Monday, September 29, 2008

Reporter Column

If anybody happens to read the paper version of my latest post that the United Methodist Reporter has reprinted and notices that it begins with a reference to something that happened "last Sunday," rest assured that it did not. It actually happened months ago, in June, and I posted about it then.

I emailed Amy at the Reporter about it, and she changed the online version to "recently" so that's cool, thank you Amy. But the print version is out there, and I just don't want anybody thinking something happened yesterday at church and they missed it!

Update - The Dallas Morning News website has linked to the online version of this UM Reporter column that started out as this blog post. And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hip - Contemporary - Evangelical = Apparently Not

My stomach hurts. In an article at, I read this sentence.
Set in a field amongst the St. Charles sprawl, Morning Star Church is part of the United Methodist Church, but it looks and feels more like a hip, contemporary evangelical congregation.

The underlying assumption? That a United Methodist Church couldn't possibly be "hip, contemporary," or "evangelical." It's as if the very idea that a mainline church could be doing something like Morning Star is doing in their worship services was just too mind-boggling for the writer to comprehend.

If you read the whole article, you'll see that it is about a really cool practice they have at Morning Star UMC. People are encouraged to send text messages to the church's cell phone during the sermon. These messages are screened and sent within seconds to the preacher's laptop computer. Mike then reads the questions and addresses some of them in his message. LOVE IT! Completely cool idea!

What makes my stomach hurt is the surprise expressed by the article - as in, "Y'all aren't going to believe this, but this is happening in a United Methodist congregation! Crazy, huh?" Since when is it so shocking that Methodists are evangelical? Arghh!

Is there anyone reading this who is still unconvinced that the public image of the mainline church is very seriously damaged? There are thousands and thousands of people who wouldn't even think of a denominational church as a place where their spiritual thirst might be quenched - not because of any animosity, but just because of simple ambivalence. It's not that they hate the church, it's just that they don't really care about it.

And without seeing the irony, it seems to many of us that the mainline is still doing battle to "win people" into their congregation. I can't even count how many times I've heard someone use the expression "win people for Christ." "Win people"? What? Evangelism isn't a fight anymore. We are not battling for people's souls; their souls are just fine, thank you. It's not really a fight when nobody is fighting against you, it's just a tantrum. You can't "fight against" ambivalence because people who are ambivalent ... um ... are ambivalent! This, incidentally, is another reason that my stomach hurts.

Morningstar UMC's innovations are exciting and definitely will help to convey the gospel in a language in which it can be heard. And in doing so they stand firmly in the Wesleyan evangelical tradition of "becoming more vile" in order to communicate the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ. (That's how John Wesley described the innovation of preaching on the street in his day, btw.)

I long for the day when the fact that a United Methodist Congregation is doing such creative, cool stuff does not result in "Crazy, huh?" but rather "There they go again!"

(btw - if you read the article, be sure to peruse the comments that people have left. There are some pretty interesting critiques of the practice that are worth reading.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Change Like a Tiger

