Thursday, May 22, 2008

Preaching Thoughts

The Real Live Preacher, Gordon Atkinson, writes that "The discipline of Sunday night is forgetting."
It is on Sunday nights that my mind turns inward and I ask myself, "What have I done with my life? Is this a good and worthy way to spend a life? Does preaching really do anything? Does it help people engage the scriptures, or is it just a little show on Sunday mornings so we can all pretend we still care about being connected to these ancient writings?"

Take a moment and check out his essay, it is really good (as usual).

Easy Ways to Curb the Annoying Problem of Church Growth

(From my friend Martin):

- Begin every sermon with the phrase, "You know what's wrong with you people..."

- Place a roller coaster "You Must Be This Tall" sign at the entrance of the sanctuary.

- Keep the Christmas Pageant livestock in the choir room year 'round.

- If you have an auditorium that slopes down to the platform, give every kid under 12 a handful of marbles before the service every week.

- Put a blank for "weight" on the membership invitation forms.

- Demand mandatory drug testing for all senior adult excursions.

- Have the organist play baseball cheers at pivotal moments of the sermon.

- Before taking up the offering, have the worship leader scream, "Show me the money!"

- Charge restroom tolls.

- Illustrate every sermon with a scene from "Walker, Texas Ranger."

- Use the "American Idol" format for new member classes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Moving Lesson

Twice in the past week, I have shown complete strangers through the house - every ro0m, closet, and cabinet. Upon meeting them for the first time ever, within fifteen minutes they have peeked into my family's personal spaces, looked through our clothing, taken note of our valuables (such as they are), and made basically a complete inventory of all the stuff comprising our lives. When a half hour has passed, they know as much or more about us than almost anyone else we know.

And then they leave. And I'll probably never see them again.

They are the people who are putting together the estimates for our upcoming move to Springfield. They have to inventory everything in order to give us an idea of what the move is going to cost, which they do by weight, apparently. The guy who was here today was doing his fourth out of five walk-throughs of the day; he told me that one year he did a total of 750!

"I'll bet you've developed a pretty good eye for this kind of stuff, huh?" I asked him.

With a grin, he said, "You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen."

Can you imagine what it would be like to do this job? I mean, to take a stroll through the lives of two or three families every day of the week, noticing things. That's what you would do - notice things. Not just furniture, but books, dishes, TV, stereo, Precious Moments, grandmother's paintings, toys, storage bins, ping-pong table, vacuum cleaner, bikes, the toolbox, golf clubs, patio furniture, the good china, and so forth.

And then the other stuff that you'd have to notice but wouldn't make your inventory. The breakfast dishes in the sink, the 10-year-old's dirty clothes from yesterday on her floor, the week's worth of a pile of mail stacked on the phone desk, the pee stain on the basement floor in the little dog's favorite spot, the pile of wrinkly clothes on the living room floor waiting to be ironed, the toothpaste globs on the 7-year-old's sink, and so forth.

And you notice all this stuff, you see into the lives of all of these people, and I can't believe it would remain merely a business transaction. Of course, on one level it would have to be. You would have to keep it professional - boundaries and all that. But wouldn't it be fascinating to get to know so many people by making a close examination of all of their personal possessions?

You would get a glimpse at the core of their lives. You would understand some things about the way they live. You would get a sense of their priorities, their values. The guy today said, "There are a lot of books, aren't there?" (Erin and I never thought of ourselves as having a lot of books, but apparently we do, relatively speaking.) Seeing all of our books allowed the guy to know something about us that he didn't know before, namely, that we like to read a lot.

And I would imagine some questions would arise, questions that could lead to making some judgements about people - Are there TVs in the bedrooms? How many video game systems? Does the living room smell like cigarettes? Does the living room smell like lilacs? Do they recycle? Are they neat freaks? Are they slobs? You would have to be pretty careful to refrain from judging other people based on the intimate knowledge you would gain.

