Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bubba and Obama Weigh In On Jeremiah Wright

Ate lunch today with an old friend from high school (Lima Senior '87), the one and only, Eric "Bubba" Rummel. Bubba and I were 2/3rds of the "Half-Ton Bunch", which also consisted of Darrin Boop, Jeff Rempe, and Steve "Moose" Lawson. Let's just say we had some fun, and (for the most part) avoided trouble. Somehow we survived those devil-may-care days, and now all function as semi-responsible members of a free society.

After a number of years in the military and then some time spent working on his undergraduate degree, Bubba is now enrolled at United Theological Seminary, which is a UM-related school in Dayton, Ohio. He also (as most seminarians in this part of the world do) pastors a UCC church north of Lima. Having grown up in the household of a very conservative, somewhat fundamentalist congregationalist preacher, Bubba has emerged on the other side as a Christian leader with a pretty progressive theology. Smart, quick, and tuned into the needs of the community, he's a great pastor who's finally jumping through the final hoops toward ordination as a UCC pastor and full-time ministry. If you don't know much about the UCC, here's 30 second introduction in the form of one it's commercials:

The UCC has been in the news, albeit secondarily, as one of their own pastors, Jeremiah Wright, came out of the shadows to defend himself against what he believes has been a biased media . Wright is upset that snippets of his sermons have been used in such a fashion to paint him as an extremist pastor from the lunatic fringe, and has been responding (see yesterday's post) in kind to the criticism, creating a ton of controversy along the way.

Because Wright has been brandishing the UCC label proudly, and is considered to be somewhat of heavyweight in that denomination, I wondered what Bubba would have to say about the whole ordeal. I thought his response was pretty interesting. Wright is apparently famous within the denomination for not just talking about social action, but doing something about it in his own community. Bubba reminded me that the UCC isn't exactly filled with huge megachurches like Trinity UCC, or many examples of the kind of growth Wright's church has experienced in his tenure. His insistence on remaining true to his theological convictions has inspired the mostly liberal denomination, which has seen a good many churches and people leave it's fold amid criticism for leaning too far to the left. Hence Wright has inspired within his own denominational tradition, a great deal of admiration and respect.

Bubba pointed out too that it was no accident that Obama, who came to Chicago to begin a life of public service and politics, picked Trinity UCC to be his church. Probably, never before had Obama thought Wright to be a political liability, because in every political race previous, the support of someone like Wright would have been an advantage, particularly in the city of Chicago where is the pastor is known and respected for all the social justice ministries his church undertakes, and his willingness to go toe-to-toe with local politicians on behalf of the poor in his community. Considering some of the sermons that have been targeted by the media are ten years old, or older, obviously Wright had never been issue. Bubba surmised that this has become an issue was probably a bigger surprise to Obama's people than anyone else because for 20 years it's never come up.

In fact, in terms of getting elected in Illinois, the opposite was probably true.... who knows if he'd have gotten as far in politics with out Wright's support.

Of course, now Obama can't run fast enough away from his former pastor:

Just goes to show that particularly as it relates to politics, what flies in predominantly black communities doesn't necessarily fly with other constituencies. Kinda hard to build a broad base of support if your shackled to ideas like the Federal Government tried to eliminate the black community by introducing into it AIDS and Crack. Obama is trying, but Wright - maybe because he feels like he's nothing to lose, or maybe because he was hurt that the man who came to him looking for his support has now cut him loose, or maybe because he believes it's for the public good - won't let him. The deep pain and alienation that Wright obviously feels from the mainstream is just as real among his congregation. Maybe he doesn't want Obama to forget that. Nobody can really be sure except for the man who keeps getting up in front of microphones while digging the hole Obama stands in just a little bit deeper every time he opens his mouth.

In any event, Bubba surmised that at least the UCC was getting some media attention, and in an age where scandals can actually propel careers, there's no longer such a thing as bad publicity. Of course, that's when I chose to remind him that the Roman Catholic Church probably wouldn't agree. But in any event, if you are the denomination that wants to be known as the one that "drops the velvet" rope, maybe Wrightgate isn't such a bad thing.

God is still speaking, and if my friend Bubba is any barometer, God will continue to do so as this latest focus of the campaign continues to play itself out.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wright or Wrong?

If you've spent any time reading this blog, you'll know that's there is no way I'd miss Rev. Jeremiah Wright's press conference today... all 48 minutes of it. The outspoken pastor from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has been embattled after snippets of his sermons ended up on YouTube, and then got picked up by the mainstream press who have been having a field day ever since. More than likely, if Barack Obama had attended another church in Chicago's south side, virtually all of us would have never heard of Jeremiah Wright. But in an age of 24 our news, and the scramble to fill time, the sound bites from Wright's sermons are like manna from Heaven.

Today, Wright himself decided that wasn't food enough. Today, much like God giving the children of Israel quail to eat in addition to their bread, the UCC pastor gave the talking heads 48 more minutes of unadulterated speech to process.

Well... speech AND some interesting gestures, laughter, and an introduction to black liberation theology. It was meaty, indeed.

I remember years ago in seminary reading James Cone in a class on Martin Luther King Jr. taught by a man, Dr. Irvin (Irv) Smith, whose entire life had been shaped by King's example and experience. I remember too reading that line that the god of the captain of a slave ship who stood on a deck steering a course for safe harbor and profits at a slave auction was not the same god of the people under the deck taken against their will to be slaves.

It's a matter of perspective, and for those who believe in Liberation Theology, the perspective is that God always shows up and supports those on the underside of the deck. In fact, for them, the "first shall become last and the last shall become first" isn't metaphorical or spiritualized. It's the inevitable end to the course of history - those who had power, becoming powerless as those who were powerless become powerful. To them, this message is cemented in the Book of Revelation where the all-powerful "Beast" which controls all forms of politics, business, and culture, ends up crushed under the justice of God and the patience and faithfulness of his believers (who, by the way aren't raptured out of the time of tribulation, but rather suffer for their faithfulness for a long time before their prayer of "how long must we wait God for your justice" is finally answered with the casting of the Beast, all his followers, and Satan, into a "lake of fire".

Jeremiah Wright not only knows liberation theology and believes it, but he has been essential in helping write it's course in the late 20th century. He came of age at a time where historically black colleges, largely founded and run by mostly white mainline denominational leaders, wouldn't allow black students to worship in their own tradition. Gospel melodies and piano were replaced with organ music and hymnals filled with music written by dead European white guys from the 18th and 19th century. This mirrored a culture that wouldn't allow Jackie Wilson on TV to sing his latest R&B hit. Instead, Pat Boone would have to redo the song, making it more palatable and less threatening to white and audiences, before the hit could be heard on American Bandstand. Black culture, ideas, style, talent and expression were deemed second-class, and thus inferior.

Then one day the students woke up and said, "Wait a minute. I like Charles Wesley and all, but his music isn't a part of my tradition and doesn't help me express what's in my soul." And hence the beginnings of the "Black is Beautiful" movement as it related to higher education and Christian expression was born. Black intelligensia (led by young people like Jeremiah Wright) began to espouse that just because white people don't want to be loud (expressive) in worship, didn't mean that black people had to be quiet (reflective) in their own service. Or as Wright put so many times in the news conference, "Different wasn't deficient. Just different." Hence a much more expressive and prophetic style of worship and preaching began to fall on ears desperate to hear a new message.

