfriend holds the rolled up dollar bill so he can snort more drugs just turned my stomach. To ask people struggling to find work to sacrifice their privacy in order to receive a paycheck while getting three weeks of treatment just seems morally bankrupt. And yet people will watch....

10) As I pondered my future, it did occur to me this weekend that this latest milestone is but another reminder that I am not getting any younger. Life is fleeting and must be enjoyed and appreciated... something we often forget in the hustle and bustle of each day. We will not have little children in our home forever, and while at times (like the day Eli opened a box of food coloring and started finger painting our white cabinets) that thought is comforting, I'm guessing that years down the road it will not be. Our moment is now, and when its over in this life, then its over. Of course, this leads one to ponder what eternity must be like, but I'm not so curious or excited to get there that I'll ponder it much. I'm still very much concerned with this world and what it will be like when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren walk barefoot down a sandy beach. What I pour into my children, how I love my wife, treat my neighbor, and honor the living God now will determine much, but definitely not all, about their fate. I only hope the choices I make now are wise ones, and the mistakes I make are somehow mitigated by the grace of God. It's all we can hope for, I suppose, as we throw ourselves on His mercy. In the meantime, however, let us all strive to be as compassionate and principled as grace demands.

10b) Much thanks to Aimee and the boys who had to do without Dad for most of the weekend. Also, a big welcome to my Uncle Fred, his daughter Katy, and her boyfriend Matt (who are both adored by the kids after they took them to Squirty Worm to play video games yesterday) who are here for short visit. Much kudos for their help this weekend, and a shout-out to Aunt Kathy who couldn't come with them due to the loss of her grandmother. You are in our prayers.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) Our office is closed today in honor of the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and rightfully so. By injecting the idea that by non-violent means people could work for societal change, he has provided rudimentary tools for us all to work toward reconciliation and peace in world that has been deeply divided by the scourge of slavery and its legacy. I took about 45 minutes today to list some concrete ways that I, personally, could in the coming year do my part to make Dr. King's dream of people being measured by their character a reality (an endeavor helped by a fine speaker at a breakfast in Dr. King's honor held this morning at our Civic Center.... more on that later). I'd like to encourage you to do the same.

2) I'm thoroughly enjoying this current sermon series we're doing discussing dealing with difficult people. I'm indebted to Jeff Moore, a friend of mine who is an associate pastor at one of the campuses of "Life Church" (a nationwide multi-site congregation based in Oklahoma City) for turning me onto their free resources for other churches. Their work helped inspire the series and some ideas that have become central to it.

I was particularly taken with preaching this Sunday on the challenge of dealing with hypocritical people (you can read the basic underpinnings of the sermon by clicking here). Nothing over the last thirty years has done more to zap the church of energy and momentum than the legion of high-profile scandals involving pastoral leaders, money, drugs, and sex. While its impossible for us to know what the underlying intent of each pastoral offender was (were they sharks who sought easy prey, or good people who succumbed to temptation?) the result of their high-profile failures has been felt in the local church which has been deemed "guilty" via their loose association of also being churches in the minds and souls of millions.

One of the things I told my congregation was to not be surprised or disheartened by the fact that hypocrites will be ever-present in the Christian community. The lure of money and power that can be gained by compromising the bond of trust which needs to exist between pastor and congregation will prove too great for many charlatans and thieves. Given too now the growing number of "health and wealth" ministries where pastors are living the high life as proof to the congregations that its possible for them also, I suspect we on the verge of another wave of scandal. I hope I'm wrong. If I'm not, though, I suspect churches will need to continually re-purpose and orient themselves in such ways that they become greater servants of the community - meaning greater sums of money available and more energy focused on the meeting real needs as opposed to more building projects and in-ward focused projects. A number of large churches (Saddleback Church leading the way) are realizing this, which is helping everyone else re-set their own course for the future. But given the wave of scandals among televangelists in the 80's, the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandals in the 90's, a third-wave of scandal will raise the level of scrutiny even higher among those who do not count themselves friends of the church. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

3) Went this morning to the Alpha Kappa Alpha Martin Luther King Day breakfast up at the Civic Center this morning. The entire affair was very well done. The speaker, Judge Kim Brown, who serves in Franklin County in a court that deals mainly with matters involving domestic and juvenile matters, was excellent. Carefully she balanced the real issues of institutional racism and the need for communities and families taking responsibility for helping kids realize the power of education and faith with carefully chosen words that are very timely. Her counsel that we could do something to lower barriers, like help to fill out FAFSA forms or financial assistance in the form of paying application fees for students applying to college I thought were two wonderful, practical ways we could emphasize the importance of education and help those who feel there is an opportunity debt in this community, realize that is not the case. I also liked her idea of sponsoring campus trips for juveniles (which she intends to do herself this year for 8 juvenile offenders who came through her court) who might not be able to easily do so on their own was another concrete way we can make a difference in the life of a young man or woman wondering what might be out there for them right now. Cap that with my Dad deciding to meet me at the event, and all in all, you have a great morning. Special thanks to Tom Harrison for making me aware of this breakfast, and whose company I also enjoyed this day.

