Wednesday, February 27, 2008

All Quiet On The Northwestern Front

Had a nice lunch today with a pastor who works in the city. We spent some time thinking about the future regarding churches working together here in the area. We were both energized by the possibilities.

But right now not much is happening here in Beantown. The state apparently concluded its investigation into the death of Tarika Glenn and handed it over to the prosecutor but the prosecutor handed it back, asking for additional information. So in the end, not much has changed since Jesse Jackson's visit a couple of weeks ago. The city still waits, and prays.

The reality is that until that until information is shared, and the prosecutor decides what to do in terms of the officer who fired the gun, there's not much that can be done. Pastors are still eating together at various restaurants. A community Palm Sunday service is being planned. A covenant written by a couple of pastors has been put together to lay the groundwork of how we'll work together. But while a good many of us have read and endorsed it, at this point it's not been "approved" by anyone.

Why? Well, there is no body to approve it. It doesn't exist.

When I was a child growing up in the city, a variety of ecumenical organizations were active and functioning in the Lima community. Both my father and mother-in-law were members from their respective churches on CCR - Church People for Change and Reconciliation. Lutheran Social Services had taken over the old Mizpah Community Center on 8th Street, but still stayed connected to the various women's groups from around the community who had supported the center since its inception. A ministerial association was active, often sponsoring events promoting one cause or another that one and all were invited to attend.

But over the course of the last 30 years, virtually all of these organizations have broken down. Evangelicals left the ministerial association over theological differences. Churches couldn't find CCR reps, so eventually the organization folded. Lutheran Social Services had to cut what became known as the Cheryl Allen Center loose as their fiscal situation deteriorated. As such, now there is no organization, or group, or fellowship, or association we can work through.

Now, as we deal with a divisive, and potentially explosive incident that raises up every division you can think of (racial, economic, geographic, etc...) that exists in the community, we have no way of communicating with one another. The media and local government want to keep pushing individuals to the forefront, but those people lack the gravitas of collective input and discussion. And after years of neglect and virtually no bridge building, sufficient trust doesn't exist to be able to call us together in any fashion other than as an ad hoc group who come ready to pray.... but not necessarily ready to able to respond if we hear God speak back to us.

Thus, we wait, and pray, and wonder.... will we overcome, someday, our mutual prejudices and pre-conceptions and stereotypes, to become, truly, the church?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Five Things I Think I Think

1) Don't know if you've seen the new U.S Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, but if you are mainline denominational pastor, the results are brutal. Not only do the numbers of "mainline protestant traditions" continue to decline, but they also are aging. 51% of all those asked responded that they are 50 years of age or older. And of the 49% under the age of 50, a whopping 36% are over the age of 30. Thus, brings to mind the fears I keep hearing expressed by the likes of church consultants like Lyle Schaller, and more recently the denominational bigwigs, that while the baby-boom echo has resulted in a generation larger than the Baby-Boomers themselves, slowly we are losing touch with this generation, which is under the age of 30.

So, to put this in perspective, while the number of people who consider themselves as being "Not Religiously Affiliated" and "Mainline Protestant Tradition" are running about even (14% of the country), more than 30% of of the NRA's are under the age of 20, while only 13% are MPT's. And considering that according the article in USA Today larger numbers of people are turning their back on the denomination they were raised in, who knows where the future is leading. With the rise in non-denominational churches coupled with the lack of doctrinal/denominational loyalty, mainlines will be getting squeezed by both trends of non-denom and "nothing" growth. No wonder the publisher of the survey summed it up in three words: "churn, churn, churn".

Makes me wonder if in 40 years there will even exist a United Methodist Church for my sons to attend.... let alone possibly lead. I'd say that's my stomach churning.

2) It's another snow day here in the Lima area as the most brutal winter anyone can ever remember continues. Rain, sleet, snow, ice, snow as deep at 11 inches, rampant flooding, wide temperature fluctuations (in a recent three day period it went from high of 8, to a high of 41, to a high of 17)..... you name it, we've had it all. It's been a real challenge.At this point, we are seriously jonesing for spring. Chirping birds, sunshine, flowers blooming... the whole nine yards. I'm even looking forward to mowing the lawn, and I hate mowing the lawn. So, check that, I'm looking forward to teaching Max how to mow the lawn, and playing with a baby on a freshly cut lawn. That's what keeps me going.

3) As for the baby watch, still nothing to report. Aimee continues to feel increasingly miserable, and every day I look at the phone more nervously. Last weekend, I even had one of our lay-people, Carol Thomas, on-call to step in with a sermon just in case we had to go into labor on Saturday or Sunday (my associate pastor is in Haiti). We're just waiting, and if this Bucher is anything like his three brothers, we could be waiting as long (Aimee, look away now) as March 13th. Yikes! Let's hope this one has a plethora of his mom's genes and shows up a little early.

4) Bill Clinton was in town Sunday evening, and drew a huge crowd at Lima Senior High School the other night. A member of the congregation went and emailed me about it. They said he was great, and they'd vote for him, but not her, which I thought was interesting. That's about the fifth member of the congregation who'd I'd consider ideologically aligned with the Democratic Party who said they wouldn't vote for Hillary. Three of those people were women, by the way, all professional types who supposedly make up Senator Clinton's base. I don't know what this means exactly, but I suspect that whatever traction Hillary Clinton had going into the primaries has largely been lost. More and more you see the media referring to a McCain/Obama showdown (hence the push on the part of the media to get this thing down to a true two-candidate race.... much to the disappointment of my reader who is a Ron Paul fan). The Clintons have had more political lives than a whole barrel of cats. They've lived through scandals of every kind, unpopularity, fiscal issues and everything else you can imagine.

Have all those lives been lived? I think in Texas and Ohio we'll find out March 4th.

5) Have been listening quite a bit to Lenny Kravitz new album, "It's Time For a Love Revolution":

If you like stripped down rock n' roll that keeps driving forward, it's for you. If you don't, then maybe it's time you stepped up to Imogen Heap:

or maybe you'd like one of Max's new favorite bands, Hawk Nelson:

or if you want to go off the map and out of the mainstream with my friend Aaron to listen to bands that sound perpetually depressed like The Kooks:

In any event, it's obvious I've nothing to write, so I leave you this day with another personal fav, Ms. Sara Groves. A great video taken during a visit she made recently to Rwanda. "Your courage asks what I'm afraid of, your courage asks me what I am made of". Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Are You a Christian, Or Are You a Born Again Christian?

"Are you a Christian, or are you a Born Again Christian?"

I can say I can remember exactly the first time I ever heard this question, or under what circumstances the question was asked, but I can remember my answer:

"Um.............. what?"

"Ah yes", the typical loyal reader of this blog muses, "the kind of in-depth response I've come to expect 'From Bryan's Office'. Thank you Reverend Bucher."

Yeah, I know it's not the most intelligent thing I've ever written, but it does give you good insight into my state of mind. I was genuinely confused. I mean, what on earth is the difference between a Christian, and a Born Again Christian? And what the heck was a "Born Again Christian" anyway?

I didn't grow up in a church where that kind of terminology was ever used. I'm a life-long United Methodist. While there are some UM churches that talk that way, most of them don't. It's not a phrase that's used much. "Are you a Christian, or a Born Again Christian?"

I do remember though, that because of my response, the person asking the question began to clarify what they meant by, first, opening ridiculing me for not knowing what "Born Again Christian" meant, and second, by telling me that I probably wasn't really a Christian because I wasn't a "Born Again Christian". I didn't know what it meant to be "Born Again".

Now, me not being the sharpest tack in the drawer, after this exchange ended, I was still somewhat confused. And being that in those days there was no internet, and to my knowledge we owned no concordance of any kind, I had to go to my Living Bible (which really wasn't a Bible, but was actually a paraphrase) and just started reading the Gospels, until I found it. Jesus, talking about being born again:

1 After dark one evening, a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, 2 came to speak with Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you." 3 Jesus replied, "I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God." 4 "What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again?" 5 Jesus replied, "The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. 7 So don't be surprised at my statement that you must be born again. 8 Just as you can hear the wind but can't tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can't explain how people are born of the Spirit." 9 "What do you mean?" Nicodemus asked. 10 Jesus replied, "You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don't understand these things? 11 I assure you, I am telling you what we know and have seen, and yet you won't believe us. 12 But if you don't even believe me when I tell you about things that happen here on earth, how can you possibly believe if I tell you what is going on in heaven? 13 For only I, the Son of Man, have come to earth and will return to heaven again. 14 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up on a pole, 15 so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.