The emergence of Black Liberation Theology, encapsulated early on by the writings of James Cone, gave voice to "Black is Beautiful" as it related to the Christian religion. These liberationist theologians asserted that Christianity had long been aligned with people of European (and mainly Western European) ancestry, and that they not only had tried to convert people across the world to their religion, but also to their culture. That's why, for example, when you go to Haiti today, the music in the Sunday morning worship service sounds nothing like the music you hear in the streets during the week. Haitian Christians, which are still largely under the thumb of evangelical, conservative, protestant missionaries, have been taught to sing to western hymns (and now, praise choruses) and are still taught that the kinds of rhythms you might hear on popular radio (or at night at a voodoo ceremony) are of the Devil. No matter that this music and rhythm originates out the ancestry of the native culture... it's not white European, so its evil (an argument that, curiously enough, a member at Goshen First UMC tried to make when we introduced contemporary praise music into the traditional worship service). Black liberationists (which are having a huge impact right now in Africa, which is beginning to find its own creative voice in worship, music, ministry, and theology) got black Christians all over the world asking, "If somebody forced music that wasn't culturally relevant down my through, what else - theology, culture, political ideas, my place in society, etc... - got shoved down with it?"

Hence black preaching, coming out of this tradition, has always seen its role to largely be prophetic. Prophetic in the sense that what is the dominant paradigm in the immediate community needs to be named, called out, and eventually stamped out. Prophetic in the sense that power structures in the greater community need to challenged, resisted, and overcome. At its best, ministry from this tradition helps communities make changes for the better that help defeat poverty, ignorance and oppression. But at its worst, it can sound paranoid (about the dominant culture) and condescending (to anyone not educated in this tradition).

That's what I heard in the 48 minute press conference today. At his best, Wright was outstanding. He gave a great synopsis of what black liberation theology is, and how it shapes a preacher and congregation. He nailed key reasons why American Christianity is more segregated than American neighborhoods or the American workplace.

But at its worst, Wright seemed arrogant, condescending and paranoid. If you watch the whole video, take a gander at the moment after the question about whether or not the government gave AIDS intentionally to Black America. You can hear a pin drop in the room when Wright won't back off the assertion that the government, as based on a book he read by Dr. Leonard Horowitz did intentionally infect the black community with AIDS. Even his supporters in the room (the "non-working press") who have been vocally supporting him for more than a half-hour didn't say a word as he said that given what had happened at the Tuskegee Institute (when blacks were injected with syphilis for the purposes of medical testing), he had to believe that the government was capable of such activity again. People weren't willing to "amen" that statement. It just sounded to whacked out to be believed.

In an event, listen to the entire interview, and I think you'll get a good introduction to a wing of Christianity you might not have ever known existed even as its flourished in your own community.

Friday, April 25, 2008

It's NBA Playoffs Time!!!

Had to watch my two favorite teams, the Cavs and Jazz, both go down in flames last night, which was painful. The Cavs just didn't look like they were ready to play, while the Jazz looked like maybe they thought they had the series won, before it was won. In any case, both teams looked a bit discombobulated.

But, hey, can't win em all.

I'm sure that many of you, my fascination with the NBA might seem a bit perplexing. The League isn't exactly known for fans who are a) white, b) middle aged, c) who live in the heartland b) in a town where no NBA team is present. There really haven't been many of those kinds of NBA fans since legions of pasty white guys broke their ankles jumping on the Michael Jordan band wagon (only years after the same poseurs were saying he couldn't win it all cause he was too much of a one-man show.... people forget this).

But my love for The League developed at an early age. Even though by the end of the 70's I remember articles in SI, the old Sport Magazine, and others openly wondering if a league with a serious drug problem dominated by black players would even survive into the 80's, Dad would yell at me on Sunday afternoons to go outside and play instead of watching "The NBA on CBS". I remember my favorite team was the 76ers when Moses manned the paint and Dr. J took flight. I remember loving watching the Nuggets run Doug Moe's motion offense, featuring Kiki (The Great White Hope) Vandeweigh and Alex English firing up shots from all over the floor. While the college game was (except for a brief period in the late 80's and early nineties when UNLV, Oklahoma, and those glorious Loyola Marymount started pushing the ball up-tempo) all about ball control and defense, the NBA was about offense.

Scoring. Putting the ball into hole. Which is a heck of a lot more fun to watch. Lose the crazy kids with their faces painted and the pep bands, and college basketball is a poor man's CBA or D-League.

By the time we moved to Lima in 1980, and a subsequent trip to the Richfield Colosseum to see the Cavs (led by World B. Free) in action, I was hooked. Pretty soon, those same Cavs would do a great job of drafting some great players (like Brad Dougherty, Mark Price, and Miami's own Ron Harper), while at the same, out west, another team - like no other - would begin to rise.

The Utah Jazz

The Stockton-to-Malone era, in my opinion, has got to be one of the finest in all of basketball's history. The way those two ran the pick-and-roll - which is as essential to pick-up basketball at the Y as it is to the game on its highest level - was a work of art. But the Jazz did everything. They moved the ball well. They played solid D. They could run with anybody or also beat you in a half-court-slow-em-up game. I remember staying up late at night to watch the NBA playoffs just to watch the Jazz do battle with the Lakers in what are still some of the best series ever.

And its been my release ever since.

But on a more fundamental level, there's something beautiful about being a pasty-middle-aged-white guy rooting on a league that is still predominantly urban, and made up black players. For race or background or locale isn't what will compel me to get very little sleep watching late-night west coast games. It's the chance to watch Steve Nash play basketball like a soccer player, Chris Paul and Deron Williams establish themselves as the two best new point guards playing the game, and Dwight Howard becoming a new (although more polite) Moses Malone. It's a chance to witness a long-time bad guy (Kobe) with a rep for being selfish look for help from a French center, two Slavic sharpshooters, and a guy from the Caribbean to get him back to the NBA finals.

And its a chance to watch a guy - LeBron James - who will be one of the greatest to ever play the game, take another step toward that end.

It's not about all the artificial stuff - race, culture, language, economic class - that separates us from one another. It's about talent and the ability to play well with others. The world would be so lucky if we judged one with those values.

Let the NBA playoffs continue. It's fannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnntastic!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) The onslaught of "global food shortage" stories like this one in the New York Times has all the making of a crisis of biblical proportions. I say "biblical" because, as any "end times" theorist can tell you, worldwide famine will be one aspect of the "tribulation period". I'm sure the John Hagee's and Jack Van Impe's and Rod Parsley's and anyone else who makes their living preaching non-stop about the end of the world is making great hay with these reports, soothing the fears of people who are seriously wondering how to make ends meet with the assurance that things will only get worse but that they'll be raptured out before that "worse" is realized.

But while I have serious doubt that these are signs that Jesus is coming back at 5pm today, I am concerned that all the speculating in the commodities market is creating chaos where it ought not to be. Most economists right now agree that there's no good reason as to why oil should be pushing $120 a barrel. Sure, oil consumption in China and India is rising, but the price of oil runs higher on the vaguest of possibilities and rumors of news. Right now prices are running high supposedly because analysts are concerned with an attack on a pipeline in some small country that provides a relatively small amount of the world's supply. That's not exactly a rational reason, which bellies the fact that right now oil has dropped to 107 dollars a barrel as analysts realize that global supplies are actually in great shape.

2) That's why I found recent comments made by the Saudi representative to OPEC so interesting. He contests that decades of poor economic policy in the US - which have resulted in a huge national debt, annual deficits, a huge trade imbalance, and negative savings rates among Americans - has forced those with money to invest to look elsewhere. And right now, the place to be is commodities.

This received almost no airplay in the US when it came to light. Americans have liked to make OPEC the enemy ever since the energy crisis in early 70's. But in an age where you can invest in everything from US soybeans to Cambodian cotton and Nicaraguan Oil at the push of mouse button, the world is voting with its money, and right now they are voting against the American Dollar.... and hence, the American economy. Until new policy is implemented that encourages Americans to start saving money, government in being more responsible with a dollar, and puts the country on a level playing field trade-wise with it's competitors, our people and government will keep leveraging the future for more Chinese-made electronics and Korean minivans. And all the while, bread will end costing $5 a loaf at the local Kroger store because a Hong Kong magnate put millions of dollars into Australian wheat, and is now selling it at a huge profit.