4) The situation in Lima two weeks after the shooting of Tarika Wilson still remains tense. There is still plenty of rhetoric as the state still conducts it's investigation of the events that led her death and the shooting of her 1-year old son (who is still in the hospital). A community worship service at Philippian Missionary Baptist Church last Sunday went a long way to starting some good dialog and cooperation, but the tension the community feels around the circumstances surrounding this situation continue to split it. The cold, to a degree, by keeping people indoors, has indirectly helped keep the peace. But as the days drag by while still no information about the shooting is released by the authorities, the situation gets increasingly edgy. How we, a church in the burbs, can become involved in working with others to address the issues at hand is still a mystery, but we will remain open to the possibilities by remaining connected to our sister churches in Lima.

5) For my friends living elsewhere, I can't write anything that will help you understand how cold it has been here the past two days. It's the kind of cold that when you step outside takes your breath away and sucks all the moisture out of your skin. It's the kind of cold that kills car batteries at the end of their life. It's the kind of cold that makes you wish you were a pastor in Arizona. Thank goodness our weather changes every day or so. I'm ready for a heat-wave of temps in the 20's and 30's. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr........

6) All is well on the Bucher's basketball front. Xavier's first game was Saturday. The other team actually had three kids who understood basketball so they cleaned our clock. But by the fifth period (they play six, six minute periods to allow for plenty of substituting) our players were finally starting to realize that they had to play defense and couldn't take a water-break in the middle of the action. One of our little boys, who started the game refusing to leave his mother's side so overwhelmed he was by all the running around and rules, finally warmed up to the game and scored a couple of baskets by the conclusion. Xavier, much like his brother before him, was kind of in his own world (once getting hit in the head with an errant basketball while he was was focused on watching "Uppy the Puppy", the league mascot, walk across another part of the gym). All in all, the "Lightening" basketball team ended up happy cause after the game, they got snacks. Can't beat that.

Max, on the other hand is still undergoing the metamorphosis we sensed was beginning during the soccer season to becoming a more complete athlete. He's slowly starting to understand the action around him, and isn't quite as overwhelmed by the speed. He's also becoming more aggressive, playing what his coach claimed Saturday was his best games defensively, by far, Saturday. Max even held one of the best players on the opposing team to a lone bucket the quarter he guarded him. He's still offensively still a little behind, but if you were as tall as he is at his age, you'd have trouble too. All in all, he is progressing nicely.

7) What a strange primary season. Usually by now the front-runners are separated themselves from the pack, and at most there's two candidates in each party that are leading the way. The Democrats are somewhat following suit, but you get the sense of how divided the country is when you take a look at the Republican Party. Huckabee is riding his Evangelical Christian credentials to wins in the heartland, while McCain and Romney make bigger strides in the more secular parts of the country (the coasts). And if numbers of commercials are any indication, Giluiani intends his coming out party to be in Florida (and I suspect New York). Might be the first time a major candidate was determined in a "smoke-filled backroom" at the convention in my lifetime.

8) This homemade video from YouTube will never win any awards, but the song I think is an indicator of why Matt Thiessen, the creative force behind the Christian punk-pop band "Relient K", will still be an important creative voice people will listen to years from now. Take a listen to a great story-song in the tradition of folk artists like Harry Chapin:

9) I think the Patriots, come two weeks for now, will join the '72 Dolphins as the only undefeated champions in NFL history.... but then again I picked the Bucks to win the last two NCAA championships, so what do I know?

10) I think my trip last week to Florida has done more to help me process my dissertation topic than anything else thus far. Strangely enough, the actual succession at Indian River City UMC (Titusville, FL.) wasn't all that remarkable or helpful in and of itself. It was really a case of expediency (they had a good candidate on hand in Jim Govotos to succeed Jeff Stiggins), a new bishop (who had been plopped into the conference after his predecessor grew too ill to continue - had he known the talent in conference better may have opted for a different successor), and precedent (the year previous, another church in that conference opted for a succession plan involving an in-house associate taking over for the senior at a church that is probably one of only a handful of charismatic UM churches in the country). The experience did coalesce a number of things I had been thinking previously about leadership transition in UMC's...

  • Under the current system, planning for the future is virtually impossible for local churches without political clout in the conference: As long as the responsibility for appointing senior pastors rests in the conference office, local churches can't even begin thinking about future changes in leadership. Such activity which on the surface seems prudent, in our world is considered out of line.
  • The current system favors small churches over mid-size or large ones: Where do you go in the UMC to get specialized staff people or associate pastors? Is the Office of Representative Ministry recruiting youth, children's, or adult discipleship directors? Are they tagging certain pastors to become Executive Ministers or specialists in the area of evangelism, discipleship, or missional outreach? Or are they still just intent on raising up generalists pastors who can preach, teach, pray, visit, and administrate every aspect of a congregation? Considering that I've hired youth, children's, adult discipleship, and music personnel over the last 17 years and NOT ONCE even had the option to look to our conference office for help should tell you something. If your church needs a solo or senior pastor, the bishop can make the appointment. But if your church needs specialists, you are on your own. Thus, 90% of our churches worship less than 100 people, and the only churches growing are those catching "lightening in a bottle", either because the senior pastor is naturally charismatic and gifted, or someone on the staff has figured out how to systemically help the church grow.
  • The Itinerant System is Crumbling: Think of it like this... you are bishop and you have a church in a thriving rural community who will need a new pastor. You scour the landscape for suitable candidates, and find four that would work well in that setting. Only Candidate #1's spouse has a teaching job and is only six years away from retirement, so they don't want to move. Candidate #2 was divorced prior to hearing the call and can't leave the community their in because of custody issues regarding their children. And Candidate #3 started receiving a housing allowance three years ago, likes where she is, and doesn't want to sell her home and start over. Candidate #4's daughter has a rare genetic disorder and must stay near the only hospital that can provide her care. So, what do you do now? Do you force one of these candidates to move against their will? Do you opt for some other candidate who isn't all that well-suited but able to move? In an era where pastors rode on horseback, spouses didn't work, divorce was almost unheard of, health care issues weren't nearly so complex, and the population wasn't localized, moving us around made a lot of sense. But now.... the system meant for that world is being stretched almost beyond recognition.
Such is the position we find ourselves. Where will the leadership come from to make the kinds of whole-scale changes necessary to connect local churches and pastors/staff needed to be vital over the long-term? Will we step forward in faith, or simply keeping making small changes to prolong the inevitable only as finances or circumstances demand?