Hmm ... maybe our relationships with our very best friends are kind of like that, too. They are the ones we will let see into our closets, knowing that they will see all of our crap, but also knowing that they're not going to judge us for it. And we do the same for them.

And maybe our relationship with God is like that, too. Completely transparent and open before God, revealing the dirty clothes on our floor and the breakfast dishes piled in the sink, and knowing that we'll be loved anyway. (Not that the moving company loves us, and not that God is going to subsequently submit the estimate of what it will cost to move us to heaven or anything - it's just a metaphor.)

Anyway, the two people that have been here were really nice, very friendly guys. We got along great, even had some laughs, and it didn't feel anywhere nearly as creepy as I thought it might!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

God's Language

At the "Talking Box" last week (our Children's Sermon), I pulled out a few foreign language dictionaries to look at and asked the kids if they knew any words in another language. A few did - we had Spanish, German, Japanese. Then I asked the kids what language did they think God speaks. There were probably 25-30 kids up there, and so there were quite a few voices who all said at once, "Every language!"

We all had a chuckle, then one boy put his hand up. "Yes, Preston?" I said.

"I think God speaks God-Language," he said.

That was a pretty good answer, I thought, and close to the message that I wanted the kids to hear, so I was getting ready to go with it. However, just then I noticed a girl (happened to be Preston's sister) who had her hand up, as well. "Summer, did you have something else?" I asked, ready to get on with the God's-language-is-more-and-bigger-and-different-than-any-words-we-could-use lesson of the day.

Summer said, "Maybe God's language actually is every language."

At first, I thought Summer had said the same thing we said originally, which was that God speaks every language. But as I thought about it, I realized there is a subtle difference. It is a different thing to say "God speaks every human language" than to say "The language of God is comprised of every human language." The first makes me think of God sitting there in the heavenly language lab, slogging through word by word vocab memorization like I did with German in college. The second makes me think of the words I know as if they are gifts God has given me so that I can communicate with other people.

I like that second one better, I think. If English is a little portion of God-language that God has given me, then Spanish is a little portion God has given another person, and French, and Japanese, and Quiche, and so on and so forth. Thinking of language as a gift that God gives makes it impossible for me to insist that another person learn "my language" so that we can somehow manage to get along. Rather, each of us can figure out how to communicate, using the little bits of God-language that we share in common.

It is fascinating to me how many people are so angry about people who speak languages other than English here in the United States. I'm trying to figure out the source of that anger. Is it fear? Is it pride? Is it arrogance? Is it some strange form of patriotism? To be sure, having a common language makes it much easier to communicate with each other. But why in the world does the phrase "Please press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish" make some people so cranky?

Whatever the national, secular, "official" language issues may be, what Christians read in Acts 2 is quite clearly that the disciples spoke in many different languages, empowered by the Holy Spirit. It wasn't the other way around - the Holy Spirit did not empower all of the other people to understand one language - Aramaic, for example. I think that is because the message entrusted to disciples of Jesus is just so vitally important that disciples need to figure out how best to communicate that message, in whatever language it needs to be expressed.

That means instead of insisting non-English speakers learn English, Christians maybe should learn other languages, with the goal of communication in whatever language(s) work(s) best. Not just foreign languages either, but the lingo of different age groups, the dialects of different cultures, the media of different generations, and so forth.

Remember the Tower of Babel story - a quirky little tale that illuminates the human tendency toward homogeneity, countered by God's desire for diversity (Genesis 11:1-9). Well, Pentecost wasn't the opposite of the Tower of Babel, as I once thought. I used to think that the Tower of Babel story confused all the languages and the Pentecost story brought them all back together. But now I think rather that Pentecost reinforces Babel, emphasizing the reality that God has made people different - cultures, places, languages, ages, etc. The Holy Spirit then empowers us to connect with each other within that diversity, it does not eliminate that diversity for the sake of an artificially imposed uniformity.

