Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten Things I Think I Learned in 2011

Does this thing still work? Hope so. After a truly compelling, challenging, difficult, draining year, here's the ten things I learned, for better for or worse. Here we go...

1) Kids grow up fast

Good thing this is free, huh? You surely wouldn't pay for this obvious observation. But this learning is a learning I learn just about every day. I have a son who played a tuba solo at a Christmas Eve service, rotates in his own social orbit I know less and less about, and is almost my height. Yesterday it seems I was walking him in a stroller past the house owned by the crazy lady who beat on a drum to scare the birds out her tree. Now he's texting. Seems like I've missed the better part of the last almost 13 years times four. What I do with that information will determine the level of my wisdom (great to non-existent) between now and 2024.

All in all, I'm proud of my boys. Thank God for their mother. After 13 years of tremendous personal sacrifice professionally, it's time for some changes.

2) Forty isn't the new thirty. It's just the same ol' forty, and I'm running out of time.

I spent a few days at the "Change The World Conference" at Ginghamsburg (UM) Church this past fall, and came to the conclusion that professionally I am running out of time. The mission of God is great, and I am finite. This realization has given even greater urgency to my sense of time and responsibility.

Over the last two years I kind of got waylaid. In 2009 I had a pretty clear picture of what I thought God wanted in terms of pastoral ministry and leadership. The goal, I sensed, was more active involvement in serving our local community.
  • Help those who are spiritually hungry, find a faith community that fostered within them, a faith life that matters. That makes a difference. That's hard, but rewarding.
  • Alleviate hunger and poverty, while helping those who were hungry to do so, improve their lot.
  • Break down racial barriers that - as they exist to the degree they do - are holding our community back, submarine new investment, contribute to a negative attitude regarding our town, and quite frankly make the local church a fraction effective as it could be.

I wasn't shy about sharing these goals with the congregation, or anyone else for that matter, but in 2009 we weren't in a position to make any of this happen. Our discipleship ministry - the act of fostering a faith life that matters - was still our Achilles heel. This, in turn, limited our ability to invest in ministries that make a difference. And if you want to take on the most difficult task in the world, then make breaking down racial barriers in any kind of meaningful way a top priority.

For whatever reason, as we've worked on some other stuff we were supposed to do to serve our community, the work we've been doing has helped us clarify those objectives and positioned us to make real in-roads into making disciples. The lessons in entrepreneurship, taking risks, finding out what we could and couldn't realistically do will be essential in our community of faith becoming a force inside God's mission to transform the world, and shake up the way people relate to one another in this community.

It just takes time, and time is something each one of us has less and less of, each and every day.

3) Everything important begins over lunch

A couple of weeks ago our music ministry led worship in the form of their annual "Christmas Cantata". The term "Christmas Cantata" though, doesn't really do justice to what it was they did. When I hear the word "Cantata" I think of choirs singing in Latin or German accompanied by an organ and orchestra. Our music ministry led worship that featured music that could only be described as "hymns to hip hop", a term embodied by the choir singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" completed with a bridge in the middle rapped out by our friend and Future Church member, Aaron Henderson.

During the first service, which is designed to be very traditional (but not boring, which seems to be a hallmark of the traditional church), some folks from Aaron's church who were there to enjoy the worship, would on occasion, as they were moved by the music, stand up, sing, clap, and just generally enjoy themselves while letting those on stage know how much they appreciated their gift that morning. I know that whole scene stretched some our more traditional members. Hip hop. Standing in a worship service without some sort of prompting. Rap. Believe me, while I wasn't here that Sunday (I was preaching at our Bath campus), I heard about it.

But you know, what I overwhelmingly heard wasn't just positive, it was almost reverential. Folks who have been going to church here before Nixon was President who never thought they'd see the day we would actually, even in a moment, worship diversely. It actually made some people cry with joy. One lady, a retired librarian, described the experience as being "overwhelming, in a good way".

We don't enjoy these kinds of experiences, made possible via a relationship with a diverse urban church who genuinely loves us (and we love back), without lunch. Numerous lunches. Lunches between the pastor of that church (now an associate pastor here) and myself. Lunches between various members of those two churches. Formal lunches celebrating Christmas. Informal lunches on the go thru Arby's drive thru. Lots of lunches.

If you want to change or improve anything, find someone in a different circle but still like-minded, and start going to lunch. That's where Jesus will begin to be incarnated... over bread and the cup.

4) Once you get a ball rolling downhill, the hardest thing to figure out how to start pushing it faster.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, mustering a discussion of any kind of change was a real chore. My entire first year as lead pastor here at Shawnee UMC was a year of trying to slowly coax folks into thinking about our future while changing almost nothing. There's nothing quite like trying to get people thinking about what kind of church God wants us to be while at the same time changing as little as possible so as to not freak people out.

Admittedly, those people who had been here the longest felt like they had the most to lose with any kind of potential change. But something strange has happened along the way. As small changes were made, tweaking in worship style and content, changes in mission emphasis, lots of lunches, and an openness to more entrepreneurial lay leadership began adding up into large changes (new leadership structure, second campus, new staff hires, expansion of ministry and mission), the demands made on me by this church, particularly the senior staff, began to change.

Now I find myself not leading change fast enough. It's like when I was a kid and for years people tried to get me to try shrimp, and I refused. Lots of energy was expended trying to get me to take a little nibble, and finally one night at a New Years Eve party, the nibble was taken. Within short order my Dad had to figure out what to say to a son who wanted to order shrimp cocktail and fried shrimp whenever our family went out to dinner.

Shrimp, like institutional change, is expensive, man. How do you keep growing appetites satisfied after the first nibble becomes a craving?

Not long ago I was getting chastised by one of my senior staff for only "talking about change and not actually leading it", and the words coming out of that mouth were being uttered in a totally renovated building on a campus rescued from the dead over the last two years at great personal and corporate sacrifice. Needless to say, I felt like strangling somebody, but upon further review, that's the price paid for selling a vision and people buying it.

Expand our footprint? Grow in diversity? Challenge the congregation to greater depth of spiritual resolve? It's all happening. Now the question is, how do lead this kind of change when it's "in motion", buy-in is expanding, some of the more traditional folks are getting a bit nervous (see "rapping during Cantata), and you want to make a few changes in your own life (see kids growing up fast)?

I used to be behind the boulder being rolled up a hill. Now there are bunch more people with me doing some pushing. How to cheer them on and figure out how we can all live together in relative peace is the new challenge I'll face in 2012.

5) Bureaucracy isn't a dirty word

I know, I know.... this coming out of the mouth of a guy who genuinely hates going to meetings, keeping files, and ran from being a conference bureaucrat only eight and half months of pushing those kinds of papers. But largely thanks to my SPRC chair, Esther Baldridge, I'm beginning to see the wisdom in a paper trail. In evaluations being made, goals being set, boundaries laid out, strategic plans planned, and the bar of accountability raised. Also, it's good to develop a good poker face. I'm going to spend much more time with those who have learned to do this well over the next year. It'll be vital to the cause.

6) Whatever the "default" position is on a person's expectations, is the "default" position you are left to work with.

Once upon a time I thought church was all about after-church dinners, meetings, robes and traditional (mainline) forms of worship. Over the years those "default" expectations have been slowly eliminated.

My time in Goshen, Indiana had a lot to do with this. At the time Goshen First UMC was one of the few multi-site congregations in the country. And as far as second sites go, for the first year and a half I was there, the second one was really a rented middle school auditorium and a truck. In was in that setting that my sense of what lengths a church should go to in order to be faithful to God's mission was seriously altered.

If preaching in a middle school auditorium was beneath me, it wasn't after that experience. If the expectation that the church would be replicated by the preceding generation growing up in it's pews or that everyone knew "how to behave in church", those expectations were blown away as the unchurched flooded our auditorium seats. If I thought church people would be overjoyed to rub elbows with people who largely weren't in their meetings and classes, I found out quickly just how wrong I was. If asking people to sacrifice to build a structure or ministry they would largely never utilize themselves seemed foolish, after "The Life Center" experience I became willing to play the fool.

But along the way what I've discovered is that there are some "defaults" I still struggle with, and I'd consider me to be pretty progressive in my understanding of what is or isn't a "sacred cow". If I'm progressive, then the mainstream church is as a whole pretty attached to their "defaults". Relax even for one second on coaxing, inspiring, and occasionally exhorting people out of these default expectations, and you pay a price later because they never really go away. Ever. You just have to convince most people to put them away in their attic, again, again, again, and again.

7) Good friends are invaluable and keep you sane.

I think this speaks for itself.

8) Institutions who benefit off the backs of others solely for their own perpetuated existence will at best end up looking foolish, and at worst will end up being destroyed from the inside, out.

I think every Tunisian or Egyptian or Libyan or Syrian, the NCAA, Penn State's athletic department, all the folks bilked by MF Global learned this lesson this year, in spades.

9) You aren't working out whilst laying down on your couch, even if the can you are lifting is filled with Diet Coke.