I guess only time, or maybe some visionary leadership, which ever comes first, will tell.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Actor's Studio

Well... have you seen it? If you live in Lima, you know what I'm talking about. Have you seen it? I'll bet you have. As a matter of fact I'll bet that Shawnee Road was the busiest it's ever been on Saturday today as most of the town drove by to see the Tuttle Construction building.

I know we past it on our way home from Xavier's basketball game yesterday. It was both an example of awesome power and terribly frightening all at the same time. It's the worst nightmare when it comes to gas leaks. Thank goodness all the employees had been evacuated and at this point there haven't been any fatalities or major injuries. It could have been worse.

Far worse.

Someone interviewed in the paper yesterday likened the explosion of the building to a scene from a movie, which is interesting. You see movies are actually works of fiction and fantasy. They are staged and acted for our enjoyment. They are the opposite of reality. If yesterday's explosion had happened in a movie most likely now the building, the explosion, the fire, and the smoke would all be computer generated. A total work of digital fiction. Yesterday, people had to be evacuated. Friends and family were worried out of their minds. Real firefighters and gas company techs suffered real injuries because they put themselves in harms way. No stunt doubles. Real people dealing with a real emergency.

The explosion here in town couldn't be more unlike the movies, for it was totally live, totally unpredictable, and totally unexpected. If they blow up a building in a movie its on a shooting schedule weeks in advance. Nobody went to work at Tuttle expecting their place of employment to get leveled. No movie is like that.

Why all this talk about movies? Well, today we're focusing on how to deal with hypocrites, and to understand hypocrites, you have to understand movies and theater. I saw this because the word hypocrite is actually an interpretation of the Aramaic word "upokrites", which means "an actor, a stage player". Jesus is using a word to describe somebody who is pretending to be something they really aren't, just like an actor.

Those of us who like watching TV, movies, or like going to the theater know that you've seen a great performance from an actor when they have enabled you to suspend your disbelief long enough to believe they are really the character they are playing. When our Beeson class went to London last year we saw the musical "Wicked". to be honest, I really didn't want to go. I even thought very briefly about skipping the performance to use the evening to go see more of London. You see I'm not all that big on musicals. I just don't get it when people are acting out some scene when all of a sudden they break out into song. That never happens in real life. I never walk into the office, start a conversation with Cathy, our secretary, about needing more paperclips, only to start singing some tune about it.

"Paper clips, Cathy. We must have more paper clips, Cathy (cause I don't like using staples)"

But having gone, let me say this... if you've never seen it, you need to go. Particularly if you really liked, or hated the Wizard of Oz... and I'm not saying any more or I'll spoil the story. The actors in the production were tremendous talents, but one stood out above and beyond the rest. Idina Menzel, who plays Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the show, was beyond spectacular. Between her acting and singing, I found myself totally engrossed in the story, and even once and twice, I won't say I shed a tear, but I think that theater was awful dusty.

That's what an actor is supposed to do. Become so believable to us that we believe the actor who playing a part, is real. Is the truth.

I was in Florida this week doing research on my doctoral dissertation. If you want to know why I scheduled myself to be in Florida four days in the middle of January it's cause Mother Bucher didn't raise no fools. Two days ago I drank my morning coffee wearing nothing but a t-shirt and shorts out on the patio next to a swimming pool. This morning my coffee froze in the 30 seconds it took me to walk from my door to my car. You don't ever have to wonder why I went to Florida in January ever again.

Anyhow, before I leave my hotel to go do some work, over the free continental breakfast I saw Al Roker interview Erik Estrada on the Today show. You remember Erik Estrada, right? He had his 15-minutes back in the seventies when he played a motorcycle cop on CHIPs. In this interview, Al kept calling Erik, Ponch, which was his character's name. Estrada even corrected him, with a smile (I think), a couple of times. Seems Al can't separate the character from the person. And I suppose other actors like Alan Alda, Jason Alexander, and Scott Baio would tell you that's not all that uncommon. I mean, poor Scott Baio... how'd you like to be called "Chachi" the rest of your life?