3) As I hearken back to my micro and macro economics classes, what we are experiencing right now shouldn't be happening. A free market, which is essentially what the entire world is going to with the advent of electronic trading, should provide goods and services at the most reasonable price. Competition is supposed to offset profiteering as the guy with the lowest bid keeps the other guys honest. But in a totally unregulated market, there's nothing to stop billions of dollars or euros or yen being plowed into certain commodities or companies for the purpose of profiteering. Global markets don't have the same triggers that (most)American markets have to combat this phenomenon, so now if a supply is even moderately tight, the overreaction of people looking to make a profit drives the price through the ceiling.

So while eventually we do see a price correction (if you've looked at your 401k's or the latest price of your gold, you know what I'm talking about), the pain of the correction is greater. So oil goes to $120 a barrel because every Tom, Dick, and Aknad is dumping their money into the oil game, gas becomes ridiculously overpriced, and then oil drops $30 a barrel because people overbought at $120 thinking they could make some serious dollars. The consumer gets beat down, and then the investor gets slapped. The law of "supply and demand" should have flattened this out a bit, but digital trading has created legions of new speculators exacerbating both the profit, loss, and effects there of on the economy.

4) The perfect example of this is the American home mortgage. In a totally unchecked market over the last decade, mortgages were bought and sold bundled as commodities on mercantile exchanges. Banks, investors, and builders, looking to make huge profits, began getting creative with what they were willing to lend, who they were willing to lend it to, and at what rate they willing to lend it at across the country. The result was the sub-prime market, which enticed people to either buy a home ordinarily they couldn't afford at an absurdly low introductory rate, or re-finance a growing consumer debt load as people found themselves unable to manage consumer credit (another cash cow for financial institutions).

This was totally new. It used to be people were given home loans based on their projected ability to pay them back. But in those days, the banks were only playing with their own money. The advent of the "bundled mortgages" sold like sunflower seeds on the floors of places like the Chicago Board of Trade was totally new, and totally unregulated. Hence huge profits, a huge correction, and now huge losses.

First, the consumer got bit as the introductory rates inevitably rose, and people found out that unlike credit cards, there was no artificial "minimum payment" that could fit into their budget. Then the investors (see "Bear Stearns") got pummeled as foreclosures rose, property values fell, and the market slowed. Now, nobody will put their money into bundled mortgages (hence the high interest rate Brother Esq. will have to pay on his new house), and instead move whatever money they have to corn (in the hopes that ethanol subsidies will fuel new profits, as grains take the same ride mortgages did.... God help the American farmer when the whole things lands).

5) Hence the lesson Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, taught us people who complain about government intervention forget: there is a limited role for such intervention in a free market. And that role is to keep people honest.

Right now, for example, one factor in rising global prices is the exacerbation of inflation created by China who is sitting on a pile of dollars, while it also sits on the value of its own currency. By all accounts the dollar should be worth a whole lot less when it comes to the Chinese yuan, but the pressure on the Chinese government to grow an economy for a billion has clouded their judgment, and resulted in their own manipulation of their currency's value. The problem isn't government intervention. The problem is that there's no authority greater than China's government to say to them, "Hey, quit cheating.". Adam Smith lived in a world where that was possible. The global empire of the British empire could regulate (and manipulate) the market at its will. But digital trading on a global scale has rendered the old way of trading obsolete. So now, moderate regulation is not possible. Instead, governments are being pressured to eliminate all forms of regulation, and even cheat, to attract investors who increasingly want to be able to move money freely to take advantage of profits globally.

So - as opposed to Thomas Friedman's theory in the "Lexus and the Olive Tree" where he states that the global economy will force governments to instill greater economic reform so as to attract investors that otherwise would think that their money in that part of the world would be as good as stolen - is the new global economy encouraging a lack of regulation and increased government manipulation (or deceit) to attract investment?

Given the collective shrug the world has given to China's record on human rights, the environment, currency manipulation, and unfair trade practices, I'd have to say "yes". Inevitably there will be a correction, but mark my words, first the consumer (which already seeing Chinese goods at WalMart rise in price) will take it on the chin, and then the investor (mostly in form of multi-national corporations, banks, and all things China) will take it someplace else.

That judgment cometh, and that right soon.

6) Why all this pseudo-economist talk? A church pastor better have a Bible in one hand, and a few newspapers in the other. I've receive enough "is this the beginning of the end" emails and inquiries to know that right now people are very skittish. The economy in the Midwest in the crapper, people in Haiti are eating mud cookies in between food riots, the price of everything is up, the terror alert is still on "orange" (whatever that means), and an earthquake of 5.2 on the Richter scale just emanated out of Evansville, Indiana. Folks are ready for a seven-headed beast to rise out of the ocean and 666 to be stamped on people's foreheads.

In reality, I think this is just a period of unrest that is preceding a new era of global prosperity. Prosperity that will be fueled by new technologies, greater ecological concern, greater global concern for human rights (particularly in Africa) and a conversion to new forms of renewable energy. I'm guessing you won't hear that message in too many pulpits, but historically before we take a major leap forward in that the type and kind of technology we are dependent upon, there is always a restlessness, fear, pandemic disease, and hunger. The "Mad Max" apocalyptic vision of roving hoards of nuclear war survivors continually on the move looking for fuel and food in a destroyed world is not in our future. There is too much collective concern and money to be made for that kind of end to be realized.

Enlightened self-interest is a pretty good motivator to do the right thing. Fueled by the grace of God that is always making all these new, and the action that comes out the concern for the poor on the part of those devoted to the Lord, I think you'll be amazed to see where we are the human race in another 50 years.

Just wait and see.

7) Between now and then those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ need to devote themselves to his work in this world, and to truly begin to trust his words about investing ourselves in that "which cannot be eaten by moths or destroyed by fire". Materialist hedonism (the belief that if we have more stuff, we'll be happier) has done more to shape the post-World War II age than we'd care to admit. As people's fear grows that the "American Dream" of the next generation living better than the last runs out, we need to replace it with a better dream. A dream where relationships take center-stage, and my own concern for "the other guy" will be rewarded in ways I can't imagine or understand. Otherwise, if we just give into the hysteria of the age, we'll be throwing gas on a fire that will inevitably burn out, giving humanists who have shown the way for a better world the "high road".

It's time for the old modernist, materialistic message to die. In its place, let Jesus' words of the "Kingdom drawing near" take its place, as we truly love God and love neighbor.

(There's probably a sermon coming out of all this thinking... stay tuned).

8) The NBA playoffs are in full-swing, and me and the other 14 NBA fans left in the country couldn't be happier. The Western Conference is loaded with great teams that promise to provide some of the highest quality basketball we've seen in quite awhile. And if anyone can beat the Celtics to win the East, then they will be much better competition for the western champ in the Finals than Cleveland proved to be last year.

Of course the NBA playoffs also mean the end of Fantasy League basketball. My team, the Ohio Mixers, won the regular season, but (once again, for the fourth time in five years) ran out of gas down the stretch. Good young players who fueled my run, like Jose Calderon (who had a career year up until the last month where he seemed to get tired), Chris Wilcox (who got hurt), Richard Jefferson (who suffered after Jason Kidd was traded), and Linas Kleiza (who got hurt and tired), just broke down. I did a poor job of replacing them, and as result, I'm number four.


However, my waterloo was cutting Shaq at the bottom of his experience in Miami, only to see him put up huge numbers after getting into the rejuvenation machine that apparently exists in Phoenix for the guy who ended up winning the league. Bummer. In any event, neither Brother Esq., nor myself ended up on top this year. That honor went to guy who is a lifelong Knicks fan proving that God does have compassion on those who suffer.