Worked out day before yesterday after months of nothing but physical inactivity. My body is still reminding how stupid all that inactivity was, which is why I need to get this done and go up to the Y.

10) Most of us set expectations that are too low. Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss it, you'll still be among the stars.

I actually had a sticker with this phrase on it on my mirror growing up. It was given to me by a guy named E. Larry Moles, or as he was known around these parts, "The Man from Pinch". E Larry grew up in Pinch, West Virginia, a sleepy little hamlet (or more accurately, "holl'r") in the Elk River Valley. During my year playing for the little league team from Big Chimney (sponsored by Myres Funeral Home) we played a couple of games in Pinch, which puts me in the small minority of people who have any idea where it is. When we moved to Lima in 1980, E Larry, who sat with us every Sunday at church, loved it that I had experienced as a small child his home town.

E Larry (and I always used the E) ended up moving to Lima with very little in his pocket. By the time he died he owned a number of small businesses locally and was in demand as a motivational speaker all across the country. He used to say hokey stuff like "shoot for the moon, and even if you miss it, you'll still be among the stars", but the thing was he really believed what he was saying. It was, besides the grace of God, the only explanation he had from growing up dirt poor in the small town of Pinch, West Virginia, to becoming someone governors now called "Mr. Moles".

I used to see that sticker every day in my mirror, and now I think maybe - even in all its hokeyness - has sunk deep into my psyche. If anything I've learned a lot this year as to what was possible if only you keep your eyes on the only prize that matters: Making disciples of Jesus who transform the world. In the process the disciple finds meaning and peace, those served receive a little break from a difficult life, and space is made for the grace of God to draw his children closer to them.

Oh... and you get to do a bit of space travel.

My prayer is in 2012, you lift your eyes to find your "moonshot". Start saving up for your rocket, and hang on tight. It's a heck of a ride.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Broken, But God Is Still With Us

(once again, some loose ramblings that will hopefully lead to a sermon this weekend)

Last week we started our third, and final series of the summer entitled, "Living Out". We started in June talking about living in accountable community while listening, hearing, and obeying God. We took time to investigate how God speaks, and the ways he might be listening to us, as well as the importance of acting on what God asks of us in accountable community so that 1) we don't act on an impulse that just plain crazy and 2) we have people to help us follow through with what we say we're going to do. This is the way we become a disciple, and the discipleship process is only completed when we begin discipling others ourselves.

In the second series, Living Up, we took four weeks to look at the nature of our relationship with God. We talked about sin as separating us from God and others, God's initiated effort to help us bridge the "sin gap" between him by making a "covenant" with us, and bridge the same gap with others by helping us understand our place in his "kingdom".

As we faithfully follow God's leading in a covenanted relationship with him, via following Jesus, these four weeks of "Living Out" are focused on bridging the gap between us and others as we live in "God's kingdom". Last week we looked at the question if God accomplishes what he wants in the lives of others by bestowing upon us prestige, power, and prosperity, or rather if He leads through our becoming a servant, broken but still faithful, ready to provide protection and possibilities for others. To understand this, we're looking at the life of Joseph, who, even though he was the recipient of his Father's preferential love - symbolized by Jacob giving him the famous "coat of many colors" - that God establishes a pattern we see again and again in the Old Testament, and then in the life Jesus, and the Apostles, of leading through our brokenness. Joseph, like us, is greatly loved, but at 17, clueless, prideful, and boastful, he sends his father into a funk, and antagonizes his brothers to the point that they use the symbol of "preferred love" - the colorful coat, now ripped up and covered with blood, proof of Joseph's supposed demise - to get rid of Joseph by selling him as a slave to Egyptian traders.

Eventually, we know that Joseph's continued faithfulness will eventually protect and provide for his family, his nation, and even his enemies. But Joseph is broken - deprived of his prestige, power, and prosperity - before he can be used by God to do his work. Such is the case with Israel, and the example left to us by Jesus, who emptied himself of his privileged position at the right of the Father, to come live with us. It's through his willingness to be like us, to point of suffering, rejection, and death, that Jesus, as a suffering servant, offers us a way back to God.

The way of brokenness and self-sacrifice on behalf of the Lord and others, is the way of Jesus. It is the way of his followers.

Brokenness and sacrifice don't sound all that great, does it? Every time I preach a sermon on this subject, if my Dad is present and listening, he always gets afterwards at lunch for sounding too much like a "debbie downer". He'd prefer I'd tell a nice story that will make you laugh, maybe make you cry, but in the end leave you with a sense of hope and optimism about you, yours, and this crazy 'ol planet we live on.

The strange thing though, is that a life of broken sacrificial faithfulness is, in the Kingdom of Heaven, not mutually exclusive to a fulfilling life. Joseph is a good example. Twice, after he finds himself in Egypt, cut off from his family and seemingly from his destiny, Joseph's life, even under less-than-ideal circumstances (he is a slave, for Pete's sake) is one that provides protection and possibilities for others. First in the house of Potipher, the captain of Pharaoh's palace guard, he proves himself so trustworthy and capable, that eventually takes over all of Potipher's "at-home" responsibilities. And then, after Potipher's wife can't convince Joseph to hop in the sack with her, in prison, once again he rises to a position of importance as chief jailor's right-hand man. Genesis 39:22, tells us that the chief jailer trusted Joseph so completely, that he had no worries cause he knew Joe would always come through... and all the while that also God remained with Joseph.

When our ego and pride are taken down a peg or two, or when we of our own volition decide to humble ourselves by offering up what we have to help others, it does, I think, two things.

First, we start to get a true accounting of who we are. Joseph who once spent his time lording his position in his father's household over his brothers, now finding himself at the very bottom of Potipher's household pecking order, changes his expectations and attitude. He discovers that he's good at a lot of different things, and when he used those gifts working hard and diligently, that he gets results. Joseph begins to discover that it wasn't because of who his father and mother are that made him a potential candidate for greatness, but rather it was through all the ways God had gifted him.

We all have some form of talent God has given us to use for his purposes. I'm in the season right now of many funerals. Among five funerals I've done since mid-July, last week I buried Ruth Wilcox, Phil's mother, and this week I'll be burying Skip Chiles. It was fascinating for me to sit and listen to all the ways Ruth and Skip's children described the talents their respective parents were endowed with by God, and all the interesting ways they used them in the interest of their family and friends. Ruth has to be the first woman in all of the years I've been doing this sort of thing, who was described as having great carpentry gifts, to the extent that she largely built the family's first house, and then radically reconstructed what became later the family home. The kids relayed a vivid story of Ruth's husband, Stubby, coming from from a week on the road as a trucker, to find the wall between the kitchen and the boys' bedroom, gone, and the boys now living in an attack which now had finished walls and a floor.

I listened too to Skip's family talk about what a tremendous caregiver Skip was. He cared for his parents, in-laws, wife, and a number friends as their lives wound down. He cared, until his death, for his son Carl. Carl was born with Downs Syndrome the same year I was born, 1969. Skip not only took care of Carl in terms of day-to-day family living, but was used his skills as an education provider and administrator by serving on the board of Marimor Industries. Skip, and a number of saints who I've been honored to meet and know in this community, were a part of a small, but determined group that were intent on giving those with disabilities of all kinds opportunities and hope that had previously not been afforded to them.

A woman who was good with a hammer, and a man who was an outstanding care-giver. It defies the stereotypes and expectations I suppose, but the natural gifts both these good folks carried inside them, bloomed under less than ideal circumstances. But it is through those experiences of brokenness and sacrifice they helped moved those they loved, and even those they didn't really know, forward. It is when we serve that we truly begin to discover what we are capable of.

Second, as we discover all of these blessings, we find out just how good God is. Both Potipher and his household, as well as the chief jailer and all the inmates at the prison, experienced God's goodness through Joseph's faithfulness. And even when Potipher's wife throws Joseph under the bus, he still never goes into a shell of self-pity, wallowing, anger, and dismay. Instead he continues to understand God as good because God has authored so many good things inside of him.

In fact, we witness just how much Joseph has grown and matured, even under difficult circumstances, as a servant in Potipher's house. As he discovers who he is and who God is, he begins to understand the demands of living in faithful obedience. The self-absorbed teenager, now confronted with the opportunity to take advantage of his place in his master's house, stands instead on greater principles than his own personal satisfaction and enjoyment. God, Joseph begins to understand, demands honesty, integrity, and humility, even when standing on these principles can cost us dearly. The bottom prisoner in a penal system has to be an even more daunting and depressing prospect than being the bottom slave in a household. But Joseph sticks to his guns, because God's good work isn't just accomplished through the gifts He's given us, but the through the character he desires us to impart through those actions. It may cost us to do the right thing, but as we discover the God who authored our gifts and talents, we discover what he's made of, and those things - integrity, honest, character, justice, grace, mercy, peace, and love - are the only things that really matter and survive.

So yes, the Christian life is a life of brokenness and self-sacrifice, but it is by no means joyless and empty. It leads, rather, to greater understanding of ourselves, the Lord, and the betterment of those around us - some whom we love and others who make it difficult for us to love. If you think about those who have blessed you greatly, how much better has your life been made through their sacrifice and brokenness on your behalf? Of what quality do you consider those who sacrificed greatly so you could stand where you are today? Did they seem broken and alone, or did they possess a strength and dignity that radiated beyond themselves to those around them?

