Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fullness of Advent

The last time I posted anything here, it was December 5th. Today is December 20th. Needless to say, the last fifteen days have been a bit … let’s just say “full.” But it was a good “full” – a “fulfilling” kind of “fullness” that seems to happen every year at just about this time.

I confess a misty sentimentality in the weeks, then the days just before Christmas. I am prone to sit in a living room lit only by the lights on the tree, looking on the ornaments hanging there, the kids’ preschool craft projects like “Scared Angel” and “Christmas Cutie,” the shell from Catalina Island that Erin and I got fourteen years ago on our honeymoon, the ballerina that once hung from the mobile above my crib, the souvenir ornaments from just about every family vacation we’ve taken together, the gifts Erin has received from students over her years of teaching.

Everything else goes away in those moments. Sermon writing, lesson planning, Ministers’ School preparations, worship planning, budgeting for 2008, the everyday stresses of doing ministry – it all just kind of fades out. I am aware of a warmth, or maybe a connectedness, or sometimes it feels like a sigh too deep for words. If I ever meditated I bet it would be a lot like this. Borrowing a page from Buddhism, I am practicing awareness.

The space and time that I spend in my Christmas Tree-induced trancelike state (which might be meditation) in no way diminishes all of the other activity that takes place the rest of the time. I mean, our family did four programs this week, three on the same day for goodness sake! There are extra worship services for which to prepare, readers and musicians to coordinate, and special sermons to write. Parties, lunches, open houses, decorations, gift giving, writing “The Christmas Letter” – it’s all there. But if I have my Christmas Tree Moments, I find I can handle the other stuff without freaking out. Or again as my Buddhist friends might say, I find that I am more fully present in those experiences because of the depth of my awareness.

Yes, the season is full. (So full that it crowded out my blogging time.) But it is a good full, not a frantic, barely able to hold it together, grind your teeth until your jaw pops kind of full. The fullness I sense in the season of Advent is a fullness of presence, an awareness of what is good, a sense that there really is something wonderful that is beyond us, around us, within us.

Isaiah wrote about it first and Matthew jumped all over it later on – Emmanuel means “God is with us.” If ever I lose track of that, you know where I’ll be headed. I’ll be sitting in the living room, in the dark, gazing at the Christmas Tree.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Audio Advent Post

The Missouri Annual Conference posted a podcast I did with this whole "Advent Light" thing.
Click here to listen.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Advent Light: It's All the Rage

“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:5)

How does this work for Advent?

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Did you know that darkness cannot be measured, only light? So it is technically correct to say that there is no such thing as darkness, only the absence of light. If the world suffers, if there is pain, if there is hardship, it is not due to the presence of darkness – it is simply because there is not enough light.

It’s not that it’s dark, it’s just that there’s not enough light.

We can rage against the darkness all we want, but it will do no good - it's not there. Rather, rage against the dying of the light. That's what the prophets did. And do.

Rage is a great word. Though there is an element of violence associated with it, there need not be. Two of my favorite definitions are "furious intensity" and "burning desire." I also like it because it can be a verb or a noun - you can feel a "sense of rage," you can be "in a rage," and you can just plain "rage." Dylan Thomas's text exhorts us to a furious intensity to prevent the light from dying. It's about death, but it might very well work for Advent, too.

Think about how Advent, this season of light, comes as the hours of sunshine per day grow fewer and fewer for us in the Northern Hemisphere. Darkness arrives as we are sitting down to dinner these days. And it is almost as if we try to ward off this impending darkness by draping a few more strands of little bright sparks of color over the bushes outside, put some extra candles on the altar, twist a few cords around the trees. “You can try, darkness, but you’ll not have your say here!” we shout in defiance.

(Or as they might say in the land of Terabithia, “Nothing will crush us!”)

And as the season goes along, as the days get so short it seems like they are just getting started when all of a sudden they’re gone, as we get closer and closer to that solstice moment, more darkness than any other day of the year, just when we feel like we’re never going to see the sun again – the light of the world appears.

Announced with a shining star, Christ Jesus is born again to bring light into the world, to push back against the darkness and illuminate God’s joy, love, and peace where it flickers amidst a dark world of bitterness, hatred, and injustice.

One more strand on the bushes. Nothing will crush us. "Rage against the dying of the light."

Bring the light this season. Let your words, thoughts, and actions be another strand looped onto the branches of the bushes outside. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

M-I-Z ... Z-O-U

Here's a picture taken at last Saturday's Missouri / Kansas game.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Keeping Christ(mas) out of Advent?

Does anybody truly think that Christ can be “taken out of Christmas”? I only ask because the annual “Keep Christ in Christmas” talk has begun – there was a letter to the editor a week ago, and a couple of email forwards in the last couple of days. They speak as if the actions of a retailer or of a government will somehow prevent Jesus from being born this year.

If I might be allowed to paraphrase something I read somewhere: “O ye of little faith.”

I mean, for real, how weak does your faith have to be in order for it to be threatened by a Mega-Mart employee policy? How fragile are your beliefs when some random town council calling a decoration a “Holiday Tree” causes a faith crisis? Just how shallow is your relationship with God when your kid’s school has a “Winter Concert” and it makes you cringe at the disgusting political correctness that is corrupting Christianity? (Writing with a tongue-in-cheek tone of voice, you understand.)
Okay, okay – I’m sorry. Where is that “grace-filled dialogue” that I’m supposed to be all about? I guess I needed to rant that little bit out of my system, though, in order to ask the question honestly once again. Does anybody really think that Christ can be taken out of Christmas?
To be sure, the “liturgical purist” Christian will not even celebrate Christmas until December 25th, when the season begins. This celebration would continue until January 6th, when Christmas actually ends. Presently we are celebrating Advent, the anticipation of Christmas. So our decorations and carols are really “Advent” decorations. Our greetings to one another should technically be “Happy Advent” rather than “Merry Christmas.” The local “Christmas” radio station would maintain their regular formatting except during the actual season, rather than start the Christmas music at Halloween and end at midnight on December 26th, like they do now.
So wouldn’t a true “Keep Christ in Christmas” attitude be one that avoids any mention of mangers, shepherds, magi, and multitudes of the heavenly host praising God in the field until the season actually starts? During the weeks leading up to the season, instead of little plastic baby Jesus in the front yard, there would be little displays of Isaiah laying into the house of Jacob, reminding them of God’s cosmic vision of peace on earth. Or maybe a light-up John the Baptist, complete with flashing camel hair, pointing at us with a crazy, angry expression on his face, telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Instead of a wreath on the door, we could hang up decorative chaff burning with unquenchable fire.
The point I’m trying to make is that neither the Mega-Mart nor the local city council nor the administration of the elementary school is trying to remove Christ from Christmas, nor could they ever hope to succeed even so. They’re just trying to be what they are. Instead of getting angry at them this Advent, let’s channel that energy on a bit of self-reflection as the Church. How can we more intentionally prepare ourselves during these next four weeks so that the birth of Jesus might be all the more wonderful, mysterious, and meaningful this year?
Keeping Christ in Christmas means waiting - with patience and expectancy - for Christ's arrival. Maybe the problem is we just don't like to wait for stuff. "I want my Jesus born right this instant!" Sorry, that's not how it works. And so, we wait. Adventus - Parousia - Coming. As in, not quite here yet, but any minute now! And something about waiting patiently with expectancy and hope speaks to what faith is really all about. Wait for it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Giving Permission

Here's one of my favorite parts of Bishop Schnase's book:

First, congregations should give ready permission to those who have the energy for and interest in new initiatives. They ought to reduce the number of hurdles, the layers of organizational reporting and approval seeking, especially by persons who have no particular interest in volunteering themselves. Leadership, vision, planning, soliciting help, and participation must come from those who feel called and eager. Cultivating a permission-giving, rather than an approval-seeking, environment in a congregation has huge implications not just for the planning of missions but for beginning new Bible studies, support groups, and other ministries.

(Emphasis added)

How is the congregation where you hang out a permission-giving rather than an approval-seeking environment? I'm running a poll to that effect - vote today!

We are trying here in Northtown to become more permission-giving, but not everybody agrees as to what exactly that means, especially when it comes to communication and accountability. I sometimes find myself speaking what seems almost like a completely different lanugage than some in the congregation. I want to convey the idea that a lot of what happens in our congregation may not be known by everyone, and that's okay. As long as what is happening is accountable to the mission of the congregation, it's all good. That's a hard thing to understand for some people.

