Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cori's Random Thoughts On a Monday Afternoon

Hi! I like Pie!! Llamas are cool animals!!! Cow is a funny word! Pencils have erasers. French Frys are weird! Balloons are good to eat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! glue is sticky! how come fish don't have ears?! Wall - e. I don't like bacon. summer school is bad for you. hi! the world is round. Why R smily faces yellow? bubbles pop! hang ten!!!!!! 3 x 3 = 9!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1 hi!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Hunger Can Be a Positive Motivator" - My Thoughts

There has been a bit of a blow about Representative Cynthia Davis of the 19th District here in Missouri and her comments about a summer food program for low-income children.

Click here to read her remarks in full.

The catch phrase many are jumping on is, "Hunger can be a postive motivator." She actually wrote that line to emphasize that children who are at least 16 years old can get jobs during the summer to pay for food instead of getting it from this program. In fact, she helpfully points out that "If you work for McDonald's, they will pay you for free during your break." She is not talking about little kids, but teenagers.

So in context that line is a little less blatantly cold-hearted as it first appears. It is still pretty ignorant of conditions in the world. As if a bunch of 16 year olds not applying to work at McDonald's is the source of all poverty in our nation.

There's nothing really that shocking in her commentary, to tell you the truth. It is a pretty good summary of a conservative perspective on a social program. She doesn't like it. She thinks it represents the government trying to do too much. She thinks individuals should take more responsibility and rely on government less.

It's pretty standard fare, as far as that particular viewpoint is concerned. And it happens to be a viewpoint with which I disagree.

For example, she writes a couple of things that I have some pointed issues with. First, she writes, "I represent many fine families in District 19 and I am proud of all of them for doing what is best for their children." I wonder. There are no children that have to be taken into foster care in the 19th district? No neglect? No abuse? She really knows that all of them are doing what is best for their children? I'm sure it's not quite that simple. I mean, I think I know what she's trying to say there, but it is a statement with multiple interpretations. Like this one: she doesn't represent all the families in the district, only a percentage of them, only the "fine" ones who are taking care of the kids. As for the other families... I wonder who is representing them.

Later she writes, "Laid off parents could adapt by preparing more home cooked meals rather than going out to eat." Again, were it only that simple a solution. In her world, not going out to eat for meals and cooking at home instead works great, I'm sure. She writes a lot about the delicious strawberries that her family has. Wonderful. But not all that realistic. Poverty is insidius, and simply eschewing restaurant food in favor of grocery store food is not the answer.

Actually she confesses, "While I have not seen this as a problem in my district, it is entirely possible that this program is designed to address problems that exist in other parts of Missouri." So apparently Missouri District 19, which includes O'Fallon, St. Peters, and St. Charles, is immune from hunger issues. Again, that would be wonderful, but I am skeptical as to how realistic it is. And anyway, how selfish is it to not support something because it doesn't affect anyone you live close to, albeit you confess it might affect others? It would be a little like saying, "I know racism is an issue, but I only know white people so I'm not going to do anything about it."

So the bottom line of this deal is that Representative Davis's opinions are not scandalous or extreme. I think that they are a rather mainstream, party-line set of opinions for conservatives. I happen to disagree with her position, but many do not. (Although it seems to really, really irk Olbermann, which is a real kick in the pants.)

I've decided that I'm not going to waste much energy worrying about Rep. Davis, because I need all the energy I can muster to provide foster care for two kids whose mom was having a really hard time feeding them appropriately at the time they were taken into care.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Power of a Touch

I love kids! I had such a great time at Vacation Bible School last week, hanging out with a couple hundred kids every morning, singing together, dancing, praying, laughing, joking, making faces, and sharing in the story of the Exodus.

Needless to say, there were times when things got a bit wild and crazy, but for the most part everything went quite smoothly. There were some times when an individual kid needed a bit of extra attention so as not to detract from the experience of the whole class. Sometimes this even involved one of the adult volunteers chasing a kid around or perhaps taking them out of the room.

But a few times, when a kid was creating a disruption during a time I was teaching, all I did was make my way over to where they were sitting, and calmly continue what I was doing while simply putting my hand on a shoulder. I just got close to them, didn't even make eye contact, and reached out to touch them.

In doing so, I was telling them, "I know you're here. I am acknowledging you, and I value your presence. You are a part of this group." I was giving them the attention that they were seeking without detracting from what the rest of the kids were doing. All of this was accomplished by simply touching them. And inevitably, the attention-seeker calmed down and the class carried on.

People have different comfort levels with touch. For some, it is a severe violation of personal boundaries to do more that shake hands. Some are much more comfortable with touch and will hug and hold hands and pat shoulders with no thought at all. So we must be very sensitive to individual responses. There is definitely "good touch" and "bad touch."