Make no mistake about it, by using the word "upocrites", Jesus knows what he's doing. In his world the theater is popular. The Greeks, and then the Romans after them, loved nothing more than to go to the show. To call somebody who purported to be the epitome of what it meant to be an expert on knowing about and following God an actor, was a loaded statement. It meant that Jesus thought they were playing a part. Putting up a facade. So practice and obey whatever they say to you, but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach. They crush you with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to help ease the burden.

Hypocrites are faith-killers because in the name of supposedly trying to challenge others to become more faithful, they end up encouraging false faith, or worse, no faith at all. They absolutely deadly to churches and the kingdom because they play a part. They act. And in the process they draw us into something other than the truth. It'd be like Scott Baio still trying to make people think he's really Chachi, lives in Milwaukee, and hangs out with Ralph Malph. Only in their case, they it's isn't Milwaukee they claim to be from... but rather from the Kingdom of Heaven, where they are supposedly the noted experts as to how to speak, look, act, and think. And they are faith-killers because it doesn't take much for people to figure out their just actors, really trying to fool you into thinking they are something they aren't largely for their own purposes.

As a pastor there's a lot of things about this job that aren't all that appealing to me, but the hardest thing for me to do is ask for money. I mean, it's not because I don't believe in what we're trying to do here. I do. Hungry people in our community, an all over the world, eat, both physically and spiritually, because this church exists. That alone is reason enough to keep pressing forward, and boldly asking for people to financially support what is going on. And it's not like we asked for more money that it wouldn't be used for good things. I have dreams of on-staff counselors available to help people who are hurting from divorce, abuse, disease, or due to a loss of a one who they loved. I have dreams of staff who help Charlotte and I form and teach faith formation classes and raise up accountability groups where people can be sanctified - become better people who do become more committed to doing the right thing - in grace. I have dreams of new events to draw those who have no church home, to this church, not so we'll become bigger, but rather so they'll make with God and others. I have dreams of partnerships with churches and agencies in the city of Lima of help provide at-risk children safe places to go before and after school.

But make no bones about it... I am reluctant, nay even loathe the though of asking for the additional financial support to do these things. And why?

Because too many people believe that churches, and particularly pastors, only care about money. How much they can get and spend. And despite the fact we try to go to great pains to be above-board with our finances (anyone can come in and check our financial numbers, and we submit to a yearly audit as required by our denomination) it just doesn't matter. Thanks to a few people on TV and some news stories, all of us have been smeared. When Oral Roberts went up into his tower... when Jim Bakker embezzled money from his Christian amusement park to buy an air-conditioned dog house... when people found out Jimmy Swaggart made millions of dollard of year even as he professed constantly that with out financial support his ministry would fail... when Ted Haggard got caught doing a whole bunch of things he himself condemned even as his salary enabled him to live in a fabulous home... the nails were driven down onto the coffin. Actors, hypocrites, playing a part supposedly on behalf of the kingdom, in order to live like kings. And so the rest of us have to be extra-careful because people are watching and wondering whose kingdom we represent.

Now I want to make it clear that there's a difference between a hypocrite and a faithful person who still struggles with sin. You see there's a lot of people out there who think the church is filled with nothing but "hypocrites", nothing but actors who say they are in it for God, but really are just in it for themselves, and they like to point to the fact that people in the church are sinners just like everyone else.

Well... duh. Of course they are. Church-folk were born imperfect into this imperfect world just like everyone else. Who reading this isn't ashamed of something they've done, or said, because their day sucked or they had to provide for their family or at the time they just didn't know any better? I mean, come on.... that's just the way the world is.

But I gather churches are largely populated by people who earnestly want to be faithful. Who want to do what God wants them to do. They are people, by associating themselves with others in a household of faith, willing to represent that household in the world, and they don't want to do it poorly. They care about their communities, their world, their kids, and most importantly, they care about what God thinks, and what God wants. They aren't actors looking to de-fraud others. To make the burdens of others so great as to make themselves indispensable. They aren't acting. They're real. They're not interested in lies... they hear too many of them every day (Amen?). They want to hear, live, and speak the truth.

So be careful.... don't mistake a faithful truth seeker for an acting facade creator. They are two different things.

But in dealing with the reality of hypocrites, remember a few things...

First, don't be surprised when you hear some new example of someone who offered them self up for a position of influence in the Christian movement, falling from grace. It makes no difference how long you've been a Christian... the temptation, the lure, of taking something you shouldn't have or don't deserve never truly goes away. I can safely say, having watched too many of colleagues and friends give into temptation, to succumb to the depths while in the depths, that this will continue to happen. And if this a temptation to those who are faithful, you can only imagine what kind of lure being a spiritual leader is for those whose aspirations are less than holy.

But, second, and more important, don't let examples of actors pretending to be faithful men or women of God, hypocrites, steal your joy, or worse torpedo your trust in the faithful as a whole. The giants of our faith are rarely found in the spotlight. The giants of faith who earnestly pray the 51st Psalm - create in me a clean heart, Oh God. Renew a spirit in me. - are rarely those most visible to world. They are real people, who have lived real lives, with real problems and challenges, and yet still have a strong faith intact. Disconnect yourself from these people, and then all you have left are people proclaiming themselves to be experts while they attempt to sell you their book or ask for a donation so they can keep speaking to some other souls. If I need prayer, I'll go to the Men's small group that meets in the Community Room on Wednesday morning at 7am. They've loved and lost. They've been well and ill. They've dealt with all the imaginable kinds of pain you hope you'll never encounter in this life. And yet they still pray. And what's more if someone is in real pinch, whether in this congregation or not, we know we can call those guys, and they'll step up to the plate to help. It's people like them who are the backbone of this church, and of every church.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Imagine there's no Bishops.... it's easy if you try.