9) Was in Dallas all last week working on dissertation material. While there I got to catch up with an old college buddy. Steve Skeels is a wheeler and dealer in the world of railroad boxcars, and by the looks of things is doing pretty well living in Georgetown, Texas with wife Suzanne, and their three kids. He is blessed man, indeed, with a good job, a lovely wife, two beautiful daughters (who thankfully favor mother), and a great son (who with his sister, plays a mean piano). Thanks Steve for the hospitality. Sorry I couldn't stick around longer (thanks to a packed schedule and horrible traffic in Dallas). Hope to see you again soon.

10) Special thanks to both St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church of Dallas and Chase Oaks Church of Plano for their hospitality and help in my tracking down this dissertation topic. Particular thanks go to Tyrone Gordon (senior pastor of SLCUMC), Jeff Jones (senior pastor of COC), Zan Holmes (pastor emeritus at SLCUMC) and Gene Getz (pastor emeritus at COC). If there was one new theme for my work that I read during four days of interviews in these two churches, it was the theme of using succession to free a church from older forms of governance/location/building/worship/focus to new forms that are more relevant for this particular era.

COC, for example, during and just after their succession process changed location, ministry focus (from insular discipleship model to community outreach model), it's target audience (from older/churched/Caucasian to younger/unchurched/multi-cultural) , worship style (gospel hymns in long service to pop music/multimedia in shorter service), and name (from Fellowship Bible North Church, to Chase Oaks Church). Change in any one of these areas is enough to torpedo a church's progress, let alone the change from a founding pastor to a new pastoral leader. That all of these transition were made simultaneously, and ultimately resulted in the church growing from 1400 to over 2600 in weekly worship over an eight year period is nothing short of amazing.

In both case, Chase Oaks and St. Luke, there was a recognition that while their churches were doing well under their leadership, that if transitions in form and focus were made, the church would suffer. To have accomplished that by admitting new leadership was needed, and setting forth to make that happen, was really humbling to witness. And while both places experienced a great deal of inner turmoil for a season, they are both on an upward growth curve once again. Given that most people associate pastoral transitions with decline, it's just one more fascinating discovery I've had while looking at this unique kind of pastoral transition.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living Responsibly

I have to admit that the most complex problems I have faced in my life were mostly created by my own hands. On a few occasions that wasn't true... like the time I took a job in a newly-merged United Methodist Conference that was, unbeknownst to me, imploding. There's nothing quite like uprooting your pregnant wife from a job and community she loved (as well as all our family) for a job that within a month is targeted to be cut by the very people who just hired you. I had no idea I was walking into that kind of chaos. I just knew that the job was about $20,000 raise over my last one, and that the work I was hired to do was right up my alley. All the politics raging at the time in the IGRAC were unknown to me. That's why they pimp-slapped upside my head, and eight months after that move, I moved again.

But it was during that short, turbulent time working as the "Associate Director for Youth and Young Adult Ministry of the Academy of Servant Leadership of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference" (I dare someone to find a longer job title than that one) a lot about the best, and worst, I had to offer. I won't bore you with the details of politics gone awry that came out of two sets of leadership from two former conferences jostling with one another for control. I didn't create the problems of that organization (which eventually was "re-structured", and then eliminated all-together), but as the in-fighting, head games, and constant strife landed at my door, I can't say that I behaved all that honorably at all times.

The bottom for me came after five months of utter chaos when, in a moment of frustration, I chewed out the Assistant to the Bishop, only because the Bishop wasn't available to take my phone call. Peon pastors, and even lower peon Associate Directors with long titles and no power, don't chew out Bishops or their assistants. They certainly don't don't tell people in authority over them to (um.... how do I say this?) to extricate a body part located above the shoulders from a particular orifice in their own body..... twice.

It didn't matter if the situation was screwed up. I let the dynamics dictate my response, which was inappropriate enough to threaten my career. Thank goodness for an understanding Bishop, or right now I'd be selling Life Insurance or used cars.

I forgot the lesson of the servant of the master, as Jesus told it in Luke 12. In the parable, Jesus says that a master goes off leaving his manager in charge of his affairs and his house while he's gone. Also, the master doesn't give a time table as to when he's going to be back. So the head servant is left with the task of keeping the house in good order until the time came that not only the master returns. Jesus tells us that the manager who does his job every day until the day the Master returns will be blessed. The master will come home, see all is well, and praise the manager for a job well-done. But, in turn, if when the master leaves, the manager treats the staff poorly, throws parties for all his buddies, and is passed out drunk when the master returns.... the manager is toast. Jesus goes on to make his point by stating that if the manager did his best, and it simply wasn't good enough, he'd receive a correction so that future performance would improve, as opposed to if he ignored the demands of his job altogether. Do the latter, and you not only get fired, you bring on a world of hurt.

For years this text has mostly been interpreted as a warning from Jesus to his followers to be at the ready for his inevitable return. I remember that on Grandma Bucher's wall in her living room werethe words, "You must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when you least expect it", and it was in relation to her belief around the Second Coming of Christ. The popular Christian belief has been that Jesus would come back unexpectedly, and if you hadn't confessed your faith in him, he wouldn't take you out, or "rapture" you out, of his world into Heaven before a series of horrible things happened on the face of the earth that the "unrighteous" would have to live through.

But Jesus, I think, is really talking about something else. In our text this morning, he says that he is trying to define what it means to be "dependable" or full of "common sense" as we stand in the presence of God each and every day. In the New Living translation, the words used are "faithful and sensible servant". Jesus is trying to help us understand what it means to live life sensibly and dependably as it relates to will of the Lord. The two are connected.

Whether you believe the Lord is in your presence, or not, act like he's in charge, doing what he wants in a way that would make him proud.

Or, to put it another way, to use your head for something other than a hat rack.

As we talk about trying to understand the will of God, we cannot discount the need for each of us to live a life where we use our ability to reason in order to make good choices each and every day. To not give into the chaos of the world we live in, or to the temptation to take a short-cut that will cost us our integrity, or to sucker-punch somebody else who has upset or wronged us, or to simply asses that things have gotten so complicated that there's neither right nor wrong anymore. Sure, life is complex, and filled with difficult questions, but while it might not seem like our cutting a corner will make any difference in the big scheme of things, it will make a difference in us... and what's bigger in the big scheme of things than an individual choosing to make up their own rules as they go along than what that does to the individual, or those around them?

Not much.

There's a guy here in Lima who, one day, on his own, sick of a group of drug dealers who stood across the street from his house,

sick of hearing gunshots outside his window,

sick of not being able to let his children go outside to play for fear of getting shot or stabbed as innocents in the middle of a drug-deal-gone-bad,

sick of working two jobs at 80 hours a week to provide for a family now living in fear of their own neighbors,

sick of the toll addiction had taken on his own family,

sick of being sick,

one day made a sign and stood outside his house across the street from the drug dealers that read "Drugs Mean Death". You probably read about him in the paper.

The first day he did it, the dealers from across the street and their buddies in the neighborhood, threatened to hurt or kill both him and his family. They were threatened by a guy with a little yellow sign so much, that they promised to take his life if he didn't shut up, and go back inside.

But the man, Jesse Lowe, refused to go back inside. He stood there, listening to the horns honking and other voices telling him how much they appreciated what he was doing, committed to his cause. Yesterday, as the community prepared for another one of Jesse's public demonstrations, which as he has continued to picket has grown to include people of like mind from all over the community, he told the reporter who has been covering the story as to why, despite threats to his life, he was continuing his quest to let everyone know that "Drugs Mean Death". He said...

"When you look at a tombstone, you see two dates. You've got the year you were born and the year you passed away. In the middle you have a dash," Lowe said. "What will your dash say? What will you have stood for? Will it be a life of substance? Because I've hear pastors give eulogies with nothing to say. They didn't do nothing in that dash."

To many in Jesse's situation, in a neighborhood where the sale and use of illegal drugs is tolerated mostly out of fear, it might seem like God isn't present. Isn't around. Too busy to do anything, or (worse yet) taking His punishment out on people because they've chose to ignore him and what He wants. I'm sure there have been plenty of sermons to that effect preached in a plenty of pulpits.