When a small group of a half a dozen people wants to do some ministry project, and they put it together, organize it, implement it, and generally make it happen, we want to celebrate it and give God thanks for the energy and initiative this little team has taken on behalf of Christ. What we don't want to do is add so many layers of reporting and approval that it bogs the whole thing down and it loses effectiveness, fruitfulness, and impetus.

And it may require that I admit I don't know exactly what's going on, too! I have often heard myself answering inquiries with, "I don't know" when someone asks, "Hey, what are So-and-So doing with the This-and-That?"

"I don't know," I'll say, "But I know So-and-So, and I trust that whatever they're doing, it's going to be pretty cool!" The key, as with so many things, is the development of loving, grace-filled, trusting relationships among fellow disciples. Minus the development of those relationships, you really can't do much.

But when we are truly seeking a relationship grounded in the love and grace of Jesus Christ, when we live in that love and grow closer to one another and to God all the time, when we put aside our need to know and control what's going on and release ourselvews from that paralyzing tendency, God will truly amaze you at what might just happen.

So I'm interested - vote in my little poll and then leave a comment about your faith community. How is your spiritual home a "permission-givining" congregation?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lectionary Thoughts: Right Now

I am caught by the words of Haggai in this week’s lectionary reading. “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now?” (1:3)

Did you ever feel like asking that question to the church today? I know I have, every time somebody wistfully pines for the glory days when everybody went to church and the world was so much better than it is now and no one ever did anything wrong and the pews were full every Sunday and the budgets were being met every year without any problem and all families were functional and so forth. It is an understandable nostalgia, and not at all unique to this present time. Everyone has their own “good old days.”

And so it is a prophetic facet of the pastoral calling to ask the church, “How does it look to you now?” Not to discount the past – far from it! It is actually a way to honor the past, by building upon what has happened in order to continue the project. It starts with understanding that all we do is foundation work, that the project will only be completed in the fullness of time, God’s time, the kairos time of eternity. And as foundation work, there are a couple of ways we could go.

We can either step back and congratulate ourselves, “What a nifty foundation we have built,” or we can continue the construction work toward finishing the house.

Haggai wrote, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts,” and I believe that with all my heart. Like Dan Kimball writes in The Emerging Church, it is never time to just rest on our accomplishments and think we have found the way to do things. That’s why the emerging church is always emerging. Critics of the emerging movement miss the point when they snidely ask, “Okay, so it’s emerging. But when will it be emerged?”

That’s just it – as long as the world is what it is, the church will always be emerging. So the question will always be, “How does it look to you now?” Building on the past and allowing God to be in charge of the future, it is an act of faith to be mindful of the present and honestly answer this important question.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Other Way 'Round?

If to quote Bishop Robert Schnase to someone else is "to Schnase," then being quoted by Bishop Schnase would be what?

Maybe "inverse-Schnase"? "Retro-Schnase"?

Check out who Bishop Schnase is quoting these days on his blog - click here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nightmare Before Christmas - PART 2: My Call to Ministry

This is all going to tie into my previous post, I hope. So you may want to read it first.

I was made aware of my calling into ministry while I was working as a choir director in Galesburg, Illinois, at First Presbyterian Church. If Jack is the King of Halloween, I was the king of choral music – 5 choirs, 4 bell choirs, thriving music ministry, singing in a professional chamber choir called the Nova Singers, directing the Galesburg Community Chorus, performing in two different Community Theater groups, and directing shows for one of them. If it was musical in Galesburg, I was involved with it somehow, it seemed.

My calling featured no burning bush moment, just a slowly growing awareness that blossomed when two girls, Melissa and Melissa (who we called Bucky and Missy B in order to distinguish), asked me one week what my favorite hymn was. “Here I Am, Lord,” I replied. The next week, they stopped me just outside my office and said they had something for me, then proceeded to sing for me the entire hymn, which they had been practicing all week. Then I knew that there was more to ministry for me than just music. I loved (still love) music, but knew the longing that Jack sings about.

So I wandered the wilderness for a while, like Jack, and came not to Christmas Town but to the sacraments. It was during a baptism, in fact, when God spoke most clearly to me. Kim and Dave had tried so hard to have a baby, and after months of treatments and pills, they finally were able to give birth. As I was watching the baptism from my choir director perch, I thought, “Wow, this child is so precious, so wanted. It would be so cool to be a part of this baptism.” And a voice said, as clearly as anything, “You can be.” Just like that, I knew the way for me. I found the hidden door to my own “Christmas Town.”

For the next four years, I pretty much lived in Christmas Town. As I dug into seminary, I gradually uncovered and assembled bits and pieces of the Gospel that started to put together a picture that filled me with energy, hope, and wonder. I explored the Bible and the tradition asking, “What’s this?” every time something new was illuminated. A picture of God’s reign on earth was forming in my mind that was grounded in grace, love, liberation, justice, and peace, and I couldn’t wait to get “back out there” and start sharing that vision with the world.

Jack tried to bring Christmas to Halloween Town; I tried to bring God’s reign to the world. And like Jack was frustrated when he found he could not explain Christmas Town so that everyone would see it as clearly as he did, so do I at times despair because I cannot find the words or the whatever to communicate the reign of God effectively so that everyone sees it like I do. Please understand that I am not claiming to have exclusive rights to the full truth of the reign of God, but rather that I have my perception of it, the particular little glimpse God has given me. My little glimpse shows that God loves everybody without condition and desires a deep, abiding, honest relationship with us so much that it actually hurts.

And so, thanks to my bumbling inarticulations, sometimes I find I must compromise my vision. Sometimes I give in a little bit here and there, because frankly sometimes it simply exhausts me and I have no more strength to give to it. Sometimes the standards, norms, and expectations of the world creep into my articulation of the reign of God, and the end result is something odd, unsettling, not the world and not heaven, but something altogether different and somehow just wrong. The wreaths seem to come to life and attack people, somehow.

When that happened to Jack, he let go. He repented, “What have I done?” And he set about to make things right, not by any action of his own, but by setting Santa Claus free so that Santa could make it all better again. AHA! Jack’s repentance led him to the point of release; he deeply understood that it wasn’t up to him to bring Christmas to the people of Halloween Town. But he knew who it was up to – Santa!

I am so thankful for my covenant group, where I often hear my dear friends tell me that it is simply not up to me to bring the reign of God to life for the world. It is not up to me to right every social wrong, single-handedly reinvigorate the mainline church, and care for every child in the foster care system. Sometimes they have to cuss at me so that I’ll hear it. It is not up to me to save the world; it is up to me to remember who it is up to, and refer to that one. (p.s. - It's God.)

After Santa does his thing, all is back to normal. Christmas is being handled by the residents of Christmas Town again, and the folks in Halloween Town are up to their old tricks. But something has changed, something so small as to almost be insignificant – it is snowing in Halloween Town. “What’s this?” they ask. “Must be a Christmas thing,”comes the reply. I don’t know if it would have snowed if it were not for Jack. He did something; he changed something – small, negligible perhaps – but something changed.

I guess that’s what I hope for, too. Not that I’ll save the world, but that what I do will make at least a little tiny bit of difference for someone, somewhere. That I might be a part of changing something, making things better than they are.

I realize how narcissistic this post has been; sorry. I’ve been very internal lately, spending a lot of time with myself and trying to figure things out. I wonder, though if any of this resonates with any of you reading this. Have you ever been grasped by a vision so wonderful that you couldn’t wait to share it with the world, only to find the world has other ideas? Have you ever compromised your ideals because you were just too exhausted? Have you ever caught yourself taking it all on yourself, forgetting that saving the world is simply not up to you?

I’m thinking this has some real resonance, and if you have bothered to read this far, I’d love to hear from you. I hope you’ll comment!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

And So It Goes

Q: When is a report of 36 deaths considered good news?
A: When it's in Iraq.

What a world.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nightmare Before Christmas - A Ministry Metaphor

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a wickedly delightful fantasy, filled with clever creativity and imagination, and provides a wonderful metaphor for ministry.