There was that phrase, again and again again: "Born Again". Or in Greek, "gennao anoqen" meaning to be converted or excited by God or from above by heaven. Converted or excited by God or by heaven, by the Spirit, or pneuma, which means "breath of God".

You must be born again. Huh?

I don't think I need to feel bad that I don't understand what the phrase "born again" means. Nicodemus, the Pharisee who Jesus describes as a "respected Jewish teacher", doesn't get this either. I think that's what Jesus has done to Nicodemus, and many of his colleagues. The miracles that have been witnessed by himself and others like him, not stories of miracles, but actual first-hand accounts, have convinced the religious experts of his time that Jesus is for real. So "for real" that he's shaken their confidence in what they thought they knew about God, what God wanted, and what God could do.

I understand this. I hate it, for example, when people leave the church I serve as a pastor to go to another one. It gnaws at me. I wonder what it is that church, or that pastor, has, that we, or more aptly, I, don't. Of course, I don't think twice when people leave another church to come to the one I serve. It's just when you are rejected that you have second thoughts about where you've come from and where you are going.

And that is where, at least Nicodemus is on this dark night when he has come to Jesus. Jesus can heal the lame and make the blind see. He appears to possess a power that Nicodemus, despite all his study, piety, faith, and devotion, does not possess. This, to put it in highly enlightened and educated theological language, "messed up Nicodemus bad".

But while Nicodemus comes earnestly looking for answers, Jesus in turn, appears to be toying with the man. Nicodemus comes out of sense of respect, hence the use of the phrase, "Rabbi" or "Teacher". More than likely, in a world that respected age and theological education, Nicodemus as a "Jewish religious leader" would have most likely normally been the one who people referred to with this kind of respect. There is a definite sense that right now, though, he is, unlike other Pharisees, not asking questions to trip up Jesus, or to get answers that could be used to embarrass him later. He is convinced Jesus knows something he doesn't, and he wants that information.

But in turn, Jesus doesn't return the respect. He seems to realize that his response, "unless you are born again you will never see the kingdom of God" will confuse Nicodemus. And when that confusion comes to the surface, Jesus openly mocks the man's education and position, and then to add insult to injury, tells Nicodemus that if he doesn't understand what "being born again" means, then what the heck has he been doing with all of the time he's spent becoming a "religious leader".

Who knows why Jesus does this. The exchange doesn't appear to discourage Nicodemus. It's John who tells us that after Jesus is crucified that Nicodemus comes with Joseph of
Arimathea to collect Jesus' body to put it in the tomb. I'm guessing that Nicodemus realizes that what Jesus is doing to him, he and his Pharisaic brothers were doing to the masses: making them feel uncertain about matters regarding the Lord so as to put them in the position of needing their expertise. Maybe Jesus just wanted to give Nicodemus a taste of this, to help him understand how this kind of interchange on matters of faith makes people feel.

In any event, Jesus doesn't leave Nicodemus in the dark. He tells him that if he wants to be born again, born of water and the Spirit, that he must believe him. He must believe Jesus. To believe that humanity, in all of its pain and suffering and sin, must gaze upon him if they want to be saved from evil, and saved from themselves.

So... what does this mean?

Let me tell you a story. Years ago while I lived in Goshen, Indiana, one day a new coffeehouse opened up in town. Now hear me when I say this.... I dig a good cup of coffee. Out in my freezer is about three or four different blends grown all over the world that are all delightful to the palate, while also gentile on my sensitive-yet-sizable Bucher stomach. So when I got the call from another Coffee Achiever

that there was a new coffeehouse in town, I didn't have to think twice when he asked if I wanted to go. I just grabbed my coat, and headed out the door. The proprietor of this new coffeehouse had hired a young woman, Olga, from what was then the only coffeehouse in town to run the place. She had left a good job and a well-run establishment to come run this new business because in her life she had two loves: coffee and Jesus, and not in that order. Seems that the new coffeehouse was a "Christian" coffeehouse, and what made it so largely rested on the person who made our coffee that day.

My friend and I started meeting that place, The Refinery, every Tuesday morning, and each week Olga was there to greet us. She taught me the difference between a Sumatran and Nicaraguan blend. She taught me why a shot of expresso has to be served within minutes of being brewed. I learned a lot about coffee from her. But because she had lived a difficult life changed profoundly by Jesus, you could also sense her passion about keeping open a place that people could come and hear local Christian entertainment, or hold a Bible study, or hear some teaching, or read one of the latest Christian texts, or even, on occasion, receive a little advise from a young woman who knew a little about what it meant for Jesus to change a life. It was Olga's passion and energy that drove that place, and as long as she ran it the business only grew.

But finally, one day, she decided to move closer to home and go back to school.

The owners tried hiring new people, and even filled in themselves on occasion, but too many mornings the help didn't show up, or didn't know what they were doing, and, perhaps most damagingly, seemed to rise only as high as the minimum wage they were earning. Finally, after a four or five months without her there, the place closed. Without Olga's passion, energy, expertise, vision, and commitment, that coffeehouse folded like a house of cards.

Jesus says that Nicodemus needs to see his role as a religious leader in a new, fresh way. Instead of teaching people about the laws and rituals of his religion... instead of being judgmental about how people were living their lives, Nicodemus had to see himself as somebody who helped people encounter the living God. The creative, passionate, energetic power which brings hope and healing that is the love of God.... or as Jesus called it, the Spirit of God.

We get a clearer picture of what the Holy Spirit is in Acts 2. Up that point, the force and sheer will behind Jesus' message had been Jesus. Despite the presence of disciples and followers, and a lot of committed people, really nobody else had the kind of drive to tell others about Jesus and connect them to him, than Jesus did. And after Jesus died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, that critical factor - the relentless passion that Jesus brought to reconcile people with God - was missing. When finally after forty days of waiting after the ascension, God gave the Holy Spirit, we're told that those who received the Spirit were emboldened, willing and able to communicate the message about the Good News of Christ to anyone and everyone. For lack of a better term, the Holy Spirit is the relentless passion of God, the force of His will, meant to give hope and healing to all. The Holy Spirit restores people because the disconnect they feel between the God who created them, and themselves, is eliminated.

The Spirit is like the passion, energy, and love Olga brought to that business every day. With her, that coffeehouse was a dynamic place, but without her it sank. The same, it appears with the church, and ourselves. Without that passion, energy, love, vision.... however you want to describe it... without God's spirit touching our hears and filling our lives, not much happens.

Too often organized religion gets in the way of itself. While I served on conference staff, and then worked in a teaching congregation, over a six year period I was in literally hundreds of churches with hundreds of different pastors. Most of these churches were dead, or dying, and had contacted me because they were fearful that some time very soon, they were going to be closing their doors. You know they were desperate, because they were calling me to help them figure out how to turn things around. During these consultations, I'd do a lot of listening and observing, and what I discovered was that these churches, at some point or another, became disconnected from God's spirit.

Some of these churches got hung up on being the personal chapels for one or two or a few families who called it home. As long the place was open to these families for worship, or for special occasions like baptisms, funerals, and weddings, everything was fine. But when members of the family or families that called this "their church" began to move away, or as generations passed, just quit coming around, the church suffered. As a result, the families wanted to keep the church open, but didn't want it to change from it had always been.... a venue for the family's social interaction and enculturation. God had long taken a back seat to the family, or the families, and now nobody could remember to the early days of the church when he drove their mission and purpose.

Other churches got hung up on ritual and liturgy. Doing worship a certain, proscribed way that had been deemed appropriate and correct by a religious institution or leader. This isn't to say that rituals or liturgy are a bad thing. At the same we worship, down the street from us is a small Greek Orthodox church that has becoming a meaningful house of worship for a dedicated group of people. The imagery and symbolism, coupled with the ancient liturgy, connects them not only with who God is, but also fills them with awe at how great, and mysterious, the whole idea of God is. At its best, this is what ritual and liturgy do: articulate the basics of the faith, while embracing the mystery and majesty of an omnipotent, omniscient God. But too often, the ritual and tradition can become ends unto themselves, as if by doing them something important has happened in the spiritual world. The idea is to be moved by the Spirit, but the reality is going through the right motions because that's what you think you should do... so the ends become ends unto themselves.

