Thursday, July 30, 2009

Love Equals Stuff? and "Coraline" Thoughts

A 2008 report (that I read about here) shows a correlation between rising divorce rates and increasing toy sales. It's simple math really, one kid plus two sets of parents equals twice the toys.

The same report also notes that toy sales are high because parents are having kids later in life, therefore they have more disposable income to ... well ... dispose of on their kids. And finally, since grandparents are living longer and staying active, they are more involved with their grandkids and therefore buying them toys, also.

What does this have to do with love? (Or perhaps, what's love got to do with IT?)

I'm not sure, but one thing I know is that my kids have way too many toys, and I'm afraid that they are being conditioned to think that love equals stuff. Or more specifically, love equals stuff being given to them.

Have you seen "Coraline"? If so, read on. If not, be warned that there may be spoilers contained herein:

The other mother, who is no doubt a presentation of evil, tries to get Coraline to love her by giving Coraline everything her heart desires. More to the point, the other mother gives Coraline everything that her real parents do not - delicious food, an opportunity to play out in the rain, neat-o clothes, and such.

She does so because she thinks that Coraline will consequently love her. Or maybe she does so because she thinks Coraline will (mistakenly) believe that such attention is, in fact, love, and reciprocate.

But it's not love, it's a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.

Let me stretch a metaphor. I may not even fully agree with it myself, but I'm going to put it out there and see what happens. Here it is:

Sometimes the church is the "other world" from the movie Coraline. People are intrigued and bedazzled by the shiny stuff and all, but the church's true agenda is to get them in the door and keep them there forever. The church sometimes mistakenly thinks that giving people exactly what they want is all there is to it. The thinking goes, If we (the church) can just have the ideal set of programs that meet every single person's need exactly as they want it too, then they'll want to stay here.

And that's all the farther we think sometimes, just getting people through the tunnel and into the door so that they'll stay. And once they do, we sew buttons on their eyes and force them to smile all the time, preparing the shiny stuff again for the next victim. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that stuff (in the form of programming, curriculum, technology, and yes, stuff itself) is somehow a substitute for love.

So that's the metaphor. It's pretty harsh, and I'm still mulling it over to see if it works or not. I think it does part of the time, at least. Here's how:

Rather than this metaphor (however harsh it may be), the church truly should be a set of relationships grounded in divine love that empower people to go out as ambassadors of that love, offering it to others.

Like in the final scene of Coraline, when the real residents of the Pink Palace apartments (the church?) are having a garden party (a worship service? ) to which they have invited Grandma and Wybie (the neighbors?) to come and share a glass of lemonade (communion?). Nothing shiny, no magic piano, just plain red tulips.

But it's real - it's love - and maybe it's even church.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

True Love

First Corinthians 13: It’s not just for weddings anymore!

Sometimes I feel the need to make this assertion. There is a great danger in relegating this powerful passage to some lovey-dovey, cutsie little newlywed poem, intended only to describe that gushy sentimentality that makes us all tear up at weddings, providing us a polite chuckle when we come to the “love does not insist on it’s own way” line, remarking after the ceremony that Uncle Joe “did a wonderful job” with the reading, and forgetting that this passage is intended to describe how all of us are supposed to be living our lives, for heaven’s sake!

Not to put too fine a point on it; this passage should kick our fannies.

I don’t have anything personal against weddings, you understand, though my initial paragraph may make it seem like they are for me an experience akin to pulling teeth out with rusty pliers. Not at all. I am simply lamenting our cultural tendency to rob 1st Corinthians, chapter 13 of its enormous convicting power, its profoundly hopeful promise, and the offer of a new way to live contained therein.

So go ahead and enjoy it at the next wedding you attend. The chances are good that it will be included, since it is included in roughly 98.7% of all weddings in the U.S. (based on thoroughly unscientific research conducted by me and me alone). But this Sunday we will consider it NOT in the context of a wedding, but in the way that it might apply to anyone’s life at any moment.

“What is love?” is more than an early ‘90s dance track that Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan used to dance to on Saturday Night Live. It is an important question that we all should ask ourselves from time to time. How do we know love? How do we discern between true love and surface level attraction? How can we tell when love is “real” and lasting, and what does that even mean?