I root for the Kansas City Chiefs.
HEY - I hear you snickering! Watch it!
Anyway, as I was saying, I root for the Kansas City Chiefs. And they are terrible. The game last week between the Raiders and the Chiefs may have been the ugliest football game I have ever seen. They stink.
But I know them. They are my guys. And I'd rather root for a horrible team that I know than try to find another team to root for that might be better. I could root for a team that would be fun to watch, a team for whom there was a sliver of hope, a team that could run a wider variety of plays than Kansas City, whose offense seems to consist of running Larry Johnson into a huge pile of linemen three times and then punting.
But to do that, I'd have to learn about a-whole-nother team - players, colors, logos, coaches, everything. All of that change and then I wouldn't even be 100% sure that they would win the Superbowl, anyway. So I stick with the hapless Chiefs, who as I have mentioned before, stink.
I wonder if that's what the Hebrew people were feeling when they got hungry in the wilderness and complained to Moses in chapter 17. Their complaint was that in Egypt, at least they had food. But out here in the wilderness, there's just nothing! In other words, they knew Egypt. Bad as it was, at least they knew it. The wilderness was new, and despite Moses' leadership up to this point, they saw no hope that things would get better any time soon.
What's that expression? Better the devil you know...
Now add to this that I also root for the Missouri Tigers. This is also a team that I feel like I know. These are also my guys.
And they pretty much kick butt.
Number one offense in the NCAA, two legit Heisman Trophy candidates, hands-down favorite in the Big 12 North and some say the Big 12 championship game. In the past few years, they have completely transformed their offensive scheme and recruited a ton of really talented players to run it. And I must say that it is a lot more fun to root for a team both that I know and is also really, really good! I'm sure not about to change to rooting for a different college team; it's not even on my mind to do so.
So, speaking of changing the church -
Is there a way that transforming the church can be more of a Missouri Tigers than a Kansas City Chiefs experience?
A lot of people in the church seem to me to be reluctant to change because we prefer the church that we know to the unknown future church that might be. Even if the church we know may be stagnant, irrelevant, lethargic, it is at its core ours - or so we like to think. (Yes, I could drop in an argument at this point that the church is really God's, but for the sake of this discussion bracket that out for the time being.)
But maybe transformation of the church could involve both a sense of hope and also a sense of "ours." To infuse that which we already know with a new energy, to revive that which is familiar, to rejuvenate that which for so long has been obligatory and routine - this is the kind of change that I would like to witness in the church.
The Tigers didn't change their team colors, fire Truman the Tiger, remove the big "M" from behind the north end zone of Faurot Field, stop playing football, scoring touchdowns, making tackles. But the Tigers completely transformed their identity as a football team, which meant they completely transformed the way they play football. So they are still "our team" and also they are exciting to watch.
To be sure, I believe that the church needs to change - or better said, that the church is changing before our very eyes. But I really and truly do not think it has to change to the point where we don't even recognize it anymore. I'm going to root for the church, because it is "my team" and more seriously because I am called by God to serve through the church as a pastor. But I'd rather be rooting for a church that not only is "my team" but also in which I witness a sense of hope, energy, and excitement.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Emptying My Head

It's funny how many things can take priority over writing for my blog. Things like

1) Getting to know a seven year old foster daughter who has been placed in your care,
2) Parenting two sensitve, tender-hearted children into a new school year at a new school in a whole different town,
3) Getting ready to teach 17 of your peers in a brand new, never done that before continuing ed experience,
4) Preparing to lead a Bible study in a congregation that you are still learning about,
5) Day-by-day, moment-to-moment pastoring stuff.

So I haven't written in a week, but that doesn't mean I have't had thoughts, ideas, blog-worthy things popping into my mind. (My friend Dave is always trying to say something "blog-worthy" when we're together, in hopes that I'll include him. Hi, Dave!) Make no mistake, my not posting for a week does not indicate that I have nothing to say. Actually I never have anything to say, and that rarely ever stops me from writing anyway. My mind seems to continual fill and refill with thoughts, 98% of which are completely random and absolutely unhelpful!

When I have other things that crowd out writing time, I can feel it. It's almost like writing out my thoughts for Enter the Rainbow is exercise, and when I don't exercise, I get a bit stiff. Yesterday in fact I was actually grouchy, my thoughts were scattered, and I had a killer headache, and I think it was because I hadn't written in a while. Today is better. Today I have found a moment to write.

And so, my thoughts travel from mind to hand to screen to blogosphere. Catharsis. Release. Ideas no longer contained in my head, but "out there" for all to read. Like I have turned a valve and released pressure, I can feel myself stretching out, warming up, breaking a metaphorical sweat. This post isn't even about anything; it just is. And even so I feel better after writing. Nobody's life will be changed reading this post. And yet I continue to write it, even so.

You want some content? Check out Tony Jones latest about the limits of religion. Or Bill Tammeus writing about how religion can be a downer. Or take a read on what Brad Bryan has to say about the ordination process.

As for me, I'm just writing to empty out my head.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Foster Family Again

Foster care is on my mind this week. Those who read the Rainbow regularly know that we are a foster family, and we see that as a big part of fulfilling our calling. And as of this week we have officially transferred our license to Greene County, having moved here a couple of months ago.

Within hours of having our name "out there" as an available foster care family, we had received two calls. Literally. Less than one day. If that doesn't say something about the need for foster and adoptive families, nothing does. So as of this afternoon, we will be a family of five for a while as we welcome our new foster daughter into our home!

Now along with that, I read a news story within the past couple of days (though now I can't remember where) about a move to try to make adoption and foster care more difficult, if not outlaw it altogether, for single adults. I'm sure I do not need to go into much detail about why I would think this is a colossally stupid idea.

We need MORE foster care, not less. The training for being a foster parent is rigorous - 30 hours of classwork, certification in CPR, first aid, and medication, 15 hours a year of continuing ed to keep up with new trends, not to mention the meticulous requirements of the household itself - insurance, fire escape plan, electrical outlets covered. They even make sure your pet licenses are up to date!