Consider Jack, the Pumpkin King, and the main character of the movie. He is not the mayor of Halloween Town, but he clearly sets the tone there. He is Halloween. Jack is wonderfully creepy, and you can’t help but be drawn by his energy and by the way he obviously flourishes in his role as the undisputed king of all things nasty, scary, and generally horrific to think about.

But it is a farce. Just under the surface, Jack is in pain. His energy and enthusiasm in performing his annual Halloweeny duties are shallow, and quickly evaporate as he moves out of the sight of the other residents of Halloween Town. He wonders if there might be something more, lamenting, “Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones an emptiness began to grow. There's something out there, far from my home, a longing that I've never known.” Jack is being called.

He wanders, searching, through the wilderness until he comes to the magical entrance to Christmas Town, where he is completely captivated by what he experiences. Sliding into town he encounters light, joy, snow, laughter, music, the smell of cakes and pies – all of this gets hold of Jack and penetrates his soul. Simply put, it brings him to life. This glimpse of what might be is in such sharp contrast to what his own experience has been, his immediate response is to bring it all back home with him, to share with Halloween Town. Having glimpsed what could be, he is filled with a passion to realize it in his own world.

But it won’t be as easy as that, will it Jack? He has an awkward, difficult time trying to articulate the vision to the people of Halloween Town. They seem hopelessly caught in their own experience, and cannot seem to understand what exactly it is that is so appealing to Jack about this fantastic place he is trying to describe. For example, when Jack talks about hanging a stocking on the wall, one asks, “Does it still have a foot?” They simply do not, or maybe cannot, understand. Something about “stiff-necked people” comes to mind, or maybe a “faithless generation.”

And then – the unthinkable happens. Jack sells out. After trying once more, “Everyone, please now, not so fast. There’s something here that you don't quite grasp,” as an aside to the audience, he whispers, “Well, I may as well give them what they want.”

NO, Jack, NO! you want to cry out, Don’t give up! Keep the vision out there, man! But it doesn’t happen. He compromises his glimpse of Christmas Town, and allows Halloween Town values and expectations to infiltrate that beautiful, powerful, wonderful vision of what might be. Why, Jack? Where did that sense of wonder and awe go so quickly? What happened to the joy, the new life, the passion?

In order to “give them what they want,” Jack settles for a “Halloweenified” version of Christmas that is just awful - “Snakes and mice get wrapped up so nice, with spiders legs and pretty bows” – and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. It looks kind of like Christmas, but it isn’t. Jack dresses up like Santa, but his tall and impossibly skinny body just isn’t right. The wreath he hangs comes to life and attacks the family. The reindeer are skeletons. It is an unsettling phenomenon that is neither Christmas nor Halloween, but something else altogether, and there is nothing right about it.

And to add one more level of madness to the story: Jack buys into it. Flying through the air in the sham sleigh, he allows himself to be overtaken by the Halloweenified Christmas and seems to forget everything that has led him to this point. He forgets the vision, and what’s more, he substitutes the compromised vision for the real one. It’s one thing to aim for a target and not quite hit it, but Jack redefines the target altogether. Jack’s target is whatever he happens to be hitting at the moment. In a mocking caricature of the true joy he knew in Christmas Town, he cackles, “I don't believe what's happening to me. My hopes, my dreams, my fantasies. Hee, hee, hee, hee!” But these are not really his hopes and dreams – and we all know that. His hopes and dreams are nowhere in sight.

Eventually, Jack himself realizes it and moans a lament, “What have I done? What have I done? How could I be so blind? All is lost, where was I? Spoiled all, spoiled all. Everything's gone all wrong.” Although he never meant to do harm, when he compromised the Christmas Town vision to the standards, norms, and expectations of Halloween Town, he has indeed done great damage. Jack himself never figures out exactly why everything went wrong, but he desperately wants to make things right again. He does so by freeing Santa Claus from the lair of the Oogey Boogey Man, and Santa himself goes off to set things all aright again, leaving Jack in Halloween Town to live as the Pumpkin King, which is really all he ever was anyway.

But things are different in Halloween Town. It is snowing. And the creatures take up Jack’s wondering question, “What’s this?” as they marvel at this new thing showering down upon them, while Jack gazes at the stars with his dearest friend, Sally, who has a complicated story of her own going on. The citizens of Halloween Town wonder, “What’s this? Why it’s completely new. Must be a Christmas thing.” It seems that somehow, in spite of all that has gone wrong, there is a tiny bit of Christmas Town working its way into Halloween Town, after all.

It’s all there – the real life, the calling, the wilderness, the glimpse, the proclamation, the misunderstanding, the sell out, the compromise, the sham, the buy in, the collapse, the repentance, the renewal, the real life transformed – sounds like ministry to me.

In my next post I hope to draw out those parallels with a little more intentionality. In the meantime, what do you think? Any resonance here?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

5 Practices - the Whole and the Parts

The Missouri Conference has launched a pretty snazzy new website that is centered on the 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations. I hope that everyone checks it out, and that it becomes a place where congregation leaders visit frequently about churchy stuff. Bish Schnay-Z is going to keep a blog there, some links to other places, and a section with some good potential to generate some buzz called “Ideas that Work.”

I think there should be another section there, too, titled “Ideas that Pretty Much Sucked,” but that may be why I’m not put in charge of these kinds of things! But I think there is real value in learning from trying things that just simply don’t work, and I have plenty of examples to share. Remember the quote attributed to Edison? Something like, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just learned 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Here in Northtown, as we revamp things around the 5 Practices, we have uncovered a potential pitfall that I’ll call “over-compartmentalization.” It arose in conversations about budget and staffing for next year. We discovered that we were tending to make very sharp contrasts among the 5 practices, to the point of trying to assign staff members to particular practices exclusively. However, we don't really have the staff needed to organize like that, and I really wonder if it ever is a wise thing regardless of staff numbers. Rather, we have a part-time staff member who works with adults on all 5 practices, another part-timer who works with youth in all 5, and another (a volunteer) who works with children in all 5 areas.

So then we were trying to figure out “what goes where” in the budget of ministries. Is Sunday night Youth Fellowship a “Faith Formation” thing? Yes. But it also involves inviting new youth to join (Hospitality), worshiping together, mission trips, and giving to the church (the youth generously tithe their fundraisers to the general fund of the church). When the conversation drifts into such hair-splitting, we are guilty of over-compartmentalizing.

The intent is not to create five departments – a “Hospitality Department,” “Worship Department,” “Mission Department,” “Faith Formation Department,” and “Generosity Department” – like the congregation is just another business like any. It is tempting to do so, to be sure, and maybe it would have worked a few decades ago to organize a congregation like that. But we are living in the post-everything generation, where everything is “post-this” and “post-that” and “post-theotherthing” and this time (karios moment?) resists that kind of rigid separation into categories.

Instead, 5 Practices calls us to look at the local congregation as a whole and see how the entire community is engaged in ministry. To be sure, the ministry will rotate around a core group of people whose responsibility it is to facilitate the congregation’s ministry in a particular area, but we’ve got to tightrope that walk so that we don’t fall into the over-compartmentalization trap. It is tricky, but doable.

Also posted here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Circuit Rider Column

Yes, that is me in the current Circuit Rider magazine.

Click here to give it a read.

Joke du Jour

For everyone to enjoy, but especially my brother Brad, (and probably especially NOT for my friend Kyle):

When Jerry Garcia died, he woke up and found himself on a stage on which a number of instruments were set up.

A door offstage opened and in walked Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, John Lennon, Otis Redding and Buddy Holly. Each musician picked up his favorite instrument and began tuning up. Jerry walked up to Jimi and said, "Man, so this is what heaven is like."

Jimi looked at him and said, "Heaven? You think this is heaven?"

At that moment, Karen Carpenter walked in, took her seat behind the drums, and called out, "Okay guys, 'Close to You.' One, two, three, four!"

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Two Schnase Day!

My first one was in the sermon - I was preaching on being "ashamed of the Gospel" as in the Timothy reading for the day. Toward the conclusion, I Schnasied the congregation with my current favorite: "At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God." I equated being ashamed of the Gospel with listening to the wisdom of the world. I think it worked pretty well. The Gospel makes some doctrinal claims and expects some discipleship responses on our part that seem pretty outlandish, even silly, when evaluated according to the wisdom of the world.