In our tradition as Methodists, the we use different language to describe the Christian life. Instead of calling it the "way of brokenness and sacrifice", we sum up this life with three simple rules. They are in fact, the General Rules of our community:

1) Do no harm.
2) Do good.
3) Stay in love with God.

If you want to find a truly Christian person, living a Christian life in an imperfect world, you could easily sum them up as someone who does no harm, does good, and stays in love with God.

I know that this has been the case for me. Those who I look up to the most are those who do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. Dr. and Mrs. Becker. Pat and Helen Price. Gerald Goodwin. Gene King. Stan and Betty Weller. Don Johnson. Melva Mumma. The list of saints from our little community here at Shawnee Community who have made an imprint on me were all people who in their own way, as they sought to faithfully follow Jesus, did their best not to harm others (and were quick to admit their fault when they did), did good whatever way they were able, and found new ways to stay in love with God.

I remember stories at his funeral of patience treated by Dr. Becker when they had no money to pay his fee. I remember Pat Price ripping a group of teens for playing instruments too loud in a worship service, and then the next Tuesday at their rehearsal apologize with a pizza and some root beer. I can remember Gene King lovingly explaining to us all what it was like to be a person of faith and carry the memories of what being a soldier in Korea demanded of him. I remember Gerald Goodwin working crazy hours to crack a case as a detective to bring someone to justice, and then stand in a hot kitchen with Buzz Alder to get the hot dogs and chicken sandwiches ready for sale to support missions, and all on no sleep. I can remember Stan Weller taking money out of his pocket to install pluming for a woman who had none as he suffered the heat of the South Carolina day and a group of teenagers less than a third his age. I can still see Helen Price, in her seventies, willing to do an intense Bible study and then go on an Emmaus walk because she wanted to stay in love with God, and pass it on to others.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. This is the way God calls us to begin to repair damage sin has done in our relationships and in our world. And it's accomplished by people who have, through own their own brokenness, and then personal sacrifice, understand that they have been called by God for this work. A God who remains ever faithful, and teaches us that faithfulness as we seek in our lives to not do harm, do good, and intentionally stay in love with God, regardless of our circumstances. This is the way that leads to riches and treasure that cannot be stored on earth, but are only multiplied in the Kingdom of Heaven, now and forever.

Joseph discovers that the character that the Lord forms in him while he uses the gifts he's received for God's glory is what will sustain him as he offers himself to be used to save Egypt, his family, and all the known world. But he learns that character as a slave and a prisoner. Not exactly the education or work experience we would think of for producing servant leaders that bring justice and peace into the world, is it?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Groomed for Greatness

"Through the repeated hammer blows of defeat, destruction, and deportation, interpreted by the faithful prophets, Israel has to learn that election is not for comfort and security but for suffering and humiliation."
— Lesslie Newbigin

It's good to be back after some time with the family. For a week the most earth shattering decision we had to make was mac and cheese or ramen noodles for dinner. Everybody needs a week like this every so often to keep their sanity. Some ramen noodles, afternoons swimming in a lake, and some time wrapped up with a book.

Or in my case, thanks to the Kindle app on my phone, books.

Kindle is fantastic. At your fingertips you have now available thousands and thousands of books. Some are fairly expensive ($10-12), but most aren't. Many are three bucks or less.

So after reading John Grisham's latest (again), Sammy Hagar's autobiography (in the end, he owns a bar in Mexico.... that's all you really need to know), and a murder mystery with a Christian twist ("Beyond Justice", by Joshua Graham), we still had a few days left so I searched around to find one more book. For three bucks I could pick up "The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical" by Shane Claiborne.

So I did, and now it's messed me up, but good.

If you don't know who Shane Claiborne is, he's become the face of what being called the "New Monasticism" movement. These are folks who have decided to try practicing ekklesia (or as we call it, the church) in what would seem to be new forms (as opposed to church building, denominations, ordained pastors, administrative boards, and Sunday Schools) but are actually very old forms of doing the Christian life together that pre-date what most of us understand to be "how to do church". The "New Monastics" don't really have one form. Some live in small communities that look a lot to outside observer as "hippy communes". Others gather for "simple church" or in a "house church" that gathers in a living room, or a some building that could be picked up cheap and rehabbed.

They are all committed to the poor and oppressed, working in numerous ways either on their own, or in partnership with other churches, not-for-profits, foundations, and social service agencies to address these issues. They are largely urban movements (although not entirely) and are more often than not concentrating their efforts in cities that have been devastated by years of changing economic fortunes, the ongoing legacies of race riots in the late sixties and seventies, and the crack epidemic that hit in the 80's.

As a pastor professionally I have been living through a tremendous period of tumult in the American church. Mainline denominations have continued to decline (because, some say, they forgot the Bible, while others believe it's due to taking the Bible seriously). The non-denominational (and the many denominational churches pretending to be non-denominational) "megachurch" has exploded. And all the while church attendance and involvement have continued, as a whole, to decrease, and markedly so, from generation to generation.

At this point I've cast my lot with the mainline Christian experience. You know you're pretty much "all in" when you've been asked to consider becoming the new chairperson of your denomination's Board of Health Insurance and Pensions. You couldn't be any further inside the belly of the beast of the organized church than I am. The idea of selling everything I own, forming, and living out into some Christian commune where we grow our own tomatoes and invite the homeless to come live with us sounds to me, at best, "romantic", and in real terms, "impossible".

To Shane Claiborne and all the other v2.0 monks, that's a sad statement... and maybe on some level, personally, I feel a little sad too. Like the rich man, who Jesus feels sorry for when he leaves conflicted, unwilling or unable to sell all he owns, give it to the poor, and follow the Master. Maybe movements filled with people who share in common while building relationships with their neighborhood are the future of the Christian movement in this country. A way to make life sustainable and even more important, good, in places that right now are the very definition of hell on earth.

So I'm not a candidate, I don't think, for new monasticism. I think I'd get laughed out, or tossed out of my congregation if I suggested this was the new direction - putting the "Commune" in "Community UMC" - we were heading.

But the church, not just us but most every church, in this great nation of ours, just like the Roman Catholic Church confronted by the v1.0 monks, led by St. Francis of Assisi, should be challenged by what the monastics are trying to do.... simply live out the words, literally, of Jesus. Their example should humiliate us a little. Challenge our understanding of what a church is and what the church should be doing with its time, energy and resources. Maybe what they are doing may seem absurd, or maybe even foolish, but aren't the hungry being fed, naked clothed, and peacemakers celebrated? Jesus said the Lord uses foolish things to confound the wise of the world to give them some idea what kind of upheaval the Kingdom of Heaven might entail and how far away their lived-out version of that wisdom was from that Kingdom.

That's what has got me all messed up. I'm worried about paying the light bill and the carpet while Shane Claiborne and his buddies are sleeping on the street with the homeless whom they just fed in the hopes their presence will begin to get the ekklesia, the church, thinking of dealing with the homeless issue. To some they may look like troublemakers or fools, but that's what has me so concerned....

Maybe we're so concerned about maintaining an air of respectability that we are no longer capable of holy foolishness? Or worse, maybe we're the wise the foolishness is meant to convict.

I'm wondering if God just doesn't want us to sit up and take notice, but actually become increasingly foolish, as we're able, ourselves?

I mean, I get it... nobody likes to look foolish. That's the reason you hide all those old photos they took of you back in the 80's. Teased, feathered hair. Pegged pants. Spandex and leg warmers. Skinny ties. There's plenty of evidence as to how ridiculous those of us from that era looked as kids. I must have owned a dozen rugby shirts, each one looking a little more ridiculous that the last. Nobody likes to play the fool.

But throughout the Bible, God's people, sometimes of their own volition and sometimes due to circumstances, often have to experience a profound change in their expectations through profound experiences of humiliation and brokenness, so that something which appears foolish can actually bring great transformation, not just for one, but for many, some friends and other enemies.

This is a great theme that runs through out the Bible, one reinforced many times over. It's certainly Joseph's story.

Everybody knows who Joseph is thanks to countless Vacation Bible Schools, that song Dolly Parton wrote about her "coat of many colors", and Andrew Lloyd Webber writing a musical about his life which then made Donny Osmond relevant again. Or at least they know about his coat of many colors. The coat his father, Jacob, who would be renamed Israel, gave him because he loved him so much more than all of his other brothers.

Joseph, thanks to his father's preferential love, got a little full of himself. Genesis 37 tells us that he flaunted his privileged position among his brothers, and even his family. He talked openly of dreams he was having where his brothers most of whom were older than he was, bowing before him. Jacob gets so frustrated with his son's behavior, that at one point he scolds his child for acting like a spoiled punk, and then begins to brood over the monster he's created.

And as for the brothers.... well, they had long raced past brooding to all out hate, to the point that they were able to fake Joseph's death and sell him into slavery using the symbol of his father's preferential love. The same coat, a gift of unmerited grace, now torn and covered in blood, ends up sealing Joseph's fate.