But Jesse is simply living out the life of the good, faithful, sensible manager. He's made a decision to try to motivate people to do the right thing. To take down license plate numbers of suspected drug dealers and buyers. To report illegal activity in their own neighborhoods. To, instead of saying "I don't know" when the police are acting questions, work with authorities to bring those who rain injustice on others to justice.

And lo and behold, preachers, politicians, housewives, teachers, principles, carpenters, masons, newspaper reporters, and many, many others, have shown up to take on Jesse's cause. You might even say God showed up, or maybe more accurately, someone listened to a Lord who tells us that the greatest love a man can show is that which leads him to give his life up for his friends.

One person uses his God-given ability to make choices, and he decides to do so for all the right reasons, and starts something he never intended.... others doing the same thing. Others seeking to make something of the "dash" between their birth and death dates by acting reasonably, sensibly, and dependably.

Such is the power of God's gift of reason. It can change neighborhoods and communities. It can change hearts. It can change households. It can extricate us from the bad choices, from the sin which entangles us. Sin we born into. Sin we committed ourselves. Sin that is all around us.

For whatever reason He chose, God has decided that we should be given freedom of the will - the freedom to make our own choices - and that somehow through our own willingness to do what He thinks is best, be partners with the Lord in the work He is committed to in this world.

But here's the thing... we're prone to blow it. It's the way we're wired. It's called "original sin". As humans we've been sinning for so long that's it's become part of the very essence of who we are. I mean, anyone who thinks that we're born good has never been a parent. We're not born. We're born selfish. We cry, and scream, and flail madly because we figure its the only way we're going to stay alive. We don't count on others to provide for us. We make a stink. It's as if from the very beginning we know how cold and hard this world can be, and we never fully trust that our needs will be taken care of. Some folks out there reading this might get angry at me as they read these past few lines, but it's true.... we're born focused on numero uno, and it takes a life of correction and discipline to start thinking differently. We want what we want, and we're never sure someone is going to provide it for us.

Jesus in the scripture points out three common ways we blow it. The irresponsible manager, first of all, mistreats others, and not just any "others", but those who he is responsible to lead.

My two year old, Eli, is a champion tantrum thrower. He throws himself on the ground, screams his head off, kicks and screams... anything to get his own way. I hope he outgrows that stuff, but I've been around long enough to know that always doesn't happen. I've seen people, in and out of the church, scream, yell, guilt, lie, cheat, and bully others into getting what they want. Maybe in the end they felt like the ends justified the means or that everyone else was just too stupid or slow to understand what was best for them... I don't know. All I do know is that after they stopped screaming, my esteem for them lessened about two or three percent. And if they act that way too many times, in too many venues, whether they know it or not, they are less respected than they are feared or even disliked. People might explain away their behavior with "that's just ______ being blank", but really, is that how you want to be known? The guy you'll bully somebody to get what he wants or the woman who's always playing games or creating drama to manipulate others? When we allow our emotions, particularly anger or fear, to dictate our behavior we're acting as if the Master, at best, will let this slide, and at worst, will let us do what we want.

The bar is set a bit higher than that in Jesus' world.

Second, reason goes out the door when we use what we've been loaned by God to solely serve our own ends.

In the words of Jesus, it was the manager throwing a party in the master's crib, on the master's dime. God didn't give you gifts, talents, and abilities to simply make sure you ended with that pool table you always wanted. Call what I'm giving your right now a guilt trip if you want, but surely the investment God has made in us should pay off a little higher than some money in a collection plate, $20 a month to the United Way, and three boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I'm not talking about giving more money away to non-profit groups that make a community more livable. I'm talking about the end product of your resources. What are you investing yourself into? What is the net result that you wish to see of your labor?

Too many people, too late in their lives, begin to realize that the footprint they've left behind isn't anything more than one made of carbon. Those who wake up find out that all they have time for is to try to apologize or undo the brokenness they've left behind. One of the most heart-wrenching, and memorable sermons I ever heard in this church was one Joseph, our former senior pastor, gave about forgiveness. The sermon's main illustration came out of the story Joseph told of his father - who abandoned his family when Joe was a little boy - came back years later, his body ravaged by cancer, to make amends with his son, now married with two children of his own. What was powerful about the sermon to me wasn't the fact that the father had finally realized the legacy he'd left, but the pain that was still palpable in the heart and soul of the son. The father, who took the son's innocence and trust, was now demanding his forgiveness. That's the best he could do with the time he had left.

Why wait so long in life to figure out that what you do and who you are can add up so much more than just a small inheritance? To get past yourself, or in other cases, to finally step out of the shadow of pain and abuse that have kept you in darkness and into the freedom of true life, is the only thing you can do to finally be available for the Lord's service. I heard it said once that Satan doesn't work nearly as hard as people would have us think he does. Quite frankly, we don't need to the devil to make us do anything. We're quite capable of messing up everything ourselves, particularly when we can't see past our nose despite our face.

All you see is in a mirror is what's behind you. When are you gonna put the compact down, and see what might lay ahead?

Finally, while our ability to make the right choices about how to live our life can be obscured by both our willingness to push others around or objectify others to get what we want and our unwillingness to invest our lives into anything other than ourselves, the third way Jesus said the manager's reason grew cloudy was through self-abuse.

Jesus termed us as the manager being drunk when the master came home. The house was a mess. His friends and their hangers-on laying amongst the empties scattered all over the floor. The rest of the staff cowering in their quarters, afraid of their boss, and now, his boss.

I'm kind of ashamed to admit this, but last Sunday evening as I stood in Port Columbus, waiting on the plane to take me to Dallas, I realized I had failed to bring something to read on the plane. Now, the planes you fly on to Dallas from Columbus, or at least the ones I flew on, didn't have flat screens or TV's you could whittle time away upon watching bad movies or re-runs of some random reality show. These planes were really small. There wasn't room for legs, let alone flat screens. And I can't sleep on a plane (something I found out after watching 8 movies, one right after the other, on a 16 hour flight through the night to Seoul, South Korea), so I needed something to read. So I'm looking over the magazines and newspapers and assorted books of all kinds, and it was then that I saw it. The book I had to read, even though I was a little ashamed to admit it. It wasn't a theological piece (although they were available) or the latest ten steps to becoming a better motivator/leader (there were plenty of those too).

Nope, I plunked my money down on "Losing It and Gaining My Life Back (One Pound At A Time)" by none other than Valerie Bertinelli.

If you want to get funny looks, be a huge guy toting a "chick book" around airports. I kid my friends who drink coffee drinks with chocolate, milk, and whipped cream on top as being foo foo men, who drink foo foo coffee. Well, this was as foo-foo a book as they come. Every other page was about the author crying or agonizing about her dress size. That's pure 100% grade A "foo foo".

If you don't know who Valarie is it's cause you don't watch the "Teary Eyed Movies About Women for Women" Channel or you aren't a fan of the band Van Halen. I can't say I've seen any of her movies (really... as hard as I try, not even one), but the band's music is part of the soundtrack of my misspent youth, and I wondered how in the world she and Eddie Van Halen (the band's lead guitarist and creative force) stayed married for twenty years. I mean Eddie's been to rehab a lot of times and is kind of notorious for being kind of unpredictable... how on earth did that marriage last as long as it did?

Well, I don't want to spoil the book for you anything, but it pretty much lasted thanks to two separate careers that demanded a lot of travel, some cheating, and plenty of denial. Not exactly a fairy tale. In the one case the husband numbed himself with alcohol and drugs, and in the other the wife numbed herself with food (hence the title of the book and all the Jenny Craig commercials). After about 100 pages I just wanted to scream "Jiminy Crickets, put down the jalepeno poppers and take control of your life", but then I realized something.... I'm, uh, a tad overweight.