In worship Sunday, we’ll think together about real love, whose source is God and whose expression should mark every aspect of our being.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Doubt and Faith

Faith in God.

It means trusting the promises that God makes without needing proof.


It means to be uncertain about something. It can also mean to distrust.

So are faith and doubt compatible? Can one live while the other survives? Does the presence of doubt at all mean a total absence of faith?

Sunday I'm preaching about doubt and faith. In Mark 9, the father of a boy who is in need of healing utters what can only be a paradoxical expression of faith. Jesus tells him that all things can be done for one who believes, to which the father replies, "I believe; help my unbelief." (pisteuo, apistia - for you Greek scholars.)

So does he believe or doesn't he? John Wesley thought that this verse indicated the man's faith was there, but in so small an amount that it seemed to not be there at all. I think Mr. Wesley had to do a few too many interprative leaps to get to that conclusion. But far be it from me to come right out and disagree with Wesley, of course!

I think the statement is best left right where it is. The answer is yes, he believes; and no, he doesn't. And there it is. And there we are, most of the time, if we are completely honest about it. Living in the paradox.

Have you ever known a person with a sick loved one, and the person prayed for that loved one who then made a complete recovery, and the person subsequently thanked God for answering prayers? And on the other hand, have you ever known a person with a sick loved one, and the person prayed for that loved one who then did not get better but actually died, and then ... well, then what? Would you ever dream of saying to that person, "If you had only had more faith..." "If you had only prayed harder..." "If you had only..." Of course not!

The truth is that stuff happens to us that shakes our faith - i.e. causes doubt. The most faithful thing we can do at such times is to acknowledge the doubt, bring it to the surface, and deal with it. If we do, God will give us the grace we need to move through it and get on with life. The most dangerous thing we can do at such times is to ignore the doubt, or worse still to deny it. It is an unhealthy person who claims absolute certainty in absolutely every situation.

Salvation is a journey and there are times we are a lot closer to the destination than other times. But wherever we are, God's grace is there, ready to draw us closer. Doubt, then, is not a bad thing inherently. It's what we do with it that counts.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Orbiting the Giant Hairball - Thumbs Up!

I've just finished with "Orbiting the Giant Hairball" by Gordon MacKenzie. It's great. It is written with respect to the business world but is very illuminating for any organization, including school or church.

The hairball is the organization, which may have started out as a dynamic movement but has inevitably become an entagled mess of policies and procedures and rules and committees and ... basically a giant hairball. The book is NOT about how to unravel the hairball, an improbable if not impossible task.

The book is about how to use the graviational energy of the hairball to propel yourself into a creative orbit around it, neither being sucked in to its tangly fibers nor launching off into the vacuum of space beyond it. It is about valuing creativity and genius and spontaneity in and of itself, without demanding an accounting in the "proper" channels of the hairball. Consider this snip: the eyes of any Anal Retentive worth his salt, anything that cannot be measured is of doubtful value - and even of doubtful existence.

...the Anal Retentives...lust for the fruits of creativity ... but mistrust the act of creativity, which remains invisible and elusive.

Only the Renegades in Orbit, removed from the Hairball's obsession with quantifying everything, are free to ream the unpredictable bounty of the inscrutable creative process.
MacKenzie worked for Hallmark, a corporate giant that started out as a creative impluse. It is a great case study, actually, because Hallmark is a giant hairball of a company that still tries to specialize in creativity, and the juxtaposition of organizational grey and the creative spectrum is very apparent.

Seems to me there's a lot the church can learn from this approach. The church has become in many ways a giant hairball of organization, bureaucracy, and self-sustaining archaism. But I do not want to dismantle it - not in the least. The key then, is how to use the hairball's gravity to attain orbit.

To me, becoming upset by the existence of the hairball is what gets me sucked in to the hairball itself. So the key is to just let the hairball be what it is without getting upset about it, and at the same time fly around in a creative orbit around it. To me the hairball is attendance figures, membership lists, budgets, insurance issues, pointless committees, overly numerous committees, overly numerous pointless comittees, and that kind of stuff. It is a part of the hairball if it exists solely for the perpetuation of the hairball itself, with no other purpose.

