Friday, September 26, 2008

Worshipping God As If Your Life Depended Upon It

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

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

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

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

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

I have. Multiple times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship still does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I Want My BTV!

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

Spencer reverses the curse! from CJ Dugan on Vimeo.

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

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

Parenting Fear #14 from CJ Dugan on Vimeo.

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

DC Preview from CJ Dugan on Vimeo.

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

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

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

Also caught this interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, gotta go to bed. Enjoy BTV.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the witty and insightful commentary...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's where we are right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I had bought some gold doubloons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xavier Loses His Front Teeth

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

Maybe the government will bail us out.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Upcoming Sermon Series at Shawnee UMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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