Or really, if I go by all the charts, morbidly obese. And then I remembered another of Jesus sayings that had something to do with the person who could cast the first stone.

Whether its food, or drugs, or alcohol, or an affair (live or digital), or shopping, or hording some thing, or taking our pain out on ourselves in some other twisted form, most of us abuse ourselves in one form or another. Whether we call it a coping mechanism or having a good time, in either case, we're just using what we can to numb ourselves to the stress or pain or anger or angst or the spoils of success we feel every day. The body is pretty resilient, but the scary thing is that we don't really know its limit.

And even more scary, we have no idea what kind of influence abuse of this kind has on our spirit. That's the part of living in this world that scares me the most. The greatest pain inflicted on ourselves, and others, comes out of wounds we receive spiritually. Why do you think that given everything he could talk about going on this world, that over and over and over again Pope Benedict keeps going back to apologizing the scandal of priests abusing children? When there is no respect or honor for that which is holy and sacred, the worst things happen.

I'm learning, slowly but surely, that Jesus does truly want to bear our burdens with us, but really we don't understand how to let him do this, and it warps our decision making ability. It makes no difference if its a high school girl who starts cutting herself or a businessman who'll work just one more hour to make just one more sale no matter what the cost is at home, every single day. Numbing ourselves with whatever substance or activity we choose is an act of self-abuse that insults our own ability to handle what life brings us, and rebuts the Savior's efforts to unload of this burden so that we can apply ourselves to thinking about something else.

Something worth thinking about.

The gift of reason helps us see in the midst of all the complexity, the simplicity of where the Master desires to lead us. Sometimes that journey is a joyous one, and other times the journey will cost us much... and some cases, even our own life. But our reasoning will never be clear unless we let God be God, and let the sacrifice of Jesus Christ be sufficient to satisfy our sense of loss or pain. Such is the wisdom of Bishop Oscar Romero, who seconds before he died at the hands of a repressive regime as began to offer communion at the alter that day uttered these words:

"May this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for Mankind nourish us also, that we may give our body and our blood over to suffering and pain, like Christ -- not for Self, but to give harvests of peace and justice to others."

The grace of Jesus received should be the beginning of reason. Let it be so.

Let it be so.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Taking the Long Road

Currently, I am doing something that many years ago I vowed to never do: work on a doctorate. I made this vow many, many years ago while slogging away as an undergraduate student at Miami University. Under the load of papers, reading, and exams, while I was toying with a three year stint in a law school, for the most part I really didn't want anything to do with graduate degrees. You have be really disciplined to be a good student, and for whatever reason I just never got that gene. I can be focused for periods of time, but not disciplined over the long haul. My mind wanders. I get tired. I get distracted. Heck, I have to surf the net for at least an hour before I can force myself to write one of these pre-sermon blogs.

But, as fate would have it, my parents chose to attend a church that's a part of a denomination which requires a masters degree for entry into the ranks of professional clergy. And then, in an attempt to get what had been for a good many years "my dream job", on what I believe was one of my former senior pastor's bad days, I ended up forced to apply for a fellowship that would pay the freight for a professional doctorate. Hence, it's the eve of another Sunday morning, and quite frankly I'm more concerned with the trip I'm about to make tomorrow night to do more research for my dissertation.

Yep... me, the guy who just wanted to preach and not do a lot of school, blowing off sermon preparation to work on a degree. Don't ask me to explain it. It's just how life works.

The thing that has made my three diplomas (high school, B.S. in Secondary Ed, Master of Divinity), and the fourth I strive to attain (Doctorate of Ministry) bearable have been the books, profs, and people I've met along the way who genuinely expanded my world.

There was Jon Carver, my high school AP American History teacher, who made his students read "The Age of Jackson" by Arthur Slesinger, and doled out essays and exams like it was going out of style. I loved that class so much I quit being in show choir because they had too many performances that conflicted with Mr. Carver's class. I'm 39 years old, and still have all my notes, exams, and essays from that class. It's just sick.

There were social science professors with names I can't remember any longer who opened up new worlds to me. I remember going from not knowing many names of sub-Saharan African countries to taking all three classes Dr. Logan taught on the subject. I remember volunteering to cut out articles on the automobile industry for Dr. Rubenstein and going out for a refreshing beverage to listen to another prof talk about the way the dismantling of the Inter-Urban Rail in Ohio changed the economic landscape for decades to come. I remember looking up reading lists BH Smith had prepared for past classes just to see if there were any additional books I could read to prepare for his class. I remember economics prof, Jerry Green, throwing down the challenge that no education major had ever finished or passed his class, and resolving to be the first (and I was!).

In seminary I remember driving through a horrible snow storm to be at Diane Lobody's "Early Church History" class. I remember killing myself reading virtually every classic commentary to squeak out a passing grade for Kempton Hewitt's class. I remember buying Ernst Treoltsch's "The Social Teaching of Christian Churches", and then reading them cover to cover, just because I really enjoyed Mike LaChat's ethics classes, and heard him talk enough about Treoltsch that I wanted to find out more about his work. I remember reading the entire reading list for Father Bauer's OT classes, even though we were only required to read three texts from the list.

And I remember my year at Asbury, working through the Beeson Pastor program's course work, to dedicating myself to reading - not skimming or glancing at, but reading - every last assigned text we had that year. I also too remember being rewarded for doing so on numerous occasions. Like slugging through Father Cantalamessa's works, and being so glad I'd done so when he came to speak on campus a couple of months later (the same with Richard Foster and Brian McLaren). I remember struggling every second trying to understand Leslie Newbigin's, "The Gospel In A Pluralistic Society" for 200 pages, and then whole new worlds opening up for me during the last 50 pages of the book.

Every moment of triumph, every new discovery, and every time my world got rocked it was a product of having done a lot of work. A lot of reading, listening, writing, note-taking, pondering, more reading, more listening, lots of grappling, and not a lot of sleep.

Even a class I didn't care for not one iota, my first year Latin class at Miami, where I had to struggle for hours on end to just barely get by helped me get a better handle on writing, speaking, storyline, plot, and literary construction. I still don't spel or understand grammar for beans, but I got a lot out of that year of Latin. At least now I know you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition, even if I'm still always doing that. (ha, ha)

All these good things came because I took the long, hard road. I didn't just punch the clock, put in my time, and move on to the next thing. I sought those who knew more than I, tackled whatever they assigned so that I'd have the language and knowledge to have a semi-serious conversation with them, and still did a whole lot more listening than talking to soak up every morsel of knowledge. It wasn't easy. Lord knows I would have rather been watching basketball than reading Newbigin or go uptown with "The Gang" than translate "The Odyssey", or sleep instead of staying up all night to write that paper on the "Age of Jackson". But not only did have I met a lot of great people and learned a lot of things that turned out to be useful or interesting to me, but in the process I learned a lot about myself.

No pain, no gain. Nothing good comes easy. Life is 1 percent inspiration, and 99% perspiration. All cliches I've found are true. You gotta take the long road if you really want to end up anywhere.

And nowhere have I found this to be more true than in my relationship with the Living God.

You don't really realize it but every day living in many, many ways dulls the senses. The basic routines that make up our daily life have a way of blinding us to any other reality other than our own.

It's like the first time I went to Haiti, fifteen or sixteen years ago. At the time, a young seminarian making a salary in the four figures, living and working here in Shawnee, I remember feeling at the time being financially poor. Broke. Without money. I think Joseph had made some crack about how the only older, beat-up car in our church parking lot was owned by the youth pastor, and being the youth pastor, kind of being stung by the words... that is until the moment I gave a couple of bucks to an old woman, a leg and arm withered by polio, and being told by the missionary that the reason the old woman bowed down to me was that I just gave her enough money to eat for a week.

In that moment, God slapped me upside the head. Reality wasn't what it seemed. I wasn't "poor". Not in a world where two-thirds of it's people live on hundreds of dollars a year.