And what a fate it is.

Of course if went to VBS or saw Donnie Osmond do his thing, you know that in the end Joseph's dreams of his brothers bowing low before him come true, but he's a far different person when the deed is done. Joseph's place isn't handed to him on a silver platter. He becomes an exile, a slave, and prisoner first, before improbably rising to become Pharaoh's right hand man.

Throughout the Old Testament, into the New, and often throughout church history God's people, much like Joseph, basking in the Father's preferential love, have wanted to carry out His work with a "silver spoon" mentality. Often we've demanded of God not just his preference, but power, prestige, and prosperity as some sort of by-product that would "prove" his preference for us and show the world who it was messin' with. But again and again, when we've tried to take the place of honor at the banquet table, extolling how beautiful and magnificent the covering from God we've received is, and how you'd better make a place of honor for us at your life's table so you can enjoy the good life like us, we've moved further away from Jesus who always sits at the place of least honor. In our platitudes and sermons we boast about how blessed we are, and yet someone, put off by our arrogance, is already plotting how to steal our coat and leave us for dead.

Grace is free, but it ain't cheap. When that coat of many colors is draped around your shoulders, it's not done so that we can enjoy power, prestige, and prosperity. Rather it's more like being set aside so that, so that we too can have the privilege of providing protection and possibilities for other. A privilege that will come only through a sacrifice which might require us to play the "fool".

Our Master leads by example, and that example is a willingness to be broken and humiliated. To be made to look foolish by suffering a harden criminal's fate, so as to wake us up, and shake us out of the complacent acceptance of a life and world that's totally messed up. A place where the One who we're told in John's Gospel is "the Word which is spoken to create everything" is rejected by that same creation.

Jesus, through no fault of his own, uses his place of privilege, not bring to himself power, protection or prosperity, but rather through his own brokenness and humiliation, ultimately protection and possibilities for those who he loves.

I don't think it's much a conundrum to figure out why so many Christians are increasingly feeling marginalized in society, or spiritually empty. When we've become more preoccupied with looking and acting respectable... when we use our prayer time to ask God to bring us greater power, grant us special protection, and bestow great prosperity as proof of his privilege... when we've become more concerned with the outward kind of grooming that makes us look and feel good, as opposed to being groomed to follow the way of Jesus.... if we aren't looking to walk the way of holy foolishness which exposes the ridiculousness of the way our world works, we are setting ourselves up for troubling moments of great brokenness and humiliation which we will not choose.

Just ask Joseph... better to choose the way of the fool than to set yourself up to be cast upon it.

Or to phrase it another way.... maybe we ought to take these v2.0 monks seriously? As they choose a life of self-giving, community, and the belief that they are utterly dependent upon the Lord, maybe they should inspire in us a little bit of foolishness. A sense that maybe there are some dues to be paid, or that the dues which have been paid lead to more than just a life of un-threatened comfort.

We have been chosen for more than that. And our scars are more valuable, and necessary, to bring the redemptive healing love of Jesus to those who need it most.

What the possibilities for your brokenness and suffering, regardless of whether or not you brought that on yourself or was thrust upon you?

What are the limits of the impact of your sacrifice?

What is the potential for the humiliation you've suffered either as you've made mistakes, or as you've sought creatively to show the way which appears foolish, but is actually the way of the kingdom?

Each of us has been given a coat of many colors. A gift of unmerited favor and preferential love. Whether it's been torn off of you, or you've willingly given it up to put the coat fit for a prince or princess on the back of a homeless beggar, that's the place you start to realize why God made all the fuss over you in the first place. The reason you've been groomed for greatness, which is defined biblically as being used by the Lord to provide protection and possibilities for others.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Just Not Today

I know Jesus turns mourning into dancing.
He who overcame death, overcomes death with us.
I know these things are true.
But today I am overcome with grief.
Today I am filled with melancholy.
Today I am not ready to fight another fight.
Someday soon I will rise up again for such a battle....
just not today.

Jack Sommerville sells insurance.
His tag line for as long as I can remember has been,
"We stand between you and loss."
Someday, our community will again make like Jack.
A challenge will be issued, and with every meal,
every dollar, every prayer
we will stand again in what will be for someone a terrible gap.
Someday soon I will rise up to lead them...
just not today.

I will once again dream dreams
some big and some small.
Dreams of safe, affordable housing for those on the margins.
Dreams of mended relationships and new beginnings.
Dreams of people, huddled together, living from God moment
to God moment.
Dreams of grace justified and sanctified.
Dreams for me, and dreams for others.
Someday soon I will once again dream....
just not today.

Today, I just need to take a breath.
Today, I just need to bow my head.
Today, I just need to gather myself.
Today, I just need to be still.
Today, I just need to write bad poetry.

Don't worry. I'll be fine.
I don't want pity or condolences.
Save that for a mother who has lost someone truly precious.

I'm counting my blessings
and am offering praise.
I'm older, wiser, and more humble.
I'm praying for those truly in need
and gearing up for whatever
"on Earth as it is in Heaven" means next
as the saints go marching in to make it so.
I want to be counted in that number, and I will...

but not today. Just not today.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Join The Phat Pastor Army

For the third big year, yours truly, the Phat Pastor, rides again, or should I say "walks" again in our annual Hands for Haiti Half-Marathon/5k. Over the past three years, more than $25,000 supporting Community UMC's humanitarian efforts in Haiti. Your support has provided day-clinics in rural communities, meals and tuition for school children, medications for those in need, small micro-economic loans, and much much more.

This year, the Phat Pastor has decided to designate all the funds he raises in this year's 5k to the school lunch program at Victory Christian School in the village of Borde'. In our fifteen year relationship with Victory Christian, hundreds of kids have been educated in the basics of reading, writing, and math. All of the students use these skills every day of their lives, and many of them go on to a secondary education where they can pursue a degree or trade.

It's hard to study on an empty stomach, so the school lunch program feeds the 150 pre-school and elementary school students a minimum of twice a week (sometimes three if a good deal can be had on rice, beans, and chicken). Every day lunch is served it costs about $57 (including the cost of the cook's wages). With over $800 raised as of 4pm Thursday, May 19th, the Phat Pastor will accept your financial support as he walks so others can eat until start time (8am) of the race on Saturday, May 21st. Feel free to make a donation directly to Community UMU using their Paypal page, the link of which is at the top of this page. Or, if you hate using the internet for such things, send a check or cash to...

Community UMC
Run Phat Pastor Run
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima OH 45806

and simply leave me a message on my Facebook wall that a donation is coming, or email me at

so I can count your incoming donation toward the total raised.

Thanks again for your support.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lights On The Highway

A few years ago I took a trip to New York City to meet with some folks at our denominational mission agency headquarters to talk about Haiti. Outside of my first ride on the NYC subway and a couple decent slices of pizza in Greenwich Village, the trip turned out to be a bust. Five out of the six people who were supposed to meet with us bailed at the last minute. I never did get to talk to anyone about our denomination's work in Haiti, and to top it off, my flight out of LaGuardia was delayed due to rain.

When I had left two days earlier, my ticket said I was supposed to land in Dayton by 7pm, so instead of driving my car to airport, I decided to ride. It was June, so I knew I could get home before dark. No problems, right?


My flight was supposed to be direct from NYC to Dayton, but with all the changes and cancellations I ended up on a plane bound for Cincinnati. I arrived a little before 11pm, and having missed my connecting flight the airline offered me an all-expenses paid overnight experience in C Terminal. I found two other guys trying to get to Dayton, so we split the cost of a car service... about 60 bucks apiece. By the time we arrived in Dayton it was after 1am, and it was raining.


I uncovered my bike, put the soaking cover in one saddlebag, put my clothes in the other, put on my raincoat and water-proof gloves, and headed for home.

Have you ever ridden at night, in heavy rain, when the sky is completely dark, and you can't see a thing? I hadn't. Ever. I avoided, whenever I could both riding at night and riding in any other weather than whatever it is we call "good weather" here in Ohio. I'm what you call a "fair weather" biker or as my hard core friends like to call it, I'm a wuss.

But I'd just spent my last sixty bucks on a car ride, and I really wanted to go home, so into the night I rode.

I didn't have a visor, so my glasses were my windshield. The lines on the road were obscured from the rain and lack of available light. I couldn't see squat.

Soon I was passed by a semi going about sixty. I settled in a fair distance behind him, and just followed his tail lights as far as I could, until he pulled over for the night. The rest of the evening I either lived off the head lights of vehicles coming up behind me, or followed tail lights of those ahead of me so I could stay on the road. I just followed the lights on the highway, until finally, very late at night, or very early in the morning, I saw the unmistakable glow of the refinery, the lights and flame lighting up the rain in sky.

It was a beautiful sight, all that orange light. I meant that home wasn't that far away. Lights on the highway, guiding me home, to a city shining in the middle of night.

You probably don't think of Lima, Ohio that way do you? Well, I can tell you, soaking wet in cold rain, that's exactly how I felt.