For me, this book is a refreshing counterpoint to the "Bull's Eye" books, which articulate hairball thinking quite eloquently. It takes a really gifted person to so succinctly describe the hairball while all the time professing to be anti-hairball through and through. And even more, to decry the current state of the hairball and offer up a replacement hairball as if it will somehow make everything okay takes (ironically) a healthy dose of creative genius itself.

But I just don't see it that way. The hairball is the hairball, and we're not going to get rid of it. Removal of even one strand is a major undertaking, because of the entaglement and mess it's in down below. Rather, let the hairball be! Dance around the edges of it. Flirt with it. Maybe even skip off of its surface. Just don't get sucked in. And don't leave it's gravitational pull either, finding yourself in a place where you have to generate all of the energy yourself. That's just crazy.

MacKenzie uses the metaphor of water skiing. The leader is driving the boat and the follower is holding on to the rope. If the leader will keep the boat steady and straight, the follower can pull and lean, jumping far outside of the wake, then zoom back in by pulling and leaning the other way, jumping high over the wake in the process. If they get going just right, the follower can actually pull even with the leader, and perhaps get ahead for a moment or two.

A good leader keeps the boat going at an even speed and basically in one direction, always letting the follower know if a turn is coming up. A good follower uses that energy to do amazing tricks on her water skis, often far outside of the wake. The one thing the follower does NOT want the leader to do is stop the boat.

It's a great metaphor, isn't it? That leader keeps things going to allow the follower to do those great tricks, and that follower trusts the leader to provide the momentum to do them. That sounds like a pretty cool church!

I am grateful to Bishop Schnase for introducing me to the Giant Hairball book, and I give it a high recommendation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Back Home Again

What a great vacation!

Missouri > Illinois > Indiana > Ohio > West Virginia > Pennsylvania > West Virginia again > Maryland > Washington, D.C. – spread over three easy days of meandering.

Then five great days in D.C., all the monuments, museums (Native American, Air and Space, Natural History, American History), worship at the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, Capitol tour. We stayed in a hotel in Georgetown and saw George Stephanopoulis on the street. We visited Claire McCaskill’s office and ran into Kit Bond walking between Senate office buildings. We called up some old friends from Kansas City and spent the afternoon with them at National Harbor. It was great.

We took a side trip to Williamsburg, visiting the Fredericksburg Battlefield along the way. We went to Jamestown and to Yorktown, and enjoyed two trips to beaches, one in Norfolk and one in Virginia Beach. On the way home we made a stop at Monticello, which is awesome, and a stop in St. Louis to visit family and see Harry Potter 6, which is also awesome, except in a different sort of way.

We picked up the foster kids from respite care and had a great reunion with them; they did just fine and we are so thankful for good foster families who are willing to provide respite care.

And now we are home and catching up with life. It is good to be home, as always, even considering the great time we had on vacation. It’s always nice to come home.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


For the next two weeks, we're doing the good, old fashioned, "family vacaction" thing! Piling in the mini-van and heading out across the country to visit Washington D.C. Along the way we'll meander a bit, taking three whole days to travel and see some sights between here and there. I can't wait!

We will be placing our two foster sons in respite care for the time we'll be gone. Thank God for respite care providers! Every foster family gets a certain number of days per year of respite care. As rewarding as it is for us to provide foster care for our kids, it is very nice to reconnect with just the four of us every now and then.

But at the same time we're concerned for them. We know the respite family is really good; the boys' case worker knows them and has worked with them a lot. She recommends them. So its not that. Its just being away from them for that long, we'll be worried. So if you don't mind, say a prayer or two for our boys and us in these upcoming days!

I don't think blogging will be a high priority for me for the next couple of weeks. So don't be surprised (or chagrined ... or relieved either) if you don't see anything posted here until July 21st-ish.

Washington, here we come!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

This is the ending of the Declaration of Independence, right before the signatures. I am much more familiar with the first part, about the self-evident truths. But after that part, and after explaining how governments should secure those unalienable rights, and then very carefully explaining how the current government has not done so, and in fact has abused its power at the expense of the people, and even after declaring therefore that the united Colonies are now free and independent States - that's when this line appears.

Theological reflection on this sentence leads to a conversation about "Divine Providence." If Divine Providence is the sovereignty of God to order earthly events toward realization of God's purposes, one necessarily must place the concept in tension with "Free Will." This conversation has been repeated numerous times in Christian history, and faithful Christians hold diverse beliefs about what it really means.