But that's the mind game everyday living can play on you. Most of us in here think that the primary time we listen to God is in our normal routine. In the car or at work or as we're walking to meet a new client. But we have no idea how much God has to say, and almost as important, how much reflection we really need to be doing in order get a sense of how others, and the Lord, see us. I'm just afraid that in trying to constantly meet God on our own time, in the bits of time between that which has priority in our Palm Pilot, that really we're just walking zombies, numb to what the Holy Spirit might be trying do in our lives, families, relationships, and communities. And in the midst of that numbed state we might believe (erroneously) that God isn't doing or saying much. That's why the spiritual disciplines - prayer, silence/retreat, reflection, acts of self-denial, and acts of service - are so important. They force us to meet God on God's time, not our own. They force us to tune out the every day din, and give us the time to hear a new voice and new song.

That's why I think Jesus was trying to say in Luke 11:

"...keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks."

In a world where we often confuse material things as being our ultimate reality, too often this scripture is used by people as a justification to keep dreaming and scheming to get the... I don't know, job? House? Salary? Car? Spouse?.... that they want. Their own will subjugates anything God might want as they ask, seek, and knock with their laundry list of stuff they want, basically turning God into a cosmic Santa Clause. No, instead I think to understand Jesus, we need to listen to his brother, James, who tells us that "anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God the reward is life and more life."

God giving us life and more life because we yearn for it. We live for it. We ask for it. We beg that it might be given. We humble ourselves, becoming the student, and allowing Christ to be the Master. Letting him call into question our value system, what we desire, and what drives us. This only happens when we meet God on God's terms.

So what's it mean to meet God on God's terms. Well, it means being inconvenienced. It means having to give up the normal routine. It means having to travel out of our way. It means giving up that which physically satisfies us, to create emptiness that can then be filled by something else.

It means dedicating ourselves to daily prayer, or to praying in new ways (or in some case, very old ways that our Christian ancestors practiced). St. Francis, for example, would sit not far from a tree, and just study it. In it's design and construction, he would then try to discern something new and wonderful about the Creating God. People mistakenly thought he was worshiping the tree. Rather, he was praising God for a mind that would dream up bark, roots, leaves, and branches.

It means dedicating ourselves to silence and/or retreat. In either case, sitting in total silence, calm and expectant before the Lord, or physically removing ourselves from our normal surroundings and stresses, we allow the noise to diminish so we can hear with new ears and see with new eyes. Like going from feeling poor, to feeling exceedingly blessed... and responsible for others, the moment I realized that two dollars fed her for a week. Whether its an Emmaus or some other spiritual retreat weekend, a mission trip, or alone in our chapel or in the woods for a half-hour or more every so often, we must physically remove ourselves from our turf, to God's, and give Him enough respect to create some space where he can begin to work on us.

If means reflection. I started blogging a few years ago because I'd always heard about journaling as a spiritual discipline, but had never taken the time to do it myself. Since then, I've made over 350 posts, many of which nobody but I will ever see, I can now go back and read regarding what I wanted (or didn't want), what I was upset or happy about, what my fears or stresses were, and what God was doing in the midst of everything. It's become for me a very, very powerful tool because it's forced me to assess what my values were in that moment. Were they pure, or was there some ulterior motive? It's forced to assess how I treated people, or how what was going on in my life colored what I heard, or felt, or thought, and compared it to the words of Paul who said that athlete run to win a prize that will fade away, but that those who love God run for an eternal prize." Reflection helps us figure out which prize we run after, and what God has to say to us in that process. Write, paint, sculpt, write a song... leave some sort of record of where you've been on your spiritual journey. You have no idea how much that might help you down the road.

It means acts of self-denial. I did my taxes today. Needless to say, I wasn't very happy when I was done. With four kids, a mortgage payment, bills, a van loan, and more "want" than ability to fulfill that "want", living primarily on one income is tough. I'd like to say that over time that tithing for me has gotten easier, but on days like today when checks get written and accounts get depleted, the temptation is always to cut the expense that has no temporal consequence. I mean, if you don't meet your pledge, we don't turn you into a collection agency (although maybe that's not a bad idea). But then I remember those ancient words from the Torah, "you must seek the Lord at the place he himself will choose from among all the tribes for his name to be honored. There.... you will bring your tithes to fulfill a vow." There's a reason Target is now running commercials stating that they give 5% of all their sales to local community groups. They want to prove they're as committed to your community as you are. They made a vow they didn't have to make, that's above and beyond what all the other box stores are willing to make. They want you to know they're serious. I want God and my church to know I'm serious. That what happens in this ministry and in the projects/agencies I support, matters enough to me that I will give of myself to the cause. Whether it's your cash, your time, maybe a time of fasting from something you think is essential... I have no idea what exactly, but in engaging in self-denial you create emptiness that can then be filled by something else.

It means acts of service. An empty life is one that simply becomes an end to itself. Let your life end in more place with more people, and the more fulfilling it will be.

With that, I leave you with the words of Robert Frost, and ask you to ponder, which path you are taking on spiritual walk.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Quick Hit Ten Things I Think I Think

1) I think I fell asleep during the NCAA Championship last night during overtime. Don't tell me college basketball is better than the NBA. Any team that plays a gimmicky defense like a "Box-And-One" shouldn't be a national champion.

2) I think spring is here! Thank goodness or things would have gotten ugly around here.

3) I think right now I'm looking for a vehicle that seats seven. In the last week I've looked at a Buick Rendezvous, a Ford Conversion Van, a Ford Expedition, numerous minivans, and the occasional Chevy Suburban. Just more proof that we've got one big family.

4) I think that after school my boys have been living on the trampoline in our backyard. They've also been going to bed earlier while sleeping sounder. Is there a connection? I think so.

5) I think all the rhetoric right now in the city of Lima over issues of race is unearthing a deep wound in the community. The racial divisions here are very real. The question is how to begin to mend the divide. My guess? A whole lot less grandstanding, and a whole lot more prayer and discussion among the lot of us who will never see our names in the newspaper.

6) I think I had a brainstorm while watching TV a couple of nights ago. During a commercial for Target, the company trumpeted the fact that 5% of all their sales was channeled back into the community through donations to local agencies and non-profits. They're tithing their sales at a rate of 5%. Hence, I want to hear no more arguments regarding the place of tithing in the life of a congregation. A French conglomerate can do it as a means of proving it's commitment to the community. Why not us?

7) I think my brother-in-law is really, really smart dude. Dr. Jeffery Allen (or as we call him, Jeff) is an Assistant Professor at Michigan Tech. After a number of years working for the Center for Microgravity Research where he worked with NASA doing experiments conducted in space to understand the effect of a lack of gravity on how fluids flow (I'm guessing), now as a prof he's working on how to get water out of hydrogen fuel cells (which is a problem). Even more impressive is the force with which his elbow can hit your cheek after garnering a rebound. Those elbows are vicious. Click on his picture to read the article on his work.

8) I think this Sunday that I'll have to fly to Dallas to do more dissertation research. St. Luke Community United Methodist Church (or as they call it, "The Luke") is a historically black UMC church in Dallas that was pastored by UMC pastoral legend, Zan Holmes. That the church hasn't missed a beat since his retirement is a real testament to both the quality of leadership on the part of current senior pastor Tyrone Gordon, and the considerable thought Pastor Holmes put into thinking about the future of his church. Chase Oaks Church's (formally known as Fellowship Bible Church North) succession has become a model that other churches around the country are emulating. As a matter of fact, former senior pastor, Dr. Gene Getz, has done quite a bit of consulting on the matter with other congregations. It should be two very interesting case studies.