My second Schnase du jour was during the finance team meeting when somebody said that we needed to put together a budget so that people in the congregation would know what their money is supporting. I said something like, "Well, actually I don't think that's exactly right. Bishop Schnase says that people give because they want to make a difference in the world, to support a vibrant mission, or to foster positive transformation, not so much out of loyalty to an annual budget." Our lay leader then astutely noted that the leadership of the congregation might need to see a budget, but the people in the pews probably don't.

People are wondering just how to bring the 5 Practices stuff to life in a real congregation - small group discussions, book studies, websites, and things like that. But there is a risk of "gimmickry" with that approach, isn't there? We run the risk of thinking that, if we have a few book studies and slap a few ideas onto the internet, we've addressed and accomplished our task. But really (and I'm about to Schnase you here), "Answers will not come in easy-to-use new programs, through quick fixes, or by adopting new slogans." (p. 129) In other words, the answers we seek are not to be found in gimmicks.

Rather, the idea is that the "5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations" will be absorbed into the "congregational culture" which will then be characterised by "genuine hospitality, authentic worship, meaningful faith development, life changing outreach, and extraordinarily selfless generosity." (p. 130) This absorption may be one of the most difficult things a congregation takes on, and no amount of programming will make it happen. It must be an emergent, organic process that is spread person to person, team to team, class to class. Only then will there be an abiding, long-reaching change rather than a frantic scramble to find the "easy button" answers.

"Effective congregations change, improve, learn, and adapt to fulfill their mission, and [this book pushes] us to rethink our basic congregational culture, organization, and practice." (p. 9)

Sounds like a little more than a few book studies, huh?

Also posted here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bish Schnay-Z?

Around our congregation, we have a new verb: "Schnase." To "Schnase" someone is to quote or paraphrase from the book, "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations." So if you say something like, "Of course, people who give with extravagant generosity do so because they want to make a difference, not just support a budget," you can then say, "...and you've just been 'Schnasied'!"

My friend Adam and I are having an ongoing Schnase-off, to see if we can work a "Schnase" into any given conversation. He's pretty good, and I'm playing catch-up most of the time. He is more of a subtle Schnasier, with an uncanny ability to weave the Schnase into the conversation so that you hardly notice he's doing it until ... wham! You've been Schnasied before you know it.

My preferred technique is to give advance notice, as in, "Get ready, I'm about to Schnase you." This brings the added excitement of giving the hearer an opportunity to guess what's coming and maybe preemptively Schnase me before I can get to it. Just adds a little drama to the situation. There's nothing more exciting than the preemptive Schnase.

Here's the latest snippet I've been mulling over: "At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God." (p. 114) I'm just waiting for the right moment to Schnase someone with that! It's a good one, isn't it?

I imagine the scenario playing this way. "Pastor, I just don't see how we can put that in the budget next year, with the market acting the way it is." To which I calmly respond, "My friend, you are about to be Schnasied! 'At some point, followers of Jesus must decide whether they will listen to the wisdom of the world or to the wisdom of God.'" Beauty.

And now, I'm bringing the practice of Schnaseing into the Methoblogosphere. Certainly, in order to make it most effective, y'all have to order the book and read it. Only then will you be able to Schnase with the best of 'em. (Not to mention the little extra fringe benefit of a healthier congregation, of course.) Soon the Missouri Conference is going to lauch a "Five Practices" website where we can exchange ideas and thoughts about fruitful congregations, and then the Schnaseing will be all over the place. But I'm not waiting, I'm starting now!

Avoid the rush, start Schnaseing your friends and neighbors today!

Also posted here.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tammeus Column and an Ironic Observation

Bill Tammeus is a great writer and a wonderful person and Kansas City is lucky to have him. I have huge respect for him, and eagerly look forward to his weekly column, and read his blog regularly. Last Saturday's KC Star column on our cultural values was one of the best of his I have read, and I hope you'll click here to read it all for yourself, or dig it out of your recycling pile and give a perusal.

Here are some snippets:

"...they say we are focused on trivia, on mindless entertainment, on nothing of eternal value, that we’ve lost our way. We demand bread and circuses but are willing to forgo the bread in favor of the circuses."

"We save our angriest responses for those times when we can’t get Hannah Montana tickets, when some TV network cuts into our soap operas for a news bulletin, when newspapers cancel our favorite comic strip, when our local pro football team fails to pummel an opponent."

"...although we need the arts as a way to help us understand the world and imagine a better one, there’s a difference between the arts and much of what our pop culture offers to distract us from lives of quiet desperation and to numb our hearts."

Regarding the Hannah Montana concert:
"When we put huge amounts of energy into getting tickets to hear a 14-year-old singing about her limo, something clearly has gone amiss. And religious leaders who aren’t pointing out that sad conclusion aren’t doing their job."

But guess what the Kansas City dot com web page from which I am reading is showing in the upper right corner of Bill's column? It is an advertisement for ... ready? ... LASER HAIR REMOVAL and it features a close up picture of the body (only body, no face) of a bikini-clad woman. Unbelievable. A column slamming the shallow, "vacuous" culture in which we live, and it's publication is funded by a hair removal ad that shows a close up of a woman's nearly naked body.

I'm pretty sure Bill has nothing to do with the choice of ads placed on the web pages! But rather than anyone thinking I am not doing my job by failing to point out that little irony, I'm going to just go ahead and point it out, ok?

Let me paraphrase: When we put huge amounts of money into placing an ad that clearly objectifies women and exploits human sexuality for the purpose of selling a product that does something as vain, shallow, and selfish as removing hair from one's body, something clearly has gone amiss.

(How was that, Bill?)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Scientific Proof That the Conversation Matters

Maybe people are (at least partly) biologically predisposed to think the way we do along the conservative <-> liberal spectrum.

I read this column yesterday by one of my favorites, Mary Sanchez, that posed the question. And here's a column on by William Saletan that makes a very different case. Both focus on a recent study by Nature Neuroscience.

Back to the whole nature/nurture discussion, huh?

Basically, this experiment asked people to self-identify their political leanings, then flashed a series of "M"s and "W"s on a screen at them. They were supposed to click the "M"s and not click the "W"s. It seems that the "liberals" were better at this little game than the "conservatives" were, with more "conservatives" errantly clicking the "W"s than "liberals." And so what does that prove?


Conservatives, the study observed, tend to be “more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making,” and liberals tend to show a “higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity, and greater openness to new experiences.”

Saletan has a different take. Whereas Sanchez wonders about difference without making a value judgement, Saletan thinks the study unfairly paints conservatives as dumber than liberals.
Habitual way of thinking. Informational complexity. Need to change. Those are sweeping terms. They imply that conservatives, on average, are adaptively weaker at thinking, not just button-pushing.

It has been said, "If you throw a brick in a room full of dogs, the one who yelps is the one who got hit." Tee hee. Methinks the columnist doth protest too much.

Whatever, I don't think this study actually slams conservatives, but I don't understand how this experiment led the scientists to these conclusions, myself. It seems a bit much to reach such broad results from a few minutes at a couple of computer terminals looking at a couple of letters flash across the screen. Nonetheless it is fun to think about the why and how of what we think and believe. Is it nature, a biological predisposition? Or is it nurture, learned through teaching and example? A bit of both?

It is so tricky to have an honest, respectful dialogue on the theological, social, and political "hot button" issues. Sometimes we say that we are metaphorically "speaking different languages" - but maybe we are literally using terms and phrases that cannot be understood? I don't mean the words themselves, but maybe the concepts and ideas behind them?

Sanchez asks the question this way:
It could be that no one is listening to viewpoints other than those they already agree with wholeheartedly, not because they are obstinate or simply dumb, but because they are leaning too heavily on their innate brain circuitry.

And far from indicating a hopeless situation in which we all just continue to talk past each other with the same relentless, stale rhetoric, thinking along these lines means that, in order to more effectively communicate, we don't necessarily need to change what we say, but rather how we say it. In short, the conversation matters. The way we talk to each other matters, especially in the church.

I've always said (and it is in the header above) that if in the attempt to realize the reign of God on earth, we cannot engage one another in respectful and grace-filled dialogue, we might as well not even try, and now there's scientific proof to back me up!

Cross posted here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Blog Lesson & the Salvation/Discipleship Distinction

First, a lesson I learned from my last post. I wrote a line (this line: "...salvation, which precedes discipleship both temporally and spiritually") by which I was attempting to make a distinction between salvation and discipleship. This line was not my focus, not the main point of the post, and I did not give it much of a thought.