It is already pretty hard to become a foster parent, and by the time you get licensed, married OR single, you have been through a process of discernment and reflection that is designed to make sure both 1) the system wants you and 2) you want to be in the system. The bottom line is, being a foster care family must be a vocation or you won't be able to do it. If it is not truly a life calling, you will be frustrated by it.

Those who would make it impossible for single people to be foster parents are implying that they would rather have kids put into residential facilities than private homes. I have nothing whatsoever against residential facilities, but I cannot see how that would be better for the kid in any way, shape, or form.

Anyway, we are back into the foster family world, after a few months of adjustment as a result of our moving. We ask you all for your prayers and good thoughts sent our direction. And if you are thinking that God might want you to be a foster family, too - give us a call! We'll get you pointed in the right direction to make that happen.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Pastoring Without Preaching

I find myself with a week ahead of me that does not contain within it the expectation of a sermon at the end of it. Rev. Melissa Dodd is preaching Sunday morning, and I will be serving as the worship leader.

And may I just say, "Ahh."

It feels really good to have this week in which maybe 12 - 15 hours of time is freed up by what would have been sermon prep. And now it can be ... well, it can be whatever I want it to be, can't it? Visits, reading, writing, planning, working on Ministers' School, preparing for the PLD class I'm co-teaching, taking communion to some of our homebound folks ... pretty much sky's the limit!

I would not feel this way if not for the presence of my gifted colleague in ministry, Melissa Dodd. I am free to have a week like this because I know that I do not have to worry about this Sunday at all. She is an excellent preacher, engaging and challenging, and I can't wait to hear her preach.

(As an aside, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to wish Melissa a wonderful birthday today. Out of respect for her privacy, I will not share with you all exactly which birthday this is, but there is a zero at the end of it and it is not thirty.)

The other thing that having a week like this does for me is make my own preaching better. I think that he key to better sermons is to preach less often. I heard that years ago at a Ministers' School, and I've never forgotten it. It gives me more time and energy to focus on the sermons I preach, the weekly preparations become less of a grind and the sense of joy is renewed. Plus I have a chance to listen to a good sermon, which fills my soul and stretches me spiritually.

And so ... "ahh" ... I'm ready for a wonderful week of pastoring without preaching.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Pulpit Pounders - 2008 Lineup

I've writte such frivolous, silly posts lately, I thought I would do something a little more serious. Here's the lineup for my 2008 Fantasy Football team - the Pulpit Pounders.

Quarterback - Peyton Manning

Running backs - Marion Barber and Darren McFadden

Wide receivers - Marques Colston, Marvin Harrison, Anquan Boldin

Tight end - Donald Lee

Defense / Special Team - Philadelphia Eagles

Kicker - Adam Vinatieri

With this line-up, I see nothing other than complete domination all season long. Let the pounding begin.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Changing the Tone - a Political Opinion ...

Spoiler alert: I am about to express a political opinion. For those of you who do not feel it is appropriate for pastors to have, or at least to express political opinions, you may want to skip on ahead to another blog. You have been warned ...

I've been watching the political conventions, and all four presidential and vice-presidential candidates say that they want to change our government. They all say, essentially, that the government isn't working like it should and one of the main things they all want to do is change it. McCain's line is "Washington is broken." Obama's line is, "Yes we can."

Additionally, in order to give evidence for the need of change, they all list off many of the same symptoms - high gas prices, the ubiquitous but poignant "single mother" story, unattainable health insurance, the ongoing war in Iraq, jobs being sent to foreign countries, deteriorating relationships with our global partners, and so forth. Both conventions featured litanies that were remarkably similar.

But there is at least one very stark difference between the two campaigns in how they talk about changing things.

Obama says, We are going to change things but they are not. Whereas McCain says, We both are going to change things, but ours will be 'good change' whereas theirs would be 'bad change.' This is a pretty big philosophical difference. I like McCain's approach better, because at least he is acknowledging that Obama has some new ideas. He just doesn't like them. Obama is just saying that McCain just has old ideas, and would offer nothing new. I don't think that's fair.

Actually, what I truly believe is that neither one of them is going to change things all that much. The two-party bureaucracy that is the U.S. federal government is so entrenched, so ingrained, things are going to pretty much function as they have been for a while, and a new president is not going to make that much of a practical, policy level, this-is-how-we-get-things-done kind of way. I mean, the checks and balances of our system of government are there for a reason, right? I remember high school civics class - the president just doesn't have unlimited power.