And still, other churches have become legalistic and judgmental. Christians need to be principled. It's a part of always being at the ready to be of service to God. You demand high standards of yourself as a gift to the living God. But the fine line between being principled, being discerning, and being judgmental occurs when we demand the same of others that we demand of ourselves, even though they never asked us for that favor.

Being "born again", as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, meant to be a person dedicated to connecting people with God's renewing Spirit, as opposed to being a person dedicated to connecting people to rules, laws, texts, rituals, and traditions meant to unify a community. To seek God's healing so that we might be made whole, and emboldened to go where he leads us so that others might hear of this restoration also, as opposed to connecting people to religious rhetoric which seeks to make complete sense of a God who will not be boxed or caged.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday Morning Sexual Healing

Was surfing tonight after a late evening of grocery shopping, when I saw this little ditty about a pastor in Florida who is challenging married members of his congregation to have sex every day for 30 days, and unmarried members of his congregation to NOT have sex for 30 days. The pastor is Paul Wirth, who according to his bio on the church website, likes U2, Anberlin, 80's Big Hair, the book "Blue Like Jazz", golf, and power hiking, and has also decided that the reason that the divorce rate in the country is 50% is that people don't have enough sex. Well, at least married people don't have enough sex. Single people have too much, thus the call for them to be abstinent for the next month. In the meantime, the church's pastor and it's (ahem) "visual arts" staff person are going to be keeping a blog about this experience so you can follow along regarding how this event is effecting the church, and people in it.

And why do all of this. Well, the rationale given on the web site is:

For far too long the church has remained silent on the subject, leading many people to believe that God is against sex, which is completely counter to what the Bible teaches.

Silent? Really?

In a world where news channels and internet portholes need to fill information 24 hours a day, seven days a week, churches who have been addressing the issue of sex have been making news. I caught Mark Beeson, senior pastor of Granger (IN) Community Church, on Fox News months ago when his church rented billboards with this image on it

to promote their sermon series on "Pure Sex".

Rob Bell Jr., senior pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan just wrote this book

"Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality". While not only preaching on the content at his church, he's been on a nationwide book promotional tour, speaking with (at times) huge crowds of people curious as to what the poster boy for the post-emergent Christian movement has to say on this most delicate subject.

Saw another "news story" on Life Community Church (Allen, Texas) that bought the internet domain name ""

The story was about a mother outraged when the church sent a post card with the above image on it on a day that her child brought in the mail. The lead pastor is Ronnie Gibson, who has his own website, just in case you wanted to learn more about him. In this series, the church wants couples to open up about what they really want (in and out of bed), while also, they believe, give some hope to singles who are looking for that "right person" by making sure they have proper priorities as they rotate through the dating scene.

Also, here's another link to one of the sermon series (there have been four) that have been done at Life Church (based out of Oklahoma City, but with sites all over the country) called...

Could have been a name for one of those bad 80's movies.... oh, what do you know - IT WAS. Craig Groeschel as a part of this series (or maybe it was one of the other four) produced this video:

In a presentation I heard him give five or so years ago just after this video and his sermon were completed, he relayed to all of us in attendance that after the service it was pure chaos as cohabitating couples there that morning were either angry or ashamed. The church's staff was still dealing with the conversation the video sparked for months after it first aired.

So, what in the world is going on here? Why have these pastors, and many, many others writing books and sermon series entitled with some double entendre that makes the casual observer wonder if we'll be preaching, or teaching classes on all matters of... well, you get the picture. Here a few factors contributing to the (s)explosion of these kinds of sermon series:

- Lots of People Are Living Together: If you don't think this is a huge conundrum for the church, you'd be sadly mistaken. As statistically more people wait longer before they get married, and kind of try things out first by living together, the church right now isn't sure how to respond. You see, for a number of generations now, our lifeblood has been young families with children, Take a look at any of the church links above, and you'll discover they have killer children's ministries. Granger Community Church, for example, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a state-of-the-art children's ministry area complete with all kinds of technology, indoor playlands, and every eye-catching graphic to brighten the place up you can imagine.

But as the social taboos around living together continue to diminish, all of these churches, which work really hard to look hip and now and with it and open and non-judgmental are finding themselves attracting unmarried couples with kids. Nothing creates more tension in an evangelical congregation (no matter how "hip" it purports itself to be) than the presence of unmarried couples with kids. Pastors then really have no choice.. somehow they have to address the issue to re-affirm the traditional Christian positions of monogamy, marriage for life, and celibacy for singles. Strangely enough though, in my own experience, these unmarried couples are at church because they don't want to make the same mistakes they made previously in failed relationships. They are often looking for frank talk about expectations, personal standards, and more traditional kinds of family values as means of generating stability in a family system that might not have had one in a while. Thus, particularly in churches that are successfully reaching people in their 20's and early 30's, the demand for this kind of message is high. The result is that this makes megachurch congregations, which are filled with both conservatives who want to hear conservative principles re-emphasized from the pulpit and seekers looking for a better way to live, ripe for this kind of message.

- Married People Are Getting Divorced At A Record Pace: And sex has a lot to do with it. That is, a lack of sexual intimacy between married partners, leading too often to infidelity on behalf of one, or both, spouses. Back in the nineties, the way this was addressed was to encourage married couples, particularly those who have been married a long time, to have a "date night", sans kids, so as to avoid "taking one another for granted". This approach, apparently not having made a dent in the rising divorce rate, is now being abandoned by some pastors in exchange for a more frank and explicit discussion at hand: good marriages generally include active sex lives.

Of course this can have a downside. Marc Driscoll, an evangelical reformed pastor in Seattle, has been accused of putting the burden for keeping things "spicy" on the female. This really came to light when in the immediate aftermath of the Ted Haggard scandal, Driscoll, in his blog, seemed to put the blame for Haggard's problem on Haggard's wife not maintaining her "attractiveness". The culture puts enough pressure on women to conform to narrow stereotypes which generally involve "tarting it up". To get on that train is not generally considered wise (hence Driscoll backpedaling in face of opposition in the community to his statements).

But there can be no doubt that the institution of marriage is troubled right now, and considering how prominent a role sex plays in our culture, a number of pastors have decided to focus on this issue and add their voice to the mix.

- The Explosion of the Porn Industry: Ever had a subject you were looking for information on, but the name of that subject in the Google search bar, then hit the button to see what it would turn up, and what it turned up (to your surprise) was a lot of porn sites? Well, you wouldn't be alone. I remember how shocked my wife was when looking for images of "pink kittens". It's almost impossible not to run across some site pushing virtually every different type and kind of fetish you could (or couldn't) imagine. Easy accessibility to such things has created an onslaught of marital issues and sexual addictions not seen since the advent of the printable type. With no brown paper wrapper necessary, porn has become a part of the mainstream, and the fallout (which often falls to pastors in the forms of defeated individuals or feuding couples) has to be addressed.

- The Church Has Decided That If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em: What on the face of this earth is used to sell stuff more than sex? Can you name anything else? Sex sells TV's, Beer, cologne, clothes, shampoo ("an organic experience"), cars, music, movies, food, meds, personal hygene products, electric shavers, computers... just about everything. As the institutional church struggles with its image of not only being judgmental, but also hypocritical, churches have been trying to re-position their image. Showing two feet poking out of the covers, or a woman's leg draped around a man's, is designed to say to the community, "Hey, we're not your grandpappy's church. We're different." I mean all these series, "Pure Sex", "Going All The Way", "My Sex Life Stinks", and the like all pretty much say the same thing again and again:

1) Don't have sex until your married.
2) If you are unmarried and having sex, stop until your married.
3) Married sex is better than unmarried sex cause there's no guilt as it's what God wants.
4) There's a spiritual aspect of the sexual experience.
5) Don't let the pressures of life rob your marriage of sexual intimacy.
6) Pornographic images can warp your mind and make you do pretty disgusting and perverted things... not mention make your spouse feel inadequate.

So why all the hinting around? Why all the teasing? Why all the advertising using images you'd see in an issue of Cosmo or Maxim?