Had a great experience on this trip doing research for my dissertation. The highlight was a very much unexpected meeting with the bishop of the Florida Conference, Timothy Whitaker.

(To find out what I'm doing in Florida, just click for this post, and it will explain)

Before I left on this trip, while I made the arrangements for it back in November, I had forgotten to contact the conference office to arrange a meeting with Bishop Whitaker to get his take on the appointment at Indian River City United Methodist Church. I didn't really realize this until late last week while I was making a couple other last minute arrangements for interviews. Figuring that my chances of Bishop having a free hour in his schedule on such short notice was a pipe dream, I figured that while I was in Lakeland at the conference office doing two other interviews (the former the senior pastor at IRCUMC and the former DS in charge of the appointment), I'd stop by his office and try to arrange a phone interview sometime in the future.

So I walk into his office, looking for his secretary, when low and behold, who's standing in the outer entrance but no other than the Bishop himself. He greeted me, and I asked him to point me in the direction of his secretary so that I might arrange a phone interview with him sometime in the future.

"I'm free right now", he said. "I'll give you 20 minutes if you want them".

Heck yeah I want them... and I might note that it was over an hour later when I walked out of that office. And boy, what a great conversation!

Bishops in the United Methodist Church quite frankly have a pretty thankless job. Only the Roman Catholics imbue their bishops with more authority and administrative responsibility. This particularly is true when it comes to the deployment of available clergy. UM bishops are ultimately responsible for the appointment of every single UM-pastor in the country. It's a huge responsibility and one that, if mismanaged, can sink a local congregation or imperil the mission and ministry of the conference ministry as a whole. Just heard a horror story of a church in a southern conference that in the first year of a leadership transition lost more than two-thirds of their congregation, and ended up not paying $200,000 of its apportionment money (2/3rds of which is used to pay for conference expenses). That's the sort of thing at stake when a bishop has to pair up pastors with churches.

40 years ago this job was a whole lot easier. Methodist churches used largely the same liturgy, the same worship service, same leadership structure, were pretty unified together around denominational projects and missions, and culturally, the old M.E. and E.U.B. churches, and their UM lovechild, were largely pretty much culturally homogeneous. If your grandpappy was a Methodist, you became a Methodist, and more than likely you did it in the same church he attended. The skills pastors needed to do well were well-defined and easy to identify, so as pastors put in years of service, slowly they would be given churches of greater size. Bishops made sure that pastors towed the company line, and those that did were rewarded accordingly.

But then the sixties hit. Larry Norman started making Jesus music that got played at Calvary Chapel out in California, hence "contemporary worship", which eschewed traditional liturgy in favor of recreating the collective spirit one might feel at a rock concert, was born. Baby Boomers quit trusting anyone over 30, which meant that the days of young people just attending grandpappy's church were over. Society got more mobile and diverse. Willow Creek introduced business principles of marketing and customer service into the church world, and the Reagan Revolution ushered in the great conservative evangelical wave that washed over the country, and washed out more liberal mainline denominational churches. Alternative forms of spirituality and religious practice became more accessible thanks to the internet. It was just life for Americans, but for mainline denominational churches, it was a disaster, and nowhere was this more true than in the UMC.

Bishops in the UMC couldn't have been more unprepared for this endless change. Our system emphasizes continuity, centralization, and institutional control in a world where the ability to adjust on the fly and decentralization increasingly were becoming necessary for success. While non-denominational churches started sprouting up like weeds all over the country, fueling the growth in the number of MegaChurches, mainlines fought within themselves over the theological ramifications of huge worship centers that had neither pews nor organs, where preachers refused to wear robes or preach from the lexionary. Some UM-pastors could see where the church was headed, and went whole hog in that direction, often ending up with huge churches they served, turning their back on the notion that they had to be moved incrementally for years before getting a big church. Others, realizing that some changes had to be made, fought the "worship wars", dealing with angry traditionalists who "would have gone to a church with guitars if that was what they had wanted".

Jesus said that a house divided can't stand against itself, but by-golly the United Methodist Church tried. As "renegade" pastors turned their back increasingly on the old ways of doing things, others kept trying to do it the old way to less effect, while churches that had relied on the continuity in their communities vainly wondered when younger generations were going to come back and take over the reigns, Bishops quite frankly didn't know what to do. First they tried to ignore, or denigrate the renegades. Then the renegades were asked to hold workshops to teach everyone else how to do what they were doing. But by the time the bureaucracy of the UMC finally accepted some of the "new ways", they were already hopelessly outdated.

Hence a the loss of 4 million members since 1967, while the US population grew by 100 million people.

Some bishops didn't know whether to side with the old guard or embrace the edgy new one (or a "Pat Boonish" clone). Most just kept pushing forward like business as usual, hoping that that the 1950's, or the 1850's, would somehow come back into vogue. They couldn't train new pastors, or even really know what new skills should be developed or rewarded. They started throwing themselves into starting new churches (a wave that is just starting to get rolling), hoping that the growth of new congregations would overcome the demise of old flagship churches unwilling to change. A cultural shift had occurred, and for the first time the leadership of the Methodist church which had always been keen on being able to take the "temperature" of the culture, and adjust accordingly, had no idea where to put the thermometer.