9) I think I'm sick of Oprah Winfrey. Have received numerous emails, phone calls, and face-to-face inquiries about Oprah's book study on Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth" and how "orthodox" it is or isn't in terms of Christian doctrine and teaching. Here's my question: Who in the world looks to Oprah Winfrey for orthodox Christian teaching? Of course it's not orthodox. It's just a lot of very Oprah-esque language round stuff like "positivity", "unlocking the you within", and crap like that. People act like it's the most serious threat to Christianity since the "Black Plague"

But I'm not worried about it. Why? Remember how popular Phil Donahue used to be? Well, this too shall pass.

If you really want to do some work on yourself order Dallas Willard's "Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ", and if you are interested in what thinking globally as a Christian might mean for you, check out Brian McLaren's "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and A Revolution of Hope". You'll get much, much further with these two fine books.

10) And finally, I think a couple of Athens, Georgia based-bands have scored two new fine albums. With apologies to Brother David (who is not a REM fan... one of the few places our musical tastes differ), REM's new album, "Accelerate", is it's best since "Green". Seems like the band has finally gotten over the departure of their drummer, and decided they were allowed to make some rollicking, imaginative music again. Same goes for the B-52's new effort, "Funplex", which reminds of some of the band's best stuff (Rock Lobster, Private Idaho, Dance this Mess Around, and all the great tracks on the "Cosmic Thing" album, which Aimee and I pretty much wore out back in the day). Too bad pop radio and MTV are dead, cause "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" and "Pump" would be all over the place.

Just goes to show that the 80's didn't die... they just gained a little weight and a got a little more stylish. Amen and Amen.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Long Time Comin'

Seems like forever since I posted something. That's what happens when you decide to skip a day. A day turns into two, which turns into four, which turns into a couple of weeks.

Mea Culpa, loyal readers. Sorry for the long layoff. I throw myself upon your mercy. Here a few random thoughts...

- Don't know if you've been paying much attention to the election in Zimbabwe (isn't everybody?), but the situation has turned pretty ugly today. Days after an election which, thanks to the current regime's ineptitude (Zimbabwe at one time was the breadbasket of Sub-Saharan Africa. Now? Idiotic land policies, fiscal mismanagement, and corruption has driven the country toward out-of-control inflation, bread and gas lines, and on to the precipice of total disaster) was hotly contested, government troops are now surrounding a hotel filled with foreign journalists after recently ransacking the opposition party's headquarters. It appears that the Zimbabwean Army has decided that President Mugabe, despite his apparent loss at the polls, is going nowhere. Thousands of our United Methodist brothers and sisters are stuck in the middle of this mess, as is Africa University, our UM-supported college. The fiscal situation is so dire right now that desperate people, I'm afraid, might resort to desperate measures. The continent is already right now home to some of the deadliest wars in all of history, manned unfortunately by soldiers of all ages (some as young as 7... that's a child who should be in the second grade, hopped up on cocaine lugging around an AK-47 terrorizing villagers). Keep an eye on this situation, and pray that somehow somebody comes to their senses, and Mugabe leaves peacefully.

- Our youngest, Toby, is well, but we are not getting much sleep at the Bucher house. Since I can't breastfeed Toby, Eli, our worst sleeper by far, is now my responsibility on third shift. Last night he woke up at 10:30, 1:30, and 3:30. This is happens frequently, so between Aimee and I sleep deprivation is now becoming an issue. For example, I'm pretty sure I just saw a flying camel over Shawnee Road. Either I'm starting to hallucinate due to a lack of sleep, or they slipped something funny into my fish sandwich at lunch. That or the field of genetics has turned into a circus. What kind of umbrella would you have to buy in a world with flying camels?

Oh well. At least one of us got a nap today....

- Saturday, the Bucher men (save Eli and Toby) will make the trek to Cleveland to see the mighty Cavs take on the Orlando Magic. Dad will ride up with the boys and myself, while Brother Esquire will be coming via the Turnpike from Toledo. This could be a preview of the playoffs as teams in the Eastern Conference continue to jockey for position. Of course, if you've ever been to the Q, the actual basketball game is kind of an afterthought given everything they've got going on at games in order to keep families coming back. Fireworks, dancers, a DJ, multiple mascots, cheerleaders, kiss cams, videos... it's a spectacle to behold. Just as long as we get to see LeBron throw one down and Cavs win another game, we'll be happy.

- Just received an email from my former boss wondering why Shawnee hadn't paid any conference apportionments yet this year. For those non-UM's out there, apportionments are funds we send to the greater denomination. About 30% end up with our national agencies, while the other 70% stay in our conference (which is about 2/3rd's the State of Ohio). Had to remind him that we use the system he helped create which is to pay them quarterly, and that the first quarter ended three days ago. Jiminy Crickets... I've got a DS breathing down my neck about apportionments, and it isn't even my own DS! Nobody said this gig was easy.

- Worshiped last Sunday at the Future Church of Tomorrow, which is located on 12th Street in the City of Lima. The church, which is pastored by Daniel Hughes, has a funny sounding name... The Future Church of Tomorrow. Upon a first hearing it sounds somewhat redundant. However, upon meeting Daniel's mother - who founded the church with her husband in 1973 - I found out the genesis of the name related to the church's original purpose: to reach young people and equip them to eventually lead the church. Hence, they see themselves, and particularly the children and youth in the congregation, as the Future Church of Tomorrow. Makes a lot of sense given the fact that one of those children back in 1973 is now the pastor. But I digress..... it was a fine worship service that blessed me mightily. Quite different than Shawnee's I might say, but it's not like Shawnee has the market cornered on how to conduct worship.

Which, I might add, is one of the interesting things I've learned in the last three months.... it's clear to me that churches, based upon their own traditions and practices, are almost shocked when they encounter a different type, kind, or style or worship. It's like somehow they've been speaking what they thought was English, only to wake up and find out that other people in the world speak other languages. This was REALLY apparent in the Community Palm Sunday service. Since the Black Baptist Ministerial Association had been conducting the service for many a year, it threw them for a loop when a suggestion was made by a non-Black Baptist minister that maybe, within the format of the service - which was pretty much followed the pattern of past year's services - that maybe some music from a non-Black Baptist tradition ought to be included. So, not knowing what that was exactly, the let the non-Black Baptist ministers suggest what this might look and sound like. In the end, a local folk trio sang "Oh For a Thousand Tongues To Sing", while one of them (who resembled - I am not making this up - John Denver) played an acoustic guitar. I almost laughed out loud. It's a wonder Dave Chappelle never came up with the idea for a skit. You couldn't have found a more divergent example of cultural differences. It was like going from this...

to this...

In the end, the service was fine, and the crowd seemed to enjoy all the music, but the Black Baptist Community Palm Sunday Service will never be the same.

- Just received an "invitation" from Ed and Lisa Young (here they are!)

to attend with my wife to their "Creative Marriage Retreat", which is a marriage retreat exclusively for couples in ministry, at the Gaylord Texas Resort (Grapevine, TX). Cost? Only $650 for three days (not including transportation and most meals). $650 and three KID FREE DAYS.... they might as well hold the conference in Narnia.

But if Aimee and I did, someday, every have $650 plus expense money, and (too improbably to even say it out loud) THREE KID FREE DAYS together, ain't no way we'd be couped up with Ed and Lisa in the middle of Texas. There's a beach or some nice restaurants or maybe a couple of shows in that dream. If the Youngs want to come with us to dinner, that's fine.

- Finally, a couple of nights ago I'm upstairs reading the paper, when I hear uproarious laughter coming from the basement of our house.

"What in the world?"

So I head downstairs, and what do they think is so funny? A Droopy Cartoon.

The boys have discovered the Boomerang Channel, which is where cartoons from the 60's, 70's, and 80's apparently went to die. Just in the past couple of weeks they've become fans of the Jetsons, Flintstones, and Muttly and the Great Grape Ape, among others that their old Dad used to watch. Upon realizing this, I told Max how many of these shows were new when I was his age. So what does my eldest son say in reply?

"Wow! I didn't know they had color TV back then."

Ah yes.... THREE KID FREE DAYS. Narnia here we come.