Jesus described himself as the light of the world. He does this many different times, but the one I like the most happens after an unusual occurrence in the courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem. It's described to us in the 8th chapter of John.

Jesus prays alone that morning to start the day on the Mount of Olives, the same Mount of Olives where he will descend into Jerusalem in Palm Sunday to the cheers of "Hosanna", and the same Mount of Olives were there is a garden called, "Gethsemane", which is a word that means "olive press", where he would sweat blood the night before he died, begging his Father for another way to save the world from sin and death. He prays on the Mount of Olives, and then descends into the city, through the Temple Gate into the Temple where he begins to teach.

Soon, though, the Temple priests and authorities, into the middle of the Court of the Gentiles, drag a woman accused of adultery. And in that moment, these learned scholars who were tired of getting their butt handed to them again and again by a carpenter's son, decide to use the occasion to see if this time they could get him say something either stupid, wrong, or so offensive that the crowds who loved Jesus - the least, the last, and the lost - would quit following him around and maybe even turn on him so they could arrest him without incident or riot.

"Moses", said the religious super-preachers of the day, "commanded us to stone an adulterer to death. What you think Jesus? What do you think we should do?"

In the year where we pay special homage to lady bikers, I think it's appropriate to use this scripture this day. In a world where women had no say, no power, and no standing, Jesus looks past what is, to what should be. He befriends women. Champions them. Empowers them. In a world where a husband can leave his wife with absolutely nothing and no repercussions, Jesus holds those men accountable for their actions. There are no second-class citizens in Jesus eyes... not lady-bikers, not 1%ers, not weekend biker warriors, or even wusses on Kawasakis.....

Those who appear the furthest away from God, are loved by Him the most. Don't hear that much any more, any where do you.

But it's true. And so Jesus kneels down, thinking about his answer, and begins doodling in the dirt with his finger, not saying anything. The priests wouldn't leave him alone, but there he knelt, just doodling. And then, slowly, he got up. In the Greek it tells us that he moves toward the center of court, next to the woman who is all but doomed, and utters those powerful words.

"He who is without sin, may cast the first stone."

After everyone, dumbfounded, drops their stones, he turns to the woman, tells her that if no one else condemned her, neither did he, and told her to go and live a better, new, life.

And that's when he does it... he looks at the crowd and says, "I am the light of the world; those who follow me will not walk in darkness, but will have Light in life."

"I am the light of world; those who follow me will not ride in darkness, but will have Light in life."

You know, all this crazy worship service is a little light. Just a dim taillight on the highway of life chasing after the ultimate Ride Captian to let you know you are either on the right track, or if you have been riding in the darkness, that there's someone safely ahead of you that you can follow until that day you see the glowing light of Home.

I don't know, maybe in the story you identify with the Pharisee. I know they're out there. I get complaints every year. Too much rock music. Too much fun. Not enough Jesus. Not enough about salvation. I baptized a little baby this morning. You can bet I'll get a letter or two about it. About how baptism is for believing adults and teens only. If you're out there thinking this, that's fine. Come see me later. We can have a little discussion about what the Greek word "Oikos" and how its how it's used in the the sixteenth chapter of Acts. I'd be happy to have that conversation with you.

But I wish we wouldn't. Because there's a whole world out there filled with condemned people, people who don't know any better and just follow the crowd picking up their rocks to throw, and confused people standing by not knowing exactly what to do. You can rile up the crowd if you want, but remember... Jesus is just doodling in the dirt right now, and he's the light in those people's darkness.

For your darkness.

This little worship service and the short prayer I'll say for so many of you when you pass me by later - "May this bike, and all who ride upon it, be blessed by the Living God" - is all geared to just let you know that if you came looking, hoping, wondering, whether or not Jesus Christ really does teach us what's important about life. How to live. How to love. How to forgive. How to be forgiven. How on that Friday he took your nails, your crown, and your cross, so that on Easter morning you wouldn't just be gifted with life after death, but life in a world filled with death, well then you have come to the right place because that's what this service is... a light on the highway, guiding you home.

You are loved exactly as you are, infinitely, without hesitation and measure.... and yet, you are promised so much more than what you have. You are meant for greater adventures that you don't need to necessarily go seek out on some highway somewhere. Follow Jesus, and if you do it right, you'll find yourself looking in your rear view mirror, in the darkness and the rain, and there will be a headlight.... following you.

I started visiting this guy in the hospital. Every year he comes to the blessing. He's very, very sick. We don't ever use the words "going to die" around here because only God knows how many days each of us gets, but let's just say he knows he's most likely more days behind him, than in front of him.

I sat and we talked about it. He's got little kids. Lives filled with lessons that need to be taught that he's not sure he'll be around to teach. But there's one lesson, not really the one the you want to be assigned, but an important lesson none-the-less he decided to take on. He decided to tell his kids the truth about his disease and most likely what that disease will result in.

And then he did the most remarkable thing. I mean, he isn't a saint or a perfect guy or anything. Ask him or his buddies and they'll tell you he's far from it. But he did this remarkable thing. He tells his kids the truth about what's coming, and then he tells them this.... that he loves them.

You see he doesn't want them to wonder. He doesn't want them to ask "what if". He doesn't want to leave it unsaid. He wants them to know. To know that he loves them, that he's found peace with Jesus, and that the love Jesus has for him and for them, can't be defeated by death.

A light on the highway for those kids. A light on the highway for all of us in that room. A light on the highway for all of us here.

You might be in a place where you feel like Jesus is doodling in the dirt as the fate of your future hangs in the balance. Or maybe you were following someone you thought was taking you home, but just took you for a ride. But in terms of what God wants for you, and what others need from you, Jesus is the light. The light emanating from a beautiful place you call home. A light that seen in a thousand little lights, all on the highway, following the one plowing through the darkness on his divine Kawasaki.

Jesus is the light. If no one else has condemned you, neither has he. Now go and live a better, good, loving, disciple-making life.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Believing Without Seeing

I have a confession. It's tough to admit and I'm not sure how coming clean this way will effect the way I'm perceived, but in this culture where people feel the need to bare even the most minute details of their life ("Going grocery shopping. Hope they'll take these expired Fruit Loops coupons.") I figure you might as well know the truth.

I'm a Facebook junkie.

It's ridiculous, I know. I mean I probably shouldn't care what color you decided to paint your bathroom, what vegetable you steamed for dinner, or anything about your latest pictures of your cat.... but I do. I check Facebook so often on my phone that I think my wife is about to stage an intervention. I check it in meetings, before and after dinner, while I'm watching TV, when I'm on the phone with someone else.

Help me. I'm a Facebook junkie.

It's not all bad though. Occasionally I stumble on something useful or thought provoking. Such was the case when to my surprise, I saw this article in the Toronto Globe written about this fair city we call home. It comes to us from a reporter, who for reasons unnamed, decides to stop here for the night on his way from someplace north of Lima, to someplace south. In the article, the reporter is surprised at the decay he finds in the city. Abandoned buildings. Empty houses. Urban blight. In Detroit, he says, he expects such things, but in towns like Lima he's surprised at the effects of our community being "crushed by the tectonic plates of the global economics" (or some such similar overwrought metaphor). And then he takes a plenty of potshots at our two-WalMart metropolis as a place where people eat at faux-Mexican restaurants only wear baseball caps, stretch pants, and camouflage. He paints us as a post-industrial apocalyptic community where drug dealers no longer hang out due to a lack of financial opportunity.

In short, in the words of the author, living in Lima is "a no-job, no-hope reality". A place Phyllis Diller, once joked, you escape from.

If you live here, or lived here, you get used to people taking potshots at your home. I mean, I don't know why the author of the article is so surprised at the condition of our town. He could find the same kind of blight in Toledo, Dayton, Hamilton, Middletown, Youngstown, Akron, Ironton, and countless other cities and towns all over Ohio. Heck, hasn't he ever heard the song "Allentown"...

Well we're living here in Allentown
Where they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem their killing time
Filling out forms. Standing in line.

Billy Joel wrote this 25 years ago. As the industrial fortunes of the country have continued to decline, discovering a depressed section of the City of Lima in 2011 is akin to going to Berlin and discovering they tore down the Wall. And while I'm sure there are more than a few people locally ready to affirm everything the Globe reporter observed, by no means is this a place where hope has jumped ship. I'd concede that from an economic standpoint, at least over the last thirty years, we've racked up more losses than wins, but that doesn't mean that Lima as a community is losing.

If that's what you see, then, well.... your eyes deceive you.

Like a lot of kids growing up in Lima, in high school I was bucking to get out of here to someplace "not boring". I went off to college, married my high school sweetheart, and after a few more years living here while working on my graduate degree, moved off looking for greener pastures.

But then a funny thing happened... after eight years away, we actually started missing Lima, Ohio and when the opportunity presented itself, we moved back.