With that in mind, there is something very meaningful about human contact. I remember in pastoral care classes in seminary being taught that people in hospital beds with tubes and wires coming out of them all over the place are often longing for a simple touch, a hand to hold or a gentle pat on the shoulder. A touch can be a healing gesture.

There's a great story in the Gospel according to Mark about touch. It's actually two stories woven together, one about Jairus' daughter and the other about a woman with severe hemorrhages. The woman approaches Jesus from behind, reaches out, and touches just the hem of his clothes. She is immediately healed. Jesus then goes in to Jairus' house, reaches out, and takes his daughter by the hands. She is immediately revived from death.

In both cases, healing happens in the touch. There is a reason that a powerful emotional response is called feeling touched. Something miraculous happens in a good touch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Become Like Children"

Seems to me there's three parts ...

"Unless you change"

"Become like children"

"Enter the kingdom of heaven"

... of Matthew 18:3, the scripture I'm preaching about this Sunday. But it also seems to me that there is a whole boatload to say about each of those three parts. Like it could be a series of three sermons.

So I'm going with that middle part this week - "Become like children." In response to the disciples' question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," Jesus tells them that they're not even going to GET IN if they don't become like children. And as for being the "greatest"? Forget about it.

I read in a couple commentaries this week that in the time of Jesus, a child was most definitely not in a position of earthly greatness. Children were not valued intrinsically, they were considered property, they had neither power nor control. And yet in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, this is the position that we must assume.

Now some people think "become like children" means be all innocent and pure. (Obviously these are people who do not have much experience with real live children.) I don't think so. That just wouldn't follow from the literary context. That interpretation doesn't make sense in response to the disciples' provoking question.

To yield all power and control of your life, to confess your utter dependence upon God, to become like children in not conforming to earthly definitions of power and success - these are the characteristics I believe Jesus was referring to in this passage. That matches up with other places where Jesus is teaching about the "greatest." The greatest is the least, the servant of all, the humble one.

I'm preparing this sermon in the middle of Vacation Bible School week, with 250 kids running all over the building. There has been all of the energy, excitement, and barely controlled chaos that usually accompanies VBS, and I am loving it. I have been reminded numerous times that I am not really in control of things!

I feel like when I am talking with the kids, I am definitely entering the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Economic Quiz Answer

Yesterday I asked about the significance of this dollar amount:


There were some fantastic guesses. Thanks for playing. Unfortunately, no one came up with the right answer, so no one will take home the cornucopia of prizes I had prepared.

My addition might be wrong, but I looked at this list of Major League Baseball salaries for 2009 and added them up. I just added once and may have missed a million or two, but according to that sloppy research (of which I am quite proud), that amount represents the sum total of the MLB payrolls for this season.

Three BILLION, thirty-six MILLION, two hundred fifty eight THOUSAND, eight hundred ninety nine dollars.

Starting with the Yankees whose payroll is $201,449,289, an average of $7,748,050 per player, and down to the lowly Florida Marlins, who shell out a measly $36,814,000 for their team, on which each player scrapes by on just $1,314,786 on average. (Poor guys, how do they manage?)

Okay - let me just say that I really am a baseball fan and I am not bashing professional sports or anything. So this is definitely not an anti-sports thing.

I just think it kind of puts things in perspective somehow. I'm still working out exactly how. Three billion dollars. I'm just saying ... that's a lot of dollars.

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Economic Quiz:

Hi kids! The number of the day is:


Here's a quick quiz. What is the signficance of this number?

Is it a stimulus related figure perhaps? Maybe the gross domestic product of a country? Could it be the budget of a major charity, putting all those dollars to work to help people in need?

That's three BILLION, thirty-six MILLION, two hundred fifty eight THOUSAND, eight hundred ninety nine dollars.

I can't wait to read your guesses ...

... the answer will be revealed forthwith.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Annual Conferece Wrap Up 2009

I had a great time at Annual Conference last weekend.

The change we were talking about was more substantive than in years past. It was a change of heart, a change of atmosphere, a change of ethos – not just a change of programming or a change of mission statement or a change of structure.

The shift we talked about was more about turning the ship and less about rearranging the deck chairs (to use a weary cliché). It is in many ways a more complex, more fundamental, and much more difficult change.

There was less panic and more hope. To be sure, the “change or die” attitude was still there, and even breached the surface a few times. This attitude is not only not helpful, it is actually counterproductive to Christ’s purposes. But it was minimized this year, and for that I am grateful.

The catch-phrase was “Somewhere Out There” (cue Feivel) which ended up feeling just about as corny as I thought it would feel, but gave a new focal point to evangelism that was very refreshing. There still are those whose only concern is filling up pews, but the overriding message was not one of numbers, but of people. The theme affirmed for me that sharing grace with just one other person is effective ministry, whatever the result.