Cause sex sells.... and these churches are trying to capitalize. Some would call it using the culture against itself. Others would call it "selling out". I suppose that you have to decide if the ends justify the means. In either vein, there can be no doubt that when a church undertakes this kind of sermon series, accompanied by a risque' advertising strategy, that attendance goes up, and attention is grabbed in a community.

So, with all respect to Pastor Wirth, I think the church is being anything but silent on the issue right now. The question, rather, is whether or not in attempting to be culturally relevant and engage a serious issue, has the church compromised its ethics in the process? That's the same argument that's been raging ever since guitars started replacing organs in churches in the 70's, video screens were installed in worship facilities, and churches found it necessary to hire graphics and marketing people from the secular world. How much Madison Avenue do we need to boldly proclaim the Gospel.

Until then, expect lots more postcards and billboards using two sets of feet peeking out of blankets to entice you to come to a church in your town.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

(Lame) Kids of the Future

I know right now I should be working, but I have a more important task at hand. If you remember, I have to load music onto a MP3 player we bought for Max, our son whose ninth birthday is Saturday. Thanks to leads provided by many of you, I've been educating myself about "tween" music. I had no idea who Aly and AJ, Vanessa Hudgens, Hannah Montana, and Jonas Brothers were until I took a little trip to Radio Disney's web site... now I do.

Because I listen to music whenever I'm in the office, I started subscribing to an online music service about two years. Thus, at the click of button I can go listen to these "artists", choose which songs I want, and download them for my own personal use. So I decide to start with the Jonas Brothers (i.e. Hanson 2.0) and I put on their album. I'm not really listening to it, cause, well... you know... it blows, when out of nowhere I hear a song that's very familiar. It's an 80's song... but wait a minute - the words are different. When I first heard that tune (which was the first time I saw Kim Wilde's video back when MTV played videos and not the NC-17 reality shows they show now) it was called "Kids In America". And, in typical 80's fashion, the lyrics were pretty vapid but the tune was catchy, chock full of cheesy 80's synth. Here's the video, and the lyrics:

Looking out a dirty old window
Down below the cars in the
City go rushing by
I sit here alone
And I wonder why

Friday night and everyones moving
I can fell the heat
But its shooting
Heading down
I search for the beat in this dirty town

Down town the young ones are going
Down town the young ones are growing

Chorus :

Were the kids in america (x 2)
Everybody live for the music-go-round

Bright lights the music gets faster
Look boy, dont check on your watch
Not another glance
Im not leaving now, honey not a chance

Hot-shot, give me no problems
Much later baby youll be saying never mind
You know life is cruel, life is never kind

Kind hearts dont make a new story
Kind hearts dont grab any glory


Come closer, honey thats better
Got to get a brand new experience
Feeling right
Oh dont try to stop baby
Hold me tight

Outside a new day is dawning
Outside sububias sprawling everywhere
I dont want to go baby
New york to east california
Theres a new wave coming I warn you


Were the kids
Were the kids
Were the kids in america

Not exactly Shakespeare. Always loved the lyric, "From New York to East California / There's a A New Wave Coming I Warn Ya". Sorry LA. Sorry San Francisco. The New Wave is only to reach Fresno. The rest of you are just out of luck.

I always had the sense that the person who wrote the song spoke English as a second language. Considering I just watched another video (scroll to the bottom) of some French version of a combination of "Solid Gold" and "American Idol", where Kim Wilde was interviewed in French after singing the song, I could be right. Just a cheesy little tune that once you get it in your head, you can't get it out all that easily.

But, as I'm listening to these Jonas Brothers, it occurs me... the tune is the same, but the lyrics are different. Here are the Brothers Jonas, and their lyrics:

We're the kids
We're the kids
We're the kids of the future [x2]

Standing on a dirty, old rooftop
Down below the cars in the city go rushing by
I sit here alone and I wonder why

Come on Lewis, keep moving forward
Hold your head up high
There's no time for looking down
You will not believe where we're going now

Here we go, let me remind you
Look ahead, the past is behind you

[All Three]
We're the kids of the future, whoa!
We're the kids of the future, whoa!
Everybody live 'cause the future is now!

Bright lights, boy, look around you
Your imagination is working overtime
The world that you've dreamt of has now arrived

Hot shot, the greatest adventure
Is where the family you've searched for
Comes alive
So come meet the Robinsons

Looking for a place you belong to
Looking for a family that wants you

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na
Na-na-na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na

Everyday we have fun me and Wilbur
So happy to be here with the Robinsons
I finally feel I can be someone

Outside a new day is dawning
Outside the demon is rolling everywhere
I know that it's right because

We'll save the future together
This family's forever

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na
Na-na-na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na

[All Three]
We're the kids
We're the kids
We're the kids of the future [x2]

The Jonas Brothers (or more likely, some Disney exec) somehow found a way to butcher a classic 80's tune. They took a little ditty about being young, going out on your own, and feeling like the whole world is front of you, and turned into a 3 minute commercial for Disney cartoon. Apparently the kids of the future are bunch of sellouts.

Max gets the original. No way he's going to become a corporate toady on my watch.

(By the way, I'm selling the naming rights to my blog. Email if you've $100 and a product you're ready to expose to virtually tens of people.)

Here's the French Solid Idol Clip I promised complete with dancing clown cheerleaders on skateboards. Gotta love the French!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And The City Continues to Wait and Pray...

Well, the dust has (mostly) settled from Jesse Jackson's visit to the city of Lima. Those who feared that with him would also come violence and anger misplaced their fear. Outside of the controversial statement he made that the officer involved in the shooting of the young woman who died needed to be "indicted" immediately (which is a bit premature as the state investigative agency looking into the matter has not yet released their report on what actually happened) little else has changed on the other side of Jackson's visit. The city still awaits the state's findings, and people keep wondering what will happen next.

I have been to a lot meetings this past couple of weeks. Meetings over breakfast. Meetings over lunch. Meetings over dinner. Lots and lots of meetings. Mostly these have been gatherings where words are spoken very carefully and all involved are looking for common ground.

But the divisions between us pastors are still very real. The possibility of violence in the City of Lima has brought us together for conversation, but there are still issues which we don't even want to think about, let alone address. We are still separated on issues like the sacraments, women in ministry, theology, biblical interpretation, and worship style. Normally these are more than enough to keep us from being in continued conversation with one another. Of course we find out just how important these things really are in a situation like the one we find ourselves in now. Fighting over whether people need to be sprinkled or dunked, or whether they need to be members or not to be eligible to take communion, pale in the shadow of dead mother, a wounded baby, a grieving family, and an angry community. We're not so quick to ask about the nature of church leadership and the role women should play in it when the drug war, social class divisions, education, and the local economy come together in one terrible moment where our collective malaise over the status quo is called into question.

But make no bones about it.... eventually, we are likely to allow ourselves, as clergy, to drift into our own independent orbits once the passion around this issue is spent, and the media goes on to something else. Then, the old animosities over literal interpretation of the Bible and prosperity gospel preaching will unearth the gulfs that exist between us...

that is, unless, you, the ordinary everyday Christian, hold us accountable to seeking the Kingdom, as opposed to seeking our own kingdom.

Do us all a favor, and if you are reading this and you attend a church, demand from your pastor the opportunity opportunities to meet with people from other churches. Demand from your pastor opportunities to do real ministry in the community with other conscientious people who care about the present reality, as well as the future of people who will be living here long after we are gone. Worry less about what we say on Sunday morning, and more about how its being put into practice the other six days in a week. Let those in neighborhoods who want to see postive change, but fear reprisals for taking action from elements in the community that have no conscience, that you stand with them. If you believe that local law enforcement really do have the best interests of the community at heart (as I do), tell your pastor to help find ways that you (and others like you) can be in community with those who do not so that opportunities might arise for trust to begin to grow.

Hold our feet to the fire. Don't let up on us a second. Force us to look past our own narrow theological and institutional fences so that we might truly love our neighbor. Shatter our feet of clay which have been fired by issues of inconsequential importance in a kiln of institutionalism. Remind us that we are leaders... and leaders need to lead.

Otherwise, nothing in the Christian community will ever change.

Monday, February 11, 2008

An Eleventh Thing I Think

11) Just wanted to welcome a new blog to the masthead. "Happiness is... a day at the beach" is written by Heather, a member of our congregation. Gotta love any blog where the blogger's husband is named "Mr. Heather". Enjoy.