Part of the reason for our willingness to return was that we learned something the author of the article apparently doesn't know: there's a post-apocalyptic section or two in every town and city in every town, everywhere. Columbus, for example, has become a mecca for people across the state and the country. It's a place of opportunity, where a mix of public and private sector jobs in every field imaginable are available to qualified applicants. And yet, in Columbus, while there are better bookstores, a larger mall, and more places to eat, there are still drug addicts, crime, run down buildings, empty factories, and in addition to all of that, it seems to take at least 40 minutes to get anywhere. Lima might not be Disneyworld, but what place is? I mean, Disneyworld is built on the backs of a lot of part-time laborers working for little more than minimum wage without benefits.

Where exactly is Nirvana? If you live on the beach in Hawaii, and your neighbor's kids are crying from hunger, have you found paradise?

Name me a town, and I'll point to statistics that show growing social ills. Lima once rode growth spurred by the discovery of oil. Now we know the truth about boomtowns where the future appears to be nothing but bright and rosy: their foundation is built on a bubble that eventually, as the winds of fortune blow elsewhere, burst.

And all the while the poor are shut out either way due to a lack of jobs or an affordable cost of living. Silicon Valley for example is riding a second wave right now of tech fueled growth, but if all you can afford is a house that five families have to share in a dilapidated part of town, how much better off are you really?

No. With the Globe columnist, I'll have to disagree. The quality of life in a community, any community, can't be based on what can be seen and observed. Rather, that which is important, which should be counted, when a community, or for that matter any organization, family, or individual is measured as desirable or undesirable, are characteristics that can't be seen down your nose from a car window. In fact, it can't be seen at all.

I know that sounds confusing. Some sort of preacher's hocus pocus. But it's true.

I have a friend who works for a large corporation in Detroit. For two or three years before he was re-located to a city which has become the poster child for America's industrial decline, he lived in Southern California. SoCal is a place where temperatures start in the 70's and sunshine every day. A place so filled with opportunity that even the Kardashians can become huge stars. And yet, his only regret now as a Motor City resident was that he didn't leave SoCal sooner.

"Detroit is filled with the same people we grew up with", he told me. "Hard-working, honest, decent, good people. If character counted for anything, Detroit would be one of the finest places in the world to live. All I know, is I hope we never leave."

All of this from a man who, with his wife, just adopted two young foster children left in the wake of the only dimension of the city the Globe reporter could see. It's people like my friend the father who yields pictures of his young son and daughter with great pride and enthusiasm who make Detroit, or Toledo, or even Lima a great place to live. You either get that, or you don't.

You can't see good. You can't see decent. You can't see honest. You can't measure character. You just can't. I wish the Globe columnist had recognized this. His entire column might have been different. For while certainly there is here in Lima a hunger for something better than what is, there is also an abundance of people who live hopefully, instill it in their children, and realize what someday some lucky people in post-industrial apocalyptic Shanghai will learn: what makes life worth living has nothing to do with shifting tectonic plates of economic fortune.

Everything important can't be seen. When you believe that, you'll know it's true.

That's why I think Jesus made it a point to let Thomas, who now believed death was beaten as he put his hand in Christ's side, that the greater blessing would be for those who did not see, and yet still believed in the message of the Gospel. A message filled with hope, love, grace, mercy, and a belief in a Kingdom of Heaven that couldn't be seen, but was yet still present and emerging. Jesus calls us to pursue all these things with the fervor and passion that can't come from out of a properly applied scientific method, but rather only through a faith realized so completely that a slave trader was compelled to write the words, "Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found. Was blind but now I see."

The greater blessing is for anyone, living anywhere, who doesn't trust their eyes, but rather only trusts that which can't be seen. Understand that, and the Kingdom is at the gate Lima, Ohio. It's at your gate, wherever you are.

If you keep reading the story after Luke ends, and Acts begins, you'll discover that Jesus' resurrection becomes the confirmation Peter, James, John, and the rest of disciples need to put their faith into a Kingdom that by all acceptable and normal measures, seems ridiculous. A place where the first become last and the last become first. A place where peacemakers are blessed and those who earnestly want to know and live righteously find fulfillment. A place where leaders wash the feet of their followers and assure them that what they'll accomplish will be far greater than anything the leader accomplished in his own lifetime.

A Christian's whole life is invested in what can't be seen, and a refusal to accept as true a no-hope reality.

The fact is that nobody who lives in Lima and likes it (of which there are many of us) is devoid of hope or broken beyond measure. It is possible to make a very nice living here, but if that's not possible countless volunteers, agencies, churches, and service organizations band together, striving to form a safety net to catch those who are falling between the cracks. It's a place where the soup kitchens get funded out of a sense of humility one check or dollar at a time, and where the Rescue Home keeps the "Jesus Saves" sign on with donations from people who know "there but by the grace of God, go I". Its a place where people are always dreaming and working toward something better because, while they can't see it, they know it still exists. Maybe tectonic forces crushed many of our factories, but our spirit is left intact.

I'll close with this.... last fall our community buried a great man. Dr. Gene Wright. Dr. Wright was my doctor growing up. As a kid he made me stick out my tongue and say "ah", and later as an adult, he chastised me about my weight. I was one of thousands, I suppose, who could say the same. In his life he was instrumental in not only keeping Lima healthy, but also training up generations of new doctors, improving our health care facilities (which are now our principle employers), and because he was well aware of the challenges people without health insurance faced, the founding of Allen County Health Partners, a publicly and privately funded agency that provides health care to thousands of people who currently are not insured. He was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things all because when he sat in the pew, he believed what he heard when he was told that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He spent his whole life making sure that on his watch, all God's children here would get to stick out their tongue and say "ah".

I serve a congregation in community filled with Dr. Wrights. They bust their hump raising millions of dollars for causes of all kinds. They donate hours upon hours of their time. They pray "thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven", and then live it out. They understand that there are variations on the joke, "First Prize: A week in Lima, Ohio. Second Prize: Two weeks in Lima, Ohio", and are still love this place they call home enough that they give back to it, willingly and passionately.

And like Dr. Wright, they are strangely compelled by their belief in things unseen. A hope not yet fully realized. A love that defies logic. And a willingness to make sacrificially an investment in the kinds of mercy and grace that make town like ours, a great place to live.

Friday, March 04, 2011

How Big Is Your Dream?

We started this series asking the question, "What is the sign of Jonah?". It's a question raised in Matthew 16 when the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus to do something miraculous, perform a sign, that would prove he was the Son of God, and Jesus said that only sign they needed was the sign of Jonah.

And if they didn't understand that sign, no other was necessary.

So for the last three weeks, Charlotte, Daniel and I have been unraveling the mystery of what the sign of Jonah actually is, and what it might mean to us.

To date we've picked up a lot of clues. Initially we discovered that God has a will for all of us. It might at times be pretty broad - live righteously - and at other times it might be quite specific. Like, for example, to go to Nineveh and tell its inhabitants to get their act together or face the Lord's judgment. In either case, God will use us either because we been faithful, or as a cautionary tale - as a living example of what happens when we do the opposite of what God desires for us. In either case, if you remember, God uses Jonah even in his disobedience, and the sailors on the boat sailing for Tarshish who begin the story as pagans, end the story offering sacrifices to the living God. Pharisees and Sadduccees can't imagine God using anybody except those who perfectly kept the Law. But they were wrong...

Clue #1: People moving in the wrong direction in life are still used by the Lord.

Next, Daniel helped us understand that while Jonah believed God lived in the Temple of Jerusalem, he discovered the Lord present in the belly of the fish. Remember this was the popular belief of the day. God lived in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Only the priests could stand in God's presence, and at that only at certain times of the year. And yet, Jonah calls on God in the last place he should be present, and God shows up. And because God shows up, Jonah finds out that even smelling and looking like someone who had been in a whale for three days, that God, in his presence, would still use Jonah. Pharisees and Sadduccees couldn't imagine God being anywhere but the Holy and Holies, but they were wrong....

Clue #2: God just isn't present in the Temple, but everywhere, even in the foulest places imaginable.

Finally, last week, Charlotte talked about how sometimes the Good News sounds like bad news. But in this case, the Ninevites don't hear bad news. Even though Jonah was outsider who reeked of fish vomit, the word from the Lord was received whole-heartedly by the entire city-state. More than likely God had been preparing their hearts to hear the Good News of God's willingness to reconcile them to Him. Maybe it was because, as some scholars believed, the Ninevites worshipped sea gods, and thus could take a guy vomited out of a fish seriously. Maybe doubt had already existed in the minds of those in power that they were leading people in the wrong direction. Who knows. All we know is the word of the Lord is received by Ninevah. For them, the word is Good News. But in a world where the Pharisees and Sadduccees saw those who didn't know God as second-class citizens, as sinful lost pagans, as the enemy, that God would use an Israelite prophet to call foreigners to repentance, and to do so successfully, was bad news. It was inconceivable. It meant, really and truly, that God wanted to use his people to be a light of hope. To speak in a way that hearts who had not heard Him yet were being prepared to hear. The Pharisees and Sadduccees wanted to write the rest of the world off, but

Clue #3: The Good News doesn't always sound like Good News to us, particularly if we have to make room God's couch (or even give up our seat) to let others rest near Him.