Not to diminsh that conversation, but what caught my eye when I read the Declaration this time was the final clause: "...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

What a beautiful idea. The idea of freedom was so important to the authors of the Declaration, they promised one another their very lives.

They promised one another their fortunes, from which I infer they meant their material resources. I wonder what they would think of the greed so blatantly on display these days.

They promised one another their honor, which to me says they "had each others' back." Like, "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day."

What an exciting time it must have been. It still captures my imagination, to think of the atmosphere in the colonies 233 years ago! It was risky, scary. It was fresh, new. There was such energy and passion. It was this energy that made it possible for them to make this pledge, I suppose. They were caught up in the revolutionary spirit, and deeply unified.

Their unity transcended their differences, which at times were very strong (here's one essay among many making this point). The revolutionaries had unique individual perspectives on the situation, and made their opinions known. And yet to dissent was not condemned, it was encouraged. It is one of the most important aspects of our national story, in fact; the freedom to dissent against the British crown was the cornerstone of the revolution.

I wish sometimes that we would revisit the last line of the Declaration of Independence as a nation, you know? Maybe just once skip the part we had to memorize in school, skip the list of historically contextual complaints against the king, and just focus on the end.

What would it take for the United States of America to once again "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor," instead of so often thinking first and only of one's self, jealously clinging to one's own possessions, and fomenting divisiveness in the guise of dissent?

I guess that sounds pretty cynical, and I'm not - really. I am happy and proud to be a citizen of the United States of America and I celebrate the freedom that living in this country affords me. But neither am I naïve about people, some of whom take unjust advantage of their freedom for selfish gain at the expense of others.

Independence Day, for me, is a day to reclaim the revolutionary spirit. It is a day to remember that my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the same rights given all people. It is a day to celebrate freedom. And it is a day to once more pledge to one another our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Look at God's World

Psalm 8 seems to have a phrase missing. It reads
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Grammatically, it seems to me to lack a linking phrase that says why the initial observation leads to the subsequent question. The reader is left to infer the connection.

It might mean, "When I look up at all the stars that you made, it is so unbelievably big that it makes me feel small, so I wonder, what are we people worth to you?"

Or maybe, "When I look out into space, it seems so infinite compared to my finite experience, it makes me wonder how I could possibly matter at all."

Or it could be, "When I think about all of the beauty that you created, then realize how plain I am, how do I possibly compare to that?"

Or even, "The universes you created are unimaginably complex, and I am so simple by comparison, you must not think much of me."

But I think the best way to read it is just to leave the pause in there and just let our minds wander over it for a few moments before we go on: "God, when I think about the immensity of all you have made, every single star in the cosmos ... (pause) ... what are we to deserve your attention at all, let alone your love?"

It is a staggering claim, isn't it? To say that the One who created all that is has a particular concern for you and me is audacious! Maybe even impudent? And yet that is precisely the claim this Psalm makes. Not only that God pays attention to human beings, but it goes on to say that God elevates human beings to a kind of "favored creature status" by giving us the rest of creation to care for.

My prayer yesterday was, "Are you sure that's such a good idea, Lord?" I mean, we don't do so well at taking care of things given to us sometimes. If we need a power line there, it doesn't matter that a tree is growing in the same space, just cut apart the tree and make room for the power line. If we need a development there, it doesn't matter if there is a hill in the way, just flatten the hill to level the ground for the development. If we need more parking there, it doesn't matter that there is a beautiful green space in the way, just pave it over so we can cram more cars in.

Humanity's callousness with the environment lends even deeper incredulity to Psalm 8. "What are human beings, that you are mindful of us?" Truth be told, we're not all that great. I know that there are those who will minimize humanity's impact on the earth, and they have a retinue of scientists to quote that back up that viewpoint, just like there's a whole slew of scientists saying the opposite. But simple observational common sense goes a long way in this particular conversation. We simply don't do a good job of caring for the natural world a lot of the time.

It starts with looking. "When I look at ..." When was the last time you did that? When was the last time you just sat and looked at a tree, the stars, another person, birds at a bird bath, or something else in God's wonderful world? To look with no agenda other than observation is to begin understanding the pause in the middle of Psalm 8.

When I look ... What am I?