Ten Things I Think I Think (Post-Birthday Edition)

1) Yeah... now I'm 39 years old. A year away from the big 4-0. After a morning of preaching, time with family, the re-start of our Home Fellowship group, and bedtime stories for our boys, I was able to spend a few moments at the end of the day wondering where all the years went. Seems like only yesterday mom was trying to convince me that it would be OK for me to stay with Mrs. Murphy, my pre-school teacher at Bream Presbyterian Church. I think back on my life, and I'm grateful. Grateful in that I've been very blessed with a great family, lots of good friends, the opportunity to succeed academically and professionally, and mostly grateful that the Good Lord has seen fit, when I've prayed, to speak back in His own way and time.

My life has been good. What more could a man ask?

2) Woke up bright and early to head out into the sub-zero weather for breakfast with area clergy and Rev. Jesse Jackson. His talk was very interesting. At times he was challenging and at other times he made me feel uncomfortable, but that's the mark of a good speaker. Maybe it was because it so early, but he wasn't bombastic, putting rhymes into a easily digestible sound bytes for listener's ears or media microphones. He was quiet and controlled, measuring his words to try and help provide all those present with a sense of what might be next in terms of long-range strategy, while not inflaming the passion around the troubles we now face as a community.

Mostly, what I heard Rev. Jackson saying is that the day for a plan to deal with America's deteriorating urban core has arrived. I mean its one thing to hear him speak to our declining manufacturing sector and the danger that comes from needing foreign investment to prop up large American banks and Wall Street, and how that's contributing to decline of cities throughout the Midwest. It's another to have read the exact same concerns in my latest issue of Forbes Magazine. That gives the man's message added weight and urgency. Investment in education and infrastructure, in job training and daycare, in small business development and drug treatment would not only go a long way to improving deteriorating cities (like our own), but in the long run would create the kind of economic stimulus that provides lasting results.

Rebuild your sewers and roads, and you have new sewers and roads that can accommodate new growth. Provide second chances for people to get an education, when they might possess the maturity to realize how important it is (as opposed to when they were teens), and the kinds of trained, educated people companies are looking for will exist in your community. Get America's manufacturing sector moving again, and you don't trillions of American dollars and thousands of jobs overseas. Thinking of new ways to encourage creativity, entrepreneurship, and the raising of role models of all colors and creeds (so that kids can say, "I want to be like them someday") is important in a culture where we prize our individuality. Where you can create your own identity. Where you are not defined by your past, but by your future. A negative future will encourage people to define themselves negatively, which is what I fear our culture suffers from en masse, right now. Working democratically to turn this around is crucial in this time and place, and for our children and grand-children.

This is what I got out of Rev. Jackson's speech this morning.

3) Max, my oldest, will be nine later this week. He's so excited he can barely contain himself. We're renting a bowling alley located in a small town (Spencerville) so that 14 of his closest friends can come join in a bowling and pizza party. However, we got him a MP3/Video player as a gift, and I have been given the task of loading it with some music. Our kids aren't all the savvy when it comes to certain aspects of pop culture. While they do know about video games, kids movies, and cartoons, because they don't listen to pop radio (mainly due to content issues... I don't want my kid walking around singing the lyrics to "Sensual Seduction" or "Crazy B***h") they don't really know that much about pop music. So, I get to figure out what's going on this MP3 player, which will open up some worlds that Max has never known before.

I know I'll load on some Christian music (which doesn't suffer from the stigma and lack of quality it did when I was a teen), some 80's music (cause the nut doesn't fall far from the tree), and I'll probably rely on Radio Disney (cause my boy is becoming a tween very quickly) to help me figure out the rest. But this will be his entre' into figuring out what he likes and doesn't like, eventually leading to me dealing with music he'll want to listen to that I'll hate having in my house. Such is the rite of passage of adolescence. I listened to Iron Maiden. Brother Esq listened to the Insane Clown Posse. I'll have to listen to some morally bankrupt, industry developed artist geared to capitalizing on the angst and anger of teens dealing with identity issues. Why couldn't we just hunt lions with our sons in order to let them prover their manhood, like our ancestors? That'd be preferable to some rap star or screaming metal singer talking about doing drugs and sleeping around in slang I can't understand. Fo shizzle.

Until then, though, we get the final say as to what he hears. We'll enjoy that while we can.

4) Speaking of pop music, a woman who had a hit song about not going to rehab, was only able to accept her awards coherently because for the last four weeks, she's been in rehab. What's more, she did as a Brit singing music inspired by the sounds of Motown and Ronnie Specter. Nothing should surprise anyone anymore.

5) Didn't watch the Grammies so I could watch the Cavs play their absolutely worst game of the year. Nobody should lose by 30 to the Nuggets, at home. It was like the entire team had a plane to catch or date to get to. They need a shake-up (hopefully involving a new point guard) soon.

6) For my friends who live in warmer parts of the country, it was negative-1 degrees according to my car thermometer this morning. This followed a weekend where we had snow fall in a thunderstorm marked by 50 mph winds. If you get called with a job offer here in the Midwest, make sure the pay is outstanding. OUTSTANDING!!!!!

7) Once again this year, my wife got me John Grisham's new novel as a birthday present. Later today I'll be knocking off work early to go read it in one sitting (which is my custom). I'm sure now, though, that Brother Esq is a lawyer he'll have a few words about Grisham's accuracy (or lack thereof) when it comes to the legal profession. That's even if he ever reads any more of Grisham's books. Seems that three years of law school and a couple of years working in the Public Defender's office has soured my brother on cop and crime shows because their lack of realism. What a shame it is that he can no longer enjoy "Law and Order". Of course, the few times I watched "Seventh Heaven", which featured a family where the dad was a mainline denominational pastor, I kept thinking "no way that would fly" or "no way that would happen", so I suppose I understand.

8) Have you seen "Parking Wars" on A&E? It is a reality show (I am not making this up) featuring officers who enforce parking laws in metro areas. Basically, its about watching people write parking tickets. I watched it for about five minutes and thought, "who in the world thought this was a good idea?" Pretty soon we'll have reality shows about people who collect tollway tolls or wash windows or drive street sweepers.

Or maybe, about senior pastors of medium size UM churches! Maybe this isn't such a bad trend after all.

9) Don't know if you've heard, but exorcisms are currently making a comeback in Europe. And they are being used in all types and kinds of situations - divorce recovery, drug treatment, treatment of depression... the list goes on and on. Why is this happening, I am not sure, except that after four-hundred years of rationalism, and the advent of post-moderns who don't find spiritual realities to be all that difficult to swallow, that maybe the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. I had a prof last year at Asbury (Steve Seamands) who will tell you that spiritual warfare is very real, and he is well known for being involved in this kind of ministry. Every one of my classmates who had been at Asbury for their MDiv had a story of see or hearing Dr. Seamonds engaged in driving out spirits... and generally there were no skeptics. Coming from such a rationalist/contemplative perspective, this really stretched me (that and Sandy Millar admonishing me speak in tongues at Holy Trinity - Brompton). It'll be interesting to see where this kind of ministry goes in the future.

10) Finally a thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday. I appreciate well-wishers both live and digital. Special thanks to my father-in-law who surprised me with a birthday cake (that was cool as cool could be), my folks for coming over (with Bryant) after church for a nice birthday lunch, and especially everything Aimee and boys did to make Dad's birthday a good one. I am a blessed man, indeed.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Living Where Earth Ends And Heaven Begins

When it comes to church, I'm a lifer. I can't remember a time when I didn't go. Oh, my first couple of years of college I slept in on Sunday mornings, but whenever I was home, I was at church. In fact, you might say I've always felt at home at church.

Growing up in West Virginia, going to church - even a United Methodist Church - meant hearing about Hell. Our pastor at Trinity UMC, Harry Jenkins, wasn't afraid to talk about hellfire or brimstone. The main point of this, I suppose, was to convince us that Hell was a horrible place we didn't want to visit, let alone get cast into for all eternity. And his vivid descriptions of this place sufficient scared us kids more than enough to say whatever prayer we were told we needed to say in order to escape the Lord's wrath, and Satan's dungeon. But the upshot of this was that we only really thought about Heaven as the eternal alternative for Hell. We'd draw pictures and give descriptions of what we thought Heaven would be like, and like most everybody, we described it in anthropomorphic (using our human experience) terms.