I talked about this with Bishop Whitaker today, and I could hear in his voice the difficulty he faced in deploying clergy with an 1850 system in a 2008 world. How in the world can an itinerant system function if longer pastoral tenures make it impossible to bring pastors up the corporate ladder (since all the top rungs are now being occupied for long periods of time), or when pastoral spouses have careers, or divorced pastors have custody agreements? Large and mid-sized churches are screaming for pastors that can work with multimedia, or for specialized ministers that can do discipleship, evangelism, and the like, but seminaries still churn out pastors trained to be generalists who can do a bit of everything, and none of it excellently. It's a mess, and yet somehow the Bishop is supposed to make it all work.

So, the question is this.... is the era of the administrative bishop over? Should the office of bishop be recast so as to resemble our Anglican and Episcopalian cousins, where bishops largely function as spiritual guides for the denomination, while pastoral "appointments" are handled in a quasi-call system run by lay-leaders and senior pastors in local churches? Has the complexity of an itinerant system that has had to be modified almost to the point of not being recognizable just God's way of telling us that eight people in an office with a salary chart and an open journal aren't adequate to the task of deploying our available human resources, let alone raise up and train the next generation of Christian leaders in a rapidly changing world?

Bishop Whitaker had to much to say on these issues, and much of what he said shocked me. Since it all pertained to my dissertation, you'll just have to read it when its completed. But I can say this... he opened my eyes to the possibilities, and I sense he has glimpsed a bold new way into the future.

I'm just glad he's a bishop. It inspires in me both hope an confidence in the future.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Four Things I Think I Think (Florida Edition)

1) Tonight I'm coming to you from my Uncle Fred and Aunt Kathy's home in Palm City, Florida. I arrived this afternoon at the West Palm Beach Airport to do conduct research on church number 5, Indian River City UMC (Titusville, Florida). For those who don't know, I'm in the throws of working through a doctoral dissertation on planned pastoral succession. Right now I'm conducting 12 case studies on 12 different churches who successfully succeeded (say that fast 10 times) a long-time senior pastor with an associate pastor on that church's staff who was shifted into the role of lead pastor. My 12 churches are all over the country (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tuscon, Dayton, Louisville, Alexandria [VA], Weathersfield [CN], Dallas [2 different churches], Atlanta, and Titusville [near Orlando]. The other church is across the pond in London. The case studies involve doing multiple interviews with pastors, lay staff, lay leaders, and ecclesiastical leaders (when necessary), to recreate the "story" of the succession at each church. The hope is that by re-creating that story, commonalities might be discovered that could inform future succession planning.

My extended family realizing that I have limited funds to do all of this travel are graciously extending hospitality so that we might continue to keep the Bucher household flush with milk, and bread and all that food my boys are plowing through daily. Fred, Kathy, their daughter Katy, and her boyfriend Matt have been so accommodating it's humbling. Kathy even ironed my shirts so I won't look like a wrinkled academic. Much thanks to them as I keep plowing along trying to get all of this done by May '09.

2) I must offer my kudos to those pastors who planned the community-wide service for peace at the Philippian Missionary Baptist Church in Lima. The service was truly edifying and left all who attended, I think, with a sense of hope about the future. As I told the congregation on Sunday, even though the City of Lima and Shawnee Township are two separate political entities, the problems we share and the commitment we have as Christians to address these problems knows no bounds. We will be proud to be full partners in whatever ministry opportunities geared toward healing racial, cultural, and socio-economic wounds as they present themselves. We cannot undo the past, but we can, through Jesus, fashion a better tomorrow, together.

3) Can't believe how smoothly my travel went today. Buzz Alder was at the house at 4am to get me to Dayton on time for my 6am flight (he's picking me up on Friday, and I'll be taking he and Betty out to dinner since it's his birthday). All my flights were on schedule. My layover in Atlanta went well, and as my Beesons comrades can attest, sometimes that doesn't happen). Rented a Saturn Ion for the week to be able to make all my trips for all my interviews (I'll need to also drive to Lakeland, Florida to do some interviewing of some key players in IRCUMC's succession process). It's a nice little car. Just a really smooth day. Wonder what that means?

4) Woo.... 3:30am came awful early this morning. And 4:15am will come awful early tomorrow. So if I get the time and have internet service later this week, I promise to write more. God bless.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ten Prayer Requests...

Last weekend a young woman living in the south end of Lima on Third Street, was shot and killed in the home she rented by a member of a SWAT team doing a drug bust. What's more, her one-year old son, whom she was holding, was also shot and is now in Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. There were also five other children in the home at the time of raid. To make this situation even more complex, the home raided is owned by a controversial and important member of Lima's City Council. Last night the City Council in Lima had to move its meeting to Lima Senior High School to accommodate a very large crowd who came to discuss the issue.

It is a tragic, bad situation that is very, very volatile.

Hence, there'll be no "Ten Things.." this week. Instead, I have ten different prayer requests I'd like to you to add to your prayer list.