Language is a human creation, but I believe that God empowers that creativity. That means, for me, that language is given by God and is therefore sacred. We then can choose how to use it - to help or to hurt, to build up or to tear down, to love or to hate, to share good news or to condemn. If language is a sacred gift, how we choose to use it would then reveal something of what we think about God. So I think Summer is right - God's language actually is all languages together. And so learning another person's language teaches us something more about God.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Understand Each Other ... Use Words if Necessary

I love Pentecost weekend, don't you? Some of it is the whole red thing - the one and only time in the Christian calendar that particular color makes an appearance. That makes it all the more striking when it comes. In Northtown, like a lot of other churches I'm sure, we're all invited to wear red to worship, to enhance that impact.

But more than the color, I love Pentecost because it's all about communication / lanugage / understanding one another / relationship. And all made real by the Holy Spirit, and recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2.

Though the wind and fire (no earth?) are exciting, I'm more intrigued by what happens after the tongues of flame come, when the disciples start talking, and the people start understanding. Acts 2 does not record what exactly they said, only a general topic: "God's deeds of power" (NRSV) or "The wonders of God" (NIV). Yet even without the benefit of knowing their specific words, we are told that a whole lot of people understood the message, and some responded with amazement, some with perplexity, and some just cynically made fun of them.

Question: Why did God inspire the author of Acts at this point to exclude the actual words of the disciples in this story? Why weren't these words so important? Of course, we get to hear Peter's words later (vv. 14-36), but at this point all we know is that the 12 were talking, but we don't know what they were saying.

I think that maybe there's something about understanding one another that transcends the words we say. Maybe we too often get stuck on the words and never get to the actual understanding. Have you ever found yourself thinking, "I hear the words you are saying, but I have no idea what you're talking about" in the middle of a conversation? And on the flipside of that, have you ever been able to truly understand another person without them needing to say a word?

Pentecost seems to be about how people understand one another, empowered by the Holy Spirit. There is a "sighs too deep for words" quality to it. It reminds me of the well-known line, "Preach the Gospel ... use words if necessary." Words are powerful and important, and I'm a "word guy" so please don't read this as advocating complete silence all the time. That would lead to some pretty boring blog posts, for one thing.

I heard a radio story this morning about a poet who works by eliminating words from the New York times. The results, after marking out the words he doesn't need, are his poems. (click here) Maybe the key to understanding one another is figuring out what words we don't need to say?

Also posted here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Catching Up

It has been a while since I posted - I know that. Here are some catching up tidbits:

- I pledge to mention Rev. Jeremiah Wright only once on Enter the Rainbow, and now that's done.

- The United Methodist General Conference is over, and somehow the sun still rose this morning.

- Tony Jones: "...emergent Christians do not have membership or doctrine to hold them together. The glue is relationship. That makes it difficult to put one's finger on just what emergent is; to the quesiton 'What do you all hold in common?' the answer is most likely 'We're friends.'"

- For a little while there, I forgot that I'm only pastor of one congregation, and tried to serve two at the same time. Tricky! Thank God I'm done with that phase of life. North Kansas City and Campbell UMCs are both wonderful congregations with wonderful leadership. I am the pastor at NKC through June 22; I am the pastor at CUMC as of Jun 29. Part of being pastor here is trying to help the new pastor learn as much as she can about this congregation in the meantime; a gift which is being given my by the pastors at CUMC, too. It's all about smooth transitions.

- We had our former foster kids over yesterday afternoon to play. Erin said that she realized at the park that there were five kids all calling her "Mommy" at the same time! It was so cool!

- I love Spring.

- I was a Spiritual Director at a Cursillo weekend last weekend. It was a means of grace - again! It is amazing to witness those weekends as they unfold. At about 10:00 Saturday morning, there is a kind of holy griminess that, even having showered, makes you feel a little bit scuzzy and tired. But knowing that you are grimy together with a bunch of other grimy Christians is somehow a more powerful expression of the unity of the Holy Spirit than just about anything else.

- Finally, my most recent favorite joke: A guy walks into a bookstore. "Can I have a book by Shakespeare?"
"Sure," said the clerk. "Which one?"
"Um ... William."