Heaven has streets of gold.

Heaven is filled with big houses each of us gets to live in.

Heaven has basketball courts where pick up games never end, golf courses where there are no brown patches, and beautiful ponds filled with fish.

Heaven has the most wonderful food that won't make you fat.

Heaven never has a night and a chorus of angels sing all of the time.

Heaven is the place where all our loved ones went after they died, and we'd get to see them again.

On and on, we'd make guesses about what Heaven was like, always describing in earthly terms. Andrew Peterson, one of my favorite artists, once wrote a song called, "Land of the Free", where he muses that a young girl living in poverty was actually more fortunate than her more affluent neighbors to the north because she would have an easier time envisioning a Heaven that was better than life on earth. Because that's how we tend to do it... we describe Heaven as an other-worldly place in earthly terms, and largely terms defined by what we like most in this life. Thus, for musicians, their favorite players and composers are waiting in Heaven for an eternal jam. Artists dream of painting with those who they have idolized. Writers dream of picking their favorite author's brain. And on and on it goes.

That's what Heaven has always been... an other-worldly place, filled with worldly kinds of things. Strange to think that the best things in the universe are simple those few things we know now in this life, and this place, but that's how people with a limited scope of understanding work. We can imagine a bambingle sandwich as being the greatest sandwich ever, cause we don't know what's on a bambingle sandwich (or even what a bambingle is). We are limited by what we know.

As I got older though, as I began to take the Bible, and particularly the words of Jesus, more seriously, I found out that for Jesus, while the question of who'll go to Heaven and who'll go to Hell was addressed by him (as an aside, he almost always describes Hell as the reward for a self-centered life that ignores the needs of others, particularly those are the most destitute... but more on that later in this sermon series), for Jesus, Heaven isn't just an otherworldly place totally disconnected from where we are now. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.

Very near. As close as his presence.

Now, I don't want to minimize the issue of the afterworld, and the centrality of Jesus to that issue. Don't hear that, cause that's not what I am doing here. I very much believe in the words of Jesus when he says to the thief hanging on the cross that this very day he would be with him in paradise. The idea that we know that our lives are largely unworthy to be rewarded with paradise is important. It's generally people who think their lives, the decisions they've made, have been a boon to all humanity who tend to do the most damage. Think of yourself as being supremely right, and in turn you have no problem with eliminating people who you think are wrong. That's what Stalin thought, to the tune of over 50 million people dead.

The idea that we aren't perfect, and in fact, are quite imperfect, and thus need some help in understanding and realizing what perfection is, is something that we shouldn't give up as Christians. Christ not only "gets what we deserve" in terms of his condemnation, but by accepting that gift we pledge to turn our lives in a direction where the pain we cause ends with the cross, needs to be at the core of who we are. The idea that those relationships we treasure in this life are so sacred, so important, that we live now so as to honor others so that we might be in relationship with them in eternity is a powerful concept.

My grandfather died of a form of lung cancer. He was not an old man, passing in his sixties. Our family misses him very much, and we get together we often wonder, if he were still alive, how much joy my sons, his great-grandchildren, would have brought to him, and how much, in turn, they would have lionized him. He was a very good man. He spent most of his life helping other people in a multitude of ways. Whether or not it was through his work assisting pensioners through his position in the UAW, or helping friends who had become disabled or homebound, or by donating gallons of his blood to the Red Cross, or doing all the other good stuff I'm sure I'll never fully know, my grandfather never took for granted the concept of the Golden Rule. As a matter of fact, I'd say that he tried to treat people better than he expected them to treat him.

Because his cancer was initially treated, shrunk, and progression slowed down (with not much hope that remission was possible), my grandfather had a little less than a year to process his own life and death and what it might mean. And while he never was much of a church-going person (which was a shame because any church in this community would have been a much richer with his presence), he had a great deal of respect for the Bible and what it had to say about the afterlife. Not just because he was afraid of going to Hell (although I'm sure that was a part of it) but because in my conversation with him, he knew that when it came to perfection he just didn't measure up. He was a man who didn't believe he was perfect, and he while he had done what he could to make amends for the mistakes he knew he made, I think he knew that in some cases, he just couldn't. Somewhere in there, God had to extend to Dean Diehl, mercy, and Dean knew it to be true. And so, after much conversation with our pastor, with us, and my Uncle Bill's pastor, my grandfather was baptized the night that he died.

Baptized because he knew he needed grace and mercy, just like the people he had helped needed grace and mercy from someone willing and able to help. Baptized because he loved his family and friends so much that he was willing to do what it took to spend eternity with them. Baptized because he wanted all of us who knew and loved him that he believed that what God thought of him, mattered. Baptized because it brought him peace of mind. My grandfather was a great man because he thought it owed it to the Lord to be a great man. Baptism at the end of his life was simply the exclamation point he decided to add to that concept.

If only more Christians would see their relationship with God in that light... as a relationship where the best given demanded the best that could be given back... how great would the church be?

But without really knowing much of anything about the Bible except that which he caught in the occasional service, conversation, or what he heard on TV, my grandfather had a concept of Heaven that was more closely aligned to Jesus' than even some of the greatest biblical scholars, pastors, and most fervent church-goers of his era.

You see, while we can't understate the importance of understanding Heaven as an otherworldly place, we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking of the moment we make some kind of commitment to Christ as the moment we got our "Get Out Of Hell Free" card. Understanding you need mercy and grace that only a perfect sacrifice can provide is important. But too often, the repentance, the turning away from the way we've interacted with others previously, gets lost in this concept. Worse yet, our lives can end up being spent simply trying to get people to say a few magic words to get the same "Get Out of Hell Free" card we have. Miss the need for repentance, for living a new way that honors and respects others, while demanding the best out of ourselves, and you miss the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ.

I mean, what's the point of Jesus telling Peter in Matthew 16 that he had been given the keys to the kingdom, and that what would be unlocked or locked on earth, would also be unlocked or locked in Heaven? It's a strange statement, and one we don't generally talk about much because it compels the reader to make a connection between what happens on earth and what happens in Heaven, as if the two were inter-connected somehow. As if they were so closely tied together that somehow the separation between the two is hard to discern. Not like a state or county boundary which is marked with a line, or maybe the gulf between nations separated by a great ocean, but rather a place so close that if you took a step in a different direction you might be passing from the one to the other, and maybe not even know it.

You know he was an alcoholic. My grandfather, he was an alcoholic. He had lived a childhood marked by a father who was largely not around, and an alcoholic himself, which emptied into the horrors of fighting as an infantryman in the European Theater during WWII. High School seniors... right now you are starting to think about prom and graduation parties. Maybe going to college or getting a job. My grandfather and many of his classmates at South High School were drafted about now, trained to go fight in a trench with a gun and a bayonet, facing mortar fire and the reality of a tank only yards away pointing it's muzzle at them so as to take their lives. He came back an alcoholic, and when my mother was two, after living an unpredictable life with a drunk, my grandmother gave him an ultimatum.... get sober, or get lost.

For those of us who knew him, or came along later, I suspect we'd have to say that the Kingdom of Heaven was as close as the rest of the bottle of ripple that got poured down the drain that day. As close as the beer that wasn't purchased at Northland Lanes on bowling night.

Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near. How near is it, really, for you? Is it some musty possibility you'll have to face years down the road? Is it some story you thought someone dreamed up to try to scare people into becoming religious?

Or is it as near as not taking the next drink? As near as not letting another minute living a depressed life where the way you are trying to live isn't working? As near as realizing how short time, and how little an opportunity you have to shower others with the kind of mercy and love, you yourself so deeply desire?

How near is the kingdom, where Christ, the Prince of Peace, reigns as king? Because how near the kingdom is how near you believe God draws to us, and how much God cares about what happens to people in this life.

How much God cares about what happens to you.

In service tomorrow, I'm going to (hopefully if I can get things to work properly) show a clip from the movie, Amazing Grace, where abolitionists approach William Wilberforce, a politician serving in Parliament, about enlisting into their cause. A cause they believe to be God's. A cause so important that Wilberforce, simultaneously, would be on the payroll both of Parliament, and of God, in place where earth and heaven intersect.