1) Please pray for the family of Tarika Wilson as they grieve her loss.

2) Please pray for Sincere Wilson, the one-year old in the hospital recovering from gun shot wounds, and even more profoundly on a primal level, the lack of his mother's presence.

3) Please pray for Sincere's brothers and sisters as now their living situation is likely to change.

4) Please pray for those officers and city personnel who were on that scene this weekend, particularly the officer who shot mother and child.

5) Please pray for the pastors who do their work in their south end who have taken a lead on this issue as they both try to hold the city accountable, while also trying to manage the outrage in their congregations and community.

6) Please pray for those from the State investigative bureau who are looking into how the raid was conducted and how this tragedy happened.

7) Please pray for the political and administrative leaders in the City of Lima as they attempt to lead this community through this crisis.

8) Please pray for Anthony Terry, who was the focus of the raid, and is now in custody.

9) Please pray for Derry Glenn, the city council member from the ward this tragedy this occurred in, and the landlord who owned the house that was raided.

10) Please pray that all involved stay focused on justice being served, mercy shown, and that they all walk humbly in the sight of the Lord.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Critical People

I am a life-long basketball fan. Ever since I was old enough to pick up a basketball I've enjoyed the game. Until a couple of years ago, though, I thought that the best coaches on the face of the planet were the ones you hear about all the time. Coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Summit or Phil Jackson who led teams to NCAA or NBA championships. They were the best... until I started coaching a team of kindergarten-aged kids.

5 year olds on the first day of practice have absolutely no clue as to what they are doing. Forget teaching them how to dribble or pass... just helping them figure out how to get in a straight line to keep them focused until the next water break is a challenge. Phil Jackson might have won eight NBA titles, but let's see him teach a five year old girl how to set a pick. That just takes a whole other level of coaching.

I was reminded of this yesterday when for the first time, Xavier's team took to the court for their first practice. Rick Rosado and I coached our two older boys when they were on the same team three years ago, and yesterday we got to figure out how to do it all over again. I know it wasn't just us. Two coaches of another team at the other end of our court spent by estimation about 20 minutes just trying to get kids to do a lay-up drill. Shooting, dribbling, rebounding, and passing (not mention switching lines) all at one time. Eventually, after much frustration and yelling (as if the problem wasn't that the kids were totally lost, but rather that they just had hearing problems) they gave up and instead started teaching something more basic like not running with the ball.

The key I've found to coaching kids who can't do a simple lay-up drill is to not get hung up on what they can't do, but rather to simply look for that moment you can praise the child when they do something right. Otherwise you'll end up coming down on them all the time, which in the end, won't result in much else but the kid associating sheer misery with what is supposed to be a fun game. Life can be pretty miserable all on its own... no sense creating that kind of tension for a fiver year old. So, when they actually make a good pass, or get in line, or don't dribble the ball off of their foot, it's an opportunity to build them up.

And that's what, I believe, the Lord wants us to do. Build each other up.

The prophet Isaiah says that beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news... and if you think about it, that's true. People who bring us good news all of sudden take on an aura they never had before. I remember way back in the seventh grade the day Jay Sommerville invited me to his birthday party. He invited five us to come play three hours of video arcade games at Arcade City.... NO QUARTERS NECESSARY. FREE ARCADE GAMES!!! To a seventh grader, that was good news. Three hours of all the Pac Man and Centipede you could play. And you can bet that whatever impression I had of Jay... that intelligent, gracious, humorous, enlightened soul... only improved with that invitation.

But if it's true that feet become beautiful if they carry to us good news, the opposite is also true. Feet that carry bad news aren't beautiful. Far from it. They're just butt-ugly, smelly feet.

There are some people in this world who have butt-ugly, smelly feet that consistently bring bad news about how we look, how we work, how we think, how we play, how we take care of ourselves, how we raise our kids, and generally, how we live our life. They see the world through ashen colored glasses. Their entire modus operandi to tear down others with criticism.

Now before I go any further here, I want to make it clear that criticism in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. Solomon was right when he wrote the proverb that only a fool refuses to listen to criticism. How on earth are we to get better as people if critical comments made by others are only taken as insults or personal attacks. Thinking critically about yourself and the world around you is a gift given by God. It's the wise person that can hear those critiques, and put them to better use.

I mean, did you hear what's going on in New Orleans? After last year's BCS debacle where Jim Tressel decided to treat this team like grown responsible adults and give then 10 days of virtually no curfews in Glendale Arizona, he found that the college kids often don't act like responsible adults. And, I mean, they found enough to keep them out until the wee hours in Glendale, Arizona, which isn't exactly, you know, a den of iniquity. So what's he do this year? The team arrives only five days before the game in a town where nightclubs have fought in court to trademark the name "Den of Iniquity", and every night they have to be in by 11pm.

Hopefully, late Monday night, in the wee hours, we'll see that bit of wisdom pay off, eh?

Criticism, then, is in and of itself not a negative thing. And if we can't hear it - any of it - then the problem is ours. We have somehow placed ourselves above everyone else, above and beyond the rest of humanity, to a place where accountability is no longer operable. Or worse yet, have been beaten down mentally, physically, and spiritually, that we can't hear criticism because it only affirms what we believe to be true, which is the worst. And God did not create us to believe worst about ourselves or others. That's a lie you need help to break. Help from someone you trust who can begin to help you recognize both the positive and negative in the light of truth. That's what Jesus and his followers can do, if we'll let them. Help us see what's really true.