Here's the lesson: There is no such thing as a "throw-away line" when it is posted on the internet! The two comments and a few personal conversations I've had about the post have zeroed in on that line and challenged me to clarify the relationship between salvation and discipleship as I see it. And so a line that I saw as no more than a transition into what I really wanted to write about discipleship became the place that generated the most dialogue, and no one mentioned anything about what I saw as the main point, that discipleship is hard work.

Secondly, to clarify my own theology, I do not separate discipleship and salvation at all. The two are complexly interwoven, to be sure. I use the word "precede" to describe salvation's relationship to discipleship in order to affirm God as the initiator of the process. I believe that discipleship is a human response to God's initiation, at every point. Prior to conversion, God is at work before we are aware. Prior to justification, God makes the invitation. Prior to the journey of sanctification, God's grace is luring, inviting, calling, pulling, urging us onward. All that we do as disciples is in response to what God does to save us.

And that's what I mean by "...salvation, which precedes discipleship both temporally and spiritually." I hope that makes sense, and I thank those of you who commented online and in person for the reminder that every word counts!

Update: Also posted here.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Sometimes it's just not easy.

Take Luke 14:25-33, for instance. How many of us have spent hours wrestling with Jesus words, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple"? I sure have. Surely Jesus didn't really mean that, did he? What's this we read about having to "carry the cross," now? And surely there must be some metaphorical nuance to his admonition, "...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

I mean, he's not serious, is he?

As my Bible study class wrestled with this one last Wednesday evening, one thing we all realized was how important it is to make a distinction between discipleship and salvation. The passage from Luke and other similar passages in the Gospels (for example Matthew 10:37-39, Mark 8:34-35) are about the decision to become a disiple of Jesus, a follower of the way. They are not so much about salvation, which precedes discipleship both temporally and spiritually.

It is helpful for me to think of it this way - there's nothing wrong with being in the crowd, but we need to know that there is a-whole-nother level of faith. That next level involves deciding to step out of the crowd and live a completely different life patterned after the example and teachings of Jesus. The first sentence of the lesson reads, "Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them..." Jesus doesn't condemn the crowd, but he wants them to know that there's more, he actively invites them to choose that path, and then instructs his disciples to continue extending that invitation on his behalf, even today.

And that whole-nother level of faith that we call discipleship is going to require some pretty radical stuff. It will require that our love increase so much that even the feelings we have now toward our family will seem like hate in comparison. It will require that the life we lead be so abundant, so spirit-filled, so good that the only way to put it into words is to talk about dying to our old life. And it will mean that the only power we will rely upon will be the power of God, breaking the power over us that our possessions hold. (Possessions are more than just "stuff," I think - here we might talk also about our pride, our prejudices, our pretensions, things of this world. That may be a-whole-nother sermon, though.)

The good news is that the entire kit and kaboodle is bathed in grace. At those times when I just want to hang out in the crowd, God's grace is there. At those times when I am most spiritually alive and feel like God is all over the place, grace is there. And at those times when I'm ready to chuck it all, when it feels like God is so far away that I even have trouble believing God's there at all, ... somehow grace is there, too.

It comes down to this. Every one of us is just trying to live the best life we can. Some days we do better at this than others, to be sure. And yes, sometimes its just not easy. The passage from Luke 14 is really an expression of God's fervent desire that all of us would strive to live good lives. God wants us to live lives that are shaped by/grounded in/patterned after the life of Christ Jesus, the one we call Teacher, the one who longs for us to be disciples.

Monday, September 03, 2007

My Own Personal Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon

ANDY BRYAN > Jenna Fischer - "The Magic Flute" at Northeast Missouri State University. She worked in the costume shop; I played the part of Papageno.

Jenna Fischer > Will Ferrell - "Blades of Glory"

Will Ferrell > John C. Riley - "Talladega Nights"

John C. Riley > Renee Zellweger - "Chicago"

Renee Zellweger > Tom Cruise - "Jerry McGuire"

Tom Cruise > KEVIN BACON - "A Few Good Men"

This is how my brother Brad and I worked it out after dinner tonight.

Of course, I promptly visited the Oracle of Bacon and found a shorter path.

ANDY BRYAN > Jenna Fischer - "The Magic Flute"

Jenna Fischer > Matt Dillon - "Employee of the Month"

Matt Dillon > KEVIN BACON - "Loverboy"

And so, according to the Oracle of Bacon, I would have a Bacon number of 3. Sweet.

So that's pretty much how I spent my evening. Pretty impressive, huh?

Immigration - Hot Button Enough?

Thank you to everyone who responded last time, both at Enter the Rainbow and 7 Villages. Great stuff! Respectful disagreements and thoughtful responses were the rule, and there were many, many helpful insights.

I want to comment on one specific thread of conversation that came up over on 7 Villages. My friend Rob wrote, "Immigration and immigrants are not "hot buttons" with anyone I know, but "illegal" immigration would come much closer to a hot button." Another commenter had made a similar remark earlier in the thread, also.

I do not have vast experience with the immigration system in the United States, but of the five families I know through the church who have immigrated to this country, four have had setbacks with the system. In all four cases, the people had followed all of the rules according to the advice they had been given, done everything they were supposed to do, and still had troubles. It is an expensive, time-consuming, unimaginably stressful process to immigrate legally.

The immigration issue, as I have experienced it, is not just a legal issue, it is not only a racial or ethnic issue, it is not so much a patriotic issue. Immigration is a class issue. If you can afford the thousands of dollars it takes to immigrate legally, you're fine. If you have the luxury to expend the hours and hours, months, and even years it takes to immigrate legally, no problem. But if you are poor, and every bit of money you earn has to go toward things like food, clothing, and shelter, and the prospect of taking time off of work in order to maneuver through the bureaucy of the immigration system would mean you lose your job, then yes, immigration reform is a "hot button" issue.

People who immigrate to the United States are routinely exploited by employers who consider them nothing more than a cheap, expendable resource. Further, unethical agents gouge immigrants for exorbitant fees with the false promise of good advice and a helping hand. The list goes on: families are separated from one another, illness and injury often go untreated out of fear - immigration can be a frightening, daunting, dehumanizing experience.

And so I want to move the church's conversation about immigration away from the abstract and toward the personal. Instead of policies, systems, and border fences, I think the church ought to be talking about relationships, people, and shared experiences. Christ asks his disciples to notice especially the condition of the poor, the oppressed, the outcast. As followers of Christ, we need to affirm and embody the truth that every person is worth something in God's eyes, every person is in fact a beloved child of God. Yes, I believe the system is unwieldy and in need of reform, but as we work to make the system more just, we must not neglect the call to be in loving relationship with each of God's children.

After all, upon which is the church called to focus - one's relationship with the United States government, or one's relationship with God through Christ Jesus?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Would YOU preach it?

Here’s a question for everyone to ponder. If you were absolutely convinced that another interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story might have nothing to do with homosexuality but rather was a scathing condemnation of poor hospitality shown to resident aliens, would you preach it that way?

Firstly, I cannot find the place in any scriptural reference to the destruction of Sodom where loving, faithful, homosexual relationships are mentioned. The story that I read is about the attempted gang rape of a couple of visitors by an unruly mob (Genesis 19:5), and the mob’s subsequent ire at being thwarted by Lot (19:9), because he is a recent immigrant to the city (13:12). Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” Jude 1:7 says, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion,” a statement obviously open to different interpretations. The other references are pretty generalized. I understand that many people hold to a different interpretation of the story than mine, but nonetheless, my study has led me to this one. We could go back and forth about “right” or “wrong,” but let’s agree that it is different at least.

Another thing to mention: I often like to preach sermons based on non-traditional interpretations of scripture, in the hope that looking at the passage from a different perspective will help people deepen our understandings of God’s word and of our own faith journeys. So for example I will preach the story of the Exodus, focusing on the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, seeing it from the perspective of the wife of a regular old chariot driver in the Egyptian military. So we look at a familiar story from a new angle, and see a bit more of it, which in turn enriches our faith.

Finally, I understand that mentioning hot-button social issues from the pulpit is risky business, and immigration is one of the hottest right now. Just introducing the subject drives people immediately behind their barricades on all sides of the issue. It is the same with homosexuality, which has the added bonus of an association, maybe unfair, with the word “Sodom.” The merest mention of either of these topics must be done very carefully if anything helpful is going to come of it.