Which brings us today. Jonah, having watched God spare Nineveh, is ticked. In his heart of heart, we find out, unequivocally, that Jonah's biggest fear is that God will forgive a nation of people he deeply hates, and hates with good reason. They have, in the past treated Israel cruelly. They've committed unimaginable crimes against the most innocent Israelites. Jonah doesn't even want to imagine that God might let these people off, let alone actually care about them.

Even love them.

The Pharisees and Sadducees hate a lot of people. They hate sinners because they believe they were blocking the day God's justice and judgment would come. They hated Samaritans because for historical reasons, they worshiped God in a different temple, and while they had Jewish blood in them, had intermarried with, of all people, Ninevites.

And they hated Romans. Man did they hate Romans. They hated them the most of all. They hated them for their cruelty. They hated them for being pagans. They hated because they made life so difficult for everybody with their corrupt, brutal form of government and taxation.

They hated them. Hated them to the degree that the idea that, like Jonah in today's scripture, the idea of being personally inconvenienced bothered them more than the death and destruction of every Roman man, woman, and child. Whole families wiped out meant less than a lack of shade for themselves on a hot, hot day.

The Pharisees and Sadducees prayed for the wrath of God to destroy their enemies, but...

Clue #4: God's mercy is extended to all, and where it's accepted, it will be released like a torrent whether or not you think the receiver is worthy.

Four clues to understand the sign of Jonah. When we add them up, what do we get?

God's desire is to be reconciled with all humanity.

So, here's the question: Are you a sign of God's desire?

That's a big question. For all their knowledge of scripture... all the energy in living a Holy life... even the work they would do for the widows and orphans.... the Pharisees and Sadducees weren't signs of God's desire.

I find this to be personally very sobering. We can hate sin and what it does to people, but we've no license to hate people themselves no matter how infuriating we might think they are. In fact, we're called to be sign posts of God's desire of reconciliation and peace. To speak in ways that hearts are already being prepared to hear. In Jonah's case, the word was straight and simple, covered in fish vomit and seaweed.

I know there are plenty of people out there who would be happy to speak a straight and simple word to people who they felt were the most vile sinners. But they'd rather speak that word on a high horse, gleaming white in the bright sunlight assured that God's smiting would smite those needed to be smoted.

The best example, bar none, that I can think of is the Phelps family in Topeka, Kansas. The folks who travel around to let you know that God's judgment on America is sealed. Do you know these folks have called you dogs? They've called you whores? They've called our church, this church, a dog kennel, and me a son of hell? A young man from our community whose grandmother, in particular, was a long-time faithful member of this church, died in action while serving in Iraq. When Christian Neff's death was announced, it didn't take 24 hours for the Westboro Baptist Church to announce their intention to picket his funeral at this church.

They said he was going to hell. That our church is a dog kennel. That you are all whores. That I am a false prophet. And not one word uttered at us, or to anyone else anywhere, is said with the hope that you or I will be redeemed. In their sick, twisted minds, all the Phelps family wants is for you and I to hate them with even greater passion. For their contempt for humanity, anyone who is not them, is so great, that they would pray that your hate would grow so that your torment in hell, forever would be greater and greater.

They have no idea what the sign of Jonah is.

For it doesn't really matter how virtuous a life you lead. If it's devoid of love and compassion for others - particularly the most unlovable of the unlovable - Paul, a Pharisee who one day woke up to discover that even though he knew Jonah's story backwards and forwards, didn't live a life that understood it's meaning, tells us that if you gave everything you had to the poor, possessed the power to make mountains jump, or even offer yourself as a martyr for the faith, if you don't love, if you don't stand as a sign post of God's desire to be reconciled with everyone, every chip you think you've earned with God, is a sham and a dream.

Listen... be principled. Be disciplined. Hold yourself to the highest standards. Believe passionately in God's righteousness and put yourself to the task of working out that righteousness out in your own life.

But don't hate. Don't scapegoat. Not anybody.

Not your that person who hurt you. Not that person who abandoned you. Not that person who is a vile pig. Nobody.

God is calling you to dream His dream... the reconciliation of his children to Himself.

Now, don't get me wrong. I get that what I'm asking you to do is virtually impossible. Everybody hates somebody, me included. African warlords who enslave children to slaughter in their name. Druglords who rule with fear and intimidation to enslave others. Adults who do unmentionable things to children.

If it were up to me, I'd say just kill 'em all, and let God sort them out. I don't care about the circumstances. I don't care about what happened to them as children or whatever it is that has turned these people into sociopaths.

But I hate to say this... God's compassion for whoever it is you've decided is the scum of humanity it not withheld. It does not yield. There is an ocean of mercy that need only to be accepted waiting to wash over every single one of these people.

And what's more, I just might be the person who needs to be the sign of God's forgiveness for the very person I hate. A sign that may, out of my unwillingness to go when called to speak the Good News in a way hearts are already being prepared to receive, might have to be delivered with a humiliated, defeated me, smelling of fish vomit and covered in seaweed.

So, let me leave you with this. Sin, I think, has left each of us just little bit challenged. Emotionally challenged. Intellectually challenged. Spiritually challenged. We have obstacles to overcome to begin embracing God's dream. Challenges to be overcome to be an effective disciple of Jesus. Challenges to be overcome so that we can effectively disciple others.

We hate somebody. We don't believe in ourselves. And we're tempted to put others down so we can stand on their bent backs to try to put us a little bit closer to God.

But even if we're imperfect, if we trust God, we can in certain moments, with certain people, being the perfect mirror, reflecting the light of love into a dark place not suitable anyone.

Are you a sign of God's desire? Will you trust Him to fashion you into beacon of hope He needs you to be?

Saturday, February 05, 2011


1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves ; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling ; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing ; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. (Philippians 2:1-4, 12-16)

Almost from the very beginning the church has faced an ongoing dilemma. On one hand, it is (theoretically at least) the most inviting movement on the face of the planet. All people from everywhere with every kind of background are welcome among her ranks. Everyone is invited to come worship, study, prayer, and break bread with the body of believers. Particularly in Paul's world (the guy who wrote the scripture) this was largely unheard of in every corner of the culture. Culturally, people largely stuck to their own "kind", and only reached out to others if there was some immediate base need they had someone else could fulfill. The church was made up of rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female... compared to the world it was an unknown, wild jungle of the human spirit. When you entered the world of the church, you had to leave your labels behind, and as people gave up whatever labels they came in with, and exchanged them for "Disciple of Jesus", the church just continued to become the increasingly diverse.

But that didn't meant, even if our prince is the Prince of Peace, doesn't mean we've gotten along.

But just because you profess faith in Jesus doesn't mean that you automatically shake your influences. Putting all these different types and kinds of people might sound beautiful in an "Up With People" sort of way, but in the real world it created a lot of conflict. People who came from religious backgrounds that celebrated, for example, wild uninhibited acts of religious ecstasy in worship, generally brought that tradition with them into the church. So when they'd experience "speaking in tongues", they felt right at home. But other people from more subdued religious backgrounds related more to times of prayer and fasting, and when these two people, and many others with other spiritual affinities (some of which were downright unacceptable) all got together, it created conflict.

Lots of conflict.

That's a myth of the church, I think. We read something like Philippians 2, which calls us to be of the same mind, maintain the same love, unite in spirit, and intent on one purpose, and we tend to think of it as proscriptive. As an order, like from a doctor when we've gone to her when we're sick. But I think we miss the tone of Paul's writing as we read what he writes. Paul has learned long ago that you can't force anybody to do what you want them to do or believe what you want them to believe. His is just one voice. An important one, no doubt, but still only one in a world where even the Apostles are struggling to understand what it means to "be of one mind".

So when I read the text above, I hear in it a bit of exasperation. A frustration that comes from having too many times to quell too many disagreements among too many people who, in theory, should take "love your neighbor as yourself" much more seriously.

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing ; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.

That doesn't sound like a guy to me who is used to speaking, and seeing immediate results. He's basically asking these people to get along if for no other reason, than because they like and respect him. Like a father begging a son addicted to pain killers at an intervention to go to rehab for Dad or Mom if he can't do it for himself. That's the degree of strife and resistance to his teaching Paul encounters in the church.

The church has always been filled with tension, strife, differences, and challenges, and it still continues.

I know this first hand. I got a couple of reminders earlier today. At the beginning of this post you see a picture of our pastoral staff. You got me, in all my button-down tied glory. You have Charlotte, our site pastor at our Bath campus who is in the picture, the rose among thorns. And then you have Daniel, who all of us other pastors have nicknamed "Pastor Eye Candy".

A white guy. A white woman. A black guy. Can't say there are too many other pastoral staffs who look like ours... anywhere. I remember seeing that picture for the first time and just kind of being surprised. And the first time I saw it, I saw it in a newspaper that had been distributed to more than 90,000 people that very morning. It surprised me when I saw it.

And guess what, so was the public.