(As a side note, I cannot describe how much it grinds my gears when someone says, “Of course it isn’t about numbers, it’s about people” and then proceeds to talk only about numbers and never mentions people.)

The gist I took away from that “outwardly focused” theme was that, if a congregation is doing what congregations do, and doing it faithfully, people will respond to that and want to become a part of it. This is what I’ve been saying all along. Focus on growth is not healthy; focus on being church in a healthy way will result in growth, like a healthy tree bears fruit.

Bishop Schnase’s teaching hour on Monday morning was remarkable. He was at his best. There were a few moments when … yes, I believe so … the Bishop was … I’m pretty sure I saw it … a bit … well … fired up. You kind of have to know Bishop Schnase in order to appreciate how cool it was to hear him and see him allow himself that moment of fervor. It was great!

He talked about ministries of mercy and justice. He talked about Methodism and celebrated a Methodist identity. He talked deeply about why we do this thing we call church, and I loved it. He talked about sharing grace with people and then not knowing how the story ended, in other words, not knowing if the person “gave themselves to Christ” or even started going to a church or anything. Sometimes planting seeds is all you can do, and that’s okay.

I’m going to order the video of his presentation and show it to the congregational leaders. He was sharing personally, not just ecclesially. That hour, more than any other thing I’ve seen in a long time, gives depth and nuance to a new brand of evangelicalism that I hope the church embraces. I want Methodists to claim an evangelical identity again, without having to worry about the political baggage that goes along with it. The way Bishop Schnase talked about it Monday shows a way that we can do that.

So I left Annual Conference energized and excited. There are still people who are rearranging deck chairs and calling it change, but I was convinced this weekend that the transformation that I am hoping for in the United Methodist Church may not be as far (somewhere) out there as I once thought.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Church Business

The Church has been using business models for a long time. It has been quite fashionable for church leaders to borrow jargon, organizational structures, mission and vision foci, and leadership styles from the business world in recent memory. In this paradigm, making disciples of Jesus Christ is equated with selling a product or service.

And so I’m wondering, now that GM has gone through bankruptcy and plans to come out smaller, more efficient, more specialized, “leaner and meaner” (whatever that means) will the church follow that model, too? GM is not the only company to realize that being a giganto-normous behemoth may not very well be the best business model to follow, but definitely is one of the most apparent.

GM has decided to eliminate some car lines, reduce its workforce, and close a bunch of factories. So, will the church now eliminate some ministries, reduce its staff, and close a bunch of congregations?

Are we supposed to follow business models when unlimited growth is the goal but eschew them when that goal proves unsustainable?

It seems to me that there may be a pattern that goes something like – a business starts out with a great idea, then people start loving that idea so much that it becomes really popular, so the business grows in order to meet that demand, and as the business grows it adds bureaucracy to handle the growth itself, then eventually the bureaucracy outweighs the idea and the whole mess begins to implode. The bureaucracy, the growth itself has replaced that great idea as the focal point of the business, and lacking that impetus there is no outcome but collapse.

Unless you see the pattern and catch it before the implosion starts.

So what if the great idea in question is God’s love? This is the greatest idea of all! And it’s a pretty popular idea, too, right? So because it is so popular and so many people are drawn to it, the church grows, and some bureaucratic structure has to be created in order to facilitate all of that. I mean, someone has to be in charge, right? So the institution of the church adds a little structure here, a little hierarchy there, all for the sake of encouraging growth. Until eventually we notice that the focus has shifted from the great idea (oh yeah – it’s about God’s love!) to the bureaucracy, to the growth itself. When that happens, it is not long before the implosion starts.

By the way, I think the pattern can be expressed at multiple levels: a congregation, a conference, a denomination. Like a fractal kind of thing.

So what now? Seeing the implosion happen to GM, having followed business models adapted for church growth, are we to continue following them knowing that eventually there will be no way to sustain the unwieldy structure, no matter how great the original idea was?

Are we to take a couple of steps back on the “life cycle of an organization” and rethink vision, mission, and strategies in order to avoid the impending collapse, only to enter into the cycle once again at some time in the future?

Or maybe the problem was when we thought that it would be a good idea for the church to follow business models in the first place. Maybe what we should do is stop trying to be like the business world and start trying to be the church. Maybe God has a better model for the church than a market-driven consultation firm.

Or maybe we just go with it, declare some version of “bankruptcy” like GM did, and come out the other side with the ecclesial version of “leaner and meaner.” What would denominational bankruptcy look like? Tossing the Book of Discipline out and starting from scratch?

What would a simpler, smaller, and less cluttered church look like, and what would we be able to do for the sake of the greatest of all great ideas?