But that's not what I came today to talk about. I'm more concerned with the butt-ugly smelly feet of the destructively critical person.

You know Jesus came in contact with all different types and kinds of people: thieves, liars, murderers, addicts, prostitutes.... people who until this day are generally blamed for most of society's ills. But for these people he always seemed to not only speak the truth, but show a great deal of compassion into their hearts. Society in Jesus' age wanted to stone adulterers to death. But he thought it better to show the adulterer compassion, and simply tell them that their world would be a whole lot better if they would quit sleeping around. No diatribes or threats. No anger or malice. Just compassion and taking advantage of those moments to speak a little truth into their lives.

No, Jesus never got angry at anybody except those who should have known better. So-called religious authorities - teachers and preachers - who used as their main weapon relentless criticism. Relentless criticism of even the most minute details of people's lives designed to create uncertainty and second-guessing to the point that the people being criticized would seek to please the critics by doing what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted it. It is on these teachers and preachers that Jesus takes on passionately and furiously. Because they only way people begin doing what what others want, when they want, how they want it, is when they have been crushed spiritually to want anything on their own.

That's the kind of critic I'm thinking about today. The person who relentlessly criticizes in an effort to crush the spirit of others. The person who looks for weaknesses in others with the intent of blowing them all out of proportion in order to create uncertainty that at best, makes living or working with that person miserable, and at worst, can literally rob the will for anything right or good out of their life.

Don't think this is possible? It's said that in the months leading up to the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana, that Jim Jones, slowly losing his mind as he continued to binge on barbiturates and cocaine, would keep his followers up nights on end, accusing them of unfaithfulness to his cause, to God, the lofty ideals he purported to have about how humanity should treat one another. Worn down by the constant criticism, more than 900 people couldn't see much difference between life and death, hence only 25 escaping into the jungle to save themselves. The rest were beaten down to the point they were ready to drink the Koolaide.

That makes sense given that Jesus says this kind of critic and this kind of criticism leads too nothing. He likens them in a metaphor as being uprooted plants and blind guides. Persons whose efforts to create hopelessness will come to nothing and lead to nothing, if people listen to what they have to say. And he tells his disciples that the way you deal with people like this, spirit crushers, is first to discern the presence of a critical person, and secondly, recognize that the depth of things these people dwell on is the not the depth of things God wants us to be concerned about.

You see critical people only dwell on what can be seen by the naked eye. They'll go after what can be observed just like little kids. Do you remember junior high or high school. My friend Mike liked playing endless hours of Dungeons and Dragons, ran cross country, read endlessly, and always had the highest grades in our class... so, of course, he was picked on by bullies for being imaginative, intelligent, and caring about his physical fitness. Of course, now he's a dermatologist, happily married, who's in great shape thanks to the training he does to run multiple marathons every year... and as adults most of those bullies are trying to raise their kids to live out the values Mike lived out as a teenager, but that's the secret of the critical person. They nit pick at what you say, or how you look, or what you've done. They take outwardly observable details that can be twisted or magnified, while playing on whatever sense of uncertainty we possess about ourselves, to create the illusion of failure... and ultimately crush your spirit so that their words can hold weight they don't deserve.

So, live a life concerned with weightier matters than that raised by the critical person.

You know yesterday I buried a great man. Dr. Dwight Becker was a great man. Anybody who knew him I think would bear testimony that he was truly remarkable. He practiced medicine until he was 80 years old, the last 22 years of which he spent serving in the ER at Lima Memorial Hospital. He served on numerous committees and boards in this community charged with concerning themselves with the health and welfare of others. He served here for a number of years as our Ad Board Chair, and spent a good many years in Amadeus Sunday School class and the church choir. He was an army veteran, just barely having missed being sent to the Japanese Theater, his deployment nixed after the Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was great because he was good, and he measured his life by how deeply the depth of that character was buried into his heart and soul. It was a character of goodness shaped by his deep religious convictions and the knowledge that the scariest thing that can happen to a person in the middle of the night is a 2 year old child spiking a high fever and not being able to do anything about it. Dwight was a good man because he knew more than likely he could do something about that fever, and was willing to do so even in the middle of the night. He did it to help the child, and to renew the spirit of the parent. And he didn't do it to the point of creating an aura of self-importance.

His was a life of spirits, not crushed, but renewed.

A life spent pondering the magnitude of what can come out of the human heart, and wanting to maximize such things as to renew hope in the spirit and soul of others is immune to the critical person. They have no time for that kind of foolishness. Their strength of character and depth of understanding go below what the critical person can touch. That's why when others, including the disciples, cower in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus in turn grows weary, and even angry, that they would be wasting their time on such trivial matters.

A life of humble, yet determined service, where you can cry with people in their grief and sorrow, and laugh and celebrate them in the midst of great joy, where what you do is taken seriously, but you aren't, is the best defense I know of against the critical person. A life spent not focusing on all the things people do wrong, cause heaven knows that list is a long one, but rather watching for a moment to offer praise for something done well. I think that's the place Jesus wants to take us as his disciples, for our own good, and the good of the world.