So one, I am convinced that the Sodom story could be interpreted as a story about hospitality to strangers / resident aliens / immigration issues. Two, I like to offer alternate interpretations of scripture from the pulpit. And three, I understand how many walls will go up as soon as hot-button social issues are mentioned.

And my question remains: Would you preach it if you were me?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Soteriological Vertigo

Real Live Preacher has a wonderful post up. He writes

When I consider the stars and the universe – or more accurately when I consider my inability to consider them – I experience a strange combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions.
First I feel a kind of mild vertigo, the sort of thing that you would expect to feel if you suddenly found yourself in the middle of a shaky rope bridge over a deep canyon. Our world normally feels so big and solid to me, and my place in this world seems entrenched and well-established after 45 years of living. But suddenly, I am a speck of dust in an instant of time so brief that it can’t be measured. My feet feel light, as if I might float off our spinning planet any second. I want to throw myself on the ground and grab two fistfuls of grass for good measure.

And more:

So first vertigo, then panic, then longing. After that I generally calm down a bit. My tiny mind and delicate emotions cannot bear even my small thoughts of the universe for more than a few minutes. I relax. Sometimes a shrinking reality can be a comfort. My sins, the things that I have done wrong and the ways that I cannot be what I should be also shrink. I feel I can forgive myself for them, small man that I am. Why the hell not? Look at the size of the universe!
This forgiveness is the Grace that Christians speak of. The main story of our faith tells us that we must be forgiven and can be. Funny how it takes science to bring that reality to my guts.

As always, inspiring, thoughtful, evocative. This is why he is one of my regular reads.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Brilliant Preseason Strategy

I for one LOVE the Kansas City Chiefs pre-season strategy of lulling the rest of the league into a false sense of security and then ... BAM! ... start scoring points and playing real defense when the regular season starts.


Anyone with me on this?

Anyone ... ?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Life on Mount Zion

I remember my first crisis of faith.

I was a teenager, listening to a sermon about invitation. The scripture was the “Great Commission,” Matthew 28:19-20, and the preacher was saying basically that invitation was what disciples of Jesus are supposed to be doing, since Jesus commanded it of them. We are to extend the invitation to others, so that they would become disciples themselves. Then, in turn, these new disciples would invite others into discipleship, and so forth.

And there it was: my crisis. I was all of a sudden unsure of what exactly it was we were supposed to be inviting them to. All we were able to invite others to come to was an opportunity to invite others to come, also. It was a meaningless exercise, a for/next loop, a religious mobius strip. Gertrude Stein said of her hometown, “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn't any there there,” and that’s kind of how I felt about church. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Okay, I get the part about inviting others, but shouldn’t we spend more time thinking about what we are inviting them to?”

My faith was all form and no content.

Since then, I have deepened my faith of course, and I understand now that the “Great Commission” isn’t all there is to Christian discipleship. And I’ll tell you what, scriptures like this week’s lectionary text in Hebrews are an enormous part of what helped me grow in my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus. The text reads,“You have not come to something that can be touched … You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:18, 22-24).

How’s that for content?

When we come to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the midst of a Spirit-filled congregation, we come to a life-changing moment. We come to live on Mount Zion, a powerful metaphor for the fulfillment of God’s reign on earth. The reign of God is characterized by love, justice, and forgiveness. It is grounded in peace, health, and joy. And living on Mount Zion is a deeply communal life, meant to be lived together with sisters and brothers in Christ. The mission of Jesus was to embody that life, and the church is called to continue Christ’s mission. It is both what the church is and also what it does.

And THAT is why we ought to invite people to come to church, to offer them the chance to live like that, up on Mount Zion, because it is a pretty wonderful place to be when it clicks into place, even if just for a moment or two. Of course, the reign of God is not yet fully realized, but that’s the goal. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? And since the realized reign of God on earth will include all people, inviting people to church is an act of faithful Christian discipleship. And yes, we need to invite ALL people – young and old, gay and straight, U.S. citizen and illegal immigrant, unchurched and long-time churched, whatever – into the church. Unless you think for some odd reason that the reign of God is not going to include all of God’s creation.

It’s not about just inviting more inviters. People stuck in that mindset are likely the same ones who simply count heads to determine a church’s fruitfulness. The ministry of invitation is deeper than that; it is reign of God work, and disciples of Christ do it not just because Jesus told us to, but in order to live a Mount Zion life.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lesson from the Vineyard

In Isaiah 5, a vineyard which for all intents and purposes should have been bearing some pretty good grapes ended up bearing bitter ones. They were probably those nasty little grapes that make you pucker when your big sister dares you to eat one. The consequences of this predicament are not pretty. The vineyard owner pretty much destroys the whole operation.

Images like this are used by churches all over the place to talk about how our ministries are fruitful, and usually a “fruitful” ministry is one where you can count something and the tabulation ends up being higher than a comparative total. For example, counting worship attendees and comparing them to the total last year at this time, or counting dollars and comparing them to other churches of similar size, or counting names on a membership list and comparing to ten years ago. In this mindset, increasing numbers is the equivalent of fruitful ministry.

I have a problem with this line of thinking. My consternation is located right there in Isaiah 5. If counting stuff was all that the vineyard owner was up to, there would have been no problem whatsoever. There would have simply been a tally of all the grapes (be they bitter or otherwise), and the vineyard would have been called “fruitful.” But the vineyard owner was concerned with more than just counting grapes. At issue was the quality of the grapes being counted.

A fruitful vineyard is one that produces good grapes, not a lot of grapes. Of course, what you’re going for is a lot of good grapes – best of both worlds. But it is pretty clear that the first thing the vineyard owner asks is whether or not we can eat the grapes, and only then asks how many there are.

Okay, translate that: A congregation that bears good fruit is one that is doing good stuff, not necessarily one that has a lot of people. Of course, what you’re going for is a lot of people doing good stuff – best of both worlds. But when we ask about congregational health, it seems to me we ought to ask first about the faithfulness and vitality of the ministries in which they are engaged, and only then ask questions about numbers.

One problem is that we prefer fast, simple assessment tools to the more difficult, deeper work of truly discerning the most faithful way to realize the reign of God. It is a lot simpler to ask, “How many people were in worship this weekend?” than to ask, “How does this ministry further God’s mission in the world?” Obviously, increasing numbers may result from fruitful ministry, but numbers do not equal fruitfulness. Bishop Schnase has a 144-page book about fruitful congregations; if fruitfulness was only counting heads and dollars, it would have been a pamphlet.

Last thought: the grapes belong to the vineyard owner, not to the vines. It ultimately matters not a bit what we think of the things we do, but what God thinks of them. And here I find my hopeful place. God has created us with fruit to bear, potential to fulfill, and the widely divergent ideas about what exactly that potential is are just evidence that all of us are mere branches of the vineyard. All we can do is stay connected to the vine and work to produce the best grapes we possibly can.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Back to School

"Astronauts and teachers actually do the same thing. We explore, we discover, and we share. And the great thing about being a teacher is you get to do that with students, and the great thing about being an astronaut is you get to do it in space."

- Barbara Morgan, Teacher-Astronaut currently orbiting in Space Shuttle Endeavor

O God the Divine Teacher,

Send your spirit on the explorers, discoverers, and sharers of this world - the teachers entrusted with the education and growth of our children. As we begin a new school year, keep them safe, ground them in your love, and grant to them the gentle patience required in order to flourish in their sacred vocation. Amen.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Back At It

I would just like to say, vacations are wonderful!

My mini-sabbatical this summer included a few vacation days away with the family, from which we have just returned. It was a relaxing, refreshing, and fun time for all of us. And now I am entering the last weekend of my month away, eager and chomping at the bit to get into it again.

My last worship experience of the mini-sabbatical will be at Jacob's Well here in Kansas City on Sunday morning. I have worshiped in some very diverse settings over these last four weeks - Wilkes Boulevard UMC in Columbia, Centennial UMC in Kansas City, the bank of the Niangua River in southern Missouri, and tomorrow at Jacob's Well. It is such a joy to worship without being in charge of anything!