I can relate to this because, as a pastor, I've always felt like I was on God's payroll. I get paid to preach, teach, and pray, among others things. It's a concept pretty easy to keep straight. But what if real estate agents were on God's payroll. What about managers of all kinds? Business owners? Attorneys? Teachers? Secretaries? Retirees? Students?

What would it mean to be God's payroll, living where earth ends and Heaven begins? This where we begin the series, "Jesus Speaks (What's He Saying To You?)... pondering what it means to be in the presence of the Master as we spend the precious minutes our lives.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) I will be sad to see our last series, Difficult People, go... which is a strange thing to say because after scheduling and planning the series, I almost immediately regretted doing so. Why? It seemed "self help-ish" to me, and history has taught me that I'm not all that good at that kind of preaching. My mentor at Goshen First, Dick Lyndon, was a the master of such series. He loved pop psych kinds of sermons ripped from all kinds of Christian and secular self-help books. The upshot was that he'd write the sermon, and then go find the scripture to support it (or "proof texting" as we say in the biz).

I was trained to start with the scripture. To spend time with it. Let it speak, listen to what it has to say, and then relay the message to everyone else. I disliked (and still do) applying scripture, post-partum, to the body of a sermon. But unfortunately, most of what passes as popular preaching right now is proof-texting so strangely enough, people who do sermons like I do are accused of being less biblical simply cause we have less volume of scripture incorporated into a service. Of course, if you take some time after a proof-texted sermon to see if how the scripture was used in the sermon was consistent with its meaning in the greater biblical text, in many cases you'll find yourself disappointed.

But I digress....

In the end, I felt like we were able to find a biblical foundation that enabled us to make our point. And from the comments received, I think people received it well.

2) Now, for the duration of Lent, we will be looking at a number of quotes attributed to Jesus, and with each one ask three questions:

- How did what he say impact his world?
- How has what he said impacted our world?
- How might his words now impact your world?

That's the plan, anyway. My hope is to have audio copies of the sermons from this series available on-line, either in terms of streaming or as pod-casts that can be accessed at ITunes. We'll see if we can't get that done.

3) That was a great Super Bowl game last night, and coming from me that really means something. Nobody was less enthusiastic about that game than I was yesterday. As I put to the congregation, I was watching it solely because it was the Super Bowl and it beat thinking (ah yes, what a comforting thing for a senior pastor to say... I'm sure my preaching prof, Elsworth Kalas, would be proud). But the game turned out to be a good one. Lots of defense and hard-hitting. And who have thunk little brother Eli would pull together one of those end of game defining drives like, well.... his older brother? And given all the controversy around Spygate, the Giants win did have kind of a "cheaters never prosper" kind of feel. In any event, there was good company (Dad came over to watch the game), good food (he brought pizza from Westside), and good football. Who could ask for more?

4) Can't say the commercials were all that great... save one. This one made Dad, the boys (including Eli), and I laugh out loud:

5) I think Max is growing an inch a day right now. We were over at my Father-in-law's on Saturday, and when I saw Max standing next to Bryant, I almost choked. Another year and he'll be as tall as his grandfather. He's only 8 (although he'll be 9 in 12 days.... we're doing a birthday party at the Spencerville Bowling Alley). I think he ate 12 pieces of pizza last night, and this was after two grilled cheese sandwiches and a big bowl of fruit at lunch. As soon as Max realizes that he's bigger than his peers, and unleashes that aggressive streak that we see around his brother, he's gonna be a monster.

Of course, his mother would be just as happy to have Max become a concert pianist or an oboe player (of course this commercial gives me hope):

He could be drafted out of Ohio State in the second round. That'd be fine with me. He could even take his oboe with him.

6) The election is starting to gain some clarity. On the Democratic side, it's down to Hillary and Obama. On the Republican side, McCain and Romney are the front runners, while Hucklebee hopes to win over evangelicals in the south on Super Tuesday to keep his race alive. Everyone else left is either in it to make a point, or maybe become a third party candidate (which is a possibility, I think, with Ron Paul - who I am told I ignored last week - who was always just a Libertarian masquerading as a Republican anyway.... he's the only candidate with the grassroots support outside of his party's mainstream to even think about this kind of run). Just think... a week ago I thought there was a real possibility of these primaries being settled in a smoke-filled backroom. The reality is that the sheer expense of a campaign, coupled with the both the media and each party's mutual desire to set up a front-runner as a means of focusing on the general election make anything other than the "convention as coronation" an impossibility. I predict that in both parties a clear-front runner will emerge by the middle of this month, and the focus of the media will become more on who will be the vice-presidential candidates. That's how quickly things are changing in this election.

7) Had a nice lunch with a pastor whose church is in the south-end of Lima, just breaking bread and talking about the issue arising from the Tarika Glenn shooting. The more conversation I have regarding the racial and economic issues that have reared their ugly head in the midst of this tragedy and its aftermath, the more I am becoming convinced that only those at the grassroots who are invested in one another from across the community can begin to deal with some of the division that exists among us. The media, political leaders, and clergy face so many issues that consume out time and energy that we tend to, over time, tend to start putting our energy elsewhere after situations like this flair up and certain adjustments are made. In opinion, it'll take on-going relationships of people committed to making a difference that in the end will lead to any kind of change. This lunch was just an attempt to try and make those connections.

The pastor I broke bread with is a sharp guy. One of the things he's discerning in the midst of all the discussion around the issue is while the discussion around these issues largely is being done by people who are older, those who are younger and more prone to react violently are largely not a part of the dialog. This is a real problem, and underscores the decline all of us who are a part of the institutional church are facing as our connection with younger generations continue to weaken. How this will be addressed as leaders in the city continue to work together on these issues will be crucial to helping frame positive solutions.

8) The Giants victory last night wasn't yesterday's only sports upset. After being handily defeated earlier this year, I eclipsed Brother Esq as we met head to head in our Fantasy NBA League last week. I'm sure he'll make some comment that he was without one of his horses, Chris Kaman (C - Clippers). But Kaman really only helps you a lot with Offensive, Defensive, and Total rebounds, and blocks, all of which I lost anyway. With him back, Brother Esq have just beat me worse in those areas statistical areas, without gaining any other ground (except maybe in FG%). Besides, I was missing one of my best players (Corey Maggette) and to waive one of my best rebounders (Anderson Varejao, out with an ankle injury, which is bad news for the Cavs). In any event, it was a victory for truth, justice, and the American way!

9) Yes, I am recovering quite nicely from my vasectomy.... thanks for asking.

10) Eli, whose lack of words we could understand, is beginning to catch on to the English language. In the last 24 hours I've heard him use the words "pizza", "papaya", "Dora" (as in the Explorer), "Lucy" (our dog), and as I left the house this morning, "Hug!?!". Daddy, of course, offered and received a big hug from a little boy who is just starting to find his voice. Very exciting times, indeed.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Somebody's Gotta Pay

A four weeks ago, I kicked off this current sermon series, "Difficult People" (we've been examining different kinds of difficult people, and how to deal with them) by talking a little bit about "Critical People". And in that sermon I made it a point to differ between not being able to deal with criticism (which everyone needs to be able to do in order to grow) and deal with person who is trying to use critiques of surface kinds of things (appearance, language used, type of job held, economic status...) to create uncertainty to the degree that you begin to become unsure yourself. Unsure to the point where your soul is damaged, or even crushed, and you allow yourself to be labeled by a destructive critic. And further, I said that in order to deal with this kind of person you had to begin to see past the label the critic had given you, and begin delving into the label God gave you: a beloved child who is greatly loved.

But how in the world does this happen? Well, as usual, let me take a little detour before we can examine this further.

I have a confession to make. I have two serious TV vices. First and foremost, I watch way too much of the NBA. I realized this was true when a couple of nights ago I caught myself engrossed in a game involving the New York Knicks. See, none of you (except my brother) even know why this is serious. Well, as one of the last 14 or 15 NBA fans left in the country, let me tell you, the Knicks are awful. They set basketball back to the age of peach baskets. Watching them is like going to the dentist, only not necessary. If you're up after midnight watching the Knicks, you need to get into some kind of program. You've lost all sense of reason. But my other TV vice might even be more serious than my NBA-holism.