Yesterday I received two different phone calls from surprised, even angry, people who I don't know and said they don't go to our church. In fact, they made it point to tell me that they wouldn't dare attend our church. One person, a woman, lectured me for about fifteen minutes on how unbiblical we were because we had a female pastor. She knew a lot of scripture - at least a lot of scripture regarding a woman's role in the church - and let me know that I was inviting "the wrath of God" upon us.

That was the friendly phone call.

The second one I received from someone who somehow got a hold of my cell phone number, and knew how to block theirs from showing up on my screen. He had a lot to say about race and religion. He had a lot to say about me. I don't feel compelled to repeat exactly what was said. Let's just say this person isn't a fan of people who look different worshiping together.

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves ; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Both of these other people claimed to be Christians, and I'm not sure what they would do with Philippians 2:3-4 if I had repeated it to them. More than likely, they would have blew me off.

But that what it's like in this faith of ours. We all come to the feast prepared for us by Jesus at the table with all kinds of experiences, backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes. On our way to that table, we often bump into people who are strange, and sometimes even upsetting, and often we want to just go find a place where we won't get stretched. Where we'll be more comfortable. A place where we aren't just fed, but catered to.

Jesus is no caterer. The table is set, but you still need to come forward and sit down with everyone else who has been invited. We do a good job, in this life, most of us in this family of God, sequestering ourselves so that we don't have to see, or smell, or hear others so different from ourselves. But I want to tell you... there aren't different houses of worship in Heaven. Just one, and John the Revelator told us that it was revealed to him that in the presence of God, together, there were people of all tribes, nationalities, races, and tongues. God won't let us keep our blinders on for eternity. Sooner or later, we'll have to take a good look at the other folks singing his praise next us, and realize that realize how different they are. The question is how soon God wants us to wake up to this reality.

Let me share something with you as we end five weeks of looking at ways Jesus restores us when sin, anger, pain, success, or something else steals away our identity. When Christ restores us, he's not interested in restoring us to be the us we were before whatever it was that derailed us, derailed us. His is a complete restoration. He wants to haul out all the junk. Paint every wall. Re-carpet every floor. Replace the electrical and plumbing. He's looking for a total rebirth.

Jesus restores us, only to take what our identity was away, and to give us a completely new one. And the way he does the work is through the work we're already doing, in humility, with much fear and trembling.

We call the restoration work Christ wants to do in us, sanctification. The Greek word is "Qadash" which means to "vindicate the holiness" or to "separate to make holy". Its the work we do, like to an old house that needs made over, to tear out the ugliness that marks us. Paul tells us in v.12-13 that as we do the hard work of tearing out all the ugliness, God come alongside of us in that work, and begins working through us, like a spiritual interior designer and contractor.

To make us "perfect" in his sight.

Perfect is a funny word isn't it. Life is so imperfect, perfection seems virtually unattainable. But perfection, as we understood in our Wesleyan tradition, hasn't as much been a destination (a finished home), but rather a continued journey that only is made complete when we stand fully in the presence of God. A journey of loving God more and more, and loving our neighbor increasingly with a grace greater than our sin.... more and more like Jesus loves us.

Jesus wants to steal our identity, and give us a perfect one. And the way we know we're on the right track, as we do all of this work, is by how far you can extend your love as you faithfully do God's bidding, and as far as you can outside of your little circle of family and friends. It's the movement from looking to be fed by the Jesus the Five-Star Caterer, to finding a seat at the Lord's table next to somebody who makes us very uncomfortable, or angry, or conflicted, or even deeply, deeply sorrowful.

Doesn't seem to make much sense does it. You'd think this Christian journey would be all uplifting prayer meetings, songs that take us to new heights, and preaching that would inspire the angels. Not a difficult journey made with people who could even exasperate a saint like Paul.

But that's how it works.

All of us, doing the work of tearing out the ugliness, while the Holy Spirit renews, strengthens, and makes us over. There is learning in the work, and that education is never free. But if you want to get right with God, you gotta do the work of getting right with others, otherwise you'll never learn who you are supposed to be. You've gotta run - not walk - but run to the table looking for a seat in the place of least honor, with the people who seem least worthy of being there. Even next to the woman who thinks I'm going to Hell for working proudly with a female pastor, and even next to the guy who is a prejudiced bigot. At the table you learn where they've come from, what's been done to them, what their limitations are, how imperfect things are, and yet how important it is to keep them in your prayers, in your orbit, even if they don't want to be there.

Doesn't matter if you ever change them. You can't change anybody anyway. That's the work God does, as we do the work on ourselves, with fear, trembling, and humility. What matters is what's being separated out, the wheat from the chaff, the crap from the holy, so that we might start looking for, maybe even getting a little excited about, running to the Lord's table to find a seat next to the person who isn't the dinner companion we might have, on our own, chosen.

You gotta run, not walk, but run, to the table. Sit down. That's where the feast is.

I just want to tell you, that's the kind of church I want us to be. The church who runs to the table to sit down next to the least, the last, the lost, the hurting, the difficult, and the sick. The church that looks, well, really different, because it seeks out people looking for healing, and is filled with people looking to help heal.

A family of faith being sanctified, doing the hard work of ripping out the ugliness inside, to reveal something God has done that is individually more beautiful, more perfect, and collectively more heavenly. A light, even, in the darkness of what could be the darkest moment of the soul.

It can only happen one restoration at a time. Each of us doing the hard work. All of coming to the table the Lord has prepared.

Won't you come to the table?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dancing In The Minefields (Twenty Years Married... and counting)

This morning at worship planning, while looking for some potential fodder for a future service, I stumbled on this great song by one of my personal favorites, a Christian artist by the name of Andrew Peterson.

The words kind of hit like a ton of bricks. Aimee and I actually got married when we were 21 and 19. We had been engaged for a year, and everyone told us we were too young. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Heaven knows it's been hard. Five degrees down and almost one more to go, fourteen moves, a move not made because she told me if I took the job I'd be going alone, one baby, then two, then three, and finally a fourth neither of us envisioned bringing into the world. It seems like we've always been on the precipice of financial implosion, the edge of another major decision, and the beginning of a new daunting challenge.

But we're still here.... together.

I don't know... it's kind of strange. 2010 was just about the most stressful year of my almost 42 years of existence. We spent the entire year preparing for major transitions here at work (new church name, new staff, new additional locations, new leadership structure, etc... it went on and on). We sank money into new opportunities for ministry and mission, but it resulted in General Fund beginning to fall, which became the source of chest-pains and a subsequent stress-test. The changes weren't universally lauded and celebrated, so some people decided it was time to find another church.

It was a tough year.

All the while our family situation was churning as wildly as the situation at work. The two older boys got increasingly busy with sports and activities. Elijah, who had been tested for Autism was slowly finding his way as a student in a classroom as we also took him to an Occupational Therapist to help adapt socially to others. Toby was busy being 2. Aimee took care of four boys while running her own business while I was mostly not around. Oh.... and we moved, again. Nothing like trying to sell your house in the worst housing market since the Great Depression.

And yet, somehow, God used this year to knit us closer together, Aimee and I.

Marriage is not easy. It's hard enough to figure out how to make it through life by yourself, without also having to do navigation for two. I don't know how you make a marriage work without some sort of higher purpose or calling for the endeavor. Call it whatever you want: a "divine calling" or at minimum a belief that the the little world you are creating together somehow makes the bigger one a better place for others to live.... it makes no difference. If you can't somehow keep it in focus that the reason you're together is to create a haven of blessing and peace for the world, and that begins with your own family, I just don't see it surviving. You have to fight for that haven every day. You have to sacrifice for it. Often you have see past the turbulence and chaos to realize that peace on the other side. It's tough, but peace is worth fighting for. You just have to remember to fight the external threats to that peace, and not turn on one another when its not easily realized.

Years ago, I'm guessing when we lived here in Lima long before we had kids, I remember one night we had one of the those yelling, throwing things, kind of fights. We were both in school. We had no money. We were always apart. We were still adjusting to being under the looking glass of a local church. It was tough, and on this particular evening I suppose one too many cups of displeasure were poured out, and the dam broke. The screaming finally ended with my hopping in a car, and leaving.

I drove around awhile, but finally, not really sure where I was going or what to do next, hungry, I ended up pulling into a Waffle House. I took a pad of paper and pen in with me, and while I waited for my eggs over a terrible cup of coffee, I started to write. I just poured out all my feelings. All the good. All the bad. All the "what if" regarding staying together, or getting a divorce. All of it.

After a couple of hours and I don't know how many cups of coffee, I just remember writing and writing, and as time went on asking God what He wanted me to do.

"Write out your best guess", was the reply.

And and out of what's now an old Bible Aimee gave me, I copied:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."

Love doesn't make it unless two people are committed to living it out what it takes to keep it alive, together, mutually. I thank God I have someone to keep doing that with, through better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, til death us do part.

So when I lose my way, find me
When I lose loves chains, bind me
At the end of all my faith
to the end of all my days
when I forget my name, remind me

Cause we bear the light of the son of man
So there’s nothing left to fear
So I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands
Till the shadows disappear
Cause he promised not to leave us
And his promises are true
So in the face of all this chaos baby
I can dance with you