Over the past four weeks, in addition to worship, I have prayed deeply about my calling and the life of the congregation I serve. I have read some things I have been meaning to read but haven't had a chance to (although I suppose I'll always have books on that list). And I have written about 30 pages toward a book I am working on.

The book is going to be a Bible commentary of sorts. The audience is people who don't read the Bible much but want to know if there might be something there for them that is deeper than the text on the page. I am trying to write this commentary without jargon and at the same time without dumbing it down. I am hoping that it is fun and easy to read, but not silly. I do not want to sacrifice accessibility for the sake of scholarship, nor do I want to stay at the intellectual surface level just so that people will understand. It has been very hard work, and greatly rewarding. The 30 pages I have written delve into the book of Galatians. I want to do three more sections - one on a Hebrew Bible book (probably Genesis), one on a Gospel (probably Matthew), and one on selected Psalms. It will feel kind of lectionary-ish, I guess.

Anyway, that is about it for my time away. I'm back in the saddle again starting Tuesday of this week. I can't wait to rev it up!


Part 2: Homemaking Degree! At Last!

Today I read an article in the Star about a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities degree with a 23 hour concentration in homemaking. Here's the kicker: the concentration is only open to women. Apparently, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has decided that any men who want to study homemaking at a Bachelor degree level are just going to have to go somewhere else to do so. According to the website, the concentration is all about "preparing women to model the characteristics of a Godly woman as outlined in Scripture." It seems that good nutrition, interior decorating, and clothing design are what it takes for today's woman to be considered "Godly." Forget all that other stuff, like careers or any other such insignificant pursuits.

The president of the seminary, who used to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is quoted in the article as saying, "If we do not do something to salvage the future of the home, both our denomination and our nation will be destroyed." I for one was unaware of this impending destruction. Thank God someone is doing something about it! I mean, the fate of the nation (and of the Southern Baptist denomination, of course) hangs upon women enrolling in a 4 hour college course called "Meal Preparation with Lab," for goodness sake! Who knew? (I wonder if they need lab assistants and how could I apply?)

I know that I am sending my woman to Southwestern immediately so that she will finally realize just how much is at stake when she leaves dirty dishes in the sink. "Don't do it for me, Erin. Do it for the United States of America!"

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Just after midnight Tuesday morning it was finished. That's when I got done with the last Harry Potter book.

No spoilers here, just my grades.
The book - B+
The ending - D
The series - A-

Anyone else want to offer their grades?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry is Here

It has arrived. sent it in a little box that has a picture of an owl delivering a letter, the title "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" in the now-so-familiar font, "Year 7" on one side, and four red bars that contain the admonition: "ATTENTION MUGGLES - DO NOT DELIVER OR OPEN BEFORE JULY 21!"
Oo, this is so exciting I can hardly stand it!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sabbatical Thoughts

I was on the phone with Mom a couple days ago, and she said that my voice sounded much less stressed out. A couple of things ran through my mind. First, "Hey, my mini-sabbatical is working!" Second, "Wow, if she noticed a difference in my voice over the phone, I must have really needed this rest."

I guess I was pretty stressed out, more than I realized. I have been sabbaticalling for four days, now, and I really have noticed a difference. Only now, here comes the weekend! As we get closer and closer to Saturday night and Sunday, my anxiety about the worship services is rising, even though I know that everyone and everything is going to be just fine. My first-born, type A, perfectionist, people-pleaser self has a tough time completely letting it go, it seems. Hmm, imagine that.

It's good for me, though, (he said through clenched teeth.) I am trying to convince myself that this disconnected time is a spiritual discipline that will be renewing, refreshing, reinvigorating. However, in order to ensure that I am fully disengaged, I am actually physically leaving town. I am going to church with my grandma in Columbia this weekend! I hope the physical distance will help me feel better about the spiritual and emotional distance, somehow. Plus, Nanny is celebrating her birthday this sumer by having all her kids and grandkids come for visits at various times, and it's my turn this weekend!

And you know what else? I am realizing that my disconnected time is good for the congregation, too. In order to be an effective pastor in an itenerant system, you have to lead by equipping and empowering the laity rely on themselves to be church. Too many UM clergy lead as if they are called to a congregation rather than being sent to serve in the connection. If the pastor is out of the picture for a few weeks, it should bring focus to the strengths of the congregation. I've always said that the true beauty of a healthy itenerancy is how it makes for strong congregations led by faithful laity, a powerful facet of Methodism ever since the beginning.

I have also decided to try to turn my sermon series on the book of Galatians into a book. So I am transcribing sermons with the thought that each of the five will be a chapter of the book. So far, so good. It is fun, engaging, and actually quite fulfilling. And so, as far as mini-sabbaticals go, I'd have to say this is the best one I have ever taken!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Get Thee Behind Me, Burnout!

Beth Quick has written a post that further explains the motivations behind my mini-sabbatical. Definitely worth a read - she got a "Best of the Methoblogosphere!" award for it!

One True Church?

The conversation seems to be going something like this:

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF): Only the Roman Catholic church is a church, the rest of y'all are not really churches.

Protestants (P): Say what, now?

CDF: Don't get all upset, we are just articulating our official doctrines.

P: Yeah, we understand that. That's not the point. The point is the official doctrines you are articulating are arrogant, demeaning, unreasonable, and unscriptural.

CDF: No, no, no - you must have misunderstood the situation here. All we are trying to do is clear up a few questions that came up after Vatican II. That's all.

P: Actually, we're pretty sure that we understand you perfectly well. And thank you for nodding in our direction with that cute little "ecclesial communities" quip. It makes us feel oh so special.

CDF: Maybe you missed the part about how important ecumenical dialogue is to us...?

P: No, we read that, too. And as long as you define "ecumenical dialogue" to mean "convince everyone to join us because we are right and they are wrong," we're not really all that interested!

Anyway, that's how I'm interpreting things. Really, I don't think this document will have any impact on the people in the pews. I don't think this document will affect the good things that truly progressive, ecumenically minded congregations are doing together in the world. And of course this document is not going to have any bearing whatsoever upon ultimate concerns such as the realization of the reign of God on earth.

I worry more about the impact of this document on the unchurched/dechurched/non-Christian/seekers/whatever group of people, because it provides yet one more reason to not look for ultimate meaning in life from within the church. Why would I want to participate in that kind of "my pop is bigger than your pop" bickering? How is that going to make my life better?

Christians are called to be evangelists, and the self-centered attitudes expressed in this document are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to accopmlishing that task.

Here's a summary of the document.
Here's a news story about it.
Here's a thoughtful commentary in response.
Here's a hopeful article on the topic.

cross-posted here

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mini-Sabbatical Starts NOW!

Today is the first day of my four week "mini-sabbatical." I am still sort of working out what it is going to look like exactly. I know that I will be doing some reading, some writing, some praying, some worshiping, and some travelling. In what order and at what ratio is going to emerge as the weeks go by.

I decided that, although it isn't a secret (it's all officially approved by the SPRC), we wouldn't make a big general announcement that I would be out of the picture for a month. There's really no need to do so. The rest of the staff can handle things at church; in fact they'll probably not even notice I'm gone! Things are clicking, there's a lot of natural momentum with the ministries, and the people of the congregation are so amazing, my job is mostly just to get out of their way and cheer, anyway.

There are basically two responses I hear when I tell people that I am going on sabbatical. The first is "Oh, what's wrong?" The second is, "Good for you!" The first response comes from a basic misunderstanding of sabbatical. Torah indicates that every seventh year is to be a sabbatical year, in which the ground would remain untilled, debts be forgiven, and servants released. The personal sabbatical for me then, is an opportunity to let my spiritual soil recover from seasons of tilling and harvest, to release my grudges and stressors, and to allow God to renew and refresh me so that I might continue in my calling. I'm 36 years old, and nothing is "wrong" with me; it's just that I want to feel this good about life and ministry when I'm 56, 76, 96 years old, too.

I am not going to sabbatical from blogging, though, just from work at the church.

Oh, I have to share what one church member said. Erin and the kids are still going to be around at the church, of course. So Mike very helpfully suggested that, when people ask her where I am, Erin should say that we are having marrital problems and that they should mind their own business! Yeah, that should generate a little conversation, huh?