I'm a Law and Order junkie. A shameless Law and Order junkie.

Now, I don't watch all those other Law and Orders. "Law and Order: SVU", or "Law and Order: Criminal Intent", or "Law and Order: Defective Appliances Division" or any of the other 27 Law and Order spinnoffs on TV today. I just watch the original. Have ever since I was in seminary. And now there's some cable channel that shows Law and Order virtually every day. All those shows, ripped from the headlines, only a remote control click away. And it doesn't matter if I've seen it twelve times already.... if I'm trolling the cable box looking for something to watch, and I see Jack McCoy or Lenny Briscoe on TV, I'm done.

Watch enough Law and Order's though, and after awhile you pick up on some themes that come up over and over again. One theme, in particular, struck me as interesting. Often when the police are interrogating a witness, particularly in a high profile case where's there is a lot of pressure, the detectives, if they are trying to get new information or make someone crack and confess, will say, "Hey, you better start talking, cause somebody's gotta pay for this crime, and as far as I'm concerned, that might as well be you." Go see for yourself... watch about a billion hours of Law and Order, and you'll find its true. Often the point is made that the public at-large won't rest until someone "pays" with prison time or death.

I've lived life long enough to know that the writers for Law and Order aren't manufacturing this "somebody's gotta pay" thing as just some plot device. Since I've been alive I can remember all too well numerous times when examples of people not resting until somebody pays for a crime so heinous that they believe that somebody needs to answer for it. Why just this past week, a retired-autoworker from Cleveland just lost a twenty-year long battle fighting extradition to Israel where he'll tried for war crimes arising from the Holocaust. Survivors of one of this, one of the most heinous examples of genocide in history, want to make this man, who they believe was a German soldier at a concentration camp, pay for the pain he caused the families whose lives were terrifyingly altered forever by this tragedy.

Sometimes, in order to maintain civil society, the dominant belief is, somebody's gotta pay.

Witness now the large number of prisoners who have been set free after being on death row for a number of years because they were exonerated by genetic testing. In every case, in response to a public outcry that somebody had to pay for a terrible crime where innocent people lost their lives, police ended up convicting the wrong person. They meant well. More than enough circumstantial evidence was obviously produced to convict. But in the end, an injustice was served with another injustice. So many, in fact, that a number of states, including our own, have put a moratorium on executions as they try to understand how so many cases of the wrong person being convicted of the crime could have occurred. Understanding the ugly side of somebody needing to pay.

The ugly side of trying to bring back some balance to lives that have been put horribly off-kilter. Lives that been de-railed, ruined, because of senselessness or a moment of anger or due to the cruelty we can inflict on one another. Lives that are hanging in the balance that need some sort of action or force to hopefully restore equilibrium and harmony and peace.

I heard a story not to long ago of a friend of mine whose dog died of poisoning because it licked a bufo frog, which is a frog who secretes toxins out of its skin as a part of its natural defense against predators. Upon the death of a beloved pet, my friend went out into their yard and hunted down every bufo frog she could find. It was a bufo frog massacre like never before.

Somebody's gotta pay. The only problem was that the person talked to me about this because it didn't matter how many bufo frogs bought it... the feeling that somehow they had failed that puppy wouldn't go away. That somehow the death of the dog was payment for their lack of vigilance, and the subsequent beating to death of another bufo frog couldn't wash this slate clean.
That's the problem with the whole "somebody's gotta pay" world. Some debts seem so deep they can't be repaid, no matter who, or what, is sacrificed in the process. The pain remains.

This is not new. Jesus understood this. He lived in a "somebody's gotta pay" kind of world. The Roman emperors were famous for making sure that somebody had to pay. God help the town where there was an uprising against the Roman government, because in the even of quashing the uprising, particularly in the case where Roman lives had been lost, the romans were known to kill 10,000, 15,000 or more innocent men, women, and children who did nothing but live in the town where the uprising took place. A mass slaughter meant to send a message to everyone else under their thumb about the terrible price to be paid if something like that ever happened again.

Jesus' own people lived under a system of "somebody's gotta pay". An "eye for an eye" and a "tooth for a tooth" had been the cornerstone of Jewish law (and still is), since Moses enacted the idea after he led Israel out of Egypt. If you're curious, or bored, go open the books of Exodus and Leviticus sometime to get an idea of just how serious Israel took the concept of "an eye or an eye, and a tooth for a tooth".

Example: How many you ever said anything nasty about their mother or father? Ever got angry and told them what they could do with that sweeper they asked you ten times to run on the living room carpet. According to the 21st chapter of Exodus, the penalty for cursing your mother or father, is death. And by the time Jesus walked the face of the earth, the law was increasingly parsed and applied so that every single letter of it would be fulfilled.

Or, over-fulfilled.

Hence, Jesus being sentenced by Caiphus and the rest of high priests when he admits he's the son of God. The sentence for blaspheme is death. And the high priests didn't just want Jesus to die, but to die the most publicly humiliating death as possible. They wanted Jesus to pay in such a way for resisting their influence, for standing against their form of religiousity, that nobody in their right mind would have any question that the man they condemned was anything other than a fraud. So, there would be no stoning to death of Jesus, which was what the law, what God, called for. Instead, they trumped up some charges on the man, took him to the Romans, and pressed to have him executed like a common criminal. A death that would cast a pall on Jesus character. Because only the worst in society - murdering lying traitorous thieves - were crucified by the Romans.

But Jesus... well, he's the man who said that when you pray, the first thing you have to do is forgive anyone you hold a grudge against, so that his Father could forgive you and then hear the rest of your prayer. He's the one who took forgiveness so seriously, that he taught that if you were about to make a sacrifice of atonement on the holy alter in the Temple in Jerusalem, that if you had something bad that existed between you and someone else, you needed to run... not walk, but run to go find that person and settle the difference, or otherwise your sacrifice would be useless. Jesus, the rabbi who is asked how many times a person needs to forgive somebody else who repeatedly wrongs them, and replies, "Seventy times seven", which is first century AD Israelite slang term meaning, "Infinitely bro"... well, Jesus believed too in the idea that somebody had to pay, but he also believed in the concept of forgiveness.

And now, here's where all of this gets really, really deep. Don't think Jesus doesn't repay the people who put him to death, cause he does. He leaves them to themselves, which in the end becomes their undoing. In only about 40 more years, Jerusalem will be leveled, and the Temple which was the center of Jewish religious life, will be torn down stone-by-stone, ultimately undoing the religious orders and the system they were trying to maintain. Jesus refuses to save those who should have known better, from their own actions... and this has devastating consequences. But, here's the thing, if they had chosen, even those who were directly involved with his death and mocked him at the foot of the cross, to have chosen to believe in him as the Christ, to invest themselves in his ministry of making earth like heaven by seeking justice, walking humbly, and offering mercy as the prophets had declared, Jesus' paid the price of their sin willingly, and he would not have withheld that grace from them.

And who knows... if they had repented (turned away) from the way they were doing things before, to the way Jesus would have them do things now, maybe things would have turned out differently for the Sadducee and Pharisee.

Jesus very much believed that somebody had to pay for all the pain which exists in this world that people inflict upon one another or pass down generation to generation... it's just that he'd be willing to pay the price necessary to make things right. To restore equilibrium and harmony.

So if someone murdered someone you loved and cared for very deeply, Jesus would be happy to be put to death as penalty for the murderer.

So if someone robbed your innocence at an age no innocence should be robbed, Jesus is willing to die at your hands if you think the spilling of blood will make you clean.

So if your mother or father abandoned you, left you motherless or fatherless, Jesus will take the brunt of your rage, your pain, your sense of isolation and anxiety... you can destroy him any way you like so that you might be restored.

It's just, that.... well...... in the process you are going to have to pay a little bit also. Because if you get your revenge, if you get your blood price, if you get your satisfaction by letting Jesus take the brunt of the penalty, you've got to let Jesus stand in that place, and let the person, or people, who helped create this mess inside of you, go.

Which means they get off and you don't get your tooth from the person who knocked it out of your mouth.

But, to wrap this up, let me say this... with Jesus, there's the hope the tooth will be restored. Without him, all you left with is a dead, lifeless, bloody tooth that can never replace the one you lost.

Somebody's gotta pay. Who's it gonna be?