How the president can change things, in my opinion, is by the tone that is set, the atmosphere in which the government operates. Truly great leaders motivate the people around them by creating an atmosphere of enthusiasm, support, and encouragement. This atmosphere is contrasted with bitterness, selfishness, and just downright meanness that can cripple any environment in which people work together - a business, a church, or a government.

So I'm going to be listening to the two campaigns very closely over the next few weeks, to hear the tone that is being set. Because if they talk about change in a bitter, selfish, and mean tone - that's really no change at all. That's how Washington is now; it's what McCain means when he says it is broken. How ironic it would be if they talked about changing things using the exact same tone that they are trying to change! That just wouldn't work.

But, if they talk about change with enthusiasm, support, encouragement, and (dare I say it without sounding partisan) hope, then they will be modelling the change they would bring. I believe that politicians lead like they campaign, and if you campaign with bitter name calling and mean attacks on your opponents, that's probably how you will lead, too. If you campaign by saying, I'm going to force my agenda through, no matter what others think, that's probably how you will lead, too.

And on the flipside, if you campaign by saying, I'm going to work together with many different people, try to bring together many different sides of every issue for dialogue, and listen to as much information as possible from all sides before making a decision, well that's probably how you will lead as well.

And in my opinion, that would be a pretty good change.

So Barack, John, Sarah, and Joe, if you read this, here's what I want to hear from you. I want to hear respect and hope and open mindedness and willingness to admit you are wrong and the ability to compromise and thoughtfulness and integrity and good humor and humility.

And here's what I don't want to hear from you. I don't want to hear what your oppenent is or is not going to do - I want to hear what YOU are going to do. I don't want to hear about your opponent's experience or lack thereof - I want to hear about YOURS. I don't want to hear any details about your opponent's personal life including their kids, their spouse, their faith, their beverage of choice, and so forth - I want to hear about YOU, as much as you are willing to share.

Don't tell me why I shouldn't vote for the other one, tell me why I should vote for you. Tell me how YOU will change the tone of our government.

Or better yet - show me!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ritual and Event

In preparing next Sunday's sermon, something caught my attention that hadn't before. In Exodus 12, the description of the Passover ritual precedes the event itself, and then in fact, when the actual events of that night are described, it is with just a few sentences, almost in passing.

There is a huge build up, and then ... fffwwip ... it is gone.

God first describes the ritual to Moses and Aaron - they in turn give that description to the people - and it is reported that "the Israelites went and did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron." (12:28) The ritual descriptions are elaborate and detailed, and many commentators say they represent fragments of a few different versions of the story. And then the actual enactment of the instructions is only briefly mentioned.

This has made me think about the relationship between ritual and event. In my mind, if a ritual is a prescribed procedure or a specific patterned behavior, an event is just any ol' thing that happens. So a ritual is an event but not every event is a ritual.

Rituals bring the meaning and power of events into the given moment. As Terence Fretheim puts it in the Exodus commentary of Interpretation series, "The reenactment is as much salvific event as the original enactment." So it makes sense that at this point in the Exodus story, the redactor of the book of Exodus is divinely inspired to record this chapter as an ancient worship planner.

So basically Exodus 12 is a set of liturgical instructions for a ritual designed to reenact an event that, in the sequence of the book of Exodus, hasn't happened yet. That in and of itself gives great power and meaning to subsequent reenactments of the event. It is as if the ritual, in a sense, is the event.

This idea gets more wonderful when you think in terms of baptism and holy communion. The baptism ritual is more than empty words and a splash of water. Holy Communion is more than going through the motions of a meal together. Each of these rituals convey power in that they reenact and thus are an event of history brought fully into the present moment, both in rememberance of the past and also in anticipation of the future.

And here's my final thought: we need not equate ritual with rigidity. Ritual is not just a fancy way to say "the way we've always done it." Ritual is alive and moves and changes as we change. Ritual is the structure of life like ice crystals are the structure of a cloud. We need to repeat ritual exactly in order for it to retain it's power. What is important is that it retain it's power, not the form in which that power is conveyed.

I wonder if that's why the Passover ritual has a moment when the children are to ask, "What do you mean by this observance?" (12:26) What a wonderful moment! If you can't answer a child when they ask, "Why are we doing this, again?" you should probably stop doing it. Because then your ritual will have become a rut.