Monday, July 09, 2007

All-Star Logic

Here's an observation:

The American League Central Division has 13 All-Stars. The National League Central Division has 11 All-Stars, despite having one more team than the AL Central. (In fact, the AL Central has more All-Stars than any division in baseball.)
The obvious conclusion to this data set is that the Kansas City Royals are a much better baseball team than the St. Louis Cardinals.

Here's my logic. Both teams got one All-Star, Gil Meche for KC and Albert Pujols for St. Louis. But of the teams that each Missouri club has to play, KC's divisional opponents have 5, 3, 3, and 1 All-Star, whereas St. Louis's division rivals have 4, 2, 2, 1, and 1 All-Star. Clearly the AL Central is the superior division, and since a big chunk of the season is played in the division, it is understandable that the Royals have the record they do, though the Cardinals ought to be cleaning up in the relatively wimpy NL Central. The Royals have to play against 12 All-Stars on 4 teams, whereas the Cards only play against 10 All-Stars scattered over 5 different teams!

The data are irrefutable. The Royals are obviously the better team.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lambs Among Wolves

In Luke 10, Jesus sends out 70 disciples into the surrounding community. I have been thinking about this story a lot, and will be preaching on it tonight. Here's where I am right now:

I think we can learn a few things about being disciples today from these 70 disciples of long ago.

First - their message wasn't "Jesus died for you," because Jesus hadn't died yet. There message was "Peace be with you" and "God is here." Maybe we shouldn't minimize the Gospel to "Jesus died for you so now what are you going to do for him" as much as just offer people peace and point out that God is all around us.

Second - they did not condemn the people who didn't listen to them, they left that to God and moved on. In verse 12, Jesus condemns the towns that do not receive the disciples, but the disciples themselves do not. Maybe we, as disciples, ought not to waste our time condemning others for not receiving the message and just move on to someone else who will. We can do so if we hold to a healthy doctrine of prevenient grace, I think.

Third - Jesus told them not to break their arms patting themselves on the back, but to rejoice that their "names are written in heaven." In other words, find joy in God, in doing God's work. Maybe we spend too much time assessing and evaluating and examining ourselves to figure out if we are doing a good job, and not enough time just doing it. (Like I wrote in this post.) Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living, but I think that an unlived life is not really worth examining.

An example on that third point:
The "assessment mentality" leads a church to ask questions like, How are we going to have enough money to do all we want to do? A better question might be, How are we going to do what God wants us to do with the resources we have been given?

No purse, no bag, no extra pair of shoes, even. "Like lambs among wolves."

Monday, July 02, 2007

How You Doin'?

How do you respond when somebody asks you, “How’s your congregation doing?”

Would you compare this year’s worship attendance to last year? Would you speak in terms of income related to expenses? Would you describe a building project or some kind of capital improvement? Would you pull out your copy of the budget and refer to particular line items?

Would you mention mission trips, classes being offered, or the style of your worship services? Would you talk about the programs you have for youth and college students? Would you highlight your children’s ministry? Or maybe you would talk about what curriculum your church is buying in order to be “relevant” to today’s young people?

(Yeah, so that last one may have crossed over the cynical line a little bit, sorry.)

I’m wondering about this question because, depending on whom you ask here at North Kansas City, you would get highly divergent answers to the “How’s your congregation doing?” question. On the one hand, I hear parishioners talk about how bad things are, how we are not generating enough income, how we might need to only include in the budget the “administrative” items and have the “ministry” items fundraise to support themselves, how we need to save our current funds for a future rainy day, and so forth.

On the other hand, I also hear parishioners talk about wonderful things are, how many new people are coming, how attendance is up, how great it is to see so many children, and so forth.

And here’s the kicker – sometimes, it’s the same people saying both things!

Maybe we would be better off if we concentrated less on answering the question of how we’re doing and more on just doing it. I feel really bad for people caught up in a business mentality who want “specific, measurable, attainable” goals to assess the success of a congregation. I know that I myself get caught in that trap from time to time, sometimes when I’m around other pastors and my competitive tendencies start to kick in. It also happens when we are feeling the continual pressure from the higher ups to have “fruitful” congregations and “effective” pastors, and we want to be able to show how we’re accomplishing these expectations, so we tend to dwell on, even obsess over, the “How’re you doing?” question.

Every now and then I would like to release that question, pretend like it didn’t matter, and just be church, you know? That would be so liberating! Or maybe answer that question in a completely unexpected way. Something Carlin-esque, perhaps.

Next time somebody asks me, “Hey, how’s your congregation doing?”

I think I'll reply, "Oh, we’re moderately neato."

Update: Cross posted here.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

I'm a Facebook Page

...and I have to admit that it is kind of fun. I have connected with a few friends that I sort of lost track of, which was good. I've uploaded a few pictures, searched around a little bit, written on some people's walls, and basically just tried to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Here's my profile page - click.

Weirdest thing was trying to boil down my life into a list of pertinant facts for display.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Royals Sweep Angels in Anaheim!

If you will indulge me, I would like to take this day's blogging time to just acknowledge this:

The Kansas City Royals just swept a three game series from the (formerly) hottest team in baseball.

On the road, even!

Go Royals!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Unclaiming the Center (Warning: Labels Ahead!)

A pastor friend recently used the term “The Radical Center” to describe himself. He meant that he was not extremely liberal or extremely conservative, and he was saying that he thought most Methodists (and most people, for that matter) are somewhere in the center. The solution to all of the divisiveness in the church, according to him, is to reclaim this center ground, and minimize the extremes of both ends.

Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing. Likewise my friends, like Shawn, Jeremy, and Mitch (whom I know personally) and John the Methodist, Joseph, and Larry B. (whom I know virtually) are not in the center, they are conservative. They may not be right wing extremists, but they are definitely "across the aisle" from me. (Before you react: Labels work for descriptive purposes, and yes, I appreciate their inadequacies, but nonetheless I’m using them here to make my point.)

And so, for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are. The solution is to learn how to have conversations with people from all points on the spectrum without needing to pretend like we agree on stuff, when we really don’t. The solution is to learn how to speak openly and honestly with one another, grounded in the love of God, seeking to build one another up in love, and disagreeing about our ideas and beliefs with vigor and integrity, but without beating each other up.

I would like to elevate this idea to the level of denominational doctrine. I would like a General Conference resolution to say that United Methodists do not agree on some things, but we love each other anyway. And further, that we can be United Methodists together without needing to agree about everything. I think I read somewhere that “love does not insist on its own way.” (It may be in the Bible, but since I am a liberal, my Biblical literacy is obviously suspect ;) ) Now, my liberal ideas and beliefs are mine, and I’ll go to bat for them any day, with scripture, tradition, reason, and experience undergirding everything. And I know that Shawn, Jeremy, Mitch, and everyone else will do the same with their ideas and beliefs. And yet somehow we might just manage to love one another in the midst of it all. Imagine that!

Here’s how bad things are: United Methodists even divide ourselves up when we share meals together. The next time you go to a connectional event, pay attention to who goes to lunch with whom. 95% of the time, people with shared theological/political/social perspectives eat together. I know I have been guilty of it in the past. No more! In fact, all of us ought to be able to name at least a handful of friends with whom you disagree and with whom you’ve eaten a meal in the last year. And not for the purpose of hashing out your differences, either – just to share a meal, pure and simple. (Or maybe a cup of coffee. Or, since it’s summer, maybe an ice cream cone or a Grant’s Grasshopper Concrete from Sheridan’s Frozen Custard. Mmmm, minty.) Sorry, where was I?

I think this is partly a generational issue. I really think that younger people have an easier time getting along with each other than our elders do. And so I have hope that in the future, young Methodist clergy will not fall into the “us versus them” pattern our elders set for us. (I was stunned when a liberal clergy member approached me at Annual Conference the morning after my ordination with a list of names and informed me for whom “we” would be voting in the next rounds of General Conference elections.) It is starting NOW with twenty- and thirty-year-old clergy who will intentionally nurture relationships that will, a couple of quadrennia from now, make for a much healthier United Methodist connection than the fractured one we see today.

So I’m not going to claim the radical center, whatever that is, as common ground and pretend to be something I’m not. I’m going to be who I am, strive to become who God wants me to become, and in the meantime somehow manage to love people “in truth and action,” even as we may disagree about any number of things. I believe that we are better when we hang out with more than just like-minded people – better Christians, better Methodists, and just better people.

Who’s with me? (And of course, feel free to disagree!)